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Frida’s Earrings

It has not been easy to admit I stole Frida’s jade earrings when she was accompanying Trotsky on the armored train to Mexico City. Let me mention again that the President of the Republic, Lázaro Cárdenas, had entrusted me with the security for that entire moving fort of soldiers, sand bags, Howitzers and communist-leaning dignitaries. The President fired me for it, probably at the insistence of the fat painter husband. And that should be the end of it.

 

I had been had charged to ferret out the concentric rings of graft and extortion that would surely form around him. Which is precisely what I was doing and would have continued doing, had it not been for the independence of my fingers. I am talking about the common swindles learned from scam artists, then practiced by police. Beginning with the trickery at the bottom. Police selling magic bracelets, the kind with healing properties that last a year then have to be renewed through the purchase of a new one, even though you no longer believe in them. The seller gives you no choice.

 

Or swindles on a higher level. A man knocks at your door. He has a heavy package addressed to your neighbor. That person is not home, and the package is surely important, judging from its weight. Who will pay the cash on delivery since the owner is not home? The answer is: I, the good Christian. But when my neighbor returns, he denies all knowledge of the package. Together we discover it contains rocks. We have been taken. And you could say, with complete accuracy, that decency was to blame.

 

Newer technology brings more complexity. The local freezer allows you to continue receiving a dead relative’s pension by cutting off the proper finger and keeping it frozen—making it possible to continue supplying his fingerprint each time the government devises new and different ways of preventing fraud.

 

A trick I approve of less—because it tempts our venality—is the stack of ink-darkened paper money, in large denominations, that you can turn into clear crisp bills by using a special chemical. You demonstrate the procedure on a few of them. You explain that the original darkening is applied in order to get the money through customs. The victim buys the bills at a steep discount, given, you say, because you have to cross the border again, right now, in order to get more of the smuggled money. Later, when your victim repeats the procedure, the paper currency remains black and worthless. But I ask you, who in their right mind would not demand a random testing from deep within the stack of blackened bills?

 

As far as I’m concerned, God must have included scam artists and swindlers on his larger Noah’s Arc to keep us on our toes. Perhaps as a counterbalance to New Testament gullibility, so common in my own country—a ship of corruption that leaks oil, money and blood in a thousand different ways.

 

I prefer to look to the north, to a land with its own fair share of fools. Consider citizen Carlo Ponzi and his highly successful Securities Exchange Company, which offered 50% return in 45 days and 100% in three months. Or Philip Arnold, who planted industrial diamonds mixed with cheap garnets, rubies and sapphires purchased from Indians, and convinced bankers, generals and even the conservative Whig Horace Greeley to make disastrous investments in the worthless land.

 

Or better yet, George Parker, who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years, before they were on to him. And then, the Baptist minister Prescott Jernegan, who announced he had a machine that could turn water into gold, planted nuggets in underwater collection buckets and attracted large investments from crafty New Englanders known for their common sense.

 

Then there’s the Great Florida Swampland Scheme, whereby innocents bought land that is underwater and teeming with long-toothed reptiles. On dryer land, all the federal money swirling around the construction of the U.S.’s transcontinental railway. Financial illuminati set up the Credit Mobilier, a clearinghouse for the many government contracts given. They skimmed a portion of it and invested it in Union Pacific stock. Then they sold shares of that stock to U.S. Congressmen at a discount, who then approved more construction grants and therewith fed the Credit Mobilier. When it all collapsed, investigations led to the highest levels of government, including to Vice President Schuyler Colfax.

 

Closer to home, at the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, marking the end of Mexican’s costliest War, our country ceded all or parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas to the United States. That government said it would honor existing property rights in the new territories. A certain James Addison Reavis, a man of keen imagination, claimed he was the hereditary Baron of Arizona and owned a large holding that spanned parts of Arizona and New Mexico, including Phoenix and rich mining areas around Globe and Silver City.

 

To back up his claim, he spent years digging up and altering various archived deeds in Spain and Mexico and even married a poor half-Indian in San Bernardino, California whom he had identified as the last heir of the Peralta family and now rightful owner of the counterfeited deeds. With these in hand, he demanded cash from those occupying his land, including from the owners of railroads and mines.

 

I must admit I am partial to schemes that defraud the rich and not the poor. I suppose you can persuade a man who is both stupid and poor, plus hungry, to buy rats that you swear are quickly proliferating Australians meat rabbits. But that is hardly fair. Poor wage earners also seem like they should be protected from either monetary loss or the humiliation of being tricked. The rich and their financial empires—Standard Oil, for example—seem to deserve being bilked, since they are involved in the same game, simply on a more massive scale.

 

As for the individual rich, I ascend the scale of tricks to include the Inexcusable. By which I mean the pilot Charles Lindbergh, the anti-Semitic ass who could find his way blindfolded for 33 hours across the Atlantic but could not keep an eye on his sleeping two-year old son. They finally found the German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann and, in April 1936, cooked him in the electric chair for extortion and murder.

 

The lesson in all this, I say, is to learn to see what is hidden. To be able to see the Brunos coming. To always test the river’s depth with one foot, not two. To understand that the mother of stupidity is always pregnant—most of all in oneself. As manifested by me not being able to keep an eye on my fingers when they were near Frida’s not very expensive jade earrings. Which I gave my wife. Whose love for me, if it still exists, is well hidden. I, the President’s detective, who was too dumb to know that one falsehood spoils a thousand truths. Well, perhaps more than one.

 

But I need to shake myself out of this spell. None of this ranks with the on-going mass executions of young democratic unionists and Trotskyites in the cold morning courtyards of fascist Spain on the one hand, or by the NKVD, Stalin’s leather jacketed secret police, on the other, who have come to Spain not so much to help the Republicans as to thin their ranks of their anti-fascist leaders who are not sufficiently Stalinist. Or who stay in Russia to execute Stalin’s enemies. First the show trials, then a bullet to the base of the skull, and then even a few more reserved for one or two of Trotsky’s own children.

 

Now, outside of Goethe’s Weimar, in Germany, witnesses report what they call the Singing Forrest inside the gates of the concentration camp called Buchenwald. What they hear, they swear, are prisoners—mostly Jewish or homosexuals—hung by their feet from scaffolds and left to slowly die. Governments, it seems, have agreed not to call this barbarity corruption. Even when it is its most venomous form: corruption of heart and soul. They are events beyond our control, we say, and we hurl no damning condemnations and gradually learn to profess ignorance.

 

By comparison, I must have sympathy for the harmless moral failings of my fingers. Stealing is the cleaner crime, especially when it is a few pesos here or there—or the un-extraordinary earrings belonging to a weekend communist idealist who owns another thirty pair just like them and whom I can help along the path to frugality.

 

 

It’s as if a whole army of Canadians and Americans had been parachuted into this once sleepy town. I suppose it’s the nature of occupation that the invaders bring their culture with them. At the same time, the invaded culture has struck back with its own forces, in that Mexican vacationers—largely the class with money—could well outnumber the foreigners. I am an equal opportunity snob, so it doesn’t matter to me. I can get into a snit over all of them—overlooking the fact that I am one of them.

The larger crime is that all of us have landed on this strip of coast and are putting enormous pressure on it. So many pleasure seekers, sun worshippers, escapees from grinding nine to five jobs, from car payments, mortgages and insurance, from the ongoing search for love and meaning. All of it dependent on oil for the suntan lotion, delivery trucks, aviation fuel and the surfboards themselves. Still, apart from the half-treated sewage water pouring into the ocean not far from the right-hand break, the bay seems to be holding its own. Pelicans dive twenty feet from the edge of the sand, meaning the sea is still rich in food. Farther out, the oceans boils with waves from distant Pacific storms, changing the beach every night, casting up—for this beach—rare black sand, and more than capable of drowning those who are not confident swimmers.

I find myself sitting on the beach, watching all this, calculating my surfing skills and strength against the turbulence of the sea, observing the deployment of the tourist armies and Pelicans—the former, not entirely comfortable in their exposed skin, as they stroll the beach. And I am thinking about the greater threat. All of this is part of a planet that will probably become uninhabitable, because we will not be able to keep the oil in the ground, not sufficiently understand what we have to do in order to avoid disaster for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And so, later and farther to the northeast, my friends and I sit on the beach and watch the light soften and the orange fade from the ribbed cloud formation suspended above us. We sit looking out at something that will not be as it was, nor support life the way it always has.

We see a gathering of people a quarter of a mile up the beach in the opposite direction. It is a sizable group, and it moves out toward the water. I say it must be religious in some way, some sort of organized superstition. Or maybe something like twelve steppers, born-agains, or boosters. In a way, I am right on all accounts. Our Mexican companion, now a resident of Madrid, formerly of Paris, before that, Guanajuato, hits on it.

“Turtles,” she says.

We explain this to her two and a half-year old, who is half French, half Mexican.

Tortues,” says her mother, in French. “Tortugas,” in Spanish. And since she is attending an English-speaking immersion school in Madrid, we throw in “Turtles.”

We gather up our things and head down the beach. People have placed stakes and the equivalent of police ribbons to demarcate a corridor with an opening at the end where the incoming tide has left the sand wet and gleaming. The light is dimming, the evening chosen, I suppose, to make it harder for predators—gulls and humans—to interfere and poach. We squint at the sand inside the corridor. It has been raked in order to smooth the way. There are little things, perhaps the size of a soup spoon sitting immobile. But, no, here and there, their little legs begin paddling at the sand. Each one leaves an un-straight track in the sand. (See attached video clip.) A tongue of wave and foam, a tidal impulse, sweeps up and over the most advance ones. The children and adults behind the police tape utter a collective, wondrous “Ouuuu!” And when the wave recedes, twenty or more of the tortuguitas have disappeared into the vastness of their new home. It is an uncertain future. A young volunteer from the Czech Republic says five percent of them are eaten by fish in the first day. She places more within the sea’s reach. Another tongue of foam sweeps up and across, and then those too are gone. One or two get turned around or try to cross the ribbon. Onlookers reach down and get the strays oriented again.

Finally, they are all gone. The sea knocks down the stakes holding the ribbons. Nearly everyone leaves. Except those like me who are still stunned. I see a young man, sitting cross-legged, facing the opening where the turtles left us for the sea. It occurs to me he might be praying—something that would normally touch my cynic button. Instead, though I am not religious, I feel a similar impulse. And that is to pray for their safety, that they won’t be eaten or be too lonely. Pray not to some god but to something older and more important. Perhaps pray for the earth’s wanting to continue in all her ways. If only we would make it so.

What is a day like in my little Mexican city? I stretch my spine, put on a jacket and go into the kitchen. I get on my hands and knees to light the fake wood stove in the corner. A modest gas flame surrounds modest fake logs. I switch on a small silent fan that hangs in back of the stove and pushes warm air out into the room. There are two folded cotton blankets, multicolored, in front of the stove. This is where our two cats take their positions. My position is in front of the refrigerator. I take the homemade loaf of bread out. I cut a slice and put it in the toaster. I pour Mexican Alpura corporate yogurt into a glass bowl and, on top of that, ladle out homemade, crude applesauce, spiced with nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon. I add seven Costco home-roasted almonds. I find a treasured implement. An inexpensive Czech butter spreader purchased in Prague, serrated on one edge. I pluck the ready slice of homemade bread out of the Chinese toaster. It is the miracle food, depending on what you read and what your culture is. We import the Winter Red Wheat berries from California in sealed three-pound plastic bags. Larger quantities are vulnerable. There are critters here that, given enough time, can bore through thick plastic and reach the rich, organic, whole-wheat egg-laying environment. I am still using the same Seventh Day Adventist or some other survivalist kit electric stone mill that I put together at least forty years ago. With the Czech butter spreader I lift old fashioned peanut butter out of a Laura Scudder’s jar we scored in the larger gringo community an hour and twenty minutes to the east of us. San Miguel de Allende. To the locals there, SMA.

 

Our black alpha cat Lilus Kikus comes up the stairs. We took the name from Elena Poniatowska’s first novel. She is the grande dame of Mexican literature. One of us has released her from her room. She wears a cat cone so she can’t lick the treated abscess on her rear end. She bumps into things. Today, we take her to the vet’s, where she will be in shared solitary, hopefully with similar species. I suppose it is like going to prison, where we have been five times since August, to visit our friend, a Mexican who loves his two horses and who might destroy himself if the false charges stick. In other places, I have written about the Mexican justice system.

 

Alpha cat used to be invisible in the dark. Now she advances like a small bull elephant with white warning ears.

 

My made-in-China iPhone dings. My dear friend and writing partner’s mother has died. It’s a Spanish I’m not familiar with. “El donde hoy falleció mi mamá.” It is sad but not entirely unexpected news. There is always the end of life waiting for us.

 

As I eat my yogurt mix, I utilize my made-in-China, slave-wages mini iPad to read my Kindle version of Phillip Kerr’s Les Ombres de Katyn, The Shadows of Katyn. I read it in French translation to maintain my contact with the language. It is riveting in a sad sort of way. I am a child of the Holocaust in the sense that, when I was eight years old and in the thrall of a couple of Walt Disney movies in Norwich, New York, the News Reel divided the two movies with footage from Dachau, or some other KZ, in black and white of an American or German bulldozer pushing white, flopping skeletal Jews, Russian prisoners of war or gays into a massive pit, with German citizens forced to look on. My fellow witnesses to something inconceivable.

 

The Phillip Kerr novel is about the circumstances and intrigue surrounding the NKVD’s, Stalin’s secret police’s, execution of 4,000 – 5,000 Polish officers, along with 18,000 others, so that no organized resistance would ever arise on the Polish flank again. A single German bullet—to throw off possible future forensics—to the base of the skull, wrists wired in front, a loop of wire around the neck, being forced to the edge of the pits. How is an eight-year old supposed to understand this? Or the man who is now seventy years older? As you can see, there has been little progress. But now I test the gravity-fed water in the bathroom sink, after running it for a while. It is solar-heated. Barely. I decide to risk it and step under the miserly shower head. I am grateful when the clouds have spared me  their presence, when the water is warm enough to comfort the base of my skull.

 

In the cafe where I am writing this, an impoverished indigenous boy drifts my way. He is selling chicle, chewing gum, in tiny packages. He goes past my little table and me for some reason. He is more interested in the young woman giving haircuts in this my favorite writing cafe. The cafe is some sort of a collective of educated, bright young people, gentle and smart. Its customers are mostly students, including French, German, Japanese and Americans studying at the university or at one of the several language schools. The Indian boy with the chicles does not go to school. No one sees to it that he does. He belongs to a marginalized, forgotten group. There are adults that run him 19th century Dickensian style. He is one of many faces of poverty and neglect in a land full of billionaires. He stands close to my small, open backpack. I wonder whether my attention should be on him or on my writing. But he glides away from me and closer to the object of his interest. The twin sister of someone I know in the collective is visiting from Mexico City and is cutting hair nine feet away from me, like a visiting country priest dispensing blessings. She is capable and conducts conversation as she cuts and snips. Neither the boy nor I will need a haircut for some time, but both of us I think were imagining her gentle hands touching our hair, the comb on the back of our head. A series of her friends and their children are taking advantage of her visit. None of them marginalized. They are Mexico’s best, invisible to the largely self-serving national leadership. They are young people who want a better Mexico. I feel lucky to share their lives. This scene, this stage, is the very opposite of Katyn. The forest just east of Smolensk.

 

After a brisk shower, I dress, gather my knapsack and writing things, including a little notebook, and descend the 203 steps from our house to the Old City on the canyon floor. My love has delivered Ms. Alpha Cat to vet prison, where her abscess treatment will continue while we are at the beach on the Pacific side of Mexico. At the bottom of the stairs, I turn left and then enter what we call the Vegetable Alley. I see Pilar’s boy-like frame in front of me. Her face is strained. She is too thin. She takes something like a qigong stance and holds her hand out to me. She’s very dark, very dirty and beyond bi-polar high.

 

“Un peso!” she shouts, her voice hoarse.

 

And I always say, “Solamente tengo diez!” and hand her a ten-peso piece. I try not to touch her hand, because I don’t think she washes. She takes the coin, whirls around and spits out a curse at someone thirty feet down the alley. Someone who has mocked her. I think she’s saying, “Eeh, cabrón? Chinga a tu perro!” Or more like the plural: “Chinga a tus chingados perros!” I’m pretty sure she’s using the masculine ending. I say, “Cuídate, Pilar.” Take care, Pilar! To show her and others that I recognize her as my friend. I touch her on the shoulder to show friendship. People catch my eye, as I proceed. Crazy, dirty lady, say the grinning eyes. I smile back, betraying Pilar. But these mockers are also part of my world. It is a rare day that this exchange does not occur. Sometimes when she is more coherent and her mind is racing less, Pilar asks, “Hey, do you want a sexual?” That’s the expression, a sexual. An adjective with no noun, sort of like what she is. I thank her and say no.

 

I pass the young woman and her sister with the comal who sell warm tacos. The younger one always wears a wool cap, no matter how warm it is. She is smart. I know their names. I always make some joke when I pass. They are generous with their laughter. I think they will live out their lives selling tacos. That idea used to bother me. It no longer does. There is much to be said for work that does not shower Hellfire missiles down from your country’s drones. Their food is not popular. Even I do not eat there.

 

I enter one of the city’s few busy streets. The traffic is one-way, the sidewalk narrows to the width of about fifteen inches. You have to be aware. There is a curve and when the buses that are too big make the turn their rear ends swerve to within twelve inches of the building touching the sidewalk. It is fairly exciting unless you are someone who is both wide and  not paying attention. It helps that the buses are probably not exceeding five miles an hour.

 

I duck into the pedestrian alley where the cafe is located. Mexican and South American New Years tourists stroll toward me. They are in no hurry and don’t worry about approaching me five abreast, as if family takes the right of way. I step up into the cafe. I see the young woman cutting hair. I am surprised, but not very. I say hello to a few of my young friends. They greet me warmly. I sit down and begin to write. It is what I need. Being surrounded by these gentle people. Watching the hair cutting. Smiling inside, then also on the outside. So far from Katyn—if not from the missing and still unaccounted for 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

 

 

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Mothers

Yesterday evening, the Guanajuato writers gathered to read from their work. I read an excerpt from a novel in progress, in which a corrupt, fired Mexican policeman, who was once entrusted with guarding Trotsky and Frida Kahlo on a special armored train from Tampico to Mexico City in 1937, searches for his son in the chaos of Tampico, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil. In the midst of domestic and international intrigue, a question arises: Can a corrupt man also be good and accomplish good things?

***

The launch man cut the engine and we drifted up to landing under the railroad bridge, where the four strikebreakers had almost had their way with Mignon—the young striker, who had been dressed as a man, but was not one. Several of us stepped forward and climbed out. And others, who had been waiting, stepped onto the launch and took our places. I stood and watched it pull away, lingering for a moment in the Evinrude’s blue exhaust, listening as the motor faded downriver.

 

I was now only a few blocks from the center of town. When I emerged from under the bridge, the old woman with the white cat was again sitting on her steps as she had been before. I waved and got a nod back. On a whim, I left the path and walked over to her shanty, greeting her and slowing down while I was still ten meters away, to cushion my approach.

 

I’ve had a lot of experience interviewing witnesses and possible suspects, and here I was approaching an old woman living in a shack at the edge of a creek in the underbelly of Tampico’s city center.

 

Still, I took out my photo of Rey and held it up to her, not too sure how well she could see.

 

“Have you seen this man? He’s my son, and I’m looking for him.”

 

It took her a while to shift her gaze from me to the photo. The white cat slipped off her lap and went and sat in the shanty’s doorway. She watched me from there, trying to decide how much of a threat I was.

 

The woman turned to see where her cat had gone.

 

“I think she’s afraid of me,” I said.

 

The woman turned back to me. Her voice was raspy as if she had been a heavy smoker. I saw no yellow on her arthritic fingers.

 

“Should she be?”

 

I smiled and shook my head. “I’m not a bad person.”

 

“That’s your boy?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Those men before, under bridge, were strikebreakers.”

 

“I know.”

 

She looked down at the photo again. “Did you save the young man?”

 

“The big woman in the launch came along at the right time and saved both of us.”

 

“Are you police?”

 

“I am.” I brought out my badge. I didn’t feel too bad lying to her. The heralded protector of Trotsky and Frida, now in disrepute.

 

She studied it. “I don’t read too well.”

 

I waited. Sometimes, with old people, you just have to wait. The white cat decided to approach and sat about three feet away and said something to the woman.

 

“She’s hungry.”

 

I nodded. I put the badge away.

 

“I’ve seen your boy, but I don’t remember where.”

 

A chill ran down my spine. The remark threw me off. I also did believe her.

 

I humored her with a condescending smile. “Do you remember when?”

 

“On the trolley. I went to see my daughter.”

 

“Where does she live?

 

“Arbol Grande. I take the trolley and get off at Zaragoza.”

 

Inside, I was shaking my head. “When was this?”

 

Her face went blank. I tried to help her. “Did he stay on the trolley?”

 

“Most men carry babies facing forward. Women carry them facing inward.”

 

I tried to make out where she was going.

“That’s how I remember. And you don’t see men carrying babies during the week. That’s how I remember.

 

I humored her. “Which direction was he going?”

 

“The beach.”

 

“Miramar?”

 

She nodded. The white cat rubbed against her legs.

 

“You got off at Zaragoza?”

 

She nodded. “That’s where my daughter lives. Two blocks in.”

 

I showed her the photo again. She studied it. “Yes, I’m quite sure that’s him.”

 

Then she studied me. She had small white cloud in her left eye.

 

“Did you even know he had a baby?”

 

I shook my head.

 

“I didn’t think so. He was very gentle with the baby. You don’t see that that often. He’s a good father. I think he had something like a briefcase across his shoulders. That means he’s not an oil worker. Maybe an office somewhere. That’s all I can tell you.”

 

I shook my head. Openly skeptical. The white cat jumped up onto her lap and lay down with her back to me.

 

“Well, I thank you anyway….”

 

“You son has small scar over his right eye.”

 

That hit me, and I tightened up all over. It was a moment before I could speak.

 

“That could be him. We had a bicycle accident. He sat a little seat in front of the handlebars. He stuck his foot in the spokes. We flipped and I went right over him. We landed in a pile.”

 

The corners of her mouth turned up in a crooked smile.

 

“But how do you know he’s not an oil worker?”

 

“My husband was an oil worker. He’s dead now. Men working for the oil companies don’t carry babies around during the week. They don’t carry briefcases.”

 

I switched back to detective. “What time of day was it?

 

“Morning.”

 

“Why morning?”

 

“Because I visit my daughter in the morning, and the baby was wrapped up against the chill.”

 

“Where do you think he was going?”

 

“Maybe home, maybe to the baby’s grandmother.”

 

“That would be my wife.”

 

She looked up at me. The crooked smile reappeared. Her left eye was weepy as well as cloudy.

 

“Or someone else’s wife.”

 

I stared at her.

 

“The baby has a mother—if she’s lucky. These are difficult times.”

 

I was having trouble following.

 

“And the mother has a mother. Or a sister. Or an aunt. Or someone they hire to look after her.”

 

I caught the pronoun. I suppose my mouth hung open a little.

 

Her boney hand rose up and she tapped once on her thin hair. “If I remember correctly, she had a bow on her little head.”

 

The old woman stroked the white cat, pulled gently at one of its ears.

 

I wasn’t quite finished. “May I ask how it was you saw him so clearly?”

 

“I sat down beside them. He let me hold the child.”

 

I stared at her. “Look, my name is Tomás. The child’s grandmother’s name is Mariana.”

 

“One of the grandmothers. My name is Marta. My husband was a union man. He had a lot of scars. One from a bullet. And then there was a final bullet. Your son is lucky. He has a beautiful child. You need to stay away from those four men.”

 

“Do you know them?”

 

“They’re foreigners and Mexicans. They come in from the outside. They carry guns. Guns make scars. The union—the Reds not the Whites—have taken many scars. Like my husband.”

 

I nodded in sympathy.

 

“And you…you should scour every Hidalgo trolley stop from here to the beach…until you find the rest of your family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the prison today, the first guards told me to leave my watch in the car and come back. I complied. As I understood it, someone might want it. That meant the other guards at the next gate. It didn’t seem plausible. I think he was just trying to be helpful. We showed our Mexican driver’s licenses, had them photographed onto “grocery receipts,” and turned to leave. “You may not be able to go in with those pockets,” said a guard wearing a helmet. I was wearing cargo pants. I slapped the pockets to show how the outside pockets could be handled. But I did smile and say, “Thanks for the warning.”

We walked across an open space that the builders had tried to make into a plaza, as pretty much all towns in Mexico have them, as if the prison were also a town. We entered the main doors. There I gave up my car keys and belt. No one mentioned my cargo pants. We stepped into our respective frisking booths, his and hers, male guard, female guard. Out the other side, we went down stairs and followed the familiar tunnel painted hospital green. At the wire cage, the guard fed out grocery receipt information into a computer, said some code words, and we climbed some stairs to the visiting area.

There was one prisoner visiting through the glass and bar wall with what looked like his mother or an aunt. He had to wait after she left. I suppose so that he and our friend wouldn’t pass each other. The visiting area guard opened her high security door and passed the mother a plastic shopping basket that I could tell was light by the way she held it. Empty plastic food containers, being given back so they could be refilled and brought back. The routine: bring in filled containers in one basket, take out empties in another.

We waited for some time for our friend. Who knows what we were interrupting: lunch, exercise and sleep. The present prisoner bowed his head, looking at the floor, chewing gum. What do you think about when you have to wait in a cage? How long will you be in that cage? Fifteen days or fifteen years? Our friend arrived and entered. The other prisoner passed by him, under the eyes of the guard and climbed stairs to an area higher up.

I went first. My friend is accused of [         ], possibly in an extortion attempt. Because of the snail-like pace of Mexico’s incorporated Napoleonic/Roman law, criminal and civil law, top-down law, he sits in prison until all the “evidence” is collected and pondered by a judge. There appears to be no right to a speedy trial, no right to a vigorous defense through cross-examination etc. Something like 30% to 50% of people in Mexican prisons have not seen a judge and don’t know if or when they will ever be released. More than 85% of those charged with a crime are sentenced, according to Mexico’s top think tank, the Center for Investigation and Development, or CIDE. Napoleonic Law does not hold that a prisoner is guilty till proven innocent. That apparently is an urban legend. I thank my friend Jürgen for bringing me up to date on that. So, the presumption of guilt and the many shades of it, is something Mexican.

My friend picked up the phone but, before talking, put his left hand up against the thick glass. I put my hand against the glass from my side. He did not look well. We had seen two of his daughters and his grandson in the parking lot. They warned us that he was feeling desperate. They said that, at a minimum, it would be another twenty days before he could leave—if a judge finds in his favor. He had already been held for three months. At that is the rub. Without accusatory, cross-examine challenge by defense lawyers, in an open court in front of a jury, all kinds of skullduggery or disaster can occur over the waiting period. By law passed in 2008, the old system was to change to be more like the U.S. system, with innocence presumed from the start. But the change has been moving slowly. Thirty-one more Mexican states have yet to enact it. And actual practice may lag long after enactment.

He looked haggard. We talked about this and that. I said we had heard he was desperate. His eyes soften as he nodded. Later, he cried during D’s turn. She led him in a breathing exercise, the two of them crying softly. I had told him to redouble his physical exercise. I think he could not really let it all out in front of another man, especially in front of a man who was on the outside. He talked about liberty, and that that was what was the most precious thing in life. He said something about twenty years. I let it slide. I didn’t want to speculate with him that he might remain caged for that length of time. I believe it was a pessimist speaking, not a guilty man. We both knew that Napoleonic law is open to corruption, error and incompetence.

When it was D’s turn, the guard wasn’t in her office. She couldn’t go to the visiting window and telephones without the guard’s permission. I held up my thumb and forefinger, as if I held an invisible centavo (penny) between them. It meant, in Mexico, that it would be a minute or so before D could visit. He got up and began pacing back and forth along the row of seats and telephones on his side of the barrier. Like a caged zoo animal.

While he and D visited, two women came in. They dropped off baskets of food with the guard. There are about ten chairs for visitors to sit in while they wait their turn to visit. One of the two women sat down right beside me. That is not what happens outside. The other woman sat on the other side of her. I do not understand this readiness to sit right next to another visitor, an older gringo, a stranger, a man. But it has something to do with the need for closeness in the context of the Inside, with the assumption that we are in this together. I don’t think we even exchanged Buenas Tardes. So that too was different.

The other woman got up, the guard opened the door and handed her a shopping bag of empty food containers. Along with two framed pictures portrait-sized, one of which held as many as twelve photos of the same very young girl, presumable the prisoner’s daughter. The other, as I remember, a country landscape, perhaps from their village. I do not know why he had to give them up. Perhaps he had never got them.

Back at the guard station where I had left the car keys and my belt, in front of a woman of modest means, a guard was stirring a wooden spatula around in a plastic container of soup, looking for contraband or weapons. The woman did not look happy. How many times had she gone through that? And how many times would she again? There were several women, all poor, waiting to have each one of their containers probed.

I have always wondered exactly how it worked. Mexican law is based on Napoleonic Law, and before that, Roman Law. It is, I have found, an urban legend that in Mexico you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. But if the Public Ministry finds there is enough evidence (and that is a big presumption in the way things work), you will sit in prison while not evidence but “testimony” (sometime coerced) is collected, so a judge can decide by himself/herself whether you are guilty, half guilty.

Or innocent.

Napoleonic Law as practiced in Mexico does not—and I am not a lawyer—does not provide enough protections for the defendant. The accuser(s) can add to existing “evidence” and that evidence in the form of statements accumulates under loose and often incompetent controls. 80 days is supposed to be the legal limit for what is called arraigo, detention without charge. There are many problems with arraigo here in Mexico, and in other countries. There is much room for mischief.

From p. 25 in the fine study done at the University of San Diego, “Detention Without Charge” https://justiceinmexico.org/detention-without-charge-now-available/#.ViQK5m6RHP8.facebook:

“Perhaps the government could not offer a clear requirement (around arraigo) because there is none to be found in either the criminal code or the (Mexican) Constitution. In the prosecution phase of criminal proceedings, the MP (Ministerio Público) has the burden of proving guilt, but with arraigo there is no mention of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, clear and convincing evidence, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This lack of a clear standard of required proof makes judicial review for reasonableness impossible.”

You can read more about my visits with my friend at sterlingbennett.com

Here is the clearest explication I’ve seen yet.

By way of Mexico Voices (http://mexicovoices.blogspot.mx/)—an English translation of the article “Mexican Judicial Institutions Don’t Know How to Investigate Crimes” from the Mexican weekly Proceso, by Sara Pantoja.

“Mexico City The Ayotzinapa case (the forced disappearance of 43 students) revealed that Mexico’s law enforcement institutions are not prepared to investigate, and legal case files* are put together not [based] on scientific evidence, but in complete dependence on formal legal statements [by detainees and witnesses].”

Footnote to the article translation by Mexico Voices’ Jane Brundage: “Mexico’s criminal justice system is very different from the U.S. system based on Common Law, where criminal cases are tried before judge and jury, with witnesses questioned and cross-examined in open court. Derived from the Napoleonic Code and Roman Law, criminal proceedings in the tradition of Civil Law are carried out primarily by means of documents submitted to the court, respectively, by the Public Ministry performing its prosecutorial and investigative functions, and (the same for) the Defense Team. The Judge reviews these documents (compiled in a formal legal file, expediente) in private, then issues a series of orders, rulings and resolutions. The Judge’s first orders ground each document in the applicable law, organized in two documents: Penal Code and Federal Code of Criminal Procedures.

When the legal file is complete, the Judge analyzes the documents in the formal legal file (which can run well in excess of 500 pages) in order to determine the Final Resolution of the case: guilt or innocence.”

My friend Don Coulter added a point I should have made (how the law is supposedly changing) in a Comment, which I quote here in full.

Don Coulter

While the footnote by Jane Brundage is accurate, I’m surprised she didn’t point out that Mexico is in a period of transition toward a criminal-justice system more similar to that of the United States. I quote from an article on insightcrime.org earlier this year:

“Mexico is in the midst of implementing criminal justice reforms passed in 2008, substituting inquisitorial court trial proceedings–in which trials are conducted mainly through paperwork and defendants have few opportunities to communicate directly with a judge–with oral-based, accusatorial proceedings more akin to those employed in the United States. The objective is to bring greater transparency to court proceedings, as well as to expand the rights of the accused and institute the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

“However, the rollout of the reforms has been slow: only four states have completely made the switch, while 25 have made partial changes. All 31 states plus the federal district are expected to implement the reforms by June 2016.” (http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/experts-warn-of-challenges-to-mexico-s-judicial-reform-rollout)

Don Coulter continues: I would add that I think it’s extremely unlikely that the reforms will be fully in place by next June. And even if they are, they will hardly put an end to the institutional incompetence and corruption that plague all levels of Mexican government. One can only hope they’ll be the start of a long-term reform effort.

Sterling continues: A good companion piece to “The Difficulty with Mexican Crime Investigations” might be the September 30, 2015 New Yorker article “Mexico’s Missing Forty-Three: One Year, Many Lies and a Theory That Might Make Sense,” by Francisco Goldman. Mexico, the author suggests, may never have seen the likes of the evidentiary narrative constructed by the team of highly respected independent foreign investigators that been looking into the case. A new forensic model Mexicans may want to adopt.

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