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Sandy Goodman

Sandy Goodman

Posted: March 1, 2009 03:58 PM

"Poor Mexico, So Far From God, So Close To The United States"

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Those oft-quoted words of the late Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz came to mind today. That was after I read still one more horrific report about how ruthless, terrifying gangs of Mexican narcotics traffickers, competing for which of their products end up on American streets, and battling their government's efforts to stop them, have turned huge swaths of their own country into killing grounds. The gangs murder, decapitate, kidnap and threaten innocent people every day, especially targeting two groups of individuals that American gangsters don't dare mess with -- police officers and reporters.

Today's story is another tale of terror from Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city of 1.5 million people just across the border from El Paso, Texas. It's about how narco-gangsters forced the police chief - a retired army major - to flee the city to avoid being killed. He left town a week ago after the gangs threatened to kill a police officer every 48 hours until he quit. They made their threat good by killing his deputy, three other officers, and then another cop and a prison guard.

According to the New York Times, Juarez and its surrounding state of Chihuahua suffered almost half the 6,000 drug-related killings in all of Mexico last year, despite the presence of 2,500 soldiers and federal police. Following the police chief's flight, the Mexican government ordered an additional 5,000 soldiers to take over Juarez's notoriously corrupt police department.

If, like me, you're one of the millions of Americans who've come to love Mexico over the years, its current catastrophic crime wave can only fill you with sadness - and fear that it will spread across our porous border. Ciudad Juarez is special for me. In 1955, when I was in the army, I spent almost every weekend there for the six months I was stationed only about an hour away at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. We spent Friday and Saturday nights in cheap hotels, ate three-course, hard-to-chew steak dinners for $1.10, and downed bottles of good Mexican beer for a few cents more.

In those days, Juarez was a safe place for Americans - and its residents, too, as far as I know. We walked the streets without fear, day and night, buying an occasional camisa (shirt) or a pair of botas that inevitably hurt my feet, awkwardly trying out the few Spanish phrases we managed to learn from Maestro Hernandez, who gave weekly lessons on-base.

We had no problems making ourselves understood to cab drivers only too happy to take us "to see the girls," and I spent many an evening on a bar stool in a whorehouse, being "good" while sipping Carta Blanca beer and holding the wallets of two army buddies who were upstairs enjoying the pleasures of some very pretty senoritas. Sometimes I even went upstairs myself. Juarez was fun, it was different, it was cheap and, in those days, not at all dangerous.

Back in civilian life, I next visited Mexico in 1962. I was still young and innocent, one of my heroes, John F. Kennedy, was president, and as far as I was concerned, my country could do no wrong. Until a tour guide named George Lugo drove me around Mexico City and took me to Chapultepec Palace. There, he told me, six teen-age Mexican military cadets made a heroic, fatal last stand against an overwhelming force of U.S. marines in 1847, during the Mexican War. In that war and, earlier, by annexing Texas, he reminded me, the U.S. snatched away half of his country. He later took me to the rundown cemetery where, he said, Santa Anna, the Mexican leader who lost Texas, was buried.

Walking among the weathered old tombstones, I came upon a large bone. It looked to be a human leg bone. It was not the kind of thing you'd find in an American cemetery. But in Mexico, it was right out there, as is so much of the ugliness of life and death that is usually hidden in the United States. In this and a dozen future visits--including the courtship of my wife-to-be in Mexico City and our honeymoon in Yucatan-- I found the streets of Mexico full of the lame, the halt and the blind; including scarred, one-armed or one-legged youths and old women wearing tatters, hawking lottery tickets on busy street corners, ignored by passersby.

In Mexico, everyone's ills, and the country's overwhelming poverty, were much worse and far more visible than anything at home. "Probably nowhere in the world do two countries as different as Mexico and the United States live side by side," wrote New York Times reporter Alan Riding in 1984. That is even truer today. America, someone in Hollywood once said, is a land of happy endings. Mexico, certainly, is not.

Our Founding Fathers died in bed, many on their huge plantations, full of age and honor. The leaders of Mexico's 1810 revolution from Spain were executed by firing squads, then most of their heads were cut off, and and put on public display. While democracy and growth, in territory and wealth, increased steadily in the U.S., Mexico faced the loss of that territory, unending turbulence, frequent dictatorship, church-state battles, class warfare, decades of one-party government, and continuing economic crisis. And now, as Mexico's government for the first time presses a determined fight against its powerful drug gangs, they have retaliated by driving crime completely out of control, making a mockery of the rule of law and threatening the stability of the entire country.

The dangerous situation there was well summed up by a young gang member, deported from the United States and interviewed just after he crossed into Tijuana. "One day you might be safe," he said. "The next day you might not wake up." More frightening for Americans is the prospect of this uncontrolled violence crossing the border.

The mayor of Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, has so far stood up to the drug gangs. For his courageous stand, he - and his family - have been threatened with decapitation. Like many Juarez residents, Mayor Reyes has homes on both sides of the border and divides his time between them. According to The New York Times a threatening note "made it clear that the assassins going after him would have no qualms about crossing into the United States to finish off the mayor and his family." The El Paso police department says it's taking the threat seriously.

Defense Secretary Gates said on Meet The Press today that he, too, is concerned about Mexico's drug war and means to provide its government with American resources, training, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities and intelligence. "It clearly is a serious problem," Gates said. And, I would add, not just for Mexico.