From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject The Other Epidemic
Date May 25, 2020 3:45 AM
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[Public health insights are reshaping our understanding of how
violence spreads.] [[link removed]]

THE OTHER EPIDEMIC   [[link removed]]

 

Jack Herrera
May 18, 2020
The Nation
[[link removed]]


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_ Public health insights are reshaping our understanding of how
violence spreads. _

The dividing line: Tijuana is a dangerous city, San Diego a
relatively safe one—but the border wall isn’t the reason for this
drastic disparity., Photo: Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images

 

_Tijuana, Mexico_—A few blocks from the US border, on a street
corner in front of a large warehouse carved out and converted into a
car wash, the locals say you can buy guns, watches, sex,
meth—whatever. Conflicts and scuffles aren’t uncommon here, and in
a bit of irony not lost on anyone, the cops are never far away. The
municipal police keep a substation on the opposite corner, a constant
line of nearly a dozen patrol cars across the street from the car wash
and the open-air drug deals.

To set the scene in Tijuana, I could describe the manicured gardens
outside the handsome midcentury city hall. I could take us to the
Pacific Ocean, where artists and activists have turned the border
wall, that scar of barbed wire and steel across the beach, into
a series of beautiful murals
[[link removed]].
I could picture the engineers working in the city’s booming
aerospace industry or the thriving restaurant scene, with the sweet
tamales served after dinner, the craft breweries.

This corner, though, is where I learned Mexico has changed. One
afternoon last October, I was interviewing a worker at the car wash
when someone shouted to turn the room’s attention to the TV on the
wall. We peered up at a news broadcast of scenes that looked as if
they had come from a disaster movie. Masked men rode
[[link removed]] through the city in the
back of a pickup truck, an enormous gun mounted on the tailgate. Then
another masked man lying on his belly fired a high-caliber rifle into
a group of scattering police officers.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s live. From Sinaloa,” someone answered, not looking away
from the screen. “Culiacán. The narcos have gone to war.”

From that street corner in Tijuana, it was hard to understand what
later became clear. After the Mexican military captured Ovidio
Guzmán López—
[[link removed]]_el
hijo de El Chapo_, the son of the infamous drug lord Joaquín
“Chapo” Guzmán—the Sinaloa cartel sought his release by taking
a hostage: the entire city of Culiacán. In a battle that lasted
throughout the day
[[link removed]],
the cartel outorganized and outfought the military and police block by
block. In the end, the government caved to the cartel. Guzmán was
released in order to restore peace in the city. The narcos won.

On the corner, it was time to leave. The sun was setting as I traveled
about five minutes to the main crossing between Tijuana and San Diego.
On the Mexican side, Guardia Nacional members had been mobilized
around the pedestrian crossing. I walked between two of these heavily
armed troops to cross the bridge into the States. I passed rows upon
rows of walls, fences, razor wire, and guarded gates. I showed my
passport to an agent from Customs and Border Protection, who
scrutinized my face as dozens of cameras recorded me. And then I was
back in the US.

In recent years, resisting fear as a political impulse has meant
resisting the argument that the United States needs this kind of
security on the border—the surveillance, the barriers, the agents
with guns. President Donald Trump’s dream, the wall, has been
rightfully lambasted on the left as a useless monument to racist
tribalism. Many see that the barrier’s intent is symbolic as much as
tactical. The border, after all, is an imaginary line across the
continent. A wall, however, could give it reality—a stone and steel
way to separate supposedly good, honest Americans from the people on
the other side, the people Trump calls “bad hombres.”
[[link removed]]

False security: The heavily guarded San Ysidro border crossing in
Tijuana, Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / AP)

On days like October 17, when a cartel took an entire city hostage, it
was hard not to feel a sense of relief as I crossed back into the US.
I felt safer on the American side. What happened in Culiacán felt
possible in Tijuana in a way it didn’t in San Diego.

The world changes in the space between San Diego and Tijuana. In
recent years, the latter has become one of the homicide capitals of
the world [[link removed]]. In
a city of 1.8 million people, more than 2,500 were killed in 2018
alone
[[link removed]].
Overwhelmed by bodies, the city’s morgue has overflowed. Neighbors
protested the stench of decay, which regularly reaches their homes.

Just across the border, San Diego remains one of the safest big cities
in the US. In 2018, with a population of 1.4 million people, it had
just 86 killings
[[link removed]]—more
than 95 percent lower than the homicide rate in Tijuana.

That massive difference in violence repeats along the entire border.
Northern Mexico is now one of the deadliest places in the hemisphere.
For US citizens, the State Department issued
[[link removed]] a
Level 4 (“Do not travel”) advisory for Tamaulipas, a border state
on the Gulf Coast south of Texas—the same level as for Syria, Yemen,
and North Korea. At the same time, border cities across the
southwestern US aren’t just safer than their Mexican counterparts;
they’re also some of the safest places in the country. Laredo and
Brownsville, two towns just across the border from Tamaulipas, are
both listed among the safest cities in the United States
[[link removed]].

On days like October 17, when a cartel took an entire city hostage, it
was hard not to feel a sense of relief as I crossed back into the US.
I felt safer on the American side. What happened in Culiacán felt
possible in Tijuana in a way it didn’t in San Diego.

The world changes in the space between San Diego and Tijuana. In
recent years, the latter has become one of the homicide capitals of
the world [[link removed]]. In
a city of 1.8 million people, more than 2,500 were killed in 2018
alone
[[link removed]].
Overwhelmed by bodies, the city’s morgue has overflowed. Neighbors
protested the stench of decay, which regularly reaches their homes.

Just across the border, San Diego remains one of the safest big cities
in the US. In 2018, with a population of 1.4 million people, it had
just 86 killings
[[link removed]]—more
than 95 percent lower than the homicide rate in Tijuana.

That massive difference in violence repeats along the entire border.
Northern Mexico is now one of the deadliest places in the hemisphere.
For US citizens, the State Department issued
[[link removed]] a
Level 4 (“Do not travel”) advisory for Tamaulipas, a border state
on the Gulf Coast south of Texas—the same level as for Syria, Yemen,
and North Korea. At the same time, border cities across the
southwestern US aren’t just safer than their Mexican counterparts;
they’re also some of the safest places in the country. Laredo and
Brownsville, two towns just across the border from Tamaulipas, are
both listed among the safest cities in the United States
[[link removed]].

A wave of violence: Mexican soldiers guard a site where a man was
killed by gunfire in Tijuana. (Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images)

As the rates of violence increase rapidly in Mexico’s border towns,
some have been surprised that there’s essentially no spillover
violence in US cities. Could this be the effect of a militarized
border? In between San Diego and Tijuana, a 14-mile steel barrier
carves through the landscape
[[link removed]].
At times such as the day of the Culiacán battle and when I’ve heard
gunshots while out reporting, it can feel as if those miles of
concertina wire and armed patrols are justified—that as Trump and
his allies argue, we need a strong barrier to stop the violence that
plagues Mexico from migrating into this country.

That’s not the truth. There’s a simple fact that the wall
obscures: The people in Tijuana are not the true source of the
violence in that city. And keeping certain people out is not actually
what keeps San Diego safe.

When I drove to Tijuana, I crossed a border where the crime rate
changed staggeringly, well before I even made it to Mexico. In Los
Angeles, I headed toward the coast down Highway 110. In just 20
minutes, I went from Manchester Square (between Compton and Lawndale)
to Rolling Hills Estates, a Malibu-like neighborhood in the hills
northwest of Long Beach. In those few miles, the per capita violent
crime rate plummeted 98 percent
[[link removed]]—from
about 85 incidents per 10,000 people to just 1.2 incidents.

There are no border walls between Rolling Hills and Manchester Square,
no checkpoints, no patrols keeping people out. Yet the violence stays
incredibly localized; you can measure relative security by zip code.
There are similar borders all over the country, in Chicago and New
York, St. Louis and Miami, Houston and New Orleans.

How does this happen? For researchers studying violence, trying to
understand why a city like Tijuana has become violent can look similar
to trying to understand why the people of Flint, Michigan, began
feeling sick in 2014. It’s not really a question of who the people
are. It’s a question of where they live.

From news reports in the United States, the growing violence in
Mexico can seem a straightforward, bloody battle between the narcos
and government agents
[[link removed]] (who
are also sometimes narcos). However, for people such as Iván Cruz,
who has lived most of his life in Tijuana, the growing danger
doesn’t feel like a war zone’s. It’s something different.

Cruz lives in Camino Verde, a southern Tijuana neighborhood
that’s notoriously dangerous
[[link removed]].
In the past few years, he’s watched violence spread through his city
like an epidemic. (As recently as 2014, Tijuana had fewer than 500
homicides per year
[[link removed]].
Last year nearly 2,200 were killed
[[link removed]],
a more than threefold increase.) While Americans focus on narco
shootouts with high-powered weapons, Cruz hasn’t seen the cartels
swoop in and claim territory. Rather, it’s the people of his
neighborhood who seem to have changed. A toxic fog of danger and
distrust now hangs in the air. People are killing each other.
Neighbors are dying, and often no one knows who killed them. In this
atmosphere of intense fear, people who were once peaceful feel forced
to defend themselves; they pick up guns or join gangs. This is no war.
There are no clear sides or enemies, no bad guys and good guys.
Instead, it feels like the arrival of a plague, some disease that can
spread through a neighborhood and take lives.

“It can touch you wherever you are,” Cruz said. “You can try to
stay out of bad areas, you can stay at home with the doors
locked…but the violence can touch you anywhere.”

Increasing militarization: The US pours billions of dollars into
border security each year. (Marco Ugarte / AP)

The first step toward understanding the epidemic of homicide in
Tijuana is realizing that the word “epidemic” isn’t a metaphor.
About 40 years ago, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in
the United States began a series of odd experiments
[[link removed]].
By that time, modern epidemiology had essentially eradicated diseases
like tuberculosis and influenza, which previously were significant
sources of death and misery for Americans. Seeking to rededicate
resources in December 1980, a group of CDC epidemiologists turned
their attention to homicide, another common cause of untimely death.
The scientists ran an experiment that was in many ways a shot in the
dark. They began tracking instances of unsolved child disappearances
and murders in Georgia. As they gathered more data, they saw the
outlines of what later scientific work would make clear: Violence
seemed to spread like a contagious disease.

“The No. 1 predictor of whether a person will go on to commit
violence, more than anything else, is if that person has been exposed
to violence in the past,” said Charlie Ransford, the director of
science and policy for Cure Violence [[link removed]], a US-based
organization that uses epidemiological models to stop the spread of
violence.

Right now, Mexico is experiencing its highest homicide rate in modern
history
[[link removed]].
More than 120,000 people have been killed since 2016 (more than all
US deaths in World War I
[[link removed]]). Recently, Americans’
attention to the violence spiked after nine people—members of the
Mormon-affiliated Lebáron and Langford families—were massacred in
northern Mexico last November
[[link removed]].
But during much of that year, almost 100 people were killed in Mexico
every day.

In my conversations with Cruz and others in Tijuana, the country’s
most murderous city, it soon became clear that it’s not just a
problem of narcos or soldiers. People talk about the violence as if it
were a living force, something that’s come to the city and affected
people, something that can touch you and go into your house.

Thinking of violence as a disease, then, makes a lot of sense. An
epidemiological model of violence can explain why the homicide rate in
Mexico has grown exponentially. Violence isn’t caused only by “bad
guys” who can be arrested and locked up. It’s caused by cycles of
risk and exposure, like any disease. People who were once healthy and
peaceful can become sick with violence.

“It makes absolutely no sense if you think about it
rationally—that a person experiences the harm of violence and then
goes on and does it to other people,” Ransford said. “But when you
understand it as a contagion, something that is being passed on from
exposure, then it starts to make sense.”

Like many researchers studying violence, Ransford is now using a
public health approach to flatten the curve. The same way that doctors
educate the public about contagion risks or distribute condoms to help
prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, organizations
like Cure Violence use targeted interventions for people affected by
violence (for instance, someone who saw a friend shot), including
connecting them to social workers, mediators, and therapists. The
model has been astonishingly successful. In Cure Violence’s first
year working in one of Chicago’s deadliest neighborhoods, the number
of shootings went down by more than 67 percent. That success has been
repeated in 20 cities across the United States, as well as in El
Salvador, Honduras, Syria, Iraq, and other countries. (During the
Covid-19 pandemic, Cure Violence has retrained its staff to encourage
public health practices that discourage the spread of both the virus
and violence.)

When I asked Ransford why violence seems to spread so much more easily
through a city like Tijuana than San Diego, he replied, “Think of
how a disease spreads. The biggest factor is the contagion itself, but
there are other cofactors of transmission.” He used cholera as an
example, which typically needs a water source to spread. In San Diego,
if someone caught cholera abroad and brought it home, it wouldn’t
cause an epidemic. San Diego has a working sewage system and clean tap
water. But in areas without sewage systems or where the same river is
used for drinking water and waste disposal, a single person with
cholera can infect an entire city. This describes the difference
between the two cities: There are established institutions that work
in San Diego but don’t in Tijuana, and there are vectors of
transmission in Tijuana that don’t exist in San Diego. So even when
the contagion crosses the border—and the existence of tunnels and
smuggling routes is an open secret in both cities
[[link removed]]—it doesn’t
have the same danger of spreading in California as it does in Mexico.

Asked whether the border wall could be keeping the violence in Tijuana
from crossing into the United States, Ransford conceded that it might
have an effect. But the more important variables, he said, are the
environmental differences that make one city a hotbed for violence and
the other a safe zone.

“What are the vectors of transmission in a place like Tijuana?” he
asked. To put it another way, what is the violence equivalent of a
contaminated river?

CAMINO VERDE: RAPIDLY AND HAPHAZARDLY URBANIZED, THE POOR NEIGHBORHOOD
IS ONE OF TIJUANA’S MOST DANGEROUS.
.

Iván Cruz’s neighborhood in Tijuana, Camino Verde, is appropriately
named. In its center, a canyon road curls along a creek bed, through
the pale green of the Baja California brushland. In the late
afternoon, the valley cools as the sun sinks behind the coastal
mountains; the shadows of the scraggly trees lengthen along the steep
hillsides, where houses made of fiberboard and tin roofs are stacked
one on top of another. Like many neighborhoods on Tijuana’s
outskirts, Camino Verde was rapidly and haphazardly urbanized. The
roads are winding and poorly maintained, and the electricity and
sewage systems are improvised. Stray dogs, the real kings of the
roads, stop traffic, and feral chickens wander between houses.

While Camino Verde has a reputation as one of Tijuana’s poorest and
most dangerous neighborhoods, its true notoriety comes from a small
number of its residents. According to locals, it’s known as the
birthplace of some of Mexico’s most famous killers. Taking advantage
of the desperate conditions and lack of opportunity in the
neighborhood, the cartels have long gone there to recruit their most
brutal _sicarios_
[[link removed]].

Remembering the dead: In Ivan Cruz’s Camino Verde home, he keeps a
small shrine for his slain brother, Alejandro, who was shot and killed
in 2017. (Jack Herrera)

Up on one of the hills of Camino Verde, along a perilously steep
walkway, Cruz lives with his parents, his sister, her son, his widowed
sister-in-law, and her young son in a tidy house. When I first visited
him, one of the neighborhood’s stray dogs barked at me playfully as
a man watched us closely from a car parked across the street.
(_Halcones_, or gang lookouts, are a fixture in the neighborhood.)

Cruz was dressed in a neat blue polo shirt and carried a small
backpack. At 30 years old, he has a round, boyish face and a
fastidiously maintained haircut. He told me how he studied
communications at a local university and graduated to work in a human
resources department at one of the city’s many factories.
(“Finances and management,” he said proudly.)

“When my family moved here in ’97, Tijuana wasn’t known for
violence. But it’s increased so much since then, to the point that
now one is afraid to go out into the street. You don’t know if
someone will stop you, assault you, take your money.” Cruz said that
his family tried to adapt to the growing insecurity. “At first, you
just think, ‘OK, I’m going to be more careful.’ You tell
yourself, ‘I’ll stay safe. I’ll teach my kids what’s good and
what’s bad.’ But then something happens to your family.”

(Jack Herrera)

When Cruz invited me into his home, I noticed a small shrine above the
crib where his nephew sleeps. On a makeshift cardboard shelf, paper
flowers lay next to a printed photo of a young man, Cruz’s brother,
Alejandro. In November 2017, Alejandro (a pseudonym) became one of the
thousands killed in the new wave of violence. Neighbors found his body
not far from Cruz’s house, at the bottom of the hill on the road
that runs along the green creek bed. He had been shot twice.

In great detail Cruz told the story of learning that his brother had
died but said there’s still so much he didn’t understand. He knew
his brother, depressed and struggling under the insecurity of life in
Camino Verde, sometimes used drugs; he also knew the corner where they
found his body is near a now derelict liquor store where the rumor was
you could buy more than just alcohol. However, even today, Cruz
doesn’t know exactly what happened to his brother. The police, if
they ever truly investigated, have given up, despite the family’s
constant pleading for more information.

“We don’t know anything about what happened. We have no
idea—nothing,” Cruz said. “But if there wasn’t earthly
justice, we hope there will be divine justice. We are believers.”

The continuing mystery of Alejandro’s death illuminates the specific
nature of the violence in Tijuana and the rest of Mexico. The vast
majority of homicides in Tijuana—more than 90 percent—go unsolved.
And the killings that do get prosecuted are rarely the ones that take
place in areas like Camino Verde. There’s a reliable sense among
residents that the crimes that actually get investigated are the ones
that happen in wealthier neighborhoods, where the police and other
municipal resources are concentrated. In contrast, in places like
Camino Verde, there is an understanding, terrifying and bleak, that a
person can kill someone else without consequence.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, is the equivalent of that
contaminated river: impunity. In Tijuana, you can kill without
consequence in a way that’s not possible in a place like San Diego.
Tijuana’s broken criminal justice system is similar to a broken
sewer system. It foments the contagion of violence and helps it spread
rapidly through the population.

Impunity has been a documented cofactor of violence in cities like
Chicago and Los Angeles, where police often fail to properly
investigate gang-related killings; in Chicago, police solve only one
out of every 20 shootings
[[link removed]].
Impunity can also explain much of the violence in the rest of Mexico.
According to a 2017 study from the Mexican-based Center for Studies on
Impunity and Justice, the country had the fourth-highest rate of
impunity worldwide
[[link removed]]. As recently as
2016, it was estimated that fewer than 1 percent of crimes in Mexico
were punished. The impunity tends to be worse in the states most
affected by drug-related corruption
[[link removed]]:
the border states of Baja California and Tamaulipas, as well as
agricultural areas such as Guerrero and Oaxaca.

“Tijuana, with California just across the border, is one of the most
important trafficking points,” said Tijuana Mayor Arturo González
Cruz (no relation to Iván Cruz). “This has created a very serious
problem for us.” After decades of narcos carving out a transit
channel through Tijuana
[[link removed],],
the city’s justice system has been seriously compromised. Many
residents consider the police corrupt and unreliable, and they’re
often proved right. This means that Cruz’s story is by no means
rare. Hundreds of families live with a suddenly empty bed in their
house and a deep sense of the unknown.

After Alejandro’s killing, Cruz walked the streets wondering if any
of the people around him had killed his brother and why. Without
anything like the rule of law, his family members lived in fear and
had to learn to navigate a complicated web of self-defense. They
worried that Alejandro might have been targeted and that they too
might be marked. They began avoiding certain streets, going home
before nightfall, and doing everything they could to keep a low
profile. They didn’t want to make trouble. Then a year later, as
they planned a memorial for Alejandro’s death, tragedy befell the
family again. Cruz’s cousin was shot and killed.

“At that point, we fell into a state of total panic,” he told me.
“We all gathered in the house and locked every door. They had us
terrified. We were scared to even go to the corner shop to get
tortillas.”

In this atmosphere of terror, the cartels find Camino Verde ripe for
recruits. Without the police to protect them, residents have to defend
themselves as best they can. It is to people living in this state of
fear—in true, constant danger—that the narcos make their offer: We
will put a gun in your hand. We will make you a killer, invincible.
You can stop being afraid.

Cruz had remarkable patience when we talked about the origins of the
violence that claimed his brother. When I asked why he thought the
homicide rate was so different between Tijuana and San Diego, he
appealed to sociology rather than demonize any of the people in his
neighborhood. “The economic pressure—the need to eat—is stronger
in Tijuana than San Diego,” he said.

Along with the language and the homicide rate, there’s another major
characteristic that changes when one crosses the border from San Diego
into Tijuana: the poverty rate
[[link removed]].
In Tijuana a high percentage of the city’s residents are college
educated, and the unemployment rate is low. But in a city sharply
stratified between wealth and precarity, violence has defined borders,
even without any walls. While the deeply marginalized outskirts of the
city suffer from shocking rates of crime, much of Tijuana remains
perfectly safe. The city is still a popular tourist destination,
despite being one of the world’s homicide capitals. The
microbreweries, beach cabanas, and casinos frequented by tourists have
remained secure. When you map the city’s homicides, you see the
majority of them have occurred in Tijuana’s southern and especially
eastern additions
[[link removed]],
far from the wealthy beachside and downtown areas.

When I asked González why people turn to violence in his city, he
sighed and leaned forward in his chair. “Listen, if you do not have
the ability to make a living to support your family and there’s an
easy deal available and that deal is drug trafficking, then you’re
going to get into that deal,” he said. “But if you have a good job
that allows you to support your family honestly, to take care of them
better, then there won’t be the pressure to think of work on the
other side.”

While drug trafficking continues to affect the city, the crime in
Tijuana today looks much different than it did in the late 2000s, when
rival cartels battled it out in the streets. The fighting between the
powerful narcos has largely died down, quite possibly because of a
consolidation of control. Now the violence largely stems from
something else. Tijuana is in the midst of a serious addiction crisis
[[link removed]]. _Cristal_,
meth, has flooded the streets. Just as the opioid epidemic played out
in economically blighted areas in the American heartland, so drug use
skyrocketed in Tijuana as jobs and economic security cratered in the
late 2000s. Today many of the homicides are targeted violence on a
lower level, as street dealers fight to maintain control of their
corners
[[link removed]].

Experts like Ransford hope that we can come to see violence in the
same way we’re learning to see addiction. Instead of viewing it as a
moral failing on the part of the addict, we’ve begun to understand
it as a disease—and also as a symptom of a society’s failure to
provide jobs, community, and meaning. “When a person has been
behaving violently, we believe deeply that that individual is having a
health problem,” Ransford said, “that they almost always have a
history of exposure to violence in their lives.”

In many ways, it’s a disturbing reality to come to terms with: that
violence is something universal to humanity. We all have the capacity
to commit violence, and it’s simply a question of the pressures that
drive us to do so.

For many Americans, it’s more comforting to think of the horrific
violence playing out in Mexico as something essentially Mexican,
something we can keep out with a border wall. However, any
neighborhood in the United States could fall into the same perils if
afflicted by the same social pressures. Indeed, many have.

If you follow the green road up the hill through the center of Camino
Verde, past all the tin-roofed houses, a white, hypermodern building
suddenly appears along the creek bed. Casa de las Ideas looks like a
collection of clean white cubes and square portals. Out front,
there’s a small sculpture garden in a cobblestone patio. Behind the
building, there’s the half moon of an outdoor amphitheater.

Casa de las Ideas is a digital library opened in 2013
[[link removed]] as
part of an urban development effort in the neighborhood. Today it
works like a community center for Camino Verde’s youth. Every day,
the library hosts educational and artistic programming for children
and young adults.

Camino Verde’s Casa de las Ideas. (Jack Herrera)

Inside, Christian Zúñiga, an art professor from the Autonomous
University of Baja California, explains that this work is a direct
defense against the gangs that seek recruits in the neighborhood.
“This is primary prevention,” he said. “The pressure to engage
in [criminal activity] begins early.” The boys are recruited when
they’re still in primary school. “We try to establish different
horizons. We try to change attitudes and predispositions by offering
people new opportunities.”

The idea behind the community center is that violence can be
prevented, in part by connecting at-risk youth with education, career
planning, and a safe place. (In addition to its attractive modernist
design, the building’s semibrutalist facade is as thick as a
bunker.) Casa’s mission has some similarities with Cure Violence’s
model. Instead of addressing violence by criminalizing local
residents, it seeks to connect them with resources and opportunities.

At Casa de las Ideas, there’s an understanding that the world
can’t be split into good people and bad guys. In a healthy, secure
neighborhood, safety prevails; in a marginalized, exploited
neighborhood, violence spreads like a disease. Anyone thrown into the
dangers of a place like Camino Verde might pick up a gun. But the same
people the cartels hope to recruit could become doctors or artists if
placed in a different environment. Casa de las Ideas tries to create
that environment.

When I asked Zúñiga for his ideas about the origins of “Mexican
violence,” he bristled at my phrase. “The weapons [the cartels]
are using come from the United States, and people in the United States
are [the ones] who buy the drugs,” he said.

The United States is a world leader in drug consumption, and the
clear majority of the guns in Mexico come from the US
[[link removed]].
So while the violence may play out south of the border, in many ways
Zúñiga is right: It’s not just Mexican violence; it’s also
American violence, killing Mexican people.

On a fall afternoon, Cruz met me at Casa de las Ideas. We spent some
time admiring the architecture, then we drove along the riverbank.
Along the way, we passed a variety of recently constructed
facilities—a soccer field and playground, another community center,
a tidy park.

“I think it’s wonderful there are opportunities coming into the
neighborhood,” Cruz said. He credited being able to attend college
as the reason he didn’t fall into crime. He had other opportunities,
other horizons.

As we drove along the dusty bank, he suddenly said, “Stop right
here. This is the place.”

We got out of the car in front of a building with a rundown facade
painted an almost neon blue. It was the liquor store. “This is where
they found his body,” Cruz told me.

Quietly, we looked around. I wondered what it was like for him to be
there now. Not just where they found Alejandro’s body but in the
same neighborhood where he was killed—the same neighborhood that
killed him.

Cruz said that, at a certain point, he and his family gave up living
in fear. Trying their best to stay safe, confining themselves to the
house, felt like living in a prison.

“One gets tired of living with that fear. You decide, ‘I’m just
going to try to live a normal life.’ You go outside again,” he
said.

_Jack Herrera is an independent reporter covering immigration, refugee
issues, and human rights. His work has appeared in Politico
Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, Pacific Standard, and
elsewhere._

_Copyright c 2020 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be
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