One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.
It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana andhave been melting into the city.
As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put outan album backing accordionist Celso Piña.
Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.
The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …
When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.
Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.
I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.
I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)
I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.
Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.
Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.
Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.
I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.
Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.
Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)
The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.
It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.
A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.
But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.
Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.
Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)
Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.
So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.
“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)
It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.
Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.
The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.
But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?
A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.
Couple weeks ago, I spent a morning in federal court in Los Angeles to learn a little more about drug underworld ingenuity.
Federal agents had busted an enterprise known as Manny’s Delivery Service, an organization that they alleged distributed heroin across the San Fernando Valley to customers who’d call in and place their orders.
Manny was the street name of the lead defendant, Sigifrido Gurrola Barrientos (see photo).
These guys reportedly used Uber to transport the proceeds – $129,000 in one instance, according to the indictment. (Read the press release here.)
They seemed to replicate the system that was perfected and taken nationwide by the folks from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I wrote about in my book, Dreamland.
As it turns out, according to defense attorneys, Manny’s was allegedly run by fellows from the Mexican states of Puebla and Guanajuato, which are not states I’ve associated with drug trafficking. Not sure where Mr. Gurrola Barrientos is from. But it’s not surprising the business model would be used by others. There’s no trademark or copyright in the underworld.
I was intrigued by the case as well because I’m fascinated by all the ingenuity displayed in that vast, profit-motivated culture of drug trafficking, particularly from Mexico.
In the 1990s, American medicine began to claim that opiate painkillers could be prescribed virtually indiscriminately, with little risk of addiction to patients. The result over the next two decades was a huge increase in our national supply of painkillers.
That happened without anyone realizing that our heroin market had also shifted during those years. Most of our heroin now came not from the Far East (Turkey, Burma, Afghanistan) but from Latin America – Colombia and, today especially, from Mexico. It got here cheaper and more potent than the Far East stuff.
Truth is, though, most Mexican traffickers for years cared little for heroin, which they viewed as decidedly scuzzy and back-alley and with a relatively small market of tapped-out users in the United States. So they focused more on cocaine and meth, and pot, of course.
Then we began creating scads of new opiate addicts with this expansion of indiscriminate prescribing of narcotic painkillers.
That, in turn, awoke an underworld version of Fedex, and unleashed the powerful and ingeniously creative forces of the Mexican drug-trafficking culture, then largely dormant when it came to heroin. By the way, that’s not to say, necessarily, cartels. Just a widespread culture of drug trafficking, particularly in certain regions of Mexico.
There’s a reason why heroin exists. It’s not because it has much medicinal use. Or, better put, the painkilling benefits it does possess can be provided by other drugs at far less risk of addiction. Heroin exists because it’s a great drug if you’re a trafficker. It’s easy to make and is very condensed. It’s easy to cut – making it profitable to traffic even in small quantities. So small-scale heroin trafficking is a big part of the story of how it gets here from Mexico.
Also, heroin is one of the few drugs that makes sense to sell retail – as it creates customers who must buy your product every day, Christmas included, and usually several times a day.
Thus applying basic business-school principles to heroin vending – principles of marketing, customer service, etc – just naturally occurs to folks.
Hence Manny’s Delivery Service. And a bunch more like them.
The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.
After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.
The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.
Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.
Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.
All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.
Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.
He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.
I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.
The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.
In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.
But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.
There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.
As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.
Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.
Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.
Alfredo del Mazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), appears to have been elected Sunday as governor of the massive state of Mexico.
The state of Mexico surrounds Mexico City like a horseshoe. It is economically bustling and contains most of what is Metro Mexico City, with several suburbs with populations of more than 1 million people. It is the most populous state in the country (pop. 16 million).
For decades, it has been run by the PRI – which also ran the country as a one-party state.
(NB: For a good analysis, in Spanish, of why Del Mazo won and the effect this might have on the country’s presidential election next year, read this by Federico Berrueto, which ran after I published this blogpost.)
More than that, though, the state has often been run by a group of Priistas from one small town: Atlacomulco, a town (pop. 77,000) that has produced governors like Xalisco, Nayarit has produced heroin traffickers.
Del Mazo is not technically from this town, but his father was, and so was his grandfather. Both men were governors of the state of Mexico. Both men were PRI leaders. Del Mazo himself is a distant cousin to current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who also hails from Atlacomulco and was once the governor of the state of Mexico.
Moreover, no group more exquisitely represents the worst of Mexican corruption than the governors from the town of Atlacomulco.
What’s popularly known as the Atlacomulco Group formed around an ideologue named Isidro Fabela in the 1940s and 1950s. The group shaped a governing philosophy that combined unregulated/crony capitalism with authoritarian, corrupt politics. Since World War II, of the 16 governors to run the state, seven have hailed from Atlacomulco. Others have taken their cues in how to govern from those from Atlacomulco.
(Each Mexican governor serves a six-year term, though during the PRI monopoly they often left office earlier to serve in the federal government or they finished the term of a governor who left early. This was particularly true of the state of Mexico, which has been a crucible for the formation of PRI leaders and high functionaries in the Mexican government during the years of the party’s political monopoly.)
Carlos Hank Gonzalez, also from this town and also once a governor of the state and a protégé of Fabela’s, encapsulated this philosophy with a now-famous statement, which as decades passed was adopted by many PRI politicians:
“Un politico pobre,” Hank said, “es un pobre politico.” Translation: A poor (not wealthy) politician is a poor (bad) politician.
Atlacomulco governors ran the state like little chieftains, accumulating power and wealth and leaving behind dozens of public assets named for them. (In the map guidebook to metro Mexico City, the listings of streets, avenues, boulevards, parks, neighborhoods, etc etc named for Hank Gonzalez take up three pages.)
This kind of governor is now a standard in Mexico, as the PRI lost its national political monopoly in 2000 and the president lost his undisputed power. It is now in the governors’ offices where power is exercised, at least on a regional level. Instead of one king, there are 31. The results have been disastrous for respect for the rule of law in Mexico.
In 2012, Peña Nieto hailed a “new generation” of governors, ready to do the country’s business in a modern way. At the time, he listed four governors as examples – of which three are now facing criminal charges and are on the run. One of them, Roberto Borge, former governor of the state of Quintana Roo, was detained this week in Panama, on the run fleeing charges of money laundering.
A lot of that can be traced, I believe, to attitudes on governance forged in the state of Mexico by the Atlacomulco Group, and their power within the PRI over the last many decades.
I remember covering the town of Nezahualcoyotl – a slum town in the state of Mexico on the eastern edge of Mexico City (pop. 1-3 million people, depending on who you ask) after residents elected their first non-PRI mayor. The new guy found a city hall teeming with corruption and incompetence. Outside, I remember, were at least 12 newspapers that circulated only within three blocks of city hall. Each was only four or eight pages. They had no interest in reporting news. They were instead intended as organs of promotion for the career of one politician or another and used to attack rivals – all within the broad umbrella of the PRI. That had become a real job in Nezahualcoyotl and other cities in the state of Mexico: start a newspaper, find a politician to fund it and become his promotional vehicle. I still have a bunch of these newspapers somewhere in my files.
This is the legacy of the PRI in the state of Mexico and why I find the election of yet another member of the Atlacomulco Group, no matter how distant, to be reason for discouragement.
Veytia is the Attorney General for the state of Nayarit, and a figure bigger in the public mind than the state’s governor – which is rare in Mexico.
He was charged under an indictment out of New York alleging that he conspired to smuggle heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine into the United States.
Those who’ve read Dreamland know the importance of Nayarit in our heroin supply. Many have alleged that Veytia protected the heroin trade, in an alliance with a large and new cartel known as Jalisco New Generation, who has taken control of the region over the last six years.
Proceso, the Mexican new weekly, recently published this article calling him the “dark Prosecutor,” and repeating allegations that he had protected the drug trade.
Veytia began his career simply enough, as an attorney handling the taxi concessions for the city of Tepic. But in time, he was place in charge of the state’s anti-kidnapping squad and from there elevated to Attorney General.
(Stay tuned for a blog post later today about my own (brief) encounter with Edgar Veytia.)
In Nayarit, he has promoted an image of himself as a tireless, almost God-like, fighter against crime, subduing the violence that racked the state during 2010 and 2011. The governor of Nayarit named him government official of the year.
“Nayarit was a war zone, body mounted and the state needed a miracle sent from the Lord above.
Edgar Veytia is the name of this miracle, who returned peace to the land, risking his life
He’s been able to let people feel better, in a peaceful state and for that I thank God.”
In February, the Mexican Marines shot it out with – and killed – a wanted leader of the Beltran Leyva Cartel — Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez, aka H2 – who lived a few doors down from Edgar Veytia in the city of Tepic, Nayarit’s capital.
A businessman in Los Angeles who is from Nayarit, in an interview in 2014, told me Veytia had him kidnapped. (More on that interview later.)
So far, it’s unclear how Veytia was at the border and able to be arrested. I suppose we’ll hear more on that as the case unfolds.
Leaving aside the charges against Veytia, the Mexican drug trade since its origins in the 1970s has depended on political protection, collusion and corruption.
Her obituary doesn’t provide a lot of detail, but it does provide some. It sounded as if she spent a lot of time in rehab, then relapsed each time. Finally, when she looked to be putting the worst behind her, she relapsed again and overdosed and died.
It’s an extraordinarily sad story – and it must have been very difficult for her parents to write the obituary.
It made me think of what her death can tell us. First, all addiction seems to involve relapse. I quit smoking (and started again) nine times before I finally quit for good – at 37.
But I lived through my cigarette relapses. With opiates, particularly given the amount of supply of dope on the street, getting out of treatment is like Russian Roulette. People go in, detox, get clean. Their tolerance to narcotics drops. They leave rehab and do well, then they relapse. With these drugs, and their prevalence and potency on the street, relapse too often means death.
It feels good to say, `We can’t arrest our way out of this.’ I agree. We do need expanded treatment. But, frankly, that also feels too easy.
My feeling is, when it comes to opiates, we have to arrest our way out of this before we can treat our way out of it. That’s a bit discombobulated, I know. What I mean is that we need to address supply on the street. That comes only with arrests. It seems to me dangerous to assume that in modern America people can get out of rehab and go home to areas awash in dope and be expected to stay alive, given the likelihood of relapse and the potency and controlling nature of opiates. It’s not cigarettes people are relapsing on. It’s pain pills and, especially now, heroin and fentanyl.
This is a supply story and has been from the beginning. Huge amounts of very potent opiates were unleashed on the country – first in the form of prescription opiate painkillers. When millions of people grew addicted to these pills, a lot of them looked for cheaper alternatives. Heroin traffickers, mostly from Mexico, slowly realized that these folks were a growing market and expanded their offering.
But it all has to do with supply. No treatment has much chance against a cheap and plentiful supply of potent dope.
It’s why doctors and the medical establishment need to continue reassessing how they prescribe opiate painkillers.
It’s also why we need to make Mexico a sustained priority. I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t think building a wall — or rather, more walls — at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to do much to slow heroin trafficking. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously address Mexico’s continued production and exporting of this drug. Ninety percent of our heroin comes from Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department. It’s unconscionable that one country should export so much of this junk. China fought a war with England in the 1800s, twice, over this issue. We don’t need wars with Mexico, but it does seem to me that we need to make this the priority it deserves to be – and walls are a distraction from the real work that needs doing.
This young woman’s death also shows why we probably need to make much greater use of what’s known as medically assisted treatment – the use of drugs as replacements, as shields. These include methadone, Vivitrol and Suboxone – they either take away the craving for heroin or block overdoses.
It’s unreasonable, I think, to assume that addicts can go back to these same neighborhoods, where opiate supply is plentiful, without some sort of protection, some kind of shield.
The last couple years have shown how dangerous that is.
While speaking on the topic of heroin in America, I’m often asked how much of our supply comes from Afghanistan, as we’ve been in a war over there for many years.
My answer, from interviews with traffickers, cops and DEA agents, is that most of our heroin comes from Mexico.
That view was confirmed this morning by William Brownfield, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
In a conference call with reporters, Brownfield estimated that 90 to 94 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States originates in Mexico, with another 2 percent or so coming from Colombia and the remainder from other countries around the globe.
That represents a massive shift in our heroin supply since roughly 1980, when a lot of our heroin came from the Far East, and had for decades.
Interestingly, Brownfield said, a lot of Afghan heroin does make it to Canada, but not to the United States, where Mexican trafficking organizations, too close by, enjoy a more advanced and efficient distribution network, and offer therefore cheaper prices.
Brownfield was talking about the just-issued International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), which talks a lot about the heroin/opioid problem in America. Brownfield’s message was a positive one about cooperation between Mexico and the United states on issues of drug enforcement.
A wall of law enforcement cooperation is in place, without constructing an actual wall, he said. Serious problems existed, he said, “but we have a far better architecture to address them today than we did in years past.”
Nevertheless, his answer on heroin’s origin stunned even me. I would not have guessed the estimate would be that high.
I’ve written elsewhere about my belief that it’s unlikely that more border walls between the two countries will do much to staunch the flow of heroin into the United States. What’s really necessary is even deeper cooperation, frank discussion with Mexico that a wall and the emotion it provokes would do much to corrode.
Yet Brownfield’s response highlights two things worth mentioning.
One is that Mexico must truly step up to this challenge. Its unconscionable that such a high percentage of illegal highly addictive dope come from one country to another. China had a similar issue in the 1800s, when the British forced opium into that country, resulting in the massive addiction of Chinese people for decades after.
If border walls are insulting to Mexico, it must understand that they are proposed because of Mexico’s own failings – both with regard to law enforcement and criminal justice, and in channeling the desires of its most hardworking citizens, who then feel the need to migrate illegally to the United States.
Second is that U.S. demand for heroin grows organically out of doctors’ massive prescribing over the last 20 years of pharmaceutical narcotic painkillers – the subject of my book DREAMLAND — something that no border wall will stop, of course. Also, if we get into discussions with Mexico about this topic, soon that discussion will also turn to our very accessible market for guns, many of which then go south through a variety of channels and end up being weapons in that country’s bloody drugs wars. So if we ask a neighbor to behave with maturity, we better be willing to do the same.
We have almost 700 miles of walls along the border that separate the two countries. Drugs aren’t much trafficked through those areas that have no walls, most of which are in forbidding terrain. Our drugs, instead, are trafficked through ports of entry where walls already exist. They are trafficked in cars, trucks, and by pedestrians. With heroin, the problem is exacerbated, as I’ve written elsewhere, by the fact that is the most condensable drug, thus the most easily and profitably trafficked,and one that we now have a huge demand for.
All in all, the issue begs a binational, cooperative solution, seems to me.
Keith Dannemiller, a native of Ohio, has been one of the premier photographers out of Latin America for two decades now. His black and white street shots from Mexico City are strange and dazzling.
Keith and I worked together in Mexico for many years, both of us freelancers. We recorded this conversation a while back when Keith’s first book of photography — Callegrafia – was coming out. It’s sold out, but the chat is interesting – about finding what to shoot, and why, and what got him started on street photography, and how a man devoted to his craft does his job.
Keith’s new exposition of his photography is called Luz Translation, opening in the town of San Miguel De Allende, Guanajuato, on February 2. Check it out if you’re down there. It’s at Centro Cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes, #75 Hernandez Macias and running until April 23.
We came upon this taxi driver who started telling us of how, in order to build his family a house, he went to Texas to cut rock for housing facades, using a legal visa provided by his employer. Did this for three years, six days a week, 12 hours a day minimum.
Hope you like this video, which I did last week in Mexico.
Let me know what you think, either here on in the Youtube comment box. Please share it if you like it.
I have no doubt that (yet another) wall between the United States and Mexico would be a disaster. The biggest reason: it would provide Mexico’s elite with some distracting issue to point to to avoid having to address all that has made it a country that people risk death to leave.
The other day I was in Tijuana working on another story about the deportees who have congregated in that city.
I was hanging out in the Zona Norte, a neighborhood right at the border where I suspect 90 percent of the residents have been deported. I was in a humble, cramped one-story apartment complex, where many men have rented cheap rooms – the kind of place that dots this neighborhood. (Btw, this neighborhood is a hundred yards from not one, but two walls separating the country.)
I was interviewing one of these guys, when another came to his door and said the police were there. After the interview, I went outside to the patio to find heavily armed police menacing the guys in the apartment. One had teeth clenched, right up in the face of one man whose hands were cuffed.
I don’t know the whole story here. There are a lot of good reasons why these guys were deported: DUIs, drug use, etc. Some may have been selling drugs. I don’t know. The neighborhood is full of problems, and I would understand a police officer’s frustration with it.
But I do know that to a man, every deportee I’ve interviewed has stories (plural) of cops beaten him, taking his money, insulting him for speaking English, for being a deportee, and in general using their power in a manner that would seem to have little to do with combating crime or drugs in the area. On the contrary, it does a lot to keep poor men down.
I suspect these men, while they were working in the United States and part of that workforce sending money home to Mexico, were applauded. Now they’re deported and it’s a different story.
What I saw that day was minor, really. But this minor experience gets to the bigger issue of what Mexico must do to become a place that people don’t want to leave.
Mexico is bereft of institutions that common Mexicans can have faith in. Mexico’s economy has been doing well, but the day prior I met two groups of people – one from Michoacan, the other from Guerrero – that had traveled up from Mexico’s interior to ask for political asylum, so scary was the violence that surrounded them.
So there’s two Mexico’s: one reflected in the (real) statistics of economic growth; the other in the (also very real) experience on the ground in many Mexican states of complete disintegration of the basic institutions of civil society.
I have seen good Mexican cops, but there aren’t enough of them. Political parties have become the new dictatorship. City government is so lacking in funding and civil service that it – the most effective level of government in attacking poverty – is completely incompetent, and too often unaccountable. Meanwhile, Mexico seems always ready to shoot itself in the foot – to wit, the recent release of drug cartel leader and killer Rafael Caro Quintero, now marshaling forces to go to war with El Chapo Guzman in various parts of the country, including in Cd. Juarez.
(Read two related stories in the latest edition of America’s Quarterly with the views of Mexico’s central banker Agustin Carstens and its former ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukahn.)
So if Mexico is inflamed at the demagoguery of one of our presidential candidates, I don’t blame it. That demagoguery – yet another wall along with it — poses real threats to the United States and its standing in the world. It would also poison relations between the two countries, thus removing an important lever with which the United States can push Mexico to change, and closing off the ways in which the countries currently and beneficially work together.
Mexico ought to strongly note its disapproval. Then it ought to turn inward and begin examining why for decades it has been a country so many poor people have risked death to leave.
“Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place
your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs. …”
“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests. … Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander. … If you want to fight, do it, but as men do. Say it to each other’s faces and after that, like men of God, pray together. If you went too far, ask for forgiveness.”
If there are clerics in this world due for a spiritual tongue-lashing, it’s Mexican bishops.
When I lived there, I was struck by how uninterested most bishops (and there were notable exceptions) seemed in the country’s poor. Many seemed either absorbed with ritual, or with political intrigue and playing golf with the powerful – either oblivious to, or studiously ignoring, the country’s towering wave of poverty, throttled opportunity and energy, and of course, today, violence.
In the most deeply Catholic parts of the country – Oaxaca and Chiapas – it was as if the church hadn’t changed much since the Spaniards brought it over. The priest was viewed as a quasi-deity in many Oaxacan villages. People were not allowed to look at him when he walked their streets – this as recently as the 1970s, from people I’ve spoken to. The religious traditions of those villages – the fiestas that poor peasant farmers had to pay for, miring them in debt for years; the incessant use of alcohol – have served to keep generations of people poor.
Thus so many Mexicans, especially so many Mexican Indians from isolated villages in states like Chiapas and Oaxaca, convert to Protestant denominations when they leave their home towns.
Look at Pico-Union and South Central Los Angeles, or the agricultural Valley of San Quintin in Baja California. You will see hundreds of new churches – Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and more – many of which were formed by Zapotecas, Mixtecs, and Mayans who were once thought to be the bedrock of Mexican Catholicism.
They were easy to control when they hadn’t seen anything of the New World, and were cloistered in the Old.
Away from the limitations, prohibitions, and ecclesiastical arrogance they grew up with, many seem to feel that spiritual reinvention ought to be as much a part of their new lives as the socio-economic conversion they are going through.
Just as global economic competition has entered Mexico in the last few decades, so too is the country facing religious competition. Too often, the church still seemed to behave as if it had a monopoly on souls.
I thought I saw similarities between the church and how Mexican immigrants turned away from Gigante, the Mexican grocery-store chain that tried to enter the Southern California market a few years back, thinking it could treat these immigrants the same disparaging way the chain had back home.
They’d see how Catholicism wins when it opens itself to its parishioners, allows them to own the church and take an active role in it. They’d see how crucial that is to energizing a congregation now working in the New World and used to, but unhappy with, the ways of the Old.
Opiate addiction appears to be emerging as an issue in the presidential campaign, as well it should.
I’ve read a lot that does seem to be too nuanced on either side of this topic.
Here are a few of my thoughts:
Virtually all our heroin comes from Mexico, or comes from Colombia through Mexico.
Originating now in our hemisphere, heroin now changes hands less and travels far shorter distances than it did when so much of it came from Turkey or Burma (1970s).
All that means that it’s cheaper here than ever, it’s more prevalent, and it’s far more potent. And all that, in turn, has a lot to do with why people begin using it in the first place (cost), and then stay addicted (prevalence), or relapse after rehab, and then why they die more frequently (potency).
Used to be that people (addicts from the 1970s) lived for many years on heroin – when it was more expensive and less potent and more arduous to find. A lot of heroin addicts who started in those years did die, but they died during the AIDS epidemic from sharing needles, not so much from overdoses.
Now heroin addicts aren’t living long; They’re dying young and quickly. I believe that’s because so much of the drug comes from Mexico, making it cheaper, more potent and more prevalent than ever.
When uncut or less cut, heroin is easy to conceal because it’s so concentrated – again because now it comes from Mexico, which is so close.
So you don’t need trucks to get a lot of heroin across – though trucks have been used. A lot of people walk it across at the border crossings hidden in a purse, or a backpack, or on their person.
There’s a market for heroin because there is a demand for it.
That said, I believe that supply is fundamental to this issue – supply created this demand, just as it did during the cocaine days. We didn’t have a huge demand for cocaine before Colombians began smuggling tons of it up through Florida. Likewise, we didn’t have huge numbers of heroin addicts before doctors began prescribing enormous quantities of opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, etc. and a lot of people got addicted, then switched to heroin, which is now, as I said, cheaper than ever.
Heroin traffickers, as I hope I made clear in Dreamland, came late to this party. They followed the demand for opiates that had been created by massive overprescribing by doctors of these painkillers.
Just as we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, we likely cannot treat our way out of it, either. Particularly with treatment costing so much and taking so long. Typical treatment that has any chance of success, from what addiction specialists tell me, is a minimum of nine months. One doc I know insists a year is the minimum.
Curtailing supply is thus essential to giving each attempt at rehab and recovery a greater chance of success. So that every recovering addict isn’t bombarded with dope at every turn, as they are in so many parts of the country today.
That said, among the steps I think we need to take – some of which are articulated by the CDC recently – is retraining doctors to question why they prescribe these drugs and, if they’re necessary, in what quantities. For example, for wisdom tooth extraction, 60 Vicodin is common. That seems crazy to me.
Seems like 6-12 pills would be reasonable, and that the patient should return if he needs more. Doctors prescribe so many of these pills out the gate because they don’t want to see patients a second time, and they know that insurance companies often won’t reimburse for those follow-up visits, no matter how few.
So this problem will require that insurance companies change their practices, and reimburse doctors for follow-up visits for the (again) few patients who might need more of those pills after routine surgery.
Walls have had a healthy effect on the border. Tijuana (two walls, as I said) is an excellent example of that. When it was the main crossing point – 1960s until mid-1990s – rapes, robberies, assaults and murders were common, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then the first wall went up, then the second. Now it’s calm on that border line. May be a weird symbol for a globalized world, but murders and rapes are rare now.
Despite those walls, heroin will seep in, through the cracks, in ways that seem to me impossible, or extraordinarily expensive, to stop. And that’s not the supply that caused this problem.