The Poetry of the Narco Wars and Other Mexican Peculiarities
BY LESLIE JAMISON
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BENJAMIN MARRA
I’m at the busiest land border in the world. I get across quickly because I’m headed in the right direction, which is to say the wrong direction. I’m going where no one wants to stay. On the opposite side of Highway 5, a sparkling line of gridlock points north toward the United States of America.
Over there, the traffic lanes are supermarket aisles. You can buy popcorn, cookies, lollipops, cigarettes. You want coffee? You can get it from a boy barely tall enough to reach your car window. You want the paper in Spanish? Great. In English? Maybe. You want an animal-print towel? There are hundreds.
I’m headed to a literary gathering held in Tijuana and Mexicali that’s been billed as an encuentro. I’ve gathered this means something between “festival” and “conference,” but there’s no word in English that does justice to encuentro. It coaxes the word for “story” (cuento) out of the word for “encounter” (encontrar) and hints at what will happen at this upheaval of debauchery and roundtables: Stories will be currency, people will be confused, people will be signing books, people will be making book deals, people will be talking shit about Mexicali and wishing they were in Oaxaca. People will be having sex. Nothing will happen on time. Cookies will be served with Styrofoam cups of coffee in the morning. Cocaine will be served in bathroom stalls at night.
I hear that Tijuana has gotten much better in the past two years, which is what the American media has recently begun to say as well. But variations and fluctuations are inevitably glossed over in conversations where we, up north, talk about how bad it’s gotten “down there.” Of course, down there isn’t one place but a thousand, and the truth is it’s gotten better in Tijuana and much worse in Tamaulipas and simply stayed horrible in Ciudad Juárez, where life is so violent it’s hard to understand the gradations between bad and worse.
I hear something interesting about living in Tijuana during the worst months—not so much about living under the constant threat of violence but about talking about living under constant threat of violence: It’s impossible to speak when you’re still in the middle of it.
This is what it was like in Tijuana, a few years back: Even when people got together for dinner, somewhere private, they wouldn’t focus on what their lives had become: scared to go drinking, scared to go to work, scared to catch a bus or buy a pack of cigarettes or cross the fucking street. Now they can talk. Speaking is easier when the worst has been pushed out of earshot—past the point of being taunted, by delusions of safety, into some vengeful return.
Avenida Revolución is lined with the hollowed husks of cheap tourism. Empty bars stand like relics of a vanished civilization felled by its own hedonistic excess: silent dance floors framed by thatched walls and faux-jungle decor, balconies full of tiki torches and flapping banners advertising tequila happy hours no one is attending. The clubs feel like foreclosed homes. The tourists have been scared away. Some must still come, I suppose, but I don’t see any of them on the streets. The Centro Cultural Tijuana has a surprisingly lovely domed ceiling fitted with squares of glass that filter the sunlight into jeweled colors: fuchsia, tangerine, deep mint. But the only people I see inside are men selling bus tickets to other places.
Everyone is hawking wares along the streets, but no one is buying. If I wanted, I could get all kinds of things: a zebra-striped burro, postcards showing ten pairs of titties and the red stump of a Tecate can in the sand, a little frog carved by an old man before my very eyes and fitted with an actual cigarette between its wooden lips. I could get a t-shirt printed with the stoic face of Pancho Villa or the inevitable face of Che, a t-shirt with a joke about beer, another t-shirt with a joke about beer, a t-shirt with a joke about tequila, a t-shirt with a joke about mixing beer and tequila, or a t-shirt that gets to the heart of what all this drinking is about (in English: “I Fuck on the First Date”). Conveniently enough, there’s a hotel across from all these kitsch bodegas that advertises rooms for 99 pesos an hour. I don’t see anyone going in or coming out.
The whole time I am thinking of Tijuana two years ago, the never talking. All across the border, other towns are still in the thick of this unspeaking. The people who call Ciudad Juárez the most dangerous city in the world are the ones who don’t live there.
I think maybe if I walk the streets where someone was afraid, where an entire city was afraid, I’ll maybe understand the fear a little better. This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy. We take it like a shot of tequila, or a bump of coke from the key to a stranger’s home. We want the inebriation of presence to dissolve the fact of difference. Sometimes the city fucks on the first date, and sometimes it doesn’t. But always, always, we wake up in the morning and find we didn’t know it at all.
I wake up in the morning and get huevos con jamón at a place called Tijuana Tilly’s. I could have gotten a waffle but I didn’t. I could have gotten pan francés with whipped cream, but I didn’t. I’m going authentic. I’m eating with a publicist named Paola and a novelist named Adán. They both get waffles. Paola tells me she can’t believe that DF (Mexico City) is quite possibly the safest place in Mexico these days. Not what she’s used to. Adán tells me Mexicali, where we’re going to meet the other writers for the conference, is relatively safe as well. Relatively is an important word around here.
Mexicali, in any case, is two hours east. It first exploded during Prohibition, just like Tijuana, but otherwise they’re not much alike. Adán’s Spanish is fast and I’m not sure if I’m getting the gist of what he’s saying—or at least, the right gist—because it seems like he’s talking about an underground town full of Chinese people. As it turns out, my Spanish was close: During the 1920s, Chinese laborers outnumbered Mexicans in Mexicali by a ratio of eight to one, and a network of subterranean tunnels connected their opium dens and brothels to those eager and prohibited Americans living just across the border.
Tijuana blurs. Once I leave, I’m eager to talk about it—the way you’re eager to talk about a dream when you wake up, afraid it will dissolve if you don’t pin the details to their places, sketch a path between absurdities. As soon as I leave it, I think, what was that city? It was an unlit hallway next to an office with broken windows (my hostel) and a plate of shredded pork cooked with oranges (my dinner). It was a band composed of young men called La Sonrisa Vertical (the Vertical Smile) and a band composed of old men, I don’t know what they were called, who asked repeatedly for more Charles Shaw Shiraz and played the hell out of their electric guitars. They had two eggs perched on their amp, maybe raw, maybe hardboiled, not making any sense but belonging absolutely just where they were.
At a lookout point halfway to Mexicali, where the road drops off raggedly to our left, we emerge around a bend to see the partially blackened wreckage of a semi truck. The cab is inches from the edge of the cliff. A man is curled fetal on the ground, bleeding from his forehead. He doesn’t look dead. There isn’t an ambulance in sight, but a priest stands over the man’s body, blocking him from the noon sun and muttering words of prayer, waving at the passing cars: Slow down, slow down. It must be 90 in October and this man wears black vestments that soak up the whole of the heat. His cross glitters silver. The grill of the truck glitters silver behind him.
It’s not just that violence happens here—intentional, casual, accidental, incidental—it’s that the prospect and the aftermath of violence are constantly crowding you from all sides: men with machine guns on the Avenida Revolución, growling dogs leaping into SUVs to sniff for drugs, a drunk passed out in front of the panadería, a driver so tired or tweaking he barrels his semi into a cliff. We pass a soldier standing alert with a semiautomatic in his hands, apparently guarding the giant pile of scrap tires behind him. There’s nothing else in sight. The soldiers of the country stand ready against an uncontrollable violence, perched on trash, their guns pointed at thin air.
When a troop of Niños Exploradores (something like Boy Scouts) were brought out to welcome officials visiting Ciudad Juárez, their scoutmaster took them through a call-and-response routine. “How do the children play in Juárez?” he called. The boys all dropped to the ground.1
At a drug checkpoint, our entire van is emptied out. Larger vehicles inevitably attract more suspicion. The soldiers empty our bags. It all feels pro forma, but still—of a climate, of a piece, setting a tone. As we drive away, I glance back and notice that another soldier, this one standing on a truck, had his machine gun trained on us the whole time.
There are no flashy clubs in Mexicali, no zebra burros, no drink specials. You couldn’t find a smoking frog to save your life. You can get plastic bags full of chopped cactus or cigarettes for $2. The closest thing to a Spanglish shot glass is the soundtrack at a club called SlowTime, where a woman’s voice moans over and over again: “Oh, you fucking me makes me bilingual.”
1 From “Ground Zero in Sinaloa,” a New York Times op-ed by Elmer Mendoza, October 16, 2010.
The light is harsher in this city, everything dustier. The hotels advertise rates for four hours instead of one. I don’t know what this means, but it seems to mark an important difference in civic culture.
Chinatown is alive and well aboveground. Restaurants serve bean curd with salsa and shark-fin tacos. I eat lunch at Dragón de Oro (the Golden Dragon), whose parking lot runs up against the border itself, a thick brown fence about 20 feet high. The stucco homes and baseball diamonds of Calexico are barely visible through the slats.
We are 50 strong, we encuentro-goers. There’s Oscar, a poet who tells me his vision of Heidegger over chilaquiles one morning, and Kelly, a simultaneous interpreter who is writing a Spanish glossary of erotic language. There’s Marco, another poet, who walks across the border to buy a new pair of Converse in Calexico. Marco informs me that he abandoned his “lyric self” about a year ago, once his city grew so violent he got scared to leave his house. He needs a new poetry these days. He’s interested in repurposing in general and Flarf in particular.2 Marco teaches college students. His life sounds a lot like mine until it absolutely doesn’t. The night before coming to Mexicali, he stayed up till 1:30 to finish grading a batch of papers, then decided to reward himself the next morning by hitting the snooze button. Fair enough. As it turned out, a grenade explosion woke him anyway, two minutes later, followed by a volley of machine-gun fire. “Like a conversation,” he says, “one voice and then the response.” He says it wasn’t anything unusual.
I meet a man named Franco, a bearded hedonist and founder of the Shandy Conspiracy. Every time Franco sees me, he asks if I’m ready to be Shandyized. All I know about this process is that it will involve “subtlety” and “darkness.” He puts out a magazine (the epicenter of his “conspiracy”) whose masthead features a lion attacking a zebra. Instead of blood, the zebra’s neck issues jets of rainbow fluid. It’s Darwin on acid. I catch myself looking at all the artwork here in terms of sociopolitical fractals: How can I see the narco war contained in every illustrated zebra? It’s a strange feeling, watching quirk spew from the jaws of war—like a guttural cry, flayed and searing, this absurd fountain of rainbow blood. I bend everything according to the gravity of conflict.
More accurately put, I bend what I can understand. There’s so much that eludes me. In a crowd of bilingual writers, my Spanish is embarrassing, and this embarrassment starts to shade into a deeper sense of political and national shame. I’m afraid to talk about the current landscape of the narco wars because I’m afraid of getting something wrong. Americans are known for getting things wrong when it comes to conflicts in other countries. So I listen. I gradually get a sense of the terrain. The Sinaloa Cartel controls much of the Western Seaboard—where most of the weed is grown, and a frontier mythos maintains the drug dealer as outlaw—while the Gulf Cartel operates along the Gulf, trafficking coke and Central American illegals called pollos, peasants whom they either smuggle or extort.
Reading about the drug wars is like untangling a web of intricate double negatives. One cartel pays a prison warden to set prisoners free at night so they can act as assassins targeting the key players in another cartel, then the targeted cartel captures a police officer and tortures him until he admits to this corruption. They tape and broadcast his confession. The authorities step in, the warden is removed, the prisoners riot to bring her back; the reporters who cover the riots are kidnapped by the rivals of the cartel that released the videotape of the tortured officer. They counter-release their own videotapes of other tortured men confessing to other corruptions.
Tracking the particulars is like listening to a horrific kind of witty banter in a language built for others’ mouths, finding yourself participating in a conversation in which you have no ability to speak. “Conversation” means something new in this place: a flood of words I can’t understand, the call-and-response patter of semiautomatics I’ve never heard.
2 Flarf, by the way, is an American poetry movement that transmutes things like Google search results and email spam into poetic refrains but hates to be pigeonholed and would probably take umbrage at that description.
I get to know another cast, not authors but killers: There’s El Teo, vying for control of the Tijuana Cartel, who likes to kill at parties because it makes his message more visible; and there’s El Pozolero (“the Stewmaker”), who dissolves El Teo’s victims in acid once their message needs to turn invisible again. The most famous drug lord in Mexico is El Chapo (“Shorty”), head of the Sinaloa Cartel and currently ranked 60th on Forbes’s list of the most powerful people in the world. That puts him behind Barack Obama (2), Osama bin Laden (57), and the Dalai Lama (39), but ahead of Oprah Winfrey (64) and Julian Assange (68). The president of Mexico didn’t make the list at all. In Mexicali, I find myself learning the statistics of two economies—authors don’t get paid advances for their work, hit men in Ciudad Juárez get 2,000 pesos a job—and the contours of two parallel geographies, one mapping the narco wars and another the landscape of literary production. This first topography is tissued like a horrible veil across the second. Durango, for example, is where El Chapo found his teenage bride, but it’s also home to a poet who wears combat boots and spits when he reads his poems, which are mostly about tits. Sinaloa is home to its namesake cartel, obviously, but it’s also home to Oscar and his Heidegger study groups. The capital of Sinaloa, Culiacán, has a cemetery full of two-story drug-lord mausoleums, impeccably furnished and air-conditioned for the comfort of mourning friends and family. Across town from these palaces, Oscar lives in a house with his kitten, Heidie. I imagine an entire menagerie: a dog named Dasein, two birds named Tiempo and Ser. I imagine an air conditioner humming quietly next to the ashes of a man. I am trying to merge these two Sinaloas, to make them the same.
The geography lesson moves east: Tamaulipas is a region famous for the August massacre of 72 illegals who wouldn’t pay up when the Cártel del Golfo asked them to. Wouldn’t. Right. Couldn’t. But Tamaulipas is also home to Marco, the poet interested in Flarf. When I think of Flarf, I think of poems that deconstruct and splice together blog posts about Iraqi oil and Justin Timberlake’s sex life. It’s true that Marco is up to something like this, but his project is made of different materials and perhaps a bit less irony. He is repurposing the language of the conflict for his poems. He trolls internet message boards full of posts from people sequestered in their homes. He takes phrases from the signs that cartels leave on the corpses of their victims, and scraps from the messages they scribble onto the skin of the dead. He cuts up quotes; fits the puzzle pieces of fear back together to make his poems. This is a new iteration: Flarf from and for and of the narco wars. Narco-Flarf. I wonder how this kind of work preserves that part of Flarf that feels so central: its sense of humor. I wonder whether this matters. To judge from how often Marco laughs (very), it matters a lot.
The whole encuentro is an odd mixture of revelry and seriousness. People speak constantly and painfully about the narco wars but they also do a lot of coke. They do it off one another’s house keys, just like I imagined they would, and I find myself wondering about those keys and the locks they turn. How many locks do people have in their homes? More than they did before? How often do they go to sleep afraid?
Just a few weeks before coming to Mexicali, Marco presented his work at an American gallery called LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). The piece was called SPAM. It was a wall hanging that showcased a poem he’d made from message-board fragments—in this case, posts from residents of Comales, a barrio on the outskirts of Tamaulipas that has essentially become a cluster of hideout bunkers.
Marco calls the neighborhood zona cero. Ground zero.
On the internet, and in Marco’s work, these voices find a mobility their bodies have been denied: “no se trabaja, no hay escuela, tiendas cerradas… estamos muriendo poco a poco” (“there isn’t work, there isn’t school, the shops are closed… we are dying little by little”). The language isn’t “poetic” because it didn’t start as poetry. It started as a cry. And now it’s something else. Marco, of course, abandoned his lyric self a few years back. Now his poems have no single speaker but a mass of ordinary voices that speak these desperate words, coaxed into cadence by his own sequestered hands.
SPAM was made in Tamaulipas and shown in Los Angeles, but it’s composed of materials from an immaterial network (the internet) that hangs suspended, contrapuntal and infinite, in between these places and essentially in no place at all. The piece has some faith in the internet but also understands how it abstracts experience into something nonsensical or illegible (spam!). The piece mocks borders but speaks explicitly toward them: “La pieza intentará crear diálogo más allá de las fronteras…” The piece is not simply a dispatch, Marco writes, but rather part of a conversation—the same conversation, I can’t help thinking, as the grenade explosion on his street.
It’s right there, Calexico, just past the brown fence. You can see recycling bins overturned on its asphalt driveways. But it takes more than an hour to cross the border. And this is 4:30 in the morning, when we go, and this isn’t even Tijuana. San Ysidro can take five hours if you hit it at the wrong time.
For some Mexicans, the border isn’t a big deal. Some lucky few get the border’s equivalent of a freeway E-ZPass. Marco thinks nothing of crossing here for a new pair of sneakers, though he shies away from crossing near home because the border is more dangerous in Golfo territory.
For others, the frontera is the edge of the world. Manuel, a keyboardist, explains that he’d love to play a gig in California but knows he never will. He can’t even spare the money for the phone call to make the appointment for the visa interview, much less sport a bank account flush enough to get one.
I cross from Mexicali with Marco and a Peruvian novelist named Ezio. We’re driving a dusty red Jeep. Our variety pack of nationalities sets the officer on edge. He doesn’t seem reassured by our explanation. An encuentro? Interesting. He gives me a hard time. This is also interesting. I’ve entered and returned from many foreign countries. I’ve never been given a hard time. I’m always profiled, and it always works to my advantage. Now I’m with company. I’ve forgotten to remove a yellow-fever vaccination certificate from my passport, and apparently this is a problem. The border officer shoves the paper in my face. “What’s this?” he says. “You have a dog?” I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I don’t have a dog and I tell him so. “But you’re from the States?” he says, as if I’ve contradicted myself. I tell him I am, but I can hear something strange: the inflection of a question trilling faintly through my voice, as if I’m no longer sure. Perhaps I’ve done something wrong. Marco explains: “They try to trip you up.”
The truth doesn’t necessarily serve you too well either. Let’s say you’re an old Mexican woman with grown children who live in the United States. You’d better not mention them at your visa interview. You might think they’d be a reason to grant you entry, but really they’re the best possible reason to keep you out. This woman was real, Marco tells me. He stood behind her in the consulate line. There are probably six of her, ten of her, 1,000 of her all across the border. As they say: She actually happened. She’d already been denied three times, kept paying $100 to apply again, kept talking about her kids, was running out of cheeks to turn, was running out of money.
Calexico is a small town with an ugly main drag full of casas de cambio (currency exchanges), but the fields on the outskirts of town are lush and emerald in the dawn. Everything around Mexicali was dry, dry, dry. “The grass is always greener,” says Marco and I laugh. Is this all right, that I’m laughing? I think so.
We pass an interior immigration station, a second layer of defense constructed in lieu of designing any kind of decent immigration policy. It flaunts its statistics like the scoreboard at a sporting event: 3,567 immigration arrests, 370 criminal arrests, 9,952 pounds of drugs seized. Marco asks: What do these numbers mean? There are no dates. The figures are simply toys, emptied of context and significance. Presumably, the stats are meant to scare illiterate pollos by osmosis or maybe flood the hearts of visiting Americans with that elusive sense of national security we crave.
I start to think maybe it’s another kind of poem, this board of numbers. It wants to make people afraid and to console them at once; it wants to give them the sense that they are in the middle of something larger and more powerful than they can ever understand—this traffic of drugs and bodies, this barely tethered and unquiet thing, danger itself, so porous and fluid. For every 3,567 immigrants caught, we imagine, there are always another 10,000 who aren’t. The persistence of fear can be a useful thing. Official pronouncements are full of loud gaps and festering line breaks and margins throbbing with unspoken threats and promises.
So the conversation continues. Drug lords write messages on corpses, and these messages say fuck you to the border control and its 370 criminal arrests. Poets get ideas and they get visas and they get on flights to Los Angeles. They tell Americans about Mexicans in a little barrio called Comales. They get home and the cartels are exploding grenades that tell them: Stay home and shut up. Everyone is trying to talk loudest. Everyone is simply hungry for the chance to speak.
As we drive away from dawn, toward San Diego, Marco tells me about another piece he made just after the August massacre. It was designed to resemble his local yellow pages. It listed all the stores and services named for the Gulf: Siderúrgica del Golfo, El Restaurán del Golfo, Transportes Línea del Golfo. In the spot where El Cártel del Golfo would have fallen, the line read: Puede Anunciarse Aquí. Addressed to the cartel, to its rivals, to its victims: You can advertise here.