Juan Ochoa has written a seminal novel on a subject that has been covered to a degree in the investigative journalistic manner, and as “faction” part invention and part fact, but never in a such a “novel” manner. (pun unavoidable). “Mariguano” covers the Mexican and American drug war from the inside out. It is set along the border in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and in Reynosa Mexico. A place that is often referred to as “media Mexico” or half Mexico. It could be more like three quarters Mexico and one fourth America, or two thirds America and one third Mexico if looked at from a business point of view, or educational. From a social viewpoint it definitely is at least half. The cultural waters are always murky, and with constant immigration and a high birthrate, the cultural Mexicanos have pretty much taken over.
One thing for certain, the Rio Grande Valley has been a smugglers corridor for hundreds of years. As soon as a custom house was put up on either side of the river, smuggling took off immediately. From cotton, to consumer goods, to alcohol during prohibition, to candle wax from desert plants (candela it was called) to refrigerators and electronics… Smuggling has been a way of life along the border; but when the American Prohibition campaign started under Richard Nixon, drugs became the unrivalled king of contraband for all of Mexico’s history.
“Mariguano” ends in 1988 at the commencement of the term of Carlos Salinas de Gotari. It marked a turning point in the drug business, and as this story ends of the “Mariguano” another darker and more frightening tale commences. Since that time smuggling in Mexico, while always being a bloody business, went on to bath the land in a sea of slaughter. The author, Juan Ochoa, has left the possibility of a sequel open and possible in the epilogue, and I must say, I will be looking forward to a sequel.
Moving contraband across the Mexico/Texas border was in the past, mostly a family business, that provided a good income, sometimes even wealth, but nothing like we have today with multi-billionaire cartel leaders, and criminal organizations that rival many a small country with their assets and annual incomes. The reach of the money trafficked by the contrabandistas is essential to the governments of both Mexico and the United States and other Latin American countries as well. With great wealth comes great influence and when these businesses are threatened, the more money that is involved, the greater the attendant violence involved.
Growing up in a narco familia, the brutal, fanatical, and in the end, coca loca father and cartel leader paints a portrait of criminal machismo run a muck. All narrated by the faithful, brilliant and capable son Arturo; who just so happens to be a “mariguano” perhaps the most despised substance abuser in Mexico. Mariguano is also sort of a catch all term for drunk and drug user. But the partaker of pot is looked down on much more than the coke head, or drunk. I believe this is a socio-economic thing more than anything else. The poor people drink beer and smoke pot… the rich partake of whiskey, fine tequila and cocaine. Also the Indians back up in the hills are traditional pot smokers and consumers of hallucinogens in religious applications.
The story rattles along like a roller coaster on a ninety degree drop and twists and turns like it’s coming almost off the rails, beginning to end. The characters, the lifestyle, the culture of the border may have never been expressed in letters just this way. That is, like a hunk of raw super jalapeno with every taco bite.
There’s the sad truth of the Mexican Judicial System, built on torture, bribery, false confessions, and sacrifice of the little people, the cabritos, or cabroncitos, or just say scapegoats to the drug war. The drug war it is made plain, is not about a war against drugs. It is a war for drugs and who gets his piece of the narco pie. This goes for the beat cop to the army general to the small time thug to El Presidente. Of course in the 1980’s a piece might have been enough, but now there are elements that want the entire drug pie, and the cake too, if there is such a thing.
So far no one has written anything similar to Juan Ochoa’s “Mariguano” about the United States. Very telling, and very sad.
The author Juan Ochoa is a Rio Grande Valley Native and lives there presently.