City on a Hill


MEXICO CITY—Tiberio didn’t used to buy roast pork. Suddenly Tiberio’s buying roast pork. Where’s the money coming from? That’s what people in his barrio on the outskirts of this massive city were whispering lately, and their insinuations—ordinary gossip in one sense—were carried along seemingly harmlessly until they reached the ears of a local crime boss. This man runs a small string of street whores and a confederacy of street boys. The whores—short-legged, small-breasted, narrow-hipped, and with lavish black manes—work an area near the Buena Vista market, not far from the central train station and a plaza where Mexico City’s neo-punk rockers gather on Saturday afternoons. The boys run his errands and keep tabs on the neighborhood in return for pocket change and glue to sniff.

When the boss heard about the apparent windfall, he sent some guys to Tiberio’s house to shake him down. They didn’t get much by U.S. standards. The net was about $50, sent from northern California by Tiberio’s brother, a housekeeper in the Napa Valley. But, in a country where the average worker’s daily wage is approximately three U.S. dollars, $50 is a lot of cash. Tiberio considers himself lucky, however. The boss just squeezed him and left it at that. Tiberio returned to his former, more modest diet. His brother no longer sends money home. “It’s too dangerous,” Tiberio’s brother says by phone, asking that his name not appear in print. “I’m keeping it in the bank here for my family, you know, until such time as the situation will change.”

It’s hard to imagine when that might be. With over 20 million people, Mexico City more than merits the appellation of the first “postcity,” a ragged megalopolis whose constant metastasis swallows countryside and neighborhoods whole. Comparing it, not inappropriately, to L.A., the writer José Emilio Pacheco once dubbed Mexico City the first “post-apocalyptic” metropolis, a roiling Lazarus that shakes off the many declarations of its demise.

It survived the devastating earthquakes of 1985, whose official fatality toll of 10,000 was widely considered a government delusion that unaccountably overlooked perhaps 30,000 dead. The city continues to withstand, as Pacheco notes, “overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance,” attempting at the same time to “enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth.” As the six years of Ernesto Zedillo’s term wind down, Mexico City is proffered by the country’s president as evidence of a fantasia he terms “macroeconomic stability.”

As usual, the real story is contained in the microeconomies. The carping realists Zedillo calls “globaphobes” are not the only ones to notice that Mexico City has become a tenuously stabilized fortress, its privileged rich increasingly barricaded from the rest of the population using methods imported from north of the border. In Gringolandia, as the satirist Lorenzo Wilson Milam once wrote of the U.S., “rich people live in houses that have guards, high walls, barred gates and windows, alarm systems and machine-gun towers. They don’t mind living like this because the guards let them out once or twice a week to visit their lawyers or have their hair done.”

In Mexico City, the rich also get day passes to visit their lawyers or have their hair done, or else to play doubles at the clay courts on the roof of the Camino Real hotel, or to tuck into rare sirloins at the popular Rincon Argentino—where the ceilings are painted to resemble a placid blue sky and where the individual steaks come in Bible-sized slabs. But they do so in armored SUVs, with bodyguards riding shotgun and follow-cars glued to the bumper.

“Mostly they’re too frightened to go out,” says a woman I’ll call Marie-Pierre, a saleswoman at a boutique off Avenida Presidente Masaryk, Mexico City’s Madison Avenue. They are afraid, in this order, of muggers, kidnappers, and crooked policemen. They’re afraid to use automatic teller machines. They’d be afraid of cabbies, too, if anyone took taxis. But taking cheap rides in one of the city’s roughly 80,000 Volkswagen Beetles sort of tailed off when gang-connected drivers began hijacking passengers—and not just gringos—at knifepoint and riding them around town to max out their credit cards.

Virtually every shiny shop and shopping mall and restaurant in the city’s fancier sections is now lavishly protected by private security forces. Armed men wearing earpieces stand at shopping mall thresholds. Guards with Dobermans are posted at restaurant doors. To enter the luxury goods stores in posh Polanco, it’s usually necessary first to pass through a bulletproof door overseen by a guard with a machine gun; a second door, operated by a separate man in a glass booth, is buzzed open only after the first is sealed. And yet the usual carpeted hush of, say, an Hermès or Gucci becomes a deafening silence in places where nowadays customers are pretty scarce.

“It’s bad,” explains Marie-Pierre. “The very rich aren’t buying. There are a couple of reasons. One, the peso is devalued, so prices have been set at ridiculous levels to ‘normalize’ things. If they do buy, they go to Paris or New York. Secondly, they don’t want to be seen consuming because, if you shop at these stores, you can be followed. Your name might turn up on a mailing list and your home can be found.” There is an additional problem, claims Marie-Pierre. “A certain number of these stores aren’t in the business of selling clothes, or what have you, in the first place. They’re a front for drugs.”

It’s been almost two years since Mexico’s secretary of the interior, Diódoro Carrasco, unveiled a $500 million government antidrug effort focused on counternarcotics equipment, increased law enforcement, and a newly created Federal Preventive Police force with 11,000 “thoroughly screened” agents to combat organized crime. Since then, the government has seized over 25 tons of cocaine and close to 1500 tons of marijuana, eradicated a combined total of more than 121,000 acres of marijuana and opium poppy fields, and made, as everyone knows, barely a dent in the trade. “It’s a joke,” says Marie-Pierre. “It’s thejoke. Except that it’s not so funny.”

The high drama of crop burning and border interdiction works surprisingly well to deflect attention from inner rot, not only that of big-time government hoodlums (“You’ve got six years to make your money as president,” a friend in Mexico says. “You want to cash out with at least 100 million bucks”) but also that of barrio crooks on the lookout for someone with enough money for meat. Anyway, these government antics are staged not so much to trump the globaphobes as to secure the business interests of the country’s internationalized super-rich.

It may be redundant in Mexico to speak of government corruption. It may be inappropriate—over-obvious, even—for an outsider to note conditions so tenuously stabilized that the center cannot possibly hold. One commonplace of writing about this city is to make metaphor of its seismic reality, although Mexico City has a long history of defying the odds. The fact remains, however, that it sprawls across an active fault, is ringed by two large quiescent and one innocuous-looking but lively volcano, and is built on a prehistoric lake bed. Even under the bright skies of a cool February afternoon, a visitor carries around a subliminal fatalistic understanding that the mountains may someday explode and consume the city, the earth could crack and bring it down, or the whole delirious enterprise might—literally or figuratively—abruptly slump into the mud.