It has always been said that the Mexico-US border is dusty and dirty. Ugly. I know because I grew up in the northeast. A hundred kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico, from which the bloodiest drug cartel in the country got its name, el Cártel del Golfo. This land that dozes on the edges of the Rio Grande and goes to sleep with Texas when the lights go out. It is a harsh land. If the Spaniards didn’t stop in Tamaulipas for more than the necessary rituals, it wasn’t just because of its 100-degree heat in the shade, but also because of the ferocity of the native tribes. The most notorious ones were called comecrudos, “raw-eaters.” The colonizers who stayed behind proved just as tough. It would have to be there where, in November 2008, the government carried out the largest weapons confiscation in Mexican history: there were half a million cartridges, almost 300 long-barrel and 127 short-barrel weapons, more than 150 grenades, fourteen anti-armor rifles, a cache of gold-plated pistols, a rocket launcher, and several thousand dollars, among other tools of the trade of those who believe themselves immortal.
In the late ’90s, when I moved to the city of Monterrey, people made jokes about my origins: surely my father carried a gun, surely I was coarse and crude—I was from a border town. In turn I was certain that Monterrey, that industrial metropolis where I went to pursue my studies, was perfectly safe. Nothing would scare me away from there. In 2002, when things started to change, when there too the executions and the gunfights began, the complacent Monterreyans were content to distance themselves: “It’s still not like it is on the border. There they kill people every few minutes.” I remember my anger at hearing a judicial official declaring to the press, after a notorious shooting in a luxury shopping mall, that if they still had no information about those responsible it was because the crime was doubtless done by outsiders, people from other states. Where I come from, in other words. That stuff doesn’t happen around here, the citizens of Monterrey insisted, unwilling to wake up.
They didn’t understand. The narcos I grew up with killed only certain people. That’s why, in those years, we didn’t breathe the same air that people breathe now in Monterrey, the air that makes them not want to park far away from the entrance to the theater when they go to the movies, that makes well-heeled women afraid of “even going to the supermarket.” On the border, when I lived there, there were shootouts, even bombs. But it was the bad guy’s house that got blown up. The guy in the business. If you had nothing to do with that particular industry, your house was safe.
The exceptions proved the rule. There was always the cautionary tale about the doctor’s daughter who lived in the Colonia Ribereña, the neighborhood with the eponymous road that is now lined with dozens of altars to the Santa Muerte. That girl from a good family who died in a “car accident” twenty years ago, because her boyfriend was the son of a man who was into bad stuff. In a settling of scores they killed the son—who on that day was driving around with his girlfriend. That’s why you didn’t associate with them. You said hello in restaurants, you sat in the same pew in church, but that was it. It was easy to know who was who. So-and-so lived in front of your grandfather’s house, but your grandmother never asked his wife for a cup of sugar. Even trafficking was simpler then: a clutch of men controlled a business that was basically distribution, transportation.
In my elementary school there was a shy girl with plump cheeks. She liked to read and spoke very good English. I liked her. In her house she had a macaw and a monkey. It was a sort of squirrel monkey that walked across her shoulders as if it had been trained to do so. More than once I saw the monkey sitting in the SUV with the chauffeur and the nanny, all of them parked outside my house, waiting for us to finish doing our homework, or playing, or whatever 10-year-old girls do. She had a chauffeur and a nanny and a monkey because her dad did something mysterious that I wasn’t supposed to ask about. At that age I didn’t comprehend it, but it was clear from the glances and the tones of voice adults used when they talked about it. It was also clear that I would never visit my friend’s house to see if it was true that she had a macaw and a lot of books in English. But she and the chauffeur and the nanny and the monkey could come to my house whenever I wanted. Could we go out to get an ice cream for the heat? The answer was always no. My mom didn’t take us anywhere, and I never rode around in the car with the chauffeur. We saw each other at my house and at school and we all understood that that was how it should be.