He flicked on the siren. It whooped satisfactorily, sounding like a television show. "Muevete, pendelo" muttered to the cars that blocked his way as he maneuvered the Rio de Tijuana thoroughfare. I glanced at the speedometer , we were doing 85 miles per hour, slaloming around the traffic. He was steering with his left hand, his right arm casually thrown over the back of the passenger seat. I stared at his wrist hairs as I slid around in the back seat.
“Hey,” he said, glancing back at me with a big grin. He had on aviator shades that completely hid his eyes; his mustache drooped past the comers of his mouth. “I bet you never thought you’d be riding in the back seat of a Tijuana cop car!”
“Not on purpose," I said.
It began innocently enough, with me babbling in abject terror.
I was getting my boots shined in one of those step-up shoeshine stalls you find all over Tijuana. It was like going to Confession — the little booth had a wooden seat, and the only things visible to passersby were my feet. The gentleman buffing my left boot was wiry and bright with sweat. I settled in with a copy of Alarma!, Mexico’s premier blood-drenched tabloid.
As usual, it was full of satisfying lurid pictures, massacred cops, massacred drug dealers, car-wreck victims, cult murders, train-killed bodies.
We were on the comer of Ninth. A tan-clad arm flashed into the booth, its hard fist closing on my wrist. A cop! I jerked: Oh my God! I’m busted! For what, in retrospect, I don’t know. I had wanted to meet a Tijuana cop and had asked my relatives to arrange it, yet here I was blanching white and going utterly dry-mouthed. I had forgotten everything.
"What are you doing here, you son of a bitch,” his voice snarled.
The shoeshine man. not knowing what was going on, backed away from my foot and sat on his haunches, watching. His face was completely blank.
“Ubb,” I offered. “Ubba, ubba.”
The cop’s face peered in at me. I could see myself in his shades. He started to smile. Then he laughed. He asked me how I was doing. This apparently passed for humor among Tijuana’s finest.
They are aware of their reputations. They cultivate their reputations. After all, nothing is more macho than causing immediate fear. They swagger, they beat people, they demand bribes, and they shoot. Members of my family have been officers of the Tijuana police force, yet I cut a wide swath around their brothers in arms, as does anyone with any sense.
Still, imagine being a cop in Tijuana. The mind reels. Here is a man called on to preserve order in the most celebrated bastion of chaos in the Western world. This man is called on to enforce traffic laws in a country whose roads are haphazard at best, where stop signs often appear either 20 yards before an intersection — which is merely a dirt path straggling down to the road — or immediately after. There are no stop-lines. No one minds the speed limits. And if he gives a gringo a traffic ticket, the gringo drives home and shows it to his friends and they have a good laugh and throw it away.
He works a city of famed vice: booze, prostitution, child porn, drugs, even a healthy black market in fireworks and faux perfumes. His beat is visited by more gringos than visit Disneyland, and he has to judge which of these tourists are actually here to do harm, which are here to find innocent bargains, which have cocaine stuffed in their underwear, which carry knives, which are stoned or drunk or psychopathic.
His world is governed by laws that are effectively the reverse of ours: in Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent. This leads to an enforced, endemic paranoia: of course you’re lying — only a good lawyer will make anybody think otherwise. Add this policy to the already embattled and embittered mentality of a beat cop, and then stir in a Mexican loathing and resentment of gringos — especially a Tijuana resentment — and you’re dealing with a difficult situation.
As a walking ambassador of American good will, you will fail to impress.
And then, of course, there are the bribes. Mexicans call them la mordida, the bite. American kids called cops “pigs” in the '60s, and Mexican kids called cops “dogs."
La mordida is not a private vice of the Mexican police. Anyone who has dealt with our friendly neighbor knows this. It is a phenomenon too complex to dissect here — suffice to say it's a culture of patronage, with a long tradition of graft. It is a social Darwinist’s dream, where the strong rule and their strength is often measured by now much money they can extract from you for the most basic human need. It is a symbolic world where the money you pay out demonstrates your respect for the official and the official’s position of merit, honor, and service.
In the case of the cops, add poverty.
Most police will tell you that no cop is paid enough. In Tijuana, as late as the early ’80s, cops were earning a whopping $20 a week. Lately, I heard they're pulling in $50 a week. As if that weren’t difficult enough, cops buy their own guns. Motorcycle cops buy their own motorcycles. A handsome .357 magnum with ivory grips and a Harley Hog cost a bit more than any average officer can afford. Guess where they get their extra budgets.
I pulled myself from the shoeshine stand and was embarrassed that my knees shook. God, I thought, what a wimp.
His shirt was open at the chest, showing black hair. The inevitable Dirty Harry magnum rode high on his right hip. He wore knee boots polished bright as mirrors. His tight pants had stripes running up the sides.
“I just got a call I have to investigate. Want to come?"
“Yeah,” I said.
“Let's go,” he said, spinning on his heel and marching toward the police station.
We hopped into a cruiser, and he clicked on the radio, muttered his name, his destination, and a series of numbers.
“Hey, Pepe!” he called out the window. "I’m taking your car!"
“Fuck you!” Officer Pepe yelled back. Everybody laughed.
“Pinche Pepe,” he said.
We wove down the street, impatiently honking at slow cars. Pedestrians on the corners gawked at me in the back with the same slack-faced look of dread I suddenly realized I had on my face every time a prisoner was whisked past me in the back of one of those cars.
“Look at him,” the cop was saying. Cars refused to allow him through the intersection. “Nobody gives a damn about the law!”
He hit his siren, gestured, waved his arms.
“Policia!” he snapped out the window. “Get out of the way!”
Tijuana’s downtown gridlock suddenly broke and we shot through.
“Nobody loves a cop,” he said.
“Don't say I said so,” he said, “but there are a lot of crooked officers on this force."
“Really?” I said, trying to sound bland.
He shrugged, raised both hands. The car steered itself for 20 feet. “That’s life. What did you expect? This is Tijuana.”
We came upon a gap in the center island.
“Hold on,” he said.
Before I knew what we were doing, he threw us into a powerslide, sideways through the gap. The car fishtailed in front of oncoming traffic, then the tires bit into the road and we were shooting off in the opposite direction, still going a respectable 75.
“Not bad, eh?" he said.
“God," I said.
“I’ll show you who can drive,” he said.
“No! Please!” I cried. I thought twice about making any jokes about police cruelty or torture of suspects. Instead, I said, “Tell me more about corruption.”
“A few years ago,” he said, “we were getting a lot of hassle from the San Diego police. We had car thieves working on our force.
San Diego told us, ‘Look. You can’t do this. You can't steal American cars. You’re cops!’ ”
He glanced back at me.
“Lots of these cabrones have new Toyota pickups. Where do you think they got them?”
We slowed abruptly and left the main road, cutting up a hill at the north end of Tijuana. We passed under a narrow railroad bridge and hit rough patches of dirt.
“Those crooked cops,” he said, “make it hard for us who want to be honest. Some of us are good cops. But now all of us get investigated all the time.”
We were heading up into Colonia Libertad, the notorious barrio where illegals and coyotes gather every night to go into the canyons. Lawlessness has been the vogue in these hills for so long that police don't care to venture there at night. My guide said, “Watch out up here. These people are animals. They don’t give a shit about anything. If they catch us in a dead end, they’ll hit us with rocks. Stay with me and keep your mouth shut."
“Yes, sir," I said.
Apparently, a bus had run over a guy on a motorcycle. Someone had called it in to police headquarters, but nobody knew how long ago. When we got there, the twisted bike was lying in the dirt. It was a small Japanese machine. The bus had backed out of a blind drive, climbed over the bike and the rider, and continued backing out.
“You didn’t see him?” demanded the cop.
“No,” said the driver.
“You didn’t feel him?”
The cop rubbed his face, looked around.
“Where’s the cyclist?”
“Is he dead?”
Shrugs. “Maybe.” “No” “I don’t know."
Mud around the crushed bike could have been blood. Then again, it could have been oil or gas or urine.
“Did an ambulance take him?” “No,” said the bus driver. Then, “A car. One of the neighbors.” Clearly angry by now, the cop took his name and address.
“We’ll be coming for you,” he said, ominously.
The driver’s eyebrows shot up in alarm, but before the cop could be reasoned with, he was back in his car. On the hill, cholos were yelling slang insults at him. “Hey, chota [a nickname for cop], fuck you!” Grimly, he backed out and floored it, pelting the crowd with gravel. They skipped and danced in his cloud of dust.
“We’re going to the city hospital.” he said. “It’s a butcher shop. Don’t say anything when we get there because they don’t like people seeing their emergency rooms. I’ll tell them you’re a detective.”
We arrived on the emergency ramp in a burst of lights.
“Walk fast,” he said, hitching up his gunbelt.
I followed him at my best Police Inspector clip. We stormed through the doors, brushing past a concerned orderly who wanted us to halt. On our way into the bowels of the hospital, however, we were accosted by an old nurse. She held up her hand and commanded us to stop. “What is your business!?” she ask.
“Investigating an accident,” he said.
“And this gentleman?”
I looked too much like a gringo. “Si, senora,” I said, in my best Spanish.
Like a relentless gnome in a Monty Python skit, she badgered us. “Does he have ID?” she demanded of the cop.
“Ma’am,” he said, exasperated, "he’s undercover!”
This arcane police word seemed to work on her, and she relented. “Follow me,” she said.
Although there were surely no flies in the hospital, they remain my overwhelming impress of the place. I imagine big-assed flies bumping into everything. Certainly, the scene was like something out of a David Lynch movie — dust and dirt forming small wedges in the comers, dirty bandages visible on the floors of rooms standing empty, middle-aged women lying on stretchers in the hall obviously suffering from something that was not readily visible.
We glanced into the various emergency cubicles as we went down the hall. There were fascinating scenes within each, but no biker. The last stall featured the nightmarish vision of a nurse leaning over a boy’s face with pliers of some sort. She was latched onto something and was trying to work it out. He writhed and shouted, flat on his back, arms and legs strapped down. She paused in her efforts and looked up at us, plier handles still firmly in her grip. The cop blandly stared at this tableau, then looked at me and wiggled his eyebrows up and down. “Interesting,” he said.
Outside, he said, “Well, who knows where the motorcyclist is.”
We got in the car. “Fuck him. Let’s go."
So we went back to the station.
I entered with some dread.
“Keep out of the way," he said, going in to make out his report.
A small group of young Americans was seated on a bench. One of the women had slivers of glass in her face; she was dabbing at the blood with tissues. Various cops milled around the bench looking down at the kids. The official policia translator hovered over them. He was a smarmy disco-king in a shiny silken shirt and slicked-back hair.
“Hello, frien’,’’ he said to them. “Hello, baby.”
"Please.” the cut woman said.
“Baby,” the translator said. “You go to jail.” It sounded like he was asking her if she attended Yale.
“Everybody," he said, gesturing at the lot of them, “going to Yale!”
He beamed, as though they had just won a raffle.
“They have to be investigated," the cop said behind me. It must have been a short report.
“But they’re hurt,” I said.
“That’s what happens in a car wreck, amigo.”
Too dazed to be terrified, the gringo kids slumped on the seat looking stringy and tattered.
“She needs help," I said.
He pursed his lips. He took a better look, apparently suspicious that she was faking the glass in her face.
"Hmm," he said.
“Don’t worry, frien’,” said the translator. “No problem!"
I didn't dare speak to the kids. I had no idea what codes of behavior and protocol I might be breaking. I certainly didn’t want to join them in Yale.
The cop went to talk to the captain, who stepped out of his office and scowled at me, then at them. This was obviously highly irregular.
“Martinez!” he snapped at some distant officer. “Get this girl some medical attention.”
He vanished back into his office.
All the cops seemed shocked by this development. They stood there staring at the kids on the bench. One of them finally detached himself from the mob and tenderly took the young woman by the arm and pulled her up. Then he looked around, wondering what to do with her. They turned and disappeared into the interior of the station, and the translator was cooing, “Okay, baby. Is o-kay."
Dark was falling. He was going off duty.
“I’ll give you a ride to where you’re going,” he said. We wandered back over to Pepe’s car and got in again.
“You can sit in the front," he said.
We backed out, cruised slowly. His eyes compulsively scanned the sidewalks, flicked from door to door, lit fleetingly on faces as we passed.
“A Salvadoran got his tongue cut out over here," he said, pointing to a corner. “How do you like that? Right down the street from the police station. Pinche gang of cholos get hold of this poor guy and cut out his tongue. What do you do with people like that?”
“This old man came up to me this morning. Some crazy pendejo killed his dog over there.” He pointed. “He pulled the dog out of the old man's truck and kicked it to death.”
He shook his head. “What are you going to do,” he said.
It was fully dark by now.
“That’s a great disco, over there," he said. “You should try it.”
“You have a strange job,” I said. He smiled.
“It’s not so bad," he said. “Hey! You know my favorite thing about being a cop?” He pulled over and stopped, turned around in the seat to face me. Tijuana’s one last honest cop.
“What?" I said.
"Yeah. It starts at two or three in the morning. We hang around on the side streets, watching for American women driving alone.”
He was really smiling now. “These dumb broads come down here by themselves to dance and pick up Mexicans.”
“Oh, really,” I said.
“So they come out of the discos and head for the border, and if they’re alone or there’s two of them, I pull them over.”
“Ticket," I said.
“Exactly. I turn on my lights, hit the siren — it scares them. They pull over. I get out of the car, mad as hell. I tell them they ran a red light.”
“And you charge them a bribe?" I offered.
“A bribe!” he barked. “Don’t make me laugh."
He drove me to my destination in silence.
When we got there, I said, “Do you let them go?"
“The gringas?” he said. “Of course! I’m a cop, not a monster.” We shook hands. I wanted to say thanks but didn’t say anything. I stood on the curb and watched his taillights diminish in the night.