Calderon's Alternate Reality
Maybe I have finally entered an alternate reality.
As I write this, I am in lovely Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico, and it is raining. Hard. After all, it’s October and the Caribe is stirred up. The rain is exquisitely beautiful. The sea is rippling with pockmarks. And the cocos are swaying and dripping. The sky is gray and white cotton. The wind shakes the trees and agitates Bahia Soliman. Everything is wet and the air is filled with mist. It is a day made for napping and reading. And thinking.
Where I am is paradise. No doubt about it. And it is far, far away from the shooting war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels. That is happening in other areas: the border states, the west coast, the capital. Where I am is far from that immense national tragedy. Regardless, it remains a topic of enormous concern. And Javier Sicilia remains a personal hero.
So it was with great interest that this morning the New York Times reported on its Front Page an interview with Mexican President Felipe Calderon about the unsuccessful drug war he has run for five years and has left 40,000 people dead. Calderon, whose term is up next year, apparently seeks to justify and perpetuate his shooting war on the cartels:
He insists that the country will eventually become more secure, although about 40,000 people have been killed since he declared his war against organized crime. He began waging it shortly after taking office in 2006 as violence climbed, and he has continued pressing his offensive against drug organizations as they have splintered and descended into bloody infighting over territory and criminal rackets.
But in a wide-ranging interview, he could not say that his approach had made Mexico safer….
The inability to control the violence, with fresh horrors nearly every week, has rattled even some admirers in the United States Congress, who have begun to question publicly whether Mr. Calderón’s strategy — supported by the $1.4 billion in anticrime aid the United States is providing through the multiyear Merida Initiative — is making progress….
Still, coming close to self-criticism for someone who has typically blamed the United States or Mexican lawmakers for what goes wrong, Mr. Calderón said he would have shored up state and local police forces that were now overwhelmed as well as hobbled by inexperience, lack of training, incompetence and corruption.
And so it is in the fifteenth paragraph of the article that the “c” word first appears. Corruption. And even there it is the fourth reason given why police forces are “overwhelmed” and “hobbled.” Does that strike anyone except me as exceedingly odd? Am I in some alternate reality?
Maybe this omission makes sense if you are in the United States and don’t know anything about life south of the Rio Grande. Maybe it makes sense if you know no Mexican history. Maybe it makes sense if you think that everywhere in the world is exactly the same: Burger King, Wal-mart, Coca Cola, malls, neighborhood policing. Maybe it makes sense if you think that the state is always above reproach. Maybe it makes sense if you haven’t read anything about Mexico.
I’m not suggesting reading non-fiction to get the feel of this, although Eduardo Galeano’s non-fiction discussions of Latin America are extremely important. The real truth (is there any other kind?), I think, is in the fiction. And for the sake of brevity, I offer for your consideration two wonderful works that I think should inform discussions of the drug war in Mexico. Evidently, neither informed the Times’s credulous discussions with Sr. Calderon.
First is Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s “No Happy Ending” (“No habra final feliz”), a 1981 detective novel. Hector Belascoaran Shayne, an independent detective in Mexico City, confronts a series of murders. There will be no spoiler here. What you have to watch for is how the suppression of demonstrations by the central government in 1971 figures in the tale. And the role of the police. Enough said. It’s a remarkable book, a critique of Mexico by someone who loves it, masquerading as a detective story.
Next is Martin Solares’s 2006 novel “The Black Minutes” (“Los minutos negros”). Someone is murdered, and the question, of course, is why. And by whom. Is this really a police procedural? Probably not, though it sure looks like one in the beginning. There will be no spoiler here. Yet again, the issue is how someone escapes the consequences of a series of serious, brutal crimes for decades and what the role of the police, of the state might be in all of that. No mas. This is a literary masterpiece dressed up as a detective story. If you don’t read anything else this year, please read this wonderful book.
Both books are remarkable works of art. And they could actually change the way people in the US perceive the war on drugs without ever mentioning it. Both are available in English. And both do not directly discuss any of the particulars of 2011. They don’t have to. They provide the tablecloth on which to spread out the present war as if it were a picnic.
And then there’s also this: la mordida (literally, “the bite”), a bribe, is a fact of life here. An ugly one, but one nonetheless. It’s not really unusual for a police officer to stop a car for speeding or running a red light and to say that the matter can be settled right there at the roadside, without a trip to court, for $US50 of $US100. No receipt will be given. And everyone knows that if you only appear to have 200 pesos (slightly less than $US20) that will probably work as well. This is a small thing. It’s no big deal. It’s customary. From the motorist’s point of view it’s better than going to Municipal Court or sending in a check. But it raises important questions.
If a speeding ticket is the common cold of crime, and it produces bribery and pervasive official misconduct, what, one wonders, does the trafficking of tons and tons and tons of cocaine produce? Does it produce so little corruption that the idea can be overlooked until the fifteenth paragraph of a story about the war on drugs? You have to be kidding to do that. Really.
In whose interest would such an oversight be? You don’t have to speculate deeply about this. You just have to acknowledge the multitude of possibilities this odd placement might indicate and what that says about the reality in which I find myself.