THERE IS A MAN DRIVING FAST down a dirt road leading to the border. A rooster tail of dust marks his passage. He is very frightened and his 15-year-old son sits beside him in silence. The boy is that way—very bright, yet very quiet. They are unusually close. The father has raised him as a single parent since he was four.
The father and son are fleeing to the United States. Back in their hometown of Ascensión, Chihuahua, men with assault rifles are searching for them. These men are soldiers in the Mexican Army and intend to kill the father, and perhaps the son, also. As the man drives toward the border crossing at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, he thinks the soldiers are ransacking his house. No one in the town will have the guts to speak up.
The man knows this absolutely.
His name is Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and he is a reporter and that is why he is a dead man driving. He recalls how back when Carlos Salinas was president, the Mexican Army came to this same part of northern Chihuahua, beat up a bunch of peasants, tortured prisoners, and terrorized the community under the guise of fighting drug cartels. The peasants never filed any grievances because they knew any complaints would be ignored by their government. Or they would be disappeared. This is the kind of thing the reporter has understood since childhood but does not write and publish. Like the peasants, he knows his place in the system.
It is June 16, 2008, and in two days he will have his 45th birthday, should he live that long.
The military has again flooded northern Mexico, ever since President Felipe Calderón assumed office in December 2006 with a margin so razor thin that many Mexicans think he is an illegitimate president. One of his first acts was to declare a war on the nation's thriving drug industry, and his favorite tool was to be the Mexican Army, portrayed as less corrupt than the local or national police. Now some 45,000 soldiers, nearly 25 percent of the Army, are marauding all over the country, escalating the mayhem that consumes Mexico. In 2008, more than 6,000 Mexicans died in the drug violence, a larger loss than the United States has endured during the entire Iraq War. Since 2000, two dozen reporters have been officially recorded as murdered, at least seven more have vanished, and an unknown number have fled into the United States. But all numbers in Mexico are slippery, because people have so many ways of disappearing. In 2008, 188 Mexicans—cops, reporters, businesspeople—sought political asylum at US border crossings, more than twice as many as the year before. This is the wave of gore the man rides as he heads north.
He has tried to avoid this harsh reality. He has been careful in his work. His publisher has told him it is better to lose a story than to take a big risk. He does not look too closely into things. If someone is murdered, he prints what the police tell him and lets it go at that. If people sell or warehouse drugs in his town, he ignores it. Nor does he inquire about who controls the drug industry in his town or anywhere else.
The man driving is terrified of hitting an Army checkpoint. They are random and they are everywhere. The entire Mexican north has become a killing field. In Palomas, a nearby border town of maybe 7,500 souls, more than 40 men have already been executed in the past year, and several more have vanished in kidnappings; a mass grave was discovered in May. Some of these murders are by drug cartels. Some of these murders are by state and federal police. Some of these murders are by the Mexican Army. There are now many ways to die.
The high desert is beautiful, a pan of creosote with saucers of grass in moist low spots. Here and there volcanic remnants make black marks on the Earth and there is almost no water. Almost all the rivers flowing from the Sierra Madre vanish in the desert. But it is home, the place he has spent his life.
The reporter may die for committing a simple error. He wrote an accurate news story. He did not know that was dangerous because he thought the story was very small and unimportant. He was wrong and that was the beginning of all his trouble.
There are two Mexicos.
There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war on drugs, aided by the Mexican Army and the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion in aid the United States has committed to the cause. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, laws, and is seen by the United States government as a sister republic.
It does not exist.
There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share of drug profits, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed.
The reporter lives in this second Mexico.
Until very recently, he liked it just fine. In fact, he loves Mexico and has never thought of leaving. Even though he lives about 20 miles from the border, he has not bothered to cross for almost 10 years.
But now, things have changed. He knows about the humanitarian treaties signed by the United States and he thinks given these commitments, he and his boy will be given asylum. He has decided to tell the authorities nothing but the truth. He has failed to realize one little fact: No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum.
Suddenly, he sees a checkpoint ahead and there is no way to escape it.
Men in uniforms pull him over.
He discovers to his relief that this checkpoint is run by Mexico's migration agency, and so, maybe, they will not give him up to the Army.
"Why are you driving so fast?"
"I am afraid. There are people trying to kill me."
"No, the soldiers."
"Who are you?"
He hands over his press pass.
"Oh, you are the one, they searched your house."
"I have had problems."
"Those sons of bitches do whatever they want. Go ahead. Good luck."
He roars away. When he stops at the port of entry at Antelope Wells in the bootheel of New Mexico, US customs ask, as they always do, what he is bringing from Mexico.
He says, "We bring fear."