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The grifters, drifters, hustlers, down and outers, and ne’er do well denizens who inhabit the seedy hotels that line the run-down side streets of the old quarter or “Centro Historico” of this megalopolis, are wearing frowns these days. Not only is Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America, buying up hundreds of old buildings and raising the rents all around them but now freshman president Felipe Calderon has declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels and marijuana is in short supply at the bottom rung of the business.
“Mota (marijuana) will get you through times when there’s no money” “El Vampiro”, a jazz saxophonist whose prodigious tones startle passersby into coughing up coins on the inner city streets, paraphrases an old Furry Freak Brothers dictum. “But now there’s no mota and no money.”
Calderon’s crusade was supposed to be directed at the cartels that were responsible for a reported 9000 killings during the six year reign of his predecessor Vicente Fox (Fox’s policy was to let the bad guys knock off the bad guys), but the net effect has been to dry up the bottom of Mexico’s intricate drug distribution networks as the narco gangs go to ground.
No kingpins have been collared since Calderon sent 27,000 army troops into five key drug-saturated states. With plenty of advance warning that the military was about to move in, big producers closed up their operations and stashed their inventories, shutting down the pipeline into both the U.S. and Mexican cities.
Although tons of marijuana packaged for market were burnt up by the military at televised incinerations, curiously little cocaine other than personal stashes was confiscated by the drug fighters. The military was deployed to states like Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Baja California, which are key entrance points and way stations for the movement of cocaine through Mexico.
In lieu of the “pez gordos” (big fish) and their loads, Calderon’s drug warriors are going after the minnows or what is called here, the “narco-minudeo” or retail sales i.e. street dealers. Here in the capital, the right-wing president and Mexico City’s left-wing mayor Marcelo Ebrard have joined forces to stomp out small-time dealers and users as police pump up arrests for possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana, cocaine. Ecstasy, and speed that would be the lowest priority for an increasing number of U.S. police departments.
“I give up! I can’t find anything anywhere” brooded Brenda, a pretty, tired looking woman who ekes out a living selling jewelry and small amounts of marijuana on the streets of the Centro Historico. “I just went all the way out to the Sierra of Guadalupe (a impoverished hilltop colony north of the capital) where I can always score and pinche Calderon has a roadblock right there. They brought their dogs on the bus. ”
Now in her late 20s, Brenda (not her real name) has been dealing for nearly ten years. She has been able to stay in business because she is careful about selecting her customers and keeps an eagle eye out for narks and snitches as she cruises the downtown streets with the “carruja” (package) of “la Buena” wedged down her panties.
Brenda is a true believer in the powers of cannabis. She calls it “medicina” and sees it as her “oficio” (job of responsibility) to distribute a few grains of hope to her mostly down and out clientele. But lately there has been more “polvo” (cocaine) than marijuana available and she is losing old customers.
“The ‘vicio’ (the vice) has got me,” she confesses. “The polvo makes me crazy. Yesterday I lost my cell phone in La Risa (“The Smile”–an old quarter “pulqueria” or cactus beer dispensary.) “Without a cell phone I might as well retire from this business.”
When she first started dealing in the Centro, there wasn’t all that much “polvo.” Mainly, it was still an elite drug, popular in the discotheques, which during the 1990s established themselves in the old quarter bringing in the “juniors”, the sons and daughters of the wealthy from the upper class south of the city. But now it is everywhere Brenda reflected, and not just the polvo–“Piedra” (crack) and “Ice” (speed) are now much more accessible to the popular classes. “I saw a nine year-old kid smoking the pipe over in Tepito. I never saw that before” Brenda clucked like a reproving aunt.
Tepito is an open-air drug market. A tough little barrio with Aztec antecedents that abuts the Centro, Tepito is world renown for the availability of just about everything, legal or not, that a shopper might be in the market for–carloads of pirate goods, guns, sex, and, of course, drugs. Tepito was the first barrio in the capital to feature “narco-tiendas” (narco stores) where a selection of drugs was available. The narco-tiendas are stocked from warehouses deep inside the labyrinthine “vecindades” or tenement housing for which the neighborhood is noted–some can only be entered through subterranean tunnels. But now the catacombs of Tepito were not in business. “Marcelo’s cops are all over the place” Brenda fumed, “it’s best to stay away.”
The narco-minudeo has become the Great Satan in Mexico these days. Televisa and TV Azteca, the two-headed television monopoly, produce relentless scare reports complete with spooky music and clips of cops breaking down doors and dragging out the evil merchants of death. The primetime campaign focuses in on the schools where bad guys are alleged to be lurking in the bushes, offering their poisons to unsuspecting schoolgirls and boys. The dope hysteria has reached the hinterlands thanks to the TV onslaught. Grade school students are now being searched before they go to class in 11 states and the capital.
Marijuana (“mota”, “yerba”, “la Buena”, “mangambrea”, “chachalaca”, “acheta”–the latter is Purepecha Indian) is as Mexican as apple pie is American. Cannabis predates the European Conquest here and rode into the Mexican revolution with Pancho Villa’s “Dorados” belting out “La Cucaracha (“I can’t march unless I have marijuana.”)
But despite the herb’s historical longevity, acceptance is defined by class–the “mota” has always been associated with the darker underclass and a reefer madness mindset inflames middle class Mexican attitudes towards dope smoking. That “marijuanos” toke up and go berserk and rape and dismember their own families, or, alternatively, are cold-blooded zombie killers who murder without remorse, remains a mainstream myth, one that is highly re-enforced by the electronic media.
Although there is a small marijuana reform movement modeled on U.S. legalization efforts that sells hemp clothing and advocates the homeopathic benefits of the “yerba” and even holds public “smoke-ins” (most rock concerts are public smoke-ins), the decriminalization effort here seems more of a youth novelty than a serious mass movement.
Nonetheless, despite the prevailing narcophobia, in 2006 the Mexican congress passed a decrim measure that reduced possession of very small amounts of drugs (10 grams of marijuana, one gram of cocaine) to a fine. “Crimes against health” as drug violations are called here do nut distinguish between a grain and a ton and can result in draconian jail sentences depending on the whim of the judge. But the decriminalization measure horrified George Bush and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and ex-president Vicente Fox, like a good poodle dog, quickly vetoed it.
Prior to the arrival of the Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s after the U.S. Navy cut off Caribbean shipping routes, Mexico’s worst drug problem was U.S.-manufactured glues and solvents. Cocaine, the way Mexican authorities saw it, was a U.S. problem, one of supply and demand. If the U.S. were to crack down on consumers, Mexico would not be troubled by the cartels. In retaliation, Washington accused its distant neighbor to the south of not fulfilling its drug war obligations and rampant corruption of the Mexican police and military bolstered the allegations.
Even while badgering their counterparts to crack down on the cartels moving drugs through Mexico, the U.S. was tightening up border detection, particularly after 9/11 when the War on Terror was tossed into the mix. Plugging up what had always been a porous border with more Immigration and Customs agents, military equipment, and high technology did not stop the flow but it slowed it down. The drug mobs had to keep their loads in Mexico longer until the proper arrangements could be made. Their cash flows were frozen and their creditors got nervous. So pretty soon the drugs started to leak out into the street and within just a few years the capos had a whole new market–albeit not as affluent as up in Gringolandia. By the late 1990s, Mexico had a drug problem.
Whether this was a deliberate strategy devised by U.S. anti-drug crusaders to force Mexico to act against the cartels or merely the free market at work, the result was the same. Nine year-old kids are smoking crack in Tepito.
Calderon’s War on drugs is in fact aimed at them. While the drug barons hole up in front of plasma screens in the sanctuary of their heavily guarded ranchos and haciendas, the jails are crowded with the young and the poor, more often than not the color of the earth. Mexico City jails are not uncoincidentally the biggest narco tiendas in town with dozens of kilos of cocaine being smuggled in for sale daily at the city’s four major prisons.
The futility of Felipe’s crack down reverberates throughout the medical and legal community. “Crimes of health are not a criminal problem but one of health,” warns psychotherapist Arnaldo Kraus.
Despite the president’s continuing war on drug users, all is not doom and gloom in the Centro Historico everyday. El Vampiro is tootling away on the corner of Cinco de Mayo and Bolivar–he likes the echo and there is lots of street traffic. “Maestro, did you hear the news?” he greets an old friend, “Brenda’s back in business.”
The maestro wants to know where exactly he might find her. “Just follow the trail of smiles,” cackles the Vampire, ripping off a mad Charlie Parker-like riff.
JOHN ROSS is currently on the road with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. He will be traversing the southwest (February), the south and mid-west (March) and the Atlantic Coast (April) – contact firstname.lastname@example.org for venues and itineraries. These dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals while the Blindman is on the road.