Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ghosts And Spirits Of Guns And Tacos

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep." ~ John Milton

The very early mornings in Baja are often full of lovers betraying other lovers when the night is so still, so I sometimes imagine, as a smoky and funky dampness finally manages to hold for a while. Rocio was snoring again, I could lie in bed no longer, and even considered coffee before grabbing a beer instead and reading in the aloneness of my office, the radio accompanies me. This could be any of my early mornings in Baja California; this has been the cycle lately. I wake up and sit here and wonder about betrayal and denial and ponder the lust and greed of humanity.

The ghosts of human weaknesses haunt even the noblest among us.

Sometimes there are gunshots here late at night or early in the morning, it momentarily breaks the silence long before the birds begin to wake up and argue with each other in a nearby, semi-suburban tree. Usually, nothing ever comes from it, there is no news report, no police sirens, and no evidence at dawn of anything other than the passing of another evening. Occasionally, if I am paying attention to news the next day, I find out that there were targets for the bullets, sometimes successful and sometimes not. In such cases, betrayal is usually the pin of the hammer of the gun, and greed is then the ignited primer of the bullet.

Tijuana lies directly in the path of the northwestern corridor of the drug trade. It is an illegal yet lucrative business running drugs through Mexico, much more lucrative than is smuggling people over the border. The narcotics traffickers protect their footholds on their territories with rabid aggressiveness, because competitors are waiting patiently to exploit any perceived weaknesses in the organization. Greed may turn ordinary men into brave opportunists, but betrayal is not tolerated; retribution is swift, bloody, and final. Heads will roll, literally.

But drug trafficking affects the dynamics of Baja so indirectly, that it is probably the most misunderstood aspect of life in this region.

* * * *

In the United States of America, there are often times hazards directly related to geographical location. In the Northeast, there are snowstorms, and along the Southern coast there are hurricanes. On the West Coast there are earthquakes, and in the Midwest there are tornadoes. In fact, just about everywhere, there are environmental hazards in residential commitment to remaining in one place for very long.

Such hazards are not limited to random or intermittent acts of nature.

Any large city has its share of crime. Racism is a problem in many regions, and religious intolerance can fan whatever embers still smolder from fires that burned long ago. Corruption, graft, police brutality, and the incompetence of local government can be a hazard anywhere. In Baja, the added element of the constant battle to control drug trafficking is simply an another collection of ghosts. All of these ghosts can appear quite scary, which is certainly by design, so that they are categorized as hazards to be avoided.

It is Halloween in the United States of America and here in Baja as well. More ghosts. It wasn’t too many years ago that the local governments in Baja outlawed the use of masks in costumes on this day, the criminal element once took advantage of enjoying an evening of permitted anonymity in order to rob stores. Halloween is not widely celebrated in Mexico, it is a holiday borrowed from other cultures. As if Baja needed any more ghosts.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated on the second of November, preceded by one day with Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. These celebrations are perhaps three thousand years old, with roots that far predate the Aztec Empire. As with most celebrations of this type, there are slight regional differences concerning the method of celebrating, decorating, and observing these days. In Northern Baja, a true regional melting pot of Mexican heritage, anything could be happening in any particular household or gravesite.

* * * *

Spirits are real.

Maybe it is the tiniest amount of blood I carry from ancestors that were part of indigenous America. Maybe it was something else. When I was a boy, I climbed up Mount San Jacinto, in the middle of the desert, all alone. The hot wind blew across the mountain and the higher I climbed the more I felt the presence. I would stop periodically, knowing that I was walking on the burial grounds of people who possessed a sense of spirituality that I could never imagine, and I wondered why they chose this place to die. By the time I reached the first burial site, I stopped wondering.

There was grace and nobility in the simple and humble structure, wooden branches carefully chosen and lashed together to form a shrine. The spirits were there, flowing through me, I dared not break their silent presence. I gently touched the wood and felt a chill. I hiked farther up and there were more shrines, similar in their demure majesty. I wanted to stay on that mountain, to be there all night, but people were going to wonder where I was.

As I wandered back down the mountain, it occurred to me then that there was a profound difference between spirits and ghosts.

* * * *

"He was connected," Rick told me yesterday over lunch, we were talking about the latest of the killings in and around Tijuana.

"Obviously. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have killed him," I replied.

"And otherwise his boys wouldn’t have hit back," Rick said.

Rick continued after swallowing a bite of lunch, "He used to be the President of my ejido, then he went to Rosarito. They named the school where my daughter goes to after him. The army showed up there, there was talk of retaliation. She came home scared, I told her that we aren’t going to give in to threats."

"It’s all rumor, Rick. You know how it is in Mexico, the old women talk, they start rumors and then everyone thinks it’s true. It’s all bullshit," I said.

Rick nodded.

His brother used to be a cop. And Rick used to be smuggler, carrying human beings into the United States of America in the trunk, backseat, or other compartment of a car specially designed to be used once and then sold cheaply or discarded. He made a lot of money until he got caught. Rather than to stay in Mexico, he turned himself in. Over two years in Federal prison changed him back from a ghost into a human being again.

A Tijuana cop might make a hundred dollars a week, maybe a little more. That cop can go home every night and put away his gun and take off his uniform and be content to have put his or her life on the line for the good of the community. But the cop knows that other cops are making a lot more. Some build new houses and buy new cars. They enroll their children in the finest private schools. They vacation to wherever they want to go.

They become ghosts.

Growing up in El Florído or Sánchez Taboada or some other gritty neighborhood on the Tijuana outskirts can be difficult. The criminal element thieves and steals to get by, drug addicts clan together and take light bulbs to smoke crack from, everyone knows everyone. Opportunities present themselves, get a fake passport and move some packages. Move up in the organization, make some real money. Buy a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows and slick rims, buy your family a new house.

Defend your territory.

There are ghosts on both sides. Greed and betrayal. Their bullets are meant for each other, they don’t want to be seen. Lawyers can buy the judges, everyone knows how it works. Como corre la agua, how the water flows.

It flows North, a river of drugs, to supply the users in the United States of America.

* * * *

The spirits are urged to come visit us here, starting tomorrow and ending on Sunday. We present candy and fruit and bread and flowers, lighting candles and speaking lovingly and whimsically to our dead ancestors. We decorate their gravesites and tell them about how they have made us laugh and love life over the years. We invite them to come home for a while. We climb that mountain that I climbed in my youth, to feel the spirits run through us.

We let the ghosts here kill each other and hope that one day their spirits will return, exchanging the guns for tacos.


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