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Time to put end to drug wars

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Time to put end to drug wars
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

For five years in the 1980s, I lived in El Paso, often crossing the Rio Grande to Juarez and always encountering charm and conviviality and, once, great hope.

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On that occasion, I witnessed a parade of candles held high as Mexican citizens in the city celebrated the breakthrough election of a mayor who was not just one more stooge of the nation's ruling party, but a member of PAN, a challenging party.

But I often saw less cheering things in Juarez, such as its poverty, and learned of other depressing news from Terrence Poppa, a reporter on a daily paper I was then editing. He wrote of a drug smuggling gang in Juarez, and ventured to nearby Ojinaga, where one trafficker told him about killings and bribery and how he sent vast amounts of cocaine into the United States.

All of that seemed bad enough then, but skip ahead to today, and, through published reports, you find that Juarez is now known as a "City of Terror," that 1,600 were killed in drug wars there last year, that some of these were bystanders, that others were defense lawyers, that 60 were policemen. You find that doctors are fearful of tending to wounded victims, that businessmen are kidnapped, that a police chief resigned after threats and that the mayor spends his nights in El Paso.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent 2,000 soldiers into the ravaged city, along with 425 federal agents, and a local vigilante group has joined in -- it promises to kill a criminal a day until things get better. They are not getting better, and tourism, naturally, is kaput.

Calderon is himself a member of PAN, which emerged as a national force after decades of a one-party state, and someone who has put 50,000 troops into the fight against drug cartels that began fierce struggles against each other several years ago with the dissolution of a coordinated drug system. Distributing marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines primarily to U.S. consumers, and hauling in maybe $25 billion a year, cartel members torture and decapitate each other, murder journalists and politicians, toss grenades into crowds and dissolve hundreds of bodies in vats of lye.

The sense is that Mexico, a corrupt, ill-organized, poor society in the best of times, may crash. The United States is clearly at risk. While El Paso remains one of the safest cities in the United States, drug gangs have exacted fatal vengeance on each other north of the Mexican border as they compete for American customers, and the Justice Department has responded with some 750 arrests. The United States could further help the Mexican cause, it has been argued, by legalizing drugs and banning assault weapons that frequently turn up in the hands of Mexican gangsters.

The ideas don't add up. Marijuana is already all but legal in some parts of the country, and demand has hardly thereby been curbed. You'd have to commercialize it and produce it here to make a difference -- is that what the legalizing crowd wants? You sure don't want to legalize meth, which immediately grabs its users by their throats and ruins their lives. Cocaine is vicious, too.

As for the assault weapons, they are no different in their killing effectiveness than any number of other kinds of weapons, and meanwhile it has been reported that the drug cartels have equipped themselves with machine guns, anti-tank rockets, submarines, helicopters and sniper rifles. Banning assault weapons will accomplish nothing.

Even though stopping the trade northwards is very difficult and not a complete answer -- dealers develop new markets among increasingly addicted Mexicans as our tactics gain in effectiveness -- that's a major way in which we can and must continue to provide assistance. The Mexicans themselves must stop regularly reported official abuses, build up local governments, end corruption and restore hope; none of these easy matters, of course.

-- Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.

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