An American playground and “city of sin,” this border city is rife with kidnappings and narco traffic. One writer looks to the “corridos” for hope against the mafiosos.
Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012) is an unprecedented introduction to the arts, culture, politics, and economics of contemporary Tijuana, Mexico—and the dark side of Tijuana's violence. The included essays explore urban planning in light of Tijuana's unique infrastructural, demographic, and environmental challenges. They delve into its musical countercultures, architectural ruins, cinema, and emergence as a hot spot on the international art scene. One contributor examines fictional representations of Tijuana's past as a Prohibition-era "city of sin" for U.S. pleasure seekers. Editor Josh Kun reflects on the city's recent struggles with kidnappings and drug violence. The following Kun essay, called “The Kidnapped City," is a painful look at the reality of serious, everyday drug violence in this globalization-ravaged city nestled to one side of the most-crossed border in the world.
The finger arrived in the mail next to the gas bill and the grocery store coupons, bubble-wrapped in a sealed envelope with no return address. By then, Luis had already been gone for two months of his thirty- four years. His severed finger—they didn’t even put it on ice; they just let the blood dry, the skin purple, the smell swell—was proof that he was alive, that he existed, that the rest of his body was somewhere, still warm, still beating. The finger meant they wanted more money. If he was still alive enough to lose a finger, then there was still money to be made. They took him from right in front of his house, in front of his wife, his three young children inside, in plain view in the middle of the day on his quiet street in Playas de Tijuana—a tranquil coastal neighborhood known for its remove from the chaos of downtown where the only big news of late was the opening of a Starbucks. They asked for directions and Luis walked over to the car to help out. They pulled him inside. They were not wearing masks. As soon as my wife heard that, she knew things would be bad for her cousin. In the logic of kidnapping, the mask is a chance for survival; if the kidnappers cannot be identified, they might consider releasing their hostage. No mask and the release is harder to imagine. Luis must have known that too; he knew his fate as soon as he hit the backseat. He was never coming home.
My in-laws were active in raising money. There was a breakfast—the whole extended family brought checks, what ever you could afford. Every dollar counted. They wanted $2 million. We raised $100,000. We don’t know when they killed Luis, if he was even alive when the money was being gathered. We do know that they drove out of town to dump his body alongside the highway to Tecate. He was picked up and brought to the city morgue as a John Doe and only weeks later did a family friend who works in forensics recognize his face in a photo search.
The memorial was wrenching. There were people everywhere. The men stood on the steps by the entrance, as if they were guards or escorts, trying to look tough and proud and strong but their faces gave them away—they were outside because they couldn’t bear to go in. Especially Luis’s father. I had met him just a few months earlier. It was my father-in-law’s birthday and we took over the concrete backyard of one of his niece’s homes in Playas. There were family photos on the folding tables and balloons tied to chairs. A man with perfectly gelled hair was singing boleros and pop ballads into a portable pa system. A woman with a face of sweating stone was chopping meat and pressing corn into tortillas, and all of the nieces and aunts and grandmothers took their turn on the piñata. Candy fell. The little ones scurried.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off Luis’s father. He’s tall and thick with the muscles of hard work. He had his jeans up high on his boxy waist, belted tight; he had his cotton long- sleeve Oxford unbuttoned midway down a chest full of furry gray ringlets of hair. He kept his big arms crossed, his face unmoving, stern, serious. He crushed my hand when he shook it. His fingers were hardened sausages, their skin rough from building things, fixing motors. He looked like El Indio Fernandez, the classic Mexican film star who protects the village on horse back, who stays alive squinting into the setting sun. One thing he wasn’t though was a man who cried. So when I saw him on the stairs of the memorial hall, it rocked me to the core. The shirt was still unbuttoned, the jeans still high, but his son was dead and now his face was red and pickled; his eyes were pools of salt. It was as if his body never expected to know what it was now knowing, as if his muscles and joints had never fathomed that something as intangible and immaterial as death or loss could break them down.
Upstairs in the chapel, deep silence was sporadically punctured by spasms of grief, anguished cries quickly muffled by the sweaters and shawls of comforting shoulders. In his prayers for Luis, the priest told us not to grieve, but to use his loss as an inspiration to keep living our lives to the fullest plenamente,plenamente he repeated—to leave the service focused squarely on the here and now. He prayed for the family, for Luis’s kids, for his poor, poor wife. And then he prayed for the city. He begged God to have mercy on Tijuana, to take its streets back into his loving arms. I put my arm around my sister-in-law and asked what she was feeling. “Sadness,” she said. “And a lot of anger.”
Anger is the right word. Luis was thirty-four. He had just opened a little store to sell glass for windows. Sure he liked a new car now and again and sure he liked to pick up the check and be all macho and valiente once in a while and sure he liked to take his wife to Saverios and not even read the prices on the wine list. But he was solidly working-class gone middle-class TJ and he was not a criminal or a drug dealer or a money launderer or a CEO or a corporate scion or a politician. He was taken just so he could be used to get some money for someone who had even less. He was taken because he could be taken. He was taken because he could die and it didn’t matter to his killers, because his life, like their lives, didn’t matter. This is no city, no country, no world, no time, no era to get precious and high and mighty about the value of human life. Our blood—all of our blood— runs cheap. We mean nothing to anyone. We are as good as what we are worth—to factories, to smugglers, to bosses, to marketing companies, to kidnappers. Discardable. Dumpable. Interchangeable.
It used to be that the kidnapped almost somehow—if we were to perversely confess it—deserved it. They were shady or their parents were shady. There was always a connection. Nobody gets rich without shortchanging good at least once. Even when they took the pop star Thalia’s sister, people joked that it was her fault for having a sister who not only made bad pop music but who married Tommy Mottola. But even she was returned.
At the end of the memorial, I met an old friend of my father-in-law, El Manitas, or “Little Hands” (his were anything but). “I hear you write about Tijuana up there,” he said. “Did you see the letter in the paper today?” he asked me. I hadn’t. “It’s about the kidnappings, all this horrible mess. You need to read it. Then you need to write about it. It’s important for people in the U.S. to learn about what’s happening here. Mexico needs to be criticized. It’s the only way things will change.”
The letter was written by Aiko Enriquez Nishikawa. Her brother Celso had suffered a fate similar to Luis’s. Like Luis, Celso came from a hard-working family who came to Tijuana to pursue the opportunities the city promised to offer—first during the industrialization boom of the 1960s and 1970s and then during the global boom of the 1990s. He was a father and a husband. He was clean. After he was kidnapped, money was given, phone calls were made, threats were issued. When proof of life stopped, the family stopped giving money. The kidnappers surrounded the house with cars and opened fire, ready and willing to kill anyone they could for more money, or just ready and willing to create more fear. Because that’s what is happening here too—to create fear is to have power. As the father of a dead narcoju nior once told Jesus Blancornelas, “I gave my son everything—the best home, the best car, the best family name. I now realize that I could never give him what he wanted most—power.”
Aiko’s family called the city police, then the federal police, then the military police. Nobody came to help them. Celso was surely dead and they had endured all that they could. So they packed up their house and, like so many, left the city to live in San Ysidro or Chula Vista or National City or San Diego. This is how she ended the letter:
This letter represents the pain, the anguish and the anger that we feel. It’s a desperate cry for an answer, an explanation, a hope, a demand of our rights, the ones we never had while living this hell that we don’t wish on anybody. More so when we couldn’t get help from the people who are paid to protect and serve, combat and take care of, guard the safety of citizens. But unfortunately they are the ones who protect and help the criminals get what they want. When are you going to take action? When are you going to clean the municipal, state and federal institutions in a real and forceful way? When will there be real laws that punish kidnappers and the bad behavior of corrupt agencies, with sentences that serve as en example so that this doesn’t keep happening? What will happen to our country with its good people? When will we stop living so cowardly and start fighting for a better future for the sons and daughters of Mexico? I love Mexico and Tijuana, it’s the place where I was born, my country. But it’s impossible to live here. Goodbye Tijuana.
In 2001, the Tijuana critic Leobardo Sarabia published an essay about the impact of narco culture on Tijuana life. “Violence in Tijuana,” he wrote, “is limited to those who have something to fear, who work in the dirty business. . . . Tijuana is no Beirut, no Medellin. . . . Tijuana violence is selective, pragmatic, at the service of the defense and amplification of territory acquisition and the settling of scores.”
Yet seven years later, a week after Aiko published her letter, a week after Luis died, he had changed his tune. Violence in Tijuana, Sarabia admitted, was no longer selective or pragmatic or part of the strategies of organized narco crime. Narco violence joined with increasing poverty and desperation equals a new culture of violence—one that unloads its clips in a wild, unfocused spray. Now entire restaurants are held up at once. Now taxi drivers are kidnappers. Now ATM machines get plucked from vestibules within seconds. Now violence is not selective—now everyone has something to fear.
“Violence creates a new reality,” he wrote in Eme Equis. “Another atmosphere. It transforms the familiar city into an ominous one— nocturnal, uninhabitable.”
Everyone in cities like Tijuana and Juarez and Culiacan knows someone: who has been kidnapped, whose family is in a witness protection program, who is dead. The hottest cars on the used car lots come with bulletproof windows. People are putting up new fences around their homes, new bars on their windows; the newest real estate trends in Tijuana are luxury high-rises that advertise, above all else, high- tech security and surveillance systems. When the phone rings at the office and the voice on the other end gets the name slightly wrong or asks about schedules or asks too many questions, you know to hang up. When the phone rings at home and the voice on the other end tells you that it’s your aunt calling and all your aunts are dead, you know to hang up. When a car sits for too long outside your home or office, you know to keep watch, to leave through the back. When you go out for a drink with friends you know to call each other as soon as you get home. When the calls come every day, when the cars wait every day, you know to change your schedule, to not keep a routine. You know to sell your car and get a different one every few months. You know that in Mexico—like in Johannesburg, like in Beirut, like in Sao Paulo—this fear is your life.
As the Tijuana police chief Alberto Capella said after he survived an attack of two hundred gunshots, “It’s as if criminals have corrupted us all.” On the night of the shooting, the book on his nightstand was the policy anthology Transnational Crime and Public Security. It was left full of bullet holes.
I came home from the memorial mad—there was anger for Luis’s killers, but more anger for the cops who let it happen, for the cops who let the cops let it happen, for the military troops who let the cops let the cops let it happen, for the mayor and the governor and all the lawyers who look the other way. I was angry at globalization. I was angry at free trade. I was angry at capitalism. I was angry at anyone who made money saying the world is flat. I was angry with my colleagues for romanticizing the border, for refusing to admit that it’s a violent place, a criminal place, that horrible things do happen there. I was angry with friends who wrote off narco violence as U.S. media myths. I was angry at myself for agreeing with them.
More than Luis, I was mourning our world order. I was mourning the fatal character of the global economy, its “perennial gale of creative destruction,” to borrow the famous words of Joseph Schumpeter. The kidnapping of Luis and the kidnapping of Celso have left indelible marks on their families, but they should also leave indelible marks on all of us. Mexico has been kidnapped, abducted and tortured, and held hostage by the corruptions of capitalist striving and economic in equality.
As Schumpeter wrote back in 1947, “Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own.”
To think, as I did, that the tragedy of Luis’s death was that he played by the rules, that he was one of the “good guys,” was naive, myopic, and arrogant. The tragedy is the political and social economy those rules belong to, an economy based on depletion and exhaustion and endless exploitation— of workers, of ideals, of morals, of resources, of bodies. I am not suggesting that blame be taken from individuals whose actions produce fatal consequences. Individuals kidnapped Luis, individuals extorted his family, individuals cut off his finger, and individuals dumped his body. But we are all motivated, in part, by the systems and beliefs and values we inherit as true; “the traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Marx saw it. And Luis’s kidnappers, like so many in any country where poverty and social disintegration are the prevailing order, acted within a context that any of us who too quickly judge them are also a part of— the glaring and extreme inequities of globalization. So I’ll say what many others—from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to George Soros to Rebecca Solnit—have already said: there needs to be an ethics of globalization, an ethics of capitalism, a morality of modernity. The men who killed Luis—who exist on a continuum of corruption and murder that extends all the way to Washington—are murderers and criminals and they blatantly and unforgivably flaunted and rebuked and ignored those codes that must from now on be held precious to the stability of a human future.
If I sound like I am doing a bad Hannah Arendt impression, I apologize, but ever since that memorial, I have had her writings on the Eichmann trial bumping around in my head, hearing echoes of her infamous “banality of evil” charge in the way I’ve been thinking about drug lords and mafiosos—what is globalization’s “banality of evil”? What kind of moral shifts, ethical abysses, does the relentless pursuit of free- trade profiteering and imperial accumulation and national security privatization engender in everyday citizens who are not invited into the executive lounges and board rooms of global bling? What Mexico is currently living out is just one headline- grabbing, too close to the U.S. for comfort, example of the dark side of the global economic promise: extreme inequity that produces extreme behavior that results in extreme casualties.
Indeed, Tijuana has been a central setting for this unfolding story, whether it was the opening of the border to foreign maquiladora manufacturing plants in the late 1960s—establishing a dependence on export-processing factories for jobs, establishing a pattern of wage labor abuses, of feverish migration and overpopulation and ecological devastation that continues to this day—or the blow dealt in 1994 by the passage of NAFTA, opening the border to the transit of imports and exports but closing it, violently, militarily, to the transit of the people who make and consume those imports and exports.
The cumulative result has been a border metropolis of over two million people where poverty grows daily on hillsides made of recycled cardboard, where the glimmering steel- and- glass bounty of San Diego venture capital and international banking is in perfect, unblocked, plain view of an Indian from Michoacan who walks stairs made of tires and drinks water tainted with toxic runoff. If there are, indeed, “social costs” of the border’s industrialization—as a 2002 research team decided at the Center for U.S.- Mexican Studies at UCSD—then those social costs, those costs shifted away from the money makers and onto communities and citizens, must also include the kidnapping industry and the drug economy, must also include the death of Luis and Celso.
For Luis’s kidnappers and the drug cartel bosses and their kowtowing hit men, evil is banal; death and killing carry no moral rebuke, no ethical doubt, no human problem. If Eichmann was the perverted extreme of the modern bureaucrat, then how could we not, if even for a moment, consider kidnappers and cartel hit men as the perverted extremes of the global capitalist? Kidnappings and drug sales are, at their core, market operations, economies like any other, fueled by maximization of profits, drugs just one more product shipped from Mexico’s export-processing zone so beloved by the United States and Asia, and the biggest export at that—making more money for Mexico than oil or tourism. It’s a multibillion- dollar economy that works—dirty money ending up clean in real estate deals and private businesses. It also just so happens to be a deadly economy.
Marx, ever underestimated for his ability to turn a phrase, put it best: “One capitalist always kills many.”
• In 2007, there were 2,500-3,000 drug-related executions in Mexico, three hundred of which were cops.
• In 2008, between May 1 and May 9, nine high-ranking police officers were killed, leading some of the remaining officers in similar positions to ask the United States for political asylum, leading the U.S. government to enter yet another word into the lexicon of homeland security and legislative zenophobia—narcoterrorism.
• In 2008, more than 1,350 people were murdered in drug trafficking–related crimes. Those murdered include police, judges, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, reporters, politicians, and innocent victims. The killings have been private and public, individual and mass.
• Between 2000 and 2005, cocaine shipments from South America to Mexico doubled and meth seizures quintupled.
• In 2007, the cross- border drug trade was worth over $25 billion. Ten billion of that came south across the border into Mexico as bulk cash.
• In 2008, a Tijuana battle between rival factions within the Arellano Felix cartel left fourteen dead on a Sunday morning. Another shooting went down next to a kindergarten. Seven people were killed in thirty- six hours the first weekend in June.
• A week later, a bundle of marijuana valued at $2.2 million was found in jalapeno pepper crates at the Otay crossing.
• Forty doctors were kidnapped in 2008 alone. When Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, one of his principal vows was to clean up Mexican drug corruption. He continues to order federal police and military police to the country’s most battle-worn regions and in late 2007, he worked with President Bush to write up the Merida Initiative, designed to deliver U.S. $1.4 billion to the Mexican government over three years to fight the war.
The ironies of the initiative are twofold: those billions would be spent to fight a war against the interests of U.S. consumers—the United States is less than 5 percent of the world’s population and accounts for over half of the world’s drug consumption. Most of what is consumed comes through Mexico. Second, 90 percent of all the guns used to kill all of the people who keep dying in Mexico come from shipments bought and sold in the United States. One of the narco favorites has long been the Colt 38 Super—as American as Bob Seger. As Mexican attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora recently told Portfolio magazine, “US consumers are already financing this war, only it’s on the wrong side.”
There is no such thing as the Mexican drug war. There is only the Mexico- U.S. drug war. This is a transnational game, as much L.A. as Sinaloa, as much about the Sonoran Desert as Interstate 5. Just look at the most famous narcocorridos of all time, “Contrabando y Traicion,” which starts with a car full of marijuana in Baja but ends in an alley in Hollywood. It’s a lesson that Orson Welles tried to teach us many years ago when he made Touch of Evil, the last great noir film that put the onus of corruption, of evil itself, on the United States (its Tijuana-esque border town was actually Venice Beach). The moral of the story was radical then and it’s radical now: the touch of evil is not Mexico, it’s the United States. In his film, the most innocent man was Mexican.
The most corrupt man was a white American cop. There was Mexican crime and vice, but it existed through the joint efforts of Mexican and American lawmakers.
“All border towns bring out the worst in a country,” Charlton Heston’s Mexican cop character, Mike Vargas, says in the film, but it’s never clear just what country he is talking about. Isaiah, chapter 1, verses 17– 23: “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.”
Jesus Blancornelas, the late founder of Tijuana weekly paper Zeta and once Mexico’s prime chronicler of narco culture, began his 2002 account of the rise of the Tijuana-Sinaloa cartel helmed by the Arellano Felix brothers with a curious, and potent, claim: “Drug traffic in Mexico and the US owes more to government circumstances and less to opportunist and permanent mafiosos.”
If we blame the individuals, we are not just barking up the wrong tree, we’re in the wrong forest to begin with. The critique lies with the state, for it is the state that not only generates and regulates the laws that create and control the flows of illegal substances and illegal money, but it is the state that then allows those flows to happen all while feigning to criminalize it. The state creates criminals that the state protects.
Or as Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais put it: “The emergence of the narco is the most serious episode of neo- liberal criminality. If that is where the big business is, the victims are the profits. And with them comes the protection of the mafias by power itself.” The narcos themselves know this all too well. In his 1997 DEA testimony, Alejandro Hodoyan Palacios, aka El Lobo, one of the Arellano Felix cartel’s key hit men, said, “In Tijuana nobody kills for free. Every death has a reason, even though nobody is allowed to know what it is.”
Two instances from Blancornelas’s narco chronicle El Cártel—still yet to be published in English— bear this out dramatically. First, the Mexican ambassador to France wrote to Blancornelas in 1994 accusing the office of the governor of Baja California of being wittingly responsible for allowing drug violence to surge in the early 1990s and take over the po liti cal and economic life of Baja. In his words: “The state is responsible for the protection of drug traffickers and for the wave of violence it produces.” After reading the letter in Zeta, the governor of Baja himself, Ernesto Ruffo Appel, wrote a response in which he admitted that, indeed, his government lost control; narco culture had too easily, too overwhelmingly, entered the realm of politics and security.
A narco state was born. “It is getting hard to tell which you are in, drugs or politics,” Ruffo said. “Things are heading in a dangerous direction.” Indeed, in 1993, Blancornelas published a list of all of the members of the PRG (Mexico’s federal justice agency) who had been on narco payrolls. The list is three pages long. It does not include the names of all the cops at every level of Mexican enforcement, including those who in the nineties were busted for stealing cars in San Diego; who worked as bodyguards for the mafiosos; who moonlighted as members of el peloton, the firing squad of the Arellano Felix cartel; nor does it include the names of the twenty- eight customs officers found in the mid-nineties to be tied to mafiosos or to the five Border Patrol agents who did the same. As more than one Tijuana critic has noted, in Tijuana, there is more than one drug cartel. There is the Arellano Felix cartel, but there are also the PRG, the Mexican army, and the federal police.
The collusion between traffickers and cops and government officials is not a remarkable fact. It is the great transparency of Mexican politics. Even the corrido singers sing about it. In their song about the narco wars, “La Frontera Roja,” Los Tucanes de Tijuana do the usual cuernos de chiva talk, bigging up the narcos, but they quickly talk about how the guns are used by mafiosos just like they are by the police—there is yerba and coke and killing for territory, but the protagonists are mafiosos and politicians: “The mafia has power, the TV said. But how are the police not seen as the bigger fish?” They sing, “The mafia does not have an end—the law cooperates with them. . . . Red border they call it, for all of the blood runs through it.”
In May 2008, the chief of Mexican police was killed in a hit ordered by the Sinaloa cartel and carried out by a federal officer. In the nineties, Mexico’s antidrug czar was famously found to be working for the cartels. In Baja, General Sergio Aponte led antidrug offensives and in April named names of corrupt officials on the pages of Frontera. He also noted that Baja’s antikidnapping squad was actually a kidnapping squad— police work as cartel bodyguards; federal agents help coordinate air shipments. But why here? Why the border?
Borderlines are by their very nature fertile for what security analysts call “crimogenic” conditions. Because they divide markets and restrict the exchange of goods and people, creating differentials and asymmetries in cost and incentive and profit, criminal enterprises usually take advantage of these conditions and exploit the asymmetries: auto theft, money laundering, trafficking, black markets, smuggling, prostitution. Sarabia has called this “fatal geography as Mexican destiny.” The border between the United States and Mexico is the only border in the world that separates a developing nation from the world’s richest country, the only border that separates consumers who spend five times more a year from their southern neighbors. It is also the most-crossed border in the world, and ever since NAFTA, crossing has intensified, making illegal trafficking easier and more active. As the anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom reminds us, there is no such thing as legal routes of traffic as distinct from illegal routes of traffic— all routes of trade and traffic are markets; the legal flows alongside the illegal. The reality of the contemporary world is that what we call the economy is always legal and illegal together. Where legal products move, so do illegal products, often in the same trucks, in the same boxes, in the same cans of jalapenos.
This blurring began to take shape in the 1970s when the United States initiated its crackdown on the cocaine trade based in Colombia and Miami, causing the trade to shift to the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Soon Mexican mafias were responsible for 70 percent of the cocaine consumed annually in the United States, leading to an estimated $30 billion a year in drug profits. The destination was the United States and Tijuana was simply in the way, perfectly positioned as a gateway. The Arellano Felix brothers came to TJ in 1984. They rose in power because the government allowed them to. As the eighties became the nineties, the stage was increasingly fixed and everyone knew the score: all drug murders went unsolved because police were gangsters, politicians were investors, lawyers were on the books, and justice was paid for.
After DEA agent Kike Camarena was tortured and killed in 1985, the suspected killers were protected by the then- governor of Jalisco, who never brought charges. When Carlos Salinas became the president of Mexico years later, the same governor was soon his attorney general. The Salinas reign was the epitome of the narco state eating itself alive. In 1993, Arellano Felix hit men executed the highest- ranking church official in Mexico—Cardinal Ocampo. They did it in Guadalajara while an Aeromexico flight waited for them, then took off, only to land in Tijuana where federal agents let them escape. Then came the 1994 triple threat: a shootout between state and federal police that left five dead, the murder of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio by an unstable factory worker who was believed to be on the payroll of both drug kingpin El Chapo Guzman and Salinas himself, then the murder of the chief of police. And yet nobody did a thing—how could they?
How could we? Nineteen ninety- four was the year of NAFTA, the year that free trade would be asked to change the world, when modern Mexico was to join postmodern America in a quest for global economic reform. So what if the Arellano Felix hit men were from San Diego gangs, so what if the drugs all fl owed north— the United States was innocent, Mexico was innocent— the drug war was kept under the radar and off the political stage and the audience was asked to believe that the drama they were watching wasn’t actually happening.
The binational choice to turn a blind eye opened the floodgates for blood and bullets and money. In 1999, the Arellano Felix gang was responsible for four hundred deaths we know of. They were brutal in the nineties, unimaginably cruel and savage, killing anyone for looking at them the wrong way—spilling a drink, crashing a party. As one of their hit men put it, “Killing is a lark for them— a diversion. They laugh after a death, they go eat lobster in Rosarito. That’s how it is.”
Ramon Arellano was killed in 2002 and Benjamin was put in jail for life. But the cartel’s grip on Mexican politics continued to be maintained, most obviously in 2005 with the election to the Tijuana mayoral office of Hank Rhon—a billionaire criminal with ties to the Arellano Felix brothers and ties to a few assassinations of his own. When he became the leader of Tijuana, the growth of the local narco state had reached its peak. Now mafiosos hadn’t just bought off political leaders; the political leaders were the mafiosos. And worse for Tijuana, this particular mafioso wasn’t just into gold and fur coats and women the way Ramon and Benjamin were—he was narco excess converted into state power: a zoo of over 333 endangered species, a hairless rat in a cage behind his desk, eighteen children from multiple wives, a proud drinker of tequila spiked with bull testicles, Cirque du Soleil fl own in for his birthday celebration, and most famously, an addiction to collecting rare white tigers.
When Hank left office, some thought Tijuana had hope, that something could shift. The years after he left office were more quiet than usual. Then this year had to come along and everyone had to see those kindergartners running for their lives beneath a flurry of bullets, over and over again. But what is there to do?
After the January shootings next to the kindergarten, Rafa Saavedra, a Tijuana fiction writer and critic, weighed in on his blog: If fear wins, we will end up prisoners in our homes like they did in Medellin. Our fight is for liberty, for the ability to move freely through this city that is our Tijuana, to keep fighting so that more punishment will be rough to the criminals. . . . Some say what we all know and we don’t want to recognize— the fault is also our own, the open and receptive character of our city that has made it known as a progressive place, a place where change can happen, is also the characteristic that is now working against its survival.
As the violence reached its peak, one of Rafa’s friends called to tell him, “We’ve lost her.” We’ve lost Tijuana. Rafa refuses to agree. He refuses to give up on the city he loves. His sentiment reminds me of another call for Tijuana’s salvation, issued during an earlier era of drug traffic and political corruption— the 1950s, when the Korean War gave Tijuana military tourism a much- needed shot in the arm. It involved the journalist Manuel Acosta Meza, editor of El Imparcial, who broke story after story about a crime syndicate running Tijuana life. When the cartel was found to be using schoolchildren to move weed, Acosta Meza began a daily attack in the press, exposing the cartel’s links to prostitution rings and local politicians. When the cartel went after Meza, he ran headlines like, “Here we are you vultures” and “I accuse you.” In 1956, he was executed right in front of his house.
In a rare case of responsible Hollywood filmmaking about border life, Columbia Pictures released The Tijuana Story in response that very same year. Granted, it dubbed TJ the “frankest, gaudiest, sin town in the world,” but its true focus was the story of Acosta Meza, played by Rafael Acosta, and his battle with the “vice lords,” the struggle “to get Tijuana cleaned up,” and the death of the free press. They threw in James Darren for some teen- beat star power and pot- smoking tourist subplots and shirtless beach scenes, but even he ends up dead, running from the cops into the Pacific before washing up limp on the rocks. The film’s plot stays focused on a city at war. Its final scene is Acosta Meza’s funeral, which is interrupted by his former publisher, who offers some final words:
Knowing Manuel as I did, I can tell you what would have satisfied him today, not our tears or our guilt but the knowledge that he did not die in vain, that the bullets that crashed in his body infuriated us into action, gave us the indignation and courage to resolve that we have had enough of terrorism and gangsterism, that living under the syndicate without pride is intolerable.
Manuel was right: there is no power in the world stronger than us— together we can clean up Tijuana— all it takes is the will. Infuriate us into action. Enough of terrorism and gangsterism. No power in the world stronger than us. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:
“Few are guilty but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some mea sure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.”
And so in Tijuana, citizens march. In Tijuana, a banner now flies on a city overpass that reads, “We’ve had enough— death penalty to all kidnappers.” While on the surface it is important and valuable for President Calderon to be declaring war against corruption and drugs, while it is important and valuable for the United States to pour billions into the Merida Initiative, both moves will be— ultimately—futile. Both moves miss the bigger picture. The situation we find ourselves in has lasted over a century, a situation born of imperial conquest and nineteenth- century land grabs and attempts to use the expansion of territory as a way of securing markets in the name of civilizing democracy. It is a situation that has been inherited, one that has structured every fiber, every cell, of Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Drugs and violence are a Mexican crisis, but they are also a U.S. crisis. They are a crisis of the global moment, nourished by economic and social asymmetries of such false equalizers as free trade and globalization.
Drug wars and the endemic poverty of resources that fuel them— what Bill McKibben has called “the mathematics of inequality”— can be healed, but only as part of a larger culture of healing and structural economic change. If Immanuel Wallerstein is right that the demise of neoliberal globalization has begun, if Peter Barnes is right that this capitalism will soon undergo a massive upgrade of its operating system into capitalism 3.0, if a long, incremental revolution of structural transformation of lifeways, social ethics, and attitudes toward the responsibilities we all bear as stakeholders in the greater commons is upon us, as impossible to ignore as a carbon cloud or a dried oil well or a fallow field of a Mexican farm, then the U.S.- Mexico drug crisis might just have what nobody has assumed could be possible: an end in sight.
I want to call up the request line and make a special request to the border DJ. I know you’ve got the new one from El Potro de Sinaloa to play, or the new ones from El Tigrillo Palma, Voz de Mando, and Larry Hernandez, or classics from Los Invasores or the Los Tucanes tune about Ramon Arellano. But how about to night we hear some stuff off the playlist, some tunes that have yet to be written: instead of corridos about the mafiosos, instead of corridos about the women who dress up as nuns to smuggle cocaine, instead of the simulated AK- 47 gunshot blasts, instead of Los Razos holding rifles next to young girls in bikinis and cowboy hats, how about we hear a corrido for the missing, a corridor for the dead, a corrido for mourners, a corrido for a lost country, a corridor for in equality. I know, I know, they’re hard to find. You won’t hear them bumping out of Suburbans or Ram Chargers or Tahoes. They don’t sell them at swap meets or MixUp. But you’ll hear them in living rooms and churches and community centers, melodies shaped in sighs and sobs, choruses sculpted by cries.
You know how everyone always says that corridos tell the truth about Mexico—well these corridos tell the truth too, but in ways we haven’t heard yet. So put one on if you don’t mind, Mr. DJ, and play it loud so that all of Sonora can hear it, all of Baja, all of Sinaloa and Jalisco and Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Let it bounce off the boulders into the poppy fields and every plaza that’s ever been controlled. Let it break the glass of tinted windows and cocaine mirrors, let it rattle through Los Pinos and the White House and through every Blackwater training station and every Border Patrol ammo locker. I can’t guarantee it will be a hit, but it will be heard. Play it loud so that someday, maybe, we won’t ever have to hear it again.
Excerpted from Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border edited by Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo. Copyright Duke University Press, 2012.