Book Review: "Twilight on the Line"
by David Bacon
From his seat at the counter of the Bob's Big Boy coffee shop, Tijuana's watering hole for crime reporters, drug mafia, government informers and their friends and hangers-on, Sebastian Rotella spins out the story of this border megalopolis' seamy underworld.
"Twilight on the Line" is an exciting tour whose cast of characters ranges from smugglers to crusading police chiefs who hunt them down and the politicians who live off their money. Rotella tells the story of immigrants like Humberto Reyes, shot to death as he raced through a suburban neighborhood just north of the border, and the Chinese boat people captured off the beaches of Baja, who became the feted guests of Mexicali's forgotten Chinatown.
Tijuana is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world today, numbering over two million inhabitants. Southern California's industrial working class, ironically, now lives across the border in what was once a small honky-tonk town of bars and brothels, serving San Diego's navy stations.
The city is emblematic of the global economy, including vast disparities of wealth and poverty, the migration of thousands of people north to the border looking for work, and the creation of new elites from the enormous black economies of drugs and illicit power. Huge shantytowns, where shacks built from cardboard and shipping pallets line dirt streets, sprawl down the slopes of desert mesas below the factories - the real lords of Tijuana's economy.
Rotella looks closely at part of this world. He's an informed observer of what he sees, covering it as a Los Angeles Times correspondent, and now its bureau chief for South America.
Rotella's focus is on the underworld. In successive chapters, he explores the world of the border-jumpers and the Mexican police units protecting them from robbers and murderers in the no-man's land between the U.S. and Mexico. He recounts the bitter fate of San Diego's Barrio Logan gang members, used as pistoleros by the powerful drug-smuggling Arellano-Felix brothers, and then hunted down for the catastrophic mistake of murdering Guadalajara's Cardinal Posadas Ocampo.
Rotella gets the real story of Mario Aburto, a factory worker turned political informer for Mexico's ruling party, who then shot and killed its presidential candidate in 1994 in a dusty barrio. He describes the drug mafias themselves, the coyotes who smuggle humans for a living, and the unique society inside the prison housing Tijuana's criminal small fry and victims.
Rotella has a good eye for the bizarre, the colorful juxtapositions and contradictions of life on the border.
But he misses Tijuana's main story. Despite living in a sea of poverty and desperately poor workers, he gives them no human face. There's no exploration of the factories themselves which, far more than drug barons, control Tijuana's economy and its political elite.
And what he really misses is the sense of Tijuana's huge maquiladora workforce, not just as an exploited mass, but as active participants in the gritty factory rebellions which will eventually change their miserable conditions. Over the last decade, the city has seen women of the maquiladoras up in arms over having to parade in bikinis before their boss, a poor barrio fighting off the efforts of the giant Hyundai industrial complex to take their land, and the successive battles to organize independent unions in the face of violence and repression.
Tijuana is a window on the new world of the global economy because of the huge growth of the maquiladora industry, and the impoverishment and growing dissatisfaction of its workforce. But Rotella opts for the easy view of factory owners and managers as an entrepreneurial elite. Living in a city starkly divided between enormous wealth and grinding poverty, he tells us that "the real story of Tijuana is all the people in between - professionals, managers, entrepreneurs. Tijuana is a bastion of the middle class..."
It's when Rotella writes as a crime reporter that he's the most exciting and convincing, when he really gets the story. That's the strength of "Twilight on the Border." It's a true-to-life noir tapestry, played out in the border's brutal and blinding desert sun.
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