I received this story in my email from Frontera NorteSur news service that is hosted at New Mexico State University. You can subscribe to their email list or follow FNS posts at their website.
As a general rule, Frontera NorteSur prefers not to use anonymous or unidentified persons as the main source(s) of information for a story. But on-the-ground realities in Mexico increasingly challenge this principle. Often, journalists sticking hard-and-fast to the attribution rule will have nothing to publish, even if a story is of crucial significance.
So in the interest of furthering public knowledge and debate, FNS has decided to publish the following story based on an interview with a trucker who asked that his real identity not be disclosed for obvious reasons. For purposes of this story, we will simply call him Rafael, or Rafa. The trucker’s story, important aspects of which are confirmed by other sources, also conveys a seldom-heard point of view from a sector of the population that is caught up in the so-called drug war but largely forgotten in the reporting on and analysis of the violence and its implications for the future of Mexico.
July 23, 2012
Truckin’ in Zeta Land
Rafael yanks out the old billfold and displays a lone 200 peso bill, a denomination which is roughly worth $16 and declining in value every day as fuel, food and more keep going up and up and disposable income down and down. With more than a glint of regret in his eyes, he remarks how in the old days his wallet would bulge with as many as 10,000 pesos. Those were the good years, he recalls, when a trucker’s life was one of happiness and a profession that earned a good living.
How times have changed. The last six years, Rafa insists, have brought a “180 degree” turn for the worse in the fortunes of independent truckers. In his frank assessment, the era of the Calderon administration has been one of “crap.”
Born and bred in a family of truckers, Rafa calculates that he has been shaken down by officials and outlaws about 100 times in more than a decade of traveling the highways of the Mexican republic. In recent times, two trucker friends were murdered and two others kidnapped, according to the seasoned driver.
Once, he says, local cops in the Guadalajara suburb of Tlaquepaque pulled him over, ransacked his truck, pointed a pistol at his head and falsely accused him of transporting illegal drugs. A 500 peso payment from Rafa’s pocket solved the problem.
Just recently, a fellow driver was pulled over in Saltillo, Coahuila, by local police who poured gasoline on the man, held a lighter close by and forced their terrified captive to call his boss for 10,000 pesos, Rafa says. Luckily for the driver, big boss man had a sympathetic ear and quickly paid the ransom.
Regularly, Rafa travels the danger zones of his country, across the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Tamaulipas, “perhaps the most dangerous” place of all. Tierra Brava in Mexican lingo.
In the Monterrey area, business soured when gangs of extortionists began demanding money from owners of truck fleets in the 20-50 vehicle range, worked down the chain to those with 15-20 trucks and eventually vamped on the small mom-and-pop owner with just one truck, according to Rafa.
Crimes occur in broad daylight, he maintains, but nighttime becomes a “no-man’s land” that truckers with tight delivery schedules still have to dare. Asked why he continues in such a risky line of work, Rafa, who says he has no formal higher education, insists he likes driving the big rigs. “I have the truck driving profession down, but I am aware of the historical reality that the country is going through,” he adds. “I’m hoping for a change.”
The upside of the trade, he reflects, is a rare chance few others ever have to know the geography, the culture, the history, the food and the gorgeous women of a beautifully diverse and huge nation.
“I’m like an anthropologist,” Rafa muses. “I see how people get along and see the historic, colonial places. I know them all.” Sometimes, the sights are eerily exotic, he confesses. Rafa describes narco chapels with memorials to Santa Muerte, including the one in Zacatecas where 100 truckloads of Zetas once gathered to celebrate the Day of the Dead. “You can’t believe it, but you see it. It’s incredible.”
Frequently, Rafa passes through what might be termed Zeta Land, a broad swath of the country from the steamy Gulf Coast and into the arid high country, over to the palm-shaded edges of the Pacific and back up to the U.S.-Mexico border across from Texas.
In Zeta Land, look-outs with radios known as halcones are posted at the entrances and exists to towns, while 12-year-olds are trained in drug trafficking and arms handling, according to the trucker. To maintain a social base, the organization robs trucks and distributes the loot to impoverished residents. It also sells drugs out of a roadside restaurants, sort of like a McDonald’s for the thrill-seeker, and runs a chain of illegal gas stations that sell cheap, stolen diesel fuel. Rafa admits he fills up at the “guachicoleros” because economic realities so dictate.
Based on the theft of resources from the national oil company Pemex, the illicit trade gives jobs to some people. Rafa says he met a guy in Coahuila who was paid 1,500 pesos a week to steal fuel, an amount hardly promising the magic transformation from rags to riches but still much better than the weekly salary at a foreign-owned assembly plant.
The traveling man recalls two direct run-ins with the Zetas, both times in Zacatecas. The first time, a group roused him from sleep at a gas station and asked him to help haul a stolen trailer. The second encounter happened after he had been eating with a group of drivers at a truck stop and got up to go to the bathroom. Next thing he knew a squad of eight Zetas brimming with guns and blaring radios sauntered into the rest room and asked Rafa if he was a certain individual.
Fortunately, though, one of the Zetas realized that the surprised trucker was not the man they were searching for at the moment. When pressed how he knew the men were Zetas, Rafa matter-of-factly responds: “The Zetas rule Zacatecas. It is a parallel government in Mexico and wants to govern all of Mexico in complicity with (official president-elect) Pena Nieto.”
The size and scope of the underworld organization, Rafa contends, is not possible without official collusion. “It’s illogical that they act on their own,” he contends. “They are associates of the government.”
Well- versed in the events of the day, Rafa scoffs at a July13 battle in and around Villanueva, Zacatecas, which erupted when an estimated 40 truckloads of gunmen belonging to the rival Carteles Unidos (United Cartels) attacked the Zetas. Some press accounts of the incident mentioned as many as 19 people killed, including a civilian caught in the fearsome crossfire.
The toll was “nothing,” Rafa insists, in light of other, largely unreported clashes that have resulted in 50 or 100 people killed. Overall, Rafa says he does not take stock in the government’s drug war body count, comparing the homicide numbers to the dubious statistics the U.S. government churned out during the Vietnam War.
Rafa says he personally has had no problems with the soldiers or marines that are deployed against the Zetas. A certain degree of mutual respect pervades the relationship between truckers and troops, he adds, since both groups work round-the-clock shifts and tend to come from humble backgrounds. But the federales are another story.
In previous years, the shake-downs and extortions came from the old Federal Judicial Police, which was dissolved in an anti-corruption drive to make away for the Federal Investigations Agency, which is turn was replaced in another anti-corruption policy initiative by the new Federal Police. Still, the corruption and abuses continue, Rafa says.
Truckers, he asserts are squeezed between the authorities on the one hand and the “bad boys.” and the other. Other pressures emanating from the bureaucratic mandates and fines of the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation as well as corporate and foreign trucking companies, which entered Mexico after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, are undermining the independent trucker, Rafa says. “It’s all meant to do away with the small trucker and favor the big national and international companies,” he adds. “Globalization is hitting us.”
Rafa and his colleagues perform a role very similar to the farmer. Everybody uses their products but few have any real idea of what it entails to get a particular commodity from the farm or factory and into their homes. “People eat or drink a soda and don’t know where it comes from,” Rafa laments. “We truckers are invisible to Mexican society. We are indispensable but invisible.”