Part Two of the in-depth conversation between Luis Urrea and Sebastian Rotella on all things border. If you missed Part I, start reading here.
LU: That’s a really great part of your book, though, that kind of density of experience goes from the first pages. He’s working with the good guys, allegedly, at the beginning, but then there are all these levels of that from the getgo. There’s the Border Patrol. There are all these layers of macho and swagger and rule-bending. It’s a slippery world he’s in to begin with. And then, he goes in to a different world and like you say, the world is upside down because the worst guy arguably in the book is also one of the best guys and also looks out for him. And is kind of an avuncular in a terrifying way to the people he is carrying for. It’s really fascinating. You don’t know where to stand, which is, I think what for me, even though it’s a thriller, that to me was thrilling. Because I had a sense of dread; I had a sense of eternity looming. At any second from any side, you could die and that’s part of what made it kind of a throat clencher for me.
SR: Well, thanks man. That’s great praise coming from you. There are so many ways of trying to explore the terror of that world. There’s violence in the book and obviously, if you wanted to, you could go whole hog on blood and gore at the border.
LU: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
SR: But I felt it was better to just have glimpses of the horror. I wanted to try to hopefully get at some of the psychological turmoil and psychological terror. Certainly, some blood gets spilled, but I felt that those were very important elements to try to tell the story at a human level.
LU: I think his suffering and confusion is fascinating. I was surprised. I thought it was going to go into crazy Grand Gugniol gore because that’s part of the milieu. I often tell people who want to learn about this narco war, like you say about the journalists, I say, “Well, you can look at the anonymous blog del narco website, blogdelnarco.com.” But I tell them, “Whoever those young journalists are, they’re heroes because they’re in some serious danger. On the other hand, if you can stomach things, like snuff films, go there, but you’ll see things you probably not want to see because you can’t un-see them.” But I think it’s important for people to see how foul some of the stuff is that’s going on. But I thought you handled it with real restraint and it managed to be scary. I think if it turns into a full on gross-out, it becomes porno after awhile.
SR: I think that’s exactly right. That balance is the key. You want to give enough of a flavor that you’re not sugarcoating it or somehow shying away from the harsh reality, but you want to do it in an artful way. I have to say how much I liked The Devil’s Highway. It’s a book that gave me chills at various points, including the end when the official at the consulate blows out the candles for the dead. You wrote those passages where one realizes vividly what it’s like to die in the desert of thirst and what happens to the body, but the way you did it, it wasn’t just gross. It was totally necessary in an almost clinical way to understand this experience. When you’re dealing with this world, I have to think that that’s one of the hardest things to do: how you handle this question of violence and cruelty and suffering if you want to tell a story that’s artful and not just a splatter-fest.
LU: Yeah, it is. You’re right. It’s so cruel. You know, it’s funny- You know because you’ve dealt with a lot more sources than I have because I don’t consider myself a reporter. When I was working on The Devil’s Highway, I didn’t know how those people died. I was just like, “Yeah, they died of heat. They died of heat.” And the Border Patrol, they had one of their experts in that kind of death call me. And the guy was named Jason and he was a lifesaver for the Border Patrol and he was one of their urine experts. I almost fell out of my chair. I was like, “You’re a urine expert?” “They told me I needed to call you up and talk to you about drinking urine.” And I thought, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute!” The Border Patrol accidentally gave me probably the most powerful part of the whole book. It’s the part people always talk about the most. But I had no idea. Sometimes, we’re at the mercy I think of some of those people we’re dealing and they give us this gold sometimes. You couldn’t think it up.
SR: I’ve got to ask you, by the way, now that you’ve mentioned it, because you sell yourself short not considering yourself a reporter. I thought one of the things that was impressive about that book in particular was the picture you painted of the Border Patrol agents. I’m just curious; you obviously spent a lot of time hanging out with the Patrol and developing some connections with them, which must have been interesting for you, right?
LU: It was difficult. They didn’t want me in. Man, are you kidding? Can you imagine a guy from Tijuana with a bunch of books about the Mexican border and out of the blue wants to report on your most controversial case? They were like, “Oh hell no!” I don’t know what to call it, but “grace.” There’s just a moment where one agent who is bothered by all the things he saw starts to take pity on you and talk to you and as soon as he started doing that and I realized he was doing it at the risk of his own career and at the risk of his standing in the agency, it felt like a sacred moment to me. It felt like, “This guy who has no reason except his own conscience to trust me is going to do it.” You know what I mean? It changed everything for me.
SR: And it was so smart that he did it. You told your story better and you brought across that idea that there are a lot of decent caring agents out there who are as much rescuing people as chasing them. “Sacred” is the right word. People give you their trust. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Border Patrol, dozens of agents all over, riding with them, drinking with them, hours talking with them. I spent a lot of time with Mexican law enforcement too. I spent a lot of time now with law enforcement all over the world. For my work, the most important thing I can do is try to see through the eyes of people in police and intelligence. I do ultimately meet a lot of people, like you just said, who talk to you in spite of the risks involved. And you feel almost bad if you have any concept of reality from their perspective. You think: “I’m trying to get this guy to talk to me. What is he going to gain from it other than getting in trouble or losing his job, or in some cases even risking his life?” But the bottom line is that that’s when you learn something, that’s when you get somewhere, when you break through to experts like that. Those have to be the people who guide you into those secret worlds.
LU: Absolutely. I, like I said, I didn’t know it. I have to tell you, I went in there with my obsession with doing literature of witness that I’ve always had. And I realize now I walked into that story thinking I’m going to reveal the humanity of everyone involved except those bastards in border patrol because I just assumed they were jerks. I was the idiot. I did not do the due diligence to even think it through that this was a humanity story. That these people were in a situation as alien to those agents as those people who were lost in the desert. When this one senior agent started talking (and we were out in the desert, there was nobody around to hear us, so he opened his heart to me), that’s when the revelation hit me that I’d been blind this whole time and I was going to write a really bad book. Because it was going to be a sort of classic liberal prejudiced book that these conservative jack-booted bastards were chasing these poor people around. And it wasn’t that at all. There is an element of that. There are of course Mexican and Latino-haters anywhere. But, you know, this guy put it really succinctly to me. He said, “If you take any group of people, ten percent, maybe five percent, are angels and then ninety percent are just regular people and then five other percent are devils. Most of us are just in that middle.” And I thought, “That’s true of the agents as well as everybody else I was writing about.”
SR: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And that shows your open-mindedness and your talent as a writer to have that realization and to encompass that into your work and your work benefited from it. It was interesting because I have spent a lot of time at the Patrol and the Patrol has, and especially had more in the past, that migra image that we’re so familiar with in Mexican movies and press coverage that is so excessive. And it’s really a tired and caricatured image that has little to do with reality. I really wanted one of my heroes in Triple Crossing to be a Border Patrol agent because ultimately I have great respect and admiration for the work they do after getting to know it up close. First of all, this is a law enforcement agency that actually requires- How many law enforcement agencies are in the world that actually require people to become proficient in a foreign language, right?
LU: That’s right.
SR: These guys speak Spanish. A lot of them, many, many of them are Latino now. And many, most of the agents you meet are just overwhelmed by the sadness and the suffering and the poverty and the desperation they see.
LU: Yeah, yeah.
SR: And they can be badasses. And they can beat people up when they have to, because it’s a dangerous world too. Especially these days when the cartels are so ruthless and well-armed. That’s one of the things I was trying to portray. And on the other side, there’s a similar issue with the Mexican cops. They have such a bad image and a bad reputation that you’re tempted to see them all as these caricatures of evil, right? But obviously I got to know a lot of honest upright Mexican cops, a lot of heroic ones. And I got to know a lot of cops in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America who maybe weren’t a hundred percent honest, but they were doing the best they could in that labyrinth, trying to obey the rules as much as possible and stay alive.
LU: Oh yeah. You know my uncle was chief of motorcycle cops in Tijuana. So I got a view of Tijuana cop world, which was absolutely fascinating, but heartbreaking. He had a Harley he had to buy himself. He had a Magnum, which he had to buy himself. He had to buy his own ammo. And in the 80s, in the early 80s, he was making something like 21 dollars a week. And he didn’t come right out and say, “You want to know why police write specious tickets in Tijuana?” There it is, man. This guy is trying to maintain law and order and he has no support and he’s got this massive burden and at that time, not as much of a threat as is on them now. That really changed my thinking. And after The Devil’s Highway– It was really funny. Once that book came out, border patrol guys opened up even more and Mexican cops opened up even more. I hung out with those poor Beta group guys. And they were literally under siege and I thought, “These are actually extremely brave and fairly noble Mexican cops.” And for awhile, I thought, “This has got to be my next project.” I went off in other directions, but I thought, “Those Beta group guys under the kind of pressure they were under, out on the very edge of the Mexican wilderness, were really really inspiring.”
SR: When people talk about Triple Crossing, when they summarize it, they tend to focus on the American character, the Border Patrol agent Valentine Pescatore. But half of my book, as I always remind people, is about a Mexican character, which is Méndez, the Tijuana law enforcement reformer. He’s the other hero, along with Pescatore. And I did that because I wanted to show both experiences, both perspectives, both sides. And because I find those guys so heroic and I’ve reported about law enforcement reformers in Mexico in particular, but also gotten to know them across Latin America. And the character I settled on represented an experience that you see a lot in this desperate attempt to find clean, outside, honest reformers (and I’ve met quite a few of them). Often these guys come from other professional backgrounds, not necessarily from the police. They come from the military. They come from intelligence work sometimes. They even come from law, human rights or journalism. That’s what Mendez is, a former journalist, human rights activist and man of the political left. One of the reasons I chose him was because (and I think you’ve probably met people like that too), you and I can probably identify more with a guy from an academic background like that: it is pretty close to ours. So imagine you have a liberal arts background, so to speak, but you’ve been doing some investigating of corruption because if you’re in human rights or journalism that’s what you do in Latin America. And all of a sudden you end up trying to reform a police force or a prosecutor’s office. You’re thrust into this position and they tell you “Okay, now you’re in charge of the police. Clean it up and make things better!”
LU: Yeah! Right!
SB: And a reformer like that has all the strengths and weaknesses that come from being an outsider thrust into that position. I’ve seen it happen in various places—Mexico, Argentina, Brazil– sometimes with very tragic results and sometimes with moderately positive ones. That was a world I really also wanted to describe. I wanted to show the day-to-day heroism against incredible danger and grinding psychological pressure that these guys undergo (and women, because a lot women are prominent in law enforcement reform in Latin America and elsewhere). I wanted to show what they’re up against.
LU: Yeah, more and more, I think. I certainly watched in Tijuana as some of these generations grew up and women were able to move into positions of a bit more power and try to change the situation. You know the various old-boy networks that ruled the city changed a bit. This craziness, this insurgency, is changing the rules so fast and making things so- putting them in such a stark contrast that I have no idea and I think I’m going to ask you this because, perhaps you have a sense. I have no idea what is happening and what possible outcome there is. I was with a gentleman from Colombia who said to me, “You and Mexico are where we were in Colombia about ten years ago and it will sort itself out.” And I said, “Well, how will it sort itself out?” And he said, “Massacres. Just massacre after massacre. And your armies will kill them, hundreds and hundreds of them, and you’ll find things much more peaceful.” And I thought, “Holy God, really? Is that what it’s going to take, really?” What do you think is going to happen? What’s the future?
SB: Well, you know, it’s a very difficult question and it’s a good one. It’s easy to be pessimistic given how bad it’s getting. On the other hand, and I don’t just want to just sort of accept the official line because I think that there have been mistakes, but I think it’s true that the Calderon administration in Mexico has fought harder against the cartels than ever before. Whatever the errors and imperfections. Right? I think that’s true. But I also think that that there’s an inescapable harsh reality, and you see this experience all over Latin America and the world. I’ve looked at police and law enforcement reform all over, and the short and medium term results of attempts at reform and fighting mafias is almost always going to be more violence and more disorder, not less. Because, number one, to the extent that you kill or arrest kingpins, which they have done in Mexico if you’ve looked at it-
LU: Yeah, they’ve taken them down.
SB: Right? That generates, first of all, a reaction and the cartels fight back. Second of all, they start fighting each other if there is a power vacuum. Third of all, there is another trend and I think this is particularly true in Mexico and it is very scary. You have a lot of cases like the Zetas or like this crazy guy they arrested in Tijuana a couple of years ago, El Teo, of the pistoleros, of the cartel gunmen, who take over the mafias. They say: “Wait a minute. Why am I the chief gunman? I should be the drug lord. To hell with you!” And they take over because they have the firepower. The previous generation of drug lords were businessmen. They were absolutely brutal, but they still had a kind of a business imperative that made them more selective and prudent. But these guys, the triggermen turned drug lords, they resolve everything through violence. So a lot of that is contributing to the violence and the kind of terroristic nature of it. They feel there is a political will at some level to fight against them, so they respond with violence of a terroristic nature that has a political message. What do I think is going to happen in Mexico? I think you were right to mention Colombia. We have to be careful because I don’t want to superimpose experiences; Colombia is very different in many ways culturally and geographically than Mexico. But I do think it is an example where you can achieve reform. Not only did the Colombians weaken the cartels and the FARC, but actually the average Colombian lives better today because crime and violence are way down. So you have political benefits. You can show the people, “Look this worked. There’s less murder. There’s less kidnapping.” Unfortunately, in Mexico they haven’t reached that stage. The average citizen sees all this mayhem and wants to know: “How is this war benefiting me?” You know? Your friend or your interlocutor may be right. There may be more violence before there is anything else. I think there has to be more work on a couple of challenges. Number one, the impunity of the Mexican elite. Because the main people who seem to get arrested are always corrupt police commanders and I can’t believe that that’s where corruption stops, so I think there’s a need to focus on sectors of the political elite and its connections to the mafias. And they have to do the hard carpentry of building a real justice system where they can actually prosecute people for money laundering and can actually convict people of serious crimes. Because, unfortunately, unless these guys get killed, there just doesn’t seem to be that much you can do to them. Often it seems they just run things from jail or escape from jail, like Chapo Guzman did, and he’s probably the most powerful player on the scene today. I don’t know, man. These Mexican elections next year will be key. There are a lot of worries in the US government and among Mexico-watchers. One is that there will be more violence, obviously, as the elections approach. The cartels could crank up the violence to influence the outcome of the elections. The other possibility would be there could be less violence, but it could be the sign of a pax mafiosa, that whoever comes into power will make a secret deal with the mafias. That would be tempting, right? If a new government would say: “Okay, violence is down, we’ve solved the problem.” But then it turns out it’s really a result of a deal with the badguys. That would be scary too.
LU: Oh my goodness! That is scary. That is really scary. So Miriam, what else? Got anything else for us?
MP: I have one thing I want to ask you guys, which is the reverse of the question that I always ask everyone. Sebastian, I’ve asked you before, “What can you do in fiction that you can’t do in nonfiction?” The jist of this conversation makes me want to ask you since you both have written amazing fiction and nonfiction, has anything happened to you that you’ve seen that you’re like, “This is too true. I couldn’t put it in a book. Nobody would believe it.”
LU: Many things. I’m sure Sebastian experiences that all the time. Part of it for me, especially working on The Devil’s Highway, because it was really important to focus on the stories of those people and leave myself out in the true journalistic fashion I was trying to do, instead of a participatory thing. The weird things that happened to me on the road to doing that book, I left out. And some of them were just too good; I’m going to have to use them someday. For example, during the research for that book, I was driving through the desert with a friend of mine and we had a car crash with a pair of Mexican cocaine smugglers who had cocaine in the car and a gun. And I remember thinking, “This is the most dramatic and potentially lethal moment of my entire writing career and I can’t use it in the damn book! Damnit! I wanted to put it in!”
SR: The Devil’s Highway is a great example. What’s great about it is that Luis does this incredible research, so he knows the story to the extent that you can ever know a story like that, which has parts that you’re never going find out for sure because only the people who died know the truth. He has come at it from every level and reported the hell out of it. And then he can write it with great authority and with his great poetic sensibility. If you’ve got all those things combined, where you’ve got all the facts and a way to tell it that you can do with real artistry, just tell the story as it is. Why turn it into fiction? Some of the stuff that I’ve written about, where there are sources involved, where there are things having to do with assassinations and secrets, are just harder to write with the same sort of authority in nonfiction. If you’re a rigorous writer, there are gaps in the reporting and there are things you’re just not going to know for certain. I’ve certainly had experiences as a journalist in which I held off on writing something either because I did not have absolute confirmation or to protect a source or someone at risk. Like for example in my non-fiction book, Twilight on the Line, there was a scene where I actually got access to a Chinese immigrant who the Grupo Beta, this reformist border police unit, was holding in a little room in their headquarters. It was a real saga. I had covered it for weeks. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants had been caught at sea off Baja and all of them had finally been sent back to China. Except for this one migrant, who had to have emergency surgery, so he was left behind in Mexican custody, but nobody knew it. I was just talking to my friends at Grupo Beta, who were good friends of mine, these cops, at their headquarters by the border. And they said, “Oh yeah! We’ve got that Chinese guy upstairs.” This was a major secret. Nobody knew this guy was up there, right? Nobody had gotten a chance to hear a story firsthand from these Chinese migrants. The cops said, “You want to meet him?” I said, “Yeah. Why not?” They took me upstairs. I’m talking to this guy and I had this great conversation with him in English. We’re sitting by the window and they’re holding him in a room where he can actually see San Diego, his destination he had come thousands of miles to reach. It’s only like a few feet away because the room where he was being held overlooks the border of Tijuana and San Diego. So I have this incredible interview with him. Afterwards, I tell the cops, “Oh, thanks very much, what a great story!” And they say: “But Sebastian, are you going to write that?” I say: “Yeah, wasn’t that why…” And they’re looking at each other. And I realize, these guys had taken this incredible risk without realizing the consequences. If I write this, these guys are going to be fired on the spot. You know what I mean?
LU: Oh my. Yeah…
SR: So I held off on writing the story. I held onto the material and I didn’t write a newspaper story. But the encounter with that Chinese migrant ended up being a very powerful part of Twilight on the Line, the closing scene. And my experiences with Grupo Beta and Chinese smuggling contributed a great deal to Triple Crossing as well. So it’s all good. That kind of material, that kind of experience, it all eventually ends up informing what you write, one way or another.
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.