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The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part I

US-Mexico Border

Two great thrillers in just one week–this week we also celebrate the paperback publication of Sebastian Rotella’s acclaimed debut novel TRIPLE CROSSING. In bookstores now everywhere!

One of the first things we thought when we finished reading TRIPLE CROSSING was: we have to get Sebastian Rotella and Luis Urrea together. Of course, their conversation is fascinating, about borders, security, fear and the blurry line between “good” and “evil.”

Luis Urrea: Sebastian, you and I write about a lot of things, but I think we’re both seen as “Border writers” and I find in my experience that I kind of dislike a lot “Border experts” and “Border writers” because they come from outside the experience and bring in a lack of sympathy and empathy for the milieu. And I’m really curious about what I feel sets your work apart. How do you try to approach this? And am I full of hot air? Maybe I’m wrong about these guys, but you know it feels to me that much of the writing about this subject feels like a visit to the zoo.

Sebastian Rotella: Yeah, I remember you wrote about that eloquently in the past. You wrote about it in the very nice review you wrote of my previous book, TWILIGHT ON THE LINE. It’s a very good point. There’s this kind of parachute quality that happens with border coverage. I encountered that as a journalist. Obviously I had to be humble when I came to Tijuana, not having been there before. I had to learn that beat. But I had the advantage that I was based at the border. And I surprised that I was one of the few journalists covering the border who was based there working for major newspapers. This was a serious issue. You have pointed this out as well: even on the Mexican side, you’d get people parachuting in to cover the border from Mexico City or from Washington or from wherever they were coming from. And it makes such a difference to be based there full-time. What I went out of my way to do in those years, and the way I’ve tried to do my reporting in general, is to get out there and spend time on the ground with the migrants and with the cops and with the Border Patrol and with the human rights activists. There’s just so much to learn there and you only begin to understand the mysteries even if you are based at the border full time.

LU: Yeah, when I read TWILIGHT ON THE LINE, I thought, “Well this boy’s a homeboy, man.” You had the milieu down. And I actually stole from you. When you were talking about people going to the Big Boy and hanging out and so forth, I thought, “Dammit, I know that neighborhood. I know the restaurants around there. And it was really exciting to realize that there was a new sort of place to observe story happening. I always really responded to that in your work. I so often feel like (and I won’t name any names) that some of the people who have had very critically acclaimed books on the Border, a lot of them are filled with a sort of disdain and superiority held over their subjects. It really bothered me because I thought that there are so many levels of humanity striving and what moves me about that region is that, like you say, it’s kind of rejected by Mexico City as well as by Washington DC. It’s on its own.

SR: Yeah. And the problem is that we are attracted to (rightfully so) the dark side and the profound suffering and cruelty and heroism that is going on in arenas like the drug wars and illegal immigration. Those topics are so alluring and important that you end up writing about them. But when I was based there I also now and then tried in my coverage, and I tried to do it even in this novel (which is about crime and corruption), to demonstrate that there are so many other aspects. There is such energy at the border and such a rich culture: the music and the literature and the language that comes out of that encounter of cultures. People do sort of get a tunnel vision about focusing on the violence and despair. And it’s a struggle. Because as you become more of an expert, as you learn more about those secret worlds, you want to write about them. But at the same time you don’t want the border to be defined only by the dark side.

LU: Oh yeah. I put in my novel when my characters got to Tijuana, they found people with geranium gardens because there’s that too. There’s the abuelitas and kids going to school, but we forget. Something I’ve been saying to people, certainly since DEVIL’S HIGHWAY came out. I kept telling them, “You’re all obsessed with ‘illegal immigration,’ but the fact is that’s not going to be the story. What’s going to be the story is this terrorist insurgency that is fueled by the drugs.” And, you know, it seems to be coming through. I’m so fascinated that you’ve entered that world and like me you are working it now through fiction and not reportage. I was dying to have you talk to me about that. I’m really interested in what took you out of that world and into the fictional aspect. My suspicion for my work is that there is a deeper truth that I cannot footnote, but I can access that deeper truth through story. That’s why I started going that way.

US-Mexico BorderSR: I think you are exactly right. There are a couple of things. Number 1, the liberating quality that it has when you write fiction about these topics while trying to stay true to them and explore those larger truths. I’m a very careful journalist. As you know, a lot of those stories inherently remain mysteries and there’s just versions, and when you write about it in fiction, you can in a way write with more authority. And I will confess that there are a couple of anecdotes in my novel that are very much based on things that sources told me while I covered the border that I am convinced really happened. But I never could quite report those incidents because I didn’t feel I had quite enough confirmation. You know what I mean? But when I was writing the novel, I said to myself: “Okay, this is how I think that happened.” A lot of the action in TRIPLE CROSSING happens at the San Diego-Tijuana border, but it also moves to the Triple Border area in South America. And I did this is because I wanted the book to be about this idea of the borderlands, not just the border, but borderlands. These spaces that exist around Latin America and around the world really, these zones of lawlessness and intrigue and cultural convergence. And I found that fiction was a much more satisfying and powerful way to get at some of these larger truths and explore those worlds. And I think you’re right about the narco insurgency or the narco terrorism or whatever you want to call it. As much as you hear about people howling about illegal immigration, when you hear the debate in illegal immigration in the United States the premise is always that it’s getting worse, the Border is always getting worse, no matter what. But then you look at the statistics and actually, illegal crossing is down. And if you’ve spent any time at the Border recently you would know as well as me that it’s harder than ever to cross and more expensive and more dangerous. There are more Border Patrol agents than there ever were before. Unfortunately, these mafias have become so dangerous and so all-powerful that they’ve taken over the people smuggling business. So, number one, there’s a lot of violence going on and number two, it’s more criminalized and more dangerous than ever. And then you have all this weird stuff going on like this big increase in South Asians, Indians in particular, in Texas. And what does that say if you’ve got Indians coming in? You have Chinese showing up in Arizona with Cuban money in their pockets, so they definitely came through Cuba, which is a police state and that suggests some of the Cuban authorities are involved or at least aware of the smuggling. That means very powerful global mafias are at work moving these migrants across the world to the Mexican border. One of the things I do in TRIPLE CROSSING is to imagine a near or parallel future when the border has experienced a surge in non-Mexican migrants. That builds on today’s reality. It was a great experience to be able to explore this territory through fiction. I think you are absolutely right in that you can get at a lot of these truths way more effectively through fiction.

LU: Yeah, I thought it was really effective and fascinating for you to take the story away from Tijuana and go down there into Latin America and start showing some deeper roots. I think you’re total right about the internationalist focus of this. The narco groups are very enthralling, their crude maniacal violence and sort of Surrealistic flair, like we have the Knights Templar all of a sudden running around. These bizarre groups. But they’re internationalist guys and they’ve got billions of dollars and they’re quite sophisticated. The influx of what the border patrol calls the “OTM.”

SR: I’ve always loved that term, “OTM.” Other than Mexican.

LU: I do too. “OTM.” It’s totally fascinating to me and I think it reflects some other stuff. Watching the narco guys, for example, as they found passage of the drugs north more difficult. They started relying on more and more draconian things like addicting the populace and the border towns in Mexico to meth. They start doing meth, which they can bring the chemicals in legally from China. You’re seeing this very weird sort of global capitalism working in a very bizarre fashion. And I think you’re right that the sort of kingpins of the narco-demon have spread out to overwhelm all of those activities.

SR: It’s something that you can see at the border. Borders are gateways into secret worlds of organized crime and the kinds of clandestine trends and developments you’re talking about. I think you’re absolutely right. One of the things that happened after 9/11, it became harder to smuggle things and people across the border and into the United States. But perversely, that makes the situation worse because as the drug market expands in Mexico, the Mexican cartels and the other groups (but the Mexicans as the most powerful) grow as well and they start looking for other markets. I write about the Triple Border. You have had Mexican drug lords busted at the Triple Border down in Paraguay and Brazil. A law enforcement source told me a great anecdote about a Mexican smuggling pilot, an expert at flying loads of cocaine, who was being pursued. He flew a cocaine load from Venezuela, which is the big new launching pad for dope both to the States and to Europe, into Mexico. First, he gets detected flying a load into Baja California, somewhere near the border. Then, a couple of years later the investigators detected him flying a load of cocaine from Venezuela into West Africa, which is the new route for cocaine going into Europe. Venezuela, Colombia, over into Western Africa and then up into Europe. His story is a microcosm of a major shift in smuggling routes which requires complex international alliances among mafias. In those absolutely poor, impoverished, lawless, countries in West Africa you can do all kinds of business. South American traffickers are setting up shop in Africa and working with European gangsters and Lebanese crime clans connected to Hezbollah. And they are focused on smuggling into Europe because the defenses are weak in the African route leading to Southern Europe. Plus the euro is very strong compared to the dollar. It’s amazing the stories that you find in the evolving world of those mafias. And I think you hit the nail on the head too with this idea that it’s also an incredibly powerful culture and that’s why it sweeps up all these kids.

LU: You see so often guys who have no chance, no money, no job and I think it’s become hip, especially in Juarez and parts of Tijuana. You get an AK and you get a car and you have girls and you have all this power and money and you kill people. And it’s a trade off for those kids. I find that heartbreaking, especially when you think of the, maybe not booming, but fairly robust economy in Mexico, that the gap between upper and lower is so unbreachable that it’s helping fuel this. I wanted ask you another thing that I’ve been really curious about just on a personal level.

SR: Sure.

LU: Your security as you work on these books. When I was doing DEVIL’S HIGHWAY, I had been told three different times by three different law enforcement bodies that I was at risk and that I would be killed for doing the book, just for DEVIL’S HIGHWAY, just for human smuggling. You’re dealing with some pretty dangerous material and dangerous subject matter even though it’s in fiction. I have family in the Mexican government, particularly from Sinaloa and I’ve been asking and asking, “Can you somehow introduce me to Chapo Guzmán?” And they all tell me, “You’re crazy, man. You’re nuts. You can’t interview Chapo Guzmán.” And I say, “Well, he doesn’t kill everybody. He talks to some people.” But, they don’t want to deal with it because they are afraid. They are so afraid that even the mention of the things that you talk about in your novel could get them into serious trouble. And you as sort of fire-breathing journalists who has been into some danger zones, how do you negotiate that? Or is it a concern at all.

SR: No, it’s definitely a concern. And I’ve obviously been working at the Border, working in Latin America and in recent years, I’ve been working a lot on Islamic terrorism in Europe and in the Middle East and South Asia. The thing is developing sources and being guided by them and enough of them being people you trust, people you respect, people who have different perspectives, you don’t feel like you’re doing things blind. You feel like you know who you’re dealing with, where you’re going. You’re always trying to assess that balance between risk and being prudent and all that. At a certain point, though, you either do it or you turn in your badge.

LU: Damn the torpedoes! No guts, no glory.

SR: It helps, for example, in covering Latin America, it helps to speak the language fluently and to have lived there. To really understand what’s going on and to really have a knack for it. Not like, well, people tell you they speak Spanish, really that means they can buy toothpaste at a drugstore. They don’t read books in Spanish, they don’t have a sense of slang and jargon and regional differences. No, to really have an in-depth knowledge of it. Not just because you are functioning and communicating with people more effectively, but because you’re soaking up information all the time. Nonetheless, it may be you don’t have sources in a certain area or issue and you have to develop them. Especially, when I started covering Islamic terrorism, a lot of us after 9/11, when I was based in Europe, we were learning about Islamic terrorism on the fly. I had to work hard to develop new sources. That is a skill into itself that you learn with time. You may not have sources in the area, but you have other sources from the past who can connect you with new ones and you have a reputation for being serious and trustworthy. One source leads to another. And I think that is one of the most important things, who your interlocutors are, who you’re learning from. And that helps you assess all kinds of things, including this question of risk.

LU: Wow, that’s great, man. And Miriam, what do you want to know?

Miriam Parker: Well, it’s funny because that actually leads right into what I was thinking about. Because I was watching the 60 Minutes piece on the mayor of Santiago. I’m sure for Sebastian, this is old news to you. Edelmiro Cavazos? The way they framed it, he was a sort of innocent guy who kind of got stuck between the drug cartels. I don’t know if that’s true or not and Sebastian you can disabuse me of this notion if it is not true. But it does sort of seem like there are these innocent people that get caught up in these situations and I wonder if that’s a fear for a journalist or if it’s something you can kind of avoid because you’re sort of standing outside, as opposed to being inside.

SR: Well, it’s definitely a fear for a journalist. The people who are in the worst danger and are obviously the most vulnerable and the most heroic are the Latin American journalists who so often end up playing the role of police and prosecutors. Because often the police and prosecutors are either hiding under the desk or working for the bad guys. Obviously, there are lots of brave police and prosecutors in the region. But you see it happen time and time again, journalists out leading the charge against corruption and mafias. It is true that it has reached a level of danger, particularly for the regional journalists in Mexico, in the border states and elsewhere. There is this very scary thing and I’m curious about your view of it, Luis. A kind of silence has descended over journalists in some places. Some have taken refuge in the States. Some have just decided not to write about the drug issue anymore. Others, I mean there was that one newspaper, I believe it was in Ciudad Juarez, that actually wrote a dramatic editorial, which I think was partly also to call attention to the issue, not really a declaration of surrender. In that editorial they essentially said to the drug lords, “What can we do not to get killed anymore?” It is harrowing. It is scary, but again, the journalists in Mexico, in Central America, in Pakistan, are the ones who are in the most danger, the ones who have to deal with it day in day out. And the whole question of innocence is always difficult, saying who is innocent and who isn’t. The structures of these criminal groups are so pernicious and so insidious and so all-encompassing that people end up coming into contact with them in one way or another. That’s one of the scariest things about it: it’s hard to know who you’re dealing with.

LU: Yeah, I think the power is based in the general fear. I think you’re right, the cone of silence that descends is necessary if you’re going to survive and still you may die because you don’t know if you’re deemed guilty by someone who has observed you doing something they don’t approve of or speaking to someone. You know that recent massacre in the beauty parlor I think near Acapulco. All the women in the place were killed and no one knows why. Men stormed it and cut their throats and left. Why? No one knows. It’s a very complex scene. What I really like in what you’re writing especially and what I don’t like about some of the other books is that you remember that there is humanity involved. I think it’s hard to remember sometimes that the bad guys are also human. I had this really funny experience. I had done an event in Laredo? and I was flying back home to Chicago and we go to Dallas. And I’m a white-looking boy, nobody knows I’m from Tijuana or speak Spanish. And I’m sitting there in the waiting room with a bunch of Mexicanos, right? And these two guys walk in, both with military haircuts, both with aviator shades, one looks like he is in his sixties, one is probably late thirties; he’s quite muscular and he is wearing a black Santa Muerte? T-shirt.
SR: Man!
LU: And I’m thinking, “Dude, that guy’s a narco, man.” And they walked in and they looked around the waiting room and they chose the seats next to mine. And sat down and began a hushed conversation in Spanish. And I remember thinking, “They just think I’m just American and don’t understand them.”

SR: Suddenly, you’re an undercover man!

LU: I was! I was like instant CIA, man! The older guy is chewing out the younger guy because they had gone to Dallas to kill somebody and they blew it-

SR: Jesus.
LU: And they had been sent to kill the guy for fingering them. And they were going wherever they were going to explain to their superior how they screwed up the hit. And I’m sitting there listening to this thing and I remember texting my wife on the iPhone and saying, “I am totally sitting next to two assassins right now.” And I stopped typing and I looked up and they had both stopped talking and were watching me and I thought, “Time to go get some Starbucks, man.” But as I got up to leave, the older guy says to the younger guy and this is the detail I love, he says, “Now remember, when we get there, we got to pick up some Triple-A batteries first and then we’ll go see the boss.” And I thought, “Wow, the assassins are going shopping at 7-Eleven.” In the midst of all that fear and evil, they are just a couple of guys who have to go on an errand as well. And I think it’s so easy to forget that part. That they’re also folks who are doing something I don’t get, but on some level (which may be even scarier) we could connect with those guys.

SR: No, you’re absolutely right. One of the key characters in my book is named Buffalo. He’s a supporting character, but he kind of grew. You’ve written more books than I have, so you’ve probably had this experience more than I have: sometimes the characters grow or take shape or gather a kind of significance that you weren’t expecting. Buffalo is the chief of a squad of young cross-border hit men for the cartel. He is based on a number of people I met or wrote about. And his character relates to that idea that you were talking about, especially with the power of the cartels and especially with the lack of opportunities that people from certain environments both north and south of the border come up with. In that world, becoming a hit man or a soldier or a trigger man for the mafia attracts a lot of people, and not all of them are psychos. The whole point of Buffalo to me is that we see him as a decent family man, who sees it as just a job. You know, the classic immigrant success story, except his job is being a hit man. But he doesn’t like torturing people. He has a code. That’s another thing I was trying to explore. In a world where everything is turned upside down and there is so much corruption and the cops are twisted and you don’t know who the good guys are, sometimes it goes beyond breaking the law or not breaking the law. It comes down to the question of personal codes. And that’s one of the things I was trying to explore: that human side, even of the killers.

MP: That’s true with Pescatore too, isn’t it? He’s supposed to be the good guy, but it all becomes a little blurry after awhile.

LU: Yeah, he’s way out there.

SR: That’s exactly what I was trying to do with his character. Pescatore is someone who is fundamentally decent. But he is vulnerable to temptation. He is seduced, even when he is working in law enforcement, he is seduced by that gangster culture and the swagger and charm of the dark side. And as he goes deeper into it, he’s not sure of who’s betraying whom and whether the Feds really can be trusted. And one of the bad guys, Buffalo, takes care of him, so the whole thing with his loyalties becomes more and more confused. That was exactly what I was after; the hero finds himself in this labyrinth where he is wrestling with this question of which side he is on and his very identity.

The conversation continues.

Sebastian Rotella is an author and award-winning reporter. He has covered international terrorism, organized crime, homeland security and immigration for Propublica and the Los Angeles Times where he servied as bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires and covered the Mexican border. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting in 2006. He is the author of Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Norton), which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1998. Mulholland Books publishes his novel Triple Crossing this week.

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of, among other books, The Devil’s Highway, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and Into the Beautiful North. Winner of a Lannan Literary Award and Christopher Award, he is also the recipient of an American Book Award, the Kiriyama Prize, the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Literary Award, a Western States Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, an Edgar Award and a citation of excellence from the American Library Association. He is a member of the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. Little, Brown will publish his next novel Queen of America in December 2012.