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About this Project

Mexican children play in front the Rio Grande and an increasingly fortified U.S. frontier. (Travis Fox/The Washington Post)

The border between United States and Mexico is the land where straight lines blur, and where two national cultures collide and collude. The writer Alan Weisman, author of "La Frontera", called the borderlands "the most dramatic intersection of first and third world realities anywhere on the globe." There is a lot of good on the border, and these days, plenty of bad. The border is a militarized hot zone, where tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers are fighting a vicious drug war against well-armed, rich and powerful drug traffickers, who smuggle across these desert highways 90 percent of the cocaine so voraciously consumed in the United States. On the U.S. side, the federal government is pouring taxpayer money into border, promising to stem the flow of cash and guns heading south, while the border patrol continues its ceaseless cat-and-mouse search for Mexican migrants sneaking north.

We're setting out to drive the borderlands from Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, to San Diego's sister city Tijuana. Along the way, we're going to tell the stories of overwhelmed small town sheriffs, of drug smugglers and drug czars, of the Mexicans who struggle to survive in dusty villages and the Americans who fear that the drug war is getting way too close for comfort. We're going to talk to cops and mayors, some scientists and singers, and lots of regular folks, too. We've got a map, an ice chest, a video camera, and the laptops. We've got some stories planned but we also would like to hear from you. What do you think about the drug fight along the border, and what it is doing to the people? What dots on the map should we make sure to hit? Please let us know in the comments section below. You can also join the conversation on Twitter by using the #mexborder hashtag.

--William Booth and Travis Fox

By Travis Fox  |  June 12, 2009; 9:43 PM ET
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The profits from drugs are staggering, both legal and illegal. The drug cartels have learned from the pharmaceutical companies - it is similar to the difference between wholesale and retail. A hundred thousand dollar investment becomes worth over a million dollars when the drugs cross the border.

The more the border becomes militarized (on both sides) the greater the risk becomes and the greater the profit becomes. The biggest tragedy is the danger to innocents who get caught in the middle of this war.

Over ninety-eight percent of the Mexican population are innocents in this war. The real solution to this crisis is not military - it is political.

Posted by: alance | June 15, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

be sure to stop in palomas mexico which is directly across the border from columbus n.m.
i was raised 45 miles from there and will be extremely interested in what your impression is..i remember it 50 years ago with fondmess

Posted by: weds30 | June 15, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

weds30-We are planning a stop in Palomas... stay tuned!

Posted by: Travis Fox | June 15, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Stop by Arivaca, AZ - once home to Hippie Smugglers, now a much darker scene. Also Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge to see the vehicle carcasses littering the refuge. Hereford, AZ too. Last, but not least - Ruby, AZ.

Posted by: jsmith021961 | June 15, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Following the news on this situation leads me to one inescapable conclusion, namely that the "war on drugs" the US has been waging for decades, with billions of taxpayer dollars, is not working.

The US is mostly to blame for this situation (in terms of consumption/demand). So what can we do? It's naive to think we will ever succeed in eliminating the demand for drugs. As long as they’re available, people will want & pay any amount for them. This to me is a simple fact of human behavior.

You can probably already see where I'm going with this, and you're right: I see no viable alternative than to admit defeat and legalize these drugs. Regulate them. Establish standards for purity. And then tax the hell out if it. With the money we'd make, we could probably fix our health care crisis, and maybe even have enough leftover to pay down the national debt.

Obviously this is easy for me to say, and I know it would be political suicide for any lawmaker to propose. I freely admit the first few years would probably see a spike in overdoses, but do we or do we not live in a free society, where adults have the right to make their own choices? Provided they aren't harming anyone else, I think if you want spend your weekends getting baked in the privacy of your own home, have at it. Furthermore, by regulating & distributing drugs in a controlled manner, we'd reduce the amount of drugs available to children. Yes, we would. For those of you who've forgotten, it was a lot easier to get drugs in high school than it was alcohol, simply because you didn’t need an ID to buy drugs. Of course kids would still be able to get them, just as they find ways to get alcohol now. But frankly, that’s an issue for parents – not the government (I can already see/hear the feedback I’m going to get on THAT one!)

Legalizing drugs would also result in an almost immediate drop in violence. How many innocent people are being killed every year because of the drug trade in Mexico alone, despite the billions in assistance the US has provided over the years? Frankly, I'm pretty glad I don't live in the South, as it seems the violence is increasingly spilling over the border. You cannot tell me more police, fences, guns will solve the problem. We've tried that - it just doesn't work. Why? Because there's just too much money to be made. As the article said, when you can turn a $100,000 investment around and make millions, people will take insane risks – like holding entire families hostage for ransom. That's the situation we have now - and it only seems to be getting worse.

I personally wouldn't be thrilled to see drugs legalized in the US, but I don't see any other way to solve this problem.

Posted by: Kiffee | June 15, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

If you are still in Juarez, check out San Juana Mendoza. She is on the frontlines of the conflict and runs a health clinic in an eastern barrio. I made a documentary on her a few years ago.

Also, go to La Mesa, NM about 10 miles north of El Paso. There is a restaurant there - Chopes. It is an institution. You can get a lot of opinions there from residents north of the border and how this problem is affecting their lives. Plus, Chopes has the best green enchiladas around.

Good luck with the project!

Posted by: imagequest2002 | June 16, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

I don't know, I think that if a concerted effort by the majority of people on both sides of the border is made to put an end to drugs/drug smuggling, eventually that result will be realized, but it might require actually shutting the border for a while, which people probably really wouldn't like very much. But, like George said, 'good fences make good neighbors', and we need Mexico as a good neighbor, not just a place where US tourists go when they want to break the law, not just a place for drug cookers to work their magic, but as an actual neighbor country that has a right to their own sovereignty and respect, instead of just being seen as a springboard into the United States etc.

We, as Americans, should look at the Mexico situation and see if there's anything about it that we can identify as a problem that actually originates in THIS country. American cities can go ahead and take more initiative in terms of encouraging people to get away from things like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and some of these other things, including addictive prescription medications. Sobriety ain't THAT bad, really. It may not be 'fun', and you may not get your desired amount of dopamine or whatever, but it sure beats having gangsters and gun-toting drug lords...

Posted by: walkerbert | June 16, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

The main result of the "war on drugs" is an unending business of smuggling, on the one hand, and "interdiction," on the other. The latter does not stop the flows, but merely raises the risk of smuggling, which only makes it profitable for organized crime to manage, arm, and execute. US consumers still get the drugs at a lower cost than a comparable "hit" of booze or "prescription pain killers." People who would otherwise make good school teachers, farmers, forest rangers, or electricians find it more rewarding to take jobs as border patrol guards, Treasury agents, or corrections officers. Those who would otherwise be roofers, landscapers, or mechanics earn much more as "mules" who carry and distribute drugs.

We could save billions of dollars, reduce violence, and cause no appreciable harm to health by abolishing all narcotics laws. If the US would license drug companies and levy a heavy tax on "recreational medications," the funds could be used to finance anti-abuse education and rehabilitation.

Posted by: jkoch2 | June 16, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I studied in southern Chihuahua and even in the small rural towns, drugs were a problem. The farmers would see the small planes flying & know that it was related to a drug run. The farmers also feared for their properties, as the drug demand increased so did the acres and most of the farmers would be beaten to a pulp for not giving up their lands. I also saw families moral torn; do they work for these drug cartels or does the family stay hungry another night, go without new shoes, education etc.

I hope that this project is more than an award in the wings - and I hope the audience truly understands the danger that drugs & a past overzealous government created.

Posted by: AppleaDay | June 16, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, the drug cartels are in America and in every state including Alaska. There are multiple components to the problem:

a. High Demand for illict drugs in America

b. High Demand for low wage labor in

c. Suppliers of drugs in Mexico

d. High birth rate in Mexico

e. Northern Mexico falls apart due to
globization - Mexican manufacturing
jobs shift to China when the LCD
replaces the CRT

f. Huge illegal immigration during Bush
Administration 12 to 30 million come to
US - no one knows how many for sure

h. Anchor babies - force medicaid costs to
skyrocket. Food stamps and other
welfare benefits are given to non-
citizens on behalf of american born
children of illegals.

i. Arrests are made; crime goes down
temporarily but full jails and prisons
put greater burden on american middle
class which has been kept in the dark
about the role the business community
has played in keeping the government
from enforcing border.

Posted by: agapn9 | June 16, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Kiffee, Very good points, I agree.

Posted by: affirmativeactionpresident | June 16, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I live in Arizona and have since 1970. I have lived and traveled to Mexico all the time. The border issue will never be solved until we understand it is a relief valve for Mexico. Until the Mexican government can provide for all it's people they will keep on coming.

Posted by: tk1123 | June 16, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

many posting on this issue are suggesting we "legalize drugs."
While that may be an option, it is a very open ended one; are they talking about pot? cocaine? heroin? meth? all of the above?

I have seen first hand the pain and suffering drug addiction can bring to a family and the price they had to pay. I believe an open ended legalization of drugs (which logically you would have to do since any illegal drug would then become the drug of choice for those seeking the next greater and taboo high) would be the first step in producing a new and larger generation of addicts who would be a drag on our society long term.

Even if we were to experience a temporary reduction in drug related crime, the larger question is do we, as a society, want to take the easy way out for us and condemn our children to a pretty bleak and hopeless future?
Trust me, that is what drug addiction is all about.

Posted by: bobfbell | June 17, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

About ten years ago, we used to go down to Brownsville for weekend getaways. I was struck by the way affluent Mexicans (based on the license plates attached to luxury cars) would come across to buy things they couldn't get at home--while Texans would do the same on the other side. Is it still that way?

Posted by: cjbmo | June 18, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I live in a traditionally low-crime area of Mexico, in Merida Yucatan. I've been reading about cartel inroads here, even in the small villages. Last week I was at a village fiesta and noticed a group of pre-adolescent boys in gang attire. The ridiculous droopy pants, greasy hair styled into points, etc. They were all high and throwing firecrackers in the middle of a peaceful dance. The villagers were puzzled by their behavior, so out of character for Yucatan. I was greatly saddened at this tragic erosion of traditional values. The poison of the drug trade had invaded this small village and it will no doubt get worse.

Posted by: berylann | June 18, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in EL Paso, Texas and Juarez is across the border. There is a border crossing to Zaragoza, Mexico literally 4 miles from my parent’s house.

As a teenager and while I was a UTEP student I used to go over to Juarez to buy cheap drinks and go dancing.

From the UTEP campus you can see the Juarez border and Mexico and see the difference in living standards.

It is a shame that Juarez is at this crisis point; however, the Mexican government has overlooked this problem for several years. They still have not solved the crimes of 200 + women killed in Juarez. Instead of blaming everything on the US government they should start creating jobs that pay a decent wage in their country.

There needs to be a revolution to stop the madness in Mexico. My grandparents are from Mexico and I have much pride of being of Mexican heritage, but I am speaking from my experience of living on the border.

By the way the writer that spoke about Chopes is right on point about the great food. It must stop.

Posted by: alva1 | June 18, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if your travels will take you to Sonoita, the town south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument? Or to Mexicali, on the California border?

I did a lot of travel in the 1950s-1970s, climbing in Baja California and Arizona. The scene in Mexico was evidently a lot calmer then. I've heard that the Organ Pipe Cactus NM area has seen some human trafficking; there was a springs right on the border that used to be a wonderful birding spot but I'd hesitate to go there now.

I agree that drug prohibition just doesn't work, and join The Economist and many other publications, and people, who think that we should just legalize the stuff, regulate its use, tax it. I personally don't want it but I'd rather see that than the current situation.

Good luck in your travels.

Posted by: paulrcooley | June 18, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Because of a job transfer 22 years ago, my husband and I moved from St Louis, where we had lived all our lives, to El Paso, TX. We soon fell in love with the climate and the people, and when we retired 10 years ago, we stayed here. We used to go to Juarez for dental work (our insurance plan doesn't include dental) and to shop and eat in the marvelous restaurants. Now we go to Palomas instead, even though it takes us an hour and a half to get there versus the few minutes it takes us to cross into Juarez. In fact, we went there yesterday, with another couple. They were going to the dentist, and we just went along for the ride and to have lunch in the famous Pink Store.

Friends from all over the U.S. call us or email us, asking if we are safe and if we are frightened. It's difficult for them to understand that we are not frightened, and how very safe we feel in El Paso, a city with a very low crime rate.

When we go to our exercise class at the University, we can look at Juarez a few hundred yards away, across the tiny little stream that is the "mighty" Rio Grande. From our modern, streamlined gymnasium, we see tiny shanties and dirt streets. The people there, in turn, look at the beautiful campus of the U of Texas at El Paso. This truly is, as has been said, a juncture of the first and third worlds. Who can blame those who look across the river at UTEP, for wanting some of the affluence they see?

Over time we have changed our opinions on two major issues, illegal immigration and the war on drugs. We have come to agree with those who say that the US needs to disarm the drug cartels by legalizing drugs. And we believe that the US govt has to play an important role in improving the lives of Mexico's citizens. Like it or not, the US and Mexico are neighbors.

Oh---one more thing---yes, the food at Chopes is fantastic!

Posted by: peteycat | June 19, 2009 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for your stories. I've enjoyed reading about your journey. I have a question for the reporters, what do you think has been the reaction to the presence of the army? I assume that at the beginning people feel relieved, but with time, are these communities getting tired of the military presence? How often do regular citizens interact with the military, and what are the results of these interactions?
Thank you!

Posted by: kmm2185 | June 21, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

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