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War in Iraq: A View from US-Mexico Border - 2003-05-13


Differences over the war in Iraq have troubled relations between the United States and its southern neighbor, Mexico. The divisions can be seen most clearly on the three-thousand-kilometer border.

Every day, thousands of people cross over the two bridges that link the downtown areas of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Many of them cross to visit friends and family members on the other side, and many more come to shop for items found more easily on one side or the other.

Spanish is spoken almost as much in Laredo as it is on the Mexican side, and a large percentage of the residents of Laredo are Mexican-Americans, with family and cultural ties to the other side.

But the war in Iraq has led to some tensions between the two nations, and they can be felt in the two communities that are separated here by the Rio Grande River. Sylvia, a Mexican housewife who comes over to shop in Laredo every week, says the war has become a topic of conversation with her friends on the U.S. side. She says the war upsets her because she is not sure it was justified, and that, because wars have such a terrible impact on women and children, they should be avoided at all costs.

On the U.S. side of the border news reports have focused on military tactics and the effort to overthrow a repressive regime in Iraq. On the Mexican side, however, news reports tend to concentrate on civilian casualties, and commentators question the U.S. motives for attacking Iraq.

Cristina, a young woman who has family members in both Laredos, but who currently lives on the Texas side, says that, while there are differences of opinion about the war, both communities fret over the danger to U.S. troops. "People over there have kids who study over here in the United States and work here, too," she says. "So they are worried, too. Everybody is worried."

Cristina notes that there are people on both sides of the border who have family members in the U.S. military. Some of the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq were Mexican by birth and had family connections in Mexico, as well as the United States. Mexican media reports have indicated that some illegal immigrants were lured into the army by promises of resident visas, but, in fact, only U-S citizens or legal residents are permitted to join the U.S. military.

One long-time observer of the two Laredos and their cross-border culture is Rick Villarreal, director of the Museum of the Republic of the Rio Grande, located in a nearly two-hundred-year-old adobe house, just meters from the main border bridge. He says that, while some Mexicans were upset by the U.S. military action in Iraq, many people in Laredo were upset with Mexicans for intruding on an issue in which they had no direct involvement.

"There were some [anti-] war protests over on the Mexican side, and there was a lot of criticism, and they [the people in Laredo] were saying, 'why should that be taking place,' because Mexico did not have any investment in the war, as far as manpower or military presence or anything like that," says Mr. Villarreal>

Mr. Villarreal says friction over the war has been minimal, and has not disrupted normal concourse on the border. He says many people in Laredo also questioned the Bush administration's policy on Iraq. But, he says, there were few expressions of dissent, because of the community's strong sense of patriotism and desire to support the troops overseas.

Commerce is also an important factor here in keeping relations smooth. Laredo is the principal crossing point for trucks bringing goods into the United States from Mexico, and for shipments from the U.S. side to destinations south of the border. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, commerce between the two nations has increased dramatically, and the truck traffic through Laredo is heavy.

Rick Villarreal says the commercial ties, as well as the cultural and family ties between the two Laredos, override any differences that may emerge. Still, he says, the gap between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans shows the strong effect of nationality. "Even though you might be from the same origin, the same cultural background, you do find those differences, if you were raised on this side, or on the Mexican side. I guess, it just comes down to that, that you go to school here, and you are taught the American propaganda, and if you go to school in Mexico, you are taught the Mexican propaganda," he says. "Maybe it is just as simple as that. I am not sure."

Mr. Villarreal says one major difference that remains between people who live on the Mexican side and those who live in Laredo concerns the issue of time -- a concept that is not as rigid in Mexico as it is in the United States. "You say a certain time on this side, and if you are going to be having a lot of people coming from Mexico, you know you are going to have at least a 15 or 20-minute wait," he says. "At least 15 minutes, at least. Maybe even as long as a half an hour."

Rick Villarreal says it is the little differences, as well as the similarities in culture that make life on the border interesting, and sometimes challenging.

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