Thursday, July 30, 2009

John B. assaulted in Uruapan!!: A reminiscence

The central plaza of Uruapan, Michoacán. Every city of any size in Mexico has a place that looks very much like this. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

Most of you have no doubt read or heard, in general terms, about Mexico's war--what else to call it, when the army has been summoned to assist the police and over 10,000 people have died along the way?--against the drug cartels that started shortly after Felipe Calderón became the President in 2006. I admit to not following the stories obsessively: it's frankly depressing to read the stories--the cities where this violence is occurring might as well be a list of the cities I've visited and loved and, in the case of Durango, lived in, and knowing that, narcocorridos aside, the vast, vast majority of Mexicans despise the cartels . . . and, for that matter, can't be too thrilled by all the government's methods during this time, either. When the Mrs. and I were in Mexico City last fall, we saw some signs of all this: the security around the Supreme Court building (scores of soldiers, concrete barricades, one very narrow entrance into the building) makes most federal buildings in this country look unsecured by comparison.

From the Associated Press this morning:

In one of the boldest offensives against the government, 18 federal agents were killed earlier this month in a series of attacks in western Mexico blamed on La Familia drug cartel. Authorities say La Familia was retaliating for the arrest of one of its top members.

The federal government responded by sending 5,500 federal police, soldiers and navy personnel to western Michoacan state and stepping up its offensive against La Familia, which has turned to large-scale methampthetamine production.

On Wednesday, police announced the capture of six more suspected La Familia members, including a man accused of being a chief financial operator.

The arrests came a day after soldiers seized almost a half-ton of crystal methamphetamine in raids on two drug rural laboratories in Michoacan. Authorities have raided at least 40 drug labs in Michoacan this year, including 19 in the last 10 days.
These raids have been occurring around the city of Uruapan, a place more happily known for growing some of the best avocados you'll ever have the pleasure of eating. Reading this story, though, I was reminded that, yes, I was assaulted in Uruapan on my one and only visit there, back in 1991.

The details are below the fold, to spare the squeamish and/or uninterested.

After returning to the States from my two years in Durango, I stayed in touch with David, a fellow from Virginia with whom I taught, and together we made a couple of two-week trips to Mexico in the first half of the '90s. The first one, we started in Mexico City and went to Morelia, Uruapan, Pátzcuaro and Querétaro (all among the very oldest cities in the country) before returning to Mexico City. We went to Uruapan mostly out of curiosity and its reputation for avocados but otherwise had no idea what to expect. But the climate in that part of Mexico makes it the sort of place you don't mind lingering in, no matter what the city itself might be like (imagine Hawaii, but landlocked, year-round).

We got off the bus and walked the short distance to the plaza, found a cheap hotel and checked in, then began to wander about the plaza. As it turned out, there was a fair going on that weekend we were there, and so the plaza had vendors of fruits and vegetables, photographers who for a price would take pictures of you wearing a sombrero and sitting astride a stuffed donkey, a miniature "train" that made a circle around the plaza, etc. Lots and lots of color that, in the clear high-altitude light, made David, a skilled photographer, a happy camper.

Now: here's where the squeamish might want to just skip down to the next paragraph. David and I couldn't believe our good fortune at arriving in town when something was going on that would attract people to the downtown area. We did note that people were watching us very closely--we got the feeling that not many turistas found their way there--but it wasn't unfriendly staring. We'd just stopped by and taken some pictures of a middle-aged woman with two enormous washtubs filled well above the edge with cascarones (confetti-filled egg shells) dyed fuchsia, blue, green, you name it, and we were on our way to the next vendor when it happened. I felt something hit me in the back of the head fairly hard, and little pieces of something sharp went down my shirt, and at the same time I could hear laughter from several places. David and I turned around, and we saw that same woman a little ways away from us, looking at us with an enormous grin on her face. It was in that instant that I realized that this woman had hit me with, yes, a cascarón.

I looked at David and started laughing as well and said, "I think we've been welcomed."

And on it went. A little later that day, someone told me that my billfold was sticking out of my back pocket and that I should be careful, that there were lots of thieves in town. That night, David and I went to the fairgrounds; when we noted that no one was riding the bumper-cars and I told him that I'd never been in a bumper-car before, David bought us tickets and we got in. Instantly, seemingly from nowhere, dozens of people appeared, many of whom--not just kids, but dads with their kids, too--lined up to buy tickets as well, and we all had a pretty good time playing demolition derby. We stayed another day and then moved on to Pátzcuaro; but I have to day that, as beautiful a city as Morelia is, and as pleasant as Pátzcuaro and Querétaro also were, those two days in Uruapan were my favorites from the trip and among the very fondest memories I have out of all my visits to Mexico.

The title of this post, I hope those who've read this far understand, isn't intended to make light of the horrific violence occurring in Uruapan. On the contrary: it's precisely because of what happened to me and my friend there that that violence seems all the more horrific than it would otherwise.


R. Sherman said...

I could start a mini-rant about the "War on Drugs," but I won't. Instead, I'll just say that I have a few memories like that, most good; a few more adventurous then I would care for now. (Ask me sometime about Beirut, Lebanon in 1980) Nevertheless, they're all good for the soul.


jammer5 said...

I've spent much time in Mexico, mostly Baja California. Driving from San Diego to La Paz was an adventure I wouldn't have missed, but don't think I would do it again.

There are tolls to be paid every so often. None set up by local governments, but by land owners. The toll was never more than a dollar, and most between twenty-five and fifty cents. I think I recall a total of seven tolls.

My brother in law and I would camp along the beach and surf fish, usually catching something for dinner. On a couple of occasions, local families would stop by and visit. One family invited us up to their Pallapa (sp) for dinner and a few beers, with many people stopping by the say hi to the gringos.

Another stop found us bartering for some lobster an individual was using as bait. All came away happy, with us delightfully licking our fingers as thanks.

We met many people on that trip, and all were gracious people. Truly the most interesting trip I have ever taken. But bad roads and a bad back preclude any more trips of that nature.