Pubdate: July 1998
Source: Atlantic Monthly (The)
Volume: 282, No. 1; pages 47 - 68
Author: Robert D. Kaplan
Note: The online version of this article appears in three parts. Robert D.
Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue
will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire
Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House
in late summer.


Mexico And The Southwest

A correspondent who has long experience reporting from dimly understood
regions of the world reports from his dimly understood native land, and his
excursions expose the borderless forces that are pushing America into its
next life. Herewith a portion of his travelogue, focusing on the Southwest

- --

SET out by bus heading northwest from Mexico City. It was the late-summer
rainy season; iron clouds hung low over a high and rolling green plateau.
Though Mexico does not have the poisoned ugliness of the environmentally
ravaged former Soviet Union or the bleak underdevelopment and deforestation
of sub-Saharan Africa, the scene I viewed from the window was a familiar
Third World one: cratered dirt roads leading off the main highway,
overgrown and scruffy greenery, mounds of rotting garbage along the
roadside, elevated pipes covered with black tape, cinder-block houses with
rocks holding down their corrugated-metal roofs, clothes drying on sagging
lines. Puddles were everywhere -- the effect of a poor drainage system or
none at all.

The route I followed was the one taken by Francisco VE1squez de Coronado,
a thirty-year-old Spanish nobleman who had come to Mexico in the wake of
Cortez's conquest. That conquest, from 1519 to 1521, had been fraught with
mangrove thickets, moldy cassava bread, human sacrifices, and macabre
tropical grandeur. Cortez and his men comprehended little of what they saw,
and were not especially curious. These crude zealots massacred Indians,
built Christian altars where they had smashed idols, and went mad at the
sight of gold, which covered the walls of Montezuma's palace and which they
melted down for their own enrichment and to be shipped to Spain. Unlike the
children of the European Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation who
settled the east coast of what became the United States, Cortez and his men
came to steal, not to work or build cities. Religious dogmatists who
combined the worst of Spanish and Moorish culture, they lacked the habit of
process, of investing years of labor to achieve material gain -- the
bourgeois mentality, in other words.

After eight hours the bus reached Guadalajara, and I was grateful for the
opportunity to take a walk. Beyond Guadalajara's historic center I saw what
a European might notice on a first visit to North America: the flattening
out of the urban landscape, with wide streets creating intimidating
distances between buildings. There were many fast-food outlets, each with a
large parking lot. Even in the vastnesses I had visited in Central Asia,
the roads were narrow and people traveled by public bus; and because many
of the towns were walkable, there was a vivid sense of huddled-together
community. Guadalajara was different. The American-car dealerships and
service stations on the city's edge were not the marginalized places they
might be in Europe but modern emporiums with snack bars and waiting rooms.
On the yawning boulevards men with guns guarded the American Express office
and banks. Black graffiti were scrawled over new pink-adobe houses. The
empty and alienating vistas I have seen in some American cities I saw here,
too, in the heart of Mexico, whose civilization is under attack from our
automobile culture and our appetite for drugs.

"Son of a bitch."

"Jesus Christ."



On went the casual, matter-of-fact dialogue of an American-made karate film
being shown in the darkened bus. The passengers read the Spanish subtitles.
The bus had left Guadalajara and was continuing northwest. When it slowed
to a crawl in the town of IxtlE1n del Rio, I opened the window curtains
and saw dusty streets, broken sidewalks, and windows protected by metal
bars; a man in worn and filthy clothes slowly cutting sugarcane; women with
plastic buckets waiting in line for water; peeling posters advertising a
bullfight; and men partly uniformed and carrying AK-47 assault rifles. On
one corner was a white-tiled shrine holding busts of three
early-twentieth-century revolutionaries: 46rancisco Madero, Venustiano
Carranza, and Emiliano Zapata. I knew that they had fought one another and
that each had been assassinated.

Several hours later I got off at Tepic, a city of 240,000 people, and
checked into the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra. American rock music blared from
the lobby and down the corridors leading to my room. Later, in the hotel
restaurant, half a dozen young men in jeans, T-shirts, and Nikes entered.
Two of them carried Magnum revolvers, which they carefully placed on the
chair cushions and then sat on. They ate a three-course meal without the
slightest show of discomfort. Except for me, no one gave them a glance.

The neo-Gothic cathedral across the street was seemingly all that remained
of traditional Mexico. Beyond it, stretching in a grid pattern all the way
to the surrounding volcanoes, were boxy two- and three-story spray-painted
buildings, many of them marred by graffiti. This was a treeless wilderness
of broken signs, drooping electric wires, and hard right angles. The Old
World had disappeared over the horizon -- perhaps in the historic part of
Guadalajara, 140 miles away, with its dignified mustard-yellow archways --
and nothing but this architectural bleakness replaced it. Tepic was a town
of the new, Third World Sunbelt, punctuated with the worst refuse of
American capitalism.

"Compostela, Francisco VE1squez de Coronado?" I inquired at the hotel
reception desk. One employee had heard of Compostela, none of Coronado. At
the municipal tourist office, too, Coronado was unknown. When I told
officials there that the little town of Compostela, forty minutes south of
Tepic, was where Coronado, having arrived from Mexico City and Guadalajara,
mustered his troops for the exploration of the north, they stared at me
uncomprehendingly. "Who was he?" a woman asked in Spanish. She fished out a
faded brochure whose one paragraph about Compostela did not mention the
Spanish explorer. The past here seemed as blank as the urban landscape.
Because so many Mexicans are of mixed Spanish and Indian origin, the
attitude toward the Spanish conquerors who massacred Indians is highly
ambivalent; like it or not, the Spanish are among America's founding
fathers. Few Mexican streets are named for Cortez or Coronado, and
relatively little is taught about them in Mexican schools. This denial of
an important part of Mexico's past, in which one line of forebears murdered
the other, both complicates and dilutes the meaning of a state that,
although officially founded in 1821, grew from the Spanish conquest and the
oligarchy it begot. To a great degree that oligarchy still rules, as
suggested by the light skins of Mexico's upper class and the brown skins of
Mexico's poor.

ULIACC1N, more than 250 miles northwest of Tepic, is the capital of the
drug-rich coastal state of Sinaloa. Here Coronado resupplied his army
before continuing north. Stepping off the bus, the other passengers and I
passed through a metal detector to enter the station.
 But the policeman on duty was sipping coffee, not paying attention to
anyone coming through. In the station more armed policemen were hanging
about, as were many young males wearing silver-toed boots.

The temperature of the sidewalks of CuliacE1n must have been 100B0: they
baked.The smells of urine, frying tortillas, and salsa were sharp and
overpowering. Many of the men sported tattoos and baseball caps facing
backward. Then there were the pickups: Chevys and Dodge Rams with oversized
wheels and high suspensions, fins, ornamental railings, and silver hood
ornaments in the shapes of bulls and horses. The pickups were all freshly
painted. Published reports on the narcotics trade make it obvious where the
money to pay for these vehicles came from. The food stands were filthy, but
near them I saw a hotel, the Executivo, with shiny marble in the lobby and
credit-card stickers on the door. The gift shop in the lobby sold only key
chains, baseball caps, and cheap plastic toys.

Most of the migrants, exports, and cocaine headed for the United States
pass through CuliacE1n and the rest of Sinaloa. A city of 600,000,
nicknamed "Little Chicago" in Mexican news reports, CuliacE1n is the
Mexican Cali; it averages several drug-related murders daily. Local folk
ballads like "White Load" and "Death of a Snitch" glorify drug kingpins.
Nowhere else in the developing world have I seen so many handguns carried
by men in civilian clothes.

The most popular religious site in CuliacE1n is a shrine dedicated to
JesFAs Malverde, a common criminal hanged in 1909, who is now known as "El
Narcosanton" -- the Big Narco Saint. Here drug lords come to pray for good
fortune. The shrine is built of plate glass, white bathroom tiles, and
corrugated sheet metal; it is covered in blue spray paint, tar, and cheap
wallpaper, and the walls don't quite join the sheet-metal roof. The first
time I walked past the shrine, which is crammed between two sandy parking
lots and obscured by a taco stand, I mistook it for a gas station or an
auto-parts shed. When I saw it a second time, I noticed three young men in
tight jeans praying before the painted plastic statue of JesFAs Malverde,
while behind the shrine two men played a sad tune on a bass fiddle and a
wheezing accordion. The plastic statue was surrounded by votive candles in
red glasses. I bought an amulet containing a picture of the Narco Saint
from an old woman. She dipped it in a sink of holy water and passed it over
the face and black-painted hair of the statue before handing it to me for
the equivalent of five dollars. Meanwhile, a stream of people -- young
toughs, old women, and children -- stopped to pray. The local newspapers
said that among the drug traffickers who pray here is Rafael Caro Quintero,
who reportedly ordered the 1985 slaying of the American drug agent Enrique

Crass and brutal as the shrine is, it is real: the poor built it with their
bare hands from junk, without planning or authorization, and then filled it
with their emotions. The shrine rebukes established aesthetics with its
spray paint and gas-station decor -- signs of revolt. A hundred yards away
is the massive ceramic-and-stone Government Palace of Sinaloa state, with
manicured lawns and hundreds of white-collar workers. I saw less energy and
spontaneity in that giant building than in the shrine, which could have fit
inside just one of the palace's offices.

As in many of the towns I saw as I closed in on the U.S. border, in
CuliacE1n even the newest poured-concrete and tinted-glass structures
looked temporary2E This is the New World: a land without limits,
chronically impermanent, unprotected and unhindered by tradition. In such a
vacuum wealth is easily -- if too quickly and unequally -- created, and
drugs are only part of the reason. Sinaloa accounts for a third of Mexico's
sesame-seed production and three quarters of its soybeans. American
businesspeople opening factories crowd Sinaloa's hotels. Migrants from
poorer Mexican provinces seek work in Sinaloa. The drug trade is just
another business -- another opportunity for those with ambition.

The community here was far from devastated by drugs. Children seemed to
have the advantages of family life that many Americans of their age in
inner cities do not. I was struck by the pervasiveness of uniformed
schoolchildren with backpacks. As I walked along a sun-blasted street
suffused with pink light, the cardboard of my notebook damp with sweat
inside my pants pocket, I noticed a classroom of children through the
rusted grillwork of a window in the brick schoolhouse, some raising their
hands to answer the teacher's questions and some writing quietly in their
exercise books.  At a nearby candy store locals of several generations
gathered to buy knickknacks, exchange gossip, and, in the case of the
children, play games. In a transnational North America of ten or twenty
years from now, will these children be competing with less competent, and
less determined, Americans of their own generation?

Whereas Americans quickly notice the sleazy aspect of Mexico's border
towns, they may be less aware that an aggressive middle class is burgeoning
in cities like CuliacE1n, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. If central
authority in Mexico continues to break down and more members of that middle
class decide to head north, they will not face the same racial barriers
that blacks do. In the municipal park of CuliacE1n, not fifty feet from
where hoodlums with tattoos and beepers were having their silver-toed boots
shined while they talked on cellular phones, I saw several neatly dressed
teenage couples, holding hands, who looked straight out of Orange County or
some other part of suburban California.

To pigeonhole CuliacE1n as a drug depot is to miss the point. The
multibillion-dollar narcotics trade in Mexico is too vast to be dismissed
as "illegal." Even if legal business is growing and helping to create a
solid middle class, the drug trade is the heart of the Mexican economy. It
constitutes the principal economic fact of life for the southern part of
North America at the turn of the twenty-first century -- the subterranean
aspect of North American free trade that does not require treaties or
congressional approval. The narcotics trade indicates as much about the
social fiber of the United States (where the market is) as about Mexico,
where young men on the make are responding to consumer demand in ways that
both challenge and further corrupt an already imploding political power
structure. I walked around frequently at night in CuliacE1n, when the
candles burned bright at the crowded shrine of El Narcosanton. Dangerous as
CuliacE1n was by Mexican standards, it was safe by those of many American
cities. For me, Mexico's Cali was also a civil society, whose growing
middle class will increasingly be pursuing opportunities in the United

The Rusted Iron Curtain

WHAT we call "the border" has always been a wild and unstable swath of
desert, hundreds of miles wide -- a region that the Aztecs, cruel as they
were, could not control, that the Apaches brutalized in eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century raids, and where U.S. soldiers unsuccessfully chased the
bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa.

My bus came around a low rise, and a long, narrow belt of factories and
shanties stretched out almost to the horizon between brown hills studded
with juniper and sagebrush. This was the border town of Nogales, a crowded
warren of distempered stucco faE7ades spray-painted with swastikas and
graffiti, of broken plastic-and-neon signs, of garish wall drawings of the
46lintstones and other television icons. Among the faE7ades were the
industrial maquiladoraplants I had heard about -- plants that attract
blue-collar workers from throughout Mexico, who assemble American-made
parts into products exported to the United States.

Not all the workers find jobs, and the migration has spawned shantytowns
and violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, class conflict, and the breakup
of families. Both rape and car accidents are more common in the north than
in the rest of Mexico. More than 2,000 companies opened factories in this
region from the late sixties to the mid-nineties, resulting in what the
American Medical Association has labeled a "cesspool" of polluted air,
contaminated groundwater and surface water, unsanitary waste dumps, and
other health and environmental problems associated with uncontrolled urban
growth. The abandonment of subsistence farming by workers in search of
better-paying manufacturing jobs is a latter-day gold rush -- ugly upheaval
and bright promise -- but on a vast scale and likely to be permanent.

Many of our microwave ovens, televisions, VCRs, toasters, toys, and
everyday clothes are made by Mexican laborers in border towns like this
one. They earn three to five dollars a day -- not an hour but a day! -- and
as Charles Bowden, an expert and writer on Mexico and the U.S. Southwest,
notes, they work in conditions that are often dangerous because of
pollution and toxic chemicals2E American consumers are now in a tight
political and economic relationship with Third World workers. This close
relationship is also oligarchic, and not much different from that between
the citizens of ancient Athens or Rome and their slaves.

I checked into a hotel and then walked toward the border, where I watched
two boys kick a soccer ball made of rags until one of them kicked the ball
onto a scrap-metal roof. When the ball failed to roll back down, the boys
walked away. I saw a group of teenagers with hair cut in punk styles and
dyed primary colors, wearing expensive leather belts, winter ski hats, and
summer shorts -- anything they could get their hands on. Their expressions
were untamed. A hundred yards from the border began a concentration of
scrap-metal storefronts, offering every manner of souvenir and after-hours
activity, including off-track betting. Here were crowds of destitute people
reeking of alcohol. Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empirethat the fifth-century Goths "imbibed the vices,
without imitating the arts and institutions, of civilised [Roman] society."
What I saw at the border is nothing new.

The actual border, on International Street, was at the time of my visit a
twelve-foot-high, darkly rusted iron curtain, constructed by the American
authorities from scraps of metal that the U.S. Army used in the Persian
Gulf War. (It has since been partly replaced by a new wall.) Walking back
from the border I saw the neat squares and rectangular roofs of houses high
on the hills of the American side, where it was obvious that every joint
fit and that every part was standardized, in contrast to the amateurish and
inspired constructions all around me.

Though here, in the middle of a city, the border looked forbidding, out in
the desert it ebbs to a few strands of barbed wire, which work to keep only
cattle from migrating. Along the narrow Rio Grande in Texas, where there is
no fence at all, or any natural obstruction, no mountain range or wide,
surging river, the border is highly penetrable. The military radar used by
U.S. border guards is like a penlight in a dark forest, as William
Langewiesche has written (see "The Border," May and June, 1992, Atlantic).
An artificial, purely legal construct, the border has for several centuries
been an unruly and politically ambiguous "brown zone" where civilizations
- -- Spanish and Anglo, Athapaskan-speaking Indians from the Arctic and
Aztecan Indians from southern Mexico -- mingle.

The factors that have kept Mexico at bay -- drug profits and the wages of
illegal aliens -- stem from the very activities that Washington claims it
wants to stop.  Without the drug trade and illegal migration the United
States would face what it has always feared: a real revolution in Mexico
and true chaos on the border. To deprive Mexico of its largest sources of
income would hasten the collapse of its already weak central authority.
Indeed, by supporting the Mexican economy, America's appetite for marijuana
and cocaine protects against a further flood of immigrants from a
contiguous, troubled, and ever more populous Third World country.

The unpalatable truth about Mexico is its intractability -- the
intractability of an ancient "hydraulic" civilization, like Egypt's,
China's, and India's, in which the need to build great water and earth
works (Mexico has both canal systems and pyramids) led to a vast,
bureaucratic tyranny. Centuries of what Karl Marx called "oriental
despotism" have imprinted the political culture, despite the influence of a
great democratic civilization to the north. And it is not clear that our
influence on Mexico is beneficial. Our appetite for drugs may be turning
this ancient non-Western civilization into an amoral yet dynamic beast of
the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, integration proceeds irreversibly. Vectors of binationhood have
emerged between Phoenix and Guaymas, Tucson and Los Mochis, Dallas and
Chihuahua City, in which prosperous Mexicans and Americans commute back and
forth by air. North America's geographic destiny may be no longer east to
west but one in which the arbitrary lines separating us from Mexico and
Canada disappear, even as relations between the East Coast and Europe, the
West Coast and Asia, and the Southwest and Mexico all intensify. Is our
border with Mexico like the Great Wall of China -- a barrier built in the
desert to keep out Turkic tribesmen which, as Gibbon wrote, held "a
conspicuous place in the map of the world" but "never contributed to the
safety" of the Chinese?

"Ambos Nogales"

I HAD crossed the Berlin Wall several times during the Communist era. I had
crossed the border from Iraq to Iran illegally, with Kurdish rebels. I had
crossed from Jordan to Israel and from Pakistan to India in the 1970s, and
from Greek Cyprus to Turkish Cyprus in the 1980s. In 1983, coming from
Damascus, I had walked up to within a few yards of the first Israeli
soldier in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights. But never in my
life had I experienced such a sudden transition as when I crossed from
Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona.

Surrounded by beggars on the broken sidewalk of Mexican Nogales, I stared
at Old Glory snapping in the breeze over two white McDonald's-like arches,
which marked the international crossing point.
 Cars waited in inspection lanes. To the left of the car lanes was the
pedestrian crossing point, in a small building constructed by the U.S.
government. Merely by touching the door handle one entered a new physical

The solidly constructed handle with its high-quality metal, the clean
glass, and the precise manner in which the room's ceramic tiles were fitted
- -- each the same millimetric distance from the next -- seemed a marvel to
me after the chaos of Mexican construction. There were only two other
people in the room: an immigration official, who checked identification
documents before their owners passed through a metal detector; and a
customs official, who stood by the luggage x-ray machine. They were both
quiet. In government enclosures of that size in Mexico and other places in
the Third World, I remembered crowds of officials and hangers-on engaged in
animated discussion while sipping tea or coffee. Looking at the car lanes,
I saw how few people there were to garrison the border station and yet how
efficiently it ran.

I gave the immigration official my U.S. passport. She glanced up at me and
asked how long I had been in Mexico. I told her several weeks. She asked,
"Why so long?" I explained that I was a journalist. She handed back my
passport. With her eyes she motioned me through the metal detector. The
customs official did not ask me to put my rucksack through the machine.
U.S. Customs works on "profiles," and I evidently did not look suspect.
Less than sixty seconds after walking through the glass doors on the Mexico
side, I entered the United States.

The billboards, sidewalks, traffic markers, telephone cables, and so on all
appeared straight, and all the curves and angles uniform. The
standardization made for a cold and alienating landscape after what I had
grown used to in Mexico. The store logos were made of expensive polymers
rather than cheap plastic. I heard no metal rattling in the wind.  The cars
were the same makes I had seen in Mexico, but oh,were they different: no
chewed-up, rusted bodies, no cracked windshields held together by black
tape, no good-luck charms hanging inside the windshields, no noise from
broken mufflers.

The taxi I entered had shock absorbers. The neutral-gray upholstery was not
ripped or shredded. The meter printed out receipts. As I sank into the soft
upholstery for the ride to the hotel, I felt as though I had entered a
protective, ordered bubble -- not just the taxi but this whole new place.

The Plaza Hotel in Nogales, Sonora, and the Americana Hotel in Nogales,
Arizona, both charged $50 for a single room. But the Mexican hotel, only
two years old, was already falling apart -- doors didn't close properly,
paint was cracking, walls were beginning to stain. The American hotel was a
quarter century old and in excellent condition, from the fresh paint to the
latest-model fixtures. The air-conditioning was quiet, not clanking loudly
as in the hotel across the border. There was no mold or peeling paint in
the swimming pool outside my window. The tap water was potable. Was the
developed world, I wondered, defined not by its riches but by maintenance?

As I walked around Nogales, Arizona, I saw a way of doing things, different
from Mexico's, that had created material wealth.  This was not a matter of
Anglo culture per se, since 95 percent of the population of Nogales,
Arizona, is Spanish-speaking and of Mexican descent. Rather, it was a
matter of the national culture of the United States, which that day in
Nogales seemed to me sufficiently robust to absorb other races,
ethnicities, and languages without losing its distinctiveness.

The people I saw on the street were in most instances speaking Spanish, but
they might as well have been speaking English.  Whether it was the quality
of their clothes, the purposeful stride that indicated they were going
somewhere rather than just hanging out, the absence of hand movements when
they talked, or the impersonal and mechanical friendliness of their voices
when I asked directions, they seemed to me thoroughly modern compared with
the Spanish-speakers over in Sonora. The sterility, dullness, and
predictability I observed on the American side of the border -- every
building part in its place -were signs of economic efficiency.

Though the term "ambos Nogales" ("both Nogaleses") asserts a common
identity, the differences between the two towns are basic. Nogales,
Arizona, has only 21,000 residents, a fairly precise figure; nobody in
Nogales, Sonora, has any idea how many people live there -- the official
figure is 138,000, but I heard unofficial ones as high as 300,000. Here the
streets were quiet and spotless, with far fewer people and cars than in
Mexico.  Distances, as a consequence, seemed vast. Taxis did not prowl the
streets, and thus I was truly stranded without a car. I had reached a part
of the earth where business is not conducted in public, so street life was

When the English and other Northern European settlers with their bourgeois
values swept across this mainly uninhabited land, they swept away the past;
technology and the use of capital have determined everything since. Because
subsequent immigrants sought opportunity, the effect of periodic waves of
immigration has been to erase the past again and again, replacing one
technology with another. Economic efficiency, as these streets in Nogales,
Arizona, proclaimed, is everything in America. Liberals may warn against
social Darwinism, but the replacement of obsolete technology and the jobs
and social patterns that go with it are what our history has always been
about, and immigrants want it that way. For them it means liberation: the
chance to succeed or fail, and to be judged purely on their talents and
energy and good fortune.

In Mexico the post offices looked as if they had just been vacated, with
papers askew and furniture missing. In Nogales, Arizona, the Spanish voices
in the post office were the last thing I noticed; what struck me
immediately was the evenly stacked printed forms, the big wall clock that
worked, the bulletin board with community advertisements in neat columns,
the people waiting quietly in line, and a policeman standing slightly
hunched over in the corner, carefully going through his paperwork, unlike
the leering, swaggering policemen I had seen in Mexico.

The silent streets of Nogales, Arizona, with their display of noncoercive
order and industriousness, cast the United States in a different light not
only from Mexico but from many of the other countries I had seen in my
travels. Nogales, Arizona, demonstrated just how insulated America has been
- -- thus far, at least.

Copyright  1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

- ---