The Vote on Drugs

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Against the plethora of speculation over the identity of America’s next President, it took a more-than-casual interest in US politics to glean any more detail about what happened on Election Day. Peeping out from lefty campaigning websites and freelance journalists’ columns, there emerged a small detail that may in fact turn out to be a turning point in the USA’s longest-running war: the War on Drugs. On Tuesday, November 6th the states of Colorado and Washington voted in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing marijuana.

Two states. Marijuana. It may seem a little innocuous compared to, say, Obamacare, or negotiations with Iran. But consider that the War on Drugs has killed at very least sixty-thousand people since 2006 in Mexico alone, and small pieces of legislature like this suddenly take on a new relevance. In Mexico, President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was sent scurrying to a press conference by the events in the US, sending a senior aide to speak of the need to “review” Mexico-US security policy.

Mexico gets the bad press – Guatemala and El Salvador less so, despite suffering appalling levels of drug-related violence. In Honduras, a coup in 2009 derailed the country’s political system. Drug cartels have capitalised on the breakdown of security, and their contribution to almost indiscriminate trafficking and violence cannot be underestimated. The situation is so severe that there are warnings the country is on the way to becoming failed state. How soon before the Caribbean, a smuggler’s paradise of un-guardable borders and airstrips, becomes the site of the next turf war? The bodies are now piling up too high to be dismissed as unfortunate collateral. Earlier this year, the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala issued a bold statement demanding that the War on Drugs be brought under review. Uruguay is currently processing a bill legalising the production and sale of marijuana. These are actions which had previously been politically unthinkable.

In Europe, it is generally accepted that Portugal’s decision in 2001 to treat drugs as a health and safety issue rather than a law and order one has been a resounding success, if kept strangely quiet. Drug use there did rise once it was no longer illegal, but mortalities, petty crime and youth use dropped. By 2011, a decade after decriminalisation, the number of hard drug users in Portugal had halved.

Here in the UK, just last month there was a call for decriminalisation from a group of scientists, police officers and research academics who had recently concluded a six-year-long study into Britain’s drug laws. Britain in the 1980s held a relatively progressive stance towards drugs and initiated systems of needle exchanges, treatment and rehabilitation programmes. Today, it seems to be lagging, going so far as preventing medical research into the potential capacity of psychedelics to help those suffering from depression or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The spread of those two conditions shows no sign of slowing – saying that researchers may not continue their promising studies with ecstasy or MDMA because the substances are prohibited is a clear example of a complete loss of sensible context. Thinking on drugs has instead solidified into a truism that “drugs are bad and must therefore be illegal.”

The votes of Colorado and Washington may not, at the moment, mean very much: there’s still a good chance that legal challenges and/or federal policy may scupper these two states’ plans. But considering that just two years ago California, one of the most liberal states in the US, failed to vote in favour of legalization, this step shows that the political and social attitude towards drugs is changing. History looks back on the Prohibition of early twentieth-century America and says, “wow, that was a bad idea”; one day, it will do the same to the War on Drugs on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us hope, with the tentative steps in Colorado and Washington, the growing confidence of Latin America, and increasing attention on the counterproductive and outdated drug laws in Europe, that that day is sooner rather than later.


Santiago Dogs

At some point on the thirty-six hour trip from GDA to Santiago de Chile, it ocurred to me that this was the furthest south I’d ever been. I knew in my head that Chile was not going to be much like Mexico, but it didn’t really sink in until the door of the plane opened up: it was cold. I had been cold at various moments in Mexico, but not really: a kind of nominal cold that came of not being actively hot. I hadn’t seen my breath for almost a year. This was the kind of cold that inhibits the dexterity of my fingers, tempts me to wear socks in bed and turns mealtimes from a pleasure into tactical warmings. I shivered from the airport all the way to my first hostel and into bed. “It’s only going to get worse,” warned a sympathetic Chilean at breakfast the next day. “Tomorrow it’s going to go down to fifteen degrees.”

I booked three nights at first, to adjust, and look for work. Most of the days were taken with finding hostels, armed with a CV translated into Spanish and my most charming smile, and asking if I could man the reception in exchange for a free stay. In the meantime, I was getting used to Chile’s money, language, and culture. Currency was the first concern: there are headspinning quantites of zeroes flying around. After three or four weeks in Mexico, I found that I stopped having to convert pesos into pounds, so I live in hope that the same will happen here fairly soon. However, twenty is an easier number to work with than 780, and things are not made easier by the shopping system, which is gratuitously complex. You start by getting the items you want to buy, which you then present to someone behind a counter in exchange for a ticket, which you take to another counter where you pay and get a receipt, and are reunited with your shopping upon presenting said receipt to a counter which may or may not be the first one.

Chilean Spanish, sadly for me, lives up to its reputation. Little phrases and mannerisms that two weeks ago marked me as someone who belonged, now mark me out as someone who doesn’t. Feria, for one of dozens of possible examples, means “cash” in Mexico. Here it apparently means “supermarket”, and now the lady who works in the kitchen smiles at me with more than a hint of suspicion and speaks to me in individual syllables, enunciating as though to a toddler. (I am reminded of one of the teachers in the school I worked in in Honduras, who was well-meaning but unable to separate not knowing Spanish from having an otherwise capable brain, and would show me how to do things like hand over money in exchange for using the photocopier, or rub out pencil marks with a rubber.) A friend who learned Spanish here while I was there assured me that it’s great once it clicks, but I wonder if two months will be enough, especially given the amount of English I speak at work. In terms of language, my progress in Mexico was so formative that I suspect I do just now speak Mexican, and, unless I end up spending serious amounts of time in another specific dialect, other Spanishes will simply feel foreign. I find that doesn’t bother me too much.

After three days, I found a place that let me help out on their extension project for a while. This turned out to mean digging holes for foundations in what used to be a store room. Someone would crack the concrete and clear maybe thirty square centimetres, and my job was to sink that square seventy centimetres straight down. I had a crowbar and a pair of gloves. I used my hand as a bucket, scooping big handfuls of earth out of the holes, and the gloves had so many holes in them the dirt stained the skin on my fingertips so that there was no shifting it. Soap, washing powder and hot water faded it, but for days afterwards I was left with blackened cuticles. I went for lunch on the first day and was presented, as in all Chilean restaurants, with a white bread roll. The restaurant had been recommended to me as a good place to get traditional Chilean food, but was a little higher-end than I’d anticipated. I was conscious of the very white tablecloth. I was too hungry to wait for my order to arrive, so I went straight for the roll, hoping no-one was watching me put chunks of bread into my mouth with my dead man’s fingernails.

It was an experience. In the evenings, half-way between staff and guest, I hung out on the internet and emailed other hostels. Pretty soon I found Hostel Dominica, from where I am writing this entry. They taught me how to check people in and out and where to buy the bread from breakfast, and I do the night shift four times a week and get to stay here for free. I enjoy the car-park attendent who sits just outside the gate and whistles like a songbird to let people know there’s space. I’ve never heard anyone whistle like that before. He sits out there, as far as I can tell, every hour it’s light, and every time a car rolls by, off he goes. Wobbling the notes like Whitney Houston.

I also enjoy talking to the people who pass through. A fair few have bought in unreservedly to the backpacker identity of boho clothes and a lifestyle hooked around alcohol, casual sex and cheap drugs. Which is fine with me, as long as they recognise that’s not the only way to do it. I prefer talking to the solo travellers, like Jean-Yves, the half French half French-Canadian emerald dealer, a polyglot entrepreneur who unconsciously dropped bits of French and Portuguese into our Spanish-and-English conversation. He told me stories about multiple bankruptcys, hunting for stones in the Amazon in northern Brazil, and getting his suitcase with $10,000USD-worth of emeralds getting stolen on the metro just after he landed in Santiago. Or Daniel, a softly-spoken, highly intelligent Icelander who is travelling very slowly around the world for “twelve or fifteen years.” I asked him what he was going to do after that, and he said probably become a teacher. I think he should probably become President of Planet Earth, but I don’t think they’d let him, and he wouldn’t enjoy himself if they did. He’d do a good job though.

The dogs that roam every street in the city aren’t so much stray as communal – almost all of them are sleek specimens, fed, watered and patted by pedestrians and stall-owners. At least, they are compared to the stray dogs of Mexico and Honduras, who looked more like childrens’ drawings of dogs that had the misfortune to hobble off the page and into real life. They seem to me to embody the difference between Chile and the other Latin American countries I’ve been to: a lot cleaner, and less dangerous. My next move is out of big cities, even if I haven’t decided exactly where yet. I suspect there will be less dogs. It’s a privileged position to be in, even if I am now paying increasing attention to the calendar to see how long until I get home. The aim, I have found, is to get to a point where I enjoy the thought of staying and of leaving, equally.


I left almost all my jewellery at home when I moved to Mexico, so wandering through a market in the centro historico a couple of weeks ago I bought a cheap red cord bracelet, just to feel more comfortable with my wrists. As I explained to Maddy, my straight-talking Canadian friend, it only needs to last me a few months. She looked at me blankly and said, “you just paid ten pesos for a piece of string.”

Guadalajara is losing its shapelessness and beginning to reveal its nature. I have been stopped and asked for directions about five times now; usually, I make an entirely convincing tapatío – Guadalajaran – by saying “sorry, I have no idea,” and smiling. The bus routes and numbers are becoming more transparent by the week and crossing eight lanes of traffic to get to a corner shop is barely worth mentioning. I remember one afternoon on a bus back towards home, people packed in elbow to armpit. Two girls squeezed themselves in via the back door, instead of the approved driver’s one, and one of them conjured a note from her purse and handed it to the man next to her. He blinked and tapped an elbow near his nose, and I watched as the money was passed indifferently down the aisle and out of sight. Perhaps a minute later, a grubby hand waved two tickets and a bit of change in front of me. I picked a still moment to let go of the handrail, took the tickets and coins and passed them to the girls, patiently pressed against the door. I suspect for everyone else on that R-24 it was as forgettable as the daily commute, but in the evening sun I was quietly delighted to have been part of a group of complete strangers who had co-operated to help someone out. I planted my feet wide again against the swing of the bus, and wondered why that would never happen in Britain.

Living with an elderly couple has begun to take its toll. The bottom line is I have been treated very well, but too often I have to remind myself of it. Ruth has her moments – a car-ride involving Eminem comes to mind, as well as the time I returned home after an abortive attempt to meet up with some friends. “Nobody there,” I shrugged, irritated, confused, back two hours early. “What fuckers,” consoled Ruth in her most motherly tone. But she and Juarez are very set in their ways, and sometimes seem to be under the impression that I have come to Mexico in order to be convenient to their plans. Being told what to do and how to conduct myself is losing its charm by the day.

School continues to be frustratingly helpful, and I am encouraged to push myself out of the Spanish comfort zone I currently inhabit. I get by, day-to-day, without having to think about it very much, but I often rely on gist or context when someone is speaking quickly, or on a specific topic that I perhaps lack vocabulary for. I feel instead I ought to be using the opportunity of this year to be pushing for fluency. Newspapers are one method, having only really learned to speak and listen previously, so to be seeing the grammar and a greater variety of words in front of me is useful. I was fairly pleased with my first effort on an article about the dangers of being a paramedic in a state wracked by drug wars. One paragraph in particular has stuck with me: it was small, barely three lines, but I understood not one of the verbs used and few of the nouns. I almost skipped it, feeling perhaps it was not worth the effort, but reminded myself why I was reading at all and opened the dictionary. The words were “vest”, “obstruct”, “tilt”, and “explode”. The context was that a team of doctors were refusing protective vests because they would obstruct the operation. They were operating on a paramedic who had been hit by an explosive, and they were told by a military doctor they could not tilt her face because there was an unexploded piece of the grenade in it.

Violence in Mexico tends to dominate its popular image. Stories such as the one in my newspaper make it impossible to brush off, but perspective is often lacking. A friend of mine working here as a journalist writes that the murder rate in Mexico is lower than Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Belize, Colombia, Brazil and Panama. Many US cities are statistically far more dangerous than Mexican counterparts. None of this, of course, makes Mexico any safer, but I do question why this country in particular has such a grisly reputation. My inner Orwell speculates at the extent to which America’s media, one weapon in its ever-more costly war on drugs, is responsible. GDA, thankfully, is a city rarely affected, and I for one feel equally as un/safe here as I did in the south of Leamington Spa.

School has also in these early weeks provided a useful platform for branching out of my district, with trips to the lucho libre and a local orphanage. I was uneasy about the orphanage and skipped the first two trips there, but last Thursday I had nothing else planned and was persuaded to join the group. We stayed for perhaps two and a half hours, mostly playing football and answering a hundred times the question “where are you from?” Later, the next day, I was part of a discussion about the pros and cons. One side argued that we as volunteers provided fun and attention, two things highly valuable to children under the age of twelve, and were not possibly doing any harm. The other side countered that actually all we were doing was making ourselves feel virtuous and were not making a real difference. My views on volunteering, and indeed aid work in general, are very much a grey area and I have sympathy for both views. My personal qualm is that if I was nine years old and had stories about shootings to tell to rich foreign youths, I would become attached to that youth far more than he or she would to me. If that youth then leaves after a couple of hours, or even a couple of months, I think perhaps I would be worse off than if they had not come. But I don’t know.

Lucho libre translates as “free wrestling”, but a more accurate name would be something like “highly disciplined full-contact gymnastics”. What I couldn’t work out was whether the whole thing was choreographed in advance or it was based on a system of “lead and follow” – I suspect the latter, firstly because there are three rounds of five or six minutes each, which would be a lot of moves to remember, and secondly because a lot of the action didn’t look to me too far removed from my salsa classes.

It sells itself on cheap beer, steroid-aided men being violent and plastic-abetted cheerleaders being provocative, but it’s pantomime. It is wholly, if not primarily, appropriate for children: I think the person who enjoyed the actual wrestling the most was the boy a few rows in front of me who couldn’t have been more than six. He watched agog the entire evening whilst occasionally putting his mother into a headlock when the excitement became too much. For the rest of us, the most entertainment was the hardcore section of the crowd. There were two tiers separated by a wire fence; the pobres sit behind the fence on concrete steps, higher and further away from ring. The ricos sit in the padded individual seats in front of the fence, level with the ring. The pobres stood, ignored the ring almost entirely, and tirelessly abused the lineage and inclinations of the ricos, who only occasionally were stirred into a retaliatory chant. I was reminded of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, in which he chews over the social curiosity of paying money to ignore a spectacle and instead bawl filthy songs at a group of people who have chosen to do exactly the same as you. In Britain the event tends to be football rather than wrestling, but the spirit is the same.

Football is taken very seriously in Mexico, to the point where even the Pan-American Games are unable to claim full attention on matchdays. I am currently writing with one eye on the clasico de clasicos, Mexico’s biggest domestic football game. Chivas, of Guadalajara, are away to América, of Mexico City, and with twenty minutes gone Chivas are 3 – 1 up. Ruth, in the La-Z Boy to my left, is supporting Mexico City because she doesn’t like Guadalajara and branded the last Chivas goalscorer a “bloody chav”. (My favorite player so far has been the América right-back, because his name is Shaggy Martínez.) The quality is not bad at all, but it is outweighed by emotion and there is more deliberate violence than in the Premiership.

Having the Games in the city has mostly affected the traffic. A fifteen- or twenty-minute bus ride now can take up to double that time due to street closures for road events or promotional stages. There are noticeably more white people around town, although not so much in my area. The atmosphere as far as I can gauge amongst the tapatíos is one of slightly stressful pride at being hosts, rather than excitement. I wonder how Londoners are feeling about the Olympics, and whether I will be landing in an airport there during the Games. There remains, however, a lot to be seen and learnt before then.

Adapting to Guadalajara

I arrived in Guadalajara (often written GDA for the sake of fingertips) after a seven hour journey from the capital. Mexico’s bus services continue to put the rest of Central America to shame and I was treated with leg rests, a bag of food – croissant filled with ham and jalapeño pepper – and Jim Carrey movies dubbed into Spanish. Partly because I consider myself to be hardcore, but more because I’m a cheapskate, I took the local bus from the station to the city centre rather than getting a taxi. My first glimpse of GDA was not promising: dishevelled, dirty streets covered in plastic litter and graffiti, few people, much traffic. The nearer I got to the centre though, the more things improved, and by the time the bus pulled up next to the cathedral, the afternoon sun bouncing off the towering spire, I was impressed. Two fountained, golden plazas on either side of the cathedral were criss-crossed with youths buying ice-creams and suited businessmen heading home for the day. Two sauntering girls spied me a taxi from between bus lanes and commuters and within a few minutes I was outside the gates of 2603-1 Garibaldi, the house of Señora Ruth Auroze Ortega.

Inside I was presented with my roommate James, aka Jaime, a friendly, laid-back American a couple of years older than me, Juarez, and Señora Ruth.

Husband Juarez is a small, unhurried man who must be pushing eighty, and has the voice of the Godfather which makes understanding him a matter of strict concentration. “Oh yeah,” said James when I admitted this to him, “I mostly lip-read.” Juarez may be a little frail but his mind still works fine, and he often quizzes me about the finer points of the British royal family or the value of the pound to the dollar.

The walls of the house are covered with photos, and an old black-and-white one from Ruth’s quinceañera caught my attention. The quinceañera is a teenage presentation tradition similar to the “debut”, as far as I can gather, and the photograph of Ruth shows her fifteen-year-old self to have been a rather beautiful sylph, which is an alarming statement to make given that presently she lacks several teeth and her circumference greatly exceeds her height. Ruth, which in Mexican is pronounced “Root”, is a strong Catholic grandmother with forthright opinions on everything from washing hands before meals to the climbing of volcanoes. She has the final say on most things in the house and is also in charge of feeding me and James. Fortunately she is a very good cook, even if all Mexican food is, with a few exceptions, variants of tortillas-with-something-spicy-in-the-middle. (The levels of spice, apart from at breakfast, are not as intimidating as I was expecting, and within a week I was taking part in the awkward silence when Ruth forgets to put a bowl of salsa verde on the table.)

As I headed towards bed on the first night, Ruth stopped me and solemnly inspected my necklace, the elastic bands around my wrist and the two old, very cheap, rings on the fingers of my right hand. “Nothing gold?” she asked. “Anything?” I said no, tired and off balance, and she looked me in the eye. “They will take it from you,” she said in a low voice, making a snatching motion across her throat. “If you wear gold in the street. They will take it.”

The socket lit up like a sparkler when I plugged my laptop in. I was grateful to have internet, contact with the rest of the world, in my bedroom.

Settling into life in GDA revolved mostly around CEPE, “Centre for Foreign Students,” the language school that the University of Warwick is partnered with. Returning to a school setting, where I sit at a desk in a classroom and copy down what the teacher tells me, has taken a bit of getting used to. After a mere three days of being in travelling mode in Mexico City, I was instinctively ready to move on after a couple of nights, but instead I found myself putting photos up on the wall, unpacking the last of my backpack , and completing the day’s homework.

The teaching is incomparably better than in the school at Warwick, which I increasingly think must have been some sort of practical joke, but nevertheless the mathematical approach to language still feels unnatural to me. Having learned my Spanish by filtering it out from the island english of Honduras’s bay islands, I have to bite my tongue at the frustration of now having to progress by memorising the specific rules for each conjugation, structure and form. “Es” + adjetivo + INFINITIVO = sujeto indefinido. Only the fact that I am actually learning a lot keeps me from getting too irritated by what feels to me the artifice of it all.

I get tired quicker here, and I am somehow drinking Coke on a regular basis. I no longer see prices in pesos and convert them into pounds in my head (which is a good thing, because it tended to take me a long time.) The mosquitos here are like teenagers outside corner shops pretending they aren’t aiming to get someone with ID to buy them cigarettes. They hang around in a harmless sort of way, trying to land a cheeky nibble. This is a big improvement on the mosquitos in the Caribbean who regard the islands as theirs and become aggravated if you try to hit them, or those up in the mountains of Central America, where they are actually relatively unused to humans and so will descend slowly in happy clouds onto climbers, who then slap themselves and kill four at a time.

I went to church last Sunday morning, Ruth’s mistrust (“but what are you Protestant against? God?”) allayed, and had to contend properly with the grid system on my own for the first time. I am still getting used to it. It’s great when I’m not entirely sure where I am and then I hit a street I know, because it’s then guaranteed to take me where I want to go. In the hodgepodge of Oxford city, street names are virtually useless and people work via the plentiful specific landmarks. However, if you get onto the wrong street here, or even the right street going the wrong way, it can take an awfully long time to get back to where you actually want to go. I have been lost more than once. There is also a one-way system to contend with: sometimes when I’m looking for traffic, I look right, which in Britain would be the wrong way but in Mexico is the right way, only to find I’m actually looking the wrong way because the right way is one way the other way. So it can be hard to tell.

If there is a knock on the door of the house, Ruth or Juarez will always shout “who is it?” before opening up. I couldn’t be sure if this was a culture thing or a security thing until one afternoon when James put his head outside the door to see if it was raining, then went to his room without shutting it properly. A few minutes later, the door had swung open perhaps a foot and there was a commotion in the kitchen. Ruth burst into my room without knocking, which has never happened before or since, hammered on James’s door and berated him for being so careless. “He left the door open!” she explained to me on her way back to the La-Z Boy, sounding as though he’d just drop-kicked a blind orphan into a rubbish bin. “I could be watching TV and anyone with a pistol could just walk in!” How the potential gunman would deal with the two sets of heavy steel gates before the door I don’t know, but Ruth departed shaking her head and muttering that it didn’t bear thinking about.

The house is located in one of GDA’s more affluent areas, so the streets are well lit and there are people wandering to and from restaurants until quite late. I have started running in the evenings just as it begins to get dark and cool, but having not run seriously for several years I can only manage about fifteen minutes around a few blocks. After the first exploratory effort I shambled back into the house, red-eyed and gasping, to find Juarez watching the news. “What happened?” he asked, eyes wide. “Did you get lost again?”