Snapshots From the Plaza: Living and Dying in Mexico (Part 2)

Playas de Rosarito

I only saw four murder victims in the two and a half years I lived in Rosarito. One was on the beach directly below my condominium where a neighbor of mine was murdered. I wrote about it in a previous blog.  In June of 2013, there were two more fresh bodies, uncovered, lying on the edge of Avenida Benito Juarez in front of a taco shop called Asadero Pepe’s in the middle of town. Then, a few weeks after, coming back from the movies, I saw a small crowd gathering around another body in front of a car stereo installation joint, just a few blocks north of Pepe’s.  The victim there was a stereo installer who was working on the truck of the intended victim, a man who goes by the nickname “Poison”. Poison was also shot 9 times, but somehow survived the attack. The two shooters, described by witness as both bald and tattooed, sped from the scene and escaped.

Murder at Asadero Pepe's
Murder at Asadero Pepe’s

The press declared that “antagonistic groups”  were settling “differences”. The antagonistic groups, of course, are rival drug gangs and the differences are territorial. The Tijuana weekly tabloid Zeta reported at the time, in a story entitled ‘Invasion of the Independent Criminals”, that a new dynamic is appearing in the drug wars south of the border: gangs with very loose or non-existent relationships with the traditional drug cartels are doing most of the heavy lifting these days. These are freebooters that exist and operate lawlessly outside even the perverse “code” of the established cartels. In other words, these gangs are free to attack and kill without orders from above and are offered no protection from the cartels. According to Zeta, they often advertise their services on Facebook.

The car stereo murder victim
The car stereo murder victim

In any event, it’s difficult to put dead bodies on Main Street into the proper perspective. At least in the United States we have the decency to commit murders behind closed doors or in neighborhoods where respectable people don’t travel, not right in front of Asadero Pepe’s taco stand, or McDonald’s, for that matter.

The U.S. and its drug war policy are complicite in this fraudulent, murderous charade.  And if you are not actively opposed to those policies, you have blood on your hands too.


Gringos were scarce in Oaxaca. The few I saw were greying, spinsterish women,  traveling in groups of two,  decked out like they had just stepped from the pages of a geriatric Banana Republic catalog. I took these women to be retired school teachers and the few with whom I had struck up a conversation confirmed my suspicions. I’ve seen these women all over Mexico, especially in all the colonial cities where quaintness and charm are advertised. They are the ones who can afford the art and the hand made designer clothing in the high end boutiques along Avenida Garcia Vigil.

Avenida Garcia Vigil, Oaxaca
Avenida Garcia Vigil, Oaxaca

There is also a new breed of young Mexicans strutting through these tourist meccas and populating the designer boutiques, looking like they just walked off the set of a steamy telanovela. Perhaps they have existed all along, in securely gated enclaves in Mexico City or Cuernavaca, but I doubt it. These guys don’t have the harried look of the traditional Mexican businessman. They are not bank managers, restaurateurs, or plant managers at a Maquiladora, or anything else for that matter that we associate with the Mexican upper-middle class. By appearances, what work they do put in is likely at a fitness salon. The bloodline is purely European.

The cynic in me is convinced that this new social strata has been created by drug money, the angel investment that has launched a thousand telecommunications and computer software start-ups, to say nothing of hotel, high rise, and resort construction in recent years, in a country where 60% of the population has no purchasing power and the peso has tanked on the world currency market.

Wealthy young Mexicans
Wealthy young Mexicans

Cartel profits are in dollars that originate in the United States and at any given moment there are tens of millions of them floating around, all looking to be invested in “legitimate” businesses like construction and real estate.

This new, wealthy breed in Mexico does not traffic in drugs or murder their competition or post decapitation videos on Youtube. But they know that they wouldn’t exist if somebody wasn’t.

Playas de Rosarito

The vatos lived a block behind my building, halfway between the beach and the main drag, Benito Juarez. They lived in a row of tiny one-story cinder block houses, 5 of them crammed into half a block.

The vatos could be more accurately described as deportados as all of them had committed crimes in the U.S. that had gotten them banished across the border, despite having lived in the U.S. since they were small children.

Alfredo went by the nickname “Shorty” and he told me that he had spent over 20 consecutive years in a California prison. I never ask him what he had done and he never volunteered the information. Now his life was funded by the occasional contribution from his sister, brother, and parents, all of whom were living in the states. Shorty had recently applied for a job at the huge Sanyo assembling plant on the edge of town but was turned down, he said, because of the tattoos covering both arms from wrist to shoulder.

Alfredo "Shorty"
Alfredo “Shorty”

 Shorty got around town on a bicycle as did his friend Junior. Junior was considerably younger, a nice looking kid despite the knife scar that ran from his left ear to his chin. Junior would not allow me to photograph him because, he told, he was wanted for some shit in the ‘States. Shorty and Junior hung around with their neighbor, a huge gringo I’ll call Randy. Never quite figured how Randy fit into all of this, but I assumed he was on the run from something. He spent most of his day sitting in his doorway playing heavy metal power chords on an electric guitar. Between the three of them, they couldn’t rub two dimes together.

I got to know Shorty the best. He was funny and surprisingly well-read, he claims because he had so much idle time in the can. Some days, I’d hit the Don Pisto liquor store on the corner, buy a couple of Pacifico Ballenas and a pack of smokes, and Shorty and I would relax on his patio, whiling away the afternoon. Shorty’s patio consisted of a bench seat pulled from the rear of an old car that sat on a fenced-in, shadeless concrete driveway outside his front door.

Shorty’s biggest complaint was the way he was treated by the Mexican government, which is to say completely ignored and cut off from any government-sponsored safety net. “I can never go back to the states,” he told me, “and I can never have a life here.” Shorty was a man without a country.

He was preoccupied with establishing contact with his adult daughter who was living in Colorado. She had been cut off from him while he was serving prison time, and now was further estranged because of his squalid situation in Rosarito. But I had made a Youtube video about another neighbor, Ismael, and his struggle to get a taco cart up and running. The video was called Ismael’s Grand Opening that featured Shorty in a co-starring role. He was hilarious in the video.

Shorty had his daughter’s email address but was trying to figure out a way to break the ice and contact her. I suggested that he email his daughter a copy of the video so she could get to know him a little better while he worked up the nerve to call, which he did. And then he called. And then, like that, Shorty had a daughter again.

Ismael began acting weird a few weeks after that. He had witnessed, not a murder, but a murder suspect escaping past his house one morning and was asked by the police to make a statement. Ismael was completely spooked to be in that position. He sold his taco cart, hit me up for 200 peso, and disappeared with his wife in the middle of the night.

Then a few weeks after that, Shorty’s junkie sometime-girlfriend, Pattie, died of an overdose in his apartment. The authorities were notified and Shorty was put on notice by his landlord. Landlords don’t tolerate much and they certainly don’t tolerate dead bodies in their properties, Shorty and I commiserated over a couple of ballenas on his patio that afternoon and by the next morning, he was gone.

Soon, Junior and Randy were gone too, but one day a few months later I ran into them riding their bikes through town. I ask about Shorty and was told that they had heard he had moved to an Ejido outside of town. And they had tried to find him there but he had disappeared again. Somebody told them that he had left Rosarito, maybe heading for his home town in Sinaloa to find work.

Shorty, Ismael, Junior, and Randy are among  tens of thousands of deportees living in the streets of Rosarito and Tijuana, many sick and homeless, including an estimated 2500 U.S. military veterans. They don’t consider themselves Mexicans and they are not citizens of the U.S. either. They are forgotten Americans, living in limbo.