THE BLOG
11/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The War on Drugs and 40 Years of Escalation on the Border

Forty years ago the Woodstock Nation inadvertently marked the end of the 1960s Summer of Love even as it became the enduring symbol of it. The other enduring symbol to emerge from 1969 was a policy focus on drug use, identified as a national security threat by President Richard Nixon in a July 14 address to the nation that year.

It was the official beginning of the War on Drugs. While it was a war fought in border zones all over the U.S. -- as my friend, poet Bobby Byrd notes, borders can be more than physical lines separating countries -- there was an impact specific to the community in which I now live, the El Paso borderplex.

In 1969, the border was closed for Operation Intercept. The lives of people here, so often lived on both sides of the border, changed a little for the worse. Freedom was a little less free. The border has been called a "constitution-free" zone. War zones tend to be that way.

When I moved to El Paso in 1982, it shocked me to have to pass through Border Patrol checkpoints on the highways on the way out of the area. More recently, driving down the Columbus Highway along the border from El Paso heading west through New Mexico, I saw military vehicles and personnel.

I live about a mile from the border, and can see Juarez from the yard in front of my apartment. Helicopters regularly fly so close overhead that my windows rattle. About two weeks ago, 19 people were (shot? massacred? butchered? how does one describe such a thing?) in front of a drug treatment clinic in Downtown Juarez only blocks from the border. As a friend said, if you had been in downtown El Paso that night, you might have heard the shots.

While the vast majority of the overt violence has taken place in Juarez in the form of public executions, massacres and mutilations, El Paso suffers as well. Less than two weeks ago, a man was kidnapped in daylight in front of witnesses -- schoolchildren -- in Horizon City, a suburb of El Paso. Days later, he was found dead in Juarez, hands cut off and nailed to his chest. This was a very rare event on the El Paso side. But as many El Pasoans have been killed in Juarez as in El Paso this year, and anecdotally, it's a rare El Pasoan who hasn't heard first-hand stories of violence from friends, family or business acquaintances in Juarez (and it's a rare El Pasoan who doesn't have friends, family or business acquaintances in Juarez).

Prohibition has created a vast black market for drugs. The only forces able to respond to market demand are criminal. The only force available to counter is law enforcement. This cycle has metastasized on the border and around the world, and with each turn of the wheel everything escalates - the sophistication of criminal enterprises, the violence, the police and paramilitary response, the prison system, the toll on communities and countries where the war is not just a metaphor.

There's a particular irony here. Almost 100 years ago, El Paso was one of the first cities in the nation to pass a local ordinance against marijuana. Those were tense times, with revolution in Mexico and El Paso an outpost of the United States on the lawless border. There was more than a touch of hysteria and fear of Mexicans behind the decision.

Fear in the beginning led to fear in the 1930s, the "Reefer Madness" era during which the drug war law enforcement apparatus began to be built. It was institutionalized 40 years ago, when fear of rapid change and the social challenges of the 1960s and '70s helped drive the policy beyond law enforcement and beyond the U.S.

In Juarez, more than 3,000 people have been killed since the beginning of 2008. In the 40 years since Woodstock and the War on Drugs, how many have been killed in villages in South America, or inner city streets in the U.S.? When is it time to give peace a chance?


Sito Negron is editor of the online journal NewspaperTree.com and a member of the organizing committee for the Global Public Policy Forum on the War on Drugs, to take place Sept. 20-22 in El Paso and Juarez. For more information, check warondrugsconference.utep.edu.