EL PASO — Journalists know that truth is the first casualty of war — then come the dead, but the dead don’t lie as much.
Estimates vary, but some 40,000 Mexicans have been murdered since the so-called drug war started four years ago. Notice that I said murdered, because this is a war without frontlines, without protocols, without rules of engagement. This is not a guerilla war between armies fighting for differing ideologies. This is a state of terror.
The murdering chaos across the border has pervaded the atmosphere there as if sinister bell-jars had dropped on certain sectors of México, creating selfsustaining regions of criminality — not war, just crime pure and simple — on an unimaginable scale.
This state of terror looms close to home, across the trickling Rio Grande from my office. As I walk down to the UTEP bookstore coffee shop I see the colonias of Juárez clump up against the borderline, the margin of a complex metropolis of 1.2 million persons trying to live their lives with some sort of normalcy.
The drug cartels and their street gangs machine-gun down rivals anywhere in the city to grab power. The number and volume of the massacres is staggering making the U.S. prohibition era gang wars seem like nostalgic scenes from Walt Disney films.
But more unnerving is the virtual collapse of the criminal justice system in the presence of paralytic armed troops in public places while the lawlessness goes on unabated. Indeed the city seems infected with a flu-like virus that has knocked it out and left it for the taking by petty criminals, extortionists, kidnapers and killers of all sorts – most never linked to a drug cartel, but swift to grab any leftovers in the vacuum that used to be called a civil society.
In that atmosphere only the dead — some 8,000 persons killed since the start of 2007 — are easy to count, but strangely, they seem evanescent as the death toll becomes routine news, tending to vanish among the scurrying lives of residents seeking the stability of lost routines — school, shopping, a walk in the cooling dusk around the central plaza. The dead don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Some of the living left.
Adjustment to the state of terror seems to occur largely along economic lines. Although the total population of Juárez has remained constant during the past four years, an estimated 230,000 persons – mostly middle and upper class — have left the city for the U.S. or safer parts of México in what we call the Mexodus, seeking the freedom to live normal lives, leaving behind scores of empty houses and boarded up businesses.
By one estimate, 125,000 of these former Juárez residents have resettled north of the border. At the same time, the broad-shouldered city of Juárez continues to draw workers to its maquila industry even as the maquila managers living on this side of the border go to work in armored SUVs.
As Borderzine started the reporting work on Mexodus in January, we hit a lot of closed doors. As you will see in our articles, the migration of businesses and professionals to El Paso is visible in schools, new businesses, restaurants, and mall parking lots, but firm numbers on the migratory and economic impact here were hard to come by.
Many officials sought to downplay the local effects of the Mexodus here often citing the upsurge in military personnel as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program expected to draw some 66,000 new troops and dependents to El Paso by 2012.
The bottom line in our balance sheet, however, doesn’t just rely on numbers. It tells the stories of the refugees. They came slowly, discreetly, not en-masse fleeing war or starvation as in other pars of the world, and they brought a bright part of México’s future with them.
By David Smith-Soto
Borderzine Executive Editor