Imagine this: One afternoon, you’re driving your kids back home from school, just like any other day. They’re telling you about their day, singing to you the new song they learned today. Out of the sudden, a big, white truck filled with heavily armed people stops in the middle of the street. This is not just one person with a rifle shooting people at random. These people are armed with weapons not even the army has.
The traffic has stopped.
Everyone in the street is having a panic attack.
You take your kids out of the car and tell them to lie on the hot pavement. You lie right next to them.
“Daddy, why are they shooting?” your 6 year old asks, and you don’t even know what to say. For the first time you don’t have the answer. How do you tell your kids that this is normal? That this has been going on for years in this country and even though you never thought it would happen in your home, here you all are.
The shooting seems to stop and everyone run back to their vehicles and hurry home.
On your way there, you see more and more armed people. They wear ski masks and bulletproof vests; but they’re not cops. They’re civilians. You avoid eye contact and send a prayer that you’ll make it home safe with your kids. Yes, you look the other way while you order your kids to get down and hide.
You finally make it home but your wife’s not there. She was at the store getting some groceries when the shootings started, without a warning.
She calls just to tell you she can’t get out because there’s still a shooting going on outside the store. A crossfire between soldiers and civilians. She’s scared, but asks you to stay with the kids and wait until is all over. It should be over soon.
Your oldest daughter calls and tells you the bus she was in was hijacked and burnt. The passengers were able to jump out of it, but now she’s in shock. She was just trying to go back home after a long day in school, and now she’s stranded in the middle of the street; cars and buses burn all around her. She can hear gunshots in the distance and asks what she should do. But nowhere is safe. There’s nowhere to run.
It’s 11 pm and your wife is still stuck at the store. Hundreds of people haven’t made it home tonight because the shootings won’t stop. They’re stuck at work, schools, malls. It was supposed to be over soon.
You keep watching the news, waiting for someone to say you’re all safe, that you can go pick up your wife. Instead, there is a video of almost 50 prisoners escaping, right there in your city. They carry rifles and steal cars passing by at gunpoint. Talk about a prison break.
The residential complex where soldiers’ families live, is surrounded by criminals threatening to kill absolutely everyone there. They have a pipe full of gasoline, and say they will set fire to it, causing an explosion, if they don’t get what they want. The houses have mostly women and kids inside.
The criminals have outnumbered the army. They’ve proven to be smarter than the President and his National Security Advisor.
It’s midnight, and convoys of white trucks filled with armed people are still entering the city. But it was supposed to be over soon.
Morning comes and no one dares to look out their windows. The Governor has said is better if everyone stays home today; school and flights have been cancelled. There’s not a single soul out in the streets that have splashes of a dark-reddish color here and there now. This has been yet another red dawn in Mexico.
A ghost town is what your city looks like. Cars abandoned in the middle of the roads, smoke coming out of buses that are almost completely consumed now.
Last night your home was on fire.
This morning, is all ashes.
It all sounds like a scene from The Purge, right? You know, that movie where, once a year, everyone has 12 hours to go around committing crimes without being punished. Well, Mexico is the real-life version of that movie. We live inside this scene of the movie every single day.
The President talks to his scared and angry people.
What happened yesterday?
Well, remember that big drug lord that was captured a few years ago and is now serving life in prison in the US? No, he didn’t manage another prison break this time. He’s still locked up.
But his son was captured. In his home. His territory. The one place no other drug cartel can touch because they OWN it.
Of course, all hell broke loose.
His people would not negotiate. They would kill. They would free prisoners and fill the city with criminals until the police and the army had no choice but to surrender. They have the power to burn the city down if it comes to it.
So yes, they ended up freeing the man they captured.
But like I’ve said before, this is our “normal”. We wake up every day to news like “criminals ambush and massacre police officers”, “bodies hanging from a bridge were found this morning”, “bags full of dismembered bodies found in a park”, and the list goes on and on.
You may see it in the news every now and then. You shake your head and think “poor people”, and then go to bed. Or maybe, you avoid reading about this kind of news because is too much for you. Is not your reality after all. And I used to be like that, too. I used to look the other way, ignoring those headlines. Until two loved ones were kidnapped and murdered.
It was until guys my age, people I knew, started to go missing. Until a friend told me how his brother was robbed, and when he tried to defend himself, he got shot. He survived, but he lost a leg. Until I saw a man I had known since I was a kid, after being kidnapped and tortured, being freed after his family payed the ransom. He never spoke a word again. He wouldn’t even look at anyone in the eye, not even his kids; it was like he was locked inside his own mind. It was then that I realized in what kind of world we live in.
What happened in Culiacan two weeks ago had already happened where I live. Imagine waking up one day with your group chats filled with images of cars and buildings burning; all main roads are blocked with buses that have been set on fire and armed people. No one enters and no one leaves the city. A warning spreads, telling us not to leave the house under any circumstances. Helicopters fly low above your own house. I lived through this, and I was lucky enough to have my whole family with me that day.
Months later, it happened again. A group of criminals attacked and killed several cops in a town close to where I live, and then fled to my hometown. Roads were blocked, students were stuck at the University because there was no way out.
You don’t understand the gravity of things until you’re eating at a restaurant and a drug lord shows up and sits on the table next to yours, while his people guard the place. The most wanted man on earth eating right in front of you, but you pretend you don’t see. They’re ghosts; you don’t talk to them, you don’t look at them, you just don’t mess with them.
As I was watching the documentary “Living Undocumented” on Netflix the other day, something stood up to me. One of the lawyers talking on the screen said some people think “well, this is not my problem. This is Mexico’s problem. Why don’t they just go to the police?”. Mexico’s police is nothing like the police in the US.
If you live in Mexico and you’re smart, you don’t go to the police. It’ll get worse. So, you live obedient to criminals because you’re scared of the police too.
Let me tell you a story that happened to me about six months ago.
I was on my way to my parent’s house. It was around 9 pm, and I was walking alone. But I’ve walked these streets in this small town a thousand times; I know every family living in each house, and since it’s a street that goes straight downtown, there are always cars coming and going. I was a block away from home. Of course, I felt safe.
I don’t know if it was my bad luck, or maybe someone above was trying to teach me a lesson, trying to open my eyes to the reality of this country. In the blink of an eye, the street was silent. No cars, no people. Five pick-up trucks of the “Fuerza Unica (Elite Force)” were heading my way.
This “Elite Force” is a paramilitary unit trained to carry out special operations. It is exclusive of the state of Jalisco, and they had been in my hometown for a while, which meant they were probably after someone that was hiding there. Or maybe, they were working for them, who knows?
I decided to wait until they were gone to cross the street. The first truck stopped and I immediately took my phone out, and called my sister. I knew something was wrong. There were five trucks in total, each one had at least seven male police officers inside. I was alone. They started to ask for my name, while I talked to my sister on the phone. I knew they were listening, so I didn’t even mention them. I only asked my sister if my dad was there, and begged her to stay on the line with me, pretending I was not paying attention to them and swallowing my fear. Just like animals, I knew they feed off fear. I knew that if they noticed how nervous I was, they would take advantage of it.
The first truck left, and the second one stopped, right in front of me. They kept saying stuff but I couldn’t listen. My mind was focusing on my possible escape route. Should I run back to where I came from? Should I cross the street and knock on every single door, until someone opened? How would they react? Would they go after me or would they just leave?
One by one they all stopped. They only thing I was able to make up out of everything they said to me was “hey, do you need personal security?” followed by laughs. The ones that are supposed to be there to protect people, making fun of the insecurity we live in. Once they left I basically ran home, praying they wouldn’t come back. I didn’t hang up the phone until I was inside my house.
But you know what’s worse than being there, alone and thinking about how you’re going to escape? The questions that come after you’re safe. What if they had come for me? What could have happened to me? When would my family notice I was missing? Would I be one of the many girls found raped and murdered, tossed to the side of a river? Would they say I had it coming because I was walking alone? Would they even find out it was the police?
My story could’ve been worse. A few months after, a girl in a different city was walking home at night, when some police officers asked if she wanted a ride home. She said no. They didn’t leave. She ran to a stranger’s house and knocked but no one answered the door. The police officers forced her into their vehicle and raped her. When she, ironically, went to the police, no one believed her. The thought of something like that happening to me, terrifies me. The thought of something like that happening to my sister, kills me.
And now, two weeks after the city of Culiacan was paralyzed by those shootings, terrible news have made my beloved country international news once again: a family was intercepted and killed by a drug cartel on their way to visit some relatives. In broad daylight.
Three women and six children were killed, including two 8-months-old babies that were burned to death with their mom inside their car. Several other children were injured too.
I know, even writing this I feel sick. Part of me knows how this family feels and I KNOW they will never get past this. After a tragedy like this, the heart is never at peace again. You stop crying yourself to sleep after months or even a year, and you start smiling and living again but your mind never rests. Not a day goes by when you don’t think of your loved ones, and the things you could’ve said or done differently.
This family (with dual U.S.- Mexican nationality) is well known for standing up against drug cartels. One of their leaders, a legislator known for being a peace-activist went against the President, who said the family had been mistaken by a rival drug cartel, assuring that this attack had been targeted.
Back in 2009, a 16 year-old, member of this family and community, was kidnapped and held for $1 million ransom by a local drug cartel. The family said they wouldn’t pay, and decided to make it all public, forcing the government to take action. The kid was able to return home unharmed, but two months after, one of his brothers and a brother-in-law were kidnapped and murdered. Next to the bodies was a note that linked their deaths to their activism against the drug cartels. That’s the price you pay in a place like Mexico for speaking up.
This family also refused to pay the monthly “rent” the drug cartels ask to citizens. You see, these people come to your house or your business and they say “you either pay us this amount of money each month or you stick to the consequences”. This tragedy that just happened is one of the many consequences you and your family could face.
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Mexico is the second most violent country in the world (the number one is Syria), followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. During the first six months of 2019, 114 murders occurred in Mexico everyday. That’s 20,599 murders in six months.
So, when President Trump and his supporters say “build the wall!”, I can’t help but think how little they really know about Mexico’s reality. These “bad hombres” Trump want to protect his people from, aren’t and will never be after the American dream. They live in a lawless land, why would they go somewhere else? They already have enough money to buy countries (because they intervene on elections and buy off Presidents to keep their business going). They see the U.S. as a client, their number one buyer (and their weapon supplier) and nothing more, and the fact that the leader of a country pretends not to see that, is sickening.
We all live in a bubble. We feel protected and far away from all that madness, until that bubble is burst and we feel vulnerable.
I know I have a life somewhere else that I plan to return to as soon as I get my degree. That life far from here, is my bubble. But I’m also tired of feeling scared. This is no way to live, and yet we’ve all got used to it. I live with the fear that someone might trick my little brother and take him to one of those “boot camps” drug cartels have, where they kidnap young men or trick them into thinking they’ll give them a nice job, and then torture and train them to kill people (not long ago one of those was found in a town close to where I live). I’m scared everyday that someone might try to take my sister while she takes the bus to school, like thousands of girls (some that I know) have been either drugged, taken, raped, murdered in the middle of busy streets, in plain daylight. And every time my dad leaves the house to go to work I’m scared he won’t come back. He leaves around 2 pm and drives all the way to a different town, where men walk around shamelessly with big guns hanging from their shoulders.
No strangers are allowed there; they know my dad because he’s the principal of a high school there, so they know what car he drives, they know us (his family), they know at what time he arrives and when he leaves. How is it possible that this is normal to us? How is it possible that when is past 11 and he’s not home yet I start to think about how we will manage to live without him, because my mind goes to the worst case scenario?
US Senator Lindsey Graham said “there are parts of Mexico I’d rather go to Syria than Mexico”. Now imagine living in Mexico, and having no other option but to stay there.
We have an incompetent President that says he’ll fight organized crime with “hugs”, and won because of his promise to stop violence with this strategy of “hugs, not bullets”, which, in US Senator Tom Cotton words “that might work in a children’s fairy tale”.
I know if it’s not your problem, you might not care. You’ll probably feel bad, and might even send your thoughts and prayers like most politicians do when tragedy strikes, and that’s OK. There’s not much we can do. Sadly, this is some people’s reality. Not only in Mexico, but in other countries around the world as well. So, when someone throws a “hate speech” against immigrants or refugees, I can’t help but feel deep sadness inside me. Some people might need to step outside their safe bubble for a moment and open their eyes.
If you read all the way to the end, thank you. I know this was long, but I feel like it is necessary to talk about this stuff. We need to understand that what happens in other places, even if it’s across the world, affects us too. We’re all humans. Innocents are dying, and no one is coming up with a solution, and it hurts me to see my home on fire every single day. Even if I’m watching from far away, from a safe distance, it still hurts.
This is not a cry for help, or a call to stop violence, because I don’t think this mess can be cleaned. No one can bring back to life those we lost, and the anger turned into sadness and then turned into resignation that justice will never be served, will never go away. I just wish people had more empathy; I wish all of this was more than just a note you read and forget about the next day. Because believe me, no one drastically changes their lives, leaving their homes and risking their families for fun and pleasure.