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The Heroes of Balderas

23 September 2009

The sensationalist stories we’re used to seeing from the United States about people who suddenly, and without apparent reason, shoot other people, have unfortunately arrived in Mexico. Originally we only saw that sort of thing within organized crime organizations.

What we witnessed last Friday, the man who assassinated two people at the Balderas Metro station in Mexico City, is something without precedent in our collective memory.

(José Antonio Lopez Sosa, The [Mexico City] News)

While most of the foreign press, and a number of Latin-watchers (and expat bloggers) note that we broke the record for yearly casualties in the Calderón Administration’s “War on (U.S. bound export) Narcotics” last week, the tragedy at Balderas Metro Station is the more disturbing event, and the one possibly more likely to leave lasting psychic scars on the Mexican people.

Luis Felipe Hernández Castillo was attempting to “tag” a wall (with an anti global warming message) Friday afternoon in the Balderas Metro Station (at one of the busiest times of the week in one of the busiest stations on one of the world’s busiest public transit systems).

When a subway officer, 28-year old Víc­tor Ma­nuel Miranda, attempted to apprehend Hernández, the tagger pulled a gun and killed him.  A 58 year old commuter,  Esteban Cervantes Barrera, was leaving the train that had just pulled in, and tackled the killer, and continued to wrestle with him, even after being  shot three times.  Cervantes died at the scene, but prevented Hernández from not just escaping, but also from shooting others.

Lopez Sosa sees the tragedy as a result of harsh economic and social condtions:

We have the highest rate of unemployment in our history, our money is being devalued out of control, the government is planning to tax us on food and medicine, the political class squanders resources while the majority of people suffer “adjustments” to their personal economies. Public security is getting dangerously thin, the majority party in Congress (PRI) is predicting social unrest if their views are not shared.

What I’m trying to explain is that given the current conditions of our society, people who may already have mental unbalances are suffering many things that can aggravate their mental states, with the critical, chaotic state of the country.

Perhaps he’s right, and perhaps Daniel Hernandez (one of the few foreigners to comment so far) is correct when he says:

It’s as though the collective madness of right now has been turned up a few notches. In the U.S., the extreme narco violence in Mexico is often (and unfairly) characterized as a creeping contagion “spilling” into the North. There’s a flip-side to that. The U.S.-style violence of insanity, chaos, and senselessness is also being exported South. Along with everything else.

It is the random nature of the violence, and the stupidity of it that we don’t understand. Deaths (even the most gruesome of them) in the “drug war” are comprehensible,  if reprehensible.  People kill each other to settle disputes (familial, business, political) or for economic gain.  But, even if we accept that it’s imperative to warn of the dangers of global warming, this makes absolutely no sense.

Daniel writes that Mexico has a “culture of violence,” which I take exception to.  Violence exists, one doesn’t avert one’s eyes to it… but gives it meaning.   Blood sports like boxing, and cock-fighting and tauromachia are rituals (as were the Aztec human sacrifices) and no one pretends violence and violent death are abstractions.  Mexico has a bloody history, and doesn’t deny the reality of death, but Mexicans are genuine pacifists.  Watch the police arrest a perp for a normal crime like tagging a subway station wall.  The perp is told to get in the back of the police truck… and does.  In my time here, I’ve only seen officers pull out their guns once… and that was a drug bust.

Watch Mexican television and movies.  Mexican films and TV shows don’t resolve every dispute with a shoot-out.  There are very few Mexican murder mysteries, and those that exist are more political thrillers or social satires than mass slaughters — there is no Mexican version of Robert Ludlam (let alone Agatha Christie, for whom murder is not a tragedy, but an intellectual puzzle for one’s enjoyment) and the Mexican directors who make violent films work in Hollywood, not at Churubusco.

I never felt unsafe riding the Metro with tree trimmers carrying machetes — it can be used to chop me up, but it was intended for trees, not me.  In Mexico, guns are thought of the same way… as tools  for a specific purpose — police officers, soldiers and gangsters have a use for the tool and no one is overly shocked when they use it for its purpose.  Mexicans expect taggers to have the tools of their trade… cans of spray paint.  But one no more expects a gangster to carry cans of spray paint than one expects a tagger to pack a pistol.

And… this is a society where Benito Juarez’ dictum — respect for others is peace — is a very real part of people’s thinking.  While not always honored in the particular, the sense of shame people feel when they violate this taboo is very real.  Hernández the killer’s uncle had a fatal heart attack after hearing the news of the shooting.  His cousin committed suicide by jumping in front of a metro train.

In the immediate future there are plans to install metal detectors in metro stations.  Police officers are doing random body searches now.  The Federal District promises better training for officers, and — sadly — sees the need to start arming the officers in the Metro.

But what remains to be seen is whether — as López Sosa and Daniel Hernandez suggest — we are becoming an individualistic, selfish, my way or die way society with no sense of the rights of others, or of shame.

Here is a video from El Universal on Esteban Cervantes Barrera.  He was just an ordinary low paid working guy from one of those suburbs usually described by the foreign press as the “teeming slums”. — just like Víc­tor Ma­nuel Miranda.  Both died defending the rights of others to go about their lives peaceably.  Víc­tor Ma­nuel Miranda and Esteban Cervantes Barrera are deservedly national heroes… there is serious consideration of renaming the station — “Balderas” is simply the street on which it’s located — “Heroes of Balderas Metro”.

The El Universal coverage of Cervantes’ funeral in Chalco  includes some footage of the murder — taken from metro security cameras — and may not be suitable viewing for all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 September 2009 9:42 am

    Wow, that’s shocking. I do hope the station is renamed.
    RIP Manuel and Cervantes.

  2. 23 September 2009 3:51 pm

    This is a wonderful and very sad post. You describe beautifully why it normally feels safe living here in Mexico and why one wonders how long it can last. I was just thinking the other day about how most men in our colonia go around with machetes hanging on their waists almost like an article of clothing, and how someone might use it at any moment perhaps to scrape mud off a boot or carve something tiny out of wood or hack down a bunch of bananas or carefully, carefully, trim back some nopal. And how they wear them on the bus and along the road and as they travel by burro and horse.

    People aren’t necessarily “nice,” but I have never felt intimidated. I have in the US. In the US, I always felt uneasy when a bunch of teenage boys came towards me on the street. Here the bunch o f teenagers magically veers to give me space to pass.


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