What follows is based on a journal entry of mine from a few years ago, when I was working for the Mexican government in northern Mexico … Ed’s Manifesto
You could still hear the corridos playing inside the house when we arrived. A small, ball-shaped CD player, undamaged by the hail of bullets, was still singing an Explosion Norteña folk song called “El 8-9” about a cartel leader that was captured in a legendary shootout in Tijuana back in 2004.
The gun smoke was still thick in the air, and all of the neighborhood dogs were barking. It was about 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and we were responding to one of many reported shootings that had happened during our shift. The event had occurred in a very poor neighborhood on the east side of the city. Most of the makeshift houses were a crude mix of cinder blocks, blue tarps, plywood and whatever else people could come up with to construct their humble homes. It is in these impoverished neighborhoods that the cartels had the best recruitment numbers—places where the Catholic churches boasted the largest congregations and where you could always find kids without shoes washing luxury SUVs for spare change. This usually unfolded outside nearby seafood restaurants, which were the preferred hangout for criminal underworld types.
The front porch of the modest house was bloody. The ground was glistening with a mixture of arterial and venous blood, the bright and dark reds forming a morbid tapestry that was slowly draining toward the sidewalk.
Three young men were arranged in front of us, one of them still in his white plastic chair holding a can of Tecate. His end was likely quick; I doubted that he felt it at all. He was wearing a bootleg Tommy Hilfiger shirt, fake Chinese Ray-Bans in his shirt pocket and simple sandals. His cellphone was more expensive than my own, and he wore both a Santa Muerte rosary and a cross on his neck. The dualities were not lost on me—the blend of Santa Muerte and conventional Catholicism, the expensive phone and knock-off clothes, the bright and deep reds.
In life, this victim was keeping up appearances. Over the years I learned to look for who had the most expensive clothes and phones in the groups we would observe. It was an easy way to know who was in charge. In this case, I think he was in the leadership role of this small band of kids.
The others, however, were not where they fell. You could trace their blood as they tried to get to safety, and their panic and movements had only accelerated their own deaths. Outside, the ground was covered in .223 casings along with a few .45s.
The neighbors, seeing us there, felt safe enough to come over for a look. The kids were soon picking up some of the casings and whispering to each other about what they were seeing. Oddly, the curious children didn’t pick up the casings that were tainted with blood, as if on some level, they understood to leave them alone.
Among the crowd we could pick up the names of the victims being muttered, and we overheard some of them asking others to call their families to tell them what had happened.
Before long, an elderly woman came over and handed me a phone. “It’s the mother of David,” she said. “Please, officer, tell her what happened. My heart can’t take it.”
My brain and mouth went on autopilot; sometimes, it’s the only way to share news that you know will crush someone’s world. To this day, I can’t remember what I said to her, but what I will never forget is her pained voice crying out like a power drill in my ear.
As the forensic guys showed up, a group of women began chanting the Sorrowful Mysteries—The Agony in the Garden, The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crowning of Thorns, The Carrying of the Cross and The Crucifixion and Death. It’s always in these hopeless places that you see faith most powerfully expressed and most loudly sung.
As we drove off, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the kids shooting at us with their imaginary guns, with imaginary bullets and a few middle fingers that were not so imaginary. The reality is that we are most often the villains in their stories. We were the Sheriffs of Nottingham, and we had just confirmed the death of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. I turned to my partner, Jaramillo, and saw him returning the finger to the kids as he used the police horn to clear the people walking in the middle of the street who were on their way to see what had happened. He was much older and more jaded than me.
He then smacked me on the shoulder and proceeded to impart some words of encouragement. “That phone call you took must have been hard. You shouldn’t have done that. That isn’t your place,” he counseled. “But I can respect what you did. You are a better person than me. I would have thrown that phone in the trash.”
I don’t know if I could have done that. But if I am honest, I don’t think I would have taken that phone call if I had understood how much it would haunt me in the years that would follow. I sought solace at the bottom of a bottle more than once thinking about that tragic conversation.
One day slides in to the next and the days become a bit warmer. We are heading into the summer of this new year, and the homicide numbers are in the triple digits, with the morgue overflowing with the unclaimed, the unrecognizable and the sporadic bags of body parts. Makeshift beer coolers are being used to hold bodies.
Something about the heat makes people a bit more violent, or at least that is how it seems. Hot nights in neighborhoods with people that can’t afford air conditioning make for very irritated individuals. Crime always spikes during the hotter days. Maybe the solution is getting everyone free air conditioning?
During the time this was written, homicides were up 90 percent in the city of Tijuana, with 212 documented murders being committed in the month of September alone. Most of these killings were committed as part of a turf war that has raged to this day between the Sinaloa Cartel and a partnership between what remains of the Tijuana Cartel and the New Generation Cartel. These are the documented numbers, but with the near industrial levels of body disposal methods that have been active in this part of the world, who really knows how many are unaccounted for or just forgotten? Tijuana was then at number five on the “Most Dangerous Cities” list. Those were the good old days, and since 2018 it has been at number one. The long war rages, the feathered snake eats its tail and the world goes on.