Gulags in Paradise

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


Gulag El Dorado

The guard looked like he had been inflated from a cylinder of compressed air labeled ‘IMPORTANT’.  He squinted at my windshield then reached into the guardhouse for a clipboard.  I lowered my window.

“Where you go?” he asked.  He made his voice sound like high grade ore being escorted out of a Carlos Slim gold mine.

I told him the name of the friend I intended to visit.

“Block number,” he said.  “ Lot number.”

I had no idea.

“Phone number.”

I told him my friend’s phone number.  It was one the new 688 numbers and most of the time conformed to a vow of silence it had been forced to take in a Chinese manufacturing plant.  He unsnapped a walkie-talkie from his hip and rapidly exchanged barks and bleats with his superior, no doubt another inflated trooper at Security Headquarters Central.  There was a long pause as I watched the gas gauge needle of my Suzuki slowly lose an arm wrestle with a paralysed odometer.  Then the radio crackled and a voice said something definitive through a blizzard of static. 

Barrier Gate

“She is no home,” the guard informed me.

I explained about Telnor’s gift of the 688 numbers.  The guard pondered a while then hit upon an infallible solution.  He instructed the disembodied voice to try again.  After another interminable wait he confirmed she was not home.

I explained my friend was indeed home and was expecting me.  I told him the problem were the telephones.  They could not be relied upon, except to generate regular monthly bills.

The guard walked on rooster legs to the front of my car and marked down the license plate number. 

“What you do?” he asked me.

I told him my business.

“You live here?”

I told him where I lived, which was decidedly not here.

“You phone number?”

He wrote all these things on his clipboard.  He really liked holding that clipboard.

I sat back and counted the minutes while the guard accessed his vast problem-solving reserves and choose from all possible gambits the least obvious one, which was calling my friend again.

“No contesto,” he announced.

“All right,” I said.  “Why don’t you radio for a security vehicle and they can follow me to my friend’s place? “

More Spanish static.  Then I was informed the security trucks were in the middle of a shift change and no one was available. 

It was time for my own shift change.  I told him I had the perfect solution, then backed up and drove around the guardhouse. 

* * *

            When a real estate developer (one of the many listless phrases that hang like epaulettes on the tunics of middlemen) decides to assemble a collection of homes and commercial properties and place them on a sand dune south of the US border, the targeted demographic (strangely, they are all addressed by the same name, -Mark) demands an added patina to the stock sale's pitch.  Selling a lot or a house to a husband and wife who are both in their seventies needs an approach quite different from the one used to convince a pair of twenty-something newlyweds.  The pen poised above the deed or lease usually belongs to someone who wants a nice sunny place to keep warm during the northern winter months, but is mildly queasy about the risks involved.  After all, there are plenty of  rumors about land fraud, poor medical resources, drug trafficking, violence, alcohol abuse, xenophobia, police graft and a thousand other vipers in paradise.  But the salespeople know their job and ramp up the special promises and claims until the sheer weight of their purpose pushes the pen down against the dotted line. 

Promises belong to that added patina and are aimed precisely at the angst shared by everyone whose age is a multiple of the number of teeth they still possess.  A verbal parade of pledges and assurances (often closed captioned with colored tri-fold brochures) gentle the nervous buyers as they mentally picture a giant pageant float shaped like the Baja Peninsula, covered with  hospitals, doctors, six foot wrought iron fences, Colonial guard shacks, singing dentists, locked gates, Title Insurance, lawyers with rubber stamps the size of waffle irons, gun towers, Dobermans, tanks, troop carriers, Stealth planes and whatever else needs to be sanctioned to force the pen against the page. 

Safety is the theme of ‘high end’ developers, the balm for the fear that gnaws perpetually at the worry nerve just behind a retired person’s left eyebrow.  Within today’s elderly demographic, safety displaces all other mandates, with the possible exception of a good ten dollar bottle of gin.  When a seventy five year old buys a seasonal home in a foreign country, he or she wants to be assured there will be no 2 a.m. bludgeonings by drug-addled interlopers who chisel the hinges off unlocked doors.  They want to come home from an evening of Karaoke and not see a Sony-shaped collection of air molecules where the television used to be.  They want the Doggie-Door to swing open at comfortable intervals and not worry that one day they will find a small box left on their patio chair with a swatch of Fifi’s ear in it, along with an indecipherable ransom note filled with words like pinche and chinga.

Once a real estate developer has ironed out the appropriate hucksterspeak and investorese,  has drawn up plans for gross and rentable areas, power and water infrastructure, has started the gears of government licensing, has pre-approved the buyer (held a mirror against his nose until it fogged), has collected all the down payments and pillowed the corporate account with promissory notes and lender loans, has established a stable of indentured contractors, and finally has cattled the whole collection behind a six foot security fence, the inevitable third-world values begin to encroach on first-class neighborhoods.  Kicked-in doors and ransacked homes, stolen trucks and cars, purloined building materials and uprooted copper pipes and wires, even the occasional violent crime. 

This kind of behavior signals the appearance of guard shacks and Checkpoint Charlie upswing gates at every entrance road.  Vehicles are issued identifications stickers and guards are instructed to fatigue everyone else with tedious questions.  Guests, trades people and delivery truck drivers drum their thumbs against steering wheels while uniforms wrapped around embarrassingly underpaid doorkeepers circle the suspect vehicles while reading them their Miranda Rights. 

It’s a system designed to make residents feel as secure as a Velcro tapeworm in a woolen bowel.  But like the inevitable product of a subpar contractor, the execution often falls short of the pretty picture painted by the sales team, especially when Apex Predators are installed to guard the Puppies.  On more than one occasion, police and/or security guards have been found to be the Moriarty behind a crime spree.  According to a risk management website, “…It’s a rare "internal theft ring" case that doesn’t involve complicity of the Security Guard staff, at least to some degree.”

Of course the more frequent the incidence of crime, the longer grows the list of questions at the guard gates and the more OCD becomes the scrutiny.  Eventually something new has to be adopted so that someone can enter the community, even if it’s just the home owners themselves. 

One solution to a particularly acute annoyance is the tradesperson ID tag.  I decided to brave the gambit of bureaucratic sticks, carrots and hoops to acquire one of these magical amulets, which I imagined would act like a coating of KY jelly on my car, allowing easy passage through any blockage. 

In Baja, interactions with anyone who officiates a computer or a rubber stamp takes a brain surgeon’s allotment of foresight and planning.  You pretty much need a U-Haul trailer filled with documentation, which include an original birth certificate (signed by both your left feet), the first power bill you ever paid (even if it is from Bangor, Maine), a receipt for a 2 liter bottle of Coke Classic, a recent MRI, an empty Jumex carton with your DNA on the lip, proof of inoculations for your pet (even if you don't have one), and finally a stack of legal tender just in case you come into contact with a civil servant who has an open hand (they all do).  

There are forms to fill, usually more than the Hoover Dam had, just before they poured the concrete.  And there’s a visit to the State Government Police.  You need something called a ‘Carta de No Antecede’, which requires you to pay 160.83 pesos to another government body located on the other side of town.  This entitles you to a receipt for the said amount, proving that actual money has exchanged hands.  Then, sitting across from a State Police representative, you are asked in Spanish, “Have you ever committed a crime?”  “No,” you answer bilingually.  Then you are stood against a door like a bowling pin for a photograph, your thumbs are painted with ink and smeared across a page, a laser printer hums, a sheet of paper is gaveled with rubber stamps along with an enormous flourish of signature by the official, and you are well on your way to an eleven day wait as the real estate development’s security office squeezes your ID through its laminator.  

When you get home, carefully file away the paperwork, which in Mexico is more valuable than heirloom furniture or internal organs.  If you read Spanish, have a look at the Antecedente letter, which essentially declares,

Dear Occupant,

The bearer of this page, after a meticulous and exhaustive search through really important State files and databanks, has been found to be free of public trespass and has no official registered indictments, criminal or misdemeanor, heinous or harmless.  He has a rather large nose, but we won’t hold it against him, and neither should you.

The next eleven pages of the document is the unabridged, judicial title of the office lawfully sanctioned to manufacture the page for you.  It is filled with words beginning with capital letters, vast queues of Roman numerals, and a handful of arcane acronyms, completely indecipherable, even with two Enigma machines and a sober Navajo Code Talker.  

Here is what will happen when you approach a guard house with this magical tag in plain view, preferrably hanging from the heel of your rear view mirror…

A guard, looking like he’s been inflated from a cylinder of compressed air labeled ‘IMPORTANT’, will squint at your windshield then reach into the guardhouse for a clipboard. 

After lowering your window he will ask, “Where you go?” in a voice sounding like high grade ore being escorted out of a Carlos Slim gold mine.

Tell him the name of the friend you intend to visit.

“Block number,” he’ll ask.  “ Lot number.”

Of course you’ll have no idea.

“Phone number?”

Tell him your friend’s phone number, if you can remember it.  Chances are it will be one of those new 688 numbers.

etc, etc, etc….