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Worldview: My old man

Ways of dying in northern Mexico.

A woman walks past crosses in Ciudad Juarez, May 8, 2003. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Five thousand people have been murdered in this dying border city since 2008. The local newspaper, El Diario de Juarez, published this bleak statistic last week. The news coincides with reports that several U.S. border states are clamoring for more troops to cordon off Mexico’s unprecedented drug violence. Only the violence isn’t unprecedented. Nor is the deep American denial as to its origins.

Almost exactly a century ago, in May 1911, the Mexican revolution detonated in Cuidad Juarez, ultimately claiming as many as a million lives. Back then, Texans living across the Rio Grande in El Paso watched the bloody battles from their rooftops as if they were Wild West shows, ignoring the fact that American capital played a large part in the slaughter; about one-fifth of Mexico’s land surface was owned by foreigners, promoting a system of feudalism. Last year, a famous CNN anchor stood at the very same spot and breathlessly reported Juarez’s drug mayhem as though it were unfolding in some morally instructive diorama on Mars — as if 22 million U.S. users weren’t bankrolling the killing. Some things never change.

The strange circularity of border history struck home recently as I crossed the Santa Fe International Bridge to Juarez, intending to bid farewell to an old friend, a Mexican cowboy aged 99 years, my surrogate grandfather.

Don Benito Parra owned a hardscrabble ranch 250 miles south of Juarez in the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental. Parra had led mule trains loaded with silver ingots through the cordillera back in the 1940s. He spoke of Indians armed with bows and arrows, and of a bandit nicknamed "One-Eyed Ramon." He once had joined a posse of horsemen tracking a child-killer into the famous Copper Canyon country; they dropped the fugitive out of a tree with a Mauser rifle shipped to Mexico by the last Kaiser. In recent years, I stayed at Don Beni’s rustic spread between stints of foreign corresponding in places such as Iraq or Congo. I would help with chores in exchange for offhand lessons in 19th-century pastoralism. Like how to shoe a cranky mule by roping a leg to its neck. (A tripod can’t kick.) Or how to scour a hand-dug well with tubs of scalding water — who knew? Or how to use the Catholic saints days’ calendar to predict rainfall.

In late December, I received a phone call informing me that the old man was dying. He was bedridden and mumbling my name. So I packed a rucksack at Princeton, where I was teaching journalism, and flew to the border. "More bad news," complained the lone immigration agent on duty in downtown Juarez, after learning the purpose of my visit. "Why can’t we get one ordinary tourist?"

I rented a car and drove seven hours into the Mexican mountains. Soldiers in pixilated desert camouflage peered from behind sandbagged checkpoints, recalling Anbar Province. Billboards carried Nancy Reagan’s faded injunction in Spanish: ¡Di NO a las drogas! Don Beni was laid up at a daughter’s house in the former tourist destination of Creel. The town’s streets were dead quiet. It had yet to recover from a cartel shootout in August in which 13 bystanders were cut down in a cross-fire. One of the gunshot victims had been a baby.

Don Beni was delirious. The tough frontiersman who had wrestled steers into his 80s had shrunk to the size of a doll. He had a hole big enough to accommodate a large acorn in his right temple — a suppurating tumor. I didn’t think he recognized me. But he rubbed his gnarled index fingers together — a sign for "friends." Then he passed out.

"You should have seen him last week," said his middle-aged daughter, Maricruz Parra. "He tried to hit me with his cane. He still doesn’t like being told what to do."

* * *

I first met Don Beni 25 years ago. I was hiking in the Sierra Madre when I spotted a white-hatted man standing in a cornfield, slashing at the gathering thunderheads with a machete. He explained he was cutting up the storm clouds. He had scattered ashes and salt in the shape of a cross on the ground. But the juju didn’t work. It hailed anyway. And once the milky pellets shredded his year’s backbreaking labor, he shrugged, picked up his box of salt and invited me to his log cabin for sock-brewed coffee.

Don Beni was born on Sept. 6, 1910, at the headwaters of the Conchos River, a piney mesa that even today could pass for a haunt of the Marlboro man. His father was a traveling seed merchant, his mother a Raramuri Indian. His earliest memories were of blood and hunger. Pancho Villa’s rabble and the federal cavalry ranged the mountains, pillaging local farmsteads in turn. By the winter of 1916, he and his seven siblings were reduced to chewing on dry cornhusks. His sisters would sprint for the trees at the sound of distant hoof beats, evading gang rape. His mother rubbed clay into their faces to convince raiders the girls were poxed.

"Those were times of great necessity," he said without visible emotion. "No tortillas, no peace, no hope."

I asked him about Mexico’s current woes. "There is blood in this soil," he would mutter, waving away harsh memories with a gnarled hand. "It’s rising up again"

Many younger Mexicans think otherwise. To them the spiraling drug mayhem in Mexico, particularly in the fabled outlaw redoubt of Chihuahua state where Juarez is located, represents something ominously new — the death-rattle of a rural society, the rotting of the Mexican family, or some sinister backwash of the North American Free Trade Agreement, of globalization.

Mexico supplies two-thirds of the marijuana and a third of the opium smuggled into the United States.