One of the biggest challenges moving to Mexico was factoring risk. Last year, amidst numerous travel warnings, our university closed down its undergraduate programs in Morelia, Michoacán, where we were planning to spend the following school year. Then, in June, just one month before our departure, the New Yorker ran a feature article on violence in Michoacán specifically. The article, like something straight out of the Old Wild West, was called “Silver or Lead.” It ran with pictures of corpses and described grotesque incidents of “corpse messaging.”
My husband and I—although we have lived in other Latin American countries, including gang-ridden El Salvador—had serious talks. We drafted rules of engagement for our family.
But now that I’m here in Morelia—a good-natured, ice-cream eating city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a main street that closes down Sundays for kids on their bikes—I have begun to read things differently.
Yesterday, for example, the NY Times ran an article about the tunnels drug runners have constructed under the border around Nogales, AZ and elsewhere. This isn’t news—tunnels have long been a feature of the border, and every person who watched the 1983 film El Norte in their high school Spanish classes knows all about this. Yet the article remains on the front page for a second day today. What is striking to me about this article is not the revelation that tunneling is ongoing, or that drug traffickers will find a way—given the degree of demand as measured in dollars—to get their goods into the U.S., but the use of the word “slither,” by the journalist, to describe how the Mexicans use the tunnels. Such a laden word causes me to stumble. I wonder: can “slither” be used to describe humans in objective journalism?
The article supports its choice of diction with sources.
“They crawl on their bellies,” David Jimarez, a Border Patrol spokesman, is quoted saying. “They’re like a snake.”
Maybe I’ve read too many books, but belly-crawling is a hard image to separate from certain well-known characters:
His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining
Each other, till supplanted down he fell
A monstrous serpent on his belly prone. (PL 513-515)
At first, I think maybe I’m being a little crazy to pick up on Satanic imagery, but the article drives its subtext home with its next quote, this one from Roy Bermudes, the assistant police chief in Nogales, AZ:
“It’s a netherworld down there.”
I know; it’s like listening to those old LPs backwards—Satan everywhere! Or maybe the Nogales police department has time on its hands and a good library:
To found this nether empire, which might rise
By policy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to heaven. (PL 295-297)
I do not mean to suggest for a moment that Mexico doesn’t have a problem, and I don’t mean to suggest that everything is fine and dandy and super-safe. It can be downright scary. Just a couple of weeks ago, my little brother was is a taxi bound for an early morning flight out of Morelia’s international airport. In the predawn dark, another car began harassing his taxi. As the cat-and-mousing escalated, a police truck passed going in the opposite direction; the cabby did a U-turn, caught up with the cops, and requested an escort to the airport… Oh, but here I am all but writing in a genre! I even used an animal metaphor.
What I do mean to suggest is that there might be just a little too much demand for juicy news from Mexico. That perhaps U.S. audiences, jacked up on the immigration debates and mistaking drug trafficking (supplying demand) for the next Al Qaeda invasion, enjoy the demonizing of Mexico so much that journalists feel the need to feed that hunger?
Because, really, for as terrifying as the New Yorker article was in its depiction of narco politics and personalities, however rich in gory anecdote, it didn’t belabor the numbers.
I certainly don’t want to jinx myself and my loved ones, but the numbers are compelling. The murder rate in Mexico for last year—when the drug war violence peaked in backlash against President Calderón’s drug war—was still less than half that of Washington D.C. Which has me thinking that maybe the Pentagon should issue travel warnings to itself?
And Mexico’s murder rate—14 per 100,000, to use the standard measure (compared to 30/100,000 in our nation’s capital)—includes the truly staggering numbers that come out of Ciudad Juarez, where there were more than 2,500 murders last year (or 173/100,000). Other countries with higher rates include Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela. But Mexico remains on the short list of hot countries with Haiti and Colombia.
Is this perhaps because we cannot imagine anyone slithering all the way from Venezuela?
In any case, what fascinates me (now that my perspective has been inverted by crossing that contentious line in the sand) is that no one believes the netherworld hype more than Mexicans themselves. In Morelia, the crowds celebrating the nation’s 200 years of independence where notably thin—much thinner than they were just this week to celebrate the birthday of the city’s namesake.
“In terms of security, we are like those women who aren’t overweight but when they look in the mirror, they think they’re fat,” Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens’ Institute, told the AP. “We are an unsafe country, but we think we are much more unsafe than we really are.”