In a summer of anti-Mexican rhetoric, dramatic drug lord jailbreaks and an international migration crisis, I traversed northern Mexico by myself to see what the real story was. I wanted to go beyond the anger and the divisive language to understand the context of the debate. Political candidates in the United States have said that Mexicans are rapists and murderers, and that we need to seal our southern border. Yet others point to the success of NAFTA and to the growing middle class in Mexico in reducing the poverty that fuels the crime and the desire to emigrate to the United States. I heard rumors in the United States that the destructive drug war in Mexico was coming to an end. What I found was far more complicated and unexpected.
Located in southern Sonora, Ciudad Obregón’s bus station is a major point for commercial buses traveling to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson. The state of Sonora is a major transit point for travelers headed to the U.S. from all over Mexico.
The Mexican Army patrolling the streets of Los Mochis, Sinaloa. Known as Mexico’s breadbasket, Sinaloa contains some of the most productive agricultural land in the country, yet the Sinaloa Cartel is using nearby foothills to grow poppies to meet the growing heroin demand in the United States.
Juan is a taxi driver in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. He traveled a few years ago to Salinas, California, an agricultural city near San Francisco to pick strawberries for a season. But he said the backbreaking work wasn’t for him, he came home after eight months. “It’s hard work, they don’t pay you much, but the güeros (gringos) don’t want that work. They won’t do it, so us Latinos do it. But I loved America, even though the work was so tough.” He felt relatively safe in Culiacán, even though he and many of the local residents still talk about the “Battle of 2008”-a federal and military siege on the city that attempted to combat escalating rampant crime. “You should have seen Culiacán back in 2008, things are so calm now. But still, if you look at one of the narcos the wrong way, or by accident bump into his car, you are done.”
As we swerved through the blazing streets of Culiacán, Juan pondered the risks we were taking by entering the Jardines de Humaya. “Well, it’s early enough in the day, none of the narcos should be there. Just make sure you don’t get seen, keep a low presence.” I put my head down as we drove through the entrance to the cemetery.
“The narcos are continuing in death the luxury they had in life, they are trying to keep their power even when they are dead, it’s absurd” says local journalist Javier Cardenas who has courageously covered the drug war in Sinaloa. Many of the tombs contain wifi, kitchens, spiral staircases to second or third stories, plasma flatscreen TVs and air conditioning.
Culiacán is what Medellin and Cali were to Colombia during the 1980s and ‘90s. Narco culture reigns supreme with narcocorridos (drug ballads) blasting from black, tinted-window Cadillac Escalades. This cemetery is the unofficial burying ground for the Sinaloa Cartel which is headed by El Chapo Guzmán, the recently escaped drug kingpin.
The Sierra Madre Mountains, and other rural regions of Northern Mexico, have also been dramatically affected by the drug war. Local residents, many of whom depend on income from tourism, have seen a sharp decline in visitors. The Tarahumara indigenous people have inhabited the highest reaches of the Sierra Madre for more than 400 years. They are one of the largest indigenous groups in North America.
For hundreds of years they have lived a sustainable lifestyle, living in cave dwellings, growing corn and beans, and practicing the world famous tradition of long distance running- sometimes up to 200 miles at a time.
During the 16th Century, the Tarahumara evaded the Spanish conquistadores by retreating into the high Sierra of Chihuahua state.
Today, there are over 100,000 Mennonites in Mexico, 90% of whom live in the state of Chihuahua. Fleeing religious persecution in Europe and Canada, thousands of Mennonites (a strict religious offshoot of Protestantism) settled in rural Chihuahua in the 1920s in search of freedom and economic opportunities. The Mennonites still maintain a traditional lifestyle, practicing a strict religious code and speaking Plattdietsch.
However, the increase in drug trafficking to the United States has traversed their lands.The economic success of the Mennonites has attracted unwanted attention from the drug cartels, leading to extortion, robbery and sometimes kidnapping. Whether to save themselves from further harassment or to cash in on the lucrative trade, some Mennonites have been caught smuggling cocaine from Mexico to Canada, where it can be sold for twice the amount as in the United States.
Facing environmental challenges and the threat of cartel violence, Mennonites are exploring the idea of returning to their ancestral homeland in Russia and the plains of Eastern Europe.
The Mexican frontier-an arid and sparsely populated region- became the home for thousands of Chinese who were driven from the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Mexican government encouraged them to settle in harsh regions of the country where European settlers had failed to succeed. By the 1920s, the Chinese in Mexicali, one of the largest cities in Mexico’s north, had outnumbered Mexicans 10,000 to 700 and by mid century thousands more arrived, fleeing the brutality of the Chinese Civil War. Today, Mexicali, the capital of the northern state of Baja California, boosts the largest Chinatown in Mexico.
A vibrant upper-middle class Chinese community thrives in Mexicali today, with language schools, Chinese festivals, calligraphy classes, restaurants, farming and successful entrepreneurial businesses.
Luis Gonzalez takes me through the hallways of the Hotel for the Deported Migrants in Mexicali, stopping to show me one of the dormitories where the deportees used to sleep. “Since the state government has no money, we haven’t been able to provide electricity. It’s just too hot, nobody can stay here.”
The Hotel for the Deported Migrants stands less than two blocks from the US border. When the hotel has electricity it houses hundreds of Mexican and Central American migrants who have been deported from the United States. On the day I visited, with temperatures outside nearing 120 degrees fahrenheit, the hotel was mostly vacant because. The conditions were unbearable for most deportees who chose to sleep on the streets of Mexicali instead of suffering the heat inside. The migrants, many of them from Central America, are caught in limbo, some spending decades working in the United States, only to be deported for oftentimes minor offenses. Some migrate back home, and others wait for another opportunity to cross again.
While on a long bus ride, I met a young man named Edgar. Edgar began his journey north in the conflict ridden state of Michoacan, where rival cartels are battling each other and the Mexican Army at the same time. Edgar was traveling to Tijuana, where he was waiting to get his papers to cross the border north. It’s been years since he’s seen his mother, who works in the orchard fields of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley of California. Given his young age and his prominent tattoos, Edgar was constantly searched at the military checkpoints that the Mexican government has set up in an attempt to disrupt the flow of drugs and human trafficking heading north. For 36 hours we shared our interest for Molotov, a Mexican rock group, and other Latino bands. Snacks at local corner stores broke up the 36 tedious bus ride.
A sign on the border between San Luis Río Colorado and Nogales, Sonora. Illegal Mexican immigration to the United States has plummeted in recent years, with Central Americans now representing the largest group. Illegal immigration remains steady, but for the first time in decades there are more Mexicans leaving the United States than coming in. The Great Recession north of the border and the decrease in demand for low-wage workers in agriculture and construction have been leading factors. Mexico’s economy and the middle class continue to expand as well, with the Mexican government investing more in schools and manufacturing at home to create an educated populace with more opportunities. The OECD (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and WTO (The World Trade Organization) both rank Mexican workers as the hardest-working in the world in terms of the amount of hours worked yearly.
During the hight of the drug wars, Tijuana was a sinister and frightening place. Avenida Revolución, Tijuana’s main street, was nearly abandoned, with many shuttered store fronts and patrolling military convoys. Today the city is teaming with a newfound energy and people fill the streets, bars and cafes at night, listening to music, dancing, eating diverse street food and watching outdoor boxing matches.
Starting at the icy tip of Tierra del Fuego, traversing the Andes, the Amazon and the Caribbean, Latin America meets the United States in the city of Tijuana. For many people I met in Mexico, the American dream was real, it was a place where they made money and set up roots. Others saw it in a different light. “It’s all a lie isn’t it?” one man quietly said to me. “It isn’t real, it’s an illusion.”
On weekends man families gather at the beach for picnics, swimming, and a glimpse through the fence to the U.S.
“You wanna take a picture of me exercising?”
Many Quinceañeras are celebrated at the fence.
It was time for me to go home, to head north to San Francisco. I spent my last pesos on a taxi ride from the beach to the San Isidro border crossing. “Right over there, that’s where I crossed the line,” Hector points to the US-Mexican border, known here as “La línea” or the line. “In the early 1990s all you had to do was wait until the patrol car faced the other way, they can’t be patrolling only one spot, they have to move, you know?” Hector crossed at night, in the middle of a heavy rain storm, following well trodden paths north to Los Angeles. He told me that he stupidly got involved in criminal activity, and was eventually deported, vowing to never get involved with “cosas chuecas” (criminal activity) again. “My two nephews work as hired assassins for the cartel in Tierra Caliente in Michoacan; whatever you do, don’t go to Michoacan, it’s a war.” The war Hector is referring to is a bloody conflict between rival drug factions that has been raging for many years and has claimed thousands of lives. Hector says his nephews make more in a few hours of work than he could make in a year, “but I won’t go back to that, I swore to never get involved with cosas chuecas again. I drive my cab, I make $20 USD a week, and I am happy. There’s no need to go back to those things. Not anymore.”
With just my passport, a mere piece of paper, I was able to walk across la línea—a border that so many try their entire lives to cross.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Walker then majored in International Relations and Chinese at the New School University in NYC. He began traveling during a high school exchange to Argentina, and hasn’t stopped since. Walker has always sought out the more unusual and off the beaten path locations and is combining his love for photography and travel to kickstart a career as a journalist, striving to redefine the profession in rapidly changing world.