A thousand bullets in Nogales
December 24, 2008
NOGALES, Mexico ” “Mil balazos,” Jaime, my cab driver, keeps repeating as we begin this Thanksgiving morning tour of Nogales, Mexico. I don’t know what the word ” balazo” means and can’t figure out what he is talking about.
We head through the crowded streets and up a slight hill. The statue of Donaldo Luis Colosio, assassinated in 1994 as he was running for president, appears on our right. I felt at the time that he was a leader who could bring change to Mexico. That’s why he was killed, argues Charles Bowden, author of the chilling book, “Down by the River.”
Now we reach a stoplight and Jaime points casually to a hotel on the right. “That’s where the commandante was shot,” he says.
Then I realize that the word ” balazo” means bullet. What Jaime is really talking about is a gun battle in which roughly 1,000 rounds were fired. He takes me to the site, an ordinary looking house in a middle priced residential area. A man leans against the fence, watching us. I ask if I can take pictures and he nods. A taller man appears in the doorway, waves me into the house and gives me a tour. There are heavy caliber bullet holes everywhere. The floor of the upstairs bathroom is still smeared with blood. Apparently 15 to 20 gunmen stormed the house, killed the one occupant and then shot it out with the police. Ten men were killed, hand grenades were used and some thousand rounds fired.
As I later piece the story together (there is little press coverage of these events because of the danger to reporters), this must have happened around Oct. 23.
Then the commandante was assassinated on Nov. 2 in retaliation, despite the fact that he had 25 bodyguards with him.
Recommended Stories For You
We drive about a kilometer to Jaime’s home where his wife, Irene, offers me coffee and a tamale.
“I was weeping with fear,” she says. “It seemed like Iraq.”
Two years earlier, when I made a similar tour of Nogales, Jaime showed me the maquiladora factories and the impoverished Barrio Donaldo Luis Colosio over the hill. I wondered why the city of Nogales hadn’t gone to wealthy companies like Black and Decker and Otis, which had factories in Nogales, and asked them for help with infrastructure problems like street paving and water systems. It made me think of Colorado’s Western Slope county commissioners in the oil shale boom of the 1980s and how they had gotten oil companies to help with their infrastructure. Jaime and I also talked about the ugly immigration debate that was taking place in the United States. But there was little mention of drugs and violence.
Now that has all changed. What does it mean for a family like his? He and Irene have four children. The oldest girl is married. The oldest boy is studying engineering in the local university; Irene shows me a set of architectural drawings he has done for a class project. The second boy is still in high school. Carla, the youngest, is home from school because of the heavy early morning rains and wears a T-shirt that says “Girl On Fire.”
Irene works in one of the pharmacies at the border that sells low cost medications to tourists. She has also made tamales to sell to her father who owns a restaurant called Los Azulejos. As we deliver the tamales and then continue the tour, I realize that she isn’t the same person I met briefly two years earlier. She is traumatized by this violence.
On the way back to their house, we pass the half-finished “castle” of a former drug lord who was imprisoned before it could be completed. Imagine building a building like this as if to announce to the world that you are a drug lord.
Nogales itself is hurting economically. American tourists used to come swarming across the border to shop and to eat in the restaurants, but they’re gone now. In fact, Angelica, the waitress from Mexico who served me breakfast on the U.S. side, was astonished that I would cross the border.
Many stores were closed. Jaime was lucky that I came along because the taxi business was terrible.
This is a story that isn’t well reported because there are no reporters. It’s too dangerous. For example, the editor of El Paso Inc told me that her employees are forbidden to cross the border to Juaraz, which is even more of a murder capital than Nogales.
It’s a story that poses a simple but much avoided question. Is the war on drugs working? What is it costing in dollars and human lives? To what extent is it destabilizing countries like Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan and Mexico?
After this short visit, I was able to flash my passport, cross the border, jump in my car and drive back to Tucson for a family Thanksgiving dinner. Jaime and Irene don’t have that choice. It’s our war on drugs, but they are the victims