We crossed the border from Nogales, Arizona to Nogales, Sonora on foot, undeterred by the warnings of friends and family, who had cautioned against even a brief shopping excursion into what is often portrayed as a war zone. To our surprise, though, we found not one, but three wars being waged at the border. I was prepared for the tawdry shops, the hopeful, smiling children with their trays of chewing gum, and the constant patter of the vendors promising great prices on jewelry, pottery, and rugs. What I hadn?t expected was farmacia after farmacia, each offering deep discounts on everything from albuterol to Xanax. Do you need drugs? cooed the young men and women in tight jeans. My eighty-one-year-old aunt and I, with our white and gray hair, must have seemed like the perfect customers. No, we didn?t need anything, but had I realized what was available, I might have brought the prescription for that outrageously priced skin cream the dermatologist had blithely prescribed and I had decided I didn?t need.
This was a very different trip from my foray into the border town of Juarez almost forty years ago when I?d been offered jewelry and clothing, my then-boyfriend had been offered sex, and we?d both been offered marijuana. I?ve aged into a demographic for a different drug war. Of course, the war that gets most of the publicity is the infamous War on Drugs. Very conservative estimates are that more than ten thousand people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa began an all-out offensive in 2006. The U.S. government has promised Mexico some 1.3 billion dollars of aid in the form of weapons and police training. Critics point out that U.S. gunrunners and substance abusers fuel the trade and that the United States has been powerless to stop the arms trade or decrease demand.
The second war, let?s call it the War by Drug Companies, isn?t on the radar. When Barack Obama signed the health bill recently, he tried to reassure senior citizens that they would benefit. But for the seniors at my aunt?s retirement village, Big Pharma?s assault on their health can only be countered by guerrilla action. They, and many others, will continue to trek across the border, their own and their friends? prescriptions in hand. In this war against inflated prices, immediate danger is minimal except as it puts them in the way of violence from the hotter war. Yes, experimental drugs and cancer ?cures? might raise the mortality rates for some. And botched dental work at any of the clinics conveniently located a few feet from the border might cause pain, although the people we met who had come over for it were satisfied.
It?s the war on illegal drugs, the one we?re losing and that only makes the front pages when American embassy personnel are killed, that has deadly consequences, devastating the lives of people already trapped by a failed economy and corrupt government. The morning after our trip, I opened the paper to read that on the day we were there, the deputy sheriff of Nogales and his bodyguard were shot with AK-47s. In another border state, the bodies of a sheriff and his brother were found in a truck. The sheriff?s severed head was in his lap. In Santa Cruz County, Arizona, the sheriff was quoted as saying that he hoped the violence could remain on one side of the border. The U.S. State Department has offered to compensate its employees in border cities who wish to move their families out of the area because of their fear of drug-related violence.
But the third war, the War Against Immigrants, may well hinder that goal. Along the highway we saw checkpoints where cars were pulled over and searched for illegal entrants. Arizona has some of the harshest restrictions on undocumented immigrants in the nation and hopes soon to pass a law allowing it to arrest any undocumented person for trespassing.
As we watched long lines of Mexican Americans pass through from Mexico to Arizona, holding their U.S. passports (had they, too, come for the cheap shopping and medical care?), I wondered how many had relatives or friends who were in the States illegally. What are the chances that they would cooperate with U.S. law enforcement to report any kind of crime, much less a drug-related one, if they thought they?d be putting themselves or others in danger of imprisonment or deportation? If the government hopes to contain the violence, it could start by ending its own campaign of intimidation against immigrants.
Photo: U.S. Border Fence Near San Diego (Office of Representative Phil Gingrey/Wikimedia Commons)