speaking of extortion

Here’s a youtube meme that’s popular in Mexico. I’m pretty sure the call is real. If you don’t understand Spanish, some guy is calling the home of a brother and sister. He’s claiming to be in a position to hurt their mother, in order to try to get money out of them.

This type of extorsion call is quite common and the threats are normally more often than not unfounded; the callers supposedly just go through the phone book. Compare it to the scams from a few years back where old people in Florida were getting swindled into buying property over the phone: people fall for it because they get caught up in the moment.

In this call the sister, the Marcela of the video’s title, responds in a way the caller doesn’t expect.

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baby’s first mordida

I’ve been here two years and only now had to pay my first bribe. It was an extorted bribe, not a voluntary one. I paid it to get out of the supposed threat of a worse situation, rather than to attain some personal benefit.

My friend Dana and I got stopped on the street, in Lagunilla, while walking with 40-oz micheladas that we bought from an ambulatory vendor. Open containers are illegal in Mexico City, although generally no one cares. I now realize more clearly something about the concept of “legal grey areas”: they’re “grey” because they’re selectively enforced, by cops who want bribes.

Between the two of us, the cop (his name is Fernando) got away with $150 (about $12 US). Dana and I later decided it was worth it for the experience of having had to do it. We had both been in situations with Mexicans who had to pay bribes, but neither of us had ever negotiated one ourselves.

After analysis, however, I am pretty sure we could have just poured out our beers, “apologized” and walked away without having to pay anything. Not only was Fernando nervous– he kept asking us “¿Está bien?”– but he also used his cell phone to “call” a unit to take us away, rather than radio. Also, by the time the transaction was concluded we had attracted some attention from several good samaritans on the street, who argued with the cop in Dana’s and my defense. If we had gone with pouring out the beer and walking away, I think Fernando would have realized he was outnumbered, should he be so undignified as to try to stop us.

So I think we probably held the upper hand and therefore are suckers for paying him, but another factor is, being gringa, rational or not the first thing I thought to analyze about the situation was whether Fernando was carrying a gun, and in fact he was. The US has socialized me to be afraid of being shot by cops, so I don’t think I really had it in me to be so bold. But maybe I do now.

By the way, when we handed over our beers, Fernando did NOT pour them out. He also gave me his phone number, in case I ever want to pay him to help me get away with breaking any other laws.

For anyone interested in the details of how it went down: Continue reading

lauryn hill, “lost ones”

Favorite Lauryn Hill song. I’ve recently been accused of moralizing, but really I think it’s just that I’m thinking a lot recently about what’s smart and dumb, balanced and unbalanced. If those are morals I guess then maybe I have been. But I guess that’s why I am posting this song.

sic semper tyrannus

This is at the top of my list for potential next tattoo designs. As far as getting tattoos in languages I don’t speak, I don’t normally approve, but I guess dead languages from my own cultural heritage are okay. It’s a quote from Brutus, which he said after he helped kill Julius Caesar. “Thus always to tyrants.” Apparently that jerk John Wilkes Booth, who was incidentally a Marylander, shouted it after he shot Lincoln, too.

According to Wikipedia, Virginia is the only state with nudity on its seal. Yeah! The lady is meant to personify the concept of virtus. Also, that other thing Virtus is carrying that’s not a spear is a sheathed parazonium, which symbolizes authority.

This one is pretty cool, too. Thomas Jefferson, when colonial governor of VA, commissioned it and had it presented to Cherokee allies. I think maybe that’s why it’s in English: Cherokees probably didn’t really relate to Latin as well.

I’ve noticed over the last five years or so that state tattoos got pretty popular. I think it’s related to hipsters and the DIY and locovore movements, regional pride. I’m down anyway. I feel love for my state… Well, it’s actually a commonwealth.

inappropriate things

In my last post about Juarez, I included this screenshot of the new video game Call of Juarez: the Cartel without judgmental comment or criticism. I just juxtaposed it to some stuff about war and neighborly oblivion. Mainly I didn’t say anything because I can’t really articulate how I feel about it. It just makes me uncomfortable, and I’m not sure exactly why.

That feeling reminds of this time I was in Atlanta. I was there for my friend Bree’s wedding, and naturally having flown in from Richmond I came a few days earlier to take part in the longer-range festivities, rehearsal dinner and bachelorette party. The bachelorette party was a night out at this club Opera. There were like pools with Ferraris in them.

So a group of us, maybe 5, was hanging around on the patio and this older dude comes up. I was 26 or so then, so “older” was probably 34 or so. Anyway he was bald and kind of chubby and still wearing his suit. And he offers to buy us drinks. And we thought, “Why not.” So he comes back with the drinks we asked for. I think one of us went with him to help. But after the drinks were distributed, mine was missing. He cordially offered to get it; I declined, not really caring, but he didn’t want to leave me out, so he asked me again what I was having. I think it was a whiskey and ginger or a vodka and ginger. Another friend came up and he offered to go get her one, too. And so he goes and comes back, but only with her drink. And I was like, forget about it, but my friend began insisting.

And he turns around and says, look, why don’t you just take this. He is holding a fan of large-ish bills. I think about $300. I just sort of stared at him, to which he responded, “Just take it. I’ll make more money before dawn than you will this whole year.” I shook my head and then finally managed to say, “No, thanks.” And he shrugs and turns around back to his friends.

I don’t know why I didn’t take it, other than it just felt wrong. I wasn’t even really insulted by his comment; for all I know it was accurate. He was trying to prove something or make himself feel better about something I guess. That was four years ago and I still don’t understand. But that being said I guess I am pretty satisfied with “it just ain’t right” as a line of rationale, at least for personal situations.

And yeah I think that Juarez game just ain’t right. Maybe if it provoked the people playing to care about the real situation, but somehow I doubt that it will.

twin cities

Something that has blown my mind for a while is all the metropolitan areas straddling the Mexico-US border. It first occurred to me after a student of mine, a guy in Mexico’s immigration service (it’s called “migration” here, from Instituto Nacional de Migración), had to miss class one day because of a trip to Tijuana. He’s Cuban, btw. When he came back he very animatedly described to me the fact that the physical border barrier there extends out into the Pacific, to keep discourage people from crossing via ocean. He was laughing about it, actually… because it’s ridiculous.

But anyway, out of this conversation emerged further news to me, that Tijuana and San Diego are the same metropolitan area. They just have a freaking checkpoint and demilitarized zone separating them, kind of like Berlin during the Soviet era.

Check out this map of the border (click to enlarge). In fact several border cities have a counterpart directly on the other side, which makes sense. Border crossings are commercial and logistics centers; they provide jobs, which means that citizens of both sides with similar economic interests migrate to them. The “two” cities that develop on either side are politically separate, often linguistically separate, sometimes socioeconomically separate, and in some ways culturally separate, too.

However if you stop talking about cities proper and move on to urban geography terms, the combined population of the two cities is yes, a metropolitan area. It’s sort of like St Louis and East St Louis, or Chicago and Gary, or Oakland and San Francisco, or Brooklyn and Long Island, or Maryland-DC-NoVa. But these border cities have, well, the border.

Obviously Ciudad Juarez, Chuihuahua is a border city, the twin city to El Paso, Texas. Mexicans have joked to me that the mayor of Juarez lives in El Paso, but actually I don’t think it’s a joke.

Okay, and… Juarez is the murder capital of the world. This title makes it sound like it could be extreme street violence, but actually it is a war… 50,000 people have been killed in the narco struggles nationwide since 2006. In 2010 alone 3,000 of those people were killed in Juarez. That’s compared to the FIVE PEOPLE who were killed in El Paso that year.

Google directions, El Paso to Juarez:

Click to enlarge; 3.3 miles (12 minutes). War <–> No War. In a word, vom. Guácara.

I’m not saying I want the narco war to spread over the border. God help us all. I also realize that my comparison of St Louis-East St Louis to this situation would not be unharmonious.

But still… for fuck’s sake.

Screenshot from the video game Call of Juarez: the Cartel, by Ubisoft, released yesterday.