It's a fact that both the United States and Mexico play equally important roles in the illegal drug trade. As a reporter based along the U.S.-Mexico border, I see the evidence pile up almost every day from corporate banks that launder drug money to corrupt public officials that facilitate illegal trafficking.
That said, I was stunned that a few of the speakers at Tuesday's El Paso City Council meeting denied the United States' role in the ongoing drug war.
The star guest at Tuesday's meeting was Mexican poet Javier Sicilia. His son was one of tens of thousands of people murdered over the past six years as a result of drug violence in Mexico. Since the murder, Sicilia founded a peace movement critical of Mexico's war against organized crime. Now he is touring the United States asking Americans to do their share to help reduce the violence.
"Behind every addict who continues to consume drugs and behind the weapons are our dead, our disappeared, our pain," Sicilia said at the council meeting.
Not long after Sicilia's speech, Salvador Gomez, a local boxing ring announcer, came to the podium. He expressed sympathy for Sicilia and those whose family members have been victims of drug violence. But then he condemned Sicilia's peace caravan for coming to the United States.
"To blame America for the woes of Mexico… is incorrect," Gomez said. "I'm tired of hearing people like this who come and criticize my country."
He went on to say if Sicilia and his group wanted to make an impact, they should be "on the other side of the river." That is, on the other side of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, where Sicilia has visited and spoken out in the past.
As I sat on the floor of a packed meeting room and listened to Gomez through my headphones, I couldn't help feeling disbelief at what I was hearing.
Just four days earlier, I sat in a federal courtroom watching former El Paso County Commissioner Willie Gandara Jr. admit to storing and transporting hundreds of pounds of marijuana from his ranch in the town of Socorro, Texas. He hid the pot in boxes of chile powder in the back of a semi-truck headed for Chicago. To warehouse the drugs, he was paid $5,000.
I thought back to the gun-smuggling ring busted in southern New Mexico last year. It was headed partially by the mayor and police chief of the border town of Columbus. They and others will serve time in prison. They sold some 200 weapons to a drug cartel in Mexico and some of those weapons were later discovered at murder scenes.
I thought of all the stash houses peppered throughout the country like tumbleweeds in the desert. I thought of how easy it is for an American high schooler to get a dose of dope. All of these are examples of the U.S. role in the illegal drug market.
After the meeting, I pulled Salvador Gomez aside. He was born in Mexico. He's a Vietnam veteran. And he still crosses the downtown bridge from El Paso into Juárez for a beer or to buy a new pair of dress shoes. In other words, Mexico is not unfamiliar territory to him. Yet he fully denies Mexico's problems connect back to the United States.
Like anything, this is not a black and white issue. Mexico certainly has problems that need to be solved internally. An example is the country's failed judicial system. But drugs are clearly a problem that transcends borders. It's easier for Americans to deny their role since most of the beheaded victims are on the Mexican side.
I asked Gomez about the El Paso County Commissioner who stored drugs at his ranch. He's a friend of mine, Gomez said, he made a mistake, that's all.
The border between the United States and Mexico is not a containment line that neatly isolates individual issues on one side or the other. We share the illegal drug problem as closely as we share issues related to health, environmental and the economy. To deny that is to evade our shared responsibility as a border community.
During Tuesday's meeting, one city council representative said about the drug war: "I see the pain that it's causing Mexico and I don't want it in my country."
Those who pay close attention to how our two countries interact know that pain is already here.