DEMING, N.M. — Years ago, before the collapse of the peso, before the North American Free Trade Agreement, before the United States ever needed a drug czar, people in this dusty town used to drive to the Mexican border, unhitch the gate, and rattle through.
No guards, no questions, no German shepherds.
It was a simpler time, a time when people in this isolated town of 15,000 accepted their close cultural and economic ties to Mexico without reservation.
But today, in small border towns like Deming, there's a growing rift. On one side are longtime residents who believe the fates of both communities, and both nations, are inextricably bound. Opposite them are newcomers who hold Mexico primarily responsible for increases in crime, unemployment, and drug trafficking.
In the years ahead, people in places like Deming face a daunting choice: whether to loosen historical ties to Mexico or recommit themselves to cultivating a unified community. It's the best test yet of whether these two nations, with all their recent problems, can function as partners.
"This town is at a crossroads," says Deming Mayor Sam Baca. "We've got a highway running south to Mexico and an interstate that runs east and west. It's up to us to decide which way we want to grow."
Although Deming has not yet attracted the same wave of investment as other border towns like Douglas, Ariz., it has grown steadily. In each of the past four years, the local population has swelled by 6 percent.
It's good news for a town with an unemployment rate as high as 25 percent and no major industry, but it has also created fresh challenges. Most of the new arrivals are either white, middle-class retirees from Northern states or Hispanics born into large families. Both groups place enormous demands on local resources while maintaining opposite views of how those resources should be allocated.
"In places like Deming, there's a disjunct," says Michelle Behr, associate professor of geography at nearby Western New Mexico University. "These two cultures exist side by side, without a lot of understanding."
Much of the problem stems from the booming local drug trade. According to Rick Moody, Deming's US Border Patrol station chief, the volume of drugs crossing the border here has never been greater. During a recent crackdown, he notes, agents seized a single load of cocaine worth $10 million.
Although Deming is only a transit point for shipments north, some small-time traffickers have pumped millions into its economy. Some of it flows to local couriers who drive drug-laden vehicles over the border. Much of it winds up in the hands of merchants who sometimes sell cars or refrigerators to customers bearing wads of $100 bills. "There's a joke around town that drugs are our biggest source of economic development," says Scott Vinson, Luna County's manager. "That's a huge exaggeration, but there's certainly some illicit money floating around."
Although some benefactors of drug profits are hard to identify, others stand out unmistakably - particularly local teenagers in customized Jeeps. As federal and state penalties for adult traffickers have risen, Mr. Moody says, dealers have increasingly relied on minors to ferry their product.
Because Luna County has no juvenile detention facility, many of these young offenders are released to their parents, often with little or no punishment. In the past two years, Moody says, as many as eight separate gangs have been identified here, and the local crime rate has risen.
To many area newcomers, the increased lawlessness is a Mexican export. It's an attitude that, some say, has begun to permeate local policy debates.
Indeed, the most visible form of cooperation between the two nations here is on the wane. Each morning, more than 400 Mexican children, many of them dual citizens, cross the border to catch buses to Luna County public schools. This 40-year-old program is unique borderwide.
Last fall, however, the school board came under pressure from locals complaining that their children were being shortchanged in the classroom. The board voted to disenroll 40 Mexican children with poor grades and to stop accepting any more students.
"Many people were sad to see this program end," says Carlos Viramontes, Deming school superintendent. "To them it was the best form of economic aid."
Despite current tensions, Mayor Baca and others note that deep connections between Mexico and the US remain. Many families splay the border, he says, and Halloween trick-or-treaters still visit both countries.
Besides, Baca says, many of Deming's retirees love to visit Mexico, and local teenagers - despite their troubles - have developed a common culture that blends both the Hispanic and Anglo traditions. As new jobs trickle in, he argues, current tensions will surely ease. "We're neighbors, we need each other," Baca says. "I don't think we'll ever lose sight of that."