The Trenches of Mexico: “You Can’t Call the Police on the Army”

There Mexican Army has conducted 20,000 raids in the last five years. Arturo Rodríguez García, writing for Proceso, reports that, “in the past two years . . . the number of captured citizens, raids without warrants, disappearances, instances of torture and executions have multiplied.” One defender of human rights affirms that the Marines “have the implicit right to violate the constitution. They rob, kidnap, disappear and kill and nothing happens.”

There is nothing more disconcerting than the patriotic enthusiasm of a downtrodden population. The government’s tolerance of crime dishonors patriotism, which calls for decorum before hysteria or praise. Government corruption turns popular joy into a sarcasm which reflects the impunity and recklessness of the government.

José Vasconcelos, 1935, writing of events in September 1910.

On September 15th, 2011, President Felipe Calderón exhorted Mexican citizens to help take up the fight against the drug cartels. He didn’t beckon the downtrodden to lift their spirits, or the addicted to seek drug counseling, or ask the healthy to help clean up the cities or join in the peace parades, he asked them all down into the trenches. His exact words: “así como los soldados plantan cara y se baten en combate con el enemigo, ciudadanos o militares debería hacer lo mismo, cada quien en su trinchera.” That is, everyone to their trenches. Notwithstanding the enormous historical importance of a citizen army in Mexico, and the grave implications of calling up the reserves, Calderón’s statement belies both a profound absence of tact and lack of awareness of the hot and actual fear that many Mexicans experience daily. Calderón, like earlier Mexican heads of state, doesn’t have an iron fist; he has a ineffectual fist. A fist driven by stubborn, out of touch policies. Not only has there been recent and widespread social mobilization urging the government to put down their weapons and pursue more humane, civil, social strategies, but Calderón’s own government has recently been accused of criminal passivity and irresponsibility by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its lack of protection and gross mistreatment of migrants passing through Mexico. Calderón thus not only overstates a disturbing metaphor (of calling citizens into already bloody trenches) but neglects an issue (of violence against undocumented migrants) where more powerful rhetoric and direct action is merited. What the citizens of Mexico are calling for, as indicated by the surge of protests calling for peace, is not to jump in the fight, but for both lay victims and the army to get out of the trenches. The recent and increasingly ostentatious acts of non-violence, like marchers releasing white balloons into the air (as the campaign Teachers for Peace was recently initiated in Monterrey), are indicative of an anti-Calderón, anti-trench warfare approach, that is: not fighting the “war” with ever-increasing force, but winning peace through sober and thoughtful social policies. Peace protestors are repeatedly insisting that, as Yuri Fedotov of the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime said, “Ordinary citizens are paying a high price for crime and the presence of the Army in the streets should only be temporary.” Increased spending on education is what many protestors, such as Miguel Concha, director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Francisco of Vitória, is calling for, not the doubling down of armed conflict, as, over and over, Calderón is calling for.

Here’s Calderón speaking on the 6th of October: “Part of the badness that we’re encountering is precisely because we have not been fighting with the necessary magnitude” (emphasis mine). Badness (in Spanish Calderón used the noun “mal”) and magnitude? He sounds more like a wrestling couch than an educated politician.

But I want to discuss another indecent blunder (actually a series of them) that Calderón made last February, when he praised his Army without even a modicum of restraint or awareness of the presiding fear of the streets. Below is a brief recapitulation of Calderón’s encomium to the Army, followed by the story of one woman’s suffering and humiliation by one of the such-acclaimed soldiers.

Army Day

Every February 19th Mexico celebrates El Día del Ejército, Army Day.

This year, the day after Army Day, February 20th, Tucson’s daily newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, ran the syndicated Associated Press story: CALDERÓN LAUDS MILITARY’S FIGHT VS. CARTELS.

The article explained that, for Army Day, President of Mexico Felipe Calderón was in Reynosa, Tamaulipas (across the border from McAllen, Texas) to promise higher pensions for the spouses of Mexican soldiers killed in action. The story quoted Calderón’s sweeping praise of “the army’s fight against drug cartels.”

The Mexican President (celebrated by Barack Obama for his extraordinary courage) said: “It has become clear, and will be made even more clear, that here in Mexico, there is no force more powerful than the armed forces.”

Calderón was answering critics, those who question the force and power of the military. He was answering those who claim that the war against the cartels, in which, by October 2011 more than, some scholars estimate 50,000 people have been murdered, is not being won, or is not worth winning. A few numbers that get much less attention than the well-postered 50K, is the 10,000 plus (some estimate as many as 30,000) children who have been orphaned because of the war, or the estimated 700,000 displaced persons, all due to the drug war.

Calderón has since defended the war against the cartels numerous times. And he insists on calling it a war. Since his inauguration in 2006, according to the tallying of Jorge Alejandro Medellín (as printed in Milenio on September 5th 2001), Calderón has used the word guerra in reference to the fight against organized crime in Mexico, at least 58 times.

That day back in February, Army Day, as far as the video showed (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube), was a quiet day—uniformly cloudy, a slight breeze blowing over the manicured parade grounds, not a trace of perspiration on the President’s forehead and the occasional background noise of polite applause. Standing behind the podium, which sat on a turf-carpeted stage, Calderón spoke in presidentially metered, almost staccato blurts, occasionally rising onto his toes or shrugging his shoulders in what looked like demure self-appreciation. He dropped vague, sweeping laudations and eye-widening hurrahs about the soberanía (sovereignty) and honor of México. To his left sat two dozen or so military-ribboned and heavily regaled officers who were lazing plumply at the long banquet table which Calderón called the “mesa de honor.” Cornucopic flower arrangements bedecked the table along with uneaten-off plates and, at each setting, three wine glasses half-filled with orange juice, white or red wine, and iceless water. The table-skirt swelled in the occasional breeze and the balding, paunchy officers sniffled (one actually openly picked his nose) and sipped at their juices. The theatrical backdrop behind the table was a canvas of three greater-than-life-size, machinegun-toting, desert-camouflaged soldiers wearing helmets and goggles. The blown-up photograph had an up-angled vantage that made the soldiers look like giants standing guard over the officers’ brunch. It was almost a García Marquez like caricature of Latin American military’s intemperance.

Calderón called the event, Army Day, una celebración, referring to the Army as one of the institutions “most respected and most loved by all Mexicans.” He also designated the Army as the “protagonist in the most glorious pages of our history.” He was referring, of course, to the Mexican Revolution, during which, a hundred years ago, ragtag paisano armies toppled the senile tyrant, Porfirio Díaz, who had ruled Mexico for 35 years. But Calderón, in describing the Army as respected and loved, and as the protagonist, was not only talking about the glorious past, he was also referring—“así es, y así será”—to the Army’s current state.

And he was clear—he looked up from his speech, he raised his hand into a presidential fist—enunciating, “amigos y amigas, the violence does not come from the Institutions. The violence comes from the violent. That is its origin. Not in the action of the State that combats the violence to protect its citizens.

He went on: “The crimes, you mustn’t forget, are committed by criminals, not by the Forces of Order that combat the criminals.”

In Spanish, as well as in English, it’s an involuted, almost lyrical speech, pulling out all the stops: definition, repetition, alliteration, reification, anadiplosis, hyperbole, historical conflation, the fist, the toes, the glance up from his papers, the pause and even the self-referential shrug. All of it was conducted, choreographed and catered—seeming as something between an awards ceremony and a best man’s speech or a living eulogy.

But it didn’t sit well—there was an air to it of blame-deflection or cover-up. For without even any knowledge of Mexican history, or without witnessing any instance of corruption in Mexico, just by the defensive, tell-tale-heart-spewing chicanery of Calderón, anyone listening would suspect him—not the criminals or the disembodied “violence” that he repeatedly blamed—as the principal perpetrator.

And yet many don’t need the blowharding of an indecent politician to suspect foul play, because many witness and live everyday with government corruption in Mexico. As an occasional border crosser and a volunteer (I have since moved to the relative haven of Mexico City) at deportee aid stations in Nogales, Sonora with the organization No More Deaths, even I have witnessed police corruption and the brutality of the army. I have seen a guia (a human trafficker) who, while driving a carload of migrants, slap a few bills into the palm of a policeman. I’ve heard migrants complain about the police working not only in cooperation with, but directly in trafficking circles. I’ve seen a Humvee full of Army soldiers drive by in the bright afternoon with a woman riding in the back—a well-made-up, jean-jacketed hooker riding bitch with five young guys with guns. And it scared me—the soldiers with the prostitute, the policeman joking with the guia—the incredible imbalance of power between that woman and those five young, well-armed, helmeted, bulletproof-vested men. The unwritten rules of the power dynamic are that “the laws” have nothing to do with the law of the street in Mexico. A friend of mine (a deported migrant from Honduras) in Mexicali, for example, recently told me about a Federal Police officer who, without any explanation, offered one of his friends five hundred pesos. Thankfully, the man didn’t accept it. He was scared to even ask what it was for. And all of it, the corruption of the cops, the do-as-they please impunity of the soldiers, fortifies an already strong structure of violence in the streets of Mexico which thrives especially in impoverished, migrant and deportee neighborhoods.

So when I hear Calderón praise his soldiers, I cringe.

And when I hear Obama call Calderón courageous, I cringe.

And yet Calderón’s speech didn’t stop in praising the power of the Army as an opening flourish. He went on, for over half an hour.

He said: “I said it and I’ll say it again.”

He said: “Clear and more clear.”

He said: “We know well: after the seeding comes the harvest. The actions of today bear the fruits of tomorrow.”

He said: “A father is proud of his sons.”

Said: “Defend your good name.”

Said: “Valor and heroism.”

Said: “¡Viva el Ejército! ¡Y viva México!”

That was all in praise of and in defense of the standing Army. That was all back in February, a few thousand bodies earlier. Since, Calderón has notched up his rhetoric. Since, he’s called the citizens to the fight as well: “everyone to their trenches.”

Calderón is not only staging a largely unsupported “war” against the cartels, he is now also calling for civilians to enter the battlefields. He is calling for what Javier Sicilia has rightly called a further domination of military logic over civilian logic. The next step (perhaps not much more preposterous than much that you see in Mexico these days) would be to institute a citizen draft to fight the war against the cartels.

The hotly debated Ley de Seguridad Nacional, if passed, promises to loosen the reins on Calderón’s authority even further. The proposed Mexican law is a sort of stare decisis of the United States Patriot Act: reactive to violence and liable to normalize a state of emergency.

The Mexican Ley de Seguridad grants even more freedom than the already existing Article 29 of the Constitution, which states that the President may suspend guarantees of citizen rights when there is a “grave perturbation of the public peace.” The catch with Article 29, which the Ley de Seguridad proposes to do away with, is: “but he must do so [suspend citizen rights] for a limited time.” José Antonio Aguilar Rivera describes the proposed law as threatening to “regularize the anomalous participation of the Army in quotidian affairs.” Even if the Mexican Army had a clean record, the threat of the Ley de Seguridad would be a frightening new reality in a country in which, according to the newspaper El Universal’s tally, the Army has performed (or perhaps the better verb is committed) 20,000 raids on its own soil since 2006.

But with my criticisms I don’t intend to imply that Calderón is solely or even largely responsible for the 50,000 plus murdered in Mexico. As President, he is faced with incredibly complex and consequential decisions. For well more than half a century the ruling government of Mexico (PRI) engaged with criminal elements in varying degrees, ranging from unabashed collusion to putting a publicized clamp-down on corruption. Calderón, starting in 2006 when he came to office, tried to change the discourse, tried to put his boot down even harder, and so started the current Mexican “war” against drug trafficking. Though some claim that he himself has made exceptions for El Chapo, a murderous Nero-like drug lord based out of Sinoloa, most consider his intentions at least not willfully evil. He faces, no doubt, a very difficult situation. This should not be reason, however, to excuse his reactionary, grotesquely failing and superficial strategies. Both Calderón and Obama, in slapping the open wounds of Mexico with weapons and cash, are disastrously ignoring primary causes, the root and branch of drug trade and corruption—the booming drug demand in the US, the decimation of Mexican employment, and a spike in violence due to an over-enforced border, family separation and neoliberal trade agreements. If you don’t talk about why millions of Mexicans are jobless, uneducated and wayfaring (an estimated seven million youths, or ninis, those that ni estudian, ni trabajan, neither study nor have jobs), then you are not going to “win” the drug and human-trafficking “war”, you are only going to prolong it and drag even more bodies into the already blood-flooded trenches.

Here I shift (there’s no graceful way to do it) to the painful memory of watching a Mexican soldier beat a woman in the street.

The Trenches

I was standing outside of the migrant soup kitchen where I used to volunteer, chatting with a few deported migrants, lending a phone to make calls to family members, when I heard the first slap.

I looked up and saw that the woman’s face was turned toward me. She was already sobbing. The soldier, I realized, had just hit her in the face. He was speaking loudly, not quite yelling. The woman responded to what he was saying (I couldn’t quite hear it) in sob. Then he hit her again, an open-handed hard slap to the head. It was a hot, bright afternoon in Nogales, Sonora. There were fifteen or more people, mostly recent deportees, standing outside of the soup kitchen where Jesuit priests and Catholic nuns work daily to keep bellies full and bodies clothed and safe. Across the street from the kitchen, the group of fifteen or so watched the soldier grab a fistful of the woman’s hair and shove her against the wall of the mechanic’s shop.

The original corrugated wall of the shop he had pushed her against had a painting on it, I never knew why, of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, whose body had been horizontally cut in two by a shiny new aluminum patch.

The woman sobbed. The soldier stepped back and slapped her again—hard, an almost full swing—across the face.

What the fuck? Luis, a man I had been chatting with, said.

Standing next to me, a fellow volunteer named Mike (all names have been changed), spoke into the phone (I don’t know to who), I’m sorry, I’m distracted because I’m watching a soldier beat a woman across the street.

The soldier carried, I think, a Heckler and Koch G3A3, which is a 7.62mm battle rifle. It is a heavy looking old-fashioned government-issued machine gun that I wouldn’t want to be hit with any sooner than I’d want to be shot by.

There was a sand-camo-colored, open-backed Humvee parked about a hundred yards south down the road where three other soldiers, all armed with the same machine gun, stood laughing and bullshitting with each other.

The soldier, with his booted foot, kicked the woman on her shoe. She reacted by pulling her leg up and back, sobbing louder than she had yet and hopping in pain. The soldier then snatched her phone out of her hand and threw it into the street. The woman sobbed again, still standing on one foot. The soldier grabbed her by the hair and pushed her against the wall and they paused there, in silence, the woman’s face convulsing and the soldier, inches away, staring into her closed eyes.

What the fuck? Luis said again. But none of us moved.

Two of the migrants who had been sitting on the curb stood, said that they couldn’t watch, and walked away. I didn’t know what to do. I had a feeling in my stomach that something awful was going to happen, that something awful was happening. We were all staring. The soldier let go of the woman’s hair and looked us. Then he yelled something, his words filled with rage and spit. I couldn’t understand them. But what he meant, of course, I understood: don’t even think about crossing the street.

I thought about crossing the street. Then I thought about a gunshot to my belly, to my head, shattering open my skull. The soldier yelled into the woman’s face. I thought about the soldier lifting up his rifle and bringing it down on the woman’s head, caving her skull. Then I thought about calling the police. I said so to Luis. He shook his head.

Bad idea, he said. You can’t call the police on the army.

There were a few minutes when we were just standing there. The soldier and woman had fallen back into conversation, though his words were still heated. The woman never stopped crying. Her phone was still in the street, not far from where, a year before, I had watched, for months, a roadkill tarantula slowly dry and whiten. José, a migrant who I had been trying to convince all morning to go to the hospital because of a serious stomach problem, but who refused out of some unnamed fear, didn’t seem to have noticed any of the altercation, and kept drooling long strings of bile-laced sputum onto the sidewalk. And then the soldier hit the woman again. She yelled in sob and then he grabbed her hair, dragged her a few yards up the hill, turned the corner, and they were out of sight.

What the fuck? Luis said.

Is he raping her right now? I said. What…? I said, not even knowing what to ask.

What the fuck? Luis said again.

The other soldiers still stood next to the Humvee, kicking pebbles, quipping and chuckling with each other. None of us moved. I looked at the painting of SpongeBob. I felt sick to my stomach. After a few moments of waiting—the hot sun squinting at us and us squinting back helplessly—Luis started telling me about his kid, in Mexico City, who hadn’t seen his mom in two years. I used to work in Las Vegas, Luis said, in New York, New York, in the kitchen. I was illegal, he said, but I was doing it for my kid. All I want is to bring my children back together.

I only heard parts of his story. Or maybe I heard it all, but can only remember parts of it now. My capacity for language, both speech on its way out and words on their way in, seemed to have been partially blocked. I couldn’t think a coherent thought and I couldn’t fathom what Luis was trying to convey to me. I was staring at the SpongeBob wall the soldier had recently dragged the girl behind and I was, in the true meaning of the word, dumbfounded.

But Luis didn’t seem to be worrying about the girl behind the wall. José pulled his shirt over his head so that it covered his face. I could see his tongue as he stuck it into the fabric, and I could see his crooked nose. Then the soldier came back around the corner. Then the woman followed.

It is here that I have trouble continuing. Do I write that he hit her again? Because he did. That she sobbed? Because she did. Do I write, in Calderón’s words “a great force”? Do I write, “no force more powerful”? It is here I sympathize with Mexican journalists. How do you sustain the shock? If you are not the victim, how do you sustain the horror?

How do I write, I ask myself, what I encountered while working along the border? Do I write, as an aside, The boy was raped by the same man who trafficked his mother? Do I write, She couldn’t talk about what she had seen in the desert? Do I write, He was put in solitary confinement for not wanting to sign the papers? Do I write, The 7-month pregnant woman deported alone to Nogales had never seen a doctor in her life? Do I write, The palms of her hands were completely covered in scab? Do I write, The beating went on?

Well, it did.

The soldier hit her again. Luis invited me to a casino in Acapulco. José moaned something about his brother, moaned something about his stomach. Mike talked into the phone, looking for the lost husband of a deported woman, trying to find out if he had ever been fingerprinted. The soldier kicked the woman.

And again, I decided to walk across the street, to approach the soldier, to shout for him to stop. And yet I stopped myself. I couldn’t do it.

Or, what is worse, I could have done it.

The soldier (I’m only writing what I saw) dragged the woman back behind the wall. Again they were out of sight. Mary, a nurse and fellow volunteer, came out of the comedor. We told her what we were watching. She started crying almost immediately. Then the soldier came out from behind the wall and looked at us. He lifted his rifle into the air, a cocksure flaunt of the thing upheaved into the sky. Then he cocked it.

The metal-ratchet echoed hotly in the afternoon heat.

In a few moments the girl stumbled around the corner, her face red, her hands and her lips shaking. Unsteadily, she stepped into the street and picked up her broken phone, then started limping north in her heels, toward the border wall, across the broken steep sidewalks and potholed streets. Mary said that she’d go talk to her.

I watched the soldier throw his gun into the doorless Humvee, watched his subordinates jump in the back bed. The engine started, the Humvee squealed into the street, pulled a U-turn, and was up to about 50 before it passed the woman still limping down the broken sidewalk.

I didn’t know what to do.

Luis said, What the fuck?

José stood up, tucked his cardboard under his arm, started walking up the street. Maybe he had been watching the whole time, I don’t know. Maybe it was just the shifting shadows that prompted him to move.

Mike and I stood for a few minutes, silent, and then we saw Mary walking toward us. We picked up our bags, went to meet her.

I talked to her, Mary said. That guy was her husband. He broke her phone.

What did she say?

She said not to worry. I couldn’t see any bruises on her. She said it happens all the time, not to worry.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of anything but, like Luis said, What the fuck?

We walked down the street, under the bridge, to the migrant aid tent. Pirata and Sombra, two yipping muddy dogs, were happily waiting for us. I pulled them apart when Pirata started growling, and I said to them, Ustedes son amigos, no son enemigos, son amigos, and Juan Ignacio, who runs the aid tent, laughed at me. A woman offered us warm Coca-Cola. I drank some out of a styrofoam cup. I felt as if all of my actions were passive. We sat and talked, passively, about the flies, the construction, the heat, the new paving stones. We watched Pirata and Sombra tangle on their leashes, yipping and snapping at each other.

Then the woman came up. The beaten wife. She was young, mid-maybe-early twenties. Her face looked like it still carried some baby fat. She was wearing, I could see more closely then, pressed, pin-stripe slacks, square-toe, high-heeled boots, a tight-fitting pink shirt with lace along the v-neckline and the sleeves. Her clothes looked like those of somebody who doesn’t have much but takes good care of what she does have. Her hair was dark and short and fell over her wide face.

She smiled at me and asked, in a quiet, straight voice, ¿Venden agua aqui?

We don’t sell it, I said. It’s free. You want some Coke?

Sí, she said, Gracias.

I set one of the weightless styrofoam cups on the table and poured Coke into it from the tall 2 liter bottle.

On the woman’s cheek there was a growing line of bruise, her eyes were slightly swollen. She smiled at me.

This is for the migrants? she asked.


You work here?

No, I said, I just come here sometimes.

I asked her name. It was Paola. We shook hands. She was from Chiapas and had only been in Nogales a little while. She smiled again. She was completely composed. She hardly seemed to even blink. She sipped her Coke from the little styrofoam cup.

If you need to make a call, I said, gesturing to the broken phone in her hand, you can use our phone.

She asked how much it cost. I told her it cost nothing. I asked Mike for one of our phones, gave it to her. We had to tell her to dial the country code first, since it was an American signal. She was trying to call her mother, she said, in Chiapas, and she tried again, and again, but couldn’t get through. Each time she clicked the phone shut she looked back at me, smiling, as if asking if it was okay to try again. I smiled back at her.

Then the Humvee pulled up. It parked halfway hanging out into the street and halfway in the little parking roundabout. The driver, Paola’s husband, got out. Paola smiled at me—the same sweet, thank-you-for-the-phone-and-Coke smile—then obediently went around the side of the tent where I couldn’t see her. The soldier met her there. Mary stood up from where we sat under the tent and we both walked to where we could see Paola. The soldier started talking at her, first softly, and then heating. Mary looked at me. My god, she said. What an asshole.

I told Mary that we should stand closer.

I’m less threatening, she said, and she walked towards them.

Buenas tardes, Mary said.

Buenas tardes, the soldier said.

The beating and abuse in broad daylight was like a secret we all knew, and that we all knew each other knew, and yet we insisted on keeping from each other. I’ve had that feeling before in Nogales—the first time I saw sicarios (masked cartel hitmen with AK-47s). The men, wearing jeans, t-shirts, balaclavas over their faces and carrying submachine guns, had jumped out of a Jeep and a pickup truck outside of an Oxxo convenience store in the bright stare of an afternoon. As soon as I saw the sicarios, the guns and the masks, I backed away, wanting to, stupidly, at the same time both duck and not turn my head in case I needed to protect myself. One of the sicarios, I glanced, ran into the store. Someone, I couldn’t tell exactly who, was either thrown into, or dove into, the Jeep. Then the sicarios were back in their vehicles. The Jeep and the truck sped away, squealing down the street. Not a shot was fired. Because I had ducked, half-turned, and then ran around the other side of an electrical box—expecting volleys of machinegun fire—I didn’t see exactly what had happened. The whole altercation took 15 seconds, maybe less. And then, what else was there to do, my heart not even yet pounding in my chest, I stood, and kept walking. A couple of high school boys, dressed in their uniforms—white collared shirts and maroon ties—were standing on the corner. We smiled at each other, nervously, then exchanged cordialities. What happened? I asked. They shrugged, laughed. Cuidensé, I told them, and they laughed again, their eyes wide with fear and wonder, and one of them said to me, Igualmente. There was, between those boys and me, a tacit, winking, real fear. A fear I feel that I sometimes see in people, in myself, in Nogales, in those who pause, slightly, as if catching their breath, when a truck speeds by in the street, or an engine backfires, or there is a distant scream.

I was watching the soldier. The soldier was watching me, then looking at his wife. Paola wouldn’t look up at him. Mary was hovering. Nobody did anything for a minute. But Paola’s composure—that she had had three minutes ago— was gone. She was crying again.

The other three soldiers, still in the Humvee, who looked no older than teenagers, were slumped against the rollbars, lollygagging and laughing at their officer and his woman. The soldier didn’t hit Paola again, though he yelled at her once, and he still carried his Heckler and Koch, or whatever the gun was, and Paola was crying, and things stayed like that for a little while.

Then Luis came down to the tent, asking what the soldier was doing.

I pointed, not knowing what to answer.

Let me tell you, Luis said. They can do whatever they want. They got a gun.

And I nodded.

After awhile, the soldier left again, sped away with his subordinates hooting in the back-bed of the Humvee. Paola returned to the tent. I offered her the phone, but she didn’t want it. I poured her some more Coke.

And her voice, the whole time, laughing with us, drinking out of the little Styrofoam cup, telling us about her mother or, earlier, repeating our directions about the phone, was steady. There wasn’t a hint of emotion in it. Not a wetness. Not a swelling or hollowing. Just a steady, simple, young voice, like a voice you would hear in a happy home, calling to a child. Hola, the voice said. Qué tal? Soy Paola.

I thought, that day, as I was walking back across the border, back into the United States, that I wouldn’t want or be able to talk about what I had seen.

I’ve encountered hundreds of hurt, depressed, crying, injured, and even some dying migrants, many of whom have suffered direct abuse from American or Mexican authorities or American or Mexican bandits or thieves, many of whom have been sexually, physically, and mentally beaten, but watching a soldier assault a woman in broad daylight, on a busy street, in front of dozens of witnesses, with absolute impunity and no second thought of suffering any consequence, that, for me, was too much. It disturbed me in a deep, bodily way, and I couldn’t shake it off.

The violence was not only the soldier’s blows to Paola, it was not only a moment of domestic abuse broken open in the street. It was also the violence of the impunity the soldier had, the freedom he felt to beat his wife in front of dozens of witnesses, the gun placed in his hand which gave him that freedom. The raid at the Oxxo was similar: the cartels need no cover of night to commit their crimes. Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border itself is night enough for them. It provides the darkness for the kidnappings, robberies, rapes, human trafficking. And presidential platitudes and Calderón’s elegy, they too provide night-cover for soldiers to commit their crimes. The whole border region and the nominal “guerra” against the cartels are cloaks of darkness under which increasingly disturbing acts of violence are accepted as part of the daily life. Recall: 20,000 raids in five years by the Mexican Army. Arturo Rodríguez García, writing for Proceso, reports that, “in the past two years, when the Marines started fighting against organized crime in Monterrey, the number of captured citizens, raids without warrants, disappearances, instances of torture and executions have multiplied. One [anonymous] defender of human rights affirms that the Marines “have the implicit right to violate the constitution. They rob, kidnap, disappear and kill and nothing happens.” And the Ley de Seguridad threatens to codify the Army’s potentially long-term presence. Jurgen Klimke, the president of the Grupo de Amistad México-Alemania wrote of the human rights “emergency” and “grave situation” occurring in Mexico “with generalized impunity and opacity” between military and civilians. There is no doubt about the impunity he references. And the opacity, too, after that day, I too, in wanting to approach the soldier, felt that wall of fear.

Leaving Mexico that day, I felt a quiver sit in my chin, a pressure behind my eyes. And I thought: I can’t tell this story. I can’t, I thought, and yet when another volunteer and I were on the highway driving north back to Tucson, I told her everything. And when I got home that night I went over to my neighbor’s and I told them everything, and later that night I told my girlfriend everything, and, each time I thought that I wouldn’t be able to tell it, or wouldn’t want to tell it, and each time I felt a deepening pressure, as if my mind would fold shut somehow. I remember Paola’s face, her wide eyes, the slight paunch under her tight shirt, her steady hand holding the weightless cup of Coke, her easy voice.

Reporters in Mexico correctly refer to victims as “víctimas de la Guerra contra el narcotráfico declarada por Felipe Calderón,” that is to say, victims of the war against narco-trafficking, because many victims are what we would call, that disturbing euphemism, collateral damage (“daños colaterales”). That is to say, they are not solely victims of the narcos, but they are victims of the war itself.

Perhaps it has not been better stated than by Lourdes Hernández, the mother of Pamela Letici who was “disappeared” in July of 2010, and whose words became the title of a recent Proceso article about mothers of victims of the war, “Nos mataron el miedo,” or “The fear is killing us.”

So when Calderón importunes civilians to get in their trenches, is he talking to Poala, is he inviting her in the trench, with her husband?


John Washington is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City, working on a novel about migration. More of his writing can be found on, and