Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Take your pick. Cities and towns on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico are among the safest in the country. Or: Mexican drug gangs have turned the longest stretch of the 2,000-mile border, the line between Texas and Mexico, into a war zone.

The first version is President Barack Obama’s. He has crime statistics on his side. The second comes from an alarmist 182-page report by two retired generals, including former drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Among their assertions: “Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”

(True enough for large parts of Mexican territory south of the border, where more than 42,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug mafias five years ago.)

The stark contrast between the two versions speaks volumes about the war of words generated by the issues of immigration and border security during an election campaign. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have been competing on who sounds toughest on illegal immigration and on the height of the wall they want to build between the two countries.

Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, fired the opening salvo in the who-is-the-toughest contest by saying there should be a barrier “every mile, every foot, every inch” to keep illegal immigrants out. Herman Cain, a front-runner in the Republican primary contest according to latest polls, upped the ante by suggesting a division reminiscent of the Iron Curtain, the lethal system of walls, fences, minefields and manned watch towers that divided Europe during the Cold War.