Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tear Gassed in Mexico City

March 2001

The title is a generous overstatement, but nevertheless accurate. It happened in Tepito, a large electronics market a few blocks north of Mexico's Zocalo. It's a massive six square block maze of crowded stalls, twisting passageways, and hidden warehouses. Essentially it's Mexico's casbah. It's the place to go for duty-free, tax-free (and probably stolen) electronic goods as well as pirated CDs. It was the latter that brought me there. My upper middle class Mexican friends shuddered at the thought that I would set foot in this place, but for a mere $1.50 I could buy any of the latest hits and a good selection of back catalog stuff.

I went four times, filling out my CD collection with Guns and Roses, Christina Aguilera, Billy Joel. There is little I won't buy for $1.50. That's less than my time value spent downloading these songs off the net. My first visit was on a Tuesday, they only day they were closed. I was lucky, though, because the next day the federal police raided the market, confiscating goods and arresting dozens of people. The merchants fought back, throwing bottles and punches. Fifty people were injured in the melee and the next day the riots (the Tepitazo) made the front pages of all the tabloid newspapers.

My next visit was a week later. Things had quieted down and dozens of stalls blared out Britney, Mana or Thalia in an effort to attract shoppers to their nearly identical offerings. The only lasting consequence of the raids had been a raise in the price of CDs from $1.25 to $1.50. I bought CDs until I ran out of money (you never carry much cash in Mexico City). The following two visits were more of the same, with me increasingly scrutinizing each stall's selection looking for something I'd like.

At some point during this last visit two vendors pushed me aside to get a clear view of a helicopter--a police helicopter circling overhead. I immediately noticed many of the CD sellers hurriedly packing up their inventory into boxes and wheeling them away on dollies. Other vendors seemed indifferent and continued selling, so I continued shopping. When I came to one stall that was setting up I asked if they weren't worried by the police presence (still nothing more than swirling helicopters from what I could see). They said they won't touch us, they're after the drug distributors.

It was just after this, having bought from them Billy Joel's Greatest Hits vol. 1, 2 as well as the hits of Argentine group, Heroes del Silencio, that I felt a sudden stinging in my eyes and throat, as if someone were cutting up a great quantity of onions nearby. I looked around me and noticed that everyone hurrying by had their faces covered with their shirts. I turned around and headed back towards the subway through the maze of stalls, bumping into people along the way. The tear gas, never very concentrated to begin with, was already passing. I slowed down and even paused to look at a few more CD vendors on my way back.