Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thompson, Matamoros: There's a link

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Many young adults who lived in Winnipeg during the 1960s will fondly remember that special connection we had with Mexican border towns like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, which provided an inexpensive break from our harsh winters. You just had to drive down I-29 and on to the mighty Rio Grande and soon you were developing a cheap melanoma you could bring home along with a Mexican onyx chess set, bargained down to $13 at a flea market and a ridiculously huge velvet painting of Jesus, even if you weren't particularly Christian.

The Mexican people were so very, very friendly and the local la policia smiled at you at every turn.

Even when I happened to overstep the bounds in Tijuana one year, the local Sgt. Garcia seemed to exist as a protective force favouring foreigners like me, as if the last thing they want is for a Canadiense to encounter any unpleasantness during his stay in their wonderful and welcoming "home away from home" for gringos. After all, a headline that reads "Canadian murdered" (or injured or even upset) in a country desperate for dollars was a disaster to a local economy dependent on tourist money.

So why am I telling you all this? Partly to warn you things have changed so much in those sleepy little border towns you wouldn't want to venture down there unless you have some sort of death wish. But mostly because what is happening there right now is because of what is happening here right now, and vice versa.

Matamoros has become one of the biggest drug ports in the world. Nuevo Laredo is run by gangs such as Los Zetas and the Mexican Mafia. Violent crime in both cities is rampant and police are too busy trying to prevent themselves from being killed to babysit tourists anymore.

The statistics are horrifying, with thousands of Mexicans murdered each year, innocent bystanders caught up in the crossfire; even police and justice officials are without impunity if they dare to stand up to the way things are. Drug lords themselves are dropping like hot sauce off a taco.

All of this is happening because of competition to meet the demand for drugs in other parts of North America. Like Winnipeg and Thompson, Manitoba.

The Free Press recently published a series on the increasingly violent nature of the northern town. And we are constantly bombarded with graphic headlines about the mean streets of Winnipeg. Much of this stems from the drug trade, which originates in Mexico.

We don't like living with it, and we can't get away from it like we used to because, ironically, those places we used to escape to have become the source of our problem.

At the same time, the people who know how to resolve this situation are being ignored.

Thousands of active police officers and sitting judges, members of organizations like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and almost all retired law enforcement-personnel, say we need a new approach. And that is for society, government, the public and the like, to take control over the manufacturing and distribution of drugs.

They point out how prohibition of alcohol only created a thriving criminal enterprise to supply the demand. And how huge profits were diverted to organized crime. Just as alcohol prohibition failed to eliminate drinking, making drugs illegal has failed to stop people from using drugs. Yet our lawmakers remain addicted to their failed approaches.

Like all ex-hippies, I tend to over-romanticize the '60s, but I have come to believe we need to acknowledge this was also the time experimenting with drugs became widespread.

While I would never condemn a casual user a joint or a hit or even a recreational coke user his vice, we are experiencing some serious problems with addictions and the crime and the violence that goes along with all that. Some people can control their drug use, others cannot, and our liberalized attitude towards drugs exposed paths for people whose physiology ends in addictions.

The only reason Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo have changed is because of the drug trade. And that is also the major reason Winnipeg and Thompson are the way they are today. Solve the drug problem and we have a chance to get back to the friendly, peaceful atmosphere we used to enjoy during the 1960s and early '70s.

The only way to gain control over the drug problem is to gain control over the supply and distribution of drugs.

And then I can head back down I-29 and pick up a couple of pieces that have gone missing from my Mexican onyx chess set.

In peace.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2013 A9

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