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Sonoran Ramblings: Cocaine is evil?, border artists & Israel immigration

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Sonoran Ramblings: Cocaine is evil?, border artists & Israel immigration

Digging into the coverage of the borderlands

There was a piece on Slate in late December that came across my Facebook feed enough for me to finally pay attention to it. Subtly titled "Cocaine is Evil," the op-ed was a decent though melodramatic regurgitation of an argument often heard south of the U.S.-Mexico divide and increasingly making the rounds north of it: consumers of cocaine and other illicit drugs manufactured in or transported through Mexico are complicit in the hyper-violence that has rocked certain parts of the country over the last decade or so.

In the article, Mexico City-based science writer Erik Vance (who also wrote this astoundingly good article on fisheries depletion in the Sea of Cortez for Harper's last summer), wrote that, "perhaps you can see why I sometimes feel a little silly covering the ocean fisheries crisis, telling people what's not sustainable and why. It's true, consumer choices are behind the ocean crisis. But you can eat sustainably every day of your life and give to charity every year, and it all gets wiped out with one line of coke."

This is the tenor of the entire piece: written from a good place, but so shrill that the interesting conversations to be had here are obscured.

I do not disagree that consumers of cocaine bear a degree of responsibility for the violence in Mexico and elsewhere. However, there's at least one elephant in this room. Nowhere in this piece are U.S. drug prohibition or interdiction efforts in the Americas mentioned. An obvious point, but worth making anyway: the drug trade is a violent one principally because the commodity is illegal. In other words, cocaine, despite the story's provocative headline, is not inherently evil. Indeed, you could have made a version of Vance's argument about alcohol in the United States before the end of prohibition. The issue at hand is prohibition itself. This piece probably provoked some good conversations, so hats off to Vance for that. But the most important conversation, namely how U.S. drug policy contributes more significantly to the violence he understandably condemns, will have to wait I guess.

The New York Times published a story last week that caught my eye in a more positive way. In "A Vale of Terror, Transcended," reporter Laura Tillman showed a side of the Texas-Mexico borderlands that rarely makes it to a national paper.

Instead of the narcos and lifeless bodies that too often populate border stories, edgy borderlands artists that form "a growing art movement in the Rio Grande Valley exploring immigration politics and a rise in drug violence in the region over the past four years" were the subjects of this excellent piece of border journalism. Violence, of course, is not absent from the story and indeed functions as one of the principal inspirations for these artists' work.

The story opens with a description of the performance piece "70+2," which explores the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants being held by the Zetas in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. What Tillman shows us with this piece is that, in spite of the very real violence in northeastern Mexico, there are a significant number of people making art out of this trying experience. These are not the abject, paralyzed victims many imagine to live in places like Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, but rather active agents making meaning of their circumstances and, in turn, resisting the violence in the best way they know how.

Here in the borderlands, many of us are acutely aware of (or have personal experience with) the often abysmal ways undocumented migrants are treated by U.S. authorities. Because of the scale of such phenomena here, I feel that this awareness can sometimes blind us to the ugly realities of undocumented migration elsewhere.

That's why the stories (NYT, LA Times, Al Jazeera) that came out last week about protests by undocumented Africans living in Israel were so important. The protests come on the heels of a Dec. 10, 2013 law passed by the Knesset that allowed for the detention of such migrants for up to a year without charge. Under Israeli law, detained migrants can be detained indefinitely pending resolution of their asylum cases. While the U.S. is certainly a world leader in migrant criminalization, these stories make it clear that our efforts are part of an increasingly global trend.

Sonoran Ramblings

... is a roundup of immigration news and a column of border media criticism by Murphy Woodhouse, who has reported for, the Nogales International, the Missoulian, Truthout, the Palestine Monitor and The Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, and been shortlisted for the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

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