I met Sgt. Ron Martin of the El Paso police department early in the morning, and was about to climb into his car when I found my way blocked by an assault rifle, propped up against the backseat like a faithful dog awaiting its master. A thorny issue of etiquette presented itself: Do I push it out the way? But what if it goes off and blows my brains out?
“Go in the other side,” said Sgt Ron.
Sgt. Ron was taking me on a tour of the El Paso stretch of the controversial fence built to block illegal entry into the U.S. by Mexicans fleeing their impoverished, super-corrupt homeland. You used to hear a lot about this fence, but nowadays nobody seems to care, bar a minority of hardcore pro- and anti- activists. I was surprised to see some apartments standing right up against it. I hoped they were getting a good deal on the rent.
“The residents call day and night,” said Sgt. Ron. “…about people climbing the fence, or digging under it. We have to catch them before they enter the city - after that they’re impossible to find.”
We drove into the guarded, forbidden zone that separates the U.S. from Mexico. Sgt Ron flashed his ID at a border agent. I was free to roam around.
There wasn’t much to it: just rocks, weeds and the long concrete channel for the evaporated Rio Grande. But standing on the divide between Mexico and Texas was a surreal experience. Before me lay the sprawl of Juarez, a mess of adobe huts, drugs and death (more than 2,800 murders this year and counting). Behind me lay El Paso, with its gentrified restaurant district, buses that run on natural gas and fat ladies participating in the 2010 United States Bowling Congress women’s championships. Juarez is the most dangerous city on the planet; El Paso the second safest in the U.S. The two cities are contiguous, but they exist in separate worlds.
Beneath us lay a network of drainage tunnels, leading to a disused factory on the El Paso side, now a homeless shelter. Just beyond the shelter lay train tracks. Men with a will can cross realities via the tunnels, merge into the homeless, hop on a train and - hey presto! - disappear. It’s that easy.
“So does the fence work?” I asked.
“It doesn’t keep committed criminals out,” said Sgt Ron. “But it has had an effect.
“Before, people would gather on the Mexican side of the border, lining up for about an hour. Suddenly they’d start running. We’d catch a few but most got through.” Sgt Ron continued: “I understand the immigrants, of course. If I were Mexican, I’d be doing exactly the same, for the good of my family. But my job is to enforce United States law.”
Sgt. Ron was nostalgic for the past, when Juarez was a party town popular with college kids and American soldiers looking to get wasted. Now everything is much more serious, and not just thanks to drug war violence. There has been a marked increase in deportations under Obama (on course for 400,000 this year, 10 percent higher than for Bush’s last year in office, 25 percent higher than in 2007). Unlike the old days, all deportees are processed officially and barred from returning for five years.
Sgt. Ron pointed out Juarez city hall, where recently somebody had been shot dead in the car park. A few days earlier, the mayor of another Mexican town had been murdered in Juarez. Then he showed me the bulletproof glass shields where U.S. Border agents parked their cars. They were riddled with cracks. “They like to take pot shots at us from the Juarez side,” he said. “The houses on top of the hills are look out points for the cartels.”
“Do you think there’s a danger of the violence spilling over?”
“The cartel bosses aren’t stupid. They know that if they start killing over here then America will become a lot more serious about the war, and the measures we’re taking now will seem like nothing. But it just takes one macho kid with a gun...”
Throughout our tour, Sgt Ron had remained impeccably neutral about the political ramifications of the fence and U.S. drug and immigration policy. But what did he really think? “I enforce the law.” Would it help if drugs were legalized? “I don’t think so. But if they were, I’d enforce that law, too.”
A few days later stray gunfire from Juarez hit El Paso City Hall, shattering a few windows. It was in the news for half a day, then forgotten. American politicians and much of the media are strikingly disengaged from the violence next door - so long as most of the victims remain safely behind the fence.
First published 29/10/10