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The Law of Unintended Consequences

The end of the line: A Mexican federal police officer on the border as it meets the Pacific Ocean.

TIJUANA, Mexico -- We drove the rental car to the end of the line, where the border fence disappears into the Pacific Ocean, and there we found a cadre of Mexican federal agents. They were just hanging, like tourists taking postcard pictures.

The beach town is called Playas de Tijuana, and it looks like a more colorful, more dodgy version of Imperial Beach to the north. The seaside neighborhood has traditionally been popular with the upper class of TJ, which includes both managers of assembly plants and some well-to-do narcos.

On the U.S. side, the Border Patrol earlier this year closed Friendship Park to make way for the new triple fence. The park plaza was dedicated by First Lady Pat Nixon back in the 1970s as a symbol of a shared reality, and its closure is symbolic too.

One thing that struck us on our reporting trip along the border was how the law of unintended consequences plays out in the region, sometimes in perverse ways.

Ciudad Juarez has become the murder capital of Mexico in part because the Mexican military is attempting to crush the cartels, which have responded with vicious fighting among themselves and against government forces.

The consumption of heroin and cocaine in Ciudad Juarez has soared because the weakened cartels are seeking cash from street sales. Heroin addicts who seek refuge in drug rehabilitation centers are attacked and killed, at the very moment when they try to rebuild their lives.

In Ascension, the local cops have their weapons taken away by the military, which does not trust them. Then during a gunfight with assassins, the police cannot return fire -- because they don’t have any bullets.

In Palomas, drug violence -- along with fears of the flu -- have scared American tourists away and ruined the the local economy, which is built on visitors seeking discount dentistry. As the dentists move away and the town loses its middle class, Palomas becomes more lawless.

When the U.S. builds a fence, the smugglers use the roads that run alongside it to move drugs. The fence may slow or stop illegal crossers, but it also stops grassland fire and the movement of migratory animals in a region that environmentalists consider one of the most vital wildlife corridors in the hemisphere.

In Mexicali, narcocorrido ballads are more popular than ever -- in part because the government has sought to ban them from the airwaves.

As Mexican migrants in Tecate find the border harder and harder to cross there, they move further out into the desert, where hundreds of illegal crossers die each year of heat stroke and thirst.

One thing was clear from our trip: The extreme violence associated with drug smuggling along the border is crushing civil society in Mexico. Helping to make the shared region more secure and prosperous is going to take smart people on both sides of the line.

Reporter Arturo Chacon contributed to the border journey.

By William Booth and Travis Fox  |  June 28, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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Another unintended consequence of the narco wars, which may Americans think is only Mexico's alone, is the perpetuation of stereotypes of Mexico and its people. In Chiapas, where I live, narco-violence is almost non-existent (albeit I pass through a state police checkpoint every day where they now know me and do not bother to check my truck for drugs anymore).

Most white haters who demonize Mexico and Mexicans base their expertise on an afternoon in Tijuana or on a cheap, all-inclusive three day trip to Cancun.

By American standards, Chiapas is a quiet, well ordered society that has corruption on the state and local level as contrasted to American corruption at the Federal level. People go about their lives, full of extended family. They work, hope, love their children, worry about their future, and gossip like everyone else in the world. There are racists (very hypocritical in their judgment of "gring*s" for the same), mostly against the darker skinned indigenous, but it is more subtle and less violent and in-your-face like in these columns or on American hate radio and Fox News.

Contrary to many stereotypes white Americans have about Mexicans, they are like people anywhere. Although I am frustrated by their crushing bureaucracy where middle class government workers fine solace from their inferiority complexes by saying no or later; and their horrible aggressive drivers who take no driving exam, I find it a rich, tolerant culture of extended family and the joy of life. It's too bad other Americans can not see what I see about Mexico and its people; not just the drug war headlines and their experience of Mexican "nacos" (equivalent to white "rednecks) in the US who trash their neighborhood, play their music loud all night and don't respect American culture or its laws.

Posted by: coloradodog | June 28, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"The extreme violence associated with drug smuggling along the border is crushing civil society in Mexico. "

Minor "hyperbole" noted.

For two reasons.

One, Mexico is a huge country, not just a bordertown. You're saying that civil society "in Mexico" is being crushed, so all of Mexico is losing its civil soceity as a result.

But this assumes that Mexico has a "civil society" to begin with. If it's all built on narcodollars and human smuggling and blackmail, kidnapping, and white slavery, is it really "civil"?

Should we go back to pre-Civil War America and pre-WWII Nazi Germany, to prevent the "crushing" of the associated "civil societies"?

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Americans should be forced to confront the results of their superstitiously medieval drug policies every hour of every day until they get it through their religion-addled heads that maybe they should try something else.

Portugal legalized drugs. Portugal drug use dropped, and crime dropped. Why not here?

Posted by: DupontJay | June 28, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

"Most white haters who demonize Mexico and Mexicans base their expertise on an afternoon in Tijuana or on a cheap, all-inclusive three day trip to Cancun."

...what is the point of saying this? That Mexicans can stereotype as well as "gringos"?

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

"Portugal legalized drugs. Portugal drug use dropped, and crime dropped. Why not here?"

...gee, if drugs are no longer illegal, and people no longer spend money monitoring drug use because it's no longer illegal to use them and therefore they are no longer getting paid to monitor illegal drug use, I can only imagine why both crime and "drug use" dropped. Let me find a rocket scientist to figure this one out.

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

...look, the fact is that we could make everything illegal and then there would be no crime, technically. You'd also have complete anarchy, and there is no way that our society could function. So you have to have some laws and some things have to be crimes. And also you've got to have a law-enforcement system that is capable of enforcing the law "well enough". Put the two together and occasionally you're going to have an overzealous law enforcement system that occasionally crosses the line between "well enough" and "too much" on many fronts. That's true.

But how could you possibly rationalize legalizing drugs as a solution to that problem?

Why not legalize police brutality or child slavery or prostitution? All of these are big-money concerns, wide-spread social concerns. Get rid of those laws, and "crime" will drop. You won't have "child slavery" or "prostitution" or "police brutality" anymore because people will see those things as normal and socially acceptable and only a pedant would call them by those names.

Likewise you could legalize pot, say, and people will still say that people are getting stoned out of their mind on illegal drugs.

The main issue is that our society could not function if these things were legal because OUR society cannot handle widespread drug use. It can barely handle the level of drug use that we have now. The US is simply not Holland or Portugal, it's not even Europe. We don't live in a society of people who are able to handle that degree of civil liberty either in terms of tolerance or survivability. it's that simple. And if you really don't agree with me, go live in Holland or Portugal for a while. Go live in places where these things are legal before you start to argue that people who do not live there should make those things legal at home. Go to Holland and smoke all the pot and hire all the prostitutes that you want. Then come back and tell us what you think.

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

...likewise I have no support for all these illegals who are coming to the US, sneaking into our country and working here illegally, who complain about how we treat illegals. You don't like how we treat you? Go back to Mexico and see how illegals are treated there. Go f-ing HOME and see how you like it there. Complain to your local politicians about the treatment that you get there.

Oh that's why you're here? I never would have guessed!

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

likewise, gays, you want to get married? Go someplace where it's legal for gays to get married. End of story.

Posted by: dubya19391 | June 28, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

@Dubya: you are as brilliant as your namesake.

A quick Google search would bring up multiple studies showing that Portugal's decriminalization has been a success by every metric -- most notably by the medical metrics which the cops and the criminal justice system have nothing to do with.

And, of course, the undeniable metric that VIOLENT crime dropped.

But hey, it's folks like you who are keeping this country in the Dark Ages by making arguments like: "drug use is illegal, therefore it's bad, so we shouldn't make it legal."

Posted by: DupontJay | June 28, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Go spend five minutes in Amsterdam with your wallet showing out of your back pocket, and than say drug use is harmless.

Posted by: kls1 | June 28, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I've been to Amsterdam. Even there, drug use is far from harmless. Getting through the main train station there is abominable.

Every place that I've been in the US where the drug laws are ignored looks pretty pathetic. Frankly, even if the drug trade were legalized, I don't think they would look much better.

While there may be instances of US drug policy that I find disparaging, I pretty much agree with it. I don't want my kids to have access to recreational drugs and, therefore, I don't have a problem with them being controlled substances. But, then, if it were up to me, I would ban alcohol and tobacco as well.

As for illegals, well, there just aren't enough of them dying in the desert.

Posted by: JoStalin | June 28, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

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