“How many people know someone who has been affected by the violence in Juarez?” About three fourths of a crowd of easily over two hundred UTEP students raised their hands. “How many people know someone who has been killed or kidnapped?” The hands of the crowd, whose age averaged about 20 to 25 years old, went down marginally. With their hands raised, students looked around at each other, not in surprise, but in direct recognition of what they all had in common. The event was a midday discussion highlighting the book “Drug War Zone” by Dr. Howard Campbell, held at The University of Texas at El Paso. It was students only and geared to wrap our minds around just how the border violence impacts our daily life.

The last time I visited Juarez was three years ago. Drug violence had not yet hit mainstream news, or mainstream numbers. But peril was very much evident. In El Paso, with the absence of television and newspapers, one would not know of the atrocity that is taking place. The city of El Paso is relatively safe. The images of heavily armed military with black masks on their faces, or caravans of secarios-hit men, or hired gangs to kill, are unseen on this side of the border. Figures of people who were killed the day before are reoccurring images on the headlines of newspapers. It is so frequent that there is even a question of whether people in El Paso and Juarez have become desensitized to the violence; after all, another dead body found in Juarez is, well, another dead body in Juarez. Sometimes the deaths are justified by saying that those who were slain were involved, or “it comes with the territory.” It is easy to write them off as such, anything for people to keep looking forward and maintaining a sense of security.

But there are painful reminders that this is not entirely so, in fact far from it. When tabling for Students for Sensible Drug Policy on campus we have unique opportunities to get the perspectives of students who cross over from Juarez everyday to come to school. And we empathize with their stories, ones that you won’t hear on television, and ones that will never be reported. You feel the pain of their expressions when they talk about what their home once was, what it is now, and the confusion of not knowing what it will be. We are naïve to believe that a border can provide protection. Physical separations manifested in concrete and wires have not kept violence en el otro lado-on the other side. Just last year a man was taken from his home in Horizon City, right outside of El Paso, in broad daylight, in front of a school bus full of children. Frequent human rights violations committed by the military, young girls being kidnapped, raped, and dumped back at their homes at the whims of people drunk on power occur, but justice will never be served. It’s war. We are fighting terrorism half way across the world, when one of the largest human rights conflicts is occurring right next door.

On February 9, 2010 the El Paso City Council once again voted down a resolution to the Texas legislature with the language of legalization. This time the resolution called for the legalization, production, and taxation of marijuana in order to curb financial power of the cartels. There were many people from a variety of ages there to testify both in favor of and against the resolution. Testimony from the former included valid arguments while the latter had some, but was mostly rooted in fear and anger. “Juarez is in Mexico!” “Let them deal with their own problems!” they shouted. I cannot fathom the separatist sentiment that is held by some of the population, especially when you come to understand just how El Paso and Juarez are economically and socially linked. Or when you realize that much of the violence is an effect of faulty U.S. policies such as prohibition, free trade agreements, and immigration.

Nevertheless, an amended version of the resolution passed, without the language of legalization, rendering the document lifeless and without action.

The only amendment worth emotional investment came from Representative Beto O’Rourke as he called for a change in the number of people murdered this year from 250 to 266, as to account for those murdered the weekend prior to the council hearing. This gesture signifies the importance of direct political action. While politicians bicker amongst themselves, refuse to reflect the population’s interests in their actions, and continue to let politics trump scientific data all in the name of their political careers, people are dying.

“Imagine,” one of my professors, said, “that more than four thousand people have been murdered in your city in the past two years.” What kind of impact would that have on society? If there is one thing that I would like to point out it is that there has been so much death on the border, but there is still a lot of life. Juarez labeled as a failed city, or the most dangerous city in the world is still a place where many people, many students, call home. Life goes on, and people do not define themselves by the tragic occurrences, but rather by their ability to survive them.

Vanessa Romero
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
University of Texas El Paso