Caught in the Crossfire
In the thick yellow light of early evening, standing on the bluff next to the high school in the small Texas town of Roma, you can look out over the Rio Grande River and see into Miguel Alemán, the Mexican town on the other side of the border. Chase Whiting, a teacher at Roma's Ramiro Barrera Middle School, who gave me a tour of the area in early March, told me that you used to be able to watch people hanging out and playing in the park on the other side of the river. I didn't see anybody in the park and couldn't see or hear any sign of activity in the town. The cartels and Mexican army have imposed a curfew on the town. Most people are home by six. "After 8 pm, anybody on the streets is fair game," Whiting told me. At night you can hear the gunshots.
Aside from its proximity to the drug war, Roma is just like many other small US ranch towns. Route 83, the main drag that cuts through town, is dotted with shuttered grocery stores, vacant lots, taco stands, discount chain stores and dozens of signs advertising cheap loans and "EZ MONEY." The used car lots mostly have a single row of cars in front that does little to hide the empty asphalt between the street and the salesrooms. Even the billboards are empty.
The Ramiro Barrera Middle School, which moved into a new building last year, is a meticulously maintained closed campus that contrasts sharply with the dusty, open neighborhood around it. On a side road, tucked away from Roma's downtown district, the school seems distant from the town and even farther from the violence on the other side of the border. School administrators have fostered a culture of organization and accountability. On the one hand, students are barraged with constant encouragement to excel in their studies. But on the other hand, discipline is strictly enforced. Teachers stress the importance of helping students learn to make responsible choices.
White-and-green Border Patrol vehicles keep watch over the neighborhood surrounding the school. There are no broken windows or graffiti. Inside the building, students are marshaled between classes, overseen by security guards and cameras. The interior walls are plastered with inspirational quotations. Red digital clocks, which hang at fifty-foot intervals, prominently display the time for the students who walk the spotless red-white-and-gray tiled hallways. Tardiness is not tolerated.
While touring some of the local schools, I met Jose, a round-faced, polite eighth grader. I also met the school's police officer, who showed me the school's video surveillance system and took me on a tour of the hallways. "We don't have too many fights here," he told me. "Mostly it's roughhousing between friends."
All of the students in Jose's classes come from families that are originally from Mexico. About half of them attend special English as a Second Language classes. All of them have family on both sides of the border. Jose's parents are from Miguel Alemán.
Jose's best friend, Luis, spends most nights with family members on the Mexican side of the border. School administrators told me that every afternoon dozens of students cross over the chain-link and barbed-wire bridge that connects Roma and Miguel Alemán to spend the night with family members.
Even though his grandmother and aunts live right over the bridge, Jose hasn't visited in a year. "I don't like to go over there that much," he said, his voice trailing, "because of the violences there."
"They killed my tio, my uncle," he said. The exact details of the incident aren't clear, but Jose knows his uncle was murdered. He said his uncle was driving with a friend who was close with members of the notorious Zetas cartel when the two were shot. "They killed him on Friday," he said. The funeral was the same day. His uncle's friend was shot ten times but didn't die.
Some of Jose's classmates struggle to remember the difference between neutrons and protons, but when prompted they can explain the nuances of the battles raging between Mexico's army and members of warring drug cartels. They talk about the cartel hitmen and their killing methods the way kids elsewhere might talk about local sports stars. "El guiso [which means "stew"] is a torture method where the cartel men put you in a barrel, pour gas on you and burn you alive," one of the students told me.
One of the guidance counselors at the school told me that "many things are going on in Mexico that are not coming out in the news, but [the students] have relatives there, so they hear." Some of the students are scared, she said. One former student went to visit relatives in Mexico and disappeared. "He was never found," she told me.
One of the students told me about a neighbor who was tortured, shot, hung and burned by cartel hitmen. They left his heart in a box for his wife, she said. "They know how to make you suffer," she told me. Teachers said students have failed out of school after learning that members of their families had been tortured and killed by cartel enforcers.
Jose said he mostly hangs out with his friends around Roma--they don't go to Miguel Alemán--and he spends a lot of time with his family in their pink-and-white trailer-style house. His dad, who is 46, works in construction. His mother, 42, picks up work at local stores whenever she can find it. During my visit she was working at the local discount clothing store; before that, she had been at Pizza Hut.
In his free time Jose likes to go to the park with his dad and practice skateboarding. Now that his 18-year-old sister has moved to Missouri with her husband to look for work, and his father has returned from prison, Jose spends more time with his parents.
Even as the violence seems to be spinning out of control south of the border, Whiting and his colleagues have adopted a multipronged approach to maintain order on the campus and provide a safe haven for students like Jose. Teachers and school administrators promote academic achievement with a broad program that includes keeping the premises sparkling, enforcing a standard of conduct and encouraging students to excel in arts and athletics.
On a broader scale, policy analysts and politicians are starting to talk more frequently about the need for a more diversified approach in the struggle to stamp out the flow of illegal drugs and the violence associated with it.
An estimated 18,000 people have been killed in the region since 2007, when Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, launched a military campaign against the country's drug cartels. The "war" on the drug trade is certainly taking a toll on local residents in the border towns. So far in 2010, there have been frequent reports of violence escalating between rival cartels along the border.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently commented that the presence of the Mexican army in violence-strewn Ciudad Juárez "hasn't helped anything." Policymakers on both sides of the border are now trying to figure out what kind of approach would work better.
On March 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico City to meet with top government officials. While there, she announced a shift in US funding, indicating that part of the existing $1.4 billion antidrug aid package to Mexico will now include $300 million for nonmilitary assistance.
"This new agenda expands our focus beyond disrupting drug trafficking...and encompasses challenges such as strengthening institutions...and building strong, resilient communities," Clinton told reporters in Mexico City. Mexican legislators have already gone a step further, implementing a law in 2009 that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and other drugs.
On April 1, the Mexican army started "gradually transferring responsibility for public safety to civilian authorities," according to a news release from Mexico's Interior Department. As the death toll rises, and the cartels amass stockpiles of sophisticated weapons and launch increasingly brazen and coordinated attacks against military targets, it is becoming clear that the current approach to the "war on drugs" is not working. The question that people in the border towns are dying to have answered is how bad the situation will get before policy-makers inevitably switch to a Plan B. Politicians can debate whether it's better to deploy soldiers and border patrol agents to try to cut down the supply of drugs smuggled into the United States, or if it's better to invest in public health and education initiatives to try to cut down on the demand. People like Jose, who live in the border communities, just want the violence to stop.