Where was the Drug Czar? Where was the Border Czar?

Drug Czar: Gil Kerlikowske

Alan Bersin: Border Czar

Yeah, where were they? We know they weren't in El Paso Monday and Tuesday, September 21st and 22nd [See Footnote]. That's when the "Global Public Policy Forum" convened to discuss the U.S. War on Drugs 1969-2009. Yes, 2009 is not only the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, it's also the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs. If I didn't enjoy irony, life in the real world would be a lot more boring. The War on Drugs, of course, has failed miserably. In El Paso we only have to walk down the street and cross a concrete ditch of a river over into our sister city of Juárez to know this is a fact. 3200 people have been killed over there in the last 20 months as the El Paso/Juárez Cartel battles it out with el Chapo's Sinoloa Cartel. The forum was arranged in a unique collaboration between academia--led by Drs. Kathleen Staudt, Josiah Heyman, Howard Campell of UTEP and many others--and the city of El Paso led by City Councilperson Beto O'Rourke. The El Paso City Council, you might remember, created a national buzz earlier in the year when it unanimously resolved to ask for a national open and honest discussion about the drug war. Although vetoed by Mayor John Cook with a number of frivolous charges, that resolution and its veto was the stimulus for the El Paso Forum.

The speakers and panels, for the most part, were interesting and very well-informed, and they came from Mexico and the U.S., from the academic, media, political and legal communities. The gist of most of their talks were--as reformed drug warrior Terry Nelson kept hammering at--was that the huge problems caused by the sale, the use and addiction to illegal drugs (everything from the cartels and the costs of drug interdiction) was not the drugs themselves, but the prohibition of those drugs. Hello! The one naysayer to that point of view was Anthony Placido, the Chief of Intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Administration. His speech on Tuesday was compelling simply because it was full of fear-mongering (full of horrific show and tell of dead bodies and brains with holes in them) and faulty logic. The job of the "state," as he kept referring to the government, was security, and the state had to balance its perceived notion of security against civil rights. Very Cheneyesque.

Anthony Placido: Chief of Intelligence, DEA

Actually, I was not going to mention Placido's talk in this brief description, but Tuesday night I heard a chilling story from a high school teacher in the El Paso Independent School District. He was in class, getting ready to give out a test, when police officers arrived at the door of his classroom with drug-sniffing dogs. They ordered all of the students out of the class and into the hall way where they were lined up against the walls while the dogs searched the room for drugs. Like I say, I was horrified. This is Big Brother scary kind of stuff and it's certainly not the way to go about teaching kids to be open-minded and curious about their lives and the world in which they live. I do not understand why the EPISD, the school administrators, the teacher's union or a group of parents have not loudly protested this invasion of the high school. Meanwhile, as was pointed out during a number of the forum panels, it's easier for students to buy marijuana out on the streets than it is to buy alcohol.

Please, Mr. Placido, sit down, take a deep breath and smell the roses. We need to inform you that the drug war has been lost. Not to worry. The cartels have made enough money so they will not go away. There will be plenty for you to do.

Oh, well. I'm told that soon the whole forum will be on-line and I will put links up to the various panels and discussions. You'll be able to be the judge. In the meantime, I'll list several of the on-line resources that speak for some of the speakers, plus newspapertree.com's article linking to some of the many national and internation media articles arising from the forum--

The newspaper tree link. Also, there are a number of other articles there about the forum as well as other pieces about the drug war and life on the frontera in genera.

Judge Jim Gray, a Republican judge from Orange County, gave one of the most compelling speeches. He didn't break any new ground. He simply stated his own history of realizing that the drug war wasn't working and his journey of research to write his book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed. He could have been talking to the Chamber of Commerce or to a religious congregation and his speech would have been the same--full of common sense and honest.

Terry Nelson, a tall gangly ex-DEA agent, spoke with the grit and humor of a guy who has been in the trenches on the other side and realizes he's doing the wrong thing. He's on the board of LEAP, aka Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He's a fun guy to listen to. He came to El Paso earlier in the year to lobby the city council members to stand up to Mayor Cook's veto. Four did (one of whom was daughter Susie Byrd), four didn't. Oh well. Terry Nelson is the kind of guy you'd like to have over simply to listen to his stories.

Ethan Nadelmann
founded and is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Ethan is a drug policy savant, the kind of guy you don't want to be on a panel with because he knows the answers to most all questions, and he answers them with wit and enthusiasm. The Drug Policy Alliance is hosting its annual International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque, November 12-14. It should be a good event. The times, as Bobby D used to sing, are a changing.

Congratulations to UTEP and to the City of El Paso for hosting this event. It made us proud. Below is a trailer to the conference, but if you are on facebook reading this, then follow this youtube link.

Footnote. I should also note that a number of elected officials did not show their faces or send representatives. I saw six City Council members there sometime during the two days (Carl Robinson and Rachel Quintana were no shows). Mayor Cook spoke at the beginning and his assistant Robert Andrade was helping organize during both days, County Attorney Jose Rodriguez spoke on one of the panels and attended several discussion, Congressman Silvestre Reyes sent a representative, likewise State Senator Eliot Shapleigh. It would have been nice to see our District Attorney Jaime Esparza, somebody from the police administration, somebody from the Sherriff's office. The Governor and Texas Senators should not be expected to attend because...well, somehow El Paso is not really part of Texas. Why? I don't know.


Sunday Morning El Paso Texas

Sunday Morning in Sunset Heights,
A Discarded Rose

El Paso & Juárez Sunday Morning
from the little park at the top of Scenic drive

Sunday mornings, when I have the chance, I ride my bike from the Cinco Puntos Press National Headquarters (as John Byrd calls it) through downtown and up through Sunset Heights and Kern Place and across Scenic Drive which skirts around the southern edge of the Franklin Mountains. The mountains on the other side are the Sierra de Juárez. The Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo) cuts through the two ranges of mountains. Hence, El Paso, the Pass. It's a beautiful ride. CPP is a few blocks from the tall buildings on the eastern edge of downtown. If you look closely between the clumps of buildings you can see one of the bridges that crosses into Juárez, but besides and a few other telltale signs recognizable only by folks who live here it seems to be one city. It is one city. A divided city. This side and that side. They say the same thing on the other side. But they say it Spanish.

And it's harder and harder to go back and forth.


Spotting the Almost Extinct White-Legged Byrd in the Wilderness

Hiding out from the rain and eating a cold cheese and sausage burrito

Son Johnny, who is the guy who mostly manages the workings of Cinco Puntos, invited me on a camping trip to the San Pedro Park Wilderness which is northwest of Albuquerque about an hour and a half, just north of Cuba. We've been up there several times together, sometimes with my close friend and Johnny's godfather Steve Sprague. It's the first time I've been backpacking since Steve's a few years ago. It's taken me a while to recuperate from the journey--the altitude, the 40lbs of backpack (we always carry too much), the old joints and muscles. But it was an incredible journey. My friend Joe Somoza wrote and asked how it went. This is what I wrote him.

It was a good trip, but not a simple and easy trip. It was so good to be with Johnny. He sort of took care of me the whole trip--helped me put on my pack, took care of cooking, this and that, a true pleasure. Drove up Tuesday morning and of course stopped at REI where we spent too much money, slipped through Cuba (speeding ticket for $71 on the way to the wilderness, 55mph in a 45mph zone, curling up into the mts, a nice cop though) and got to our car camp at the trailhead about 530. A beautiful night with lots of stars. A steak, a beer, the simple business of being a camper is so nice. Tent. Pots and pans. Sleeping bags. How to get up and piss at night. This needs to be done, that needs to be done. Sleeping is hard to get used to without a comfy mattress. The next morning (39 degrees) oatmeal and coffee and packed our packs and headed up-trail. It was harder that I remember. The higher altitude. 40lbs on my back. And yes, maybe I am older, maybe those goddamned leaves have turned against me, but I pushed on. Would walk maybe 40 minutes and we'd take a break. So beautiful. A little butterfly followed me along, orange-red and black wings, and by god that butterfly was laughing at me. Old man old enough to die. Close to 1pm the skies started to hail. Well, we all know that hail blows away real quick. But not this hail. It kept on. Then it turned into rain. Shit. We climbed under a rock overhang in the midst of a dark forest, the rain dripping here and there on us. It kept up for an hour. We ate a burrito (cold tortilla) with summer sausage and cheddar cheese with Louisiana hot sauce. It was delicious. The rain slackened. We decided to walk some without our packs to find out where we were. After a while the trail opened into a big meadow. A good place to camp. The rain came and went, but we had on our raincoats and stood under trees when it got too heavy. Ran into a fancy grouse hunter with his gun strapped across his back. He said it might rain all night, said maybe it would stop. Thanks a lot, huh? We decided to go get our packs and come back and find a camping place. If it was raining when we got back, then we'd trudge back to our car and spend the night in Cuba. If it cleared, then we would stay. So that's what we did. We came back and the clouds were breaking and the sun was poking through. We had a wonderful campsite high above the creek, enough sun shining through "the ambiguous clouds" (Johnny's phrase). We got very lucky. No more rain. We were able to hang damp clothes and sleeping bags on rocks and got everything (except cotton stuff) mostly dry. We started boiling water to purify and to make coffee and we settled into a wonderful view and later a good dinner. The fire was hard to start--an hour long project where we ripped pages from poem books and novels and used toilet paper and all sorts of fancy teepee structures. Everything was simply wet or damp. Shit. Finally, John remembered a Tom Brown book where TB said to shave sticks for the dry wood inside. So we did that and to make sure we poured a thimbleful of white gas on top. The wood slowly started, and we nursed it and soon we had a good fire that would last us through the evening as long as we dried more sticks before burning. We slept sort of fitful. John was worried about more rain, I heard some sort of animal sniffing around outside, but the night passed and the morning was partly cloudy, the earth happy with a layer of thick dew, a bunch of elk over the next rise talking to each other about the day's activities, all of them looking forward to the mating season, oblivious to the fact that hunting season was upon them. Or were they? Oatmeal and coffee. Delicious. A nice dump in the woods (see photo below). We bushwhacked for several hours looking for those elk. We didn't find them but we had an incredible walk. No sign of human beasts. We had lunch around noon and packed up and started back down the trail. A wondrous rhythm walking downhill full of prayers and beautiful things to see. It started to hail and rain of course, but that was cool. We were ready with raincoats and besides we were going back to the car. On the way home we stopped at the Frontier and re-membered Albuquerque and I took John to the house on Rincon Avenue where he was born and we drove home listening to a mystery on the radio and lost in our own thoughts about the next day.
Love to you,

A wet fire is still a good fire

The almost extinct white-legged byrd
doing his business in the woods

Self-portrait falling down

Camp from Las Vacas Creek

Elk head. Note that the trophy antlers
have been sawed off along with the brain pan.
But at least the hunter took home the meat.

Breaking camp

Heading home

Self portrait 3/4 mile from the trailhead #51

Johnny Byrd in front of the house
on Rincon Avenue where he was born in 1973.
(Just west of 48th Street, west of the Rio Grande,
several blocks from Central Avenue & under the mesa).
Lee reminded me that we'd let Susie run around
in the field without her diapers on.
That's how we potty-trained her.
I guess it worked.
Sort of.



When I was a kid I collected toenails. I liked the big ones the best, the ones like warped dry planks of wood, so I let my toenails grow long—long enough to cut holes in my socks—before I chopped them off. Every two months or so I harvested my toenails. The best crops I cut from my big toes, of course, but my little toes yielded peculiar curled nails that added class and personality to my collection. I enjoyed watching the toenails on my little toes grow. I looked forward to harvesting those nails. The toenails from the middle three toes on either foot were ordinary, normal sized nails but they certainly added bulk to my rising mound of toenails. Oddly enough I reaped bigger and more interesting crops of toenails from my left foot than from my right foot, although the left foot was harder to get to because of the way my body is shaped.

Nobody in my family knew about my collection of toenails. I put the toenails in a 12-ounce Mason jar that I kept hidden in my closet. I daydreamed that scientists would someday discover a miracle drug to something gruesome like cancer or polio. It’s prime ingredient would be toenails. Toenails. Toenails. Toenails. I’d have a head start. By then I’d have a big jar full of toenails. I’d sell my toenails and make a lot of money. It would be a strange accomplishment, but still my mom would be proud of me.

After two years I had collected about a half-inch of toenails in my jar. One day I was talking to my friend Marty. He lived down the street in a house that was dark and sad inside. He had a small bedroom in the back that he shared with his little brother. Marty had a secret he wanted to show me. We were alone in the house. He unscrewed a panel in the wall. It was his secret hiding place. He reached in and pulled out a jar almost half full of toenails. Marty had been saving toenails for almost four years. I didn’t know what to say. I took the jar from his hand and looked at his toenails. Marty watched me. He was smiling with pride. These toenails were his secret, his accomplishment.

What do you think, he asked?

I laughed at him. What are you doing with these nasty toenails? Are you crazy?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Marty wanted to explain, but I wouldn’t let him. I knew already what he would say. I was ashamed for him and I was ashamed for me. Big tears welled up in his eyes. I went home and flushed my collection of toenails down the toilet. Marty and I never spoke about the toenails again.


Round 2: Juarez/EP versus Luis Urrea @ Monument Marker #1

Self-portrait with Luis Urrea at Monument Marker #1

Please visit Round 1, my August 18 blog note about Luis Urrea's visit to El Paso, so that this will make a bit more sense.

Yes, this is the U.S./Mexico Border. It's the first marker set down to delineate the U.S/Mexico Border as established by the 1854 Treaty of Mesilla.) Behind us is where Francisco Madero established La Casita Gris as the capital of the Revolutionary Govermnent. In 1911 he and his little army crossed the Rio Grande (aka el Rio Bravo) and established his revolutionary government to do battle with the armies of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. It was here Pancho Villa, the Italian Garibaldi, Pascual Orozco and others sat and smoked and made plans with the little Madero¹. In the clump of salt cedar trees, you can see a bust of Madero.

To get there, we drove past two Border Patrol vans. One on east side of the river, then crossed the brick company bridge and came along the levee road where another BP agent inside his van asked what we were doing and told us to be careful. We saw pickups pulled up to the banks of the river and Mexican families swimming, having picnics, a few men hovering near the dam that crosses the river, waiting for a chance to slip undetected into El Norte.

Mexican families swimming in the Rio Bravo.

Monument Marker #1 is truly a sacred spot. A contradiction of everything you read about in the newspapers or see on the TV about the U.S./Mexico Border. A few miles from the downtowns of El Paso and Juárez you can actually step across the border here. You can step into Mexico like 9/11 and the great immigration scare never happened. But very few people from El Norte visit it. Maybe they believe everything they read in those newspaper. And, oddly enough, fewer still write much about it. I think most of us want to protect it from the hideous border fence that the federal government put up. I am hesitant about bringing attention to this surreal place, but as the nation's maniacal fear about the border and Mexico continues to grow like kudzu, I'm starting to think it's best people know about it. We need to protect that small open piece of land between two cities, between two states and between two countries. There are no fences here. If a secular place can be holy, then this is a holy place.

And most importantly--geologically and historically--this is the place where the Rio Grande cuts through the mountains (hence, El Paso, or The Pass) and heads east toward the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know why the feds skipped the Monument Marker #1 Park and the Monte Cristo Rey which abuts it when they built their fence. Maybe they too recognized it's a special place in the local and national psyches of both nations. I doubt it.

The beast doesn't seem to have an imagination.

[¹The photograph of Orozco, Baniff, Villa and Garibaldi is found at the Library of Congress FLICKR site here.]