Friday, October 23, 2015

El Chapo: The Other Side of the Equation

In a recent pronouncement about Mexico, Donald Trump rattled a new cage, right at our doorstep on the Arizona-Sonora border. As a candidate for the highest office in the land, Trump pulled out his six-gun in one hand and his boxing gloves in the other, and offered up a New York high rise version of “plata o plomo”. This orange hair gringo challenged Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a brand new, recently escaped tunnel artist and up-to-date Twittering Mexican version of Columbia’s Don Pablo Escobar; he’s known in English as “Shorty” by American latinos who prefer it. Guzman’s people, his “operatives”, in military parlance, inhabit the neighborhoods on both sides of the border. He is the new reality, and much like Donald Trump, El Chapo brings his own show  .  The stage is being set and reset with every passing day, and the tunnel escape stories circulate as fast as the Trump piñatas. Important as The Donald is for the silent majority north of the border, impassable walls, Republicans and 99 percent of American politics and politicians don’t mean shit down here. Yet sometimes that one remaining percent can rarely catch a 99 percent attention span, especially when it comes from Trump. All should know by now: Donald doesn’t make a reservation at the restaurant. He has the whole place bought when he wants to make insults, and no one who likes to eat there should feel excluded from the invited group. He serves all fares for all appetites, and he doesn’t care if you show or not. He leaves an empty seat for you. You just might be the meal.

Guzman got the message. As noted, Trump came from the one percent, and at dinner with the press he mentions the man from Sinaloa, saying he would “kick his ass” if he became President.  Mr. Trump has supposedly reached ten billion, so if you’re living on the other side of the equation and received an invitation, perhaps arriving in the truly beautiful city of Culican, Sinaloa, as you are approaching your first billion or so, having escaped twice because you know how to  build a half mile tunnel and get all obstacles out of your way, well, how would you respond? Probably like Guzman did. He rose out of the ground and tweeted to the false prophet and high rise Jesus, his new rival. El Chapo like The Donald, likes to use Twitter, and he sent the message promising to make him “eat his words”. The death threat was not implied; it was pretty much explicit in a second 160 byte delivery. Who would have ever imagined Twitter being the new courier of communications between a bandit and a maybe-to-be president? 
It would not be too hard to imagine what kind of Secret Service briefing followed somewhere up in one of the Trump towers after that pronouncement. They probably swept the room first. Thankfully, no one living escapes that event when the black suits arrive.

Characteristically, high level public political gangster-like challenges are grist for the news mill up north. But unlike the Mexican press, which draws different do-not-cross lines, American news executives like to keep reporters healthy.  There are enough American newsmen – and women - missing in the Mideast already. 

But this time, in Mexico, where violence and threats are so common they are rarely printed or shown or even known, the Trump-Guzman firefight swept in through Sonora like a fire in the wind, spreading emotional dust devils through the ejidos and pueblos throughout the desert with the velocity of and intensity of a cruise missile. Figuratively speaking (though I would not be surprised if it really occurred), the Trump piñatas were now being hit by gunfire, not kids sticks, then burned. You really have to hand it to Donald. First he laid waste to the entire presidential lineup, sparing only one socialist escapee for now, then he aims and hits all Mexican immigrants (save a few “good ones” now and then), and all to get the ubiquitous following of millions just south of the border. Twitter Like or Don’t Like, thumbs up or down, THE Donald Trump hits all his targets, and perhaps too well, as it is likely he may now be considering limiting the breath of any possible unnecessary future damage he may inflict. If so, he has made a wise decision. 

Regarding the Mexican thing, with some effort, even exerted by a multi-billionaire, they can be understood, and once understood, all the strangeness disappears. It’s truly amazing but, as they say, by the grace of God, Mexicans don’t go out of their way to make gringos suffer the way so many Americans have done as they clap in unison for government officials who quite properly take their official orders seriously, ignoring the noise, the protests, all to deport them pronto, when all most of them really need is a job. Oh, for the pain of living in that glass house and having to see all those “illegals” down the street. But that aside, it should be old news to the whiners that the George W Bush housing bubble burst years ago, in 2008-09, and with came the beginnings of remigration and the end to the extended and illegal stays of millions of Mexicans who were building them. Over these years, most returned south, leaving the illegal crossings north for less troublesome people like drug smugglers and cartel assassins. Not as many are crossing though, so perhaps Washington can take solace in that. The rest of the "always illegal", they still stay in the shadows.

So the firefight is on hold for now, and except for some humor by Mad Magazine, which posted a poster of  a boxing match between the two (“El Chapo vs El Crappo”), not much more has been said of the high level verbal altercation. The missile hit, and people scattered, but the blast fizzled. More to the point, people went back to daily life.

On occasion, it might surprise people in high rise environments that the rest of the world remains still living. For the part of the 99 percent that remain here, it is still all about the forever-Mexican family structures and of course, speculation about what kind of life “El Chapo” Guzman Loera will bring to the border state. With a sigh, an ex-comisario told me recently, “there’s no law now”. ” 

“So do you think it’s better or worse?” I asked. “It’s better now. I like the soldiers, but they polluted the air.” 

The plazas are now secure, and the “plaza” is not a Mexican town square; it’s an agreement, an errant traffic stop, a point of entry or departure, a "piso",  a point of unwritten law – any or all of the above.

President Pena Nieto is running the republic, and Calderons’ soldiers and their regular Sonoran street stops and battles already seem a distant memory. The soldiers have all but disappeared, along with the interior customs stops (aduanas), all of which have boarded their doors and put up the CERRADO sign. The Bush boom and bubble has long since burst in Arizona, and the exodus began then and continues. It’s a remigration from “el otro lado”, (the common Mexican reference to that distant land north, “the other side”). The movement back south is right out of the Wizard’s imagination: they exit old E. Pluribus Unum with a quick pack up of the pickup and with the turn of the key, a self-cross and firm tap on the accelerator, they start the just-click-your-heels voyage on wheels from Mi Apartamento, OZ, USA, to Mi Pueblo, Kansas, Mexico. This new repast is bound to stay on our plate for a while. Goodbye Estados Unidos, bienvenidos, Mexico. You can almost hear Walter Kronkite in the background, signing off. “And that’s the way it is, folks”.

More people are coming back every day, but less every day. The remigration has almost run its course. Some pueblos have doubled and even nearly tripled population in these years. It is the same throughout all the Sierra Madres. The rural life is still quiet and simple. Sometimes it’s more dangerous than it ever was during Calderon’s time. Soldiers and hit men were in constant battle throughout the republic for the entire six years of Calderon’s presidency.  Despite that, the new Pena Nieto formula has generally taken hold, even if not universally well received. With PRI back in power, people hope, maybe things will settle a little. An occasional local bumper sticker sometimes drives around Agua Prieta, a border town of Douglas, Arizona, which says “Enrique Pena Nieto is NOT my President”, but other than that, there is little public display of consternation with the new political and physical reality since the 2012 elections. 

We have gone back to the future, and like the Delorean return to a parking lot, it’s a recurring event . This massive remigration is leaving only irony in its wake up north: if things keep going this way, many millions from Boston to Sacramento may begin their exit without any politician ever having to deliver on grandiose promises to build the wall. Nothing like a poor, weird economy coupled with willful ignorance and finely veiled racism to help working people head for the exits. This time, the Mexicans are headed back south, whether they’ve been gone for a few days or a decade. 

Even so, Trump and Guzman have one thing in common. They like peace better than discord, and they both hate complexity. Neither is above shooting up the place when things don’t go their way. 

But that is where they part ways. Like his Columbian predecessor, El Chapo speaks with far less intensity than he listens, but when he does, he’s Trump without the bravado. Unless Trump says he wants to kick his butt. That kind of quip, of course, coming from someone with a mop that looks woven from some orange horse hairs from the ejido, gets even a normally quiet billionaire escapee hot under the collar. But generally, the biggest cartel leaders are not given to shouting or histrionics. They let the politicians do that, because that is what they do best.

Sunday is a busy day down here in the local pueblo, and that’s really the only day you can find anyone around town. Almost everyone works (around Sonora, now) the rest of the time. One recent Sunday recently came sandwiched between the American Labor Day celebration and the Mexican Day of Independence. That’s manna for a Mexican family. To the working class, that kind of calendar makes a great “puente”, or grand bridge, not too far but long enough, which when stretched, means a whole week off work for American Latino families lucky enough to escape Arizona to see their families here.

That Sunday I sat with my friend Ramon Angel, across from his business on the two-lane federal highway at the “salida” of town, its southern “point of departure” to Moctezuma. In front of us sits a speed bump that is big enough to warn all traffic to brake or risk breakdown, but everyone clogging the road that day knew it was there. Ramon and I talked like sentries while the traffic slowed and mostly smiled and occasionally frowned, usually waving and sometimes hollering something good as they passed. Some came circling back on our watch, maybe to take a second look at the gringo in shorts. I knew more people than I care to admit, and Ramon knew a lot more. Even with all the traffic, noise, conversation and trash there’s no doubt I feel at home.

There is admittedly a precarious balance. A few months ago, on a quiet weekday, a few sicarios - hit men - grabbed a couple people a few yards from where we sat, and they disappeared. Perhaps they lived, perhaps not. Everyone around knows. It never made the news out of Hermosillo, a three-hour drive from these mountains. News comes by satellite, eventually, but in Mexico neighbors actually know each other and talk a lot. News travels fast in pueblos, the way it used to up north in small towns, a century ago. You don’t have to wait or wonder whether some reporter will show up. It won’t be on Facebook. But you will hear about it, most likely sooner than later. It’s nice that way. Computer knowledge not required.

Up in Tucson, you could walk the dog down the street and still not know someone recently got murdered on the street corner near the huge mesquite where Rover stops to relieve his bladder. The television truck cams came loaded with the closest crime reporter. Maybe a helicopter passed to film the scene. And some police spokesperson was interviewed and made an important comment with a phone number to call. But you missed the News at 6 that night, and the Arizona Star never got read that day either. So that might be the end of it, and no one gets caught, but that’s the way things work up north. Unless it’s big news, like when Rep. Gabby Giffords got shot and the world gets to know in a few minutes (as I did from Armed Forces Television while waiting to embark a helicopter in Iraq at the time), we usually forget it happened, even if we didn’t miss the news.

Not here in Sonora. Everyone who breathes finds out. And yet, it usually doesn’t make the news. Unless there is an inescapably major crime such as the one involving 45 students who quite possibly were incinerated down south at a military post, there is little to no coverage, no report, and very little law. There are still the federales, but they are now left to fend for themselves, and with Calderon’s exit, all the “Mordidas, No” (No Bribes) signs have come down at the border aduana stations. So the inevitable result is that the underpaid police force has to find ways to get extra money on their own. The last sight of customs is at the border, and the interior stops are closed, but no one does much speeding anymore; that is a sure stop if the vehicle is more than a few years old. But there are now only rare stops for military inspections; during Calderon’s tenancy of the presidency, the wait could be an hour or more. That’s the silver lining for the new law, the new way. Laws have changed, and people adjust. It’s like the DeLorean landing back to the future parking lot. At first you have to get accustomed to how it was, then was no more, and now is again. For those living here, it’s already sunk in. We’re Back To The Future.

An Arizona friend and Vietnam Vet used to live near here, about 35 miles due south, on a path flown by many veritable and noisy crows. It’s 120 miles by car. He lived in El Novillo, a gringo fishing community on a reservoir - designed by Hitler’s engineers - where the biggest bass in the world was once caught but skinned and filleted before the Mexican netters found out that a famous rich bass fisherman with a TV show in the US had offered a standing offer of a million dollars for such a capture. 

My friend doesn't mince words with anyone. That came from Vietnam where they left him for dead in an outpost in Cambodia while Nixon announced to the world there were no US troops there. He was directed back to safety by the son of a Montagnard chief who had befriended him earlier in his tour. That Vietnamese native tribal son saved his life, and he has never forgotten.

“George, you know, they gotta have some kinda rule down there; if the criminals do it better, fine by me." That summary finds an unexpected echo in the thinking of the vast majority of ejiditarios, businessmen, teachers, farmers and other Mexicans, as well as the relatively few gringos still living here.

So without law here anymore, many ask, what did we used to have? Most answer their own question. It was Calderon’s war, all of it.  But in the six Calderon years, the remote pueblos up north were never actually home to the hit men; they would drive into border towns in droves in Hummers and homemade tanks to their missions, in and hopefully out, like soldiers on a kill, just like they did in 2006, just a few weeks after Calderon took office.

In that battle, many were killed, but 25 of the sicarios who survived the firefight at a mountaintop ranch near Arizpe fled over the mountains from Calderon’s helicopters and rappelling soldiers. Everyone locked their doors for a week; no child was to be found in the street. The hit men were all eventually captured, many still clad in their Iraqi style desert uniforms. Most were looking for a cell phone recharge card at a TelCel store. Ammunition is not available at every street corner. When we saw them in the news, they looked more like a bruised lot of young toughs than trained killers. A lot of my Mexican friends got a good laugh from that, but they had already forgotten that these people had executed five cops in Cananea, blasting their faces beyond recognition. Cananea, nearby the border, is the sister city of Sierra Vista, home to Fort Huachuca, the intelligence hub of the Defense Department. It’s quite a balancing act, loving this country, this distant land, Mexico. But it’s always easy, nevertheless. It defies explanation.

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