It was searing hot, and Fredy, his friend, and about thirty other people were crossing the desert to go from Mexico to the United States. They had been walking for two days, maybe three, he wasn’t sure anymore. There was no more water and no more food. Fredy had, by then, started to hallucinate, and the few trees they had passed looked like they were moving, even walking. He rationed the little bit of food he had, because he really thought he was going to die. His friend asked him for some water; he lied to her, and told her he didn’t have any, because he didn’t want to share. The few times that he got to sleep throughout the long journey, he dreamt that he was already in the United States, and that he was eating lots of Chinese food. It was 2003.
The Mexican-American border has always been ubiquitous, but in 2016 it has become even more of a talking point. For one, U.S. presidential presumptive candidate Donald Trump has famously said he wants to build a wall along it to seal immigrants out. Also ringing in the 2016 new year was the capture of infamous cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, a man who terrorised the border regions of Mexico for many years. This followed the success of the acclaimed series Breaking Bad, much of which takes place on the Mexican-American border, featuring ruthless and romanticised drug lords. The United States is Mexico’s phantom limb, its old stomping grounds, cut off by a fairly new geographical line. The stitches of the border are constantly bursting.
In the mid 19th century, conflicts in the state of Texas led to the Mexican-American war, starting in 1846 and ending in 1849 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Here, Mexico’s lost land became south-western states in the U.S. The border became a pivotal place for the United States to gain workers, and, during the Prohibition of the 1920s, alcohol. Once Prohibition ended, the traffic swiftly turned to heroin, later expanding into several other types of drugs, most notably cocaine.
By the 1990s, the ‘narcotraffic’ was controlled by several gangs, including the Sinaloa cartel, of which Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was the leader. At this time, Mexico was experiencing somewhat of a regimented system: the cartels in Mexico had functioned in a very matter-of-factly, albeit very violent, way: they brought drug and arms money into the country, which was then funnelled into the government and legitimate businesses. Still, people fled the violence, ushered across the border in secret by the very cartels they were afraid of.
Fredy Quiñones decided to leave Mexico in 1999, before Felipe Calderon’s controversial and blood-soaked presidency, which began in 2006. Currently, Fredy lives in Colorado: he is a tattoo artist, a proud owner of several small dogs, and has crossed the border not once, but twice: once in 1999, when he was 23 years old, and then again in 2003.
When speaking about the first time he crossed, in 1999, the first thing Fredy noted was how hard it was for him to say goodbye to his family, especially his mom. Saying goodbye to his friends was more bearable, because he planned to return after two years, and be back by 2001. “I knew I was leaving behind my culture, my friends, my family, my mom, my nephews, my brothers,” he explained; “That was a little difficult for me, but I also knew that crossing the border would be difficult. Therefore, I couldn’t look back, I had to look forward, because I didn’t know what I was going to face”.
Fredy comes from the Yucatan, in the very South of Mexico, “practically in Central America,” as he puts it. Because of this, he took a plane to the north to cross for the first time, starting at Agua Prieta, a border town in the Mexican state of Sonora. Before setting off to cross the border, they were taken to a little shop by the ‘coyotes’, the people in charge of guiding migrants illegally across the border. The coyotes instructed the people in the group to buy food and a minimum of two gallons per person; also available, Fredy remembers, was cocaine.
The group had a strict schedule to cross the border: they walked for one hour and then rested for 10, 15 minutes, and then began walking again. They walked from evening until nightfall, and then slept on a mountain overlooking a city in the United States: “what the city was, I have no idea”, Fredy recalls.
Fredy’s first experience across the border was not very successful: the man who picked them up was drunk, and crashed the car in the first town they arrived in. This quickly attracted the attention of either the police or the ‘migración’, the immigration police - Fredy does not know which they were. As the car with Fredy and the other passengers was pulled over, they scattered. Fredy got separated from the group and was eventually picked up and taken to a holding area, before being sent directly back to Mexico. There, he called the coyotes, who, after letting him rest for a day, took him right back across the border.
“I was really exhausted, I swear,” he recalls, adding “this time we got through”. The group arrived safely in Phoenix, Arizona, to a nice house (Fredy especially remembers the air conditioning) where the coyotes promptly sat in the living room and began snorting cocaine, fed their guests, and then returned to Mexico to bring more people across, more people fleeing the already-then-violent Mexico.
Molly Molloy, a border specialist at the New Mexico State University Library, “counts the dead”, as she puts it. According to her 2013 paper The Mexican Undead: Toward a New History of the “Drug War” Killing Fields, she began her gruesome tally of the true number of homicides in Mexico, in “Chihuahua, in January 2008”. This was “when about 46 people were murdered in 31 days and no one in a city, known for being a violent place, could recall such a large number of murders in one month.”
In her paper, she explains that this equaled more than one murder a day. For this data, the official sources Molloy uses for her statistics are the INEGI (National Statistical Agency) and the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica (SESNSP or SNSP). She adds that, by March 2008, the monthly tally had gone up to 117, equaling more than 3 people killed per day.
In The Mexican Undead, Molloy describes 2006, the year when Calderón took power, as when “violence exploded” in Mexico. This was due to Calderón introducing the Mexican army into the equation, a move which would later lead people to suspect, often with many proven sources, of the possibility of a government-mandated social cleaning. In this operation, the ‘malandros’ (the unwanted) of the border cities were slaughtered by the military and then pinned on the cartels, under the pretext of fighting a war on drugs.
“(Calderón) said he was fighting drug trafficking, but the flow of drugs and money continues unimpeded”, the specialist wrote. In the paper, she also mentions Calderón’s comment to journalist Wolf Blitzer at a CNN interview in 2010, when he stated that, in fact, it was not “exactly a war on drugs” but that his focus was, instead, to “guarantee the safety for Mexican families”.
The second time Fredy crossed the border was in 2003, after having lived four years in Colorado and then returning for some months to the Yucatan. This time, he states, “I thought I was going to die”. The second time around, the group was much larger: there were thirty people that hoped to cross into the United States, including a friend of Fredy’s, and a pregnant woman at an extremely advanced stage. Fredy says that the procedure was the same – but times had changed. “Years had passed”, he specifies, “and the Twin Towers had happened, and they watched the border more closely, it was more difficult to pass. This time, we walked for three days and three nights”.
“I remember that there was no water and nothing to eat”, he continues. “I remember I once dropped a piece of tortilla, and I picked it up, and I ate it off the ground”. He speaks about how he wondered how on earth his pregnant travelling companion made it, because it “was the worst experience”. This was when Fredy got so hungry that he actually started hallucinating, and when he lied to his friend about not having water, because he “didn’t want to share it with anyone”. “It was ugly”, he adds, remembering that towards the end, he practically had to hold his friend up: “she had had enough”. Whenever Fredy slept, he dreamt of Chinese food.
Fredy remembers thinking he never wanted to go back to Mexico, struck by the realisation that he really could die at the border. Just before crossing, while speaking on the phone with his brother, told him to tell their mother, who was crying too hard to talk to him, that he had already made it, even though it “hadn’t happened yet, I was still at the border”. However, Fredy allows that he thinks this might have been a “good experience” for him, after all was said and done. “I had never walked three days and three nights in my life, and I had never felt like I was starving, and he had never felt he was capable of doing anything to eat. You feel ugly, starving.”
After they arrived in the United States, the migrants were kept in a house, since they had been brought over with a load of drugs. However, after the others were released, Fredy wasn’t, because the little English he spoke made the coyotes suspicious that he would talk to the police. Once, when he tried to leave the house, and they pointed a gun at his head. “I wasn’t afraid”, he remembered, “because I was desperate”. He went back in the house, and a few days later, they let him go.
“It’s traumatic, to cross the border. There, you risk your life, and things turn ugly,” Fredy notes. Many of his friends have died while crossing. “There are many stories from the border. Thank God I came to the US alive, right?”, he adds.
Since coming to the United States, his life has changed considerably: three American tattoo artists work for him, in his own tattoo shop. Fredy says that it makes him “feel good, because it is worth everything that I have done, what I have suffered. Because one suffers, in this country, because we are not free, we are illegal”. However, Fredy is cherishing his very own happy ending: he has recently been approved for residency. Once his green card arrives at the end of the year, he will be able to go back to Mexico to see his family.
The international press, particularly in the United States, consistently under-estimated the number of homicides. This is another reason why Molloy began to “count the dead”. In her 2013 paper The Mexican Undead, she argues that American media outlets “report that only 60,000 to 80,000 Mexicans have died”, and that they often simply repeat the claim issued by the Mexican government, stating that “90% of the dead are criminals”. Even the New York Times is not exempt, (when they reported “about 60,000 people dead” on the 28th of April, 2013).
According to Molloy’s paper, English-speaking media gets most of the data from the Trans-Border Institute (TBI) at the University of San Diego, which were getting their own, inaccurate data from the Mexican government, which had been using an arbitrary system to categorise the murders as ‘narco executions’ or ‘organised crime homicides’. Those which were not categorised as such were simply not counted.
Indeed, towards the end of Calderón’s presidency in August 2012, after being challenged by government officials, this system was deemed as arbitrary. Inasmuch, after the admission, spokesman for the Calderón administration Jaime Lopez Aranda stated that government would cease publishing data on organised crime related murders.
So, why did this happen in the first place? Could it be that the data was poorly defined and underestimated due primarily to the Mexican government’s will to keep the players in the war relegated to criminals and rivalling cartels? Upon asking Molly Molloy, the answer we received was a resounding “YES”. The specialist elaborated in an email that “As long as all of the victims […] are believed to be criminals fighting and killing each other, then there is less room for real human rights activism to get attention in Mexico and internationally”.
Upon asking whether the numbers tallied by the international media have become more accurate, Molloy is unsure, but she did explain in an email that “the Mexican government has essentially abandoned this terminology and the media reports now generally report the full number of ‘homicidios dolosos’ (other, intentional homicides) as the main indicator of continued violence in Mexico”.
However, violence is not all that defines Mexico’s border with its lost land. We spoke via email to Ailed Zoldyck, a local, born-and-raised Tijuana resident, to speak to us about how the undertow of violence has influenced the city that she has always called her home, to explain what else lies on the border other than the crossing and the violence.
“Tijuana is a violent city,” she admits, “but (it) has been gaining back its tourism, and much has to do art: the culinary, the music and the visual”. Ailed was born in Tijuana, and she has always been there. As a child, she notes, you know and learn that “one of the Tijuana’s fun facts” is its busy border, the busiest in the world. “You get used to that and live with it, unfortunately,” she adds, “(the) drugs, prostitution and violence becomes part of the spice of Tijuana. The Yin of its Yang”.
“It goes on and off, up and down but always, always there”, she says, about the violence. A lot of it, she explains, depends on what cartels are fighting for which ‘plazas’ (drug selling areas), or what internal conflict there is with the government. She then specifies that, however, it’s clear that the two “are the same”. She still recalls 2009, when Tijuana “started the day with 9 people beheaded and 5 ‘encojibados’ (dead people ‘wrapped’ with blankets) lying on Bulevar 2000”.
This is when Tijuana really took a hit and “the yin yang that I spoke about, all died,” she remembers, “it was only locals and fear”. However, nowadays, after the capture of certain ‘narcos’ and the supposed changes made by the government, Tijuana is gradually recovering. When she speaks of her convalescing city, she talks about “the mixture of the border, its Spanglish, flavours, parties, warmth and speed with which one experiences it”.
Ailed talks about the lack of violence cautiously: “sometimes I don’t like believing in it too much, as you shouldn’t have too much faith, because you feel almost like you’ll attract it,” she ventures, “the ‘femenicidios’ (the infamous murdering of women in the maquiladora factories on the border), the impunity, the asshole ‘narquillos’ (narco-traffickers) who are still shooting each other […]” Inasmuch, art, Ailed says, is always “very present” in Tijuana, naming “contemporary dance, theatre, the visual arts.” In the email correspondence, she is particularly enthusiastic about film, which she writes in all caps, followed by a heart, “where one can vent the impotence and ambivalence of emotions.”
As regards the violence that caused this feeling of impotence in Tijuana, specialist Molly Molloy adds that “this level of killing did not magically stop at the end of Calderón’s term at the end of 2012,” although she notes that in Ciudad Juárez “the numbers did significantly decrease”.
It’s 2016, and Molloy informs that “so far, this year, there have been about 6000 intentional homicides nationally in Mexico”. As per the total, often under-estimated and misquoted number of intentional homicides since 2007, she places it at “close to 190,000”, adding that there were “an average of 56 homicides per day from January 2007 to April 2016”. However, Molloy’s estimate of 190,000 excludes some victims: “If we add approximately 25,000 people missing and/or disappeared as reported by the Mexican government”, she adds, “then the number of people killed or disappeared since 2007 is at least: 213,990”.
Indeed, as Molloy has put it, Mexico is in need of “real human rights activism” and “international attention”. However, in the specialist’s view, things have become somewhat better, “especially since the Sept. 2014 disappearance and killing of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa”. Molloy is of course referring to the mass kidnapping which took place in the Iguala, Mexico, during which 43 male students went missing, who have yet to be found. The mainstream media also seems to be catching up on Mexico's more ominous, government-sponsored violence: In May 2016, the New York Times published an article explaining how "The Mexican Army kills eight enemies for every one it wounds". Perhaps there is hope, after all.
“Were you afraid to cross the border, Fredy?”
“Yes, of course”, Fredy responds, but adds that he was looking for the American Dream. He still likes the United States better than Mexico, and he still remembers that, after crossing for the last time in 2003, he was given $10 to get to Colorado. "As soon as I got home”, he recalls, laughing, “I asked the first person I saw to bring me Chinese food”.