I was washing the morning dishes last Friday when I heard gunshots from the beach below my balcony. Fireworks are blasted around here, as they are throughout Mexico, morning, noon, and night. But these were not the concussive booms I’ve grown accustomed to, but instead the “pop, pop, pop” you hear about in witness accounts of shootings. By the time I reached my deck, a small crowd had gathered near a lifeguard tower at the tide line. A red haired woman appeared to be cradling the head of a man who was lying in the sand.
Within a couple of minutes, a lifeguard truck appeared at the scene and sirens could be heard from the Bomberos station two blocks up the street. After about five agonizing minutes, an ambulance finally arrived at the locked gate to the parking lot that fronts the beach. The woman in the sand below was now bellowing hysterically for help. Unable to get past the gate, the ambulance waited outside the parking lot while lifeguards lifted the body onto the bed of their pickup and hauled him close enough to the ambulance where he could then be safely transferred. Unfortunately by now, two police cars blocked the ambulance’s retreat. Rosarito cops were wandering around listlessly, seemingly in no hurry to move their cars. The red-headed woman was beseeching the police to hurry up and get the fuck out of the way. Another couple of minutes passed before the ambulance was finally allowed to speed away. As more police officers arrived, I could hear the woman below screaming “Why didn’t you do more? What is wrong with you?!” At first she was ignored, but as she became increasingly agitated and confrontational the cops had had enough. She was then physically restrained, handcuffed, and hauled away. Out by the waterline, a small pool of blood was soaking into the sand.
The victim of the shooting was named Mar Tejeda, a local lifeguard/fireman and surfer. He lived next door to my building in a small house adjacent to the beach. Mar Tejeda died that morning from gunshot wounds, shortly after arriving at a local hospital. I did not know him, but he and I would occasionally exchange pleasantries in one of my many walks around the neighborhood.
The red haired woman’s name is Gretchen Smith. A few days later she posted her account of what happened on her Facebook page:
I now know what it feels like to hold a man while he is dying from gunshot wounds while the police just don’t quite make it to the crime scene in time to save him. I also know what it is like to spend 76 hours wearing clothes soaked with his blood and no shoes in a Mexican jail without the right of a phone call to anyone including my embassy or even water for over 36 hours. I also know what it is like to hear my friends and neighbors come to my defense in a very kind way even though I could barely hear them and could not see them. Thank you. I am home safe now but need to go wash the blood off of me. I am so sorry to the family of the Bombadier whose name I do not even know. Please know myself and others tried to save him and he fought hard to stay alive for you. If someone has the story of his passing please share it here in his honor.
After watching that scene unfold from my 10th floor ivory tower, I wandered down to street level to see what I could find out. Alberto, the day watch security guard in my building had just been questioned by the police. He and I are friends, but on this day he wasn’t sharing anything with me. A dozen police cars were canvassing the neighborhood. My friend Ismael, who had just opened a small taco cart on the next corner, was out washing down his sidewalk with a bucket of soap water and a scrub brush. A few minutes before, I had watched as a motorcycle cop stopped to question him. Ismael told me that he had seen a man running up the street from the beach. He assumed it was the shooter. Ismael then got uncharacteristically tight-lipped, but added that in his experience it was simply best to get things like this behind you, like a soccer loss or a flat tire. He continued swabbing down his sidewalk and I eventually wandered off.
Over the next couple of days, I bumped into several gringo neighbors from my building, and we would speculate what might have happened. The original theory was that the murder was the result of a surfing territorial dispute the day before the shooting that resulted in a beat down, the beaten man vowing to return with a gun. Later, a theory emerged from my Mexican friends that the original dispute involved disrespect shown to Mar Tejeda’s wife.
Much has been made of Mexican’s attitude toward death. The bizarre rituals during the annual Day of the Dead ceremonies, where loved ones bring the deceased’s favorite foods and personal items to the cemetery seem from the outside like a joyous, not somber, celebration. Mexicans are said to show bravado when confronting death, to except its inevitability more readily then their northern neighbors, to laugh in the face of death. Shops all over Mexico specialize in hand crafted figurines of skeletal figures, the riotous and hilarious calaveras, posed in everyday situations, dead wedding parties, dead mariachi bands, dead dogs being walked by dead masters. I even saw a collection once that depicted a dead baby being delivered from a dead mother by a dead doctor.
As the Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz explained in his seminal work Labyrinth of Solitude:
“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
I’m not in a position to say that any or all of that is true and maybe it’s just another cultural stereotype, a fancier way of saying “life is cheap”. But I do know that as the week ground on, Mar Tejeda seemed more like an abstraction, a conversation starter, and less like a local kid who was gunned down on the beach within a hundred yards of his home. People laughed and joked as they discussed the latest theories. One gringa I know told me, her eyes widening, an excited smile on her face, that she had seen the whole thing from her 7th floor balcony. Tejeda’s was actually the fourth murder in Rosarito Beach over a 3 day period. Maybe folks down here just get used to it after a while.
The evening of the murder a shrine was set up on the beach near where Mar Tejeda had lain bleeding to death. It started as a handful of lillies then grew over the next several days as more and more people somberly made their way through the sand and added to it. I decided to walk down and take a photo of the shrine. Fittingly, a storm had moved in during the night and the sky was gray and the sea was heavy, nearly as heavy as my thoughts. Then on Saturday, the day after the murder, a group of fellow lifeguards and firemen took to the water for a final tribute. The following day, the Tijuana newspaper La Frontera announced that the alleged shooter was being detained by the police up in Tijuana. Josue Pacheco Campos, the suspect, was described as a “quarrelsome” man.
Mar Tejeda, named for the sea where he worked, lived, and played, was 34. He leaves a wife and a 7-year-old son. May his spirit take to the waves and play among the dolphins.