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Then I saw the Congo… thieves or spies?

28 March 2009

Mexico doesn’t print any huge denomination bills (a thousand pesos is the largest denomination there is) and Latin American business transactions are often cash deals.  So, it’s not all that rare to read about someone being shadowed as they go to the bank, then relieved (at gun point) after withdrawing a few hundred thousand in currency.  Normally, the victim isn’t physically injured, although the murder of a French citizen about a month ago was given more news space — mostly because the death or injury of any foreigner is newsworthy — than most holdups, or murders, for that matter.

A few days ago, the papers were reporting on another Frenchman’s murder, which suggested at first that there was a pattern of some kind.  In 2004,   several Spaniards ended up dead in what seemed a mysterious pattern, and had the Spanish Ambassador demanding an explanation (and blaming the Lopez Obrador administration for stirring up anti-gachupine sentiment) until it became obvious the Spaniards were all members of the same crime syndicate, and the Mexican government came very close to expelling the Ambassador for interfering in Mexican political affairs.  I though something similar might develop with the French murders, but the latest victim turns out not to be French, and what’s not in the news is more intriguing … and maybe troubling… than a murder.

The victim, whose name is not appearing in news reports yet (I’m writing this on Wednesday night), was a naturalized Mexican, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.  According to press reports, two men got on the bus (at the same stop with the victim?) walked down to his seat and shot the Congolese native and his companion, another Congolese political refugee.  She is a resident of France, which may have been responsible for the original reports saying two French citizens had been killed.

While this could be a simple robbery, it doesn’t appear that any money was taken, nor that there was any attempt to take money.  It doesn’t sound likely that a person carrying a large amount of currency would be taking a bus, and not a taxi, nor does it sound likely that there is a gang out there targeting French-speakers.  Nor, does there seem to be any rift in Mexican-Congolese affairs, though Mexico obviously accepts refugees from that “failed state” as it does other political asylum seekers.

The press seems to be playing this as “just another example of insecurity on Mexico City buses” (which seems to be their kick right now.  Nacha Cattan’s article in The (Mexico City) News used the occasion of the murder to mention the start of a new program whereby buses on the routes perceived to be dangerous have an armed police officer on board).  But, I’m willing to bet that this has nothing to do with bus routes or banks or theft.

We tend to forget that Mexico City used to be a great place for refugees, spies and international intrigue.  From the time of the “Zimmerman Note” and the back and forth between German, British, U.S. and the various Mexican Revolutionary factions competing secret services, up until World War II, German and British agents were busy chasing each other around the city and occasionally popping each other.  From the 1930s up into the 1970s, there were Spanish Republican refugees and Francoist spies keeping a wary eye on each other.  Particularly gruesome incidents — like Leon Trotsky’s assassination — gave the city a sinister reputation as a setting for political intrigue.

Even since the end of the “Cold War” the “War on Drugs” has occupied fiction writers who use Mexico City as a setting, but we forget that Mexico had good relations with both the Soviets and the United States.  While the CIA had their largest foreign office in Mexico City, the capital was also host to a thriving colony of U.S. Communists who found asylum and work in the capital.  And the CIA was not the only foreign spy service in town.  In the pre-computer era of the Cold War, “Tekkies” used to stop and admire the collection of the latest and greatest in electronic communications gear poking out of the eaves of the Soviet Embassy.   A few years ago a Mexico City politician was “unmasked” by an opposition leader as an ex-KGB operative.  The commie agent freely confessed, saying that being paid to sit on a park bench on Reforma across from the U.S. Embassy and watch who went in or out was probably the best job a college student could get.  It gave him plenty of time to keep up with his readings, and the KGB kept him in beer and pizza money.

In the 1970s and 80, Mexico had

… an almost schizophrenic political culture. While there was repression at home (small rural dissident groups were branded as Communist revolutionaries and were disappeared…or murdered), the country was more open than at any time since World War II to political refugees— generally from other Latin American nations where repression was much more overt.

Although the Fox administration extradited a few Basque separatists back to Spain to face twenty or thirty year old “terrorism” charges, foreign political organizations aren’t much heard from in Mexico. With the exception of fascists, whatever a refugee did in his or her past (or was doing or planning to do in the old country) is pretty much ignored as long as Mexico itself isn’t involved, and normally it has no reason to be.    The farce that followed a botched British intelligence mission in 2004 has pretty much killed off Mexico’s reputatin for clandestine glamour.   Only when Mexican were recruited or involved (as the Colombian government claimed about “FARC sympathizers” when they killed several Mexican students during their incursion into Ecuador) would you hear anything in the media about foreign groups. And, the complaints coming from a foreign government, they backfired. Although both are conservative “free-traders”, President Calderon was forced by Mexican public opinion to demand a retraction of the charges and an apology from his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe.

Mexico City is a cosmopolitan place.  The old European and Latin refugees (and the small number of political refugees from the United States)  There are a number of Arabs as well as Asians and increasing numbers of African refugees.  Who may be involved in all kinds of things… or may be the unfortunate victims of street robbers.

We’ll probably never know.

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