Morelia Under Siege, Again

My husband took our son to preschool today, late, with an ugly cough that the Motrin wasn’t quite masking yet, and without so much as a token gesture towards being in uniform since I’m losing the laundry war to potty training. When, half an hour later, my son walked back into the kitchen, I thought the school was finally calling me out for being such a disaster of a mother.

I was wrong—classes had been canceled. But I wasn’t off the hook: apparently my kid was one of the only ones (along with another American family) who showed up at school in the midst of terrorist activity.

“No one wants to leave their children today,” the director had told my husband when he got there.

We knew about yesterday’s violence, about the blockades that closed off access roads to Morelia for the second time in just over a month with burning vehicles and cuernos de chivos—“goat horns,” which is what AK47s get called here. In fact, my husband had been stranded outside the city by the “narcobloqueos” while doing his field research. He’d called me while I was in a taxi returning from a doctor’s appointment: buses weren’t running into Morelia.  When I got off the phone, I grilled the driver (Mexican taxi drivers know everything). Four of the six entrances to the city were closed. Michoacán’s cartel, La Familia, was at it again.

My husband spent half the afternoon at the bus station watching the bus drivers get drunk and play soccer. Then he found a taxi to take him into the city on one of the two open roads: a dirt road over the mountain that was clogged with taxis and Gas del Lago propane delivery trucks that were conducting business more-or-less as usual.

When he arrived home, we joked about what good luck it was that the car we’d owned for only a couple of weeks was in the shop (on the tab of the truck that, in spite of being too wide for our street, had tried to muscle its way past our parked car and wound up wedged in, lifting our car off the ground). In fact, people at his research site had warned him, but if the time had been otherwise, he might not have known about the bloqueos ahead of time if he hadn’t been taking public transportation.

Then we took a walk through the Centro to get a birthday present and scope out possible Christmas card picture locations. My husband mentioned that the online newspapers were reporting a “tense calm” in the streets. We looked around. Maybe there was lighter traffic than usual. Maybe it was still early in the evening. It was hard to tell.

As we wandered around the park, we chatted about the shreds of news we’d gathered and what it all meant.

Usually these spats are between the military and the narcos. La Familia has tried to present itself as friendly to the people of Michoacán. Since the last siege of Morelia, the cartel (for lack of a better word) has offered to disband if the federal troops—whom they accuse of denying Michoacanos their civil liberties—withdraw completely from the state. But while one might argue that the purpose of the blockades is to prevent reinforcements from entering the city, this latest event–telling people to get out of their cars at gunpoint and then setting the cars on fire, and even shooting an old man in the leg who refused to relinquish his pickup–really rings more of an attempt to terrorize the civilian population.

Public relations, it seemed, were slipping. In the past, La Familia has claimed that it doesn’t target women and children. But the previous day, in Apatzingán, where this current upheaval was sparked, an eight-month-old baby and a sixteen-year-old girl were killed in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, our son ran wildly around the poinsettia hedges with other kids. “Morelia les desea un feliz navidad,” read the glitter letters strung up along the aqueduct that looked pink in the liquid evening light. I sat on the edge of a fountain and watched. When I saw a dark green helicopter circle nearby and then a caravan of police trucks—not an unusual sight—turn down a nearby street, I wandered over to my husband.

“Want to go home?” I asked him, meaning back to our house a few blocks away. He nodded, vaguely. We looked at our son, running and giggling.

Neither of us moved.

“Maybe in a minute,” I said after a long pause.

We have a rule for this year in Mexico: when one of us gets creeped out—and it doesn’t have to be for a good reason—we’re going home, really home. Period.

But we love Mexico, particularly Morelia, and we’ve made it through the transition period and we’re settling in and making friends and having a wonderful time. My husband’s research is going well. I’m in over my head with writing commitments. Our son, running past a fountain in the sunlight with another little boy, is clearly happy here. Leaving, giving up, giving in—we would rather not.

And this is probably why it didn’t occur to us not to take our son to school this morning, now that the narcobloqueos have been cleared and the roads reopened. Why we’re making plans for tomorrow evening and next week. And why, for now, those plans are not to pack up and leave.

More on Morelia: http://www.salon.com/news/mexico/index.html?story=/news/feature/2010/12/10/lt_drug_war_mexico_12

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