I feel reasonably confident in saying most children in Cuidad Juarez just over the border in Mexico from El Paso, Texas have never heard of Philip Larkin. Kids in Afghanistan or other corners of the globe where adults are lobing shells and shooting bullets at each other are, I would imagine, in the same poetry black hole. But if they did know of him, that quiet librarian from Hull, England, I think they would agree with his words “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
I mention Cuidad Juarez because it is only 747 miles from my home, which in most countries is a long way but in Texas is a toddle down the road. Mexico is our neighbour, and my heart hurts for the children of the town where headless corpses are becoming the norm, gun battles a daily occurrence, and where a car back firing creates chaos.
Felipe Calderon won the Presidency of Mexico in 2006 promising an end to the narco cartels. He ordered the federal police and the military into the worst effected areas, but rather than gaining control, the situation has spiraled into a quagmire of murder and mayhem. The numbers are horrific. More than 28,000 men, women and children, and still counting, have been killed under the aegis of drug control in Mexico since 2006. 6000 in Juarez alone. By contrast 1,247 US troops and 338 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
Juarez has, since the time of bootleggers and speakeasies, attracted Americans with its relaxed attitude to booze and fine dining, as well as the seedier side of sex. Not any more. What was once a thriving tourist area has dwindled to almost nothing, a few mean establishments eking a living. Mexicans, maquiladoras, attracted to the city by the lure of work in the manufacturing industry are returning to their villages even though the assembly plants, mostly foreign owned, have not on the whole been targeted by the cartels.
The media is becoming an underground warren of bloggers and tweeters. Journalism as a profession is just too dangerous. One of Juarez’s local papers, El Diario, had a young photographic intern killed on 16th September, Mexico’s Independence Day, along with another reporter who was seriously injured during a shooting in the car park of the Rio Grande Mall. A few days after the killing, the paper’s editorial asked flat out what they should and should not publish with the words what do you expect of us as a newspaper?
Mexico has long run on a system of compadres and comadres, godfathers and godmothers. It is a country where people have to depend on personal relationships and contacts to protect themselves; and to deal with government authority and business. It is a hierarchical society that feeds off those in greatest need, with all forms of kickbacks and corruption being the outcome. That in turn has bred an attitude of ni modo – it can’t be helped and a shrug of the shoulders.
As Larkin says in This Be the Verse, “They fill you up with faults they had…”
But when is enough enough? When and where does it end? The drug wars have escalated under Calderon despite his best efforts to quash them. Each cartel jealously guards its territory by whatever means it can – mordida literally meaning a bite (a bribe) is a way of life, and murder comes just after it.
How does it end? How will the children learn that life is not all bribery, drugs, and misery? That personalismo, the attitude that dignity and machismo come first and law last, is not the only way to live. That laws should be interpreted by the rule of law, and not by circumstances.
There are brave men and women who have taken on positions in local government to try and stem the flow of corruption, drugs and death in their towns. It is a truly thankless task. This week the interim mayor of Tancitaro, a small town in West Mexico was murdered, along with his assistant. Stoned to death. The 5th official to be slaughtered in 6 weeks. 11 mayors have lost their lives so far this year and many others have resigned because of death threats.
This war south of the border is being carefully watched by the US Government, with the State Department warning travellers and American citizens living in the worst effected areas of Mexico to exercise extreme caution.
Governor Perry, standing for re-election in November, has asked for more troops to protect the Texan border, though there is little evidence the actual trouble is spilling over. It remains a largely Mexican affair but the knock-on effect of drugs on US streets is enormous. Perry’s concern is the illegal immigrants trying to enter the State, though the same pipelines used for illegals are used for drugs.
Maybe Larkin’s poem should be taught in those battened down schools south of the border. Maybe children, along with their ABCs and algebra need to know that Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.
What a terrible thought, but one wonders how else a country mired in corruption can come clean.