by Zach Lindsey
[ places - may 11 ]
It's the hard, guttural cumbia rhythms of Celso Piña, the psychedelic web of primary colors, the smell of frying milanesa and hamburger, that hits like a wave of stagnant heat as you come up out of the metro in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood.
Many people say Tepito is the most dangerous neighborhood in Mexico City. Taxi drivers don't like to go there. It is a place where you can get robbed on a major street in broad daylight with a taco vendor two feet away. It is a neighborhood where the local gang, which focuses mostly on arms smuggling tags the word "Tepito" with a skull to dot the 'i,' a sign of barrio pride just as much as it is gang unity. There, most calibers of firearms are easy to come by, despite the country's strict laws against them.
Yet, it is also a bustling, colorful place where the roads are covered by vendor's tents. The vendors sell everything from clothing to fruit. If you don't get too lost when you get off the metro, you can get a michelada and a hot dog or two and buy a stack of bootleg movies such as El Infierno and The Dark Knight from an eight-year-old, all for about five American dollars. Maybe the DVDs will even work.
But some of what is for sale in Tepito has a darker undertone. There is a booth with a thin mannequin wearing a dark green polo shirt that say "London" across the chest - seemingly innocuous, but it is a replica of the same shirt that Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal wore in his infamous arrest photo. The other shirts they sell are more of the same: knock-off Ralph Laurens just like the ones El JJ or El Cabrito wore when they went down.
There are booths that sell bootleg CDs, just like many neighborhoods in Mexico City, except here the CDs are by bands such as Los Invasores del Nuevo León or Los Tucanes de Tijuana, both noted writers of "narcocorridos," folk-style music that describes the lives of famous drug capos such as Sandra Ávila Beltrán or Rafael Caro Quintero. Some of these songs have more than 500,000 views on websites such as Youtube, and have been tagged with comments such as "yeah quinteros!!!!" or "Rafael was the best."
The market for these products is enormous. In one 10-minute span at the booth selling replicas of the Valdez polo, four young people shopped around, and one bought himself a t-shirt. Even though Valdez was arrested in September, 2010, the booth is still making business seven months later.
It'd be unfair and impossible to make laws against this kind of stuff, especially since the cops can't even control the huge amount of bootleg products that are unrelated to the cartels.
"The cops don't care or matter here," one young Tepito resident told me.
The official stance of the Mexican government as of March, 2011 is that the cartels do not operate in Mexico City - all you have to worry about there are small-time drug deals affectionately known as "narcomenudeos" and the occasional mugging. If so, it's hard to imagine why the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones, Mexico's version of the FBI, spent all day Jan. 24, 2011 going house to house in Mexico City looking for suspected member of the Sinaloan cartel Juan José "El Azul" Esparragoza Moreno, or why so many security analysts hypothesize that Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada functions as a sort of underground customs at the Mexico City International Airport.
Zambada, also of the Sinaloan cartel, once told Proceso that he hopes to be killed in a shootout with the Mexican police. It will be an "example," he said, because as great and glorious as his death will appear for Mexico, who will undoubtedly promote it as important in the war on drugs, nothing will have changed.
If that is the dream ending of a man whose bounty alone is worth $5 million, it begs the question, why would anybody choose this profession?
The answer seems to be: money money money money money.
Using access to and affordability of food as a definition of poverty, in 2008, Mexico struggled with an 18.7 per cent poverty rate, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The Mexican National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information said that same year that about 12 per cent of Mexico's 112 million people live on the minimum wage.
Mexico's minimum wage varies depending on which region of the country you work in, but it rose in 2011 to $59.82 pesos at the high end, or about $4.90... a day. Compare that to the price of milk, which stood at $13 pesos in February 2011. Former Maj. Arturo González Rodríguez, who was arrested on 21 December, 2008, apparently received $100,000 American dollars a month to provide the Beltrán Leyva cartel with Calderón's travel plans - not to assassinate him, but simply to avoid the heightened security that followed the president's appearances, according to a diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks.
That's a hard number to ignore for the seven million Mexican youngsters who make up what UNAM Professor John Ackerman and other journalists have described as the "neither-nor" generation - neither studying nor employed.
It'd be wrong to say that all Mexican youth have an infatuation with organized crime. The "No Mas Sangre" movement is one proof that many of them are downright fed up with it. But, to some youth, a criminal organization is a preferable solution to that $4.90 a day job.
In many places, it's the absence of other opportunities that draws young people to gangs, not greed, according to World Politics Review journalist Patrick Corcoran. At the start, they aren't pulling in the $100,000 paychecks or anything near to it. But there is nothing else.
But the youth of different places in Mexico have different reasons for joining the cartels. In Ciudad Juárez, one of the most violent cities in Mexico by any measure, it is "the commonplace nature of being in a gang, and finding a sense of identity there," Corcoran said.
In the mountains of Sinaloa, it's not identity so much as the realities of actual drug production. There, it's almost "a rational business decision, a way to make a living," Corcoran said.
Then there's family.
"Family has served as an entree into the business for lots of big-time traffickers," he said. "That's probably a big piece of the puzzle no matter where you are."
There is no easy way of reducing the population susceptible to drug trafficking into one definitive mindset or subgroup of Mexico's population. And that means there is no easy solution.
And then there's the propaganda.
Kill our friend Zambada in a hail of bullets? Not a solution, according to George W Grayson, professor at the College of William & Mary and author of Mexico: Narco-violence and a Failed State.
"There is no polvo magico (magic potion)," Grayon said.
No. There are many more things needed in Mexico than bullets. His short list included an improved health system, job training, and complete and utter reforms to education.
But don't hold your breath.
"Until the elite in this country realizes that it has a stake in fighting organized crime, its going to be violence, spiraling upward," Grayson said.
Meanwhile many average Mexicans believe that the government isn't really fighting the cartels with all its heart anyway.
"This isn't a war against cartels - it's a war between cartels," said one resident of the Yucatan working in Mexico City.
That mentality spreads all across Mexico - from Nuevo Laredo, where some residents believe the government protects the Gulf Cartel at the expense of the Zetas, to Michoacán, where there are alleged ties between La Familia de Michoacana and the state government.
But the biggest "open secret" is the alleged connection between President Felipe Calderón's administration and the Sinaloa Cartel. NPR even ran a huge feature on it, comparing arrest records released by the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) and finding that, of the major, named cartel members arrested, only 12 per cent were Sinaloa cartel members. Most - 44 per cent - were either Gulf cartel or Zetas. Our friend from the Yucatan even went as far as saying Sinaloa leader Joaquín Archivaldo "El Chapo" GuzmÁn Loera, a man on the FBI most wanted list, was married into the Calderón family, although he had absolutely no evidence except hearsay to back it up.
But the veracity of these claims are not important; they highlight a mentality of the Mexican people. Why believe the government, why support the actions of the government, if what they do is not to save Mexico but to aid a rival cartel?
That sentiment exists partially because the cartels have developed a better public relations system than the Mexican government, according to Yale School of Management Professor Rodrigo Canales.
Some cartels may be challenging the state openly and directly, and in some cases, they're winning, and that's where the real danger comes in, Canales said.
"You have these cartels who are fighting not just for the routes and the business, but they're fighting for social legitimacy," Canales said.
When activist Maricela Escobeda was murdered in Ciudad Juárez, for example, one cartel posted banners around the city asking citizens to denounce the killer, so that the cartel could punish the killer. The cartel would be the ones to handle justice.
"There is a very complex media campaign to draw attention to themselves as institutional players," Canales said.
And what is the message?
"We are at least as institutional as the state, and, actually, more institutional," Canales said.
It was November, 2009 when I met Manuel. That's a fake name, for his sake and mine. He owned a shop in Nuevo Laredo's Maclovio Herrera market. His shop sold Mexico's signature breakfast sandwiches called tortas, and was rarely open after 3pm.
He complained about the border wall, the illusion of insecurity plaguing Mexico, tourists fleeing in droves. In the glory days of Maclovio Herrera, his shop would have been filled with Americans coming from Texas or even further north to sample Mexican cuisine before going on to get hopelessly inebriated at bars such as Señor Frog's.
But did he feel unsafe?
"No. We're protected."
Manuel was happily protected by the same people who had always protected him and his shop, and it wasn't the police. He flashed a little, unconcerned grin as he talked about "syndicate" members.
A month later, Mexico celebrated the New Year, and 200 years of Mexican independence. Nobody knew it, but Mexico, and Nuevo Laredo, was about to experience one of the bloodiest years in its history. By 2011, Mexico's Senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones was comparing Mexico's drug war to Vietnam, more than 15,000 people were dead according to El Universal, and there was no sign of an ending.
And there is still no sign of an ending.