“Lawless hordes” and the U.S.-Mexico border

October 8, 2009

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

On the first Sunday of October, the Texan city of El Paso recorded its 10th murder of the year. On the same day, El Paso’s Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez, recorded its 1,809th murder of 2009. Mayhem on one side of the border, relative peace on the other.

The contrast is stunning. According to an annual ranking compiled by CQ Press, a Washington publishing house, El Paso is the third-safest large city in the U.S. (after Honolulu and New York). According to a Mexican think tank, Ciudad Juarez became the world’s most violent city this year, torn by a vicious free-for-all involving warring drug cartels, hit squads, common criminals, and the military.

The two cities form a sprawling metropolitan area of some 2.5 million, divided by a river and a border fence; united by family and business ties, history and now a shared fascination with Ciudad Juarez’s gradual descent into criminal anarchy. El Paso’s citizens follow the bloodletting across the river with rapt and horrified attention.

Border mayors, business executives and many residents along the 1,240-mile frontier between Texas and Mexico – more than half the 1,951-mile line between the U.S. and its southern neighbour – tend to frown at such phrases as “spillover violence” and “border war” because they conjure up an image of the U.S. border region as a lawless no-go area.

“There’s a wide gap between perception and reality,” says Manuel Ochoa of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit consultancy for companies considering setting up shop in El Paso, southern New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. “And the figures speak for themselves.”

You hear similar remarks elsewhere along the frontier. “Crime on the Texas border is still on the way down after decreasing 65 percent over the past several years,” according to Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass (its Mexican twin is Piedras Negras) and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition of mayors, county judges and economic development experts.

Many of them complain that politicians in Washington and Austin, the Texas state capital, make decisions on the border region without consulting the people most intimately familiar with its problems. The coalition reacted with irritation to an announcement by governor Rick Perry in September that he would send National Guardsmen and Texas Rangers to “high-crime areas along the border.”

“Your remarks…create a public impression of lawless hordes overrunning the border region and do not reflect our collective experience,” the coalition said in a letter to Perry. “While each of our communities has their own unique issues, being overrun by criminal elements from Mexico is not one of them.”


If that is the case, why not? Answers to that question range from a strong law enforcement presence in border towns to tightened border controls. Last but not least: it doesn’t make business sense for the drug cartels to export their violent disputes across the river.

“Let’s not forget the economics at stake here,” Richard Wiles, the sheriff of El Paso county and a former El Paso police chief said in an interview. “These are illicit business enterprises which exist to make profits. The last thing they want are even tighter controls of the ports of entry in response
to violent actions here. They remember what happened after September 11.”

After the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, scrutiny at border crossing points was so intense that south-north traffic backed up for endless hours in delays that crippled both legal and illegal trade. “They don’t want that to happen again.”

For good reason. According to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, smuggling drugs across a port of entry presents less than 30 percent risk of detection, compared with a 70 percent risk for those crossing the Rio Grande and the open spaces between crossing points.

The sharply different levels of violence south and north of the border do not mean that American border cities have entirely escaped contagion. The suspect arrested in El Paso’s tenth murder this year, for example, was a teenager from Ciudad Juarez. And in May, three gunmen killed Jose Daniel Gonzalez, a drug trafficker turned informer for the U.S. government, in front of his suburban El Paso home.

Still, these cases are exceptions – so far. Curiously, the two American cities most affected by disputes between drug traffickers do not sit astride the border but are several hours’ drive from it. They are Tucson, 60 miles from the Arizona-Mexico frontier, and Phoenix, 120 miles away.

Tucson has been plagued by a rash of home invasions, most of them tied to the drug trade, that often feature criminals pretending to be law enforcement officers. They burst into houses to steal drugs, cash or guns. In Phoenix, kidnappings for ransom have become so routine that law enforcement officials call the city the U.S. kidnap capital. Most of the kidnappers, and their victims, have ties to Mexican criminal organizations.

Their activities in the U.S. have grown quietly and relentlessly. In 2006, according to a Senate hearing on Mexican drug cartels in March, they were active in around 50 U.S. cities. Now, they dominate the world’s richest drug market (move over, Colombians!) and have a presence in at least 230 cities, says the National Drug Intelligence Center. Its website has a map showing those cities.

Economics 101. Supply meets demand, as far away from the southern border as Kalamazoo, Michigan and Billings, Montana.

— You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com —


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Simple: restrict, or simply control like it was 9/12/2001, the borders- and do it for 6 months. We have the manpower if you use the military, coast Guard, FBI and all those other agencies.

Problem solved.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Hey Bob, did you even read the article?

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

its time to legalize marijuana! Take away the drug cartels profit sources, regulate it, stop wasting billions of dollars, and make billions in tax revenue. Problem solved.

Posted by wrzne | Report as abusive

six month lockdown, try 2 years, otherwise the cartels will just ride it out. Even with 2 years you will have to worry about the government of Mexico collapsing due to internal war. But yes a lockdown to tight (not absolute breaking GATT WTO and NAFTA, but post 9/11 style) would work.

As for the local towns saying Austin was interfering, maybe I would believe if the Law enforcement in Laredo did not keep talking about firearms rounds impacting in parks and houses in the US. They even requested more bullet resistant gear & vehicles as I recall.

Posted by AustinTX | Report as abusive

It’s not as simple as legalizing weed…

Most likely what will happen is an increase in traffic of cocaine and heroine and other hardcore drugs. Amsterdam is a good model, yes, but there is evidence that drug crimes do still occur there. We’d have to weigh the costs/benefits in whole.

But with that said, legal MJ could create legitimate business with these cartels down the line. It may be the lesser evil. They will have to be labeled as agricultural distributors from then on!

Posted by Zo | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann, I wonder if you have heard anything about extortion coming across the border as is discussed in the following article. Apparently this is starting to happen in El Paso where much of the Texas Border Coalition with it’s businessmen reside. It would be interesting to find out if they would be brave enough to respond to questions about it.

Mexican mafia type extortion crosses the border into USA

According to a DEA operative in the L.A. area who insists on remaining anonymous told the U.S. Border Fire Report that businesses along the dangerous U.S. Mexican border from Texas to California have been the victims of extortion attempts and threats.

http://www.americanchronicle.com/article s/view/122635

Posted by Judi | Report as abusive

AustinTX: As to the law enforcement in Laredo asking for bullets: true. But note that Laredo mayor Raul Salinas belongs to the Texas Border Coalition which thinks it might be a good idea for Austin and Washington to listen to the locals before they make decision.Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Posted by Elvira | Report as abusive

Another point not covered is that those in the way of the most harm at present are illegal immigrants who use drug cartel members to smuggle them across the border. I’ve heard that the cartels are forcing them to pay high fees to be smuggled and they either pay or they don’t cross.

Still another point is that people from all over the world are crossing the border now, even Chinese and probable terrorists. That is another reason for for law enforcement, although apparently the Coalition thinks the violence will keep by itself. Of course the Coalition stands to benefit the most by the border being open and unprotected because that way they get a full supply of cheap labor. This is not all about a cheery happy family atmosphere. Follow the money, that’s a big motivator for so much that inspires people to take action.

Posted by Judi | Report as abusive


I agree with you that it is not as simple as legalizing MJ and the potential for an increase in harder drug trafficking is there. I do however feel that there is a smaller market for these “hard” drugs and the legalization of MJ would eliminate a large portion of cartel profits. Furthermore I believe the legalization will increase domestic supply, people will grow their own and there would be an expansion in medical “clubs” seen in California and Colorado. If you increase the domestic supply and provide legitimate pot smoking citizens with a safer, legal alternative, the days of the cartel controlling the market will be over, as people will clearly choose the safe legal alternative over backroom shady deals. No matter how many people you station at the border, they will always find a way. Its time to hit them where it hurts with some good old economics!

Posted by wrzne | Report as abusive

Juarez is full of Mexicans. El Paso is full of Americans. That was to easy.

Posted by robertwaldo | Report as abusive

‘Economics 101. Supply meets demand, as far away from the southern border as Kalamazoo, Michigan and Billings, Montana.’

Change that to: ‘Not coping-addicted 101. Demand meets supply, as far away from the southern border as Yellow Knife.

MJ is just as addictive and harmful as any other chemical, i.e. psychologically and physically.

Try Switserland for proper rehab techniques.

Posted by Gaspard | Report as abusive

Robertwaldo: “Juarez is full of Mexicans. El Paso is full of Americans.That was so easy.”

Have you been to any of the border towns? On both sides of the line, there are people called Sanchez, Gomez, Garcia, Hernandez, Rodriguez etc. On both sides of the line, most people speak Spanish. On both sides of the line, the majority of citizens have brown skin. And many hold both American and Mexican passports. Your argument is ridiculous.

Posted by Carlos | Report as abusive

Did I just read MJ is as addictive as any other chemical psychologically and physically?

Wow, then I better get out there and help 90% of my high school graduating class. There’s no doubt every single one of them is addicted to weed.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“We have to try something, and if it doesn’t work, we have to try something else”–FDR. Yes, decriminalize dope, all of it, just like booze. What has been tried for the past 20 years doesn’t work.

Posted by Strangewalk | Report as abusive

I don’t get it. How is it that booze is so accepted in main stream society? A n d, why not MJ? Oh, MJ smokers are violent, they want to fight, they stumble all over themselves, they get behind the wheel and have head-ons, they spend their whole Friday paycheck on MJ. W H A T E V E R Change is a component of life. Stop resisting. Legalize MJ. Solve some festering problems.

Posted by elly | Report as abusive

How cannabis hasn’t been legalised in the U.S goes to show the social hypocrisy of the American administration.

Alcohol, tobacco good. Cannabis bad?

Either they don’t read and/or are very misinformed about cannabis as a plant and it’s numerous uses.

Countless studies of proven it’s as harmless as coffee with little or no social, physical and psychological side effects.

Substance abuse is a whole other matter.

Posted by Dutch | Report as abusive

It’s not pot they’re fighting over you pinheads…..and Alcohol and Tobacco should be just as illegal as pot.

Posted by GreyGhost | Report as abusive

“Countless studies of proven it’s as harmless as coffee with little or no social, physical and psychological side effects.”

Wow. News to me. Care to name these countless studies?

Links or it didn’t happen.

Posted by Whoa | Report as abusive

Marijuana should most certainly be decriminalized but it is not the drug coming through the border checkpoints. We need to decriminalize cocaine and heroin as well, and provide it at minimal cost to addicts who are intent on ending their addiction. No huge profits and the cartels will need to find other ways to make money. Take away the profits and there is no incentive to expand markets. Lets face it, all our efforts to criminalize drug use have not reduced the supply or demand simply because the effect has been to keep prices and thus profits high. Only by taking the profit out of drugs will the supply begin to decline. The cartels are only in it for the money. But the market model will get ugly before it brightens.

Posted by Steven | Report as abusive

MJ, harmful? Nothing is harmless. The argument over its harm is not relevant. Society allows harmful behavior all the time; from sky diving to motorcycle riding to eating at McDonalds. The drug companies put out drugs that kill more people in 6 months than MJ has in its history and what was this drug used for? To keep an erection. It was called Viagra. Not only did it stay on the market now there are many other like drugs on the market and yes they are still killing people. More people die each year from the proper use of prescription drugs than from illegal drugs. And you can go and compare the FBI numbers to the CDC ones if you wish. So, why is MJ illegal? Maybe a history lesson is in order to those that think is should be. It is illegal because of money. It is the most popular drug in the US. It accounts for over 80% of all illegal drug use. That is a lot of money. Add to that the amount of money provided by the US government for interdiction and you got people on both sides of the law making a lot of money. There is no other reason for MJ to be illegal except the simple fact that it makes a lot of money for a lot of people. All of you prohibitionist remember that this is supposed to be the “Land of the Free”. No where in the Constitution does it give the federal or state governments the authority to outlaw MJ. Once upon a time they tried to outlaw alcohol and it required a constitutional amendment which was repealed if you by chance actually opened a history book in high school. The outlawing of MJ is an abuse of government power for profit. It is obvious that if it was legal both external and internal profits would drop dramatically. That would dry up income in many states. Let’s face it when the governor of Kentucky admits it is there largest cash crop it is obvious who is making the money. Farmers in Ohio get their farm out of debt by planting MJ along with their corn and I doubt it is just in Ohio. However, I have yet to hear a farmer want to keep MJ illegal just because it can assist them in making ends meet. No, it is the underworld of this nation and foreign nations that gives money to organizations who lobby to keep our nation “drug free”. These organizations are know as the Prohibitionists who lack a clear understanding of history or our Constitution yet believe they are saving people. PT Barnum had a saying “there is a sucker born everyday and two to take him”. There is even an organization of police officers who are trying to decriminalize MJ yet these prohibitionists rally against our Nation’s freedoms, economic logic, social logic, and moral logic just because they know it is wrong. In their minds a Free Country has only those freedoms they think are right regardless of what the Constitution says or what the majority of this nation believes. This is why state after state is trying to reverse this insanity be getting these issues onto ballots and why the Prohibitionists are doing everything they can to prevent these issues from making it to the ballot. They fear they will lose to the popular opinion. Even though this was never put to a vote in the beginning. Even though the Supreme Court will not hear any case on the Constitutionality of the outlawing of MJ. States are winning. Every time there is a vote more states liberalize their MJ laws. Cities are removing their laws or like Denver they have made MJ busts the lowest priority. It is a battle against ignorance and the war is progressing in the favor of legalization. Is MJ harmful…what a red herring!

Posted by B. Free | Report as abusive

So as a former member of the military and having worked with law enforcement that has worked in the private sector not in law enforcement but for a company that relocated to Juarez Mexico from the USA I find all these arguments funny and misinformed. The majority of the money that the cartels make are from hard drugs not MJ.
Yes the comments about supply and demand is correct. If people did not do drugs there would be no cartels. Is Juarez violent..Yes it is but i spent a lot of time there both for work and pleasure. Never once did i feel threatend. Is there places in Juarezi would not go to yes there is but i have traveled all over the world and there is plenty of places that are just as bad.
The solution….Cut the demand and leave the border security to the professionals….Case and point..El Paso.
They have a great law enforcement and they are one of the safest cities in the US.
If you did not shoot up or toke up or snort up the drugs would no longer be a problem and the cartels would go broke.

Posted by Kris | Report as abusive


We have tried to cut the demand for years and it doesn’t work,”insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein) Its time to take a different approach, we have attempted to cut demand for decades and the problem has only gotten worse!

Posted by wrzne | Report as abusive

I believe, Cd. Juarez has become a horrid place and it is impossible to ignore now for the common tourist. Once upon a time, it’s violence could be called to certain areas. Now, shops are closed up and the most heinous violence occurs, extortion, racketeering, it is intolerable now though I have sympathy with many of the good residents there. It’s only gotten really, really bad in the last 5 years. Only a few years ago, I do think, the city could be taken in as an enjoyable little trip.

Posted by Ned | Report as abusive