The long border between Mexico and the US state of Texas is dotted with dusty little towns, dreaming in the sun. They are towns of pastel adobe walls and shady bowers of bougainvillea - towns out of legend, with names such as El Paso, Juarez, Del Rio, Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros.
They line both sides of the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo), the shimmering river that forms the boundary between Texas and the country to which it once belonged.
There was a time, not too long ago, when life could be very good on 'the border.' The picturesque, little pueblos, that had retained much of their Spanish charm with a soupçon of the American 'Old West', had become a major tourist draw.
The constant flow of US tourists along with the new string of maquiladoras (plants built by US companies in Mexican border towns) had infused the once-sleepy villages with new life and a viable source of income. The new prosperity gave rise to a new type of Mexican.
Well-educated, sophisticated, upwardly mobile, bilingual and often, dual-national, these people were unique to the Texas-Mexico border.
To all appearances, these 'new' Mexicans had the best of both worlds. Often Texas-born, they opted to live in Mexico due to its lower cost of living. Thus, their advantages of dual citizenship and affluent lifestyle made them the envy of people on both sides of the river.
They had no fear of drug-related violence, which they assumed was confined to the lower-income barrios and would never affect their upscale neighborhoods. They were soon to discover how wrong they had been.
A case in point is Juan Garza Mendoza and his wife, Marisol. Juan was born in McAllen, Texas and Marisol, in Reynosa, Mexico. Both are dual citizens. Juan, an entrepreneur, who also owns limited stock in a South Padre Island hotel, clears around $60,000 a year.
Marisol, a former legal secretary, gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom and care for their three children, Juanito, 14, Conchita, 9 and Lupita, 6. Though comfortably middle class, the Garzas decided to move to Matamoros, Mexico.
The cheaper cost of living there enabled them to purchase a spacious, custom-built home and maintain a lifestyle they never could have afforded in the United States.
Their enviable life is abruptly interrupted one day when Juanito fails to come home from school. Though Marisol is worried, Juan points out that the kid is only an hour late. Maybe he stopped by a friend's house and forgot to call. The afternoon deepens into evening and the boy still hasn't shown up.
Marisol has already called all of the youngster's friends, but no one has seen Juanito. Now Juan is becoming worried, as well. He calls the police, who obtain a description of the boy and promise to search for him, but there is little else they can do.
Finally, after two agonizing weeks, Juan receives a telephone call. The police have discovered a body that they have reason to believe might be the missing child. The clothes match the description, but the face is so badly disfigured, it is unrecognizable. The coroner's examination reveals that the youngster had been savagely beaten before he was finally killed. Dental records give the corpse a name. It is Juanito.
The Garzas are both shocked and devastated, but the Matamoros police have seen countless cases like this. Youngsters experiment with drugs and get in with a rough crowd.
Occasionally, they cross the wrong person, or just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and serve as a convenient example. This homicide, like so many others, is most likely drug-related. And the savagery involved points to the dread Gulf Cartel.
The Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico's largest and most dangerous drug rings, is based in Matamoros, in the frontier state of Tamaulipas. The group maintains a presence in 12 Mexican states and operates primarily along the border with Texas, smuggling illicit drugs to major US cities. Notorious for its violence and brutal methods of intimidation, the formidable cartel has become the 'horror of the border.'
Founded in the 1970s by Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, a former Mexican bootlegger, the cartel was expanded in the 1980s and '90s when Nepomuceno's nephew, Juan Garcia Abrego, took control. Though Garcia was apprehended in 1996, he was quickly replaced by a series of drug lords until strongman Osiel Cardenas Guillen seized power.
Cardenas, who was arrested in 2003, allegedly continued to run the ring from prison, relinquishing control only upon his extradition to the US in 2007. Since that time, the cartel's structure has decentralized, with leadership shared between Cardenas' brother, Antonio Ezequiel and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, a drug lord with close Colombian contacts.
Though Mexican drug rings have existed for decades, the destruction of Colombia's Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1990s cleared the 'playing field,' allowing the Mexican groups to flourish. As the power of the cartels increased, however, so did the turf wars - particularly between Mexico's two most powerful groups, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels.
Then in December 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched an all-out war on drugs and the cartels struck back with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry that shocked the world.
The exact numbers and types of weapons the cartels posses are still unknown, but vast arrays have been confiscated including: AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, fragmentation grenades, M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers, various .50 caliber rifles, machine guns and light anti-tank rockets. According to reports, 90 percent of all the firearms that could be traced came from the United States. Many of them were purchased legally.
It should be stressed that these arms are the ones that have been confiscated. We can only guess what other 'surprises' the cartels might have in their arsenals.
We do know, however, that when a savage group acquires a stockpile of lethal weapons, the outcome is almost always violence. And if the government of the country in which that group operates dares challenge it, the violence skyrockets. That has been the case in Mexico since 2006.
The figures tell the story. On April 19 of this year, CNN reported that over 22,700 people had been killed since the 2006 launch of the Mexican drug war. Moreover, according to an Associated Press report, drug-related violence has soared with 3,365 fatalities casualties in the first three months of 2010. The trend is still going strong.
On May 7, in the border town of Juarez, cartel gunmen burst into a church and opened fire on a wedding ceremony. Ordering the bride and guests to the floor, they kidnapped the groom, along with his brother and uncle. The bodies were found 4 days later in the back of a pickup truck.
Then, on May 14, gunmen opened fire on a van outside the same town, killing 6. According to a May 12 article in the Washington Post, 900 people have been killed in drug-related violence this year in the city of Juarez, alone.
Further south along the Rio Grande, in Reynosa, a city official and a mayoral candidate for the town of Valle Hermosa were gunned down on May 13 in separate drug-related shootings and according to a South Texas news source, a lethal gang, called the 'Zetas,' who were once allies of the Gulf Cartel, are presently preparing for an assault on Reynosa.
One of the reasons for the recent surge in violence is a turf war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. However, despite their differences, both groups attack federal agents whenever they are dispatched to the area in an attempt to stem the violence.
Undoubtedly, President Calderon and the Mexican government have taken on a herculean task in their war on drugs. The war has taken a heavy toll on the Mexican military. The army, which numbers 100,000, is both overworked and overextended with 96,000 soldiers on constant duty.
The hopelessness of the situation has caused some to call the conflict "Mexico's Iraq." According to the country's officials, one of the main stumbling blocks the Mexican government is facing in the war is the continued high consumption of illegal drugs in the United States.
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano agrees. While enroute to Mexico City last March for a meeting on the Mexican conflict, she admitted that the US shares the blame for the enormity of the drug violence problem and added that Washington needs to continue focusing on the "drug demand reduction issue."
Mexican President Calderon maintains that American consumption isn't the only thing the US has done to exacerbate the problem. He says that since the cartels obtain most of their weapons from the United States, stopping over-the-border arms trafficking is a critical step in winning the war on drugs.
He also said in a CNN interview in March of this year that US officials have admitted that there are powerful Washington lobbies opposing such a move. Thus, it appears there is little end in sight to Mexico's war on drugs. It has indeed become the country's quagmire.