Special Report

Man in the Street of Laredo

A stop Secretary of State Clinton will not make on her visit to Mexico this week.

By 3.24.09

(Note: Secretary of State Clinton will visit Mexico March 25 to prepare for a visit next month by President Obama. The author is lecturing and writing in Mexico this spring.)

LAREDO -- As I walked out on the sidewalks of this vast sprawl of barrios with nary a tall building nor an urban core, I ventured along a section of streets by no means affluent but less poor than many others here. By their names at least, these streets of Laredo would make Lou Dobbs feel securely at home: Yorkshire, Derby, Newport, Kingston, Milford, and, for the varmint-chasin' sheriff in us all, Nottingham. The names are meaningless as well as unpronounceable to the brown denizens, whose tongue is not that of John Milton and Marty Robbins and imperious Queen Bess, but of Garcilaso de la Vega, Vicente Fernández, and jilted Catherine of Aragon.

A few hours earlier on a sunny day in March, our family drove here from the east on the old two-lane U.S. Route 59. Deep inside U.S. territory, miles from Laredo, a distant, gigantic Mexican flag appears against the endless backdrop of scrub and cactus. A few miles later, a somewhat less humongous United States flag becomes visible near its rival. With a medieval sort of passion, competing national banners dare the desert landscape and juxtapose oddly with rotting 1950s-era buildings and border-town danger and sleaze. Here El Cid meets a Touch of Evil, but where is Charlton Heston now that we need him?

In the backseat, four-year-old Rita Verónica Duggan y Landa held a pink DVD player and laughed at a political satire produced in 1949, the same year the Western powers signed the North Atlantic Treaty and Heston launched his television career on Westinghouse's "Studio One." In this Warner Brothers creation, "Bunker Hill Bunny," Yosemite Sam as a Hessian heavy sallies from his stronghold to attack the brave redoubt of Bugs Bunny, an American Patriot.

Over Bugs's bastion of homeland security flies a banner proclaiming "WE." The flag over Sam's fort is emblazoned "THEY." Bugs resolves to take the fight to the enemy so he doesn't have to fight them at home. He charges towards Sam's fort. Each captures the other's installation. What had been the bunny's officers' mess now hoists "THEY" while the former Sam's club displays "WE."

The fighting resumes, and in the end, shocked and awed, Yosemite Sam capitulates. "I'm a Hessian with no aggression! If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" The screen goes dark as Bugs and Sam, now Continental comrades beneath the Stars and Stripes, play a Merrie Melody, beating the drum rapidly, playing the fife altissimo.

"¡Qué chistosa!" exclaims Rita, a United States citizen born in Washington, D.C.

Rumor and raw intelligence are plentiful in interviews with the man-in-the-streets of Laredo. United States citizens, all of Mexican heritage and some of Mexican birth, say they don't cross the border as often as before, and never at night. In the dark streets of Nuevo Laredo across the narrow, shallow, sluggish river, chances are the stranger will meet a rogue cop or a fake soldier with a big iron on his hip. The quick-witted stranger may escape as a donor of foreign assistance. Those less fortunate vanish completely or come home as cold as the clay. Another peril is the crossfire between the Mexican military and the well-armed and handsomely paid paramilitaries of the narcotraffickers.

In Nuevo Laredo, the only thing organized is crime. Across the international bridge by car, the helter-skelter streets allow the travelers from El Norte freedom to move about the country, but of course without the right documentation this is illegal. There is no easy way for a visitor from the United States seeking a visa for a short-term business stay to find the appropriate office. The first agent contacted refuses to tender the proper application without a bribe. After much searching, another agent in another part of town provides the form, but only after a long wait and a battery of questions presuming the visitor guilty until proven innocent. In the end, the second agent relaxes and becomes cordial. The contest is over. He got what he wanted: not a bribe but the deep satisfaction of humiliating a gringo.

This is the retail counter version of what national security wonks and salon diplomats call reciprocity. My wife, a Mexican citizen who over the years traveled many times to the United States, often as a contractor for the U.S. State Department and its consulates along the border, says that U.S. immigration officers do not demand bribes but almost always, even though her papers are in impeccable order, make her feel like a criminal before consenting to let her into the Land of the Free. Her cousins in Monterrey say this too is the treatment they get when they go to Buy American in the grandiose shopping malls of Texas.

Can we build our dreams on suspicious minds?

The disorder and violence on the border cannot really be called a clash of civilizations, because civilization is absent in the frontier environment. Mexico and the United States in their heartlands are real and distinct civilizations, but borderlands are blurry and inherently uncivilized.

As soccer won unprecedented popularity in the United States during the past couple of decades, futbol Americano now is gaining a following in Mexico. The border is the arena of the ground game, where we and they -- cops and robbers and bureaucrats, bad and good guys, puppets, paupers, pirates, poets, pawns and drug kingpins -- literally and figuratively shove and block and tackle to hold or move the line of scrimmage.

The competition is far from over. It is truly a lucha libre and thus it is hard to tell how to define victory, much less who will wear the laurels, but it may indicate something that bullfighting is still banned in the United States while declining in Mexico. Our southern neighbor's hot new spectator sport is stock car racing on six shimmering NASCAR speedways in the desert north, in the jungle south, and under the volcano in the ancient Aztec umbilicus, the world's largest and most ungovernable metropolis, Mexico City. 

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.