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.


INTERSTATE 19 from Nogales to Tucson is a typical American four-lane
highway, with luminous metallic signs and landscaped roadsides and without
the mud puddles and trails of garbage that begin an inch from the road in
Mexico. My bus passed through Green Valley, a high-income retirement
community with Spanish archways and upscale mini-malls. Still fresh from
Mexico, I gawked at the prosperity. I thought of the tens of millions of
poor people just on the other side of the iron curtain thirty minutes to
the south -- so much younger than the population on this side of the
border. In Mexico 40 percent of the population is under fifteen, whereas in
this part of Arizona the median age is thirty-three and rising. If the
history of migration is a guide, borders like this one, not based on
geographic barriers, may slow and interrupt great movements of humanity but
ultimately will not stop them.

A pitiless gray cluster of sun-beaten escarpments -- the Santa Catalina
Mountains to the north, the Tucson Mountains to the west, and the Rincon
Mountains to the east -- announced Tucson. With a population of 465,000,
Tucson is larger than Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh,
or Cincinnati. Eighty-five percent of Arizonans live either in greater
Tucson or in greater Phoenix. By the middle of the next century 98 percent
of Arizonans will live in just four cities: Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and
Yuma. (Greater Tucson already has a population of 817,000.) The Arizona
pattern suggests what is happening throughout the West, as small towns die
and suburbs around big cities grow by an acre an hour. Despite its mythic
grandeur, the West is actually the most urbanized part of the United States.

After the Second World War the "Sunbelt" phenomenon, made possible by the
spread of air-conditioning, led to a land boom in Tucson. The city's
population grew from 35,000 in 1940 to 212,000 in 1960. In the 1980s and
1990s, as the communications revolution took off, Tucson's warm and scenic
desert location became especially appealing. The population, which grew by
26 percent in the 1970s, has risen by an additional 34 percent since,
according to city officials. Many who live here do business with regional
or even global clienteles -- in the Catalina foothills in north Tucson an
elite conducts daily business electronically with other continents. Other
newcomers are prosperous retirees with independent incomes. Thus the local
economy has not kept pace with the population, and now there are two
Tucsons. Aside from the University of Arizona -- somewhat of a social and
economic island -- and boom-and-bust military-aircraft industries, little
is here except low-paying service jobs and a millionaire elite that
acquired its wealth by sitting on real estate rather than producing anything.

My bus entered a gridwork of dead space: mile upon yawning mile of strip
malls with no edifice more than two stories high, each with a parking lot:
Arby's Roast Beef, Yokohama Rice Bowl, Lube Pit, Jack inthe Box, Denny's,
Exxon, Discount Tire, Quik Mart, McDonald's, Whataburger, Foodmart, Dunkin'
Donuts, Bank One, Taco Bell, and on and on. There was an ordered
repetition: every few miles another Yokohama Rice Bowl, another Arby's and
Bank One. What seemed an unending sameness was a series of interconnected
shopping centers serving individual neighborhoods, often cookie-cutter
subdivisions of single-level, cheaply framed Sheetrock houses: "three
houses to an acre, ticky-tacky junk," according to a local planner.

I tried to remember the sequence of the bus's ninety-degree turns, but soon
lost all sense of direction, since nothing seemed to change -- as if I were
inside the circuitry of a computer chip. Later, when I picked up a rental
car and looked briefly at a city map, I saw that except in the hilly
northern suburbs, there were no winding streets to confuse me. The city is
a military-style, 200-square-mile cantonment whose central thoroughfare --
named Speedway -- is a multi-lane highway. Tucson appeared truly
futuristic, a deliberate pod -- a kind of self-enclosed, technologically
sophisticated community that may well be more closely connected to similar
ones in Asia than to neighboring towns. Partly because of the surrounding
mountains and clean air, Tucson still evinces a Wild West quaintness.
Nearby greater Phoenix is four times as large. Its growth faces no natural
limits, and it has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.

What little there was to Tucson's downtown was near the bus station: a few
empty streets with brick-fronted stores selling T-shirts, Native American
and Indian-subcontinent fabrics, leather-and-chain apparel, some
traditional clothes, and trite western-landscape paintings. Much of the
merchandise had a faded hippie look. Some of the stores were closed,
opening only on weekend nights, when the streets fill with students from
the university, though they have little disposable income. Roy Drachman,
who has lived in Tucson for all of his ninety years and has been one of the
city's leading real-estate developers since the Second World War, told me
that although he leads an active life, he hasn't been downtown in years.
"There are no good restaurants or anything worthwhile, and I wouldn't feel
safe there at night."

Tucson is an oasis culture located in the desert along the Rillito and
Santa Cruz Rivers -- shallow, dry washes that fill with gushing brown water
after a heavy rain. It is a city of nomads, both rich and poor, in which
much of the population struggles at subsistence level. "Tucson is generally
a minimum-wage town," Charles Bowden, who has written nine books about the
Southwest, told me. "It has the American equivalent of a maquiladora economy."

It is said that many of the people who live in Tucson have come here just
to be left alone. Involvement in local politics is abysmal, with a voter
turnout of 25 to 30 percent in off-year elections -- one of the lowest in
the United States. Relatively few people are on the streets. There are few
sidewalks, and almost no taxis. It is a city of beepers, car phones, and
private security systems. The impression of many people here is that the
local business elite is disappearing as an increasing number of Tucson's
retail outlets give way to chain stores. The crime index is the ninth
highest among large U.S. cities, after Tampa, Miami, St. Louis, Atlanta,
Baton Rouge, Newark, Baltimore, and Kansas City. There is almost no urban

"In many neighborhoods people don't stay long enough to build community
ties," Tom Sheridan, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, told
me. "It is a Sunbelt phenomenon of people in transit. Still, neighborhood
associations are more vibrant in Tucson than in Phoenix, where seven out of
ten newcomers leave sooner or later." The West is the most mobile region in
the nation (followed by the South), with a fifth of all households having
moved in the previous year. In Tucson almost 30 percent of households have
lived in their homes less than fifteen months, about 60 percent less than
five years.

"Since 1980 there has been a real decline in community life," Molly
McKasson, a Tucson city councilwoman, told me. "Despite the massive growth
and development of the 1980s, the median household income here declined by
eight percent, the unemployment rate rose by twenty-eight percent, the
number of people living in poverty increased by sixty-eight percent, and we
are close to being a renter economy: almost fifty percent of people here
rent rather than own their homes."

The median household income in Tucson is $21,748, whereas it was $26,655 in
1970 (in the same dollars). The median income for a single woman with
children is $14,595. More than a third of Tucson households earn less than
$15,000. "Do you realize how low these numbers are?" McKasson asked me.
"These women can't afford day care; their kids are left alone during the
day.  And these are the people above poverty! All the stress indicators are
up. There is an increase in transiency, in single motherhood, in renters,
in child abuse, in juvenile crime." Most of McKasson's figures are slightly
below the national average. The social crisis affects the black, white, and
Mexican communities to similar degrees.

The Southwest is full of such oases: low-wage, one-story encampments
containing a high proportion of drifters and broken families. The
drug-arrest rate is higher in the West than anywhere else in the country.

HEREAS north Tucson is mainly white, Tucson's "South Side" is mainly
Mexican (with both legal and illegal immigrants), and crime-ridden. Arturo
Carillo Strong, a retired Tucson policeman and federal undercover agent,
gave me a tour of the South Side one morning. (Strong recently died.)

"Over there," Strong said, pointing to some stately brick ranch houses with
iron fences, "you see your drug money at work. Just look at that fancy
wrought-iron fence -- you know it was paid for by drugs by the amount of
wrought iron in the construction." Strong's tour began in Barrio Centro and
continued into Barrio Hollywood and El Rio. I was struck by the sterility
of the South Side. Nothing indicated that this was a dangerous area in
which most of Tucson's seventy-five known gangs operate. When Strong told
me about the drive-by shootings and the crack houses, I was truly
surprised: I saw well-maintained tract houses with metal or asphalt roofs
and white-painted brick; some even had gardens of bougainvillea and
oleander, despite the arid desert soil. The only hints of working-class
poverty were old pickups and the occasional sagging clothesline. "The
parents or the grandparents are okay, but some of the kids are bad," Strong
explained. "The grandparents tend the garden and make repairs -- that's why
it looks nice."

We passed a lovely landscaped park with cypress trees. "It's full of drug
dealers at night," Strong said. "They have whistlers -- guys who hang out
at the corner and whistle if they see someone strange approaching."

In another park Strong pointed to some homeless people. "The police provide
a number of one-way bus tickets to these people, to get them to San Diego,
where they will be San Diego's problem. The police and social-service
departments do that sort of thing. Forget solutions -- just keep criminal
activity at a reasonable level in your jurisdiction."

We passed through a section of town where restored adobe houses were
undergoing gentrification by yuppies. I noticed a handmade sign: WE NEED

I saw evidence of class resentment, violence, and a social vacuum. Yet
Strong's cynicism did not persuade me that Tucson was in danger. I knew
that for the prosperous inhabitants of the Catalina foothills, where I was
staying, the South Side simply did not exist.

We entered a section of town composed of tire shops, auto-transmission
stores, and Mexican restaurants. "Tire shops have traditionally been fronts
for drug deals, or for laundering illegal cash," Strong said. "Arrest all
the drug dealers and the retail economy of Tucson's South Side goes bust."
The clumsy architecture and the graffiti made me feel that I was back in
northern Mexico -- a perception that strengthened when Strong and I entered
El Indio restaurant, a local hangout, formerly a beauty salon. Here Strong
introduced me to Alex Villa, a "semi-retired" local gang leader.

Villa said that he was semi-retired because his younger brother had taken
over the leadership of the gang. "But two rival gangs still want my head as
a trophy on the wall." Villa weighed nearly 300 pounds, I thought. His head
was completely shaved, and he had a black goatee. His sunglasses rested on
a bulge at the back of his neck, making him look as if he had two faces.
Around his neck was a gold necklace with a pendant of Jesus Christ the
Fisherman of Souls. "Who else is going to keep me alive?" Villa said when I
commented on it.

"What's a gang?" I asked him.

Villa stared at me, very hard. After a moment of silence he said, "A gang
enforces order from chaos. A gang is about pride and respect, while mafias
are all about business. Only if a gang achieves a certain level of
organization can it become a mafia. In Tucson, gangs are more territorial
than ethnic. For instance, there are often some blacks and whites in
Mexican gangs. Black-dominated gangs tend to be more fluid, though, with
less loyalty and more 'flippers.' The Phoenix gangs are allied with the
[Los Angeles-based] Crips and Bloods, while the gangs here are independent
of -- yet still influenced by -- the L.A. gangs.

"The schools have made things worse. In high school, in the Mexican areas
we were taught about Latino history and pride, while the blacks were taught
about black history and pride. What the teachers never emphasized was
respect for each other's cultures, or how to think like an American. My
sophomore year blacks and Mexicans had a full-fledged riot."

"What about your old gang?"

"It's a subcell of what had been a larger gang." Villa went on, talking
about gang "empires" and "territories," including one controlled by Yaqui
Indians -- "tough little guys whose territory was surrounded, yet they were
able to hold off other groups."

"You don't talk like you look," I remarked. Villa again stared at me hard,
and then said, "You cannot believe how easy it is to be trapped by your
surroundings, how the world beyond the South Side of Tucson is not real.
When I was in criminal court, I listened -- really, for the first time --
to how educated people speak. That's when I realized how dumb I sounded.
Thanks for the compliment. I'm still working on myself."

Villa told me that he reads often in libraries. "I've learned to start
sentences without saying 'You know.'" He had arrived on time for our lunch
- -- but for gang members it is a matter of pride to arrive late, to let the
other fellow wait. I suspected that he was truly retired.

Villa had served a total of sixteen months, in a juvenile prison and in
what he called an adult facility, for assault and battery. "In the adult
facility I learned how to hot-wire cars, get through home alarm systems,
and make silencers," he said. He told me about "night crawlers" -- gang
lookouts who flash Bic cigarette lighters to indicate Tucson street corners
where cocaine is for sale. I was also told by people in the area that cops
are protected by gang members if "they let a certain amount of crime happen."

Villa is a third-generation Mexican-American, born December 30, 1969. "I
was a tax deduction," he joked. His now deceased father was a roofer, his
mother a medical assistant. "Because of my size, I was a natural leader in
junior high school. Gangs are the most copycat of subcultures. It used to
be zoot suits; now it's tattoos. When I was thirteen, I got a tattoo" -- he
pulled up his T-shirt and showed me a big tattoo, which read CHICANO -- "so
the other kids had to get a tattoo also." Villa continued, broadening the
picture. "If you chicken out when it comes to committing a murder, all your
friends from your entire life in the neighborhood will reject you -- it's
like excommunication. Tell me, what law or punishment could be worse than
that, especially since none of the hard-core gang members expect to live
beyond twenty-one?"

According to Alex Villa, the real Mexican-U.S. border runs between south
and north Tucson. "The South Side is the Old World.  In the Old World if a
car passed by floating on air, people would fear it, then worship it. In
the New World they would dissect it to see how it works.  In the Old World,
even with the worst poverty, there is an extended family which provides
stability. But in the New World, if there is no economy, there is no
culture either, no family, nothing to hold people together. Just look at
the poor whites and blacks. For South Side Mexicans to go into north Tucson
for work is a death march. They hate north Tucson and envy it at the same
time. South Side Mexicans have no idea of gradually accumulating wealth.
What they know from their own experience is 'If I could only sell a bunch
of keys [kilos of cocaine], I could move to north Tucson.' To think in
terms of education and hard work as a way into north Tucson is, in fact, to
buy into America. I know almost nobody in south Tucson who has bought into

"What about the war against drugs?" I asked.

"There's no sign of it in south Tucson. Coke and heroin are on the rise,
weed's the staple diet. I see more guys with exotic cars and beepers,
whispering on cellular phones while the cops do nothing. Maybe the only way
to cut the power of the gangs is to legalize drugs -- at least marijuana.
Then the gangs would have much less money to buy guns."

TUCSON'S crime-plagued South Side is composed of the "working poor."
Official poverty levels are meaningless. In fact, from a fifth to a quarter
of all Americans depend on incomes that cannot realistically provide for
the basic necessities; and white males make up the largest group of
employed heads of households living in or near poverty -- a fact that
partly explains the resurgence of militias. Bruce and Corinna Chadwick, who
live in Tucson's South Side in a predominantly black and Mexican area, are
members of the part of the white population that can be counted among the
working poor. Bruce is a supervisor in an automobile-parts store, Corinna a
store cashier. Neither finished high school. In their late twenties, with
three children, they have a combined gross income of $35,000 a year.
Although that is higher than the Tucson household average of $21,748, the
Chadwicks are barely managing to tread water economically.

I pulled my car up to the Chadwicks' tract house with its bare-dirt yard,
enclosed by a fence and protected by a loud buzzer and two guard dogs.
Bruce came to greet me. I noticed that a black-iron-grille door had been
installed over the original one. Inside I saw a spotlessly clean, frugal
house, with flowers stuck in a plastic 7-Eleven cup on the kitchen table.
Bruce and Corinna were both heavyset. Bruce had dark hair, a neat
moustache, and wire-rimmed glasses; Corinna had long red hair and red
fingernails.  They were sipping Cokes. It was mid-morning, and their three
children were at school -- a magnet school in a better neighborhood, where
Corinna had managed to enroll them. "I attended school in this
neighborhood, and I don't want my kids exposed to the same things I was,"
she said. Bruce and Corinna are intelligent people who made, economically
speaking, a mistake: they married before finishing high school and quickly
had children.

To get this house, built by Habitat for Humanity and valued at $48,000, the
Chadwicks had to invest several hundred "sweat-equity hours" building other
Habitat houses, go through a battery of long interviews and a credit check,
and provide a $600 down payment. "It's taken me eight years," Bruce said,
"to get a job that is somewhat decent. I'm not stupid, but I'm not the
smartest guy in the world, and this house is a big step up from where we
lived before."

Bruce and Corinna spent six years in a mobile-home park near the Tucson
airport before moving here. "What was the mobile-home park like?" I asked.

They smiled knowingly. Bruce said, "It was a real interesting experience, I
can tell you. By the time we left, all of the people living there when we
moved in had gone." Corinna added, "We saw the place gradually change, and
always for the worse. The place was full of children without guidance."

Here are some of the stories Bruce and Corinna told me about the trailer park:

A child tried repeatedly to stab one of the Chadwicks' children with a
screwdriver. Corinna phoned the police, who told her that they "could do
nothing because the perpetrator was under age." Nevertheless, the police
lectured the mother of the offending child. "It went in one ear and out the
other," Bruce said.

Another child was left alone in the driver's seat of a truck with the
engine on. The child shifted gears and rammed a trailer.

One night Corinna saw a group of men with automatic rifles outside a
neighbor's trailer. One of them said, "Okay, guys, let's hit it." They then
assaulted the trailer. The men were undercover Drug Enforcement
Administration agents. At night Bruce and Corinna frequently saw
helicopters shining spotlights on one or another of the trailers. "There
was a lot of drug activity," Bruce explained.

A next-door neighbor, six months behind in the rent, rigged the wiring
system to blow up his trailer. His attempt failed. After he was evicted, an
electrician discovered the plot in the course of an inspection.

"The insides of many of these trailers were unspeakable," Bruce told me.
"The park was full of people who were constantly drunk and dirty. There
were single men with sons and girlfriends -- few real families. There were
single moms on welfare even though their men lived with them -- a lot of
welfare scams, yes.  And there were always the loud arguments. I'll never
forget the night that a man and a woman screamed at each other until dawn,
when they started breaking windows. Once a neighbor became so drunk that he
crawled up into a fetal position. The police took him away and he had to
have his stomach pumped."

Bruce thought that the social dysfunction he had described could have been
reduced by government aid. Corinna shook her head no and said, "A lot of
people we've encountered can't be helped."

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.

Copyright 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. The
Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No.
1; pages 47 - 68.

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski