The Mexico City Barrio Giuliani Couldn't Conquer

By Andalusia Knoll

Ten years ago Rudy Giuliani rolled through the Tepito barrio in Mexico City with a caravan of 300 security agents and a helicopter soaring above. The hood is internationally known for its dominating presence of informal vendors, known as ambulantes, and the many athletes and pop celebrities who were born there. But despite the well-off, famous people from Tepito, it is still one of Mexico City’s roughest barrios, which is why Giuliani’s specific expertise in urban cleansing was requested. He came to Mexico City in 2003 at the invitation of multibillionaire Carlos Slim and then-mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with the goal of supporting the “rescue” of the city’s “crime infested” historic center.

It’s not hard to see why Slim and the mayor asked for Giuliani by name. During his time as mayor of New York, his implementation of the broken-windows theory and “quality of life” policing was very successful in pushing “undesirables” to the margins of the outer boroughs of the city. He even turned Times Square, which used to be like this, into a lit-up carnival of Disneyland wonder by welcoming corporate investment with open arms. Could he do the same in Mexico City?

A decade after his visit and the set of 146 recommendations that came along with it—which cost the private local firm (Slim and others) who had agreed to pick up the tab $4.3 million—his policy advice has borne some fruit. Now you can walk the streets of the Historic Center at night and find trendy bars inhabited by turistas, hipsters, and local chilangos alike. Streets like Moneda are still home to hundreds of vendors who engage in a daily cat-and-mouse game with the cops, but mostly the ambulantes have been pushed out of the capital’s shiny new center. Still, head about a mile northwest of Zocalo, the central square, and you’ll find yourself in the calloused sore thumb of the city’s glorious plans, Tepito.

Tepito, the "Barrio Bravo": where “Gangnam Style” blares from every corner and After Earth was on the shelves of pirated-DVD stalls the same day it hit theaters in the US; where discount Air Jordans—knockoffs or having fallen off a truck—decorate the feet of the populace and mayonnaise-smothered corn on the cob is consumed liberally and without shame. The hood has been called the “nursery of champions” for all the legendary boxers raised there, and outdoor sonidero dance parties are an almost religious social ritual.

But things have been grim in Tepito lately. Last month, on a Sunday morning, 12 mostly young people were whisked away in unmarked vehicles from an illegal after-hours bar known as Heaven. The victims were identified as Tepiteños, and some are sons of known Mafia lords involved with the barrio’s piracy and drug markets. A few days later, masked men armed with assault weapons burst into a gym just outside of Tepito and killed four.

The media’s theories about what happened to the disappeared kids from Tepito has blown in every direction, from a possible offense on the territory from an outside drug cartel, to a hit by corrupt police. While no one can deny the presence of violence and criminal elements in the barrio, broad generalizations demonizing the entire neighborhood and its residents seems to be the only common thread in the coverage. Authorities fueled the fire by reacting sluggishly to the incident.

Understandably, Tepiteños are a little shaken up about the mass disappearance and the gym murders. The city has responded by deploying hundreds of additional police officers to the area, but that has done little to assuage residents’ fears, as many members of Mexico City’s police force are believed to be in the service of organized crime groups. 

***

I’m standing on a street corner in Tepito at 9 PM on a Wednesday speaking with Mario Ahuatl, a well-known community organizer. The rain is washing detritus left by the day’s sales and he is detaching boxing gloves and gear from a fence where they hang. As he speaks, Ahuatl’s facial expressions are illuminated by the constant blue and red flash of passing police cruisers. Ahuatl is Tepiteño-Tepiteño, as they say, meaning you can ask him about any guy in the area and he probably knows him. “Those guys killed in the gym, they used to work out right here on this street,” he tells me.

While we’re chatting at least four trucks and three groups of pedestrians have been stopped and checked in a new, ongoing security operation. These kinds of operations are becoming commonplace, Tepiteños say. Stop-and-Frisk: Mexico City style.

Above the checkpoint hang two security cameras supposedly recording the street scenes, but this isn’t New York-style surveillance. A kid goes missing in Manhattan and the footage from every camera in the area— whether private or public—is watched and rewatched until the detectives’ eyes start to bleed. In Mexico City 12 people are kidnapped and the local government only starts reviewing surveillance videos after the victims’ relatives block a major avenue in Tepito and demand the city take that simple action. After that happened news cameras arrived and then it became a story.

Mexico City deployed 400 extra police to Tepito following the kidnapping and gym shooting, which were linked to each other in press reports by a host of uncorroborated theories. Somehow the Tepito rumor mill has inflated the number of officers to 6,000, and that’s the figure I heard repeated as I browsed through the wares of a stall selling documentaries and cine de arte while the vendors around me questioned the cops’ efficacy.

“A 12-year-old kid was held up at gunpoint yesterday on Jesus Carranza and the neighbors asked, where are the 6,000 cops?”

“Some dude was dead on the corner, and where are the 6,000 cops?”

Ahuatl declines to talk about the security situation in Tepito these days, but I sought him out because he was at the center of the resistance to Mi Barrio Tepito, a plan the city’s government announced in 2007 that included investments from financial heavy-hitters like Slim’s Inbursa Group and Walmart. Carlos Slim was essentially buying up the neighborhood while the government went around making deals with vendor leaders to get them out of the historic core.

In February of that year, hundreds of security agents raided and destroyed the largest tenement block in the area, known as la Fortaleza. The government confiscated thousands of kilos of drugs that were moving through la Fortaleza, but also displaced more than 130 families in the wake of its destruction.

As the government advanced with its plans for Mi Barrio Tepito, Ahuatl and his neighbors organized an open forum for the Tepiteños to discuss the plan. The organizers thought few, if anyone, would come, but when the day arrived more than 3,000 people were reportedly in attendance. Encouraged by the turnout, they started holding more assemblies where Tepiteños could voice their resistance to the government project.

Ahuatl told me, “What emerged in 2007 was the unity of all the people, whether they were priistas (ruling-party members), centrists, religious people, or leftists, such as in my case. We’re all Tepiteños, and we’re all gonna defend our barrio.”

This specific investment project was eventually defeated, but Slim and his cronies have not diverted their eyes.

Mentions of Mi Barrio Tepito have hit the press again, suggesting the uprooting of the neighborhood’s vendor core is still in the works. But Ahuatl is convinced that their previous muestra de resistencia and the unity that was forged among neighbors will foil the city’s plans.

“They’re demonizing us in the press with what’s happened so that they can justify the entrance of private capital,” Ahuatl said. “Although it seems like there’s no specific plan right now, big capital always wants to come in.”

***

A few years ago the city opened a community center on Jesus Carranza Street on the ruins of la Fortaleza. It’s Tuesday, the only day when there’s no market. The streets are bare, bordered by the metal skeletons of the empty puestos. The center is fancy, with a pool, physical-therapy programs, and more. I step inside to find a classical-music concert underway. Hundreds of vendedores are there, all sporting the T-shirts of their vendor unions.

I watch a group of guys painting a mural on a wall inside the center on one side of the building and nurses stationed at health trucks conducting blood pressure exams on the other. As I’m packing up to leave a scruffy kid rolls up and asks me, “Hey, how does this work? How can I sign up?”

In a plaza nearby the old folks dance danzón and a few blocks up there’s the Espacio Cultural Tepito.

“You can find the house in Tepito where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara stayed on their visit to Mexico, where Celia Cruz played, Amparo Ochoa, and many others, where the great artist Posada lived,” Mario Puga, a co-founder of the Espacio, told me.

It’s clear that Tepito is a thriving place in cultural terms, but it also has many obstacles to overcome, and most of the residents I spoke with don’t believe the solution lies in some sort of corporate cleansing of their neighborhood. To José Román Cerón, another regular at the Espacio Cultural Tepito, my question about the government’s plans to privatize Tepito seems like the silly joke of an uninformed reporter. He laughs it off, affirming the strength and resiliency of the neighborhood: “Tepito lives, because it resists!”

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