by Joe Shea
September 4, 2010
A MEXICO LOVED AND LOST
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 4, 2010 -- On my first night in Juarez, I stopped a policeman on foot to ask him for directions. He suggested that I let him drive my car.
Over the next couple of hours, we tooled around the streets of the city Bob Dylan made famous in his "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues:"
At the end of the tour, he drove me to his home and parked the car in the middle of the street, maybe 20 or 25 feet from the sidewalk, and went into his house. In the morning I awoke to the sound of roosters crowing, and a little boy poked his head against my window. Someone told me it would be a good idea to drive away, and so I did.
There probably weren't any murders that night in Juarez; I saw no other police cars, heard no sirens, saw no patrolling soldiers. The officer I stopped apparently had no one to report to, or even duties to perform. But that was the Spring of 1970, and things have changed a lot.
I just watched a video on the BBC home page showing the aftermath of the first two murders of 15 that occurred on a recent August night. Both of the victims were children, one an adult and the other aged 7. I saw the man's wife weep on her mother's shoulder, and the mother and grandmother, I think, of the child collapsing in mad, wailing grief.
Deep in my gut I felt some of their hurt; I am at least that much alive. That kind of grief, of mothers for sons, aunts for uncles, dads for sons, sons for fathers - that is the normal pace of life and death in Juarez in 2010. Fifteen people died that night and I saw the aftermath of two of them. How little I have seen!
Day after day, the killing goes on unabated, enveloping a city of one million that has lost hundreds of citizens this year. According to the Guardian, Britain's eloquent and fearless daily newspaper, some 116,000 homes were abandoned and 10,670 businesses have closed in Juarez, and some 230,000 people have left for a safer place, according to a Mexican government study cited by the paper. The El Paso Times, which has covered every day of the ongoing drug wars, quoted the official study as saying 2,006 cartel-related homicides have occurred in Ciudad Juarez since January of 2010.
I had my first encounter with a woman in a brothel in Juarez. I left my car there next to a gas station for a month as I traveled by train back to Mexico City and back, and came back to find it completely intact. An ex-Bolivian interior minister pointed his gun at me as he opened his door in Mexico City, and I saw he had the healed scar of a bullet hole in his arm. He had captured Ernesto "Che" Guevara on a mountain battlefield, and chopped off his hands and hid them in the mountains for safekeeping, before traveling around the world chased by every intelligence agency on earth before he finally delivered the hands and Che's much-coveted diary to Fidel Castro.
Antonio Arguedas was a legend, and some of what I learned about the CIA and Nelson Rockefeller's activities in Bolivia became a cause célèbre when I published my account of it in the Village Voice, leading to questions from Rep. Ed Koch when Rockefeller was interviewed by the House Judiciary Committee after President Ford nominated him for Vice President in 1974.
I went back to Mexico City in 2007 en route to Cuba. The drug war was not obvious to a three-day visitor at a Holiday Inn-like hotel downtown, but other problems were. As we drove toward the golden Angel of Independence on Paseo de la Reforma, about a hundred naked protestors, men and women mostly of Indian descent, vented their anger at a governor on the Gulf Coast of Mexico that had stolen their homes and property. In September 1968, a violent confrontation between students and the Mexican Army led to the murder of dozens, if not hundreds, of students and passersby 10 days before the Summer Olympics opened there.
When I was 15, I went my brothers Pat and Johnny to enroll John at the Universidad InterAmericana in Saltillo, Coahuila, about 90 miles south of Monterrey. As I saw the city, I wanted desperately to stay, so my Dad enrolled me, too, and we found a place to live with a family a half-mile down the main drag. I went to bars and boxing matches, out on dates and tried to woo a beautiful redhead one Saturday night as hundreds of young people lounged quietly in the central park. Once, at the movies, a kid behind me stuck a knife in my back, but my girlfriend chastised him and he left me alone. In general, all was at peace.
Today, Monterrey has been enveloped in violence, and Saltillo, too, has not been spared. In Monterrey in early August, police killed a man they believed was head of the Zetas, the deadly drug gang that about 10 days ago killed 72 people in a field, all immigrants from South America who had refused to sell drugs for the Zetas. After the killing of their leader, the city's five major arteries were blockaded all night with 18-wheelers stolen and set ablaze by Zetas.
The infiltration of the local and federal police, the local and state governments, and even the last bastion of Mexico's defenses, the Army and the federal police, at least as measured by the 3,200 firings of federales this year, is apparently irreversible, or very nearly so. Only an undue optimism makes me suggest otherwise. There was a Mexico I loved as recently as my last visit to Rosarita Beach and Enseñada in 1998, but that Mexico is gone.
In its place is a nation as much at war as Iraq or Afghanistan - except with many more deaths. It is a war the U.S. cannot fight in Mexico, and fights without success in the United States, whose drug-hungry consumers keep the murderous gangs and their official allies rich and hungry for more at any cost in blood.
Just a few years ago the entire country was aroused to anger by the assassination of a presidential candidate; today, it seems unlikely that even the murder of President Felipe Calderón, which in America we patiently await as inevitable, would shake the great reservoirs of anger awake in ordinary Mexicans to bring an end to the violence. They are a revolutionary people, but today they are ruled by fear.
Is there any answer at all? There probably is, in the legalization of illicit drugs. Under a national regime that provided them for free to registered addicts, as happens in Britain, it would be difficult for the Mexican cartels to survive, while the growing fields of Colombia would prosper by the official trade in cocaine. What that trade might mean is difficult to say.
Without question, there might be new addicts, but without drug dealers to push them into their addictions, there might not be many; the pushers are a significant part of the path to addiction. Many American gangs would also find themselves without a ready source of funds as they now have in the doorways of every abandoned tenement, in crash pads, raves, and even parties and clubs of the rich and famous. Violence would probably fall to a far more normal level, since free drugs can't bolster anyone's turf.
For Mexico, it would mean a vast displacement of the people who labor and kill for the cartels, whose reason for being would no longer exist. In fact, several drugs have become legal in Mexico after several tries by the National Congress, and President Calderón is said to be actively considering legalization of all drugs.
The Mexican people are not the principal consumers of Mexican and Colombian drugs, however, so without a corresponding legalization in the United States it would be mostly ineffective; gangs would still fight for routes and loyalties as they move drug shipments to the north.
Is it a wise idea to legalize all drugs, and provide them free? While the current approach is certainly unwise, the reality is that if we wish to end the rapidly crumbling authority of law in Mexico - to be replaced by the authority of cartel leaders in their respective territories - we may have little choice. If our government can't halt the vast flow of human beings from Mexico across our southern border, they cannot hope to control the much more valuable commodity that comes with a few of them.
In all likelihood, America's elected officials will wait for Mexico to be overthrown by the cartels rather than legalize what its own addicts demand. A fractured, cartel-Balkanized Mexico would experience a surge of intra-cartel violence on the scale of the 1948 violence against Muslims and Hindis during the partition of post-colonial India.
Our addicts would still get their drugs, and along with the psychological stresses piled on the American people by recession, unemployment, war and deprivation of their homes that new stress will probably create a lot more.
I'm not sure how the NAFTA-generated factories and businesses along our border with Mexico could survive. I'm not sure how border cities in the United States inundated with what would then be refugees would cope. Those who'd like to build a border fence would have it rival the Berlin Wall, except 2,000 miles long.
One thing we can count on is that government will act too late. The interests both licit and illicit on both sides of the border are very powerful and difficult to overcome with reason. I would expect the building of a mighty fence would lead to as much violence, ultimately, as the Mexican drug war displays now. Those that insist no wall be built had better be very well-funded, because many a political career will rise and fall in the struggle's wake.
A long time ago, I proposed that someday there will be a United States of America and Mexico, and decades after, Canada would also join that union. I saw that occurring as the result of economic pressures, not drug wars. It remains far off, but I believe it will happen when violence that cannot be controlled weakens our hold on the southern border; there are just too many other resources needed elsewhere to devote them all to stopping new immigration. Even now, illegal immigration from Mexico is a tide being reversed as our economy fails to support migrants, and has been cut 67 percent in the last decade. But with widespread violence in Mexico, that trend will likely be reversed in a few years. As a new territory of America, much like the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it would take many decades to assimilate its people and to fairly apportion resources to each side.
Yet, within a few decades, I believe it will happen. The great challenge to America's leadership - to the Congressmen and Senators and Presidents who will deal with this future - is that they awaken soon enough to the demographic and strategic realities they face so as to contain the violence across the border and restrain it on our side. It is a future best faced with real preparation.
For now, though, to go back to the roosters crowing at dawn in a sleepy neighborhood of Juarez circa 1970: Mexico is a place I loved, and now have lost.