Monterrey’s Habit

Invisible paths to the United States, it seems, have always passed through Monterrey. People and their merchandise come and go via paved roads and dusty lanes, but also through the famous little walkways, somewhere between manicured and overgrown, that are hidden among the thickets of underbrush.

Increasingly, Mexico has a hidden drug problem — but it’s not entirely the kind that you’d think. And the traffic won’t stop until it’s exposed.

As early as the 1940s, the local newspapers were reporting on captured smugglers. Those going north to the United States transported humans (generally seasonal farm workers) and substances for attaining those “artificial paradises” that so fascinated the French poètes maudits of the late 19th century. The other group, those going south, could bring almost anything they fancied into the country — you could bring a building into Mexico, people joked, as long as it fit under the bridge. And they knew, though they talked about it only in hushed tones, that quite a bit of money was being made.

I grew up thinking that “sardos,” the lowest-ranking members of the army, were the only Mexicans who smoked marijuana. But by the 1960s, the hippie generation had popularized pot, and during my university years several of my classmates smoked. As for harder drugs, few of us knew anything more than what we saw in the movies; only in the 1970s did we become aware of psychotropic pills that “drove you crazy.”

Around then, popular music, always a reliable witness, began to recount the stories of people transporting drugs beyond the Rio Grande. With each decade, the songs got more and more explicit. “Camelia la Tejana,” one of the most emblematic, is about a woman whose car tires were “filled with the evil weed.” It ends with a shooting death. But soon, lyricists stopped killing off their antiheroes. Drug trafficking became an adventure story, or a comedy: in one famous song, smugglers disguised as nuns traded “white powder” they swore was just powdered milk.

Still, we didn’t think of drugs as our problem. In Monterrey over the years we sang about them, sure, we even smoked them — but we kept insisting they were only passing through, north to the Americans. We saw the construction going on in Monterrey, the new fortunes, and we knew the phrase “money laundering,” but we looked the other way.

After 9/11, the drug industry became harder to ignore. From then, day in and day out, the news media reported on the border: on interceptions of huge marijuana and cocaine shipments, dozens of deaths caused by warring gangs and stories of coercion and corruption among government authorities and policemen.

And still the habit grew, among the young and not-so-young, though it was always denied, never admitted. In certain neighborhoods here, it was said, absolutely anything could be gotten.

We have come face to face with the violence associated with the business, we acknowledge it. But we don’t acknowledge our own drug problems. If those secret paths from south to north passed through some other country, some other state, perhaps Monterrey wouldn’t have the drug traffic it has today. But people here also buy and consume these paradise-inducing substances.

By ignoring this, we only put off learning the magnitude of our own addiction. There can be no solution until we come to terms with the truth. And after that, who knows?

Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, a novelist and historian.