The Drug War in Ciudad Juarez: A Nice Place to -- Scratch That

Josh Clark

Down Mexico way, border towns have long been a lure for Americans looking for a place where we can enjoy slightly laxer enforcement of rules concerning underage drinking, prostitution and marijuana consumption. Sure, it's always been a good idea to keep one's guard up when spending a weekend in a border town, but the welcome sign's always been out.

These days, though, the town of Juarez -- just across the border from El Paso -- has replaced its welcome sign with this: STAY OUT OF JUAREZ. In 2007, Juarez experienced 300 homicides. Ah, the good old days. NPR reports that from January 2008 to January 2009, a staggering 2,000 people have been murdered there. That's almost a 700 percent increase in murders. In one year. Compare that to the 344 homicides in 2008 in Detroit, America's nearly perennial murder capital.

The distinction between Detroit and Juarez, of course, is that Detroit isn't in the grips of an all-out war among drug cartels angling for control of supply routes out of the city. After the DEA effectively shut down oversea routes in the Caribbean in the 1990s, organizations from South America moving heroin, cocaine and marijuana turned to overland routes, through Central America, north into Mexico and ultimately into the hands of their biggest customer, the U.S.

Especially since the advent of debate over immigration reform in the U.S. and increased border security over the last few years, drug and human traffickers alike have been running into each other; space along supply routes is at a premium, so much so that in some cases coyotes and drug cartels have converged their operations and used illegal immigrants crossing the border as drug mules. Two birds with one stone, that's using your noodle.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has deployed the military to quell the violence in Juarez, to no avail. The murder rate continues to climb.

More drug stuff on HowStuffWorks.com: How Narco States Work How Marijuana Works How Money Laundering Works