Steps Forward & Backwards
How strong is the fabric of Mexican society?
On this section of the US-Mexico border, there's some very good news. In 2013 the number of murders in Ciudad Juarez dipped to just 37th in the world, after reaching number-one in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and number-two in 2011. The dark years when Juarez engendered just one horror after another are now way in the past.
Unfortunately, the narco-murderers are still busy in central and southern Chihuahua. Chihuahua City was 21st on the Security, Peace and Justice list in 2013, a much higher figure than that of Juarez. Parral, near the border with Durango, received 300 new policemen, or a 100% increase, in late January after a crime wave there.
Palomas is tame by comparison. Former mayor Maria Lopez, a little naïve about politics, told me how a colonel, Jose Alfredo (she didn't know his last name), visited her kitchen over the winter holidays. She glowed with admiration as she told how he seemed hurt over the way people seemed to be afraid of him because he was in the army.
I thought I had a goldmine of information within my grasp, but Maria said that when she called him, he told her he was afraid of having things reported "that never happened" — that classic complaint of oppressors. He was getting back from Juarez at 6 p.m. and then had to go back to work. He seemed as afraid of me as if I had a sub-machine gun.
I understand that the Mexican army is one of the most respected institutions in the country, according to polls. I spent quite a bit of time looking up well-known human rights cases, like that of the massacre of Aguas Blancas in Oaxaca in 1995, when 17 farmers were killed and 21 injured; of land activist Ruben Jaramillo in Morelos, who was killed with his family in 1962; or of ecologist Digna Ochoa, who was killed in Mexico City in 2001. It's true that the federal police are much more likely to be responsible for the abuses than soldiers are.
But I had a list of questions for Jose Alfredo. Did he know the two army officials who came from Chihuahua to threaten reporter Emilio Gutierrez Soto in Ascension for writing a handful of articles about soldiers' abuses? They disgorged such choice phrases as, "You should fear us for we f*** the f***ing drug traffickers." "So you are the son of a whore who is lowering our prestige." The officials' names were Colonel Filadelfo Martinez Piedra and General Alfonso Garcia Vega. If he pushed for their arrest, could he be killed? I think so.
But even more important, I'd want to ask him what he knew of the massacre at Tlaltelolco, the landmark army massacre of the 20th century. I talked to an eyewitness of the massacre a decade ago at Border Foods. He told me, passionately, that there were at least 20 bodies piled up in the trucks that carried them away. At least! I asked him how many trucks there were, and he guessed 14. That would make about 300 people killed. Some people say there were many more, including a long list of disappeared people.
I'd want to ask the colonel if soldiers get human rights training, but I didn't get the chance.
I was thinking recently about making a trip to Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas in Arizona. In all the period of the drug war, I've hardly heard a thing about violence there. But just after I started planning, in mid-January, I read some articles about an outburst of killing there — not at all clear whether there were 5, 10 to 15, or 28 people killed. That quashed my plans.
On Dec. 18 there was a surprise gun battle in tourist spot Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), where five "criminal suspects" were killed. No tourists were endangered, but there were an intense few hours for them.
In the first few days of February, a lawyer named Noe Garcia Enrique was kidnapped in Nuevo Casas Grandes, as well as four other people. He was the lawyer for an ejido (farming commune) and for Mormons. A street protest was held for him. This isn't the kind of thing that affects tourists, but it shows the human-rights pot is still boiling, even in northern Chihuahua.
Besides the state of Michoacan, which is getting lots of coverage of its vigilante defense groups, Guerrero is also very hot, and there is even one self-defense group started up in Puebla, which has been a very peaceful place in recent years.
In my November article on travel in Mexico, I think I was a little too frivolous in my judgments. I think the moral of this human rights round-up is that you should always check the US State Department report, and be careful. Always travel during the day. Or don't travel. There can be little spurts of violence just about anywhere.
Yet another journalist, Gregorio Jimenez de la Cruz, was killed in Veracruz recently, making 10 journalists who were killed in the state since 2005.
What is even worse than that ghastly toll is the sex trafficking of little girls in the same state, as reported in the Guardian. Families for a while were digging holes in the ground for their daughters to hide in when the traffickers came through, until they found out these tricks. There are girls as young as nine or eleven, picked up and carried away with their dolls in the arms, never to be seen again.
There is a convent in Veracruz that is sheltering women and girlfriends of abusive, armed men. The elderly nuns there, all over 75 years old, planned to form a human wall around them if the men came, even if it costs them their lives.
Mexicans get upset or mad sometimes when you focus on the barbarity that goes on in their country. These kinds of stories get overwhelming sometimes, and your whole perception of the Mexican people can get stained.
I know this because it's happened to me. But what I've learned over and over is that if you react this way, you end up landing on your nose. It's an unavoidable fact. The fiber of society is a lot healthier and stronger than what it might appear to be.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.