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I remember the local bus stations, the restaurants I dined in and, more vividly, the faces of generous and hardworking people I had crossed paths with. What I don’t remember are the scenes of carnage, the decapitated heads and soldiers patrolling the streets in diesel-belching vehicles.
It was the end of Spring Break, in 2008, when I had crossed the Texas-Mexico border on foot at three in the morning. The streets were desolate and quiet except for the faint banter of taxi drivers trying to hustle lone travelers like myself. One guy offered me a lift to the consulate for my tourist visa, even though it was still closed, for an above-average rate. I declined. Another guy offered me hookers. I declined that as well. As seedy as that sounds, it was actually a peaceful time along the border. Nowadays, those taxi drivers are probably not faring too well, because no one wants to be out and about when the Zetas, Sinaloa and other drug cartels are splattering the streets with blood in the most gruesome fashion.
When the first major outbreaks of violence erupted in Mexican states along the border, they were generally limited to certain hot spots, or staked territories of different drug cartel factions, but after an arson attack at a casino last August, in Monterrey–a city which hosts many large companies and a relatively low crime rate–the illusion of safety was shattered.
It also doesn’t help that corruption is rampant within the government, both local and federal levels. In fact, many citizens blamed the government–particularly President Felipe Calderón–for escalating the violence in the notorious War on Drugs. According to a report by the BBC, about 1,000 police officers in the state of Veracruz failed lie-detector tests. The average salary of men in uniform below the border are lower than their counterparts in the United States, making it enticing to bite on money baited by criminal organizations.
The government has also been criticized for exaggerating the facts when it came to the statistics it used in victory declarations, claiming that most casualties in armed scrimmages with the cartels are criminals. But the sobering figures actually show that civilians also make up a good percentage of casualties. They’re trying to show the citizens and, more importantly, the United States, that their war against the cartels is effective.
This is not to take anything away from the armed forces of Mexico. I commend those who truly fight for their beautiful country’s future and resist corruption, but they are outgunned and outfunded by the various cartels, and this makes it more difficult for them to do their job. There have been major victories, such as the arrest of Jose Antonio Torres, an affiliate of the Sinaloa, and the capture of Louis Jesus Sarabia Ramon, a leader of the deadly Zetas cartel. But just as with the Taliban, when one leader goes down, another is appointed as replacement almost immediately.
The other problem with arresting leaders is that this creates a vacuum within the organization and thus can spark a power struggle, which of course will lead to more violence.
No. This is not the Mexico I remember. It has only been three years since I’ve stepped foot on to Mexican soil, but the changes have been drastic. I remember the taco vendor near the Matamoros park. My stomach praised him like a god. I remember the hardworking man who gave me coins for a bus fare because I didn’t have Mexican pesos yet; giving me, an American from the suburbs, his hard-earned money with a smile, just because it was the decent thing to do for a stranger. I remember the bartender in Barrio Antiguo who lavished me with stories and enough salsa to send me to gastronomy heaven.
That’s the Mexico I remember—the kind, tough, lively people who are unfairly caught between the bullets.