CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — He was happy to see shoppers, the Ciudad Juarez tourist official made it clear, and yet the fact that he had time to sit down for a beer with us in the middle of the day made him morose. It was the week between Christmas and New Year's, and in happier times, his city would have been swarming with tourists from El Paso. These days, the sight of two lone gringos walking across the bridge had brought him scurrying, waving his ID card like a flag of peace.
"Hardly any Americans come anymore," he sighed. "They're afraid. And I suppose they should be. Yesterday, a bus driver was shot in front of his passengers. The mayor of Juárez, they've tried to kill him three times. Or maybe it's five. He sleeps in El Paso at night. We're more dangerous than Baghdad. Can you believe that?"
Welcome to Ground Zero of the collateral damage of the American war on drugs. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón obliged his friend George Bush three years ago by vowing to shut down the drug pipeline into the United States, Juárez has turned from a festive tourist magnet into a killing field.
Murders -- mostly committed by drug cartels clashing with police and one another -- jumped from 300 in 2007 to 1,600 in 2008 to 2,600 last year. Though its streets teem with rifle-toting soldiers -- the despairing government long ago turned law enforcement over to the army -- Juárez's homicide rate is 33 times as high as that of New York City.
The day after my girlfriend and I visited, 26 people were murdered. I'm sure it didn't surprise the tourist official. "You don't even buy the paper anymore," he told us. "You know what's in it."
Though some Mexicans now refer to Juárez as Murder City, its lethality is by no means unique. Ten students on their way to pick up financial aid were blown to pieces with hand grenades on Palm Sunday in the north-central state of Durango. The week before that, the chopped-up parts of two police officials were found stuffed into shopping bags in the southern state of Guerrero.
In Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, so many journalists have been kidnapped or murdered that local newspapers and TV stations have stopped covering narcoviolence. But there's no fear of an uninformed populace: New media have filled the gap. Video of narcotrafficker tortures and executions are routinely posted, deleted and reposted on YouTube.
Both sides of this war are being funded from the United States. The so-called Merida Initiative, the pact with which Bush enticed Calderón into this mess, has provided the Mexican government with $700 million in counternarcotics funding the past two years, and the Obama administration has asked Congress for another $450 million in 2010.
But those seemingly big bucks pale beside the money generated by America's bottomless appetite for illicit drugs. Government estimates of the wholesale value of the U.S. drug trade range from $13 billion to $48 billion a year, a major chunk of which winds up in Mexico, the transit point for most cocaine, marijuana and heroin consumed in this country.
For more than four decades, the United States has been trying to fight its war on drugs on the cheap by laying off the cost in human blood on other countries. First Colombia, then Peru and now Mexico have been turned into murderous free-fire zones that we would never have tolerated here. The result: "Overall, the availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing," the U.S. Department of Justice reported in February.
"In fact, in 2009 the prevalence of four of the five major drugs -- heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and MDMA [ecstasy] -- was widespread and increasing in some areas," the report continued. The single seeming bright spot, a decrease in the cocaine supply, turns out to be merely the result of an increased appetite for the drug in Europe.
In short, the war on drugs has been like squeezing a balloon: It just pops up in another place. And the next place may be inside our own borders. In alarmingly unnoticed testimony to Congress last year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that more than drugs may soon be flowing across the border. "We must guard against and prepare for the possible spillover of violence into the United States," Napolitano said.
You might think that after four decades of this futile war, we'd be willing to talk peace -- as California voters are seriously considering, with a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana, depriving narcotraffickers of a significant chunk of their war chest.
Instead, the Obama administration wants to up the ante. Napolitano told Congress that her office is drawing up plans to put the U.S. military into action against drugs, not in some far-off Third World jungle, but here in America. We have seen the future, and it is Ciudad Juárez.