When I was a young Vice Consul in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, it was hardly paradise. Juarez was a big, booming desert town characterized by endless maquiladora factories, blistering heat, and a vast income gap between the very rich who lived behind guard entrances in plush mansions and the vast majority who didn't. The neighborhood in which we lived, San Marcos, was home to several U.S. diplomats and another crowd; the nickname for the neighborhood was "San Narcos".
Still, you didn't know if the smiling guy across the street with the new bulletproof Benz was a drug dealer, a corrupt politician, or just one of the successful maquila owners. No shoot outs, nothing external - save the lavish mansions and the fact that no one seemed to have a work schedule --to suggest that the drug trade was behind all the money. Most of these folks -- including a number of my friends who were very legitimate businessmen with successful enterprises -- had a place up in the mountains of Ruidoso, New Mexico, two hours and light years away. We weekended there often, leaving the dusty, garbage strewn, scorching summers of Juarez, stopping for brunch at Mesilla's Double Eagle Inn (possibly the best brunch on earth at the time), then winding up through apple and cherry farms, and generally ending up in Cloudcroft, a cool mountain haven in the summer and an alpine winter wonderland in that season. I would estimate that a quarter of the folks you'd meet there were Mexican nationals with a mountain weekend getaway, all hailing from Juarez.
This was, of course, long before September 11th changed the world, and all these Mexicans had "micas", the border crossing card issued by then-INS. No I-94s were issued and just as the those without visas would hop the fence to go shopping in downtown El Paso and hop the fence back to Juarez later that afternoon, laden with purchases (occasionally hailing a Border Patrol van for a free lift back to the Bridge of the Americas), so would the wealthy Mexicans flash their micas and head up the mountains for a weekend in New Mexico. Sunday, it was back to Juarez.
Things have changed. In fact, based upon the information I am getting from my friends and contacts in Northern Mexico, there are an awful lot of folks who are NOT heading back to Juarez on Sunday. Hundreds - maybe THOUSANDS -- of affluent Mexicans from Juarez are instead staying in the U.S., and many have bought homes in El Paso. Put simply, there is a growing population of wealthy Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. because the situation on the other side of the border has deteriorated to the point where they fear for the lives of their loved ones. Now, it's dad who heads back from Ruidoso to Juarez on Sunday night, or who commutes daily to Juarez from El Paso. Now, I'm getting calls from folks who would have never considered immigrating to the U.S. and they are saying the same thing: "Jose, get us out of here." And no, they will NOT let me visit them in Juarez...it's El Paso where we'll meet, and I can't even say where because they are afraid of what could happen, even on the U.S. side, if the wrong folks learned of our meetings. Scary stuff.
As I described when I wrote of my very intense visit to Juarez last December, the violence behind the drug wars has permeated all levels of Mexican society: this morning's Wall Street Journal has a front page cover shot of the alleged murderers of a Mexican mayor...six police officers. The nation was shocked with the brazen and brutal murder; now it ponders what the identity of the perpetrators means to the nation.
One of my best Mexican friends use to have a saying: "Poor Mexico: so far from God yet so close to the United States." For the privileged Mexican families who are able to invest their way out of a spectacular, beautiful, and rich nation which has deteriorated into chaos, the latter part of that saying may not be such a bad thing.