On a street as dark as the inside of an iguana, in a city nearly 2,000 miles from home, I was awakened by the tattoo of stiletto heels on pavement.
Clock, clock, clock, clock, clock.
I had parked my camper on a quiet street in a quiet city, Michoacán. A half-dozen teenage boys clumped together on the corner across the street.
Mostly, their conversation reached me as a warm Latin buzz. Laughter punctuated babble unintelligible at this distance.
By the coincidental flash of a cigarette lighter, I saw the crowd part to make way for the women with the clock, clock heels. Several of the young men greeted her by name in respectful tones. She answered with a cheerful salutation over her shoulder as she crossed the street.
In the days when I used to visit Mexico often, I developed a true fondness for Michoacán. Twice the size of Billings with a quarter as many automobiles, the city was the ancient capital of a civilization that made war on both the Aztecs and the Spanish.
A friend and I added Michoacán to our itinerary when an excited clerk at a film and camera shop showed us photos of several hundred thousand monarch butterflies flocking to their winter’s rest.
“Mariposa!” she said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Right here!” she said.
The next morning we were exploring an old church when we met an American who had married a Mexican woman. The city excited the guy as much as the butterflies had enlivened the camera store clerk.
“Everyone knows everyone,” he told us. “The merchants are generous. Cops are honest. And there’s no crime here.”
The gringo was a bit off the mark, but not far.
There was crime in Michoacán. Peons from the tiny villages along the road to the butterfly reserve stole firewood from government land that held the giant firs the mariposa monarca called home.
The villagers sold large, brown turkey eggs, Pepsi Cola and hard candies from bodegas no bigger than outhouses. Birds of every color and genus flashed their plumage in the tropical sunlight.
I long yearned to return to the city at the base of the Sierra Madres … until recently, that is.
The beautiful, friendly city, where there were no criminals, save kindling thieves, had changed radically in recent years.
First, heavy hitters from the drug cartels began moving into Michoacán. Drug bosses and their henchmen are much like us, in a way. They like to raise their children in a place without violent crime or drug dealers on every corner.
Joaquin Alchivaldo Guzman Lorea (call him “Chapo” for short), changed everything. Chapo would have changed everything even if he weren’t a cold-blooded killer. Which he is.
Chapo is the richest drug dealer in the world, according to Forbes magazine. He’s probably the most powerful as well. As such, he had no tolerance for the low-life pistoleros crowding his town.
The intruders were Zetas, a gang that started as the private army of the Gulf Cartel. When the Gulf Cartel’s boss was killed, the Zetas went independent.
Under the drug bosses’ code, killing civilians was taboo. The Zetas didn’t need no stinking code. Zetas used shock tactics, beheadings, gasoline bombs and roadblocks to terrorize anyone who interfered with their business.
In 2008 Chapo Guzman’s son Edgar was killed and the cartel wars spread to several major cities.
During rush hour Tuesday 35 bodies were dumped on a busy expressway in Veracruz. Eleven more bodies were scattered across in nearby Boca Del Rio Thursday. Early reports said the dead were Zetas, the killers were members of Chapo’s cartel and the mass murder was intended as a warning to rivals.
Apparently, the Zetas have been doing more than stealing firewood.
Chapo’s forces sent a strong message to the Zetas last Friday when they dumped the bodies. I don’t know if the Zetas are warned or not but I am. My next trip to Latin America will be to Costa Rica or Belize.
Belize is surrounded by Spanish speaking countries but doesn’t consider itself Latin. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize’s official language is English. English is taught in some schools and used in all courts of law.
In the shops and on the street, a tourist will encounter more Kriol, a Spanish-English pidgin. Our pilgrim will recognize a few English words and conclude that if he listened intently, he would understand. The notion is: “Na chroo.”
Americans who love Michoacán are heartbroken over its fate. Making Mexico’s plight even more crushing is the certain knowledge that we are to blame. The gargantuan market for drugs in the United States makes Mexican peasants and working folks wealthy and, too often, dead. More than 28,000 have died in the past 3 1/2 years.
El Chapo and his ilk have more power than generals and presidents.
The U.S. war on drugs, which turns weeds to gold, is not helping. Interdiction only makes drug traffic more profitable. Legalization would suck the profit out of certain drugs. Would treatment and education reduce the use of drugs in this country? Time to look at all the angles. What we are doing now is not working.