San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Hidden Layers

Helicopter moments before the accident.
Most of the information below was obtained from La Voz de la Frontera, that first rate, second class, third world, fifth estate oracle of Mexicali, and from the internet, everyone's third class, virtual world anchorman.

The 40th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 had an unrehearsed addition to its story board this year. Just after three o'clock on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007, a 'chase' helicopter (it seems as if one is not a serious contestant without a rotor-powered satellite above his vehicle) dropped to a dangerously low altitude to obtain some pulitzer-winning photos of the entry it was tailing. Unfortunately, as any movie gunfighter would have done, the pilot did not keep the sun to his back. And that might be the reason the main rotor cut through a high tension wire and sent the helicopter plummeting to the ground.

The desert quickly dismantled the aircraft and scattered it into a tangle of buckled metal and debris. While a crowd of spectators drew toward the plume of dust that rose from the carnage, an invisible effect was delivered to every home and rancho that swung a copper umbilicus to the electrical grid downstream from the accident: a power outage that lasted almost seven hours and plunged San Felipe into darkness until 10 o'clock that evening.

Reports from spectators at the incident describe how a few of the bystander dashed forward to snatch up the camera from the helicopter wreckage, as well as a cell phone.

Police sift through wreckage.

Paramedics and police arrived to sort through the confusion. Two injured men were treated and sent to an Ensenada medical facility. Two bodies were removed to the morgue where one of them was identified as Francisco Merardo Leon Hinojosa, aka El Abulón, one of the top ranking lieutenants of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel in Tijuana.

The following evening a battery of over fifty men, armed with AK-47s and AR-15s, miraculously convoyed along one of Ensenada's major thoroughfares to the Instalaciones del Servico Medico Forense, apparently without being seen by any of the federal, state or military law enforcement agencies. They stormed the morgue, absconded with the body of El Abulón as well as two hostages, and made their escape.

Part of the group allegedly split off and took the highway toward Valle de Trinidad, where two police officers confronted them and were shot to death. Shortly afterward, police discovered two abandoned vehicles nearby. Inside they discovered several abandoned uniforms of the Federal Police, latex gloves, caps, a radio communication device and several AK-47 shells.

On Thursday, the Procuraduria General de Justicia announced the hostages had been found, safe and sound.

The two injured men, helicopter pilot Isaac Sarabia and copilot Rodolfo Calvillo, are in stable condition, recovering from their wounds.

It would appear this rather bizarre burlesque is yet another surfacing of the enigmatic theme that sutures together the exotic fabrics of Mexican culture. Namely, the ever-present stream, at times almost arterial in nature, of the drug flow.

The laissez faire attitude of Mexico on the subject of drugs has a long history. Marijuana, opiates and cocaine were commonly used throughout the 1800-1900s. Drug trafficking in Mexico began as a response to U.S.opium demand. It wasn't until the Shanghai Conference in 1909 for opium control that the United States government exercised its disposition on drugs. Now, after almost a hundred years of political pressure directed at its lenient neighbor to the south, along with a series of economic reconciliations and mutually effective accords in exchange for tightening the anti-drug measures in Mexico, the anti-drug campaign has resulted in a symbolic increase in the amount of illicit drugs seized in Mexico.

Why symbolic? Well, the international illicit drug business generates as much as $400 billion in trade annually. Interdiction efforts intercept 10-15% of the heroin and 30% of the cocaine. Drug traffickers earn gross profit margins of up to 300%. At least 75% of international drug shipments would need to be intercepted to substantially reduce the profitability of drug trafficking. Since Mexican drug cartels supply the United States with 80% of it's cocaine, the problem would indeed appear to be a localized concern and a soft spot in the Punch & Judy spectacle of both country's foreign policy. Mexico points its finger at the extremely high levels of consumption in the United States (estimated between 20-40% of people over the age of 12). And the US holds the activities of the big Mexican drug cartels accountable.

US newspapers cursorily touch upon the subject of domestic illicit drug problems. Mexican newspapers, however, with a thirst for the lurid, often publish the activities of traffickers in lavish detail. It's been said the most dangerous profession in Mexico is journalism. Although life itself has a 100% mortality rate, being a journalist in Mexico would seem to put the process on a fast track. Yet frequent articles and columns still reveal the heart that pumps the flow of narcóticos. These people are well-known to authorities on all levels and in a country that functions under the Napoleonic code, where guilt is an integral function of suspicion, it seems extraordinary that they remain free to conduct their business in plain sight. But this is nothing new for many people in Mexico, especially in those regions where illegal plants had been cultivated for decades and drug trafficking has become an established industry. Economic dependencies are so intricately interwoven with the activity that to do anything crippling to its health would create a domino effect felt throughout the entire country.

Legitimizing the immense wealth of the drug lords and capos is the objective of the money laundering operations that present to the public innumerable businesses that are fronts for their illicit activities. In many small border towns 'recruitment' loans are given to peasants who want to open their own tiendas, and who are later called upon to repay the debt by acting as transport agents for drug shipments. Other projects, operating on a larger scale, only incidentally bring 'progress' to a developing area by promoting and investing in local land, merchandising real estate and expanding the local infrastructure.

The veneer of Mexican culture falls away from the lightest touch of a fingernail to reveal glimpses of a subculture that wears a long history of political and social dependencies. Midnight pangas, black helicopters, desert runways, road blocks, local business benefactors and countless drug-related industries well up through the tourist pamphlet depictions of carefree straw-hatted paisanos in white cotton shirts leading the lifestyle that millions of Americans covet from their office swivel chair.

Is there an ultimate truth to what a culture engenders, an ultimate observation that takes into account all the visible and invisible levels? Perhaps not. Maybe a culture assembles itself according to the precepts and desires of the person experiencing it. And like Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pinchon's The Crying of Lot 49, there's instability in the pursuit of its true nature.

Read about the Blackout...