In Mexico, Scenes From Life in a Drug War
By Pedro Ángel Palou, a novelist; Federico Campbell, the author of the short story collection Tijuana: Stories on the Border; Élmer Mendoza, a novelist and Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, a novleist and historian
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/10/10;
Incidences of drug-related violence in Mexico and on the border continue to make news. We tend to hear about the crimes that touch American lives — like the reported killing of a man riding a Jet Ski on the Rio Grande. What we don’t hear as much about is how drugs and violence shape the everyday lives of Mexicans. So here are dispatches from four writers on how drug trafficking has changed their parts of the country. They were translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.
1.- Ground Zero in Sinaloa.In the state where Mexico’s drug trade started, narcotics have seeped into the social D.N.A.
2.- Monterrey’s Habit.In Mexico, we have a drug problem — but it’s not the one you think.
3.- The walls of Puebla.The drug lords like this city for the same reason I do: it’s safe.
4.- Tijuana reclaimed.Drug-related violence has driven away the tourists, but now locals are reclaiming their city.
Ground Zero in Sinaloa
By Élmer Mendoza, a novelist
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/10/10;
Four years ago Mexico invented a civil war: the government decided to confront the seven major drug cartels. The army was sent into the streets, mountains and country paths. Even the navy was on alert.
Here in Sinaloa, the western state where the modern drug trade began, poorly armed and ill-outfitted federal and state police were the first to fall. Around 50 of them, killed by the cartels. Those who survived took to the streets in protest, demanding better weapons and bulletproof vests. In Culiacán, the state capital, students are always staging protest marches; it was strange to see the police do the same. You could smell the fear and uncertainty in the air.
At first people believed that it would soon blow over. But weeks went by and the gunfire continued to claim victims. Across Mexico in 2009, an average of 23 people died in drug-related violence every day, and on many of those days Sinaloa was the prime contributor to that statistic. Military patrols and federal policemen prowled the cities looking to uncover troves of weapons. They went door to door in Culiacán. It took them five minutes to inspect my house. “It’s full of books,” the sergeant remarked, a bewildered look on his face.
I don’t know if they did the same in the neighborhoods where the drug lords actually live. The soldiers didn’t look that tough, nor did the police. But still, it was unsettling to see them close up and with such troubled looks on their faces. Ever since the student uprisings of 1968 and the resulting repression of the 1970s, soldiers are seen as threats, even in Sinaloa, where they are trying to protect us.
The Mexican drug industry was established in the 1940s by a group of Sinaloans and Americans trafficking in heroin. It is part of our culture: we know all the legends, folk songs and movies about the drug world, including its patron saint, Jesús Malverde, a Robin Hood-like bandit who was hanged in 1909.
There are days when we feel deeply ashamed that the trade is at the heart of Sinaloa’s identity, and wish our history were different. Our ancestors were fearless and proud people, and it is their memory that gives us the will to try to control our own fear and the sobs of the widows and mothers who have lost loved ones.
It was reported that not long ago, a group of high-ranking government officials from Mexico City paid a visit to Ciudad Juárez, a city in Chihuahua State on the Texas border where people are too scared to go out at night. A troop of Niños Exploradores, akin to Boy Scouts, was trotted out to greet the dignitaries. Warm smiles abounded among the government representatives. The boys’ faces were dead serious.
When the boys were asked to perform their salute, their commander shouted, “How do the children play in Ciudad Juárez?” The boys hit the ground. When asked, “How do the children play in Tijuana?” again the scouts hit the ground. When asked about the children of the border city of Matamoros, yet again, they were on the ground. The visitors looked eager to disappear.
In Sinaloa, at least things haven’t gotten that bad. People live well and our children play other games. At night we go out for dinner, we go for evening strolls down our beaches and our roads as if to say: this is our land, we will not let go of it. But it doesn’t always work.
Sinaloa is a place with a strong work ethic: people tell me, for example, that I write like a farmer, from dawn. Our greatest worry is that, in our fear, we will lose our grip on the code of work and responsibility that guided our forefathers and helped them convert our unpromising salt flats and desert into agricultural bounty
By Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, a novelist and historian
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/10/10;
Invisible paths to the United States, it seems, have always passed through Monterrey. People and their merchandise come and go via paved roads and dusty lanes, but also through the famous little walkways, somewhere between manicured and overgrown, that are hidden among the thickets of underbrush.
Increasingly, Mexico has a hidden drug problem — but it’s not entirely the kind that you’d think. And the traffic won’t stop until it’s exposed.
As early as the 1940s, the local newspapers were reporting on captured smugglers. Those going north to the United States transported humans (generally seasonal farm workers) and substances for attaining those “artificial paradises” that so fascinated the French poètes maudits of the late 19th century. The other group, those going south, could bring almost anything they fancied into the country — you could bring a building into Mexico, people joked, as long as it fit under the bridge. And they knew, though they talked about it only in hushed tones, that quite a bit of money was being made.
I grew up thinking that “sardos,” the lowest-ranking members of the army, were the only Mexicans who smoked marijuana. But by the 1960s, the hippie generation had popularized pot, and during my university years several of my classmates smoked. As for harder drugs, few of us knew anything more than what we saw in the movies; only in the 1970s did we become aware of psychotropic pills that “drove you crazy.”
Around then, popular music, always a reliable witness, began to recount the stories of people transporting drugs beyond the Rio Grande. With each decade, the songs got more and more explicit. “Camelia la Tejana,” one of the most emblematic, is about a woman whose car tires were “filled with the evil weed.” It ends with a shooting death. But soon, lyricists stopped killing off their antiheroes. Drug trafficking became an adventure story, or a comedy: in one famous song, smugglers disguised as nuns traded “white powder” they swore was just powdered milk.
Still, we didn’t think of drugs as our problem. In Monterrey over the years we sang about them, sure, we even smoked them — but we kept insisting they were only passing through, north to the Americans. We saw the construction going on in Monterrey, the new fortunes, and we knew the phrase “money laundering,” but we looked the other way.
After 9/11, the drug industry became harder to ignore. From then, day in and day out, the news media reported on the border: on interceptions of huge marijuana and cocaine shipments, dozens of deaths caused by warring gangs and stories of coercion and corruption among government authorities and policemen.
And still the habit grew, among the young and not-so-young, though it was always denied, never admitted. In certain neighborhoods here, it was said, absolutely anything could be gotten.
We have come face to face with the violence associated with the business, we acknowledge it. But we don’t acknowledge our own drug problems. If those secret paths from south to north passed through some other country, some other state, perhaps Monterrey wouldn’t have the drug traffic it has today. But people here also buy and consume these paradise-inducing substances.
By ignoring this, we only put off learning the magnitude of our own addiction. There can be no solution until we come to terms with the truth. And after that, who knows?
The Walls of Puebla
By Pedro Ángel, a novelist (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/10/10):
How has life in Mexico changed under the rising tide of drug violence? It’s difficult to say; it is what it is. It goes on. For long stretches of time, it is easy to forget about the violence. But then reality breaks through, and it becomes once again impossible to ignore.
All my life I have lived in Puebla, a city of more than one million inhabitants about 70 miles southeast of Mexico’s sprawling capital. Puebla has a reputation for being a moderately safe place to live (considering the general standard in the country today). Mexico City residents, called chilangos, have been moving here for years — particularly since so many were driven from the capital by the earthquake of 1985, which destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed thousands of people.
The famous have retreated here, too. At one time, Puebla was reported to be home to Mexico’s most-wanted man, the billionaire drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who has still not been apprehended. Other prominent traffickers have followed. Puebla is perceived as a place that is largely free from violence — which, surely, must be as attractive to a drug lord as it is to me — but it is known for being free from the authorities’ scrutiny as well.
There is lots of speculation about “agreements” between governors and certain cartels. The government turns a blind eye, and the cartel guarantees a level of peace. Many people believe these pacts to be the reason that states like Puebla are relatively “safe” while Mexico’s civil war rages around them.
Recently, though, the delicate balance has been threatened, as the authorities have started to crack down on traffickers. Last month, Sergio Villarreal Barragan, another important drug lord, was arrested in one of the city’s most posh residential neighborhoods. The government may have been emboldened by the results of the summer’s elections, which ended decades of rule in Puebla by the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party).
But the sad thing is, nobody has much faith in the new coalition government. I met a taxi driver here whose children had moved to New York City: one of them works as a cook at a fancy restaurant in the Flatiron neighborhood and the other one cleans bathrooms near Penn Station. He hasn’t seen them in six years. We got to talking about the elections, and I asked him if he thought the new governor might change things.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was inevitable that politicians are thieves. But even so — they could still leave something behind, right? Do some good work just the same.”
It wasn’t an earthquake or drug violence that drove his children from home. Puebla expelled them because it couldn’t offer them any opportunities. Worst of all, they went to New York illegally. So now, they can never leave.
We too, in a sense, are trapped in Puebla. In my neighborhood, where the roads are still unpaved, we live behind high walls and electrified or barbed-wire fences. A friend of mine, an artist, lives in one of the city’s fanciest neighborhoods, behind an immense wall. Last weekend he was unable to enter or leave; the great drawback of the wall is that it has only one entrance. In this case, the opening had been blocked by the Naval Department for an operation of some sort. For the first time, my friend felt that he was living in a prison.
And no matter the lengths we go to preserve our tranquillity, violence infringes. Not long ago, robbers broke into the house across the street from mine. Luckily, my neighbor had a machete. He chased the intruders out, after hacking one of them in the arm.
That morning, his garage floor was still covered in blood. I asked him what they had taken.
“All sorts of things,” he said. “Tools, the television set, some things from the kitchen.”
“Do you think they’ll come back?”
“That’s the worst part of it. I can’t sleep in this house anymore, thinking that at any moment they might come back, with me and my daughters inside. Thank God nothing happened to us!”
I couldn’t help but think of something the chief of security said about the recent wave of arrests of drug traffickers in Puebla. “Puebla is a safe state to live in, and that is why they come here,” he said. We dream of happy endings, but sometimes I’m afraid that everything that could possibly happen in Puebla has already happened
By Federico Campbell, the author of the short story collection Tijuana: Stories on the Border
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/10/10;
There are two Tijuanas: that of the locals, and that of the rest. The true Tijuana belongs only to the oldest families, the grandparents and great-grandparents of Tijuana. The view from outside, on the other hand, tends to come into focus through fantasy, stereotype and cliché.
But the outside world helped create Tijuana.
In the 19th century, Tijuana resembled the set of an old Western — a few houses, some wooden corrals, mud-caked roads and a customs hut to register the passage of caravans heading to the port at Ensenada.
The city came into its own only in the 1920s, thanks to Prohibition and laws outlawing gambling in the United States. Americans exported the vices they had banned at home to the new city emerging on this side of the border, which soon became a nerve center for the production of alcohol, from brandy to Mexicali beer.
Capital from the American underworld was largely responsible. American investors like Carl Withington opened saloons and broke ground for the construction of casinos like the Foreign Club, the Montecarlo and the Agua Caliente, which was built alongside the hot springs of the same name. And American tourists paid for the prostitutes, the boxing clubs and the opium.
Of course, the particular vices changed a bit during the 20th century, but the city kept on playing the same role for its northern neighbor. That is, until the 1990s, when everything began to change. This pressure started building from the south — drugs (and the violence and law of the jungle that come with them) were heading north and Tijuana was the last stop before the border. The Arellano brothers had moved here from Sinaloa in the ’80s, and other traffickers and assassins followed. It was like a tide shifting. Instead of an influx of visitors from the north, we had these smugglers from the south. And the tourists were scared away.
It had a devastating effect on Tijuana’s economy. The murders, kidnappings and decapitations reached a peak in 2008. Americans stopped coming, and those Tijuana families who could afford it moved to California, to San Diego or Bonita, to sleep in peace. Even local politicians and officials bought or rented houses elsewhere. Stores closed. Bars were boarded up.
But now Tijuana is recovering. The violence has begun to subside, thanks to the local police and the Mexican military, as well as the capture last January of Teodoro García Simental, an infamous drug lord known as El Teo. Avenida Revolución, dead for the past three years, is showing signs of life. On Friday and Saturday nights it is packed with young people. Caesar’s, a symbolic old restaurant and hotel (where the famous salad was invented), just reopened, and one block over, rock and blues bands play at the music hall.
No, the tourists haven’t returned. It’s the locals, the people of Tijuana — who kept to themselves during the worst of the violence — reclaiming their territory.
“We have to change our image,” said Jaime Cháidez, a local journalist. “We can’t rely on tourism anymore. The city still stands, as noble as ever. It is surviving, growing, picking itself up.”
And for perhaps the first time in more than a century, the Tijuanans are driving that growth. In a sense, then, it is the very violence that plagues Mexico that has returned Tijuana to the people who live here.
A few days ago, a statue of Rubén Vizcaíno Valencia, a writer, teacher and promoter of Mexican culture, was unveiled. He is the first Tijuana native to be honored in this way, and there he stands, presiding over one of the hallways of the Centro Cultural Tijuana.