From Tijuana east, Ed Vulliamy traces a violent drug war, spreading repression condoned by the U.S., a wall that separates family members, a water supply shut off, and the worship of Holy Death. From his new book.

tijuana_575.jpgphoto via flickr by Alex Torres

How well she remembers those days. How could she ever forget—when the Juniors, as they became known, were in their prime: flashing their wealth around Tijuana, dripping gold with a scantily dressed beauty hanging from each arm? Cruising in their SUVs, taking over nightclubs in which they would drink only champagne. Cristina Palacios Hodoyán, lighting ultrathin cigarettes with a gold lighter held in her ultrathin fingers, remembers them with a sorrow in her eyes that even her polished demeanor cannot hide. How could she forget the Juniors, when two of her three sons were among them? The eldest, Alejandro, was kidnapped twice—once in 1996 and again the following year, since when he has never been seen again. The youngest, Alfredo, became known as “el Lobo,” the Wolf, and is serving 176 years in a Mexican jail, convicted of multiple murders and criminal association. “I had wanted them to become lawyers, or go into their father’s business as civil engineers,” their mother reflects. After finishing her cigarette, she picks at a smoked salmon sandwich, at a table in the Merlot restaurant, near the Tijuana Country Club, where the better class of people go. Mrs. Palacios turns sixty-nine the day after we have dinner, and says she plans a quiet meal with close friends, nothing extravagant.

Her boys had had the city at their feet. As heirs to the Palacios Hodoyán family, they enjoyed automatic membership in and access to the club campestre (country club) and the so-called Instituto Set, alumnae of the elite Tijuana Institute. There was an auspicious future in their father Ramírez’s legitimate businesses if they wanted it. Alfredo was confirmed into the church by the bishop of Tijuana, a family friend who would become Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, assassinated by the very cartel Alejandro and Alfredo later joined. “Ocampo was very dear to us,” recalls Cristina, “known and loved by Tijuana.” Born in the United States, the boys could cross the border any time and set up in business there if they preferred, with their father’s Rolodex of clients at their disposal. And the Hodoyán brothers were heading that way, until Ramón Arellano Félix arrived in town from Sinaloa.

“I remember Ramón,” says Cristina with a shudder. “He always wore a mink coat, even on a hot day, and shorts—with a big golden cross against his bare chest. There was a place by a tree where children had always played with tricycles and bicycles, and later they might meet up there in the evening, chatting up the girls or boys. Alex was in college studying law, age about twenty-five, Alfredo was eighteen or nineteen. And Ramón Arellano Félix and the boys from Sinaloa used to come up to the tree, presenting themselves as interesting and exciting, flashing their money, and the girls wanted to be seen with them.

“We also now know,” Mrs. Palacios adds with a shudder, “that the Americans were aware this was how he was forced to talk.”

“So that the people who would start bringing drugs into my house—only I didn’t know that at the time—were children I had known since kindergarten,” she continues. “Ramón would take them to the clubs. He would walk in and commandeer a table, even if it was taken, just send the people away. He would buy champagne for his company all night, but if you talked to anyone else, you were considered a traitor. At any time, they could take someone out and kill them, and they did. Once you were in, you were in, and there was no way out. My sons had become part of it all, they were among people who would laugh while cutting someone’s fingers off, or chop someone into pieces for fun. All this I learned later, when Alex had been captured and Alfredo was in prison.”

On September 11, 1996, “Alejandro disappeared in Guadalajara. Until February, he was in custody, held by General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo of the Mexican army.” During this time, in December, General Gutiérrez Rebollo was appointed to the top post as Mexico’s drug czar, leading the government’s effort against the cartels, not least because of his success in capturing Alejandro Hodoyán. Alejandro was “singing,” telling the general all he knew about his AFO cartel.

It emerged when Alejandro talked to his family, says Cristina, that the confessions were coerced, and that the general had played a vile game with his quarry: “The soldiers,” she recalls, “used electric shocks on his eyes and feet, and burned him with cigarettes and lighters to get him to talk. Gutiérrez Rebollo,” she says, “had arrived later, after others had tortured him, so that Alex felt beholden to him and would tell him everything.” In late November, Gutiérrez Rebollo, once he had softened his prisoner, called in prosecutors from Mexico City, who videotaped a confession in which Alejandro, between gulps of water, recalls how his partners in the cartel would “laugh after a murder, and go off and have a lobster dinner.” Killing, he told his captors, “is a party for them, it’s a kick.” Alejandro admitted that he had started running errands for the cartel, progressed to running drugs across the border, and then joined a unit of sicarios. After they had the information they needed, the Mexican Department of National Defense handed Alejandro over to the Americans, who were preparing an indictment against the AFO. “We also now know,” Mrs. Palacios adds with a shudder, “that the Americans were aware this was how he was forced to talk.

“On February 10, 1997,” she continues, “Alejandro was flown to San Diego, he told me, and put in custody by the FBI and DEA. At that point, both my sons were in San Diego, in different prisons, because Alfredo had been arrested too. But Alejandro was not arrested; it was worse than that: he was to become a protected witness. ‘I know a lot of things,’ he told me, ‘and I need protection.’ But he had no protection. They did not tell Alex that everything he had said in Mexico City had been leaked by the Ministry of Public Security to the Tijuana cartel, and that General Gutiérrez Rebollo was working all along for the Juárez cartel.” Only two months into his new job at the apex of Mexico’s supposed anticartel offensive, General Gutiérrez Rebollo was convicted of collaboration with Amado Carrillo Fuentes—the general even lived in a villa owned by the Lord of the Skies.

“I went to a very dangerous place, and they put me in a car and I talked to this man. My request had gone high up the chain, and they told me my son had been killed and the body dissolved in acid.”

After ten days in DEA custody in San Diego, “Alfredo was asked to testify against his brother,” says Cristina. Her younger son had been charged with two counts of murder and was about to be extradited to Mexico for trial. He was in an impossible position between the rock of family loyalty and the hard place of his own survival. At the same time, “Alejandro [escaped and] ran back to Tijuana. By then, he was a condemned man: by the AFO for having squealed to Gutiérrez Rebollo, and by the Juárez cartel for belonging to a rival.” Alejandro hid at home. Two weeks later, Cristina was driving her son in the family’s SUV. “We were in a parking lot, when a truck blocked our way. Men surrounded us, with guns, and told us to get out of the car. I said no. They didn’t have masks or anything. Then they pulled Alex out and drove away. I never saw him again.” She lights another ultrathin cigarette, draws in the smoke with a deep breath, and says, “It all made sense. They’re all working for one cartel or another. When I went through a police album of intelligence officers, I found the face of the man I saw in the van, who kidnapped my Alejandro. But I still have Alfredo. He is in jail in Matamoros, and we are trying to get the sentence reduced.”

All this is in the past, she insists. Cristina now works with parents or families of people kidnapped and probably killed by narco traffickers, trying to pressure the authorities to track their lost loved ones and do something that only very rarely happens: go after the kidnappers and killers. “The problem is, though,” Cristina continues in a matter-of-fact way, “most of these people, once kidnapped, were dissolved in acid.”

We are joined by Fernando Ocegueda flores, whose son, also called Fernando, was taken from the family home, he says, on February 10, 2007. “The police were so uncooperative, even obstructive, that at first I thought they themselves had taken my son,” he says. “Then the whisper from neighbors told me that it had been the Arellano Félix Organization. From the authorities, all this time, I have had nothing, zero, no investigation, not even a reply. I went crazy and decided to conduct my own investigation. For two years, I searched—I went to everyone I knew in the cartel and asked them point-blank to tell me. I went to their houses, I knocked on their doors in rage.” “We were worried,” says Cristina, “that he would not survive this line of investigation.” “Someone did this, and I had to find out who,” retorts Fernando. Finally, he says, “I went to a very dangerous place, and they put me in a car and I talked to this man. My request had gone high up the chain, and they told me my son had been killed and the body dissolved in acid.”

On January 24, 2009, federal police raided a narcotraficantes’ party at an upscale seaside resort on the coastal highway from Tijuana to Ensenada, and arrested one Santiago Meza López, universally known and wanted in Tijuana as “el Pozolero,” the Stew Maker. Pozole is a popular stew made of pork, vegetables, and seasonings, but this is not what Meza was brewing. He confessed to having disposed of some three hundred corpses by dissolving them in vats of lye or hydrochloric acid, initially at the service of the AFO but defecting to the Sinaloa cartel, for which he was paid $600 a week. Meza’s confession was straightforward: he would fill a vat with water and two bags of lye, don protective gloves and goggles, boil the pinkish brew, and dispose of the bodies delivered at his lair by truck, one by one.

Accordingly, Fernando Ocegueda came to know that the answer to his and hundreds of other distraught families’ questions lay along the road southeastward from Tijuana to the satellite colonia of Florido, a place of shriveled orchards and ramshackle houses, home to the Silza propane gas terminal. Up a dirt track into the desert lies the hamlet of Ojo de Agua, the Eye of Water, above which are two small graveyards nestled into the hillside. El Pozolero’s lair is surrounded by a blue tarpaulin and guarded by an encampment of bored Federales. It is a square of ground, about thirty by thirty yards, enclosed by walls of gray cinder blocks, open to the sky, with a little hut in the corner. For a tip of 400 pesos ($32), the Federales open the padlock and slide open the heavy white gate for a guided tour. Across the compound, earth is piled in mounds, and there are blue plastic barrels here and there. Two steel containers stand beside a cistern at the top of the slight incline on which the lair is built. “This is where he put them into the acid,” says the police captain, in a plain-speaking, unadorned way, but with something between a grimace and a smile.

He learned later that Gallardo’s man had pushed his children to their deaths off a bridge. Palma built a special little chapel in their memory.

The unofficial tour is economically informative. “They would have been brought by truck and unloaded over here,” says the captain, striding around, “then taken here, probably on wheelbarrows, put into the vats, and there you go, no more bodies!” But a potent smell rises through the afternoon heat: the inimitable, sickly sweet, putrid smell of death and decomposition, of human remains. “It’s always stronger when it gets hot, around this time of day,” observes the captain, as though by way of apology. So el Pozolero was not as thorough in executing his task as the public was led to believe, nor, clearly, were the police investigators whose duty it is, in theory, to collect any remaining DNA on the site, seal it, endeavor to identify the dead, and seek out their relatives. In fact, here we are, stomping around a crime scene that is abandoned but littered with evidence. “We haven’t noticed any sign of the detectives for three months—no one, nothing, we’re just told to stay here and… well, watch for anyone who arrives,” complains the bored captain. This was August 2009, eight months after the arrest and confession. The captain points into the cistern, from which an especially pungent stench ascends into the afternoon. “There’s still plenty down there,” he informs us, kindly but unnecessarily. And not only “down there”—we take a look inside one of the blue plastic barrels, and there is a lower jaw, with teeth still attached, that somehow escaped dissolution. At the bottom of one of the steel tanks, there is raw flesh and jellylike human tissue.

There are also quite a few remnants from the recreational life led by the Stew Maker and whatever apprentices he needed to practice his craft: a barbecue, several dozen empty Tecate beer cans, bits of seafood in the dust, and a thriving marijuana plant. The arrest was made in January, and in the little hut in the corner of the settlement, el Pozolero’s Christmas tree remains, complete with decorations made of festive red velvet ribbon and sparkly tinsel.

During the recent war, the killing has become qualitatively, as well as quantitatively, more grotesque—savage mutilations, decapitations, tortures to a point of perverse cruelty. All this requires a deviant sense of innovation, a twisted creativity: “bone tickling” involves scraping the bone with an ice pick sunk through the flesh. Doctors are employed to ensure that those being questioned or tortured do not die too soon. Methods of execution are of calculated atrocity: one of the Arellano brothers’ victims was left tied to a chair and his hands chopped off, so that he bled slowly to death, alone. The killing has been extended to include families and children among the victims. This is not entirely new. At one point during the nineteen eighties, Félix Gallardo needed to deal with an encroachment into his Guadalajara business by an interloper called Héctor Palma. Gallardo tasked one of his operatives to seduce Palma’s wife and run off with the woman and her children. One day, the cuckolded Palma received a package by courier. It contained his wife’s severed head. He learned later that Gallardo’s man, Clavel Moreno, had pushed his children to their deaths off a bridge. Palma built a special little chapel in their memory.

The children of some lesser narcos attend Valentín Gómez Farías primary school in Tijuana. The school is kept beautifully clean, and the children, wearing red uniforms, chirp around the playground before settling in for lessons with orderly discipline. One morning in September 2008, however, the children arrived to find a message for them to bear in mind as they prepared their futures in the community: twelve festering corpses piled across the road from the school gates, naked, tortured, and with tongues cut—people who talked too much. It was a lesson to the pupils not to do the same, says the principal, Miguel Ángel González Tovar, simultaneously courteous and exhausted as he describes running a school attended by “the children of narcos, children of police officers, and children of ordinary workers. The situation is very delicate. There are evil people in our area, but they still send their children to school.”

“It was terrifying,” he says of that morning in March. “The children were terrified, the staff were terrified, and I had to pretend not to be terrified, but everyone knew what was happening. It was a warning, and it means what it means. We try to teach here, to teach against that message, like an island of education and peace and security for the children, but we are fighting a form of barbarism here and cannot be isolated from what is going on outside. That is not easy, however. They gave me a CCTV camera, but it doesn’t work. They gave me an alarm button, but that’s broken. It’s terribly sad, a situation we despise, are scared of, but fight against.”

At another school, in the deserted resort of Rosarito Beach down the coast from Tijuana, an official visit is being put together on the tarmac basketball court. A fifteen-year-old pupil called Víctor Hugo at the Abraham Lincoln Secondary School No. 32 was gunned down in a narco shoot-out earlier this year, for reasons that are still unclear. And today, the recently appointed state prosecutor of Baja California, Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, has chosen the school to make a speech reassuring teenagers that there is a force out there trying to hold the traficantes to account. There are speeches to the children about how “the police are now with us, and there is new hope against violence,” says the prosecutor. And the pupils applaud; “Viva México!” shouts one.

Moreno stepped into a difficult job when he became state attorney general in 2007. His predecessor, Antonio Martínez Luna, had stepped down after a video released in May of that year by a known drug dealer accused Martínez of protecting the Sinaloa cartel; he even had a nickname: “el Blindado”—the Bulletproof. The trafficker in the video was found dead soon after it was released, so the veracity cannot be tested. Mr. Martínez, now reported to be living in the United States, has denied all connections with the Sinaloa cartel, but he stepped down and Moreno was appointed nonetheless to clean up the image of a pivotal office during a drug war.

It had seemed worth giving Moreno the benefit of the doubt. When we first met in 2008, he was immediately engaging, not least because he had studied law at Sapienza University in Rome and taken many trips to Sicily to learn from his mentor, Giovanni Falcone. He has an affable if somewhat vague manner, and we enjoyed sharing recollections of the great Falcone and speaking Italian in Tijuana. He remembered the campaign of another mutual acquaintance, the brave Leoluca Orlando, who mobilized a mass popular movement against Cosa Nostra called la Rete, the Network. “This is what I want to see here in Mexico,” said Moreno. “A culture in the magistrature similar to that in Italy, committed to going after the Mafia, supported by movements in the civil society like that organized by Orlando.” It all sounded good, and I was hoping to talk on, toward an elusive point in the discourse, the bit about efficacy, arrests, and convictions. But Moreno did not make himself available for a follow-up conversation for weeks afterward.

Most mornings, I hovered about like a courtier at various official engagements that featured Moreno and a rolling dramatis personae like an acting troupe in repertory, also featuring Mayor Jorge Ramos and José Osuna Millán, governor of Baja California. The format was always the same: the panel sat in the shade of a large open-sided tent and applauded one another’s speeches about combating the cartels, after which its members were served cool drinks by waitresses in high heels and miniskirts.

Tijuana is a strong city, and after all, the local Mexicans are still here even if the tourists are not. A “Fab Four” Beatles tribute is sold out. Taking your lady for a skinny-vanilla-frappuccino at a branch of the D’Volada chain—a Mexican Starbucks—is a cool date, especially if it has Wi-fi so one need not actually talk. Sanborns is a landmark institution that characterizes any Mexican city, combining a restaurant and rendezvous with a small department store, and Tijuana’s is no exception, brimful every Sunday lunchtime, its waitresses in their hallmark “traditional” costumes with wings on their shoulders. The Cinepolis is packed for the latest movie glorifying violence—fantasy violence—made in Hollywood up the coast. After reading so much Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence, I decided I really must sample a corrida at the bullring near the border fence by the sea, only to be reminded how little I admired either writer, failing utterly to feel any macho-libido rush as yet another bull is slashed according to plan and his carcass hauled off with ropes. But couples cheer, the band plays, and ladies wave handkerchiefs at the matinee idol matador clad in the regalia of Old Spain.

“Look,” says my friend Delgado, trying to explain, “we clean their toilets, we pick their fruit and water their lawns. But we can beat them in soccer.”

Far more authentic is the Sótano Suizo pub, which was heaving on the Sunday that Eduardo Arellano Félix was being flown to the capital, but not because of him. There was another, different arrival in Mexico City that day: the Chivas soccer team from Guadalajara, for the match Mexicans call El Clásico, against Club América. On screen in Tijuana, both teams unleash attack after attack in a tremendous game to the death, Chivas winning 2-1. A joyful Guadalajara fan in the bar, Adán, likens snatching victory in the capital and seat of power to “robbing your boss’s house and fucking his wife on the way out.” But the temperature of El Clásico was nothing compared to that eight months later for Mexico’s make-or-break World Cup qualifying match against none other than its neighbor, the United States: the transborder Amexica derby. Quite apart from its complex piquancy on the border, there is history to this fixture. Mexicans find it hard to admit that Americans play very good soccer nowadays, and it is a deeply held belief that while the gringo subjugates Mexico, there is one thing that the boys in green do better than their northern neighbors: play soccer. Or so they thought, until a terrible night during the 2002 World Cup in Japan, when the United States dismissed Mexico 2-0 in a knockout round. The wound cut deep, and right to the top. Before the game, President Vicente Fox proposed to George W. Bush that the two might watch the game together at a venue on the border, as a gesture of friendship between the two nations. But the dismissive answer came back from an aide: since the game was being played in Asia, the president would be asleep at that time of night. America slept through its historic victory while Mexico was wide-eyed with anguish.

Now, with Mexico trailing the United States in the 2010 World Cup qualifying table, defeat today in Mexico City would entail a serious risk of shameful elimination from the finals in South Africa while the gringos sailed through. The Americans score first: Mexico 0, United States 1, in Mexico City. Adán from last time cracks the inevitable sullen joke about the boss robbing your house this time, and fucking your wife. But then Israel Castro equalizes with a glorious shot from twenty-seven yards, and with minutes to go, Miguel Sabah controls a perfect cross to score the winner for Mexico. Then one of those things happens, as they do, by word of mouth from bar to bar, colonia to colonia: head for the border. Which they do, by the thousands, on foot and in hooting, flag-waving motorcades. They paint their faces, stick fingers through the fencing, and sing their songs. Finally, the whooping crowd blocks the frontier traffic crossing and six are arrested. “Look,” says my friend Delgado, trying to explain, “we clean their toilets, we pick their fruit and water their lawns. But we can beat them in soccer.”

The gaiety in Tijuana even has a certain surreality: at the height of the killing in winter 2008, couples and excited parties of schoolchildren in pressed uniforms lined up to see a museum exhibition of mummies with preserved skin like parchment that stare hauntingly across the centuries from pre-Aztec Guanajuato. The crowds make no connection between these cadavers and other events in town, somehow affirming that Mexican cult of death.

The Sunday crowds fill Tijuana Cathedral, outside which market stalls sell unmistakably Mexican devotional accoutrements: it may trouble the Vatican, but it is of deep meaning to many devout Mexicans that the Virgin of Guadalupe, national symbol and Empress of the Americas, can also represent Coatlicue, mother of the Aztec primary god. Such dichotomy—ubiquitous in the “folk Catholicism” practiced in Mexico—is incomprehensible to dogmatic Christians, just as the ambivalence of the Mexican gods themselves was incomprehensible to the conquistadores, whose religion the Mexica incorporated into their own. During the Credo, in which the congregation proclaims its faith in “One God,” a text message arrives to say that Eduardo Arellano Félix was arrested during that shoot-out at the villa. After administering the Host, Archbishop Rafael Romo gives an interview, despite having only just been briefed on the arrest himself by a whispering aide, on his way to the sanctuary. “It is a time of challenge for us, as Christians and as citizens whose quality of life and lives themselves are in real and immediate danger,” he says. “The violence is now strategic, against all society, and this is the difference. Not to mention the problems that the drugs cause in our diocese. What we can do is offer resistance, and an affirmation of hope.” Most of the narco aristocracy, and more than a few of the sicarios, though, are devout Catholics, or at least they go through the motions of devotion—baptism, church marriage, cash donations, and confession. There is even an unofficial narco “saint,” Santo Jesús Malverde, a bandit with a Robin Hood legacy to whose shrine in Sinaloa devout traffickers pay homage with devotional pledges, mandas, in return for the holy outlaw’s blessing. During the nineteen eighties, the narcos actively aligned themselves with the church’s conservative wing against priests advocating liberation theology.

El Sol de Tijuana’s front page looked like a heavy-metal album cover, with a hooded skeleton brandishing a scythe and a headline quoting a carefully timed pronouncement by the bishop: Romo: la santa muerte no existe—Holy Death does not exist.

Archbishop Romo is direct for a man of his austere authority. “They expect to come to us and talk about what they do. Our word to them is clear: we will talk about these things, these dangers. If they think they are religious, we will debate them, urge them to leave behind this evil and these activities against God. They are like those ‘ultra’ soccer fans who come to the stadium—they support your team but the club doesn’t want them there to behave like that, but it is still your team and you are not supposed to turn them away. Moreover, it is not easy in the barrios for priests dealing with them face-to-face.”

This was October 2008. Perhaps the bishop would have replied more severely had we spoken some months later, after a terrible narco execution in July 2009. Father Habacuc Hernández and two seminarians training for the priesthood were ordered out of their pickup truck on the road into Ciudad Altamirano, 180 miles south of Mexico City, and repeatedly shot. Hernández had traveled by horseback and truck for hundreds of miles across mountainous terrain to serve his scattered community. He was one of ten children from a poor family who had worked awhile, illegally, in Texas. Villagers believed he must have fallen afoul of instructions by the narcos not to meddle in their affairs.

On the Day of the Dead, November 1, 2008, the daily El Sol de Tijuana’s front page looked like a heavy-metal album cover, with a hooded skeleton brandishing a scythe and a headline quoting a carefully timed pronouncement by the bishop: Romo: la santa muerte no existe—Holy Death does not exist. The archbishop was taking a public swipe in a popular paper at the cult in which the borderline is steeped, on both sides. Santa Muerte adorns car windshields, T-shirts, and mobile phone holders, and hangs as a silver pendant on chests all along the border. To the uninitiated, they look like trinkets from a Goth shop at Camden Market in London or the Lower East Side of New York, but they are not. Most cogent, wayside shrines to Santa Muerte, also called “la Señora de las Sombras,” the Lady of the Shadows, have been erected on the outskirts of most cities skirting the border on the Mexican side. In these shrines, built as little temples, the hooded skeleton holds the orb of the world in one hand and her scythe in the other. She usually wears a crown or miter, and her cloak is often white, but sometimes it is painted in the colors of the rainbow. In some shrines, the skeleton is a real one, draped in fabrics. And around her, offerings are made: cigarettes, fruit, photographs of the deceased. Candles are lit to her, which bear her image on glass around the wax. Messages and petitions are written, asking for protection. Sometimes she is adorned with flowers.

The older man turns toward me, stares, nods twice, and stares again. “Vete a la chingada”—go fuck yourself—he says nonchalantly, and without further word flicks the electronic switch to close his window.

This cult has its origins in the syncretism between Catholicism and pre-Columbian faiths and the cult of death, and has been dated to the eighteenth century. In the nineteen sixties, the first public sanctuary to Santa Muerte was built in the poor Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. In 2005, the cult was removed from the Mexican government’s list of religious rites licensed to practice, and only since then has it captured the imagination of the criminal young, winning a rapidly expanding number of devotees among narco traffickers and the street gangs affiliated with them. Santa Muerte has become an icon to which drug dealers and killers plead for protection against their own death, a talisman and mass cult accompanying the war. Though Santa Muerte is regarded outside the country as yet another exotic piece of Mexican mumbo jumbo, the cult can make one’s flesh crawl as one watches others pull over their cars and whisper their devotions to her at these shrines. Santa Muerte has a calculated didactic iconography. In mystical Catholicism, the figure of the Antichrist—the notion of Satan in the guise of the Messiah—is more terrifying than the devil himself, because of the deceit. Perhaps that is why the Antichrist is so rarely portrayed in Christian art (among the few portrayals is Luca Signorelli’s very unsettling depiction in the Orvieto cathedral of Satan preaching to the prayerful masses, wearing a mask of Jesus). The point is this: all the accoutrements of Santa Muerte echo exactly the iconography of devotion to Mary in general, and the Virgin of Guadalupe in particular—the shrines, offerings, prayers, flowers, and candles decorated with her image. Santa Muerte is not, like satanism, an inversion of the faith. Rather, she wears the garb of faith—like the Antichrist, she is not an inversion but a masquerader.

Priests are afraid to fathom the cult and its potency, while authorities are afraid enough to attack it both legally and physically. In Tijuana, almost all the roadside chapels that stood in 2008 had, by the summer of 2009, been demolished—by the army, said Mayor Jorge Ramos, though the military will not accept official responsibility. Demolished, but not gone. One especially prominent shrine had been erected above the concrete sweep of the Abelardo Rodríguez Dam. I remember the shrine, high above the reservoir: painted white, with low front walls through which one could enter into a space for offerings and pleadings for intercession—the “saint” looking out from behind a real human skull, adorned with a head shawl of rainbow colors and wearing a miter over which necklaces of beads were strewn. The hideous figure usually clutched a bunch of fresh flowers, regularly laid. The shrine is now demolished, jagged masonry and broken bricks, but there remains a defiant shrine within the rubble, crammed with candles bearing the image of Santa Muerte, a few of them still burning. The butts of cigarettes given in offering are lined up in neat rows, wedged in the broken stonework. Cigars have been left, and personal trinkets. To the side is a mound of empty glass votive candleholders, most of them decorated with the familiar figure, evidence of the hundreds of people who have been this way since the destruction. And there is more: messages painted on the shrine’s toppled walls, now scattered across the terrain: “Though they destroy you, I still believe in you.” “They have taken my child, my parent, my penance, my condolence.” Watching us all this while, guarding the rubble of the shrine, is a black Ford F-150 truck with darkened windows and a CD hanging from the mirror. The next day, I return to find a different vehicle, a Toyota truck this time. I wander over, cheerily, dumb gringo complimenting the shrine. The truck’s passenger window is open, and there are two men sitting inside. The younger looks straight ahead, out the window, at the shrine. The older man turns toward me, stares, nods twice, and stares again. “Vete a la chingada”—go fuck yourself—he says nonchalantly, and without further word flicks the electronic switch to close his window.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is syncretism in action, a profoundly charged entwinement of ancient faiths with imported Christianity, of Aztec communion with the underworld with the Catholic days of All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2). Elaborate meals are cooked, and special breads baked to share with the departed in cemeteries. Musicians are hired to sing them ballads and laments, toys are brought for dead children, special prayers are whispered and rites observed. Most feasts across the country are held in cemeteries, but in Tijuana this can be the occasion for a family reunion astride the border itself, by the beach where California and Mexico meet. This may sound more idyllic than it is. The turquoise ocean looks distantly seductive, but this is a scrappy piece of land divided by a mesh fence, which is the border—across and through which families sit down for picnic lunch, one half on the American side, the other in Mexico. This is the last stretch of fence along the whole border as flimsy as this, and during earlier visits to Tijuana, it was an evening pastime to come down to the playa and watch people climb over and run for it. In the past, boys sometimes posed atop the fence, balancing, while family members or tourists took pictures, before darting into the United States, knowing that the Border Patrol, the migra, would catch some but could not catch them all. Another favorite crossing point was a dry cement canal running between Tijuana and the United States, along which so-called roadrunners would hurtle at dusk, timing their sprint across the territorio de nadie, no-man’s-land, between passes by the migra patrols and helicopters above. These days, fence hopping as a spectator sport at sundown is over; it ended after the Clinton administration mounted Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, overseen and enforced by the U.S. attorney in San Diego, Alan Bersin, now border czar for President Barack Obama. But the crossings continue and so do the picnics as a matter of weekend ritual, especially on the first day of November.

The Giovanni family assembles: Salvador Giovanni on the Mexican side with his daughter-in-law, Jessica, holding her baby, Jorge, so that the child’s father, her husband, Ricardo, can play a game of finger tickling through the mesh (the international frontier) with his son and catch up on his wife’s weekly news from the southern side of the border. Salvador’s daughter, Chantelle, a student of criminal justice at San Diego University, has also come to the U.S. side “for the first time, when I heard that my brother could meet his wife and baby at the fence,” along with her boyfriend, Luis—so it becomes quite a Sunday reunion, only with an international border running through it. “It sure is a picnic with a difference” says Salvador in perfect English, cutting his son a slice of watermelon to a size that will fit through the fence. Dollar bills as well as tamales get passed to and fro through the border. “Some of us can’t get across at all, and others who did cannot go back again if they return to this side, like my son-in-law. He made it over, got a job, earns money, and sends most of it back—what father of a girl and grandfather of a little baby in this town is going to have a problem with that?” Salvador “spent a while over there myself, working in Los Angeles. But they were different times. We used to come and go as we pleased. For ten years, I worked in an auto shop and came home every two weeks.” Not any longer. Jessica and her husband kiss through the wire, she lingers a moment, sadness flickers in her eyes, Dad tickles his baby, and it’s time to go. “I gotta work,” says Ricardo, and slouches back across the parking lot. However, says Salvador Giovanni, the United States will soon end these traditional Sunday picnics and replace the mesh fence with the reinforced version that already runs for more than seven hundred of the twenty-one hundred miles of border. It is concentrated at and around urban centers, so that these family assemblies become a vulnerable point in America’s defenses. “But the thing is,” says Salvador, “there’s always a chance,” and he gestures toward a no-man’s-land at the fence’s edge, near the ocean. “Every six or seven days, a big group just makes a run for it and the Americans know as well as the Mexicans that they can’t catch everyone—there’s always a few who’ll dodge the cameras and infrared lights, and God bless ’em.”

Some make it, others are caught and deported—after hours, days, sometimes years in the United States. An afternoon at the border dump for deportees, fenced off from the click-clunk-click of the turnstile through which thousands of pedestrians cross the border every hour, shows most of the deported to be like Natalia González, age thirty-eight, who lived for twenty-two years in Los Angeles making batteries before a check on documentation by the immigration authorities. “There’s work here in the maquilas,” she says, “but my son’s in LA, so I don’t know what to do next.” There is another small constituency among the deportees, whose numbers, says Victor Clark Alfaro, for years a campaigner for human rights in Tijuana, conceal a minority extremely useful to the cartels: “They speak English, they have contacts across the USA, many have been in gangs like the Latin Kings and Mexican Mafia, one-third have been in prisons, they know about drugs and how to use weapons. They cover up their gang tattoos when they cross, are dumped without work, but quickly find it.”

A man with teardrop tattoos arrives, the kind of tattoos you get as a gang member or in prison. Julio César is a confident and friendly, if intimidating, alumnus of the Huntsville prison in Texas, America’s capital of capital punishment, where he served time for dealing in amphetamines. “You’re looking at my tattoos, ain’tcha?” He speaks the obvious with a blend of menace and amusement. “Yeah, I got ’em, and you know what for, don’t you—ha ha.” César is not going to elaborate, but that’s all right. It was explained to me in a scary quarter of East Los Angeles by gang members with teardrop tattoos that for each person you killed, a teardrop was filled in. They were a form of initiation into and protection by the Mexican Mafia or some other gang inside and outside jail. César sheds many tears of ink, two of them filled in. He says that in the three jails in which he served time in America, “I got looked after by the raza” (the race, as Mexicans call themselves by way of assertion in the United States), “by the brotherhood.” By which brotherhood? Mexican Mafia? Latin Eagles? Latin Kings? I ask. “Now that’d be telling,” says César, but he concedes, “one of those.” It is a conversation I probably could not have had were César not in the compound and overseen by the police—and that he cannot continue for the same reason. César was due to be deported in 1993, but the prison lost his records, he says, so he remained inside until 2001, got deported, slipped back into California for five years, and was caught again: “just because I like to smoke.” Now back, “I’m going to get whatever work I can find here in TJ that’ll get me the money to get back there,” he says. “I have some contacts. TJ’s cool, only there’s no way for an honest man to make a living, if you understand what I’m sayin’.”

Others who cross the border are never seen again: they are never greeted by the relatives to whom they were headed, nor are they received back home, unless it is aboard a plane, in a coffin paid for by the Mexican government. For some in Tijuana, el Día de los Muertos 2008 has a special purpose, which is to pay homage to those who died in the deserts of America on their way to what they had intended to be a better life. The procession of homage in Tijuana is by those who survived the journey but were deported, and assembles at the Scalabrini hostel, which receives deposited, homeless deportees from the United States. Each marcher carries a white cross bearing the name of a compatriot who died attempting to make it to the United States—of exposure in the desert, heat or cold, thirst or hunger, attack by bandits or venomous snakes, even suicide. The deportee marchers walk as far as the Mexican side of the fence, onto which, after saying prayers beside a little shrine of flowers and candles, they affix the crosses. “Lord, hear our prayer,” chants the Reverend Luis Kendzerski, “for the migrants and the poor, the abandoned and the dead, of the border.” Of every ten who die, he says, two are women or children.

East of Tijuana, through Tecate, along Mexican Highway 2, there is the first of many heart-stopping moments on this journey. The heat of early afternoon rises from the land below the road and across the desert, stretching into Southern California and on, it seems, for eternity. Hues of red, pink, and burnt sienna wrap the distance, ascending into the smoky blue haze of sky as it meets the horizon. There is complete stillness in the apparently boundless landscape. On the Mexican side, the road winds through Tecate onto a high mountain ridge and on the Californian side a parallel border road winds through leafy glades to a lonely but hospitable little town called Jacumba with a spa motel, and into the cauldron of Imperial Valley. Here, the crossing into Mexico connects two towns with names that place both of them didactically in Amexica: called Calexico and Mexicali, California and Mexico spliced and shared. Much of the Imperial and Mexicali valleys lies below sea level, and the twin cities cohabit in a geological bowl in which air is trapped, so that neither the pungent stench of livestock, feedlots, and fertilizer on the U.S. side, nor the waft of chemicals drifting on the breeze from Mexicali, can escape. Though this is a desert, Imperial Valley boasts some of the most productively fertile farmland in the western United States, thanks to the All-American Canal, running from the Colorado River and benefiting farmers on both sides of the border, due not only to intended irrigation but also to an unforeseen life source in the Mexicali Valley: seepage.

Water seeping from the canal created wetlands in the desert that have been pumped from the ensuing aquifer by farmers on the Mexican side and used to grow crops. Until, that is, April 2009, when the rebuilding of the canal along twenty-three miles of watertight concrete was completed, saving an estimated 3.1 million acre-feet of water per year. The canal lining was seen by Californians as a popular environmental and economical recovery of lost water for use by farmers in the Imperial Valley Irrigation District and domestic taps in the Metropolitan Water District of San Diego. Except on the border, in Calexico, which sided with the outraged Mexican farmers. Former mayor Alex Perrone argued that “economically, if Mexicali loses, we will watch Calexico die. We’re near totally dependent on the development and spending power of more than a million people on the other side. If the water goes, the farms suffer and the industries suffer. And if they suffer, Calexico suffers.” And so, concludes Perrone, who was born in Mexicali, “We opposed the lining of the canal. Water is scarce, and our joint community has been developed around what has been available. Now the farmers are losing land over there, because the water is limited. This’ll stop creating jobs, which means you contract the economy. It impacts on the agribusinesses, the people who sell the seed and fertilizer, or supply and maintain the machinery, and then it will impact us.”

But in this sweltering valley, and across the land to the east, water—agua—has a significance way beyond matters of irrigation and farmland. For something else, more urgent, is afoot: along Highway 98, the road from Interstate 8 down into Calexico, the temperature rises higher above 100 degrees with every mile, and blue plastic tanks have been placed along it at regular intervals. Above them fly blue flags, and each is marked agua stenciled in white paint. There is a connection between these water posts and a plot in the cemetery at Holtville nearby, where those who died in the desert without a name are buried. This road takes us out of California now, into Arizona and on to the narrative that lies behind both the water stations and the cemetery—that of the desert as graveyard. What is happening here has nothing to do with the canal, and even a few drops of agua can make the difference between life and death.

Ed Vulliamy was the New York correspondent for The Observer (London) from 1997 to 2003 and spent many years as an international correspondent for The Guardian. The author of Seasons in Hell, Vulliamy lives in London and Arizona.

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Excerpted from Amexica: War Along the Borderline by Ed Vulliamy, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Ed Vulliamy. All rights reserved.

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