Near/Far

Brutal shoot-outs, grisly murders, random kidnappings: Drug cartels in Mexico are in a savage fight to the death that has claimed more than 23,000 lives since 2006. Yet despite fears to the contrary, the violence has not spilled over into Texas—which doesn’t mean it isn’t transforming life all along the border. 
A view of El Paso (foreground) and its sister city, Juárez, where more than 5,600 people have been murdered since the beginning of 2008. The border lies about a mile beyond El Paso’s downtown.
Photograph by Bear Guerra

On Easter Sunday, David Arnold Jr., a thirty-year-old ranch hand who lives an hour and a half southeast of El Paso in the town of Sierra Blanca, received a call from his cousin in Mexico. Arnold’s cousin lived in Bosque Bonito, a tiny hamlet—just two families and their livestock—about a mile from the Rio Grande. Earlier that day, armed men in a black Suburban had dropped a note in the road, giving the families a week to leave their land. The war raging in Juárez, where rival drug trafficking cartels have been battling one another and Mexican authorities for control of the passage to El Paso, one of the most lucrative drug smuggling routes in the world, had finally reached this bucolic hideaway one hundred miles downstream from the city. There was virtually no police presence in the rural farming towns between Bosque Bonito and Juárez, and in recent weeks cartel thugs fighting for control of the area had developed a kind of scorched-earth policy, aiming to drive every last person out of the small towns and remote ranches that lined the Mexican side of the river. Dozens of people had been murdered, and numerous homes and businesses had been torched. Armed men had even tried to burn down the Catholic church in the nearby town of El Porvenir. Arnold’s cousin decided to take his family and head for the rugged mountains on the south side of the valley to wait out the trouble.

A week later, Arnold got another call: They were running out of food. Bosque Bonito was fifty miles down a dirt road from the nearest town, and there would be no escape from the narcos if they were spotted on that stretch. So Arnold loaded up a box with supplies and headed for the river, through ranchland owned by a friend, to a narrow, steel-cable-and-plank walking bridge once used by Mexican hands when the ranch was still a going concern. The Border Patrol had wanted it torn down for years, but luckily it remained standing. Arnold had been crossing here all his life for family reunions on the Mexican side, and the bridge had once been among his favorite fishing holes.

Now, as he watched the thick brush on the other side for signs of movement, he was worried he was going to die here. Eventually he spotted someone—his cousin, on horseback, looking drawn and exhausted. Arnold would have taken the whole family in if they had wanted to come to Sierra Blanca. But without papers, that would have meant a life in hiding on this side of the border too. “They’re honest people,” he told me. “They don’t want to get into trouble over here.”

Violence in Juárez has been in the news before—the unsolved murders of hundreds of young women began making headlines in 1993—but in recent years the city has descended into an unprecedented level of chaos. The killing began in earnest in 2008, when the world’s largest drug trafficking organization, western Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, began muscling in on territory long controlled by the local Juárez cartel. The United States is the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs, and the cartels move billions of dollars’ worth of Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine through El Paso every year. Authorities in Juárez have been powerless against the warring factions, or worse: After promising to root out public corruption, Mayor José Reyes Ferriz was obliged to replace half of the entire municipal police force, which was largely in league with the Juárez cartel. In March 2008 Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent federal troops to the city, but this only escalated the violence, leading to almost daily shoot-outs that have killed not just cartel henchmen and law enforcement officers but also a growing number of bystanders.

Meanwhile, faced with a loss of drug trafficking revenue due to the mayhem, cartels and their affiliated street gangs have turned to other lines of business, like kidnapping and extortion, making life unbearable for the average city resident. More than 10,000 of the city’s businesses have closed, and most Juarenses don’t go out after dark. And yet as bad as life in Juárez has become, it is just one flash point in the ongoing trouble throughout Mexico. Major cartel battles are under way for control of smuggling routes in and around the Mexican border towns of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, and Calderón has also been obliged to send troops to cartel strongholds in southern and western Mexico. Since December 2006, when Calderón first deployed the army, more than 23,000 people have been killed nationwide in cartel-related violence. Political candidates, including the front-runner in the Tamaulipas governor’s race, have been assassinated, drawing comparisons to the situation in Colombia in the eighties and nineties, when drug lords openly battled the government for control of broad swaths of the country. Mexico is undergoing the biggest threat to public order and the rule of law since the Mexican Revolution, in 1910.

Faced with the alarming prospect of a failed state on our southern border, the U.S. has backed Calderón’s efforts with the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, the lion’s share of which has gone to providing helicopters and other equipment to the Mexican military. On this side of the border, the focus has been on preventing “spillover violence,” a term that seems to have originated in congressional debate and quickly become ubiquitous without ever really being properly defined. In March, Texas senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging action on border security. “The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating,” they warned. In a subsequent conference call with reporters, however, Cornyn was unable to name any actual examples of the phenomenon he was urging the administration to take seriously. “I should have said the threat of potential spillover violence,” he explained.

Yet Cornyn and Hutchison’s letter seemed prescient ten days later, when a rancher named Robert Krentz was shot dead on his property in southern

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