Encounter in Iztapalapa
Mexico City, Mexico
The afternoon of my discontent began no differently from any other. It was overcast, 72 degrees, the smog scale at 171 points. In other words, a typical February day. My first week of work complete as an English teacher, I felt that I needed to reflect upon my job, Mexico City, and my new life over a gallo (joint). The setting was Cerro de La Estrella, an extinct volcanic cone with a 360 degree view of the city, a dash of Aztec ruins, and a large cross on the summit, located in the working class Borough (Delegacion) of Iztapalapa. Cerro de la Estrella is best known for an annual rendering of the Passion Play held on its slopes on Good Friday, attracting hundreds of thousands of people.
After weaving my way upward through the labyrinthine residential streets at the base of the hill, I found myself sauntering through a sparse forest of eucalyptus and undernourished pine. I arrived at the summit just in time to watch a massive thunderhead appear over the mountains on the western horizon. The thunderhead slowly worked its way across the valley floor, leaving bolts of lightning and long, undulating torrents of rain in its wake. Not more than twenty minutes later the sky was mostly clear, and I was treated to a spectacular pollution enhanced sunset replete with fiery hues of orange, red and yellow.
Feeling satisfied, I emerged from my perch among the volcanic rock formations and started to make my way downhill. I was negotiating a particularly difficult stretch of path around a rock wall when I suddenly found myself face to face with a police officer. He was a classic looking Mexican cop. A wisp of a man, he was at best 5’6”. His narrow shoulders and doll-like wrists betrayed his attempt to act tough and professional, while his bushy oversized moustache and gigantic .357 revolver added an almost comedic aspect to his appearance.
I proffered a weak smile and wished him a good afternoon. He wasn’t interested in small talk. “What are you doing here, guero (blondie/paleface)?” he asked. His inquiry was delivered with the sort of speed and cadence in Spanish that a native speaker imagines a gringo will be able to understand.
“Well, sir, this is my favorite place in the city. I came to watch the view.”
“I want to search your backpack. Hand it over.”
It was at this moment when I knew I was completely screwed. Evidently, he had been waiting quite some time for me to emerge, probably having smelled the signature aroma from a distance. Moreover, I had surprised him with my command of Spanish–a huge mistake–because I could no longer succeed at playing the dumb tourist.
“Have you been smoking?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” I pulled my pack of Marlboros out of my pocket and lamely displayed them. “Just these. Would you like one?”
He repeated what I said in the same manner as an untrusting girlfriend who is hearing your pathetic cover story about why you didn’t call her the night before, when you were out getting wasted with your buddies and chasing girls. It was then that his nose caught the scent. He became excited like a well-trained dog. His hands began working faster, the zippers moving with haste. He quickly found my precious stash of herb.
“This is la mota!” he exclaimed. “This is a crime. Ven. Come with me.” He asked me where I was from.
As I said this a knowing, almost forgiving look came over his face. It was as if he was saying “aaaah, you’re one of those people”. Apparently, San Francisco’s reputation precedes itself in Mexico as well. He didn’t bother to cuff me and with a brush of his hand I was made to lead the way downhill, following his commands from the rear as to which of the myriad side paths we should take. Iztapalapa is a part of Mexico City where tourists have no reason to go, and where the average person on the street still turns their head for a moment at the sight of a gringo. Therefore, one can imagine the novelty presented to the various onlookers as we passed by. Inquisitive gazes and hushed words of wonder surrounded the cop and his reluctant companion.
As he led me down the hill–hopefully to the cop station, I thought–I knew that if I played it right, with the proper mixture of lament and ignorance, there was a chance, a blessed chance that I might avoid being processed by the Mexican criminal justice system. But, how? I had to do one all-important thing: I would have to bank on his dishonesty, as is custom in Mexico. In his 1987 novel Cristobal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), Carlos Fuentes wrote about the protagonist: “…he was much more concerned that no one dare judge him, banking on his dishonesty, as was normal in Mexico, but instead banking on his virtue.” These words would come to have significance I could never have imagined when I read them, eventually helping to bridge the gap between visiting and truly living in Mexico.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at a makeshift police station nestled in the hillside. It was a small concrete-brick building that appeared more like a horse stable than a police station. That’s because it was between two similar buildings that were in fact horse stables. The scene was completed by a rusty, faded orange ’74 Dodge Dart which, judging from its two missing wheels, looked to have a permanent parking space in the driveway. The cop whistled to announce our arrival, and soon another officer who appeared to be alone opened an oversized blue corrugated metal door. I was led into the front room and told to sit down at a rectangular wooden table with a large radio unit on it and empty my pockets. The dimly lit room was sparsely furnished and smelled of cigarettes and aged leather gloves. There was a coat rack on the other end of the room and a table beneath it with a TV and a few portable radios resting in their chargers. Next to the coat rack was the ubiquitous mini-shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, consisting of an icon and a small, ever-flickering electric candle at its base. The room was windowless, save for a tiny strip of glass on the upper part of the right hand wall to allow in light, lending it a sinister feel.
Then came the time to scare me. The first cop, his eyes fixated upon mine, reached for the radio receiver. The first salvo.
“Oh no, seÃ±or, please no!”
The receiver returned to the table. “This is a federal crime, he said. Cerro de La Estrella is a national park. You are going to the Delegacion (the borough’s central police station). It’s out of our hands. Give me your name and address. You’re going to jail.”
I knew I had to invoke my experience in dishonesty futures at this point. “But seÃ±or, isn’t there any other way to resolve this problem?” My statement was followed by a painfully long silence.
Finally, he said, “I don’t know, what do you have to say for yourself?”
This caused me great concern. I knew I couldn’t straight out ask to pay a mordida (bribe, literally “a little bite”)– this would insult his professional integrity. In the last few years the Mexican government has made a big, and rather ineffective, deal about fighting corruption, especially in high profile areas like Mexico City.
Again and again I was asked the same questions–where did I buy the weed, what did the person look like, could I identify him, how much did I pay–with the hope that I would slip up and change my story. Again and again I gave the same answers: I bought it at Plaza de la Revolucion, the dealer looked like any dealer on the street, no I couldn’t identify him and yes, I paid fifty pesos. With a slight grin, the officer again reached for the radio receiver, his finger resting on the transmission button. The second salvo. I knew I had to act quickly.
“Ay seÃ±or, no!” I exclaimed, adding, “Can’t I pay a fine here?” The receiver returned to the table. I could sense my window of opportunity was closing rapidly.
“Of course you can pay a fine,” he replied. “At the Delegacion–in the sum of 5,000 pesos.”
“But please, sir, why not here?”
My head sunk into my hands as a sign of submission, lament and defeat. As I said this I noticed the other cop on his cell phone, speaking in deferential tones to the person on the other end. After he hung up, he approached the officer questioning me and whispered something in his ear. Five agonizing minutes later, I heard a familiar whistle from outside. The original cop jumped to attention and quickly exited the building. Moments later he returned, accompanied by an older plainclothes detective, obviously everyone’s boss, and the person whom the second officer had been chatting with on his cell phone.
The Commandante was a man of about fifty years old. He was short and stocky with a round, mottled face, also endowed with a healthy potbelly that evoked visions of long, lazy afternoons munching on carnitas and sipping on never-ending Coronas. He was wearing light blue polyester slacks paired with the ubiquitous button-up sweater/jacket crossover garment favored by middle-aged, gainfully employed members of the Mexican working class. Think of an ugly bowling shirt: cable knit sleeves and strips of knitted fabric with loud argyle patterns in front, completed with fake leather shoulders and back.
The scent of his cheap aftershave reached me long before his disapproving glance. He studied me with the same sort of facial expression one uses when inspecting a clogged toilet. The situation explained to him, he approached me. The same battery of questions was thrown at me with no changes to my answers. He picked through my possessions laid out on the table before him: a fifty peso bill, two Metro tickets, a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, some loose change, an old bus ticket from Mexico City to Acapulco, my receipt from the Hotel Buenos Aires and a key chain from the Lady Luck Casino in Las Vegas. It was clear I was no player. He focused on the bus ticket. It was dated four months past, from a previous trip to Mexico. I had told them that I was a tourist, only in Mexico for a few weeks. If he checked the date, it could be a problem. Thinking he was doing good police work, he said, “Acapulco. How long were you there?”
“Two days,” I replied.
In actuality I only used that hellhole as a transfer point for buses going farther up the coast, but that’s another story. He grunted and went on to other items. He pulled a condom out of my cigarette pack, a giant grin spreading across his weathered chilango (a non-native resident of Mexico City) face. Thrusting his arms to demonstrate the act, he exclaimed, “You’re a big fucker, I see!” The three cops broke out in riotous laughter. When the laughter died down enough, the Commandante asked, “So, you like Mexican girls? Little girlies with brown skin? You came here to fuck, right?” Again, riotous laughter. Sensing that I thought the ice might be broken, he drew in a long breath and exhaled in a pensive manner, looking me in the eyes. He shook his head and leaned in close to me. “Young man,” he began, “unfortunately I must take you to the Delegacion. You’re going to jail. There’s nothing I can do.”
He looked across the room to the television, which in an act of cruel irony happened to be playing the Mexican version of Cops, “Duro y Directo“. Duro y Directo assigns camera crews to crime scenes and local police stations, ready to capture humiliating images and sound bites from newly captured criminals. A smile broke out on his face. Reading my mind, he casually looked back at me and pointed to the TV. With genuine glee, he said in English: “You. Duro y Directo. At the Delegacion.”
With this, I let out a high-pitched utterance which was part laugh, part sob. My three companions found this hilarious. Laughing, the Commandante put his hand on my shoulder in the same caring way a father would with his son. He again looked me in the eyes, but after a moment the humor disappeared from his face, replaced with an icy glare. He didn’t want me feeling too comfortable. He pulled out a card identifying him as a Policia Judicial, the equivalent of a state trooper. “We are the police. You committed a crime. Do you understand? I’m taking you to jail.”
Evidently, the junior officers had not explained to him that I understood Spanish, so he took out a piece of paper and proceeded to draw a picture of a jail cell, complete with a stick figure which was supposed to be me. I imagined myself fighting off wave after wave of Mexican jailbirds hell bent on making me their big white puto.
“But can’t we resolve this problem here?” I blurted out.
Once again, the Commandante showed me his ID card. “We’re the police. We aren’t corrupt. We’re professionals. Do you understand? There is a huge problem with narcotrafficking between our two esteemed countries,” he continued, his voice trailing off. “We have to show that we’re doing our part.” Consumed for a moment by the heroic ideal of fighting a multinational drug war, the Commandante suddenly grabbed my arms and pulled my shirtsleeves up to my shoulders. “Look what we have here boys…a heroin addict!”
I reeled back in shock, angrily proclaiming my innocence. Handling my arms as though they were detachable, he swung them around forcefully towards the two junior officers, displaying my non-existent track marks to looks of pity and disgust. Returning my arms to their proper place on my body, he began to slap my inner arms with his fingers, like a real heroin addict does in order to find a vein. He turned to his subordinates and began an impromptu educational session about American life. After all, it’s the boss who must pass on his knowledge to his successors.
“All Americans are drug addicts as you can see. Even the ones that appear clean and sober like this one. Imagine having a shitload of money to throw around on booze and drugs boys! It would rot your brain, just like this one. But don’t forget: the gringo is a chingÃ³n (hustler, operator). All they understand is rules, law and order. No room for anything else, boys. I heard that somebody sued McDonalds because his coffee was too hot. What a bunch of idiots! But you see boys, you gotta do everything by the book with the gringos because they come back and fuck you on a technicality.”
Still clutching my arms, he launched into a story about his cousin in El Paso which I couldn’t understand. When he finished, he repeated the part about doing things by the book, and turning back to me, he continued: “And that’s why we gotta take you to the Delegacion, buddy.” At that he slapped my inner arms one last time for effect. He then added in the same fatherly tone, “I know you’re an addict. It’s OK, young man.”
At this point I was genuinely scared. Who knows how much money would be extorted from me before I saw the light of day again. I had just started my new life in Mexico, and I was faced with the shameful possibility of returning home with my tail between my legs. Simply put, this was not an option. It was time to make a definitive investment in the Commandante’s dishonesty.
“Sir,” I cautiously started, “Please don’t take me to jail. I’ll do anything you want. You have my hotel receipt, so you know where to find me. Can’t I just return with some money and pay the fine here? Please sir…” The Commandante gave me a long look and then motioned towards the original cop who brought me in. They exited the room. I asked the remaining cop if I could smoke. He relayed the message to the Commandante and approval was given. This was a good sign. A few minutes passed, and the duo of Mexico City’s finest reentered the room.
The Commandante addressed me. “So, you want to be free, like a little birdie, eh?” he said as his fingers wagged in the air like wings.
“Yes, yes sir, please, I’ll do anything,” I responded eagerly.
“OK,” he said in Spanglish, “You pay 4,000 pesos aqui and you are libre, entiendes?” When we got to talking specific numbers, he of course understood that since one cannot withdraw more than 3,000 pesos a day from an ATM, it would be the final sum of my payment to him. The Commandante extended this kindness knowing full well I didn’t have cent on me.
Things were suddenly clear. I was banking on both his dishonesty and his honesty, and he was banking on my honesty. Together, we could make a team. Essentially, he would have to trust me to return to my hotel, get the cash and go back to Iztapalapa for its deliverance. The reader is naturally asking why I didn’t just plan to escape and never return. For me, it was simple. I planned to live in Mexico City long term, where as a gringo you stand out like a sore thumb. The Valley of Mexico is a big place, but with the combination of my whiteness and the efficient organized crime unit that is the Mexico City police, I honestly believed that he would have found me if I failed to pay.
On the part of my new business partner the Commandante, he was weighing the potential windfall of receiving the near equivalent of his monthly salary in one hour–the result of his dishonesty–versus his desire to maintain a modicum of professionalism and appear somewhat ethical–the result of his clouded virtue. At this moment, I began to understand Mexico. I had been thrust unwittingly into what writer and social commentator Carlos Monsivais calls the center of all Mexican national life in the Twentieth Century: the “taste/distaste, hate/love relationship with corruption”. Although the Commandante didn’t particularly enjoy the act he was committing, it was his best option, not only for him, but also his family. His decision was the unpleasant result of a reality created by the chronic poverty and marked social stratification that isolates and characterizes many millions of average Mexicans.
The aura of corruption, Monsivais writes, is “the inevitable result of a morality solely dedicated to appearances, which, once the rituals of austerity and democracy have been reverentially kept, believes only in personal aggrandizement and the maintenance of the status quo.” In a society obsessed with appearances, it was vital that he assuage his shame. Hence, his threats to follow due process and book me at the Delegacion, the furtive attempts at investigative police work via my interrogation, and the speech about the drug trafficking problem.
In the course of three hours, I went from theorizing and fantasizing, to understanding about living in Mexico. I experienced what I like to call ‘instant justice’. I was punished for my crime. The only difference was that the revenue and the management of my criminal record were diverted from the state to the servants of the state. There’s an old saying about the Sicilian mafia in New York City: “The mob provides protection to those who cannot afford the protection of the police.” In Mexico, the cops act as both parties. They are at once the purveyor and enemy of organized crime. I needed protection from the law, and the only ones who could provide it were the police.
Looking through the sliver of a window, I noticed that it was now dark. The Commandante immediately offered to accompany me to the Metro station. I think he was more concerned for my safety (read: my money) than I was. He quickly hatched a plan to meet me in front of Metro Iztapalapa under the first lamppost on the right, next to the birria stand (tacos made from steamed goat meat) for safety reasons. Both the original cop and the Commandante had previously told me that Iztapalapa was full of thieves. I sensed they had a measure of respect for me because I had the moxie to come to the area alone in the first place. Everything decided, the cops exited the room and returned moments later, now in street clothes.
We exited the station and a wash of cool night air blew over us. Children were playing soccer in the street, peppering the evening with the joyful shrieks of youth. Women were watching the children as they chatted with neighbors. Men were sipping beers as they conferred over the engine of an old Vocho (Volkswagen Beetle). On the way to the Metro station, we bantered about sports and women. I felt included. Suddenly I was seeing the country in real time, instead of from the outside looking in. I returned an hour later and paid the money. Mexico had manifested itself before my eyes. Everything was in its proper place, including me.