Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Personal Price of the Mexican Drug War

Today I received terrible news from Cuernavaca, the city in Mexico where I lived with my family for thirteen years. A close friend and her daughter were robbed at gun point. This sadly has become a common occurrence in our once peaceful little town. What shook me the most was my friend reaction. After having a gun pointed at her head, she decided to speak out!  I am answering her call, and this time, I will not remain silent either! Most people are scared to speak out! I don't usually write about politics or current events in this blog, but my friend is correct, we all have a responsibility to stop this war and not remind silent on this issue. I titled my blog Past-Present-Future, precisely because our past is intricately linked with our present and future. We live only in the present moment. Instantaneously that moment becomes part of the past. The future is the place we can hope to improve our upcoming present. Cuernavaca needs a change! Change begins with awareness! At a risk of sounding a bit like our politicians, today I am dedicating my blog to building a better future for the City of the Eternal Spring, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

View of the City of Cuernavaca
(When I google Drug War and Cuernavaca,
I can't tell you the horrible images that came up.
Though they describes the horror of what the
citizens of Cuernavaca are living with every day,
I decided not to post them here, since they are
 easily accessible to those who want to see.
It's a beautiful city, and I hope one day,
it can return to the peace felt in this photo
 rather than the terror in those other ones). 
Many of you are already well aware that Mexico is in the midst of a fierce war against drugs. Currently, violent drug lords rule the streets of most cities in Mexico while the government seems to be paralyzed. There was a very good New York Times Article about How the world’s most powerful drug traffickers run their billion-dollar business, which explains the situation much better than I can. What never makes the headlines, is how this war is affecting the everyday lives of Mexican people. Wikipedia has an impressive amount of information about the Mexican Drug War and it's effects, but nothing about the everyday folks. As a genealogists, I study history from a personal perspective, and I think this present crisis merits the same careful look.

The Mexican people are paying a huge personal price for this war. Our city of Cuernavaca is at the heart of the conflict. Before December 2009, most of us co-existed in Cuernavaca with drug dealers. Much like in America, we knew there were drug dealers, but they didn't bother us and we didn't do much about it. There was a relative calm, we didn't live in fear, and normal life was peaceful. Sounds familiar? Anyone reading my blog in the US is living in a much similar way. Tell me there are no drugs being sold in your city or town? Someone must be distributing them? Maybe you don't know the dealers, but you certainly know people who consume, don't you? Yet overall, it doesn't affect your life, so you read the Times or the Globe, and you think, "How sad for Mexico" and you go on with your day. We used to do that in Cuernavaca until, overnight, everything changed.

In December 2009, the Mexican Army invaded our town in an undercover attempt to catch an important drug lord. I recall watching CNN when they asked an expert, how big of a fish was Beltran Leyva? "He is one of the 50 whales in the ocean!" replied the homeland security expert. Naively, we thought: "Great, they caught him. Now things will return to normal." They did not. Instead, all bets were off. The vacuum in power this powerful drug lord left, resulted in an all out war which erupted in our streets. The gangs were fighting each other and the army. Within, six months, my husband and I decided we could no longer live in a city filled with flying bullets.  We relocated to the States. We were one of the lucky ones—we had choices, visas and job opportunities. Ever since, we have been working hard to rebuild our lives, reintegrate and reinvent ourselves. We try to focus on the positives. Everyday, we feel blessed with the opportunities America has given us: great schools, a beautiful home a wonderful community. Most of all we appreciate being safe! We count as daily blessings things our neighbors take for granted such the fact that our eleven year old can walk to his friends house alone, or that our boys can ride their bikes to the library or take the subway to Fenway park.

Only yesterday, my son commented on the numbers of people outdoors exercising. On our short ride back from school, we counted scores of young women jogging alone. He pointed out, that in Boston, people walk out their door, put on their head phones  and without a second thought begin jogging. "They don't even appreciate how safe they are!" he claimed. On the other hand, yesterday, in Cuernavaca,  my son's eleven year old friend, watched her mother as a gun with a gun pointed to her temple. How do you get over that? How can this be happening with such high frequency? The drug lords are so powerful, and crime is so rampant, that anyone can get away with just about anything these days, in Cuernavaca. Armed robbery, is considered petty crime, a minor offense. At the police station, her case went to very bottom of a pile of thousands of similar cases. Cases with very low priority (no one was killed), which will never be investigated or solved.

Everyday, more and more people, like me, are leaving Cuernavaca and abandoning ship. No one blames us for that choice. It's a difficult choice. Walking away from a life you've built, at the age of forty, with three children, is not easy. Many of our friends have done the same. School admissions were down thirty percent that year, all across town. Who left? Professionals, business owners, people who employ others. The brain drain is enormous and the economic as well as cultural consequences are difficult to quantify. My husband and I calculated that between us, our businesses andhome, we directly employed twenty-one people. Many of our employees were single parents who supported not only their children but elderly parents as well. They depended on our success and worked hard with us on many fronts. My husband had a thriving pediatric practice. Scores of patients relied on him for their healthcare. To this day, he gets e-mails and calls from patients hoping he will return or asking for advice. We may be safe, but we live with the guilt of having left our home, our city and our friends behind. As successful as the past two years have been, a move is always difficult and every member of our family is continuing to cope with what it means to have left Mexico possibly for good.

It might be upsetting for American's to hear, but in Mexico people are paying for the US's drug war. I strongly believe that as long as the market for drugs in this country continues to boom, Mexico has no chance to recover. If American's will not change their habits, change the laws and consider legalizing marijuana and restrict automatic weapons sales, Mexico has little hope. Mexico, obviously has it's share of responsibility as well. There is enormous corruption to be cleaned up and plenty of people who need to stop using drugs there as well. But the enormity of the market in the US is what is driving the flow of drugs north and the flow of weapons south. Americans have to take responsibility for that. There is an attitude in this country that Marijuana is almost like alcohol. It's not. It's still illegal. Every time someone lights a joint in this country, another Mexican family is paying some kind of price. Those of us paying the price, have to start talking about that, and asking who will pay us back for the price we paid?

Feigue Gerson (Bulaevsky) and Abraham Gerson
My husband's great-grandparents who brought the family to Mexico.
In the summer of 2010, Yahoo reported about 500,000 Mexicans leaving the country as a direct result of the drug crisis. I can't find the article, but I remember reading it and thinking: "They had not counted our family in those numbers since we had not officially moved (sold our house or hired a moving company yet. We came with two suite cases each." As we sat at the airport, waiting for our plane to take us to our new life, we sipped a Starbuck coffee and thought about our ancestors, who also left their country of origin because of insecurity or instability. In particular we thought about my husband's great-grandparents who left Vinitza, Ukraine in 1927. During sweeping arrests by Stalin, Abraham Gerson spent three weeks in jail. He was extremely lucky to get out alive. This event, drove him to the decision to relocate his family to America. He took his five sons, wife and mother in-law to Mexico City and waited to gain entry to the United States. Like my husband and I, they were looking for a safe place to raise their family. Mexico turned out to be that place. Mexico City in those years was a beautiful and safe place to live, with many opportunities for hard working people. Work hard they did. He and his son's founded and built the Temple and became very active in the Jewish Community. As their business success grew, they employed more and more people. Through leadership in the community, they became civically active in many aspects of Mexican society. Sadly, after five generations of the family living and contributing to Mexico, many of their descendants have chosen to leave. The Gersons boarded the transatlantic boat from Marcay to Veracruz, to face an unknown future. They had no money, spoke no Spanish or English and carried all their belongings on their backs. We left Mexico with a bit more savings, excellent language skills and a much more secure future, yet we did feel deeply connected to them, at that moment. In a way, history was repeating and we were re-living the story. That fateful day in December, my husband and I were caught in the cross fire of the bullets which killed Beltran Leyva. Like Abraham Gerson, we were lucky to get out alive. It may sound dramatic, but it's true. I had never been that close to bullets and grandes, and I hope I never will be again. Abraham and Feige's success ninety years ago, strengthens our resolve as well as increases our awareness of the price they paid. I don't often think of myself as a refugee, but that Yahoo article, compared the Mexican exodus to fleeing refugees from Afghanistan. Proportionally, more people left Mexico that year, than those who fled Afganistan at the hight of the war. Since 2010, many more people have left Mexico. I know, because everyday I hear about another family leaving Cuernavaca. I don't know if they are being counted, but ask anyone in Houston or San Antonio and they will tell you: "This flux of Mexican immigrants (most of them legal), is what is maintaining the economies of these cities and others like them."

I hope you'll join me in supporting my friends in Cuernavaca who are bravely fighting this war, by taking a louder stand against drugs in this America. It's our obligation to change things on this side of the border, so Mexico and cities like Cuernavaca can go back to a normal and peaceful life. I hope Cuernavaca can once again become known as the City of the Eternal Spring and not the City of the Eternal Gang Wars.


  1. Smadar, thank you for speaking out on this subject and for sharing your personal story and your perspective. While you chose to move to a city that is far removed from the borders of your former country, I live much closer to that region. I can agree with you that it is a horrible situation that many Mexicans face in their homeland--but in our case, in our state and city, we do hear a lot more of the stories of the everyday people. In fact, some of the fallout of that drug war has landed on our doorsteps in our city, with revenge slayings and other ominous signs.

    I cannot fault the Mexican officials for being stymied in any approach to solve this problem. There is so much corruption and extreme violence that the local authorities seem powerless to do anything. I cannot blame the local people for choosing to leave--and yes, it is like refugees fleeing a war or repression.

    Furthermore, you are so right about the role we play as a nation ridden with drug addicts. We collectively pay money into the pockets of these drug lords with every user's purchase (whether with their own money or stolen). But I'm not sure I agree with your stance on legalizing marijuana. From my research and that of others close to me (including my husband's own law enforcement perspective) the overall solution will not be handed to us with the simple act of legalizing marijuana. We've essentially done that here in California with "medical" marijuana laws, and you see what little impact that has had on the international drug trade. Besides, we can grow our own here. Not to mention the "gateway" effect marijuana has on stronger drugs that represent more of the bulk of illicit trade, anyhow.

    We do need, however, to have a well-thought-out policy as a nation to address illegal drugs. If nothing else, helping those addicted to the substances through rehab or whatever else is necessary would be another avenue in a multi-faceted approach to the international trade. Like you, I sense the deplorable situation from the aspect of its impact on the everyday person--the destroyed lives, both of the residents of your beloved city and of those who are so damaged through their use of these substances.

    Thankfully, you are still in touch with some of your neighbors, and able to offer what help you can. I hope you and others from your former city can band together to provide what you can to help them get back on their feet in whatever life changes they make to address the issue. You have a generations-old perspective on this immigration issue. While it is not easy to make such a radical move, sometimes people just have to for the sake of their own family's well-being.

    And yet, I wish for peace and effective answers for cities such as the one you mentioned in your post today. But sometimes it takes that collective will-power of "we the people" who are facing the injustices of our own surroundings. As brash as it may have seemed at the moment, it sometimes takes people like your friend, speaking out boldly in the face of aggression, before anything can change.

    1. It good to hear from people closer to the border, but obviously not so good that you are feeling it so up close down there. It's inevitable that it will be hitting the streets in this country, and I just hope "we the people" will do something about it, sooner rather than later.
      I don't disagree with you the legalizing marijuana is problematic. I just think everything we have done so far and over many years hasn't worked. On the contrary, it's gotten worse, and therefore we need some drastic change. Legalizing it is not something we have tried, but it's risky. I am open to other suggestions, but we really have to do something. I think the first step is for popular culture to reject it, and not make it seem so "cool", and for people to take a personal stand. The government wouldn't have to deal with a drug problem, if "we the people" were not consuming drugs.
      I'm curious as to your sense of accountability down there. In Mexico it feels like no one is being held accountable. How about where you are?


Thanks for sharing your comments!