Friday, September 19, 2008

Coming Clean

Okay, I need to come clean: I haven't been exactly, um, forthcoming with all of the details of my life here in Culiacán. It's not that I've lied to you in past postings. It's just that I've omitted what some people might consider rather significant parts of what my day-to-day is like here in Sinaloa. The thing is that Culiacán isn't all cheery blog posts on Chihuahua dogs with pink nail polish and wacky city buses and raspado addictions. The truth is that Culiacán is actually kind of a dangerous place.

No -- scratch that -- it's a very dangerous place.

For years, Culiacán has been headquarters to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the biggest drug cartels in Mexico. They supply the US market with cocaine from Colombia, marijuana from Mexico, and opium from Asia. The boss, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán is one of the most wanted men in North America. Mr. Guzmán is a man of two faces, one part Al Capone -- infamous outlaw -- and one part Robin Hood -- responsible for much of the prosperity in this would-be-poor region.

It's this dichotomy, this two-faced nature of the drug trade, that causes the narcoculture here. It's ingrained in everyone, the regular people and drug bosses alike. It's the reason that many local folks worship a would-be saint called Jesus Malverde. He's an outlaw who died in the early 1900s, but people go to his shrine -- located by the cathedral here in the city -- to pray for safe travels, especially when taking, ahem, journeys "up north." It's the reason that Culiacán's streets are clogged with flashy Hummers with narcocorridos (kind of like gangsta rap en español) blaring out of the speaker systems. It's the reason that even honest folks speak of the narcotraficantes as "good people" who "do a lot for the community" and have "nice families."

For a long time, these two sides of the city co-existed in a delicate peace. Guzmán used to live right here in Culiacán. His kids were students at my school. The rumor mills churned with seemingly-benign stories about seeing Guzmán out and about in the city -- there's a famous tale about his bodyguards locking down a huge famous restaurant called Las Palmas this spring. Nobody was allowed to leave while "The Boss" and his family dined there, but at the end, he picked up the tab for everyone in the entire place that night.

So everything used to be fine in Culiacán. Regular folks went about their business, felt safe in their city, and turned a blind eye to the not-so-legitimate enterprise that fueled much of the local economy. But then the proverbial mierda hit the fan this May: One of Guzmán's sons got gunned down by a rival cartel at a shopping mall. So "El Chapo" himself went into hiding, the rest of the family fled to somewhere in Europe, and Sinaloa braced itself for Guzmán's revenge. At the same time, the new-ish Mexican President, in his ongoing plight to crack down on drugs throughout Mexico, sent the army here to weed out all the narcotraficantes.

These two events disrupted the illegal-but-peaceful status quo that previously existed here in Culiacán. Now, there's a three-way conflict between the two cartels and the federales. This means that big army trucks patrol the streets and a trip to the supermarket involves walking past armed soldiers with big machine guns while picking out your breakfast cereal. Newspapers are full of headlines about drug raids at homes in "nice" neighborhoods and cartel bosses being gunned down in the streets.

And this is the scene I arrived at in July. I knew a little bit about the violence before I came, but naïvely thought that if I went about my business, living my little English-teaching life -- full of past participles and verb conjugations and stacks of essays to grade -- that'd I'd be safe. That I could avoid the violence. That because I've traveled -- unscathed -- to places like war-ridden Nicaragua and landmine-filled Cambodia, I'd be just fine.

But two weeks ago, I found myself hiding under a table at a restaurant with $200 stuffed down my shirt as men with ski masks walked through with big guns, demanding that customers surrender their wallets, watches and cell phones. Terrifying. I'd gone out to dinner -- to a sushi restaurant of all places -- that night to celebrate a co-worker's birthday. Her 70-something-year-old mother had come with us. So the three of us hid our valuables and trembled together under that table, quietly reminding each other to breathe, trying to seem as inconspicuous as possible.

I'd never been so scared in my life. Upon hearing the men enter the restaurant and start screaming for us to get down and cooperate, I'd braced myself for bullets to start flying. I thought that a narco boss was in the restaurant, and that he -- and likely, the rest of us -- were going to unceremoniously meet our ends. So, in a sense, I was strangely relieved when it became apparent that the incident was "just" an armed robbery, probably prompted by the fact that drug trafficking isn't quite as lucrative as it used to be, given that the army's in town now. (Read: jaded sarcasm. Maybe I'm more Culichi than I realize.)

In the end, the three of us got very lucky. We weren't hurt, and the men left the restaurant before they got around to robbing our table. But the incident was a serious wake-up call. I'm not immune to the violence in this city. There is nowhere to hide from it -- especially not underneath a table in the back of a restaurant.

So now I'm acutely aware of the reality of life here in Culiacán: Armed soldiers patrol my neighborhood as choppers fly overhead. An acquaintance barely misses a stray bullet while driving down the street in his car. My Mexican friends speak of being involved in armed assaults like my pals in Chicago talk about yet another dismal baseball season for the Cubs. It's an everyday annoyance, just part of normal life.

So I'm throwing in the proverbial towel. Today was my last day at work. Early next week, I'm taking a bus 1500 kilometers across the country to Oaxaca, a state on the south Pacific coast that has offered me a new job and a new start. The decision was difficult and the transition has proven stressful -- I've had to break a work contract, wiggle out of my apartment lease, and scramble to sell all of my new furniture.

But what has proven most difficult is saying goodbye to all the amazing Culichi people I've met during my time here -- honest, hard-working folks who don't have the option to pack up and ship out like I do. People like Dora. My landlords. Maricruz and Fidel. Señora Cucqui. The folks in my kickboxing class. The members of the mariachi band that practices down the street. My students. My work colleagues. The steady stream of folks who have responded to the "Furniture For Sale" ad I put in the local paper, who come to my apartment and look at my things and ask why I'm leaving, and then shake their heads in frustration at my response.

They think I'm doing the right thing. They're supportive. They're embarrassed that this has been my impression of their city. They'd like to leave, too, they tell me, except their families are here. Their work is here. Their lives are here.

I will think about these people long after I leave their city. I will miss them, but more than that, I will worry about their safety.

And I will think hard about what drugs mean to this community. In a way, it's difficult for me to hate the drug trade. I see the opportunities it gives to people here, to better themselves, to have access to good healthcare, to afford to feed their families and to send their kids to school. Without drugs, this place's economy would just be tomatoes, and folks likely wouldn't be able to make ends meet. But at the same time, I can't condone the violence and death that the narco trade brings. An average of 100 people die each month in Culiacán as a result of drug-related violence. That's in a city of under 800,000 people. Culiacán is the most violent place in the whole country, a dubious honor when you consider that Mexico is home to crime-ridden communities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and, of course, Mexico City.

So, that's my been my life for the past two months. One part Hollywood action movie, one part terror flick. Now that I know that I am definitely leaving this place, I feel like I can come clean. A little piece of me will always be the Gringa Culichi, so I'm going to continue blogging at this web address, even from Oaxaca. Stay tuned for my next entry from my new home, but in the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the headlines from Culiacán.

And please keep my dear, dear Culichi friends in your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

WOW! Sara! I wish you well on your new journey, how crazy and how strong you are...I'll be thinking of you as you travel to your new home and next adventure. I'm so glad you are moving but I'll keep your friends in my thoughts, how scary that must be for them and their family!

Take Care!!!!

-Sara Paxton

sbfren said...

Good for you, Sara - we'll be thinking of you & your friends, and looking forward to the next chapter. Be well & safe!

- Sarah R

mandak80 said...

Girl! I'm so glad you will be getting away from that! It is great what you are doing, but I never put yourself in danger like that again. I'm so glad you are safe!

Quinto Sol said...

You are letting your emotions get the best of you. I say this with regards to your view of the drug-trade and what it presently means to the culiches. The Culi-Cartel is fairly young, and the City did just fine before it became an integral part to its micro-economy.

I am embarrassed that my compatriotas condone narcos and view them as a necessary evil. I am also embarrassed of the deep-rooted corruption that plagues ALL of Mexico.

Good luck in Oaxaca. You will find that Oaxacans are just as warm, if not more, than culiches.

Dahlia said...

In this month's TIME magazine, there is a 1 page article on Caliucan (sp). You were pretty brave to have stayed as long as you did, but even braver for recognizing that you needed to leave. I immediately thought of u when I read it.