Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Two hours in the Company of a Mexican Soldier
This report was sent to Collateral Damage by JorgeXs, who is an active participant in the Reynosa, Tamps. community watchdog Twitter group, #ReynosaFollow.
It was Monday, September 13. I was preparing to leave for a trip to a Caribbean paradise. For logistical reasons, a family member of mine had to drop me off early at the Reynosa airport. Although the airline states you must early, arriving almost four hours early was a gross exaggeration.
After checking in my luggage I decided I'd pass my time at the boarding gate and download applications for the new I-phone 4 I had recently purchased. After several minutes of being alone, enjoying my phone, I heard a voice saying to me "What happened young man, did you miss your flight?"
I turned and I saw that it was a person dressed in a military uniform.
I smiled and responded: Ït's just because of my ride I was forced to get here way too early."
The soldier, with a sort of distrustful smile and seeing that I was playing with my cellphone, asked me about the telephone. He wanted to know if it was new, what were it's characteristics and so forth. Me, being the tech fan I am, began to explain to him the phone characteristics, the main differences between the new and the previous version and soon we were deeply immersed in a conversation about technology. I lent him my phone so he could try it out and see it's different functions.
At one point, feeling confident, I decided to ask the soldier something that has always kept me wondering.
"Officer, can I ask you a question? Of course, answer me only if you want to, if not, just tell me you can't."
"Well, let's see, ask me", he replied.
"Why, if you (the military) confiscate huge amounts of weapons and modified vehicles, etc., don't you use them yourselves?"
"In all honesty" he responded, "I think we don't do it for two reasons: fairness and foolishness. Because it's not possible that you're patrolling in a Hummer, which we know has limited motor potency and range, and some asshole comes at you in a Suburban or something similar. They hit you, the Hummer is fucked, you start shooting and soon realize nothings happening, you're getting no where, your bullets simply are not penetrating their armor. Before you know it, they return fire: a fucker opens a hatch, comes out, and starts shooting you."
"That's messed up," I said "Because for the people of Reynosa, and no doubt, the rest of Mexico, you are the only ones we can trust. We've always thought you deserve more support, in Twitter, there are those of us who have been talking and we feel there should be a bank account opened in which we could make deposits as token of appreciation."
The officer seemed taken by surprise, but after realizing my comment was sincere, he asked: "What time's your flight take leave?"
"In about three hours", I replied.
"Well then", he said, "come with me so you can see how we live."
I accompanied him to the back of the airport, a couple floors below the control tower. When I got there and looked closer, I see a soldier trying to thaw chicken with tap water in an old plastic paint bucket.
As we moved in further, we entered into, what I guess you could call a kitchen, made up of what little they had: a 30 liter gas tank, a single gas burner, and a small table which looked as if it had once been part of a desk. They were cooking rice with chicken, which actually smelled really good.
After the kitchen, I saw where they slept. A large room whose western facing wall, was for the most part, a large window covered with cardboard and tape. I can't deny it, it was a comfortable, almost cool, temperature and seemed to be filled with the steady, constant sound of a nearby helicopter, which in reality was the air conditioner.
"We just got this air conditioner" said the officer, "because the heat in this city was really fucking with us, we couldn't sleep, it was even worse in the afternoons when the sun hit all day along the windowed wall. It was a real bitch finding all the cardboard. As for air conditioner, some guy that works here at the airport offered it to us. We asked him if he would lend it to us, but he didn't want to. We had to buy it from him, then on top of that, we had to pay someone to fix it and install it. We found some bunk beds that nobody was using, they were just cast aside, in the military academy, so we brought them here."
"The good thing is Calderon raised your salaries when he came into office", I said.
He turned to me and said "What?! I got screwed! He standardized the salaries, I made more before."
I began to ask about the other soldiers, how much they earned.
"Hey buddy, how much do you earn?", he asked another
"I get paid bimonthly, $2850 (roughly $220 U.S.) every 15 days." the soldier responded.
"Do you think that's fair?" he asked, and added: "They told us if we agreed to come into high impact operations (that's what the call Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Coahuila, etc) they'd give us an extra daily allowance, but the bonus is only $30 pesos per day."
"$30 pesos?", I asked in amazement. "That's a fucking soda and a small bag of chips. What bullshit!"
The officer just laughed and got up to walk to a small freezer.
"Look at the meat they send us.", he says.
"That's meat?" I thought to myself. The only thing I saw was a big ball of red ice.
"Look at this," he said to me again. We bought it ourselves, it's a variety pack chips and bottled waters we found at Sams Club."
He kindly handed me a bottle of water, but after everything he had said, I felt bad for having accepted it. After hearing and seeing all of this, I couldn't help but make the following comment:
"No wonder narcos are so tempting to you all."
The officer immediately changed his expression and with a tense tone he responded:
"I know. I've had bastards come and offer me money and I've always sent them straight to hell. I've been kicking asses for the Army for twenty years now. Here they teach us values and loyalty, as well as discipline. How can one of these little fucks come around, try to tell me what to do, and laugh at me, just for fucking money? They are fools, fucking idiots, that's why we always come out on top and end up killing the little bastards."
Seeing I had really worked him up, I decided to change the subject.
"Sir, you have my complete respect. How do you go about identifying the narcos?" I asked.
"I don't know if you noticed," said the officer, "but with the conversation we had at the boarding gate, I was actually interrogating you. I realized you knew what you were talking about and never once tried to be evasive. Imagine, some dirty smelly thug walks in. I'm not trying to discriminate, but I know what type of people come to the airport, you can quickly identify when someone is abnormal. I start asking him questions and he tells me he is the owner of a packing company in the United States. I ask him the name of his business, but he just tells me it's a packing company. Then I notice he has around $5000 U.S. dollars, who knows how many thousands of Mexican pesos and a wad of Guatemalan quetzales.
Another one I came across just had certain peculiarities that raised my suspicion. I went over to him to ask to see identification and the first thing he does is yell: MURDERER! I asked him to please calm down, I only wanted information. He doesn't stop screaming until finally one of my subordinates comes over willing to calm him down; I had to back down and pull away. We can't afford those types of luxuries, so I just had to drop his identification and swallow my anger."
"You should have given him a good beat down" slipped out of my mouth.
"No!" he said "Don't think I didn't have the urge to, but we can't give into nor afford such luxuries"
"Ya, apart from that with what happened in Nuevo Laredo", I said in reference to the April 2010 death of two children, Martín and Brayan Almanza, in which the military presumingly fired at a vehicle in which their family was travelling.
"It's sad and messed up" he said sincerely "That was an operative error and it was handled all wrong. I still have my doubts over exactly what happened, why the man driving ignored the signs, but, well, it's all being investigated." he replied.
"Ya, I know", I answered. "And the Feds?" I asked referring to the Federal Police.
"Those sons of fucking bitches, They get paid salaries and extra per diem rates, they sleep in hotels, and with all that, they still get corrupted. We don't trust them, they're a mess. We prefer to work alone and for that reason, I don't let them enter the airport with their weapons. With me, they're fucked, they already complained. But, what the fuck, they shouldn't be in all that bullshit. Anyways, we're going to be rotated and begin new rounds, who knows where. Well, your plane has arrived, I enjoyed meeting you and hope you have a great trip." he said as he told me good-bye.
"Officer, I'm going to do something and I hope you don't take offense. I'd like to give you a little money." I said.
No!, what are you thinking? I only did this to show that even though it's not easy, we're still here." he says.
"Accept it, please" I reply.
"Fine", he says as he reluctantly accepts it "It'll be for the guys, we can buy a pizza with this. Thank you very much"
I boarded my plane thinking about how they are in a place with bathrooms, running water, and more, but what about the other soldiers in kilometer 30, or the ones left out in the brush and wilderness?
The truth is we do have many anonymous heroes, what a shame we do not honor them as they deserve.