Don’t go to Agua Prieta, we were told. Too dangerous. Indeed there have been drug cartel shootings as recently as June a year ago. But today I can vouch that it’s easy and quite safe to visit the border town across from Douglas, Arizona. It’s humming with activity with a growing population, though it is of course under the control of the drug cartels which are in charge of the rest of Mexico.
My guide for the day, Keoki Skinner, is an American who has lived in Agua Prieta for thirty years. He married a Mexican woman, and they have five bilingual children who are at home in both countries. He takes pride in Cafe Justo, a coffee co-op started by a Presbyterian ministry that has lifted some forty growers in the south out of poverty. The prized coffee is roasted, sipped and sold at a congenial setting in Agua Prieta.
Similarly, a group of equally industrious women called DouglaPrieta Works are engaged in sewing and painting a variety of items for sale here and in the U.S. They take time out from their pleasant work to offer visitors some food from the garden they tend. The aim of this kind of enterprise is to make conditions in Mexico livable so that people don’t feel they have to risk crossing the border for a better life.
But they are not entirely free where they live. Drug money rules Agua Prieta, as it does the rest of Mexico, and it’s an exacting boss. Offend it, and you become part of the statistic of an ever rising murder rate. If people mind their own business in Agua Prieta, the cartels leave them alone. Besides, the town is profitable and a nice place to live for relaxing cartel chiefs. Keoki points out their splendid mansions, what he calls “drug architecture,” clearly distinguishable from the lesser abodes around them. The most ostentatious one of all, outfitted with columns, is presently empty because its owner was forced to flee. Nobody seems in a hurry to take it over
Another home is owned by a sicario (combination body guard and hit man) who was given it as a reward for saving the life of the drug chief he served. His door looks open, but Keoki is not tempted to go in, though he says, not in jest, that if he’s in trouble, he would call a sicario rather than the police. His one brush with cartel activity came one night when he was awakened by the sound of an air cannon shooting bundles of marijuana across the border – a latest device to get their product to avid consumers
Wherever you go in Agua Prieta it’s hard to miss the houses of exchange where dollars of U.S. drug profits are converted to pesos. Business is booming. Yet many billions remain in the U.S. circulating into willing hands who are not so willing to have the fact revealed. That may explain why so little is heard or read about cartel activity. In a vast contribution to economic inequality in the U.S., the money that Americans pay for their poison further enriches the affluent.
Can Agua Prieta serve as a model for other Mexican towns under cartel supervision? It’s currently spared violence and can prosper. The cartels could moderate, but don’t count on it. Money is king. Many say the U.S., now involved in countless wars and struggles half a globe away, must turn its attention to the more threatening struggle just across its border.