I’ve always wondered how novelists come up their books. Do they just start writing with a hunch and let the inspiration flow, taking them where it will? That seemed unlikely, given what I know about writing as a daily job, with inspiration playing only a minor role. (Or better put, inspiration flowing from consistent daily toil.)
Or, I wondered, do they spend days ahead of time blocking out their stories scene by scene? (Which is how my mind works.)
Each writer is different. Each follows a different path.
It’s a chronology of events he describes in Catch-22 and it helped him keep track of the story he intended to tell in wildly non-chronological order.
(Full disclosure: I started to read the novel years ago and couldn’t finish it.)
I tried something like this with Dreamland – putting pieces of paper up on a mirror in my garage office, each representing a different chapter, which readers of the book will know are mostly 2-6 pages in length.
At one point my wife walked into the garage, saw this blizzard of paper taped to the mirror, and left thinking I’d lost my mind. But the papers helped visualize where the book was going and track the different storylines I was telling. It helped also when it came time to rearrange the order some of the chapters came in. I’d just untape a chapter and move it somewhere else on the mirror. At one point I had six rows, each with 5-7 chapters per row.
Apparently other writers find this visualizing necessary first before telling a story.
“Every great novel—or at least every finished novel—needs a plan.”
To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.
The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.
For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.
But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.
Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.
This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.
The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.
This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.
It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.
Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.
It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.
But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.
For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.
Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.
Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.
Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).
Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.
In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.
But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.
Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.
Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.
The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.
The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.
One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA, a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.
Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.
They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.
The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.
(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)
The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.
“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”
For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them. They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.
These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.
Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.
But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.
At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.
“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.
(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)
“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.
I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.
Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common
(NOTE: I’ve just seen on Chip Kinman’s FB page the news that Tony Kinman died this morning, apparently at his home in the San Diego area. A very sad day.)
Amid a culture where people on either side of politics are pushed to toe some kind of social-media enforced line, where everyone avidly looks to be offended, and where we all seem to be thin skinned, a spirit like Tony Kinman matters.
He began as a bass player from San Diego who, along with his brother Chip, formed one of the great musical duos in alternative rocknroll in this country. They started in punk rock, forming The Dils, which was the best punk band at least on the West Coast. Frenetic, blasting, fast. I coveted the 45 of I Hate the Rich and still have Class War and then Sound of the Rain.
Their voices blended perfectly – Tony with his baritone and a mop of dark hair, Chip, blond, with his high tenor. The punk Everly Brothers.
Beyond that, though, they hadn’t much but their gumption, rocknroll spirit, work ethic, and cheap sneakers, which was enough to keep them going for years.
Tony Kinman never made it big — never a music-industry star. The Kinman boys weren’t noble, starving artists — forget that — but my guess is they just wanted to create something of their own more than they wanted the cash. Each band they formed seemed to directly alienate the fans of the previous band. (Great interview here with Chip Kinman.)
They formed Rank and File, a country band with a punk flavor and moved to Austin. Tony’s baritone was spectacular on Conductor Wore Black and Sundown.
Later, they did electronica – Blackbird – and then moved on to Cowboy Nation, a folk duo playing old cowboy songs on acoustic guitar and bass.
I can’t say I know Tony Kinman. I met him and his brother once in 1980 when I hired them to play a party at Barrington Hall, a co-op at UC Berkeley where I was living and which was known for that kind of party. I drove to San Francisco in a co-op truck and loaded up The Dils and their equipment and then drove them back later that night. All that I have from that night is this photo from my friend Joanne.
But the Kinman boys have been part of the constellation of influences important in my life.
In my hometown of Claremont, California, many guys I grew up with played guitar; so did I, though not well. In high school in the 1970s, to me, rocknroll mattered. By then, though, it had grown bloated, pompous. Bands sang about the tribulations of being famous and over-sexed. Some bands recorded rock operas about elves, gnomes and mountain kings. In order to play any of it, we were told that we needed columns of expensive amps and we had to play a million notes a minute. Shows were in baseball stadiums, not in sweaty dark clubs.
Then punk rock came along and burned away all that crap and rock was again, for a moment, distilled to its urgent essentials. Three chords, two minutes, and you were done. Don’t ask permission to play – just get up there. Record your own 45 and put it out and sell it yourself. Put out your own fanzine. Organize your own shows. Don’t wait for anointing from some record company.
Soon punk rock became a style in which clothing companies charged a lot of money to make you look like you lived in a Skid Row wino hotel.
Really, though, punk rock wasn’t about leather jackets. It was an approach to life. Just do it: that was a real, pure American idea. Then Nike admen bought those words and turned them into a slogan.
Before that, though, that attitude was so healthy for a young American to hear. It was an important way to live and, to me, it grew from punk rock.
I adopted it as, in adulthood, I veered toward journalism and writing. I took jobs where I thought I could do exciting work and not wear a tie. So I covered crack, gangs and crime in Stockton, California. Then wanting to be a foreign correspondent but not wanting to ask permission from some newspaper, I moved to Mexico, where, as things turned out, I became a freelance writer.
I spent 10 years wandering the country alone, finding stories and selling them to media in the states, feeling this was my calling — this was punk rock.
I wrote a lot about immigrants, trudging north, trusting only in their wits, gumption, work ethic and cheap sneakers, and I knew they were punk rock as well. The best idea of America, coming up, raw and ragged, from Mexico.
I was offered jobs at news services and turned them down. It was a lot of money but I’d have to heed the orders of some editor in New York and not follow my own gut and eye, and this seemed a recipe for an unhappy life. I’m no noble, starving artist. Forget that. I just wanted a life of my own design. To do the stories I knew were important.
Along the way, I watched Tony and Chip Kinman, who best embodied what punk rock was to me, as they excavated American music in their own way.
Even when what they created didn’t always hit home the way The Dils or Rank and File did. Black Bird never quite worked for me, but I loved that they did it because it was them not being easily boxed.
Then they put out Cowboy Nation and I played the hell out of that. Streets of Laredo, Shenandoah, and the best song on the album, My Rifle, My Pony and Me. We Do As We Please is a great summation of the American spirit.
I remember I was thrilled when they somehow contacted me to get a copy of my first book.
I’ve noticed that Chip Kinman has continued on with his take on American blues – in a band called Ford Madox Ford, which is raunchy and raw and that’s the way great American music should be.
So I’m hoping the best for Tony Kinman, his brother, his family and his close friends.
The world can still use people who shape lives of their own design – maybe now more than ever.
(Photos: I’ll admit I just took these photos off the internet. If they’re yours, let me know and I’ll take them down.)
I find one of the great things to do is walk into a library and see what they’ve displayed as book suggestions. Mostly, what I love is the surprise. These books are almost always something interesting, quirky, something you hadn’t thought to read, or even ever heard about.
For writers, I think this is an essential endeavor. Reading widely, I’ve found, is so important. Putting yourself in the way of all kinds of ideas, people, modes of expression.
The library is where I find that. Mickey Spillane novels, nonfiction about municipal governance, biographies of some Japanese artist. I once read part of a book about the history of the word “Okay” because it was on display at my local library and the history of the word hadn’t occurred to me.
I don’t always finish these books – sometimes I take a brief excursion through them, is all.
But is it so worth it to stop in and see what’s on display!
My latest chance I took was on John Banville’s Time Pieces, which is an excellent piece of writing about Dublin, partly about his childhood, and some other stuff. I will finish that.
But I’m grateful that this community asset is available to me. So keep it up librarians, and many thanks for what you do!
When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.
Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.
I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.
I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)
I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.
Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.
Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.
Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.
I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.
Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.
Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)
The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.
It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.
A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.
But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.
Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.
Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)
Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.
So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.
“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)
It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.
Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.
The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.
But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?
A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.
In 2011, I went to the graduation of the Citizens Academy at LAPD. This is a 10-week academy the department offers to the community to familiarize citizens with how officers do their jobs.
This one was for the LGBTQ community, at the department’s training facility at Elysian Park. Entering, I passed a bust of former Chief Darryl Gates. I took a seat and watched the graduation. The valedictorian was a transgender woman, a student at Cal State Northridge. As she spoke, I was struck by the moment. It was an amazing thing, given all the department had been under the man whose statue stood a couple dozen yards away.
I remembered that moment when I heard the news that another L.A. police chief, Charlie Beck, had announced his retirement last week.
The tenure of any chief is complicated, especially in a complicated city like L.A., and crime ebbs and flows from year to year. But it’s important, at moments like these, I think, to reflect on the larger picture.
The LA Times noted Beck was leaving amid “a stubborn uptick in crime” – four years of crime rising. But truth is, that’s only when you’re marking time as having begun in the last few years. And that’s a very short-sighted view, pampered by the new reality, which is this: Crime in L.A. has fallen dramatically, in some cases to levels not seen since the 1960s.
We’re now in the eighth year of fewer than 300 killings. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had registered 271 killings in 2017. For 1967, when the city’s population was a quarter smaller, the city registered 281.
That’s a stunning feat. Even more so because it takes place in a city with a maelstrom of languages, cultures – from Nigeria and Bangladesh to Korea and Mexico – and neighborhoods, not to mention gaping economic differences, rising homelessness and more.
Crucial in all this and equally stunning: Gangs have largely stopped the public behavior that did so much to crush working-class neighborhoods. Families in those neighborhoods don’t face the risk to their children they once did. Business owners no longer have massive graffiti to paint over every month.
Homeowners in black and Latino neighborhoods are now able to unlock the value of their homes – in both sales and home-equity loans – in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Gangs, after all, were always the best rent control.
In several neighborhoods, it’s now fashionable to put up wood-slat fences. They look great, but when I saw the first one I thought it would be a matter of minutes before it was tagged in some way. I’ve seen those same fences unmarred for months now, years in a couple cases. Those wood-slat fences mark a major change of street culture for Los Angeles.
Gangs still exist in L.A. and are involved in criminal activity – though I believe they are far smaller in number than before. But their activity is no longer the public stuff — the drive-by shootings, car jackings, taking over a park or apartment complex etc – that so used to blight and create life-threatening danger in the places they called their territory.
A lot went into all these changes and it’s not all due to Beck or even to LAPD alone.
But the new department is one of the most transformed institutions in California civic life in the last 25 years, as that Citizens Academy graduation made clear. Spend time in any LAPD station watching the officers come and go and you’ll see this very clearly. I think it’s foolish, and short-sighted, to believe that that transformation had nothing to do with the current safe conditions in Los Angeles today.
Any department faces conflict, drama, willful personalities, and rogue officers. It’s a rough job and we ask police officers to be our marital counselors, mental health professionals, our surrogate fathers and mothers, and a whole lot more, as well as our crime fighters.
All that’s the day-to-day.
But when a chief announces his retirement, there are more important facts – and a longer view – to consider.
Couple weeks ago, I spent a morning in federal court in Los Angeles to learn a little more about drug underworld ingenuity.
Federal agents had busted an enterprise known as Manny’s Delivery Service, an organization that they alleged distributed heroin across the San Fernando Valley to customers who’d call in and place their orders.
Manny was the street name of the lead defendant, Sigifrido Gurrola Barrientos (see photo).
These guys reportedly used Uber to transport the proceeds – $129,000 in one instance, according to the indictment. (Read the press release here.)
They seemed to replicate the system that was perfected and taken nationwide by the folks from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I wrote about in my book, Dreamland.
As it turns out, according to defense attorneys, Manny’s was allegedly run by fellows from the Mexican states of Puebla and Guanajuato, which are not states I’ve associated with drug trafficking. Not sure where Mr. Gurrola Barrientos is from. But it’s not surprising the business model would be used by others. There’s no trademark or copyright in the underworld.
I was intrigued by the case as well because I’m fascinated by all the ingenuity displayed in that vast, profit-motivated culture of drug trafficking, particularly from Mexico.
In the 1990s, American medicine began to claim that opiate painkillers could be prescribed virtually indiscriminately, with little risk of addiction to patients. The result over the next two decades was a huge increase in our national supply of painkillers.
That happened without anyone realizing that our heroin market had also shifted during those years. Most of our heroin now came not from the Far East (Turkey, Burma, Afghanistan) but from Latin America – Colombia and, today especially, from Mexico. It got here cheaper and more potent than the Far East stuff.
Truth is, though, most Mexican traffickers for years cared little for heroin, which they viewed as decidedly scuzzy and back-alley and with a relatively small market of tapped-out users in the United States. So they focused more on cocaine and meth, and pot, of course.
Then we began creating scads of new opiate addicts with this expansion of indiscriminate prescribing of narcotic painkillers.
That, in turn, awoke an underworld version of Fedex, and unleashed the powerful and ingeniously creative forces of the Mexican drug-trafficking culture, then largely dormant when it came to heroin. By the way, that’s not to say, necessarily, cartels. Just a widespread culture of drug trafficking, particularly in certain regions of Mexico.
There’s a reason why heroin exists. It’s not because it has much medicinal use. Or, better put, the painkilling benefits it does possess can be provided by other drugs at far less risk of addiction. Heroin exists because it’s a great drug if you’re a trafficker. It’s easy to make and is very condensed. It’s easy to cut – making it profitable to traffic even in small quantities. So small-scale heroin trafficking is a big part of the story of how it gets here from Mexico.
Also, heroin is one of the few drugs that makes sense to sell retail – as it creates customers who must buy your product every day, Christmas included, and usually several times a day.
Thus applying basic business-school principles to heroin vending – principles of marketing, customer service, etc – just naturally occurs to folks.
Hence Manny’s Delivery Service. And a bunch more like them.
I meet a lot of great folks as I talk about Dreamland across America – and hear amazing stories, too.
In Richmond, Virginia recently, where Virginia Commonwealth University had chosen Dreamland as the Common Read for their incoming freshmen, I happened to meet Sheriff Karl Leonard, of nearby Chesterfield County.
We got to talking about a recovery pod – which he calls the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP) – he instituted in his jail. HARP allows inmates to begin their recovery from addiction, with a nurturing, inmate-led environment. This replaces the stress and tedium of traditionally run jail.
Traditional jail has always been a prod to crime and drug addiction. But sheriffs like Karl Leonard are rethinking how it’s done. I find this transformation of jail, which is growing as a response to our opiate-addiction epidemic, to be one of the most radical and positive ideas happening in America today.
Later, Sheriff Leonard sent me an email with the following story. Please read:
I work very hard with our Heroin Addiction Recovery program (HARP) to educate the public and to break down the stigma that is attached to not only being an addict but a criminal as well. I take recovered addicts from our program out into the community all the time so they can put a face with this disease. And once I do that I have personalized this crisis with them and they can no longer look away. I have these addicts tell their stories which are always compelling and gut wrenching. But just when I think I have heard it all, I get educated myself.
Just a few weeks ago after one such public engagement in the community with two of the HARP members, one male and one female, I decided to take them to lunch at a local Burger King as a reward, which I do often. (They are placed in civilian clothes when we take them out of the jail).
When we pulled into the Burger King parking lot, the male asked me what this was. I was dumfounded by the question and told him it was Burger King. I then asked him if he’d ever been in a Burger King before, thinking he was messing with me. But he said no. I then asked him if he was ever in a McDonald’s before; he again said no.
I shrugged it off and took him inside. He spent several minutes looking at the menu above his head like a child on Christmas morning. He turned to me and asked me if he could get whatever he wanted. I said yes. He then asked me if he could get the biggest thing on the menu and I again said yes, knowing that jail food probably didn’t satisfy this 6’4”, strapping 26-year-old. He then ordered the mushroom Swiss triple burger and a large Coke and fries.
I watched him devour his meal. I asked him if he liked it and he replied he did very much, especially the Coke. I asked him if he had Coke before and he told me he had not. This kid who never had a Burger King or McDonald’s hamburger or a Coke is a heroin addict.
He told me he grew up in a very rural county in Virginia and his father was very strict with him about eating junk food, sugars, sodas, etc. His father made sure they only ate good fresh food without sugars. It is also why he led a life that was drug free – not even marijuana.
His father also helped him with his athletic skills, which helped him become a very good football player in high school. So good he was given a scholarship to play football at a prominent four-year university in our state. I was intrigued by how this seemingly innocent guy became a heroin addict.
Then the common thread to almost all of our heroin addicts revealed itself.
While at the university, he said, he was involved in a bad car crash and suffered a broken femur, shoulder, and other bones. Eventually his doctor gave him Oxycontin and Dilantin pills. He was directed to take four Oxycontin pills a day for 30 days in addition to the Dilantin.
Once the prescriptions ran out he said he started to become very sick but he didn’t know why. He spoke to a friend who told him he was in withdrawal from the painkillers, which was causing his sickness. So he went back to his doctor, who refused to prescribe him any more. He was very sick and tried to get pills on the street but they were hard to get and expensive so he turned to heroin. And that was all it took.
He eventually had bad drug screens at school and was kicked out of the university and lost his full scholarship. When his father found out he was using drugs he disowned him. So now, without a dorm room or family to take him in, he turned to criminal activity to sustain his life.
These stories go on and on. They are all heartbreaking but also examples of how these are not bad people trying to be good but sick people trying to get well. And we are making a difference here with our very unconventional approach to recovery.
Thank you for enlightening a Nation with your book!
When the Senate’s health-care bill died this week, it was worth noting the few who led the revolt.
Most were senators from states hardest hit by our epidemic of opiate addiction:
Maine (Susan Collins), West Virginia (Shelly Moore Capito), Utah (Mike Lee), Ohio (Rob Portman).
“I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people,” Shelly Moore Capito said.
Let’s leave aside how the bill would have done away with basic health care for millions of working folks and provided a tax cut for wealthy people.
One of the biggest problems with it, I think, was that it would have reversed Medicaid expansion and that meant taking away coverage for drug rehabilitation from hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of them.
I could not understand how that was a good idea.
It was also interesting to see how, as the debate progressed through the spring to now, a lot of people began to realize what they were losing.
In so many areas where Donald Trump did best in November’s election, areas he promised to make great again, there is a documented need for massive investment in more drug rehabilitation capacity, not less. That is not an opinion. What exists is saturated. Getting into rehab takes weeks, months. Many addicts have no resources of their own with which to seek treatment.
I wrote in another post that opiate addiction was the crucial element in Trump’s victories in several states that were in turn essential to his capturing the presidency.
Eight months later, the Senate’s health-care carnival emphasized my belief that this issue is one of the most potent political forces of our time.
In the spring of 2015, shortly after Dreamland was released, I received a call from Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor for health issues. Hillary was feeling the ferocity of parents in Iowa and New Hampshire from all walks of life, horrified at their children’s addiction and not knowing where to turn. This surprised the candidate, her advisor told me.
I spoke with her for about ninety minutes. I told her that I thought this was the great silent issue in America today and whoever truly owned it, embraced it, treated it as a thing of the heart, would have a good chance of getting votes from unexpected places, but that this probably would not be felt in opinion polls ahead of time. Mrs. Clinton did some of that, but never enough, and in the end she wrote a position paper and that amounted to most of her campaign’s attention to opiate addiction. I might be wrong, but she didn’t seem to understand the latent power of the issue. Least she didn’t act on it. That was a huge mistake.
Politicians would do well to better understand the deep well of pain and anxiety surrounding, and thus the political power within, this issue. It’s not something expressed easily in polls. People aren’t likely to admit to a pollster on a phone that a loved one is an addict.
But it’s there and dims the view of the future of so many people, the prospects of so many towns and counties, the economies of so many regions, and thus is of paramount importance to them. Right up there with jobs – connected inextricably with jobs, in fact. In so many depressed areas, huge numbers of folks can’t pass an employer’s drug test.
Nor does it take many addicts for that foreboding to spread. A few cases in a small town, I think, are all that’s needed. People see it hit almost anyone and seemingly at random – like a plague – including families who before had no connection to the drug world or the criminal justice system. Soon everyone’s view of the future turns negative.
On top of that, today we have the increasing nationwide notoriety of the issue as compared with just two years ago. An awakening has taken place in those short years – a reckoning and a truth-telling when before there was subterfuge and fabrication.
Overall, this is healthy – for the families now telling the truth and for the country, I think.
But one effect is that the knowledge, and thus dread, has spread to even families untouched by addiction.
In that room where 13 of them put that bill together, Senate Republicans didn’t seem to understand that.
That was a huge mistake.
Because in the small towns or suburbs where folks live, they now know the high school’s quarterback has landed in jail again, and that their pastor’s daughter died from an overdose and that it wasn’t a heart attack after all.
Today a startup in the small town of Portsmouth, Ohio comes out with a line of t-shirts called DREAMLAND LIFEGUARD.
The shirts, designed by a company called 3rd and Court, also feature the words “Time to Turn So You Don’t Burn,” which was a jingle a local radio station broadcast every half hour, knowing that most of its listeners were at the legendary pool.
I’m proud that the designers say they were inspired by my book about our national opiate epidemic, which as many of you know has a lot to say about Portsmouth, and which took its title from the town’s Dreamland pool, which was razed in 1993.
But more than that, I’m impressed with the entrepreneurial DIY energy and imagination that 3rd and Court represents in a town that for years wallowed in a plague of narcotic negativity.
When the fog of dope lifts, creativity and passion have room to blossom. Something like that feels like it’s happening in Portsmouth. A lot of abandoned buildings are under renovation. Downtown has a lot of artists staking their claim.
I spoke with Connor Sherman, 23, who designed the shirts. Connor was partly raised in the Portsmouth area, then went to Shawnee State in town, and graduated with a degree in visual design.
“I see a lot of people, their mindset has changed to entrepreneurship and moving forward,” he said. “Not that I’m going to get out of school and somebody’s going to hand me something, like a job 9-to-5. It’s more about creating something out of nothing.”
The building at 3rd and Court streets in downtown Portsmouth has become a hive for small startups. Years ago, it was an auto shop. Then like so much of Portsmouth it stood vacant for a good while. Finally, it was renovated and PSKC Crossfit occupied the space. (This is part of Portsmouth’s recovery from opiates. Several workout gyms have opened in town. “A lot of people take pride in restoring themselves and restoring others,” Connor told me.)
The crossfit was a place for people to commune.
They began to share ideas and, in time, to discuss business possibilities. That had been lacking for many years in Portsmouth. Really ever since the pool closed in 1993. For years, with the town in decline, buildings abandoned, and half the population leaving, the only place people really saw each other was Walmart.
The new incarnation of the building at 3rd and Court emerged as part of some new alternatives to that isolation.
Soon, Doc Spartan, a maker of natural lotions and hand creams for workout aficionados, started in the building. They advertise their “Combat Ready Ointment” as made from coconut oil, beeswax, eucalyptus oil, vitamin E and more, and good for “cuts scrapes knicks rips rashes razor burn blistered feet rope burn diaper rash chapped skin and calluses.” (Check them out here.)
That was followed by 3rd and Court apparel, making “small town” summer clothes. “Apparel dedicated to the lovely Portsmouth, Ohio and other small towns like ours,” – reads their website.
“My desire to do design instead of something else that someone tells me to do all day is what made me want to start looking for opportunity,” Connor told me.
So the town where for years noxious pill mills were the only locally owned businesses to open is displaying capitalist effervescence of a more wholesome kind.
I get asked by people all over the country what the solution is to this nationwide pill-and-heroin epidemic. Honestly, I don’t always know what to say. But I do believe in harnessing the creativity of folks who are in recovery, or, like Connor, never did dope to begin with.
So here it is:
3rd and Court is offering DREAMLAND LIFEGUARD t-shirts in men’s and women’s sizes, plus a unisex tank top – each for $24.99.
My 40th high school reunion is this Saturday. I’m going.
I’ve been to all my high school reunions. They’re fun. Kind of weird, awkward at times, but fun. I like to think of them as great social experiments. Seeing where people landed who started more or less in the same spot. Not quite like those 7 Up movies from Britain, but something like that.
I grew up in Claremont, a small college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up, if you overlooked the milk-chocolate smog covering the huge mountains nearby.
As years passed, I noted that I kept in far greater touch with friends from high school than folks whom I met later in life had kept in touch with theirs. John Kennedy, David Fissel, Scott Edwards, Sara Kaviar, Norman Gee, Paul Rohrer, Arthur Cain, Alison Cain, and a few others. I’ll see a few of these folks, though probably not all. They’re all doing well, scattered about.
With John, I went to my first rock concert: Mountain and Canned Heat at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. 1974. That was a loud show, and Leslie West and the guys from Canned Heat sure were fat. Canned Heat’s singer wore big blue overalls with the word “Boogie” in rhinestones across the chest.
Around that time I was forming fierce, highly convincing arguments that Leslie West was the world’s greatest guitar player. I had a lot of those kinds of arguments back then. I also argued that Kiss would be a “where are they now” story by the time we graduated.
Years later, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe playing guitar in the streets and plazas for money with Arthur Cain. That was a lot of fun. Good thing to do.
A few of my high school chums have died. Steve Arena and Phil Cornell passed not long after high school. I wish I could see them again.
One guy I haven’t seen almost since before graduation is Robert O’Conner. We were Buddhists together in a group called Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America (NSA), where we chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
It’s from Japan but was pretty big in the states back in the 1970s when a lot of California suburban kids assumed that any eastern religion was cool and worth checking out. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner were members.
I started when I had pretty long hair.
For NSA, I cut my hair. For a while I even tried to learn the bagpipes. I was also in a couple pageants – on the outfield of Angel Stadium and once at Dodger Stadium – that looked something like Up With People.
As a Buddhist organization, NSA was wary of appearing too eastern and mystical and weird, so it went the other way, wanting to assimilate into the squarest of American culture. Hence these pageants – dancing to show tunes on the Dodger outfield. For NSA during the USA Bicentennial, I literally marched in a nighttime parade up 6th Avenue in New York City dressed as a Minuteman with a three-corner hat and a suit lined with lights that were battery-powered and lit up in 4/4 time. No lie.
I was a Buddhist from end of my freshman year at CHS to my sophomore year in college, then I quit. I was happy to be in it when I was – helped me weather adolescence — and happy to leave it when I did.
Through Facebook, Robert tells me he’s got a nice husband and career as an artist in Hawaii, all of which makes me feel good. Looks like he’ll be at the reunion, so that’ll be nice.
I played basketball in high school, though not well. I didn’t improve the way I should have. Senior year was a tough one. Had a falling out with the coach, who never could pronounce my last name, but that wasn’t why we had a falling out. He resigned a year or two later, though not because of me. He went on to coach a college team that holds the distinction of being the only team to lose to the Cal Tech basketball team in the last 30 years or so.
Oh well. I still love the smell of wood-floor gyms. I still play basketball and I’m teaching my daughter, who’s 10.
Unlike most folks at the reunion, whom I suspect are close to grandparenthood, I’m just getting started in the fatherhood game. I’m liking it, though.
When I was young, Claremont was a guitar mecca. This was due to the influence of the 1960s/1970s, the five colleges in town, and a local music store: Claremont Folk Music Center, where I took my first guitar lessons (folk music, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”) from Dorothy Chase, who owned it with her husband, Charles. Ben Harper is their grandson.
(Claremont also had one of the first In-N-Outs, which taught us all what good fast food is.)
Claremont had(s) David Lindley and one of Emmylou Harris’s lead guitar players, whose brother was my guitar teacher later, after I learned to bend notes, which changed my life entirely. After I was taught that bending guitar notes was possible (Jimmy Reed, “Bright Lights Big City”), it seemed to suggest all kinds of things might be bent as well.
It wasn’t long before I was listening to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality on our family’s old record player over and over. And from there, many years later, to George Jones and Sun Ra. Guitar-note bending will do that.
I think I probably knew 20 people who played guitar. I kept playing, though not well. Three chords, maybe a minor 6th. Enough to play Rolling Stones songs. (Never a major seventh, though. I can’t stand that chord. Ever heard “Color My World” by Chicago? That starts with a major seventh.)
Anyway, the best guitar player in my class was a guy named Pebber Brown. Maybe I’ll see Pebber this reunion. When I want to, I can watch him teaching and shredding away on Youtube.
Another guy, Martin Maudal, played some wicked drums in a band with Pebber, but now he makes guitars: Maudal Musical Machines. I think I’ll see Martin. Also, a guy from my class named Robert Elhai is a composer and writes soundtracks, last I heard anyway. Jim Earl and Barry Lank once had a pretty hip comedy duo. They were in my class – that’s Claremont High School, 1977.
Sid Robinson is a city councilman in Upland. We’re about that age now where some of us are city councilmen, or supervisors, or principals, or something in charge.
All in all, not a bad production for one high school class – and I’m leaving out a lot of folks.
I’ll be interested to see whether any of the girls I had crushes on show up. I remember, though, that that was a tormentingly large group, so probably some of them won’t. Not sure if my old girlfriend will or won’t.
Actually, I don’t know who’ll show up. Of course no one wants to go to a high school reunion on parole or something. A guy from the CHS year before mine aimed high and ripped off a Brinks Armored Car of $1 million. Very successful at his chosen trade, he was never seen again. So reunions tend to be kind of self-selecting. But then the really successful folks often have moved far away, so there’s that balancing it all out. Karen Huffman, our homecoming queen, ended up, last I saw her many years ago, as a curator at the Getty Museum. How many schools’ homecoming queens that you know ended up curating exhibits at major museums?
My grandfather, an illegitimate kid abandoned by his mother and thus an outcast in his Spanish village, always wanted to go home to show all the folks who’d treated him poorly that he’d made it in America, all by himself.
But the Depression, World War II, and the distance from Pennsylvania to Spain kept him from doing it. He (on the right in the photo) died in the 1950s, never having gone back.
I know that family reunions are huge business in Appalachia. That’s because so many have left the region, gone in search of work, yet don’t lose the connections to back home. Many go home every year, sometimes for months. West Virginia’s family-reunion business is massive, I was reading someplace. Same with Kentucky’s. Literally people do not lose touch with the place they left 50-60 years before.
So I have something in common with them.
Same with Mexican immigrants.
Years after high school, I lived in Mexico for a long time where I learned that they have their own version of these reunions – realizing yearly what my grandfather wanted to do just once but never could. They would return to their home villages for the annual fiesta, and throw huge parties, come dressed in fancy clothes. Usually it was the migrants who could afford to spend a lot of money who would go home. You didn’t want to go home poor-mouthing it. I remember they didn’t tell too many people back home about how hard they had to work to earn that money. (Mexican cops got used to shaking these folks down as they drove home. Highway 15 along Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a treasure-trove for cops.)
All that makes me think that the urge to go home and see everyone you grew up with is pretty universal – particularly if life’s been good.
ONE FINAL NOTE: That urge is a big reason why poor guys in Mexico get into drug trafficking. The kind of money you can make and the rep you develop are great ways of showing others back at the local fiesta how really well you’ve done, and of having other guys envy you, and of getting all the girls to want to talk to you. Especially if you’re buying beer for everyone in the plaza.
So maybe a high school reunion is really just like some get-together of local Mexican drug traffickers or an Appalachian family reunion.
The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.
After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.
The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.
Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.
Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.
All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.
Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.
He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.
I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.
The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.
In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.
But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.
There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.
As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.
Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.
Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.
Alfredo del Mazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), appears to have been elected Sunday as governor of the massive state of Mexico.
The state of Mexico surrounds Mexico City like a horseshoe. It is economically bustling and contains most of what is Metro Mexico City, with several suburbs with populations of more than 1 million people. It is the most populous state in the country (pop. 16 million).
For decades, it has been run by the PRI – which also ran the country as a one-party state.
(NB: For a good analysis, in Spanish, of why Del Mazo won and the effect this might have on the country’s presidential election next year, read this by Federico Berrueto, which ran after I published this blogpost.)
More than that, though, the state has often been run by a group of Priistas from one small town: Atlacomulco, a town (pop. 77,000) that has produced governors like Xalisco, Nayarit has produced heroin traffickers.
Del Mazo is not technically from this town, but his father was, and so was his grandfather. Both men were governors of the state of Mexico. Both men were PRI leaders. Del Mazo himself is a distant cousin to current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who also hails from Atlacomulco and was once the governor of the state of Mexico.
Moreover, no group more exquisitely represents the worst of Mexican corruption than the governors from the town of Atlacomulco.
What’s popularly known as the Atlacomulco Group formed around an ideologue named Isidro Fabela in the 1940s and 1950s. The group shaped a governing philosophy that combined unregulated/crony capitalism with authoritarian, corrupt politics. Since World War II, of the 16 governors to run the state, seven have hailed from Atlacomulco. Others have taken their cues in how to govern from those from Atlacomulco.
(Each Mexican governor serves a six-year term, though during the PRI monopoly they often left office earlier to serve in the federal government or they finished the term of a governor who left early. This was particularly true of the state of Mexico, which has been a crucible for the formation of PRI leaders and high functionaries in the Mexican government during the years of the party’s political monopoly.)
Carlos Hank Gonzalez, also from this town and also once a governor of the state and a protégé of Fabela’s, encapsulated this philosophy with a now-famous statement, which as decades passed was adopted by many PRI politicians:
“Un politico pobre,” Hank said, “es un pobre politico.” Translation: A poor (not wealthy) politician is a poor (bad) politician.
Atlacomulco governors ran the state like little chieftains, accumulating power and wealth and leaving behind dozens of public assets named for them. (In the map guidebook to metro Mexico City, the listings of streets, avenues, boulevards, parks, neighborhoods, etc etc named for Hank Gonzalez take up three pages.)
This kind of governor is now a standard in Mexico, as the PRI lost its national political monopoly in 2000 and the president lost his undisputed power. It is now in the governors’ offices where power is exercised, at least on a regional level. Instead of one king, there are 31. The results have been disastrous for respect for the rule of law in Mexico.
In 2012, Peña Nieto hailed a “new generation” of governors, ready to do the country’s business in a modern way. At the time, he listed four governors as examples – of which three are now facing criminal charges and are on the run. One of them, Roberto Borge, former governor of the state of Quintana Roo, was detained this week in Panama, on the run fleeing charges of money laundering.
A lot of that can be traced, I believe, to attitudes on governance forged in the state of Mexico by the Atlacomulco Group, and their power within the PRI over the last many decades.
I remember covering the town of Nezahualcoyotl – a slum town in the state of Mexico on the eastern edge of Mexico City (pop. 1-3 million people, depending on who you ask) after residents elected their first non-PRI mayor. The new guy found a city hall teeming with corruption and incompetence. Outside, I remember, were at least 12 newspapers that circulated only within three blocks of city hall. Each was only four or eight pages. They had no interest in reporting news. They were instead intended as organs of promotion for the career of one politician or another and used to attack rivals – all within the broad umbrella of the PRI. That had become a real job in Nezahualcoyotl and other cities in the state of Mexico: start a newspaper, find a politician to fund it and become his promotional vehicle. I still have a bunch of these newspapers somewhere in my files.
This is the legacy of the PRI in the state of Mexico and why I find the election of yet another member of the Atlacomulco Group, no matter how distant, to be reason for discouragement.