MEXICO CITY, Mexico — There are some neighborhoods of Mexico City you don't want to walk around after dark.
Then there are some neighborhoods you don't want to walk around ever.
San Felipe de Jesus is one such area, though I was a little late in learning this.
Located in the heart of Mexico City, one can only describe San Felipe de Jesus as a sort of ghetto. Having lived in big cities my whole life, I have been to too many "bad 'hoods," as it were. In fact, the first week after I had moved to Los Angeles I got lost in Compton trying to find an IKEA. I drove in circles for four hours until my passenger realized we had passed the same pit bull guarding a yard that contained a Chevy on blocks for the sixth time.
But I have never, in the United States, needed a police escort to go into a neighborhood. Our FOX Crew was in Mexico working on several stories about the omnipotent drug cartels that terrorize the country. We thought it would be a good idea to go into the neighborhoods run by the cartels to see if we could catch a glimpse of how things operated, and if the business of drugs was flaunted as carelessly as we had been told it was.
Even with two detectives driving a squad car ahead of us (our crew was packed into a navy blue Chevy van with BMW hub caps), our local fixer was nervous. He kept craning his neck to see out the back window, all the while murmuring to himself in high-pitched Spanish. Our driver seemed calm enough — though he did not allow more than half a car length between us and the detectives.
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When we entered the neighborhood, I expected to see gangs in the streets, perhaps a storefront sign that said "GRINGOS GO BACK." But this was not the case. Instead, we saw quiet streets with young men intermingling with older women and children playing on front stoops. I was almost disappointed. I expected something a little less … normal.
We stayed in the cars and wove through the smaller, residential streets, peeking through our windows at what seemed to be the everyday goings on of a local barrio. The only thing that appeared even halfway exciting was an English bulldog pacing back and forth atop a tin roof.
Still following the squad car, we drove back out to the neighborhood's main drag and pulled over. By this point, I was annoyed by all of the timid warnings and our fixer's nervous fidgeting. We needed video of a drug neighborhood and despite my doubts, the cops insisted this was a drug neighborhood. Our three-person crew — correspondent Adam Housley, our cameraman Keith Railey and I — got out of the car. I followed Keith as he crossed the street to get some shots.
It was then I noticed that the man standing in front of the shop that we were passing looked oddly familiar. Hadn't I just seen him a few minutes earlier on one of the narrower residential streets? No, probably just someone who looked like him. I turned back towards the direction from which we had come, where our van was still parked. And that's when I noticed another man in a lime green shirt, standing against a car with arms folded, staring right at us. Probably just unusual to see gringos around here, I thought. Keith and I walked a block further. A third man with a black shirt and goatee stood at a lamppost further down the street. He walked towards us, studied our camera as he passed us and, without saying a word, turned around and walked back to the lamppost. He did this twice, alternately ogling the camera and looking me in the eye.
I started feeling itchy. It was that uncomfortable feeling of being watched. And not that kind of dirty-look stare-down you get when you cut off a driver on the freeway and he catches up with you. Something more sinister. Something that said, in no uncertain terms, "Get out."
We walked back to the van and the patrol car. The head detective looked anxious and uncomfortable. He said that a young boy had just brushed by him on the sidewalk. It was a clear message, he explained, from the local cartel that we were being watched. In fact, most of the children in San Felipe de Jesus worked for the drug dealers. He went on to confirm that each of the men that I had noticed as Keith and I were getting video had come to monitor us from the streets through which we had driven earlier. And the haggard, older women I saw were not the prostitutes I had seen in other neighborhoods. They were the lookouts for the dealers, there to alert them of nearby law enforcement — or busybody journalists.
Keith was standing apart from our huddle and saw something he wanted to capture. He started in the direction of his shot.
The lead detective saw Keith leaving and quickly announced that we had to go.
"Just one second," I said
"No," the cop barked. "Ahora!"
Keith turned back towards the van and we piled in. Our fixer — God bless him — who was familiar with the cartel warnings that we had just witnessed was so rattled that he was sweating, and began to rock slightly back and forth, as if to propel our parked van into motion. In moments, our driver had his key in the ignition and we were off.
In retrospect, I was arrogant to think that things in San Felipe de Jesus were normal just because they appeared so to me. Our nervous fixer understood something that, at the time, I had not: There was a whole matrix operating right before our eyes that we could not see — a world of complicated relationships and communications that had evolved over time to protect an illegal industry worth billions. It was a world that would not allow two cops and a news crew to hinder the day's business.
Our detectives knew this, too. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Mexican government seems to be perpetually on the losing side of the drug cartel war. Where the weapons of the cartels are high-tech and expensive, those of the police are cheap and out-dated. Where the cartels have an army of people that easily controls whole cities with a wealth of resources, law enforcement officers have a fragile network in which they never know whom they can trust, and who is on the take.
San Felipe de Jesus is only a microcosm of the larger problem. What we saw there is daily routine in much of Mexico. And if sophisticated drug operations are alive and well in a neighborhood minutes away from the tiny area where the U.S. Embassy is situated, what hope is there for the lawless northern border towns where cartels are growing stronger by the day?
Nora Zimmett is a general assignment producer based in Los Angeles. She started at FOX in 2003 as an associate producer. She has covered Colombia's Civil War, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and, most recently, the latest Ballistic Missile test aboard the USS Lake Erie.