Drug War 40

The global war as seen from the center of North America

Salopek: My old man: Ways of dying in northern Mexico

Don Benito Parra owned a hardscrabble ranch 250 miles south of Juarez
in the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental. Parra had led mule trains
loaded with silver ingots through the cordillera back in the 1940s. He
spoke of Indians armed with bows and arrows, and of a bandit nicknamed
“One-Eyed Ramon.” He once had joined a posse of horsemen tracking a
child-killer into the famous Copper Canyon country; they dropped the
fugitive out of a tree with a Mauser rifle shipped to Mexico by the
last Kaiser. In recent years, I stayed at Don Beni’s rustic spread
between stints of foreign corresponding in places such as Iraq or
Congo. I would help with chores in exchange for offhand lessons in
19th-century pastoralism. Like how to shoe a cranky mule by roping a
leg to its neck. (A tripod can’t kick.) Or how to scour a hand-dug
well with tubs of scalding water — who knew? Or how to use the
Catholic saints days’ calendar to predict rainfall.

In late December, I received a phone call informing me that the old
man was dying. He was bedridden and mumbling my name. So I packed a
rucksack at Princeton, where I was teaching journalism, and flew to
the border. “More bad news,” complained the lone immigration agent on
duty in downtown Juarez, after learning the purpose of my visit. “Why
can’t we get one ordinary tourist?”

I rented a car and drove seven hours into the Mexican mountains.
Soldiers in pixilated desert camouflage peered from behind sandbagged
checkpoints, recalling Anbar Province. Billboards carried Nancy
Reagan’s faded injunction in Spanish: ¡Di NO a las drogas! Don Beni
was laid up at a daughter’s house in the former tourist destination of
Creel. The town’s streets were dead quiet. It had yet to recover from
a cartel shootout in August in which 13 bystanders were cut down in a
cross-fire. One of the gunshot victims had been a baby.

Don Beni was delirious. The tough frontiersman who had wrestled steers
into his 80s had shrunk to the size of a doll. He had a hole big
enough to accommodate a large acorn in his right temple — a
suppurating tumor. I didn’t think he recognized me. But he rubbed his
gnarled index fingers together — a sign for “friends.” Then he passed
out.

“You should have seen him last week,” said his middle-aged daughter,
Maricruz Parra. “He tried to hit me with his cane. He still doesn’t
like being told what to do.”

Read the entire story by Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize winner and international correspondent who once worked at the El Paso Times and lives in Columbus between assignments, at Global Post.

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Filed under: Analysis, News

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