Worldview: My old man

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Five thousand people have been murdered in this dying border city since 2008. The local newspaper, El Diario de Juarez, published this bleak statistic last week. The news coincides with reports that several U.S. border states are clamoring for more troops to cordon off Mexico’s unprecedented drug violence. Only the violence isn’t unprecedented. Nor is the deep American denial as to its origins.

Almost exactly a century ago, in May 1911, the Mexican revolution detonated in Cuidad Juarez, ultimately claiming as many as a million lives. Back then, Texans living across the Rio Grande in El Paso watched the bloody battles from their rooftops as if they were Wild West shows, ignoring the fact that American capital played a large part in the slaughter; about one-fifth of Mexico’s land surface was owned by foreigners, promoting a system of feudalism. Last year, a famous CNN anchor stood at the very same spot and breathlessly reported Juarez’s drug mayhem as though it were unfolding in some morally instructive diorama on Mars — as if 22 million U.S. users weren’t bankrolling the killing. Some things never change.

The strange circularity of border history struck home recently as I crossed the Santa Fe International Bridge to Juarez, intending to bid farewell to an old friend, a Mexican cowboy aged 99 years, my surrogate grandfather.

Don Benito Parra owned a hardscrabble ranch 250 miles south of Juarez in the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental. Parra had led mule trains loaded with silver ingots through the cordillera back in the 1940s. He spoke of Indians armed with bows and arrows, and of a bandit nicknamed "One-Eyed Ramon." He once had joined a posse of horsemen tracking a child-killer into the famous Copper Canyon country; they dropped the fugitive out of a tree with a Mauser rifle shipped to Mexico by the last Kaiser. In recent years, I stayed at Don Beni’s rustic spread between stints of foreign corresponding in places such as Iraq or Congo. I would help with chores in exchange for offhand lessons in 19th-century pastoralism. Like how to shoe a cranky mule by roping a leg to its neck. (A tripod can’t kick.) Or how to scour a hand-dug well with tubs of scalding water — who knew? Or how to use the Catholic saints days’ calendar to predict rainfall.

In late December, I received a phone call informing me that the old man was dying. He was bedridden and mumbling my name. So I packed a rucksack at Princeton, where I was teaching journalism, and flew to the border. "More bad news," complained the lone immigration agent on duty in downtown Juarez, after learning the purpose of my visit. "Why can’t we get one ordinary tourist?"

I rented a car and drove seven hours into the Mexican mountains. Soldiers in pixilated desert camouflage peered from behind sandbagged checkpoints, recalling Anbar Province. Billboards carried Nancy Reagan’s faded injunction in Spanish: ¡Di NO a las drogas! Don Beni was laid up at a daughter’s house in the former tourist destination of Creel. The town’s streets were dead quiet. It had yet to recover from a cartel shootout in August in which 13 bystanders were cut down in a cross-fire. One of the gunshot victims had been a baby.

Don Beni was delirious. The tough frontiersman who had wrestled steers into his 80s had shrunk to the size of a doll. He had a hole big enough to accommodate a large acorn in his right temple — a suppurating tumor. I didn’t think he recognized me. But he rubbed his gnarled index fingers together — a sign for "friends." Then he passed out.

"You should have seen him last week," said his middle-aged daughter, Maricruz Parra. "He tried to hit me with his cane. He still doesn’t like being told what to do."

* * *

I first met Don Beni 25 years ago. I was hiking in the Sierra Madre when I spotted a white-hatted man standing in a cornfield, slashing at the gathering thunderheads with a machete. He explained he was cutting up the storm clouds. He had scattered ashes and salt in the shape of a cross on the ground. But the juju didn’t work. It hailed anyway. And once the milky pellets shredded his year’s backbreaking labor, he shrugged, picked up his box of salt and invited me to his log cabin for sock-brewed coffee.

Don Beni was born on Sept. 6, 1910, at the headwaters of the Conchos River, a piney mesa that even today could pass for a haunt of the Marlboro man. His father was a traveling seed merchant, his mother a Raramuri Indian. His earliest memories were of blood and hunger. Pancho Villa’s rabble and the federal cavalry ranged the mountains, pillaging local farmsteads in turn. By the winter of 1916, he and his seven siblings were reduced to chewing on dry cornhusks. His sisters would sprint for the trees at the sound of distant hoof beats, evading gang rape. His mother rubbed clay into their faces to convince raiders the girls were poxed.

"Those were times of great necessity," he said without visible emotion. "No tortillas, no peace, no hope."

I asked him about Mexico’s current woes. "There is blood in this soil," he would mutter, waving away harsh memories with a gnarled hand. "It’s rising up again"

Many younger Mexicans think otherwise. To them the spiraling drug mayhem in Mexico, particularly in the fabled outlaw redoubt of Chihuahua state where Juarez is located, represents something ominously new — the death-rattle of a rural society, the rotting of the Mexican family, or some sinister backwash of the North American Free Trade Agreement, of globalization.

Mexico supplies two-thirds of the marijuana and a third of the opium smuggled into the United States.

Since 2006, when president Felipe Calderon staked his prestige on an all-out war against the cartels, at least 15,000 people have died in what Mexicans call "la crisis." Most of the casualties are thought to be associated with two of Mexico’s most powerful narcotics syndicates — the Juarez and Gulf cartels — which are purportedly battling over access to the vast U.S. market along the lucrative Juarez corridor. Yet in places like Juarez, the killing has become general. Street vendors and teachers alike are shot down. Last week, destitute refugees began trudging with armfuls of belongings to a main road in the city; smoke spiraled from torched hovels in the nearby slums. There were no official explanations. There rarely are. Last month 236 people were assassinated in Juarez, a record for March.

Novel theories help explain this waking nightmare. The latest rumor in Juarez: Bored sicarios — cartel goons — are simply amusing themselves between hits. One game, called the "intersection gamble," involves an SUV filled with thugs idling at a green light. If the hapless motorist behind toots his horn in frustration, the gunmen step out and put a bullet through his brain. If, however, this random driver waits patiently — 10 seconds, 15 seconds, the time intervals vary, and are the object of a lethal wager — he "wins" a roll of hundred-dollar bills. Such traffic roulette smacks of urban legend. Yet how else to explain the frequent shootings of ordinary commuters?

Even in the historically lawless Sierra Madre, where much of the drugs are grown, such violence has exploded.

In September I visited Don Beni’s ranch to celebrate his 99th birthday. I found the party canceled. Don Beni’s spry octogenarian wife, Dona Martina Parra Perez, had baked a goat in a wood-fired stove, but in vain. The old man’s favorite granddaughter, a lively, 39-year-old school teacher, had been murdered two days earlier. Men in a SUV had snatched her, raped her and then axed her to death. The family told Don Beni that she had died in a car crash. The ancient muleteer, who was still walking then, spent a lot of time alone in the stables, fussing over his last two horses.

* * *

Homer suggested that we straddle time with our backs to the future, our faces to the past.

This of course is the classic rap against Mexico — that it is a country with its head screwed on backward, a culture mesmerized by old disappointments. According to this trope, the United States is the forward-looking neighbor, unburdened by history, heedless of consequence. Thus, the good citizens of El Paso could watch the "Mexes" shelling each other across the river as sport. And today, a U.S. senator from Arizona can demand more troops in Humvees to choke off the violent spillover of an American drug craving worth at least $8 billion a year. But which way should they face?

As for Don Beni, he may have been a relic of the Old West, but I soon learned that he wasn’t trapped there. He always looked sideways in time, peering intently into the present. He never touched a television. But he was deeply curious about the larger world as it came to him — usually in the form of a yellowed newspaper that he consumed over the course of a month, at the speed limit of his second-grade education. Why, he’d ask, was that fatty Slobodan Milosevic so attractive to the Serbs? And what made Baghdad suicide bombers tick? I watched him fit the election of America’s first black president with aplomb into a curio cabinet of racial phantasmagoria that included the belief that Chinese were born with their eyes closed — like puppies.

When I last saw him in Creel, Don Beni had trouble holding his own eyelids open. He was deaf. During his moments of clarity, we scratched out messages to each other in a notepad. When I finally jotted in block letters, by way of a goodbye, “I am going back to Africa,” he roused himself from bed and placed a trembling palm atop my head. It was his blessing of protection. "Quiero irme ya," he rasped into my ear. "I want to go already."

A fading link to Mexico’s last cycle of mass upheavals, Don Beni died on Jan. 29.

His sons lowered him on ropes into a hole pick-axed into the frozen mud of the Creel graveyard. A great-grandnephew employed at a U.S. auto assembly plant in Juarez notified me via email. That same week, another drug massacre wracked the city. Fifteen people, mostly school kids, were shot dead at a house party by killers unknown, for reasons unreckoned. Another victim in a nearby state had his face cut off and stitched to a soccer ball. And so the blood rises in the soil. The great-grandnephew concluded his note: “We are OK — I think.”

Leaving Don Beni’s deathbed, it was hard to tell whether I was moving through an unknowable new Mexico or merely traversing some recycled version of its wild frontier. Certain American analysts have taken to warning that Mexico risks collapsing into a "failed state" if the drug mayhem continues. Such dire predictions ignore history, and the fact that criminal states are among the most durable polities in the world. Mexico, I suspect, will outlast us all. And, in any case, any place that produces Benito Parras isn’t to be loathed.

I will never forget the drive out of the sierra.

Down from the pines at 7,000 feet, the mountains opened themselves up as landscapes sometimes do when you abandon them. Dry grasslands shined in the foothill valleys like bronze mirrors. Storm clouds scraped the continental divide, where snow had fallen the night before. The white ridgelines of the sierra receded southward in a succession of paling cardiograms. There were horsemen everywhere. They clopped through rawboned towns. They galloped and clowned across corn stubble. A pair of cowboys barreled down the highway embankment, driving slat-ribbed cows with popping ropes. Never had I seen so many. They were flawed men, I imagined. Some were weak men. A few, perhaps, were even violent men. But each was perfect in his moment.

Paul Salopek is a writer based mostly in Africa. He is working on a book about wandering. The profile photo of Salopek was taken by Sterling Trantham.