Dirty Wars

by Chris Hershberger-Esh

I was sitting under a makeshift tent in the Sonoran desert when I first realized it: We’re at war. I had spent the morning walking though the mounting heat, but by about noon it was scorching, so we stopped for the day.  We hung tarps on scruffy mesquite trees and tried to stay cool.

I had joined this group of migrant rights activists a few days earlier in Sasabe, Mexico. Since then we had covered about half of the 77-mile walk to Tucson, Arizona on the Migrant Trail Walk, an annual journey to show solidarity with and mourn those who have died in the desert.

The Sonoran desert is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, full of cacti and other hearty vegetation and surrounded by mountains and strange looking knobs and peaks.  But this desert is also an incredibly hostile environment. The plants that make a home in this near-waterless place do so only with the help of terrible spikes and thorns that protect drops of water that might sustain them for months. The Jumping Cholla launches spikeballs at any being that ventures too close.

This is the setting of the “War on Drugs,” a farcical campaign fought over money and control that, for all its incompetence and short-sightedness, has long-lasting, wide-reaching, and devastating consequences.

Chris (in the green shirt) and other activists from the U.S. march in solidarity with migrants.
Photo by
Scott Griessel.

Before the sun rose, we were followed by a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter. Later that day we passed a hundred-foot surveillance tower. We saw countless pickup trucks and ATVs roaring past us, combing the desert to make sure migrants didn’t sneak into the United States.

It was in a desert like this that 72 migrants from South and Central America were massacred last August as they made their way toward the U.S. border. This, the worst mass killing since the most recent installation of “The War on Drugs” began in 2006, confirmed fears that under increasing pressure against drug trafficking, organized crime was indeed diversifying its portfolio into the kidnapping and trafficking of people throughout the frontier.

If you want to learn about the dark side globalization, go to the U.S./Mexico border and take a look at what happens when the “Global South” shares a 1,800-mile border with the “Global North.” The drug trade is a top-tier, highly effective multinational industry.  It is not an unintended consequence of free trade agreements: It is free trade.


Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on drugs in December 2006 soon after taking office, deploying the Mexican Army to fight against drug cartels throughout Mexico: The incorruptible government, looking out for the good of the people, would crack down on evil narco-traffickers. Or so the myth goes.

Photo by Mansk.

Since President Nixon launched the War on Drugs 40 years ago, the United States has poured a trillion dollars and countless weapons into similar efforts in the United States and across Latin America. According to the LA Times, as of December 2010, 30,196 drug-related deaths have been reported in Mexico since 2007. Ciudad Juarez is ground zero for the killing.

Juarez—just across the border from El Paso, Texas— is the deadliest city in the world, even when compared to cities at war with foreign aggressors. Every two weeks, roughly one hundred people are murdered in Juarez, with massacres and public executions becoming an increasingly common occurrence.  Calderón continues to insist that almost all of those murdered are sucios (“dirty”), claiming that only two percent were innocent civilians.

But those who live in the real world—in the gray area among people who are both “clean” and “dirty”—generally take little comfort in empty, politicized narratives.  The limbs that litter the streets, the bodies that fill the morgues—decapitated, raped, and left hanging from bridges—tell a different story.  Neighbors that walk past these bodies and family members who mourn them know that you don’t need to be in a cartel to die.  Mexico has disintegrated far beyond the rational drug-related killings of the 1990s: The ways to die, the reasons to die, and the people who die are neither predictable nor explicable.


Photo by Diego Enrique Hernandez Gonzalez.

It is, by now, a familiar narrative: The burned remains of 17-year-old Rubi Frayre Escobedo are found in a trash can in Ciudad Juarez on June 18, 2009.  Her mother, Maricela Escobedo Ortiz, is overwhelmed with grief and launches a campaign to bring the man who killed her daughter to justice—no small feat in a country where only two percent of murders lead to homicide convictions.  Despite more than a year of public protest and his informal admission of guilt, Sergio Barraza is acquitted in April of last year for lack of evidence.  On December 17, 2010, Ortiz and a group of women protest outside the prosecutor’s office in Chihuahua’s state capital to demand justice.  Not much later, an unidentified man (believed to be Barraza) runs into the plaza, chases Ortiz across the street, and shoots her in the head.  She dies on the way to the hospital.


There are two Mexicos, according to Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Killing Fields. The first is the one described above, where the Mexican president is defending justice and order by fighting a heroic battle against evil cartels.  This Mexico does not exist.

“There is a second Mexico,” says Bowden,

Where the war is for drugs, for the enormous money to be made in drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between government and the drug world never existed.

This second Mexico—the only real Mexico—is the reason why murders are rarely investigated, why journalists are killed or forced into silence, and why the war on drugs will never be won.  The weapons and the money pumped into the Mexican army serve only to expand the violence and horror of the War for Drugs.

It is a conflict that, like most conflicts, cannot be understood in isolation.  Globalization, free trade, sweatshops, migration, and the collapse of Mexican peasant agriculture are all parts of a messy system that led to massive migration and the rise of the drug industry.

A girl plays in the polluted Alamar riverbed in Colonia Chilpancingo, Tijuana, where many maquiladora workers and their families live. The neighborhood is near Otay Industrial Park, where over 100 maquiladoras are located. Photo by Romel Jacinto.

A simple, linear explanation of a complex and non-linear problem goes something like this:  First, Mexico enters into a new economic relationship with the U.S. and Canada through the North American Free Trade Agreement, largely on U.S. terms.  Mexico, the poorest of the three, can no longer tax U.S. corn imports, but the U.S. continues to pay massive subsidies to corn farmers. The market rate for corn becomes so artificially low that it costs more for Mexicans to grow it than to buy it.  The planting, harvesting, and consumption of corn has been the focus of many indigenous rituals dating back to the Mayan and Aztec empires, but overnight corn becomes useless—at least as far as economic survival is concerned.

Second, with no other means of survival, these campesinos head north.  Some risk the dangers of crossing into the United States while others stay in the Free Trade Zone to work in maquiladoras. This zone, which falls within 20 kilometers of the U.S. border, is not regulated by Mexican law. Proponents of NAFTA promised that the Agreement would balloon Mexican spending power by growing the middle class. Instead, maquiladoras have attracted workers to border towns by the millions, and most of the factories don’t pay a dime in taxes to support schools, roads, sewers, or water systems.  Additionally, a high supply of workers keeps the wages low (roughly $5-10 a day). Annual worker turnover in maquiladoras is 100-200 percent: They hire and fire at will, and sometimes move to China where wages are even lower.

And finally, in a city like Juarez, with more than a million people but few economic opportunities and weak infrastructure, there is only one source of significant wealth: the drug trade, a multinational industry worth $20-50 billion.  As the army, police, and cartels fight for a piece of this wealth, civilians are killed by the thousands.


On October 22, 2010, gunmen opened fire on a birthday party in Juarez, killing fourteen.  Two days later, 13 men were murdered at a private drug treatment center in Tijuana.  On Thursday of that week, 15 people were gunned down at a car wash in Nayarit. Most of them were participating in a drug recovery program.  A few wore shirts from the program reading “Fey y Esperanza,” or “Faith and Hope.”  This was not an unusual week.


A border monitoring station run by the U.S. Army. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

In the Border Patrol Headquarters in the Tucson sector, a tour guide led us into a room full of video monitors displaying live feeds from cameras along the border fence.  On one screen, a person cleared the 12-foot wall and hid in a small ditch to avoid a nearby BP agent.  An agent in the control room used a joystick to pan the camera and zoom into the target. He then radioed the BP agent and guided him to the hiding migrant, who was promptly arrested.  We stared in shocked amazement.

In the next room, a small glassed-in office overlooked the detention area where illegal immigrants were brought before being deported.  Men and women sat in small cells with large plexiglass windows looking humiliated and afraid.  The videogame-like round up we witnessed in the previous room did not prepare me for the emotional reality of those actually being rounded up.  I wanted to communicate to them that I didn’t support what was happening to them.  But from the other side of the plexiglass wall, in a big crowd of white people, I was forced to watch in complicit silence.

The guide later told us that it is not unusual to arrest the same person three times in a short period.  Deportees are dropped off at the Mexican border, where many turn around and head north again, repeating the process until they make it safely into the United States.  The agent stood by his duty to defend the law, but was not naïve about the frustrating reality of immigration policy.  “Show me a twenty foot wall,” he said, “and I’ll show you a twenty-one foot ladder.”

On the Fence: Portraits of the Wall Between North and South

The increasing militarization of the border has done little to slow drugs or people from crossing into the United States.  The fortified barrier between the United States and Mexico—complete with cameras, trip wires, spotlights, border patrol agents, helicopters, unarmed drones, and a 12-foot wall—has been embarrassingly ineffective because it does not account for an elementary economic reality: supply and demand.

The supply of drugs from Latin America is fueled by a steady demand from the U.S. Photo by Matthieu Aubry.

The supply of drugs from Latin America has continued to meet U.S. demand with speed and consistency.  The supply of poor Latin Americans has continued to fill every difficult, low-wage job the United States has offered, from constructing houses to deconstructing chickens.  The only force that has slowed migration across the U.S./Mexico border since NAFTA is the economic recession. A small physical wall cannot impede global economic forces.

But while the militarization has not slowed the movement of drugs and people across the border, it has had reverberating consequences.  Migrants used to cross into relatively safe urban areas in California and Texas, but those areas have been walled off, funneling people into some of the most hostile environments in the country.

Walking through the brutally hot desert, and then waiting out the hundred-degree afternoons under mesquite trees left me a lot of hours to think. This is our solution for immigrants, I realized:  Block safe passageways so they are forced into the desert, leave them to walk for days through intense heat, round up and deport the dehydrated and delirious, let others die by the hundreds, and for those that make it, strip them of rights so they can do our dirty work without legal protection.

Sonoran desert from above. Photo by Yorch.


The death of a loved one brought one woman, her husband, and her sister back to Mexico after 20 years of living in California, into which they had crossed illegally.  After the funeral, they tried to return home to California.  They had grown older and probably gained a few pounds since they crossed this border as young people, but the border they crossed 20 years ago had also changed.  What was once a stealthy but safe stroll into United States has become a life-threatening 3-5 day journey through the desert, which fairly often ends in arrest and deportation.

Detail from a sculpture mounted on the Mexican side of the border fence: Migrants fleeing from Border Patrol agents. Photo by Steev Hise.

I was volunteering in a migrant shelter on the Mexican side of the border when I met them. It was just after midnight a on a freezing cold night in January. The temperature had dropped almost 40 degrees since reaching the mid-sixties that afternoon, so they came in shivering and quietly accepted coffee and burritos as they tried to warm up. They had just been deported after their first attempt to re-enter the United States, and their eyes showed fear and bewilderment.  They knew they were taking a risk when they came back to Mexico, but I don’t think they quite understood the intense danger of what was once a simple task.  I asked if they would try again, and they said, “Yes.  We have to get home.”

I nodded and said I’d pray for them, instead of asking, “What if you can’t?”—the question undoubtedly on all of our minds.  A few days later, I showed my passport and easily returned to the United States. I never found out if they ever made it back to the country they also call home.

The people whose lives are thrown out of balance by policy wars are real people who make real sacrifices—mostly for the needs of other real people. It’s a confusing catastrophe with human consequences that we keep trying to make sense of as we wage our intangible wars. Victory is impossible, but there are so many losers—uprooted, impoverished, abused, disregarded—and all in the name of markets.

Mexican civilians know all to well that they are not exempt from the violence of the “War on Drugs.” Photo by Philip Wortena

Meanwhile, a twelve-year-old is killed in the Mexican crossfire.  Factories outsourced to Mexico are outsourced again to China. Someone’s son is hung headless from a bridge.   Mexican farmers can’t sell corn anymore.  A kid smokes pot in the United States.  Migrants try to cross the border and fail.  Presidents Obama and Calderón pledge to crack down on cartels and write more free trade agreements.  Journalists are assassinated for printing the wrong story. Twenty-five million Americans buy drugs.  A wall is built up to keep people and drugs out. Migrants are massacred and sold into slavery. Corruption spreads to the U.S. side of the border.

Washington, D.C. is 1,963 miles from Juarez; Mexico City, 1,123. Their policies travel all that way, and further, drawing borders in the sand, squeezing blood and pennies from peasants, and remotely conjuring fictions whose disconnection from reality destroys real people—and even countries—in between.


Chris Hershberger-Esh wrote this article for Human Goods. Chris is a program assistant at the Philadelphia office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a non-profit community development intermediary. He studied applied sociology, Spanish, and socioeconomic development at Eastern Mennonite University. His perspective has been influenced by living in Guatemala, an intentional community for refugees in Georgia, and for many years in Philadelphia. He is interested in healing and restoration in a suffering world.

Header graphic by Michelle Ney.

Slideshow credits: Bunky’s Pickle, Qbac7, Wonderlane, Eric White, Nathan Gibbs, Bill Gracey, Bisayan Lady, Bill Morrow, Steev Hise, Deni, Pulverem Reverteris.
Additional photos by Jared Rodriguez/t r u t h o u t.org, Mansk, Al Hikes AZ, Matthieu Aubry, Diego Enrique Hernandez Gonzalez.

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