San Diego Two weeks ago, on Saturday night at around 8:30 p.m. in Plaza Bonita, three janitors mopped blood off the tile floor beside a golden carousel that spun and thundered "You're a Grand Old Flag."
Mr. Sanchez, the mall's manager, a diminutive, mustached man with expressive eyes, murmured into a walkie-talkie and glared when I asked the janitors, "¿Están limpiando sangre del piso? ("Are you cleaning blood off the floor?") -- a question that didn't, at the time, seem entirely out of place.
"No!" Mr. Sanchez answered for the janitors who were absorbed with their chore and didn't appear very eager to talk.
Over at Howard & Phil's Western Wear, some 15 feet away, the young blonde clerk at the cash register exhibited a similar reticence. When asked if she had witnessed the incident in front of her store, her eyes glazed over and she responded in a flat, robotic monotone, "No. I didn't see anything. It's not something I'd be in any position to know about. Anyway, I was in the back of the store where I couldn't hear or see anything."
Glancing in Mr. Sanchez's direction, she continued in the same mechanical voice, "Plaza Bonita is a great mall. It's a fantastic mall. We don't have any problems here. The media blow it all out of proportion."
The glazed eyes, the spooky robot's voice, reminded me of a conversation I'd had just a few minutes earlier in the security office near the mall's east entrance. I was trying to speak with a burly Hispanic security guard manning the front desk about gang activity at Plaza Bonita, but when my general questions became more specific, his eyes glazed over and in the same monotone as the clerk's at Howard & Phil's Western Wear, he began to drone, "Plaza Bonita is a great mall. We really don't have any problems here. The media blow it all out of proportion."
He didn't get very far into his recitation, however. As if on cue, just as he began droning on about the media, a frantic, middle-aged woman charged into the office.
"Oh, my God!" she gasped. She jingled her car keys.
Her eyes darted from me to the guard and back again. The guard and I looked at each other.
"Channel 51!" she said. "Channel 51 just announced that there was a stabbing here at Plaza Bonita! Juveniles in custody! Channel 51!"
The guard raised his eyebrows, glanced at me, smiled weakly.
"My son! I know my son was here! I just wanted to make sure he was okay! He's half Mexican!"
"Does your son have a shaved head?" the guard asked.
"Well, no. It's kind of short on the sides and kind of long in the back with a kind of ponytail. But, no. Shaved. No, it's not shaved."
"Well, your son wasn't involved, then. The juveniles have been taken into custody. National City Police."
"Are you absolutely sure?"
"You'll have to check with them. I can't give out any more information."
For a suburban shopping mall that's brighter, cleaner, and more attractive than most, Plaza Bonita seems to have a lot going on that many people don't want to talk about. Earlier in the week when I chatted with the proprietor of one of the stalls in the food court, he became edgy. Suspicious. He glanced around, leaned over his counter, and whispered, "I can't say any more. This place is fine during the day. But at night it becomes a zoo. Hang around. You'll see. After dark."
This highly paranoiac, tight-lipped, detective-fiction attitude taints conversations about Plaza Bonita even with DEA agents in Manhattan.
"Can't talk to you much about an investigation that's still in progress," quipped a DEA public-information officer in New York, although an official in her office had, a few days before, divulged much of the factual information I was asking about to Newsday.
It's difficult to tell what's going on -- or what's gone on -- at Plaza Bonita. What is known is that last fall at Plaza Bonita, a 14-year-old National City boy was recruited to carry drugs to New York by members of the Tijuana-based Arellano-Félix cartel. Something went wrong. On the night of October 2, the boy called 911 from a Great Neck, New York, motel. He was crying. He was frightened. The man he was supposed to meet at the motel had fled before the boy arrived. The boy panicked. He stashed the backpack he'd been hired to carry in bushes outside the motel. When police arrived and recovered the pack, they found inside it $85,000 worth of marijuana and cocaine.
The police contacted the DEA, and the agency's subsequent investigation uncovered an operation in which at least eight National City junior high school students, recruited at Plaza Bonita by the Arellano-Félix cartel, had carried hundreds of pounds of drugs and millions in cash to major cities across the country.
"We've never seen anything like it before," one DEA official was quoted as saying about the case.
In January, a man who accompanied the 14-year-old National City boy from Los Angeles to New York, Victor Manuel Bermúdez, was arrested near his restaurant, El Jalapeño, in Las Vegas. On February 19, Bermúdez was arraigned in New York and pled not guilty to charges of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine and possession with intent to sell. Bermúdez is being held without bail and, if convicted, could be sentenced to life in prison.
The Arellano-Félix cartel is perhaps best known locally for its hiring of ten members from the Logan gang to assassinate a rival drug lord. The botched attack in May 1993, at the Guadalajara, Mexico, airport ended in the Death of Mexican Cardinal Juan Jesús Posádas Ocampo. Since 1996, the cartel has been implicated in the Deaths of ten police commanders and prosecutors assigned to Tijuana anti-drug operations.
The image of the baroque and violent Arellano-Félix crew recruiting adolescent drug couriers at Plaza Bonita -- among the food stalls, Sam Goody's, Gymboree, Victoria's Secret -- seems at first implausible. Especially during the day when the mall is filled with smartly dressed Tijuana matrons pushing Aprica strollers and Filipino grandmothers gossiping over coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls from Cinnabon. On Friday and Saturday nights, however, the atmosphere changes. Flashy, low-slung Hondas crowd the parking lot near the mall's east entrance and blast thumping rap. The boys who emerge from these cars are lean and insolent and have shaved heads and wear big, puffy Perry Ellis jackets and baggy pants. They cruise the mall in twos and threes, and the teenage girls they flirt with often hold a toddler or two.
According to Newsday, the 14-year-old recruited at Plaza Bonita came from a very poor Mexican immigrant family of eight children. William Sheeckutz, his Nassau County attorney, is so concerned for the boy's safety, so worried about reprisals from the Arellano-Félix mob, that he's unwilling to give any information about the boy or the disposition of his case. Newsday went so far as to state that the 14-year-old was "shy," and in a phone interview Sheeckutz expressed outrage that even that much was made public.
"This case is so sensitive," grumbled Sheeckutz, "the people involved are so dangerous, that I worry that any information, no matter how innocent seeming, could be used to identify my client or his family. I was amazed that Newsday printed some of the things it did."
Actually, Newsday didn't offer much about the 14-year old, but it did paint a rather Dickensian picture of National City, which it described as a "tough town of about 60,000 not far from Tijuana" and a "worn-out California border town known as Nasty City" where "20 percent of the families live below the poverty level and 40 percent of the adults are high school dropouts." It is difficult to square that image with Plaza Bonita and the kids who flock to it on weekend nights.
They aren't poor children who were raised in slums or government-housing projects. If you talk to these black, Hispanic, and Filipino children, they readily admit that they come from middle-class families in the South Bay.
"Most of us," one world-weary Filipino boy told me, "come from families with money."
He considered the crowd of shaved heads, the expensive, baggy sports wear, the Pendletons, the khakis, the large gold medallions.
"They like to think they bad," he snorted.
The props of gang culture -- the costumes, the attitude, the cars, the haircuts, the slang -- are so popular among these young people that it's difficult to tell who's posturing and who's for real. In this atmosphere it's easy to understand how a Mexican 14-year-old from a poor family of eight children might get caught up in the flash. The Arellano-Félix cartel had enough cunning to prey upon this confusion.
After watching the janitors swab up blood beside the carousel, I went back to the world-weary, middle-class Filipino kid who was lounging not far from the mall's security office. I told him about the 14-year-old boy and the Arellano-Félix cartel. I asked him if he knew anything about the case.
He tilted his head back and surmised me through half-open eyes. His face was expressionless. It was that hard, stone-cold gaze you see gangster rappers give on music videos.
"Could be, homes," he said. "Drugs is biznez. Everybody down wi' dat."