“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”
Buddha and the Police Comandante
Meeting four is coming up tomorrow. In the meantime, things have become more complex, and getting to yes seems farther off—maybe fifty years. A few nights ago, one of the eighteen-year olds was not fast enough—too drunk or too stoned to run, and a police patrol with dogs caught him, took him to jail and, according to his mother, beat him.
This is what we wanted to avoid. The lad is out of jail again, and his mother is hopping mad. She is sure another mother called the police on her son. D. talked with her and told her when the police came the mother she suspected had been meeting with D. over a period of two hours and couldn’t have called the police.
Shortly thereafter, Hopping Mad—both women live within a hundred feet of us—ran into her enemy and told her that she had a cousin who had a gang and that she would tell him to bring in the gang if things went on the way they were. The threatened woman said she also had a relative in a gang and she would be glad to give them a call. We have a young neighborhood friend who is soft, diffident and overweight. When one of the feuding women told him about the gang she would bring in, our soft friend responded by saying if she did that, she would see a side of him that she had never seen before.
At our last meeting, excitement stirred, and I looked up the callejón to see what everyone was looking at. A herd of police dressed in dark blue was descending upon us, led by a neighbor who had agreed not to invite the police until a later meeting, after we had elected a steering group. One of the underlying principles was to be that we keep the police and army out of the neighborhood, so our boys at risk didn’t get shot or disappeared.
The comandante, short powerful man, reminded me of the murderous Guatemalan colonel D. and I once interviewed on his own base. We more or less asked him why he and his troops were wiping out Guatemalan indigenous peoples. He said he was only restoring Christianity to Indians who had come under the influence of Communism.
This police comandante stood looking down on us—his feet braced if he were on a heaving ship—and as his opening speech barked, “Hay preguntas?” – “Any questions?”
D. and C. got him and his troop to enter the meeting circle. There were seven men in total; each of them looked like a gang member who had come up through the ranks. The comandante turned out to be a mixture of Buddha and Nelson Mandela. He said the trouble started in the family; if a man hit his wife, the children would imitate this behavior. He said they had not come to fight with anyone. Then they described the war wounds – heridas de guerra – they had received in the line of duty, when people threw bricks down at them from rooftops.
His six officers shifted this way and that, their heads always turning, as if a sizeable hostile stone might already be on its way and they needed to see it coming. At one point—I missed the moment entirely—two of policemen walked quickly into one of the four callejones that feed into our meeting place. Someone had begun throwing very small stones at us from a nearby rooftop.
The meeting refocused as much as it could with people holding private conversations, talking over each other and bringing up old feuds. People complained about the lack of security. They described their fear. The comandante said there were only 200 police for the entire city area of about 200,000. I thought he had exaggerated the number of police by at least a factor of two. He said he had grown up in our area, and he promised he would send a patrol twice a day. He said we should choose a centrally placed store where the patrol could sign a clipboard each time. People made skeptical remarks. The two policemen who had investigated the pebble thrower returned.
The comandante said he would give the steering committee a direct number to call, to get the fastest response. The following day, everyone in the neighborhood wanted the direct number—thereby defeating the idea of a special direct line for real emergencies. C., the recipient of the number, an educated archivist, misplaced the slip of paper with the number almost immediately. When people asked me for the number, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t know who had it.
At least two of the drug selling families sent representatives. One of them, it was reported later, was secretly taking photos of people in the group, redirecting the camera a little while pretending to photograph a family member. D. and C. intend to address this activity in the next meeting, pointing out that such activity is not conducive to trust building in an open meeting.
In the meantime, there are other issues to raise—like using telephones to call the steering committee first, before calling the police when you think another mother or her boy has offended you at any time in the past, present or may, you’re afraid, in the future. Like waiting for your turn to speak—a skill or training that appears not to be taught in Mexican schools. Like parliamentary or democratic procedure in general. And then, more advanced, conflict resolution skills in general.
For some time, I have thought the way to bend the social despair expressed in the ugliness of graffiti would be to get the graffiti sprayers to paint murals instead. With this goal in mind, D. and I tried to get our two most alienated glue sniffers (and most at risk adolescents) to go to a demonstration of mural painting being held nearby on the occasion of Day of the Dead. We were unsuccessful. K. and M., whom we met on the callejón, were already deeply numbed from drugs they had taken and, fairly politely, brushed us off—barely able to meet our eyes.
Tomorrow is meeting four—perhaps just one more step in a fifty-year project.
The Mexican War Chronicles
Friends question my use of the word “war” to describe what is happening in Mexico. It’s okay to use the word as in “the war on drugs.” That would be “war” as metaphor. But then you would have to ask, the Black Hawk helicopters which the US have given Mexico–some twenty-five in all–with their rockets and gatling guns and machine guns, are they metaphorical or are they real?” And if they are real and, at the same time, the tools of war, and they are deployed against the narco paramilitaries, aren’t we talking about real war?
~ Friday, August 25, 2012, coordinated for about 2:30 PM, there were twenty five (in another place in the same paper, same day: twenty-two) different highway blockades, which included burning cars, buses, and trucks in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Colima.
Unnamed sources said Federal Police had captured a narco-leader in Tonaya, during which episode seven alleged gunmen and three policemen were wounded (same edition, same day: the version was that the seven narco-gunmen were killed). The Government had employed five Black Hawk helicopters and a transport helicopter to move in what I suppose were swat team members and or troops. The troops are usually Mexican Marines, since they–it is said–are the least corrupt of the armed forces.
The blow back (in the style Monterey, Mexico has experienced for some time) came quickly in the metropolitan areas of Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and, later, in the state of Colima (which lies roughly between Guadalajara and the Pacific Coast).
Blockaders sealed off the entrances to Guadalajara and a major road in the state of Colima, according to León/Guanajuato’s newspaper “AM,” “in order to inhibit the movement of federal police and military.” There were seven blockades in Guadalajara and fifteen more in the “interior” of the state of Jalisco.
When I hear that something is “in retaliation” for something, I have to think there is some kind of war in progress. Certainly, the blockades–pulling people out of their cars and igniting the cars–are terrorist in name: the point is to un-nerve the population. But it is also to answer the power of the central government with its Black Hawk helicopters. In other words, a military act evokes a military response, and the form of the response is guerrilla warfare.
As to how it affects me, a resident of Mexico, now I have to think extra hard about whether I want to make the seven and a half hour drive from Guanajuato through Guadalajara and down over the mountain road through Compostela to Sayulita (where I surf), knowing I can be stopped at any point and lose my car and everything in it, or worse.
So in that regard–unnerving the citizenry–narco-terrorism/guerrilla response is very effective, whereas the Government’s military action seems clumsy and counter-productive because it just makes things worse.
But the Mexican 99% are under attack by more than one kind of terrorism, one can argue.
NAFTA permits subsidized U.S. corporations to dump corn (much of it GMO, as in killer seeds which can not be saved and used by campesinos to replant) on the Mexican market. This drives campesinos off their land–they cannot compete–and into the cities where there is no work for them, and no meaning, or into the arms of the narcos.
Some thirty percent of youth have neither jobs nor educational opportunities. These are called “nimis.” Ni trabajo, ni educación. Neither work, nor education. They too can fall into the arms of the narcos, or end up sniffing glue and commit street crime in the cities, until they either die or fall in with more sophisticated criminals–and then die, or end up in prison.
Going north is hardly an option when the youth have to face robbery and murder, riding the roofs of freight trains north–often for weeks–and where the chance of entering the U.S. is small; where they are treated like criminals if they get through. If they get through, they are treated like second class citizens and are vulnerable to all kinds of extortion and blackmail.
The prices are of eggs, beans, avocados, tortillas, chicken, and milk have shot up and are quickly becoming out of range for the vast pool of the poor.
Capital flees off-shore; there is massive tax evasion. The 1% are not over-burdened by feelings of social responsibility, as in doing anything about all of the above.
The political leaders in the U.S. aren’t going to legalize drugs or nudge their Mexican counterparts toward meaningful social and political action.
So Mexicans–the 99% (60% of those are poor)–are in a pickle. To put it mildly.
~ Saturday, August 26, 2012 ~ Civil War?
A little research (YouTube “Mexico’s Black Hawk helicopters”) shows that Mexico already has about 25 UH-60L and UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. A Memorandum of Understanding exists between Sikorsky Aircraft and Aeroservicios Especializados (ASESA) to “jointly explore assembly and service opportunities in support of Black Hawk helicopters.” Black Hawks were operational and present during the confrontation between narco fighters and government forces (including Federal Police) in Apatzingán last week, west of the Morelia–Lázaro Cárdenas route, in the state of Michoacán. Armed men set up various roadblocks. They stopped a bus and a trailer truck and firebombed them. Another reliable source said it was twelve vehicles in all. The most recent source talks about three different events (some put the figure much, much higher), all of the shootouts being with the Familia Michoacana, a group which, in my opinion, is half narco and half political, as in challenging the government for power. In one account, when the Army arrived gunmen fired on them from areas above the highway. (Read “Jorge and the Santa Muerte” at http://www.sterlingbennett.com to get a feel for the social pathology at play.) Other sources say it is unknown who the shooters were. The narcos have morphed into what I would call para-military; besides enforcing the drug routes, they hold territory and regional power. Of course they fade away when the government applies military power, but when the government leaves and the real situational power returns to control the area. In my opinion, the Black Hawk helicopters are evidence that the “drug war” is becoming a real war. Since all sides seem to be from the same country, it may not be unreasonable to refer to the events as events in a civil war.
On Friday the 24th of August, an event occurred on a road southwest of Mexico City, at Tres Marías, near Xalatlaco, which may indicate an escalation in U.S. military involvement in Mexico. A Mexican Marine officer and two U.S. officials were driving in a heavily armored black SUV with U.S. diplomatic plates. They were ambushed and then pursued by some eighteen Mexican Federal Police–some of whom (some say all) were dressed in civilian clothes. The pursued officials telephoned for help. Their car came to a halt, riddled and disabled. The eighteen shooters approached the car firing as they came–execution-style, I would think. Six uniformed federal police arrived, one of them shouted out a code (clave), and stopped the original shooters but not before the latter had riddled the car and wounded the two U.S. officials.
The officials, it has been revealed since, were CIA agents on their way to a government (Navy) firing range to teach weapons handling and marksmanship. The CIA you will know, if you’ve been watching their widespread hunt/kill special forces operations in Afghanistan, are also now military, and these two “officials” may be part of the militarization of the ongoing struggle in Mexico. As Richard Grabman points out in The Mex Files (Google), “The two most recent U.S. Ambassadors here — Carlos Pascual and Anthony Wayne — were widely touted for having Afghanistan experience.” So now we have weapons flowing down from the North through unregulated guns sales to straw men, as well as weapons systems (Black Hawks and CIA trainers) also sent south under the Plan Mérida to combat those who receive the smuggled weapons.
I read recently that U.S. weapons sales had risen something like 27% over the year before. Good for U.S. weapons sales, bad for Mexico.
One wonders whether the pursuing Federal Police, some five cars in all, on instructions from a cartel (or the Mexican Government?) were targeting the CIA agents. Twelve of the attackers were arrested and are being held in Mexico City–although there were eighteen. Their lawyers are saying the defendants thought they were dealing with a stolen car (with diplomatic plates) that they thought might be involved in a kidnapping incident which had just occurred in the area (Milenio reports). They also say the US CIA driver had no permission to be in the U.S., only a visa from or to Afghanistan (a doubtful claim, in my snap judgment); that the attacked car has been “disappeared;” and that the two CIA have left the country without giving required evidence.
Here’s how I see it now (until the sequel continues): the police may have thought they were pursuing a stolen car, or they were corrupt and had orders to kill the agents; a couple CIA characters (one was in his 49, one 50) got exposed, even though this kind of training has been going on for years–but maybe not by CIA; this embarrasses everyone because historically Mexico (and all of Latin America) is sensitive about US interference; the U.S. is concerned about instability south of their border; Plan Mérida goes ahead with more Black Hawks (and their support), more CIA or other maybe private agents; there is continuing interest in drones (they say Calderón has already given permission for unarmed drone flights); continuing pressure by US weapons manufacturers to sell weapons, hence Black Hawks and other sophisticated, expensive equipment–a Devil’s gift–which the US tax payers pay for.
The Narco Plague
Here in Guanajuato, Mexico, we learned you could ask for more police patrols, if you went to a certain office, or maybe to a certain police station over on Alhondiga. We went to the police station. We were told to go to the police outpost in our district. We went there, to Cerro de Cuarto, an area that has a bad reputation after dark, or even during the day. Gangs attack police stations or patrol trucks with rocks, then scatter when the black-clad swat fellows arrive–if that team is available.
We found the outpost. The ground floor was sealed off. We climbed a narrow iron spiral staircase to get to the office on the second floor. There was one police officer, sitting in front of a tiny TV and various hand-held radios that he was charging. He seemed skeptical at first, then, later, glad to have company.
Dianne explained our problem. The local paint thinner sniffers were morphing into gangbangers with uniform: white, long-sleeved baseball-like jerseys and white baseball caps, long black shorts, large white tennis shoes. The women of our barrio, she told him, were organizing; they needed increased patrols, in fact, on-going police presence at night.
We had already learned, you can hire police for an eight-hour shift for roughly $700 U.S. per month. You need two, for their own protection: $1,400. The officer said we would need four: $2,800 U.S. per month. We told him, no one had that kind of money.
A reasonable person might argue, it is the responsibility of the city to provide security. But there is no money. And, a reasonable person might ask, “Where did the money go?” There are two answers to that: one, taxes are not high enough; and, two, public funds often disappear into the pockets of elected high officials, as happens frequently through the country.
We learned–if we understood correctly–on any one shift, there are only twenty-five officers for the whole city. And a third of these are either sick or on vacation.
While Dianne’s discussed things, I peered out the one small permanently open window. I saw him immediately–half a block away–in his white uniform, a gangbanger, holding a liter beer bottle and, at three in the afternoon, drinking from it with easy gusto. He saw me as well, and his buddy, who I thought I recognized from our own neighborhood, stuck his head around a tree and gave me a small mocking wave. I have no idea whether he recognized me.
At about eleven that night, there was a knock at the door. Dianne peered through the wooden flap window in our mesquite door. A woman she recognized was whispering something to her. Dianne could not hear, but she looked behind the woman, and there were fifteen to twenty young men, in white baseball caps, sitting in such a way as to block passage through the alley. She shut the flap door quickly and called the police. She assumed that that was what the woman was whispering. They said they would come: the lads in black.
I watched from our kitchen window, through the Venetian blinds. The guys in white were older and from another neighborhood–a disturbing fact.
In a piece called “About My Stories,” in my blog at http://www.sterlingbennett.com–I write about the plague surrounding the storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and how, for writers in Mexico, it’s the narco-danger that surrounds. Now, the plague has gotten closer, and it’s difficult to judge its danger. The young neighborhood glue sniffers appear to be allying themselves with older, more sophisticated outsiders. And it has been stressful wondering what the gathering means.
One of our local kids, with cell in hand, appears to be coordinating their mission, whether it is to deliver, sell, or receive drugs in various areas of the city; or, to assign muggers to different neighborhoods. Their appearance, in any case, seemed like a show of defiance, of reclaiming the plaza (the center of Mexico public life) for themselves–and a social warning to those who would oppose their activities.
We have heard from many sources that the Mexican Army is coming in to patrol areas of the city. I am apprehensive about this. The Army is trained to use force. Their tendency is to abuse the people they detain—or worse. I suspect they will be seen as intruders, and the situation will escalate from the side of the small-time criminal groups, and that could mean weapons in the hands of the glue sniffers.
The solution, I think, is to organize the neighborhood, so that, when the gangbangers assemble, everyone calls the police. Over and over, until the municipal leaders start to allocate funds where they belonged in the first place: with the local cops.