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Glue-sniffing urchins in old Tijuana

Wanna sniff, hombre?

The cementeros. At all times, there is the glue. They are reduced to shambling zombies by it, their brain cells melting inside their skulls to give them escape.
  • The cementeros. At all times, there is the glue. They are reduced to shambling zombies by it, their brain cells melting inside their skulls to give them escape.
  • Image by Javier Reuiz

His name is Andres. He awakens with the sun. He lies in bed as long as he feels like it, picking the crust of glue off his upper lip. It’s white and vague as milk but hard; it pulls out his whiskers, which are few and thin, black against his dark brown skin. Bed is a mat of folded cardboard on the broken roof of what used to be a small house on a forgotten hill above downtown Tijuana.

The cops raid the hill sometimes and deliver sound beatings. To avoid the cops — or anybody else — the boys have dug elaborate tunnels under the house.

The cops raid the hill sometimes and deliver sound beatings. To avoid the cops — or anybody else — the boys have dug elaborate tunnels under the house.

A few years ago, the house burned, and the city’s services were cut off from the hilltop. The steep alley that leads up there was left to wash out and be broken up by weeds and grasses and small trees. You could pass the alley’s mouth 100 times and never know there was anything up there. All you see from the street is a carpet of shattered glass and clumps of trash. Besides, this is not on the main tourist routes of Tijuana. This is west of the main city, an area of tawdry used-car-part shops and sidewalk clothing vendors.

If you pause at the alley’s mouth at night, and if you look up, you will see the far end of the slope backlit by streetlights beyond the summit. And in that glare, you will see indistinct movements: legs and bodies nervously shifting. And, if you are white and they see you, they will come swarming down on you in a pack — feral and hungry. And they will feed.


They are the cementeros, the glue-addicts and paint-thinner sniffers who live on that hill with Andres.

Their numbers are fluid. They are homeless boys, boys thrown out or runaways. They have wandered into downtown Tijuana from violent homes or the shattered homes of downtown’s hookers. They are the sons of the women who copulate with animals in the downstairs bars in the lower depths off Reforma and Revolucion. Some of them are orphans, some of them have parents in jail.

They find each other. They form small groups like street kids everywhere, and they think they will engage in the utopian dream of those castoff children: they will look out for each other, they will form their own street version of the families they have missed. But this is, after all, Tijuana. And the hustle of these streets leaves no time for utopias.

It’s prostitution and drugs. Soon, it becomes obvious that the thousands of gringos who come to party on the weekends make easy targets, once they’ve had enough to drink. The boys (they’re all boys in Andres’s world) lure them away from the disco lights. All it takes is a promise: girls — muchachas bonitas. They are sly enough to know that we still believe the racist myth of fock my seester, and they say it. And the gringos follow.

Or they offer dope, cheap. Or themselves. Or watches. The point is to get the victim alone. Then the one boy magically becomes three, four. Eight arms, eight legs lash out of the dark and pummel, with fists, shoes, rocks, pipes.

This, on a good night, when the boys are feeling kind. Every one of them carries a knife or a sharpened screwdriver or a jagged strip of metal. Andres keeps his tucked in the back of his pants. Sometimes one of the boys is just cranky, just feeling grouchy. So he slices the drunk gringo for good measure.


Sooner or later, some of these boys find their way up the hill. Of course, it seems a haven. It’s like a fortress. They feel safe from other, meaner street toughs, the cholos and surfos, the pandilleros (gang members). And, as always, the police.

However, the hill has its own harsh rules. Every boy looks out for himself, and alliances are often more dangerous than loneliness. Everybody is distrusted.

On the night I first met Andres, I was led up the alley by a fearless missionary. All the other boys had heard us coming and vanished down the other sides of the hill like rodents. They were soundless and invisible and gone before we were halfway up the hill.

Andres stayed behind. I could see him, stark and stick-thin against the lights. He stayed behind because he had to — Andres has two deformed knees that turn his feet perpetually sideways. He can’t run. He can’t even walk. He balances on two aluminum crutches, and he moves slowly when he moves, his feet dragging and banging along the ground.


“Nobody looks out for nobody,” he tells me.

We are looking out at the city lights.

“Fucking lights,” he says. “Beautiful, que no?

“How do you eat?” he is asked.

He smiles.

“Stealing.”

He acts out delivering a blow with his fist. He ducks his head like a little boy.

You know, he says.

Andres is barely five feet tall. He has long hair, long, graceful hands that look delicate. He has painter’s hands.

His clothing is old and dirty. Baggy cords and three shirts, a grimy watch-cap on his head. He wears battered Converse hi-top basketball shoes on his tangled feet. The jaunty shoes make his feet seem small. Everything about him is evocative of childhood. It is disconcerting, because he’s saying, “We gang up on them and beat them up and steal all their stuff.”

He has the features of a Mayan carving — slightly sloping forehead, large nose, turned-down mouth. His eyes are bright as obsidian chips.

“It’s hard for me,” he says. “I can’t run. So I try to join in when they’ve got the guy down.”

Do you use your crutches?

He laughs. Covers his mouth with his hand.

“Sometimes,” he says.


All over the hill there are little burrows where the boys have buried jars filled with money or watches. No one dares disturb another boy’s jar, and when one is tampered with, the revenge is swift and final. They kill each other with stones or knives.

The violence has attracted the infrequent attentions of the Tijuana police. The cops raid the hill sometimes and deliver sound beatings. Torture, Andres calls it. To avoid the cops — or anybody else — the boys have dug elaborate tunnels under the house. At the least hint of approaching feet, they dive into their rat-mazes, where they will hide, only their eyes peeking out from under the slab foundation. They sleep under there too, jammed in on top of each other in the cold. They have sex there, sometimes undulating against each other in their tunnels.

And, at all times, there is the glue.

They are reduced to shambling zombies by it, their brain cells melting inside their skulls to give them escape. There are nights when the tunnels are jammed with mindless, drooling bodies; the boys shriek in hallucinogenic terror under there, come charging out like enraged pit bulls, swinging their knives at ghosts. Then they pass out, arms flung open to the sky, which must seem like a baffling wonder to them before they slip away.

This is the best time for murder, when a boy has a vendetta against another. During this coma is when he will strike. The most recent murder involved two lovers. One of them fell in love with another. The new couple plotted to kill the old lover and take his jar. On the night of his last high, they waited until he’d fallen over, then they crushed his head with cement blocks.


“That’s why 1 sleep on the roof,” he told us. “Nobody looks up there. They’re always looking in the dirt.”

We’d gathered at a streetside taco stand. We were buying him supper. It took Andres about ten minutes to get down from the hill. I walked with him, while the others went ahead.

“What’s wrong with your knees?” I’d asked him.

“I need surgery.”

“Could you walk after it was done?”

“That’s what they say,” he said. “How much does it cost?”

He blew air out through slack lips. “Oh. Forget it. Too much.” “How much?”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars,” he said, shaking his head at the immensity of it.

We bought him a paper plate of tacos.

“I like you,” he said. “Do you have any bubblegum?”

I did.

He smiled.

As we left him, he reached out and took my hand. His fingers were soft and limp. His hand was cold.

“Be careful,” he said.

The last I saw of him, he was balanced on his twin sticks, smiling a little around his tacos and staring at us. He was smaller than everybody around him. And they repeatedly bumped into him as they passed, rocking him until it looked like he was going to fall.

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