Open Letter

Tijuana: Slum of Empire?

Rocky Neptun

El Centro, Tijuana; August 13, 2008. With heavy heart, vacillating with intense rage; I stand on the corner of Revolution and Third Avenues, and watch as several hundred federal police officers block off all of 3rd Avenue, between Madero and Constitution, with huge buses. As startled tourists run for taxis and Mexican shoppers scurry away, 250 "Federales" in ominous, dark-black uniforms, carrying machine guns, automatic rifles and a few grenade launchers, spread out along the streets.


Here at this venerated intersection, where few alive remember, but the personal stories are passed down through the generations, where the truck carrying personal belongings of Ricardo Flores Magon paused, while thousands paid homage in November, 1922 to a true defender of freedom and patria. Maria Guzman, then in her 80's, still selling trinkets on the streets, reminisced over 20 years ago to me about her father lifting her up from the dusty road so she could kiss the desk of Tijuana's greatest hero. She, then, still lived in the Tijuana barrio of Flores Magon.

How heartrending these federal blackshirts, ready to shoot citizens, here at this junction of streets, in this city, which so long ago was the capital of a truly liberated Baja. In May, 1911, exploited pottery workers joined with oppressed indigenous peoples, aided by Mexican union members, sent south from Los Angeles by Flores Magon, and overthrew the local forces of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. For over a year, all the major cities in Baja became part of the only emancipated nation, formed in the aaNorthern Hemisphere in the 20th Century . Led by the Partido Liberal Mexicano and Flores Magon from Los Angeles (the Mexican government had put forth a $20,000 reward for his death), Tijuana saw large estates confiscated and land distributed to the poor, workers were unionized and guaranteed decent wages, women were freed from machismo, and officials vowed to govern by "making a free and happy life for all without masters and tyrants."

Of course, as in all history, the forces of greed and privilege won. Madero won the Mexican Revolution, which was waging at the time, and lost his life. Zapata was also assassinated, Pancho Villa brought down in a hail of bullets, and Flores Magon arrested by the United States government in 1912, in exchange for railroad rights with Mexico's new "liberal" dictators. Sentenced to 20 years, he was murdered by federal agents in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas.

Sin as a Liberating Tradition

There is an old saying, "When the United States get's a cold, Tijuana sneezes." The city has always been torn between being a frontier post for North American exploitation. Whether its illusions of liberty amidst total corruption or its basement bargain image (Capitalism's dark side, its Id, where "everyone is always selling something"); it is a place where cultures smash together, creating continuous fusion. It is Mexico's fourth largest city; its citizen never really totally Mexican. A weak dollar, weak economy, vanishing tourists, cheap labor in the Maquiladoras; scurrying, adapting, surviving amidst Capitalism's maze.

Standing on the corner of Avenida Revolucion and 3rd, in the heart of downtown Tijuana; I look north, toward the cheap, tin imitation of an arch strutting 1st Avenue. Between 1st and 2nd, abutting the Plaza Santa Cecilia, the old Boom-Boom Club building still stands, renamed so often, I've forgotten how many. Gutted by fire, neutered by American moral imperialism, it survives, like the city, a shadow of what it once was.

In its dark upstairs, a labyrinth of tapestry leading to dank rooms smelling of sweat and orgasms; my fourteen years of innocence came to a glorious end. It was the early sixties, where if you were tall enough to stand at the bar and had a dollar in your pocket you were welcomed. Young or old, black or white; Revolution Avenue was the heart of a poor person's sin city. More affordable than Las Vegas, more real, more orgiastic, than the pomp of Mardi Gras, its chicks more accessible and down-to-earth than any coy polette along the River Seine in Paris; Tijuana was the Mecca for all who worshiped at the foot of Dionysus, the god of debauchery.

I look directly across from the intersection, where the old J.C. Penny store used to be. Now a Gigante shopping store, it is flanked by that hideous cultural clone, the Hard Rock Café. The city was also a destination of America's working-class. My grandmother, wife of a roofer, first brought me here in the mid-1950's. She loved to browse its shops and boutiques for little trinkets or adornments for her modest home or buy exotic candies and spicy salsas. Uncles, cousins, and distant friends of the family, would come to Tijuana to experience a "foreign country." For most, this would be their only "brave" excursion out of the United States. Photos and souvenirs would be shown around fireplaces and wood stoves in the hollows of the Ozark Mountains or the brick houses on the Nebraska prairie for years.

"What tragic fascination continues to bring me back here to this god-forsaken city," I ask myself, looking north again, toward the left side of Revolution, where the five-story Hotel Nelson dominates the view. Am I simply a salmon, instinct driven, returning to the spawning space; or has all the heartaches, drunken nights, love's won, love's lost, blood spilled on spit covered sidewalks, wild parties, orgies, arrests, street kids helped, families aided, over the many decades, made me a citizen of this tragic city. My mother and father were married in Tijuana in 1946. At sixteen, she was too young for California law. My conception, at the Nelson, overlooking this historical avenue, named after the Revolution; its smells, its noise, its pulsating energy of liberated behavior, permeated my genes.

My adopted city (or the city that has ensnared me) is failing. Dominated by American Empire and local corruption, both a battle-ground and a staging-ground; Tijuana reflects a nation torn between the illusions of freedom and the reality of a corporate-owned oligarchy which increasing requires a police state mentality and totalitarian controls.

Professor Joseph Scimecca, in his lectures on Humanist Sociology, taught me, long ago, that freedom is quite simply "the maximization of alternatives." The more limitations the less freedom, he taught. Any look at society, any political or economic decision; he believed, must begin with the premise that "humans are free to create their social world, and that whatever impinges upon that freedom is ultimately negative and destructive."

The determinist philosophy of corporate-owned capitalism has evolved. In Tijuana, many afternoons; American, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican CEO's meet frequently with city officials and federal police to plot their needs. These executives then fly off to corporate headquarters, where more discussions are held with lobbyists, spin artists, politicians and other diverse crooks. A thousand laws, ordinances, regulations and decrees are issued each day, all over the globe; enabling, protecting, solidify the control of these profit driven extremists. In olden days, they were called "Robber Barons." Today, they have become a Taliban of economic terrorists, Jihadists for profit, backed by police, day-by-day, extort and manipulate people's lives to give themselves more power. Meanwhile, in places like Tijuana, the urban apocalypse sees more and more violence as drug lords fight over who will buy off the politicians and police, with children, as young as 7-years-old, brutally gunned down. Kissing cousins to the world's CEO's, these gangsters, particularly in Mexico, create the violence that breeds and justifies the very tyranny and subjugation that the corporate masters are demanding. As 9-11 Constitution and its Bill of Rights; so, too, does Mexico's phony war on drugs authorize its repression and police state tactics.

Tijuana has always had drugs. And like the son of a bartender (and many a preacher), its youth always learned to handle their physic medication. During the 60's and 70's, marijuana was always plentiful. We poor boys, without fathers to support us, would always pick up some, after a drunken week-end, to sell to fellow students to pay for education needs. Five kilos could be had for a case of Jack Daniels. Speed, however, "Black Beauties and Cross-Tops" required cash, as did downers like "Bennies".

It wasn't until the CIA introduced crack cocaine into the ghettos of the United States (Reagan's revenge for Black Panthers near his Sacramento Governor's mansion with loaded rifles) did Mexico have a "problem" with drugs. The only land mass between the jungles of Columbia and the noses of North American youth; Mexico became a leaky conduit. Its own poor youth hooked and corrupted by cartels that depend on the Capitalist system of supply and demand. The U.S. government and its hysterical oligarchy, rather than treat its youth's addiction, decriminalize and legalize; declared war on its own children and expected Mexico to do the same.

By 2006, Mexican legislators had had enough of the violence and repression, encouraged and funded by U.S. fanatical politicians and officials. They passed a drug de-criminalization bill which focused on personal use; the reasonable approximations of single-use or single-session amounts. Under the bill as passed by the congress, possession of up to five grams of marijuana, 25 milligrams of heroin, a half-gram of cocaine, two-tenths of a gram of speed or Ecstasy, and one-quarter gram of psychedelic mushrooms would be considered possession for personal use. And in a nod to Mexico's indigenous population, the measure would also decriminalize the possession of up to 2.2 pounds of psychedelic peyote cactus.

Then Mexican President Vicente Fox, agreeing to sign; then cowardly refused after the U.S. Ambassador threatened economic and political sanctions. This bill would have freed up criminal justice system resources currently devoted to dealing with drug users. It also would have given the government more ammunition in the form of stiffer sentences for drug trafficking and sales offenses and it would give it more boots on the ground in the drug war in the form of 400,000 state and municipal police officers who would now be allowed to take part in drug law enforcement. Under current law, only Mexico's roughly 100,000 federal police agents can enforce the drug laws.

So, if it is the power of the "federales" and their authoritarian support of oligarchy and foreign corporations, if it is millions of dollars from the north; then, the Conservative governments of PAN will sacrifice a whole generation of youth to appease its U.S. masters.

Profiting from "Legal" Drugs

As I stand in down-town Tijuana and watch the Mexican federal agents lock-down the city's core, I sense that this too is staged. Perhaps a U.S. Senator is in town, or a staff member from the White House? Walking along Revolution Avenue, I ask dozens of people what is going on. No one seems to know. I wait. A half-hour, an hour. Nada. No buildings are rushed, no armored car arrives to take a druggie into custody. I finally head off to the Ranchero, before my favorite bartender leaves and the drinks rise to 25 pesos.

Three hours and five drinks later; I learn from a disgusted pharmacist, who had just belted three shots of Tequila with his Tecate beer; that the cream of the Mexican federal police were in Tijuana not to protect its citizens from violence nor apprehend its gangsters but, rather, to protect international pharmaceutical companies and their profits.

Professor Scimecca's maximum alternatives, the foundation of freedom, was helping Tijuana's poor, and even the U.S.'s working-class too much. Led by the Mexican Institute for the Protection of Industrial Property, an actual federal agency which protects corporate interests, the federales were targeting pharmacies along Revolution and a few on Third Avenue, which cater to strapped Americans trying to find lower-priced medications.

Many pharmacies in Mexico circumvent the monopoly manipulation of prices by huge drug companies by selling medication by the pill rather than in a package. Several aged U.S. citizens I know, some in their 80's, who live in squalid tenements, near Revolution, buy their prescriptions this way. Others, especially indigenous families and single-mothers, can only afford to buy the medical samples that doctors donate to the pharmacies.

The action, by federal corporate protection agents, netted not one single offender. No citations were issued, no arrests, no pharmacies were closed. It was all show. By evening all the small mom and pop pharmacies throughout the city; in run-down buildings in the barrios, perched on canyon edges in shacks, serving the city's poor, worried about their livelihood and service to their communities.

Today, everywhere; human beings, either individually or in associations, such as governments, are increasingly incapable of calculating possibilities because the freedom to choose is an illusion. Like shoppers on an escalator or cattle prodded through chutes, there is no room to maneuver. Behavior is no longer innovative and spontaneous because consciousness itself [to stand apart, the ability to give things meaning] is hammered into a socially determined aspect of self. In a corporate-owned world, well-paid, well-meaning, pharmacists are as trapped as poor people by the lack of options [and increasingly, the ability to even imagine options].

Human praxis, the reflective process of thought and action, becomes stunted; liberty an illusion, and the notion of individuality a cruel myth. C. Wright Mills' warnings, decades ago, about the continuing constraints on human freedom by those who have institutional and economic power has come to pass. Political and economic tyranny, even the manipulation of truth itself, has become commonplace, with little dissent.

Just this week, the vicious bastard children of corporate-owned globalization, China's state-owned capitalism thugs, didn't even attempt to hide their authoritarian presence. Because smog obscured the opening of the Olympics, they merely released a computer generated fireworks show and the media puppets of the world broadcast it as news footage of the actual event. The little girl who opened the games, lip sank the words; while another, much less pretty girl sang the words. Meanwhile they arrest a human rights activist on his way to church (the same one that Bush attended while sucking up to Beijing's wealth).

China's Orwellian nightmare, like Freddy Krueger, is coming to a theater (community) near you. In Helena, Arkansas, the city's wealthier citizens have gotten the Mayor and City Council to impose a 24-hour curfew on the 10 square blocks of its poorer neighborhoods; creating de-facto apartheid based on class. The poor and working-class in this small precursor of municipal despotism are required to explain why they are on public streets and subject themselves to illegal interrogation.

Tijuana, likewise, has become a staging ground for the new fascism of a corporate-owned world. Like the Chinese fireworks, Mexico's moves in reigning in the "narcos" are an illusion. The wealthy and their politicos need the drug lords as much as Bush needed Ben Laden free - bogeymen, to whip children and citizens into fear, validating oppression.

The drug trade in Mexico is the hen that lays the Golden Eggs. Billions of U.S. dollars pass into private hands as Mexico pretends to fight a war on drugs. Ludicrous, ineffective road blocks so open and announced that even tourists know where they are, arrests of the hired help, while drug kingpins become mayors and governors, filling city jails with poor street kids and orphans while drug coyotes drive by in Hummers and Escalades.

The outlook is bleak for Tijuana; it is controlled by corporate interests not its people. The corrupt political system, the U.S. dominated economy, the lack of strong unions or effective civic organizations makes fundamental change impossible. Those who can afford to migrate, will. The wealthy will continue to wall in their homes and create no trespass zones, like in Jerusalem. Whole concentration camps for the young and poor will be built; financed with U.S. dollars.

Yet, there is always hope. What I love best about Mexico, is its people; the strength of their friendships and familial ties. Their ability to make sense and purpose of the madness and anarchy of a functioning society without much basic infrastructure, from poor roads to over-flowing toilets. The ability to laugh through hardships and never, never, taking themselves (or others) too seriously.

And, in spite of repeated stolen elections by corporate interests, they still hold a soft-spot in their hearts for revolution and democracy. Unlike the United States, where jaded, faded, manipulated images of kind old "fathers" founding a nation on parchment and with speeches, corporate washes the truth and legitimizes today's tyrannies; Mexicans still idealize and understand the fiery integrity of Zapata and the magnificent courage of Pancho Villa. Generationally, much closer to their revolution, they still remember; family members martyred, women and children fighting with machetes and hoes.

Deep within the Mexican chest, beats the heart of a potential liberationist; a potential Flores Magon. Those furthest from the U.S. border; more so, as Marcos discovered. We can only hope that the invaluable social capital of Mexico; its Golden Standard, the bond of family and friends, will guard its people from the insanity of northern greed and selfishness that seeps south, across the border, like raw sewage.

Rocky Neptun, director of the San Diego Renters Union, spends half the week with his Mexican lover at their home in Baja, Mexico.