Gerardo Albarrán de Alba
The Literature of Fear
It’s impossible to blend in around these towns, where everyone knows everyone. No outsider can hide here, between walls shot through 3 times between February and June, and the murder of the man who most likely would have been the next mayor of Valle Hermoso.
The visitor arouses a mixture of curiosity and a sense of intense awareness among the locals.
Ordinary people ignore any mention of the tragedy, much less a direct question. They look away and lower their voice to change the subject. Hopefully, after several minutes of petty small talk, mistrust of the stranger eases and the stories flow like a catharsis, but with no names, dates and places.
Nothing to identify victims, or the talker who disclosed his grief during a moment of release.
In the capitol, Ciudad Victoria, public officials, politicians, academics, journalists and notables avoid any compromising position and resort to euphemisms: the clashes, bombings, kidnappings, murder, barbarism are all labeled “incidents”. The drug traffickers and their assassins are “La Gente” The People, “ La Maña” The Mafia, “Las Comadres de Gloria” The Friends of Gloria, “Los de La Letra” Those of the Letter. For the Army they are simply known as aggressors “agresores”.
The press is a parody of itself. Front pages full of society news. Insides full of civic bulletins. The police page only mentions traffic accidents; in other circumstances, nobody would know how bad driving really is in Tamaulipas. Radio and television are harmless.
Corruption is an integral part of local journalism and the war of the cartels divided loyalties in the newsrooms. Some paid the price: eight journalists were kidnapped on March 8, five of them are still unaccounted for. Now all are under the same threat: “plata o plomo” silver or lead, take the money or die. Serve one cartel or the other?
The People have their own spokespersons and reporters who work for them. They call you into the editor’s office, you can write this, you can’t write that. Los Narcos are the real newspaper publishers and news directors. Self-censorship thrives. The real problem is that often you don’t quite know who you’re speaking to or who you’re writing about. You live in fear of making mistakes.
Los Narcos all call themselves the good guy, the bad thing is you don’t know who’s who.The war between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas is not limited to the control of the Plaza”, the streets. It’s also a battle for the hearts and minds of those who will submit in return for a bit of peace.
They issue press releases to clean up their image and vilify their enemies. They distribute flyers door to door and spread rumors thru online social networks. The propaganda shapes perceptions.
A woman walks sadly on the side of the road.” What are you doing here alone?” They ask from the trucks labeled CDG, or XXX, or Z-40. “Don’t you know it's dangerous?” Tearfully, she explains that a man just stole her car and left her there. “The car was old but it was all I had.” She is a teacher and earns a pittance.
“Hop in” They say. They open a suitcase full of dollars. “Put your hand in, grab what you want,” They tell her. “Take more, all you can hold, and tell what happened here.” The story has a half dozen versions, according to the faction that’s telling it.
In another story, They help two young women recover a stolen truck and kill the thieves. In all the versions, Los Narcos give justice to the poor.
Even the extortion has a benevolent face. Los Narcos control all the informal economy in the places they dominate. Before, the vendors paid bribes to the police and the inspector. They offer an administrative simplification. “As of today you only pay us and we’ll take care of the rest. Nobody will bother you again.”
The old customs have been lost in Tamaulipas. Excursions are limited, reunions are only safe at home. You eat at restaurants for business only. You drive with the radio off to listen for any shooting nearby. You dress differently: no boots or wide belt buckle or cowboy hat. Nothing that resembles the Narco stereotype. Trucks and new, more expensive SUV’s remain in the garages and old modest cars are purchased for everyday use.
Businesses close early, even in cities where violence is still not endemic. If the bustle of the state capital ends at nine o'clock at night, people obey a sunset curfew in the smaller towns. Some people are in their homes by late afternoon.
The only reason some of the border communities in the “Frontera Chica” have not been emptied completely is because some of the inhabitants have no means to cross the border and flee into Texas, or anywhere else in Mexico for that matter.
Moving from one point to another in Tamaulipas is a gamble you don’t want to lose.
In the military checkpoints there are a few routine questions: “Where did you come from?” “Victoria”
“And where are you headed?” “To Valle Hermoso, sir”
“What do you do?” “I am a teacher”
The right answers and tone are rewarded with a “Pasale”, go ahead. Travelling in a dusty sedan really helps.
The blockades of Los Narcos are more rude. They do not stop everyone, mostly those that look out of place. License plates from another state are equivalent to a red light. Driving in a Suburban or a 4 x 4 pickup is to invite disaster.
It is best to convince them you do not to represent any threat, but that is becoming more difficult.
The war has new players. The response of the Zetas to the alliance between the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacána, has been to recruit Mara Salvatrucha gang members. The reinforcements come from Honduras or El Salvador. They are young, all tattooed. It is going to get worse.
Society is caught between two evils and fighting for its life without weapons. But some of the rich people are moving into another phase and building small private armies. There are rumors of a Tampico businessman who hired a dozen Israeli mercenaries. We are headed for a civil war where everyone is the enemy.