Pewee Herman made it clear I wasn’t important. This Mexican border official was an unwitting stereotype, with an odd, sprightly twist, as if mirroring the mincing tics of bow-tied clown-comic Peewee Herman (to whom, apologies).
Elaborately showing me how little I mattered, he turned his back though I was the only petitioner at the counter. Fussily, he straightened a stack of papers in a drawer, just so–and then he straightened them again, pointlessly. Then he turned (farther from me) to eat a little something from a plastic container on a desk. And then again (still farther from me) to chat about sports with somebody out of sight beyond a door. And then–suddenly inspired–he thought he might eat a little something else.
Eventually he deigned to look at me, smiling blandly.
Just down the border was another such official in an identifical position who had none of these tics. The other guy was an obviously hardworking, effective professional who maintained the dignity of his office without drama, and certainly without needless insult. Pewee wasn’t a representative of all Mexico. And yet his impunity posed questions. Prominently posted above his counter window was a display of his photo, name and employee number, in somebody’s long-ago effort to impose accountability. As his roadblocks continued maddeningly, I slipped my reporter’s notebook onto a spot well down the counter, out of his sightline, and started writing down his name.
His radar was incredible. Instantly he took interest, demanding: “Why are you writing my information?” So much for accountability. If I was ever to get out of there I had to make nice, and shrugged vaguely that I was a journalist so I had to write down everything I did: nothing personal against him, right? He was unsatisfied. I had to elaborately show him where I had written down the name and then, for good measure, show him that I was dutifully scratching it out. (Naturally I can still read it; it doesn’t appear here because there’s no need to cause the guy worse problems than he deserves.)
Before I got away he also wanted to needle me about politics. He insisted I admit that Mexico’s problems are the fault of the United States. I had to shrug my way out of that one, too. There was no knowing whether this wonderful official was a symptom of his local area: the humidity-steamed northeast corner of Mexico near the Gulf coast, which over the past few years has slid into massive violence–and behind that is the area’s longer history of especially deep corruption. Would Pewee have been nicer for a ten folded into my papers? At other border posts I didn’t seem to run into such questions.
As far back as the 1980s this secluded border area, opposite deep-southern Texas, had been the payoff node of choice for illegal immigrants coming from non-Mexican nations (OTMs, in Border Patrol jargon: Other-Than-Mexicans). As they leapfrogged through Mexico for backdoor access to the U.S., the seclusion at the southern boot-tip of Texas formed an unheralded Grand Central. On the Mexican side, bagmen in the OTM business here blurred distinctions between cops and organized crime. Who, exactly, was being paid off? As a shadowy pyramid distributed slices, it was unclear whether the mob was running the cops or the cops were running the mob. But that was long ago. Waves of reform have passed since then–and new scandals. Maybe Pewee survives as a harmless artifact of the old understandings, the figurative nephew of dead ghosts.
But for Mexico his questions are urgent. As the nation’s organized crime roars into unprecedented power in a new age–fueled by drug profits from the United States (as Pewee and more credible sources might hasten to add), a system with too many soft spots is a sitting duck. Mexico’s weary federal government has already come in and taken over law enforcement in 22 city-county units in this key area, since the local cops were too close to the mob. Meanwhile state government here is run by an accidental governor who stepped in after an organized-crime hit took out his brother. The elusive term La Maña (roughly “the mob”; perhaps more literally: “the tricky influence”) has been devalued by gang splintering, but no matter how many faces the shadow has, it’s still there. The face at the window was a minor mirror, reflecting larger things.