Drugs, migrants, and the borderlands

Burned-out migrant van in SonoraSky Jacobs | October 1, 2008

Watching a stake-bed cattle truck squeeze by on a dusty backroad in Sonora is pretty run of the mill experience working in Sonora. This one just happened to be loaded to the brim with about 2 tons of marijuana, carefully packed in sealed bales, but not hidden by tarp or even tied down. My friend had to squeeze himself up to the edge of our truck to let it by on a rarely used 2-track.

We said buenos tardes and acted like we didn't notice what they were hauling, for lack of a better sudden reaction. We tried to play dumb gringo, although there are no dumb gringos on tiny dirt roads dozens of miles from any pavement or towns in a drug-smuggling corridor.

Depending on your point of view, maybe that's exactly where the dumbest gringos would be.

I've spent a lot of time along the Arizona/Sonora border in the last 15 years and have become habituated to shrugging off people's comments about the dangers of the area. And I think rightly so, for the most part. But reality is becoming closer to rhetoric.

The dangers of the region pose an unfortunate reality for people like me who love exploring the border region. There is so much beautiful, diverse, and interesting country to enjoy and explore in Arizona and Sonora's border regions. My list of places to visit would be considered more than a little scary for most people in the U.S.

With the war on drugs and migrants tightening, the potential economic value is becoming stronger. With added value comes someone willing to take advantage of the profit potential and willing to protect that profit by any means necessary. In this case huge underground cartels are taking advantage of these profits... untold billions of dollars a year. The money and corruption is not limited to one or two countries, but a disproportionate amount of the demand is in the good old U.S.A.

It may sound like a non-sequitur initially, but this situation made me increasingly angry at the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. drug policy. It wasn't a hypothetical anger, but a very personal anger that this policy was causing me to be physically in danger of harm... as well as making it difficult to do what I enjoy most -- hike, study, and enjoy this region.

Our policy begins to seem absurd when you take into account a few important facts. Fact number one is that our policy is not working... at all. And we spend absurd amounts of money making it not work. Even worse we do the exact opposite - we prop up the whole market. Drug cartels love the border and drug policy. Sure it may be a pain occasionally, but how else could they keep the price of their product so artificially high? In fact the quickest way to pull the carpet out of the whole business would be to legalize pot in the U.S., and indeed the only viable way that the U.S. government could destroy the cartels.

Our policy is making cartels very wealthy, endangering lives, killing people, harming the environment, wasting our tax dollars, making getting across the border a nightmare, among innumerable other problems. If there was a chance of winning the war it would be easier to justify. But as any economist knows supply will always reach demand. The harder we crack down the more the product is worth; the more money cartels and smugglers make the more people will take advantage of that economy.

Recently more than a dozen cops in Canenea were shot by a group of around 50 well-armed cartel members in a brazen daylight raid. Sonora's head state cop was gunned down in a daylight raid in the middle of Nogales. It's getting to the point were the cartels have enough money, clout, and force that most local police (as well as some military and federales) are either too scared to do anything, paid off to look the other way, or involved.

The cartels are also getting their fingers deeper into people smuggling as well. I learned from locals near Sasabe that the cartels are charging around $100 per migrant just for the right to pass through the region and cross the border. It's similar to the mob "taxing" businesses just because they can. These fees add to a lot of money (maybe $20,000 to $100,000 or more every day) when you consider many hundreds, or even a thousand migrants pass through the area every day.

Migrants are getting the short end of the stick from every side having to pay for steep smuggling fees, supplies, vehicle rides, "taxes", as well as being subject to getting robbed, extorted or simply not getting what they paid for... all with no recourse. And that's before they even cross the border and are subject to an entirely new set of problems. This is all happening to a an almost entirly honest, nice, hard working people.

This all adds up to our region being a dangerous place, and often a pain in the ass. But at this point I will continue to endanger myself to study and enjoy the remaining natural areas in the border region, the draw is just too strong… I can’t stop myself!

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Burned-out migrant van in Sonora