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by Robert D. Kaplan
SET out by bus heading northwest from Mexico City. It was the late-summer rainy season; iron clouds hung low over a high and rolling green plateau. Though Mexico does not have the poisoned ugliness of the environmentally ravaged former Soviet Union or the bleak underdevelopment and deforestation of sub-Saharan Africa, the scene I viewed from the window was a familiar Third World one: cratered dirt roads leading off the main highway, overgrown and scruffy greenery, mounds of rotting garbage along the roadside, elevated pipes covered with black tape, cinder-block houses with rocks holding down their corrugated-metal roofs, clothes drying on sagging lines. Puddles were everywhere -- the effect of a poor drainage system or none at all.
The route I followed was the one taken by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, a thirty-year-old Spanish nobleman who had come to Mexico in the wake of Cortez's conquest. That conquest, from 1519 to 1521, had been fraught with mangrove thickets, moldy cassava bread, human sacrifices, and macabre tropical grandeur. Cortez and his men comprehended little of what they saw, and were not especially curious. These crude zealots massacred Indians, built Christian altars where they had smashed idols, and went mad at the sight of gold, which covered the walls of Montezuma's palace and which they melted down for their own enrichment and to be shipped to Spain. Unlike the children of the European Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation who settled the east coast of what became the United States, Cortez and his men came to steal, not to work or build cities. Religious dogmatists who combined the worst of Spanish and Moorish culture, they lacked the habit of process, of investing years of labor to achieve material gain -- the bourgeois mentality, in other words.
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After eight hours the bus reached Guadalajara, and I was grateful for the
opportunity to take a walk. Beyond Guadalajara's historic center I saw what a
European might notice on a first visit to North America: the flattening out of
the urban landscape, with wide streets creating intimidating distances between
buildings. There were many fast-food outlets, each with a large parking lot.
Even in the vastnesses I had visited in Central Asia, the roads were narrow and
people traveled by public bus; and because many of the towns were walkable,
there was a vivid sense of huddled-together community. Guadalajara was
different. The American-car dealerships and service stations on the city's edge
were not the marginalized places they might be in Europe but modern emporiums
with snack bars and waiting rooms. On the yawning boulevards men with guns
guarded the American Express office and banks. Black graffiti were scrawled
over new pink-adobe houses. The empty and alienating vistas I have seen in some
American cities I saw here, too, in the heart of Mexico, whose civilization is
under attack from our automobile culture and our appetite for drugs.
"Son of a bitch."
On went the casual, matter-of-fact dialogue of an American-made karate film being shown in the darkened bus. The passengers read the Spanish subtitles. The bus had left Guadalajara and was continuing northwest. When it slowed to a crawl in the town of Ixtlán del Rio, I opened the window curtains and saw dusty streets, broken sidewalks, and windows protected by metal bars; a man in worn and filthy clothes slowly cutting sugarcane; women with plastic buckets waiting in line for water; peeling posters advertising a bullfight; and men partly uniformed and carrying AK-47 assault rifles. On one corner was a white-tiled shrine holding busts of three early-twentieth-century revolutionaries: Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, and Emiliano Zapata. I knew that they had fought one another and that each had been assassinated.
Several hours later I got off at Tepic, a city of 240,000 people, and checked into the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra. American rock music blared from the lobby and down the corridors leading to my room. Later, in the hotel restaurant, half a dozen young men in jeans, T-shirts, and Nikes entered. Two of them carried Magnum revolvers, which they carefully placed on the chair cushions and then sat on. They ate a three-course meal without the slightest show of discomfort. Except for me, no one gave them a glance.
The neo-Gothic cathedral across the street was seemingly all that remained of traditional Mexico. Beyond it, stretching in a grid pattern all the way to the surrounding volcanoes, were boxy two- and three-story spray-painted buildings, many of them marred by graffiti. This was a treeless wilderness of broken signs, drooping electric wires, and hard right angles. The Old World had disappeared over the horizon -- perhaps in the historic part of Guadalajara, 140 miles away, with its dignified mustard-yellow archways -- and nothing but this architectural bleakness replaced it. Tepic was a town of the new, Third World Sunbelt, punctuated with the worst refuse of American capitalism.
"Compostela, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado?" I inquired at the hotel reception desk. One employee had heard of Compostela, none of Coronado. At the municipal tourist office, too, Coronado was unknown. When I told officials there that the little town of Compostela, forty minutes south of Tepic, was where Coronado, having arrived from Mexico City and Guadalajara, mustered his troops for the exploration of the north, they stared at me uncomprehendingly. "Who was he?" a woman asked in Spanish. She fished out a faded brochure whose one paragraph about Compostela did not mention the Spanish explorer. The past here seemed as blank as the urban landscape. Because so many Mexicans are of mixed Spanish and Indian origin, the attitude toward the Spanish conquerors who massacred Indians is highly ambivalent; like it or not, the Spanish are among America's founding fathers. Few Mexican streets are named for Cortez or Coronado, and relatively little is taught about them in Mexican schools. This denial of an important part of Mexico's past, in which one line of forebears murdered the other, both complicates and dilutes the meaning of a state that, although officially founded in 1821, grew from the Spanish conquest and the oligarchy it begot. To a great degree that oligarchy still rules, as suggested by the light skins of Mexico's upper class and the brown skins of Mexico's poor.
ULIACÁN, more than 250 miles northwest of Tepic, is the capital of the drug-rich coastal state of Sinaloa. Here Coronado resupplied his army before continuing north. Stepping off the bus, the other passengers and I passed through a metal detector to enter the station. But the policeman on duty was sipping coffee, not paying attention to anyone coming through. In the station more armed policemen were hanging about, as were many young males wearing silver-toed boots.
The temperature of the sidewalks of Culiacán must have been 100°: they baked.The smells of urine, frying tortillas, and salsa were sharp and overpowering. Many of the men sported tattoos and baseball caps facing backward. Then there were the pickups: Chevys and Dodge Rams with oversized wheels and high suspensions, fins, ornamental railings, and silver hood ornaments in the shapes of bulls and horses. The pickups were all freshly painted. Published reports on the narcotics trade make it obvious where the money to pay for these vehicles came from. The food stands were filthy, but near them I saw a hotel, the Executivo, with shiny marble in the lobby and credit-card stickers on the door. The gift shop in the lobby sold only key chains, baseball caps, and cheap plastic toys.
Most of the migrants, exports, and cocaine headed for the United States pass through Culiacán and the rest of Sinaloa. A city of 600,000, nicknamed "Little Chicago" in Mexican news reports, Culiacán is the Mexican Cali; it averages several drug-related murders daily. Local folk ballads like "White Load" and "Death of a Snitch" glorify drug kingpins. Nowhere else in the developing world have I seen so many handguns carried by men in civilian clothes.
The most popular religious site in Culiacán is a shrine dedicated to Jesús Malverde, a common criminal hanged in 1909, who is now known as "El Narcosanton" -- the Big Narco Saint. Here drug lords come to pray for good fortune. The shrine is built of plate glass, white bathroom tiles, and corrugated sheet metal; it is covered in blue spray paint, tar, and cheap wallpaper, and the walls don't quite join the sheet-metal roof. The first time I walked past the shrine, which is crammed between two sandy parking lots and obscured by a taco stand, I mistook it for a gas station or an auto-parts shed. When I saw it a second time, I noticed three young men in tight jeans praying before the painted plastic statue of Jesús Malverde, while behind the shrine two men played a sad tune on a bass fiddle and a wheezing accordion. The plastic statue was surrounded by votive candles in red glasses. I bought an amulet containing a picture of the Narco Saint from an old woman. She dipped it in a sink of holy water and passed it over the face and black-painted hair of the statue before handing it to me for the equivalent of five dollars. Meanwhile, a stream of people -- young toughs, old women, and children -- stopped to pray. The local newspapers said that among the drug traffickers who pray here is Rafael Caro Quintero, who reportedly ordered the 1985 slaying of the American drug agent Enrique Camarena.
Crass and brutal as the shrine is, it is real: the poor built it with their bare hands from junk, without planning or authorization, and then filled it with their emotions. The shrine rebukes established aesthetics with its spray paint and gas-station decor -- signs of revolt. A hundred yards away is the massive ceramic-and-stone Government Palace of Sinaloa state, with manicured lawns and hundreds of white-collar workers. I saw less energy and spontaneity in that giant building than in the shrine, which could have fit inside just one of the palace's offices.
As in many of the towns I saw as I closed in on the U.S. border, in Culiacán even the newest poured-concrete and tinted-glass structures looked temporary. This is the New World: a land without limits, chronically impermanent, unprotected and unhindered by tradition. In such a vacuum wealth is easily -- if too quickly and unequally -- created, and drugs are only part of the reason. Sinaloa accounts for a third of Mexico's sesame-seed production and three quarters of its soybeans. American businesspeople opening factories crowd Sinaloa's hotels. Migrants from poorer Mexican provinces seek work in Sinaloa. The drug trade is just another business -- another opportunity for those with ambition.
The community here was far from devastated by drugs. Children seemed to have the advantages of family life that many Americans of their age in inner cities do not. I was struck by the pervasiveness of uniformed schoolchildren with backpacks. As I walked along a sun-blasted street suffused with pink light, the cardboard of my notebook damp with sweat inside my pants pocket, I noticed a classroom of children through the rusted grillwork of a window in the brick schoolhouse, some raising their hands to answer the teacher's questions and some writing quietly in their exercise books. At a nearby candy store locals of several generations gathered to buy knickknacks, exchange gossip, and, in the case of the children, play games. In a transnational North America of ten or twenty years from now, will these children be competing with less competent, and less determined, Americans of their own generation?
Whereas Americans quickly notice the sleazy aspect of Mexico's border towns, they may be less aware that an aggressive middle class is burgeoning in cities like Culiacán, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. If central authority in Mexico continues to break down and more members of that middle class decide to head north, they will not face the same racial barriers that blacks do. In the municipal park of Culiacán, not fifty feet from where hoodlums with tattoos and beepers were having their silver-toed boots shined while they talked on cellular phones, I saw several neatly dressed teenage couples, holding hands, who looked straight out of Orange County or some other part of suburban California.
To pigeonhole Culiacán as a drug depot is to miss the point. The multibillion-dollar narcotics trade in Mexico is too vast to be dismissed as "illegal." Even if legal business is growing and helping to create a solid middle class, the drug trade is the heart of the Mexican economy. It constitutes the principal economic fact of life for the southern part of North America at the turn of the twenty-first century -- the subterranean aspect of North American free trade that does not require treaties or congressional approval. The narcotics trade indicates as much about the social fiber of the United States (where the market is) as about Mexico, where young men on the make are responding to consumer demand in ways that both challenge and further corrupt an already imploding political power structure. I walked around frequently at night in Culiacán, when the candles burned bright at the crowded shrine of El Narcosanton. Dangerous as Culiacán was by Mexican standards, it was safe by those of many American cities. For me, Mexico's Cali was also a civil society, whose growing middle class will increasingly be pursuing opportunities in the United States.
HAT we call "the border" has always been a wild and unstable swath of desert, hundreds of miles wide -- a region that the Aztecs, cruel as they were, could not control, that the Apaches brutalized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century raids, and where U.S. soldiers unsuccessfully chased the bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa.
My bus came around a low rise, and a long, narrow belt of factories and shanties stretched out almost to the horizon between brown hills studded with juniper and sagebrush. This was the border town of Nogales, a crowded warren of distempered stucco façades spray-painted with swastikas and graffiti, of broken plastic-and-neon signs, of garish wall drawings of the Flintstones and other television icons. Among the façades were the industrial maquiladoraplants I had heard about -- plants that attract blue-collar workers from throughout Mexico, who assemble American-made parts into products exported to the United States.
Not all the workers find jobs, and the migration has spawned shantytowns and violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, class conflict, and the breakup of families. Both rape and car accidents are more common in the north than in the rest of Mexico. More than 2,000 companies opened factories in this region from the late sixties to the mid-nineties, resulting in what the American Medical Association has labeled a "cesspool" of polluted air, contaminated groundwater and surface water, unsanitary waste dumps, and other health and environmental problems associated with uncontrolled urban growth. The abandonment of subsistence farming by workers in search of better-paying manufacturing jobs is a latter-day gold rush -- ugly upheaval and bright promise -- but on a vast scale and likely to be permanent.
Many of our microwave ovens, televisions, VCRs, toasters, toys, and everyday clothes are made by Mexican laborers in border towns like this one. They earn three to five dollars a day -- not an hour but a day! -- and as Charles Bowden, an expert and writer on Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, notes, they work in conditions that are often dangerous because of pollution and toxic chemicals. American consumers are now in a tight political and economic relationship with Third World workers. This close relationship is also oligarchic, and not much different from that between the citizens of ancient Athens or Rome and their slaves.
I checked into a hotel and then walked toward the border, where I watched two boys kick a soccer ball made of rags until one of them kicked the ball onto a scrap-metal roof. When the ball failed to roll back down, the boys walked away. I saw a group of teenagers with hair cut in punk styles and dyed primary colors, wearing expensive leather belts, winter ski hats, and summer shorts -- anything they could get their hands on. Their expressions were untamed. A hundred yards from the border began a concentration of scrap-metal storefronts, offering every manner of souvenir and after-hours activity, including off-track betting. Here were crowds of destitute people reeking of alcohol. Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empirethat the fifth-century Goths "imbibed the vices, without imitating the arts and institutions, of civilised [Roman] society." What I saw at the border is nothing new.
The actual border, on International Street, was at the time of my visit a twelve-foot-high, darkly rusted iron curtain, constructed by the American authorities from scraps of metal that the U.S. Army used in the Persian Gulf War. (It has since been partly replaced by a new wall.) Walking back from the border I saw the neat squares and rectangular roofs of houses high on the hills of the American side, where it was obvious that every joint fit and that every part was standardized, in contrast to the amateurish and inspired constructions all around me.
Though here, in the middle of a city, the border looked forbidding, out in the desert it ebbs to a few strands of barbed wire, which work to keep only cattle from migrating. Along the narrow Rio Grande in Texas, where there is no fence at all, or any natural obstruction, no mountain range or wide, surging river, the border is highly penetrable. The military radar used by U.S. border guards is like a penlight in a dark forest, as William Langewiesche has written (see "The Border," May and June, 1992, Atlantic). An artificial, purely legal construct, the border has for several centuries been an unruly and politically ambiguous "brown zone" where civilizations -- Spanish and Anglo, Athapaskan-speaking Indians from the Arctic and Aztecan Indians from southern Mexico -- mingle.
The factors that have kept Mexico at bay -- drug profits and the wages of illegal aliens -- stem from the very activities that Washington claims it wants to stop. Without the drug trade and illegal migration the United States would face what it has always feared: a real revolution in Mexico and true chaos on the border. To deprive Mexico of its largest sources of income would hasten the collapse of its already weak central authority. Indeed, by supporting the Mexican economy, America's appetite for marijuana and cocaine protects against a further flood of immigrants from a contiguous, troubled, and ever more populous Third World country.
The unpalatable truth about Mexico is its intractability -- the intractability of an ancient "hydraulic" civilization, like Egypt's, China's, and India's, in which the need to build great water and earth works (Mexico has both canal systems and pyramids) led to a vast, bureaucratic tyranny. Centuries of what Karl Marx called "oriental despotism" have imprinted the political culture, despite the influence of a great democratic civilization to the north. And it is not clear that our influence on Mexico is beneficial. Our appetite for drugs may be turning this ancient non-Western civilization into an amoral yet dynamic beast of the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, integration proceeds irreversibly. Vectors of binationhood have emerged between Phoenix and Guaymas, Tucson and Los Mochis, Dallas and Chihuahua City, in which prosperous Mexicans and Americans commute back and forth by air. North America's geographic destiny may be no longer east to west but one in which the arbitrary lines separating us from Mexico and Canada disappear, even as relations between the East Coast and Europe, the West Coast and Asia, and the Southwest and Mexico all intensify. Is our border with Mexico like the Great Wall of China -- a barrier built in the desert to keep out Turkic tribesmen which, as Gibbon wrote, held "a conspicuous place in the map of the world" but "never contributed to the safety" of the Chinese?
HAD crossed the Berlin Wall several times during the Communist era. I had crossed the border from Iraq to Iran illegally, with Kurdish rebels. I had crossed from Jordan to Israel and from Pakistan to India in the 1970s, and from Greek Cyprus to Turkish Cyprus in the 1980s. In 1983, coming from Damascus, I had walked up to within a few yards of the first Israeli soldier in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights. But never in my life had I experienced such a sudden transition as when I crossed from Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona.
Surrounded by beggars on the broken sidewalk of Mexican Nogales, I stared at Old Glory snapping in the breeze over two white McDonald's-like arches, which marked the international crossing point. Cars waited in inspection lanes. To the left of the car lanes was the pedestrian crossing point, in a small building constructed by the U.S. government. Merely by touching the door handle one entered a new physical world.
The solidly constructed handle with its high-quality metal, the clean glass, and the precise manner in which the room's ceramic tiles were fitted -- each the same millimetric distance from the next -- seemed a marvel to me after the chaos of Mexican construction. There were only two other people in the room: an immigration official, who checked identification documents before their owners passed through a metal detector; and a customs official, who stood by the luggage x-ray machine. They were both quiet. In government enclosures of that size in Mexico and other places in the Third World, I remembered crowds of officials and hangers-on engaged in animated discussion while sipping tea or coffee. Looking at the car lanes, I saw how few people there were to garrison the border station and yet how efficiently it ran.
I gave the immigration official my U.S. passport. She glanced up at me and asked how long I had been in Mexico. I told her several weeks. She asked, "Why so long?" I explained that I was a journalist. She handed back my passport. With her eyes she motioned me through the metal detector. The customs official did not ask me to put my rucksack through the machine. U.S. Customs works on "profiles," and I evidently did not look suspect. Less than sixty seconds after walking through the glass doors on the Mexico side, I entered the United States.
The billboards, sidewalks, traffic markers, telephone cables, and so on all appeared straight, and all the curves and angles uniform. The standardization made for a cold and alienating landscape after what I had grown used to in Mexico. The store logos were made of expensive polymers rather than cheap plastic. I heard no metal rattling in the wind. The cars were the same makes I had seen in Mexico, but oh,were they different: no chewed-up, rusted bodies, no cracked windshields held together by black tape, no good-luck charms hanging inside the windshields, no noise from broken mufflers.
The taxi I entered had shock absorbers. The neutral-gray upholstery was not ripped or shredded. The meter printed out receipts. As I sank into the soft upholstery for the ride to the hotel, I felt as though I had entered a protective, ordered bubble -- not just the taxi but this whole new place.
The Plaza Hotel in Nogales, Sonora, and the Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, both charged $50 for a single room. But the Mexican hotel, only two years old, was already falling apart -- doors didn't close properly, paint was cracking, walls were beginning to stain. The American hotel was a quarter century old and in excellent condition, from the fresh paint to the latest-model fixtures. The air-conditioning was quiet, not clanking loudly as in the hotel across the border. There was no mold or peeling paint in the swimming pool outside my window. The tap water was potable. Was the developed world, I wondered, defined not by its riches but by maintenance?
As I walked around Nogales, Arizona, I saw a way of doing things, different from Mexico's, that had created material wealth. This was not a matter of Anglo culture per se, since 95 percent of the population of Nogales, Arizona, is Spanish-speaking and of Mexican descent. Rather, it was a matter of the national culture of the United States, which that day in Nogales seemed to me sufficiently robust to absorb other races, ethnicities, and languages without losing its distinctiveness.
The people I saw on the street were in most instances speaking Spanish, but they might as well have been speaking English. Whether it was the quality of their clothes, the purposeful stride that indicated they were going somewhere rather than just hanging out, the absence of hand movements when they talked, or the impersonal and mechanical friendliness of their voices when I asked directions, they seemed to me thoroughly modern compared with the Spanish-speakers over in Sonora. The sterility, dullness, and predictability I observed on the American side of the border -- every building part in its place -- were signs of economic efficiency.
Though the term "ambos Nogales" ("both Nogaleses") asserts a common identity, the differences between the two towns are basic. Nogales, Arizona, has only 21,000 residents, a fairly precise figure; nobody in Nogales, Sonora, has any idea how many people live there -- the official figure is 138,000, but I heard unofficial ones as high as 300,000. Here the streets were quiet and spotless, with far fewer people and cars than in Mexico. Distances, as a consequence, seemed vast. Taxis did not prowl the streets, and thus I was truly stranded without a car. I had reached a part of the earth where business is not conducted in public, so street life was sparse.
When the English and other Northern European settlers with their bourgeois values swept across this mainly uninhabited land, they swept away the past; technology and the use of capital have determined everything since. Because subsequent immigrants sought opportunity, the effect of periodic waves of immigration has been to erase the past again and again, replacing one technology with another. Economic efficiency, as these streets in Nogales, Arizona, proclaimed, is everything in America. Liberals may warn against social Darwinism, but the replacement of obsolete technology and the jobs and social patterns that go with it are what our history has always been about, and immigrants want it that way. For them it means liberation: the chance to succeed or fail, and to be judged purely on their talents and energy and good fortune.
In Mexico the post offices looked as if they had just been vacated, with papers askew and furniture missing. In Nogales, Arizona, the Spanish voices in the post office were the last thing I noticed; what struck me immediately was the evenly stacked printed forms, the big wall clock that worked, the bulletin board with community advertisements in neat columns, the people waiting quietly in line, and a policeman standing slightly hunched over in the corner, carefully going through his paperwork, unlike the leering, swaggering policemen I had seen in Mexico.
The silent streets of Nogales, Arizona, with their display of noncoercive order and industriousness, cast the United States in a different light not only from Mexico but from many of the other countries I had seen in my travels. Nogales, Arizona, demonstrated just how insulated America has been -- thus far, at least.
Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House in late summer.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 47 - 68.