Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Experience in Torreón

Longtime reader JD asked me to describe living in Torreón a few weeks ago, and aiming to be as responsive a blogger as possible, I accepted, and then did nothing about it for three weeks. Apologies for the delay, but this is a tough topic to write about. And not in the self-important sense of it bringing up a lot of difficult emotions, but rather from the standpoint of actually making it readable. On the one hand, you don’t want to come across as though you fancy yourself a survivor of Stalingrad just because your town got a little dicey. For the love of God, GET OVER YOURSELF PATRICK! At the same time, you need to have something for which it’s worth putting pen to paper; a simple, “I was kinda nervous for a while. The end.” doesn’t cut it. Quite the tightrope, you see, and I’m sure I fell off on a number of occasions.

Anyway, to kick things off...the first thing I would stress is that, again, my experience in Torreón was nothing like living through a war zone, or at least what I imagine that feels like. As a foreigner without much income or connection to the drug trade, I wasn’t anyone’s target, nor was I particularly concerned that anyone wanted to kill me. In that sense, I imagine that my experience was not unlike that of a law-abiding citizen in a rough American neighborhood, only against a more generalized backdrop of the government losing control of things everywhere.

It’s also worth noting that when I first arrived in Torreón, in 2005, it was Mayberry safe. There were 25 or 35 murders a year, in a city of between 500,000 and 600,000 residents, which gave it a homicide rate comparable to the average across the U.S., and much lower than many of the big cities. (By comparison, last year there were more than 300 murders in the city.) Beyond the murder rate, Torreón just felt really protected; I moved there from Chicago, and it was amazing to me how casual people were with their physical safety, especially with regard to being in certain neighborhoods and being out at nighttime. Throughout that time, the drug trade certainly existed, but it was very remote. Its local iteration was little more than another subject of gossip.

That initial tranquility made the subsequent decline seem all the more extreme. The feeling I always remember is how crime started encroaching on an ever-increasing number of activities starting in mid-2007 or so. It was like a virus invading healthy cells.

The first aspect of my routine that was directly affected was my social life. Stories about Zetas hanging out in certain bars began to circulate as of 2007. This made one a little nervous about bringing a girlfriend to those establishments, because who wanted to stand up to some asshole stranger hitting on your date when you don’t know who those serious-looking fellows to one side are. (Not me.) Then the bars started shutting down--because of extortion demands, according to the prevailing rumors. Eventually they --or more precisely, the people drinking inside them-- turned into targets. At that point, bars were no longer a part of my social life. There were still plenty of restaurants, and I had a seafood place around the corner from my house that I loved. But when the local cops started coming by to collect a payoff every other time I would hang out there, I stopped going. In fact, any restaurant where they served booze and I didn’t personally know the owner seemed a bit suspect, so I did little of that for the last two years that I lived in Torreón.

Stories of violence also steadily inserted themselves on everyday conversation. Every single party for three years featured some story of mayhem and/or powerful narcos. At work, such tales were water-cooler conversation. Every morning, someone had a friend or cousin who’d been threatened or whose best friend had been killed. One coworker once told me that she had driven past a human head while heading home from a wedding reception. Like the emailed warnings and grizzly reports that began to flood my inbox, this seemed a little far-fetched, but the growth of what I think you could call conversational violence porn was itself a symptom.

Throughout all of this time, the degrees of separation between the typical act of violence and me also began to shrink. First it was people driving by the murder scenes in which strangers had been attacked. Then it was the friend of a friend of a cousin of a friend. And then it was a student’s father who was taken away and never found. Or a coworker’s brother, who worked as a ministerio publico and who was murdered in his driveway. A second cousin of my wife was killed in the most brutal way imaginable, though it was not someone I’d ever met, nor someone she was close with. But crime continued to come closer. My sister-in-law suffered two car-jackings in the past three years; in the most recent, she had a gun fired above her head to scare her, and her boyfriend was beaten about the head with a pistol, though thankfully he was not seriously injured. And on and on it went, and continues to go.

The geography of the crimes also began to shift: initially, the spike in murders was limited to handful of neighborhoods. While these zones remained overly burdened by the violence, there were more and more episodes that were close to where I lived and worked. I drove by El Ferrie, for instance, every day; for months after it was attacked, there was a single shoe right in front of the patio where 30 or so people had been shot, a depressing memento indeed.

The fact that no one cleaned up the scene always struck me as a small yet telling failure of the local government; I was reminded of a piece in the Atlantic (I think) about the Israeli teams that cleaned up after suicide bombings in the Second Intifada. The details are sketchy several years removed, but the gist was the government made sure that the physical signs of bloodshed were removed as quickly as possible, so that life could continue normally. Israelis would drive by the afternoon after a bus was blown up, and there’d be almost nothing to suggest the violent loss of life just hours before. In contrast, the thousands of cars that would pass by the ex-nightclub on a daily basis would have this indelible reminder of the massacre staring at them.

There was also, unfortunately, a spike in crime right around my house. Most of it was petty theft; my wife woke up one morning to find her tail lights to her Beetle had been removed. Some neighbors had antennas stolen from their roofs. One was mugged for his wallet by a kid with a knife. The nice señora who ran the Oxxo down the street from me was held up at gunpoint. I walked in a few minutes after the incident, and she was visibly traumatized. It was the last time I ever saw her; her family took over the establishment after that. At one point, a kidnapping victim was released naked less than a block away from my home; upon seeing him, my wife and a neighbor came inside, somewhat scandalized, thinking it was just a crazy guy. They subsequently ventured back outside, at which point he was in the company of the local police, relating his experience.

But throughout this period, it wasn’t as though there was a palpable sense of terror or anything like that. There were a few moments when I was genuinely fearful, but they were stupid and baseless, always more the product of generalized anxiety boiling over. One of these was when a cousin of my wife’s knocked on the door unexpectedly. He didn’t stop by often, and he is a huge dude, and he was dressed all in black. Looking through the upstairs window, which only gave you a look at the back of someone at the door, I saw this big, unrecognizable dude banging away, and I don’t know why nor do I recall what I had been doing, but it just floored me. I realized it was he after probably two seconds, but I remember that I had a hard time speaking when I opened the door, like I’d hopped into a freezing river and was just recovering my normal breathing rhythm. And it was such a silly thing--he just came by to give us a party invitation. Lesson: I can be a big chickenshit.

Anyway, in summary...with every new development that made the city more dangerous or less livable, one adjusted, much like the frog in the heating water. It is just in retrospect that life in Torreón seems insane.


Crazy Rita said...

After reading this, I thought for a second maybe I had written it. Your experiences are eerily similar to mine.

pc said...

Yeah I guess it's a pretty common story for anyone who's lived in the North for the past several years.

jd said...

Thanks Gancho (and apologies for delayed acknowledgment; rough week). It sounds like a somewhat surreal situation, no doubt exacerbated by the difficulty as a foreigner of ever really understanding the nuances of these things (or at least being uncertain when your intuitions are rational/irrational). The macabre nature of the violence certainly must've heightened the unsettling feelings as well. All in all though, I guess that in a way, I'm glad to hear that it wasn't any worse than that, especially in terms of having friends/closer relatives hurt. One question: was there any sense of, like, who these people (the violent ones) were? Was it just "de Sinaloa" or "Zetas," or was there a somewhat more local angle to it (as in rumors about so-and-so's older brother, etc.)?

And yeah, assuming we're thinking of the same thing, I remember that article about Israel. Here it is, though without the photos, which I remember pretty well:

pc said...

That's gotta be the piece. Must have been a hell of a piece of writing for us to both remember it so many years later.

Once the violence started, for the most part it was the Zetas who were behind most acts of violence, according to the street-corner gossip. That was true even when it was someone's older brother...usually he had done something to piss off a local boss, or so it was rumored. Sinaloa killings were more limited to Gomez Palacio and Lerdo (across the river but basically connected), although a gang connected to Sinaloa was blamed for the attacks on the bars in 2010. Sometimes it's kinda hard to tell, because a lot of it might be local thugs just taking advantage. For instance, one of the times my sister-in-law had her car taken from her, the cop said the MO was that of a zetas cell. But then, the MO was pretty basic, so if you were an independent car-jacker, why wouldn't you imitate the gang you know everyone is afraid of?

Although in the last few years, and definitely in the most recent trip, my sense was that there was more locally motivated killings, ie over narcomenudeo or local extortion rackets. That may well be the Zetas too, but the explanations were less likely to be tied to the bigger gangs, or so it seemed.