Mexico City

Tepito: Inside Mexico City’s Barrio Bravo

The neighborhood that's been sensationalized, stigmatized and romanticized like no other.

There are more dangerous neighborhoods than Tepito in Mexico City, for example, parts of Iztapalapa, the area called “El Hoyo” (The Hole)—where, a few years ago in El Cerro de la Estrella, stray dogs fatally attacked and ate four humans. But Tepito, “El Barrio Bravo,” the Obstinate Barrio, the Fierce Barrio, home of gangsters of lore and legendary boxers such as Kid Azteca and “Ratón” Macias, and fútbol immortal turned politician Cuauhtémoc Blanco, is probably the city’s most notorious neighborhood, sensationalized and stigmatized, romanticized too, like no other. Though the teeming market that takes up most of the neighborhood is famous all over Mexico and even beyond, without a doubt lots of chilangos, as Mexico City residents are called, maybe even most, are afraid to go there, despite the money they could save by shopping there, in its tightly packed twenty-five square blocks of tianguis (market stalls). Something about Tepito, I always find myself thinking when I’m there, gives it the feel of a walled city within a city, even though no actual physical walls enclose it, and many of the surrounding neighborhoods, some with other kinds of major markets of their own, many of them poorer and probably with higher crime rates, don’t look much different.

Tepito has an urban economic and cultural ecosystem all its own. What could be compared to a ceaseless underground river of fayuca (counterfeit and pirated goods) flows into it, most of those products trucked in off Chinese and Mexican container ships docking at Mexico’s Pacific ports. Stolen goods, from manifold sources—hijacked trucks, ransacked warehouses, and so on—narrow into a steady Tepito-bound current, too. But a great deal of fayuca is local, prepared in small workshops and sweatshops, behind the drab adobe and plastered walls of the residential blocks and old warehouses closely surrounding the market. Small merchants come from all over Mexico to buy fayuca to bring back to their own pueblos and cities to sell in market stalls and shops there. Drugs flow in, too, packaged, cut, prepared—flavored cocaine has become a local specialty—in clandestine labs behind those walls, sold and distributed from a few notoriously dangerous streets and addresses outside the market blocks. Tepito is known as Mexico City’s drug warehouse, feeding this hard-partying city’s vast street trade. Tepiteños like to boast that there’s nothing on this earth that can’t be bought or sold in the barrio, if you know your way around and have the right connections. Tepito is also home, at Calle Alfarería 12, to what is probably Mexico’s most venerated Santa Muerte shrine. She is Holy Death, la Niña Blanca Bonita, the begowned skeleton with her scythe and crown, a popular ever-spreading folk religious cult that has its contemporary origins in the country’s penitentiaries and in superstitious covens of criminally corrupt Mexico City police, these being among the shrine’s earliest, most influential devotees.

Something about Tepito, I always find myself thinking when I’m there, gives it the feel of a walled city within a city

Tepito seems to have always had a reputation for defiance and transgression. A plaque in the plaza of the church de la Concepción, at the intersection of Tenochtitlán and Constancia, is believed by some local authorities to mark the spot—“here began the slavery,” it reads—where Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec royal leader, its greatest warrior-martyr, was taken prisoner at the end of his 93-day final battle against the Spanish and their Tlaxcalteca allies. During the Mexican-American war, Tepito prostitutes lured American soldiers to their deaths in shadowy alleyways, Tepiteños hurled rocks and rubble from rooftops at the gringo troops, and General Winfield Scott ordered the barrio to be razed.

Commerce and everything else in Tepito, it seems, is pursued along boundaries where official legality and lawlessness are blurred, but the barrio itself adheres to strict laws and codes of its own. Most of the tianguis represent family businesses, often run and worked by two or three generations of women at the same time, from families that often live in the barrio and raise their children according to those insular laws and codes. Many live in the vecindades, warren-like buildings or housing blocks of a type also particular to the neighborhood.

The Tepito way of commerce and life make it a place apart, and inspired the observation by the local cronista and historian Alfonso Hernández that “Mexico is the Tepito of the world, and Tepito is the synthesis of Mexico.” Those words have gone “viral” in the old way, now inevitably quoted, cited, paraphrased, it seems, by everyone who writes or even talks about Tepito. The veteran neighborhood chronicler’s insight not only rang true; it put into words something that others might have generally sensed about how Mexico or the modern world works before they’d recognized that Tepito was its perfect expression. Organized crime, counterfeits and piracy, underground commerce, the informal economy, corruption and extortion, the off-the-grid daily hustle to survive in a culture where serious lethal crime coexists with mundane disregard of laws and the small merchant ethic of keep your head down, work hard and do what you have to to protect your business—so goes Tepito. The creativity and wiles required, for a majority of chilangos, to stay alive and feed a family day after day: that’s what gives Mexico City its true character and energy, something you feel coursing through you like the reverberations of millions and millions of striding feet on the city sidewalks all at once.

If Tepito is “the synthesis,” it’s far from a noncombustible mix. Tensions build up, and while there’s always some level of violence in Tepito, it sometimes explodes, and the murder rate soars, the way it did in the spring and early summer of 2013, and everyone remembers once again why they were so frightened to go there. As long as the violence seems confined to Tepito, and only tabloid scandal and crime sheets are covering it, people on the outside of the “walled” barrio shrug it off and say, “Well, of course, it is Tepito, after all”—and maybe even feel thankful that the rest of Mexico City isn’t like that.

• • •

“Mexico City is a bubble.” I heard that said so often in 2012 that it became a sort of refrain of the book-length crónica I was working on during those months: a memoir of my emergence from grief after the five grueling years that had followed the death of my thirty-year-old wife, Aura, on July 25, 2007, after she’d broken her spine off the coast of Oaxaca; and of the role Mexico City had played in that slow revival and newfound embrace of life. “We live in a bubble”—people said it in guilt or relief, marveling at our good fortune, or in trepidation, at the chaos and death of the narco war. The horrifying plague of murder and disappearances overrunning so much of the rest of Mexico seemed to inch ever closer to the city’s borders—especially horrifically from right next door in Mexico State, where the femicide rate was surpassing the one that had caught the world’s attention a decade before in Ciudad Juárez, which for years had the highest murder rate in the world.

Commerce and everything else in Tepito, it seems, is pursued along boundaries where official legality and lawlessness are blurred

Mexico City, though, over the past thirteen or fourteen years especially, had transformed into a relative oasis of security and progressive politics, a trendy global city that drew young people, artists and other creative types, free spirits from all over the world. During those years the city had been led by leftist mayors, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) and Marcelo Ebrard. Governing that megalopolis, of course, is a mind-bogglingly complex task, requiring the balancing of so many competing interests and forces, some of these criminal, in order to sustain a messy equilibrium that keeps the city running smoothly enough to stay ahead of what, at least on bad days, can seem like perpetually looming catastrophe. By the end of Ebrard’s term in 2012 he was boasting that Mexico City was on the verge of becoming one of the safest major cities in the world. But at the start of 2013, Mexico had a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his party, the previously long-ruling and authoritarian PRI—reviled in Mexico City if not elsewhere—was, after twelve years out of power, once again atop the government. Mayor Ebrard’s successor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, elected in a landslide by a city satisfied by how it was being been governed and proud of the chilango identity asserted by those politics, betrayed his mandate by becoming a political ally of Peña Nieto and the PRI.

It was obvious that things were changing, and not in a good way. The book I’d thought I’d just finished, a crónica of my life in the Distrito Federal (DF) through 2012, was a celebration of the city; now I realized I wasn’t finished after all, and that I needed to write about what was befalling Mexico City, and the country itself, in 2013. Of course we know now that Peña Nieto’s election—hailed by the run-with-the-pack idiot US media establishment as representing a new modern and reformed PRI—soon plunged the country into new depths of corruption and violence. In Mexico City, that bubble definitely burst.

Photo credit: Eneas De Troya

At eleven o’clock on the Sunday morning of March 26, in the Zona Rosa, a neighborhood of somewhat faded upscale tourist glory but still a thriving area for hotels, gay bars, nightclubs, and all manner of sexual commerce, thirteen young people were led out of an after-hours bar on Calle Lancaster by armed commandos and driven away in vans. The bar was only blocks from a police headquarters and about fifty meters from Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s Grand Boulevard, closed to traffic that morning so that bicyclists could ride up and down it. There were police patrolling around the neighborhood that morning, among tourists and Sunday strollers. The mass kidnapping from the after-hours club known as Bar Heaven had all the markings of a classic narco levantón (or lifting) characteristic of cities controlled by or contested by the drug cartels, and which are always assumed to have been carried out with the knowledge of police, and even with their direct participation. It wasn’t the kind of crime that was supposed to happen in the DF, and nobody could remember when anything quite like it had happened before. News headlines such as “Fear Arrives in the Heart of the DF” appeared in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. The city’s panic was palpable. Mayor Mancera was facing his first major crisis.

The creativity and wiles required, for a majority of chilangos, to stay alive and feed a family day after day: that’s what gives Mexico City its true character and energy

But then it turned out that most of the young kidnap victims were from Tepito: eight males, five females, from age 16 to 34. And much of the city gave a collective shrug. It’s terrible, but they’re tepiteños; those chavos must have done something to bring that down on themselves. A settling of accounts between Tepito drug gangs contesting the street trade plaza, it must have been, because, you know, no narco cartels around here! Mayor Mancera and his government and police breathed a big sigh of relief. From government and police leaks, the notoriously compromised Mexico City media got to work building a pyre of insinuations exploiting the stigma of Tepito, seemingly criminalizing the youths. It even turned out that one of the missing, the sixteen-year-old Jerzy Ortiz, was the son of a former Tepito gang leader known as “El Tanque,” who’d been in federal prisons for ten years.

A bit more than a year later, half a million protestors would march in Mexico City over the forced disappearances in Iguala of the 43 Ayotzinapa Normal School students, a glorious outpouring of collective rage, solidarity and desire for justice. Family members of the missing youths kidnapped from Bar Heaven blocked traffic on the Eje-1 Norte that runs along one border of Tepito, as they have continued to do, sporadically, ever since. “We Want an Investigation, Not Criminalization,” read some of the signs the mothers and other relatives held up.

The crime, which came to be known as the Heavens Case, had taken place amid a realignment of criminal powers, mirroring the ongoing political realignment, over control of the Mexico City street trade in drugs. Mayor Mancera, a high-placed anonymous source would later tell the reporter Pablo de Llano and me, had lost the control over the city’s police that his predecessors had known how to maintain. The reason Mexico City didn’t have narco cartels warring over the city’s drug plazas was because the city’s “cartel” was and had long been the police: the police oversaw that trade, and that had kept things relatively under control. But now the PRI, with their police and gangs, in coalition with some of the cartels, were pushing to take over. To this day, the Heavens Case remains just another unsolved crime. Only some lower-level figures accused of having roles in the crime have been jailed, but no credible explanation for the crime, or for who was behind it, has ever been officially posited.

• • •

This past spring, in May, I realized that the fifth anniversary of the Heavens kidnapping was only weeks away, and that I hadn’t seen or heard from either Penélope Ramírez Ponce or her mother Eugenia Ponce—cousin and aunt, respectively, of then-sixteen-year-old Jerzy—in a year or more. I decided to get in touch with them to let them to know that my new wife Jovi and I had just arrived in Mexico City, and that Jovi was eight months pregnant. I’d first gotten to know Tepito a bit back then, because of the Caso Heavens. I never covered the case as a journalist, but I wrote about it in the second part of what became that book. By then I’d become fixated on the question of whether my own experience of sudden, violent loss and trauma—diagnosed PTSD and depression—might be at all useful for understanding the epidemic of sudden violent loss and trauma afflicting tens of thousands of people all over Mexico who’d lost loved ones to murder and disappearances in those years. And so I was determined to find a way to get to know the Heavens families.

Like most people, I was wary of Tepito. I remembered a couple of early fast trips in past years, dodging into and out of Tepito’s main strip, the Avenida del Trabajo, to buy DVDs and a Manny Pacquiao t-shirt. Just the year before, while driving in the center, I’d taken a series of wrong turns and soon found myself lost deep within the market maze. My friend, the young reporter Pablo de Llano, was covering the story for the Spanish newspaper El País. Tall, skinny and blond, he didn’t feel so safe walking around Tepito either, even though he went every day. The situation in the Barrio Bravo had grown grim.

I’d become fixated on whether my own experience of sudden, violent loss and trauma might be useful for understanding the epidemic afflicting tens of thousands of people all over Mexico

In the first week of June 2013, four men were massacred in Tepito at a gym called Body Extreme, a crime that police said was unrelated to the Heavens levantón. A Radio Nederland reporter produced a dramatic piece in which the barrio’s residents described how they were living in terror at the hands of the drug-trafficking and extortion gang La Unión Tepito, described as capricious and sadistic killers, and spoke of how they felt abandoned by the city government and police. It read like a report from some lost city deep inside a faraway urban jungle.

Over the following months, accompanying Pablo to Tepito whenever I could, I got to know many of the family members. I saw them keep their unity and dignity as they struggled against a police investigation that was not only incompetent but increasingly suggested a cover-up. It was the Tepito mothers who found the few witnesses and the best leads, passing them to the chief police investigator, who did nothing with the information. I saw the families enduring the ambiguous open-ended agony that is being the mother, sibling or other relative of a disappeared person. Then three months later, after the bodies of the thirteen youths were discovered in a grisly narco grave, their remains dismembered, on a remote ranch in Mexico State, I saw the family members, especially the mothers, yield to grief. But with children and grandchildren to shepherd through terror and baffling loss, they kept up an outward stoicism; they also gave in to rage, and to denial, too. Not all the families have accepted that the mutilated remains finally returned to them by police authorities were those of their missing relatives; Eugenia Ponce to this day says that the forensic report she was given said that Jerzy had two right feet, sizes 4 and 6.

The murder victims had mostly worked at market stalls in Tepito, or in shops nearby downtown, or in family workshops like the one started at home by Jennifer Robles González’s grandmother, where she and her sister Jacqueline sewed stuffed Mike Wazowski dolls from scratch to sell to market vendors. Two or three of the murdered women were single young mothers who’d gone out on a Saturday night with their boyfriends. Two were adolescents: Jerzy and his nineteen-year-old friend, Said Sánchez García. At moments I would sense that what some of the mothers and grown siblings were enduring was viscerally familiar to me: Jacqueline sunk into a deep lethargic murk that just being in her close proximity as we spoke brought back to me; Jerzy’s mother Leticia suddenly manic after her son’s death, running off with her four-year-old niece, Karewit, to soak themselves in the fountain jets of the Plaza de la Revolución.

Photo credit:Kasper Christensen

On Calle Matamoros, not far from one edge of the market, was where Jerzy’s family had their adjacent tianguis, four separate small commercios. Maria Teresa Ramos, Jerzy’s maternal grandmother and the family matriarch, diminutive and elfin, eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping and sleeplessness, ran the largest of the family businesses with her husband, nicknamed “Alain Delon” because he looked like him. The business was a one-room shop on Matamoros, open to the sidewalk, where they sold heavy metal and punk rock t-shirts. From another tianguis they sold adornments for teenage girls: jewelry, sandals, tattoo sleeves; from another, mobile phone accessories and spare parts. Jerzy was Maria Teresa’s favored grandson, and you could see the toll the tragedy was taking on her; everyone was worried about her. Her hypertension had dangerously soared. One moment she’d be weeping, but the next she’d be ordering her husband to go and get a T-shirt that a customer wanted in another size from their stockroom, saying, “No matter what, we have to keep selling.” Another time I heard her burst out beatifically, “Tepito is blessed: there’s nothing that can’t be bought or sold here!”

It was a large, extended, close family, and the stalls were the family headquarters. They doted on Pablo de Llano almost like a son. El Tanque’s wife, attractive, hair dyed blonde, seemed a dynamo of personality and energy. But I felt especially drawn to soft-spoken Penélope Ramirez Ponce, in her twenties, and her mother, Eugenia. Penélope, who’d studied to be a chef—the recurring effects of a childhood arm injury prevented her from working full-time in a restaurant kitchen—was described to me by her mother as the family note-taker at the meetings they occasionally got to have with the city’s chief prosecutor and with its head police investigator. But Eugenia took a lot of notes, too; they were probably both indispensable to the few reporters trying to diligently cover the crime. It was Penélope, usually so quiet, who had stood up at the end of the last, most dramatic meeting, when the family members had finally voiced their anger and mistrust of the authorities, and accused the chief prosecutor (the equivalent of the city’s district attorney) of doing just the same to them as Mexican authorities had done with the families of Mexico’s other 30,000 disappeared: blaming the victims and evading accountability. She told him: “Your incompetence is visible from miles away.”

• • •

When I went to Penélope’s Facebook page to send her a message to let her know I was back, her profile picture showed her at the beach, smiling mischievously, next to a young man in sunglasses and a hat with his arm around her. Below, I read that she was now described as “Owner Proprietor” of a business called Los Minis. When I clicked on it, I was taken to a Los Minis Facebook page. This featured pictures of cupcakes. Of mini-brownies. Invitations to a Children’s Day raffle. Jars of Nutella. Los Minis business hours, most days, were from 7:00 pm to 10:30pm. Night hours. What? Tepito by night a cupcake destination?

With children and grandchildren to shepherd through terror and baffling loss, they kept up an outward stoicism

A few days later, we all went together: my wife Jovi, her father Carlos, our five-year-old niece Jovisitas, and my good friend Juan Carlos Reyna. It turned out that Penélope had a daytime business too, selling baby clothes; then, in the evenings, she and her boyfriend Chris would rapidly convert the tianguis into Los Minis. Penélope and Jovi were excited to see each other again, and Jovi was excited to stock up on baby clothes. Eugenia also offered to give us a tour of Tepito by night. I’d never really gotten to know the market, even by day. What I most vividly recall about my visits with Pablo de Llano are tense walks to one vecindad or another, visiting or tracking down members of the missing youths’ families; once we were overtly trailed by a halcón—one of the youngsters hired to be lookouts by the gangs, La Union Tepito most likely—and there were probably other times we were tailed and didn’t notice. There were also uncomfortable interviews at the Santa Muerte shrine with Doña Queta, its venerable priestess. We didn’t doubt she knew a lot, but she wasn’t going to tell us anything; we’d been told by our best police source that La Unión Tepito was very closely connected to the shrine.

We arrived at around five in the afternoon, as the Tepito market trade was winding down for the day, and made our way down long aisles covered by yellow tarps, lined by the tianguis, constructions of steel rods and yellow plastic or canvas sheeting that are uniform through the market. I saw a beautiful, handmade doll figure of Miguel, the boy musician from Coco, that we’d buy for our niece Jovisitas later, and a Mexican National Team fútbol jersey, being sold for about half of what it would cost at a store in the city, that I bought for myself. Tianguis walls mosaicked with DVDs and CDs, music blaring from all sides. Diableros, men and boys hauling and pushing hand trucks, made their way down the aisles, as did, pretty heedlessly, people on motorcycles and scooters; it’s really up to you to watch and stay out of their way. Some of the men on motorcycles were police. Warnings were shouted when they were coming, and stallholders without permission to sell beer and mixed drinks quickly pulled their wares down off their display counters.

When we arrived at Maria Teresa and Alain Delon’s one-room cave hung with rocker t-shirts, with the family encampment of tianguis out front, we found Penélope and her boyfriend Chris, Eugenia, little Karewit, and Jorman, Jerzy’s cousin and brother-like childhood playmate, all gathered there. It was Mexico’s Día del Albanil, Day of the Construction Worker or Bricklayer, and Leticia, Eugenia somewhat obscurely explained, was at a nearby building site, celebrating with workers. We sat on the long bench along one side of Penélope’s tianguis; soon baby clothes were being packed away, and the tianguis was undergoing its nighttime conversion into Los Minis. The family was obviously doing better now: Maria Teresa seemed rejuvenated; Penélope was clearly happy with where her life was now; and Eugenia, her luxurious brunette hair tied back with a disheveled elegance, had an air of playfulness and sharp alertness, and eagerly flashed a sarcastic wit she hadn’t shown before. Jorman went to get us beers, and when he came back, he leaned somewhat swaggeringly against a sturdy steel beam, holding a beer, and told us, “Tepito is the synthesis of Mexico, you know.”

We talked about what the previous years had been like. I hadn’t really understood until now how affected Eugenia and her daughter had been by their prolonged grief. I did know that there was nothing surprising about a punishing bereavement persisting for five years, or longer, and I also knew how changeable it can be: when the light at the end of the tunnel you thought you glimpsed late in year three is suddenly snuffed out, and instead a new and unexpected kind of melancholy or depression drags you down for another year. Loss compounded by deepening indignation and frustration and defeat: that’s how Jerzy’s murder, and the elusiveness of justice, had played out in Eugenia and Penélope.

The past years had inflicted so many embittering disappointments. The few police who, early on, had been accused of having been among the kidnappers outside Bar Heaven that night and jailed, had since been quietly released. When the families secured a promising meeting with Mayor Mancera’s powerful and respected Secretary of Government, Patricia Mercado, they’d been flabbergasted, when, finally seated opposite her, Mercado confessed to them that she didn’t remember ever having heard of the “Heavens Case” before. Eugenia went to her appointment with a psychologist that the city was providing for free, but as she was speaking the psychologist fell asleep, and without waking him she left the room and never went back. For the first two years after Jerzy’s death, neither Eugenia nor her daughter had work, and money become a problem. Mother and daughter had to give up their apartment in cool Roma Sur and move to Cuauhtémoc, closer to Tepito.

Loss compounded by deepening indignation and frustration and defeat: that’s how Jerzy’s murder, and the elusiveness of justice, had played out

Until only recently, she’d felt afraid to leave the environs of Tepito. On one trip outside the city, the bus she was on stopped for a police roadblock, and she was overcome with panic. “We can’t always be sad,” Penélope said to her mother one day. “We’ve suffered. But we have to do something. Life continues. Mamá, let’s start a business.”

So Eugenia bought a popcorn machine; it was right there at the front of a tianguis, right on the aisle. Penélope first started selling girls’ T-shirts, switched to baby clothes, and then established Los Minis. “Here in Tepito you can buy or sell anything.” Including, now, mini-cupcakes, mini-pancakes, mini-brownies. “I’ve always liked mini things,” Penélope told me. She sells mostly to the market’s evening and night workers, but prepares spreads for baby showers and birthday parties, too. On the tianguis wall of yellow tarp, she hung cheerful pop signs of the mini pastries she sells; images of bottles of wine, soda pop, coffee. On the front table, Los Minis has a fire-engine red coffee and espresso machine, bowls of candies, a row of colorful electric crepe griddles and displays of frosted cupcakes.

The diminutive as a subversion of the monstrous. Hello Kitty in the aftermath of Hiroshima. That now-familiar trope is what Los Minis made me think of. Eugenia pulled up her shirt to show me the tattoo covering part of her back and right shoulder, a light blue balloon floating at the end of a string of words reading, “Sometimes you need to let things go.”

And Jorman pulled up his own t-shirt to show us the tattoo he’d gotten after his cousin Jerzy’s death. It was a long prayer—customarily directed to la Santa Muerte—that Jerzy had posted on his own Facebook page the day before he disappeared, now copied in elaborate script down the side of Jorman’s whippet-thin torso to his hip: “Si Ojos Tienen, Que No Me Ven / Si Manos Tienen, Que No Me Agarren / Si Pies Tienen, Que No Me Alcansen…” “If They Have Eyes, That They Do Not See Me / If They Have Hands, That They Don’t Grab Me / If They Have Feet, That They Don’t Catch-up To Me…”

“At night,” said Eugenia of Tepito, “it’s only people from here.” Tepito after the market has closed has a haunting beauty, and it especially did that night, with a full moon hanging over the barrio, making the pavement, wet from a late evening rain, shine. With their goods packed and stored away, the emptied, skeletal tianguis look like rows of berthed ancient ships with sails loosely folded atop their long spars and masts. Men passed slowly pushing hand trucks.

I got the sense that Tepito had restored Eugenia and Penélope to themselves, and that their sense of belonging, their knowledge of their barrio and its particular ways and their embrace of it, was a source of identity and strength that they’d maybe let slip away before, and had now returned to. They’d grown up in the barrio. While Maria Teresa tended the family tianguis, Eugenia’s father, “Alain Delon,” had been head waiter at an elegant nightclub in San Jerónimo called Premiere, where some of Mexico’s greatest stars performed. Eugenia got to see shows by Luis Miguel, Juan Gabriel, even David Copperfield, because when she was a girl, on her birthdays or on other special nights, her father would reserve a table right in front of the stage for her and her friends. She laughed remembering how the fancy patrons seated nearby used to gawk at the table of schoolgirls from Tepito.

The Ponce-Ramírez-Ortiz family clan might not have the money they once had, but belonging to the family of the barrio’s former most powerful gang leader, El Tanque, gives them protection, a status as a kind of local royalty. Eugenia and Penélope know everybody in Tepito, and everyone seems to know them. Penélope spoke frankly about the problems besetting the Tepito market. The bad state of Mexico’s economy had driven down business. But merchants were especially suffering because of the high extortion prices being charged by La Unión Tepito. Her own family was never extorted, she confided, but nearly everyone else’s was. Other merchants sometimes came to her to complain about it, as if somehow she and her family could help, which, in fact, they couldn’t.

Tepito after the market has closed has a haunting beauty, and it especially did that night, with a full moon hanging over the barrio

Food stalls were open, and some would be serving the barrio’s nighttime workers until dawn. Los Tacos de Mara, Eugenia told me, with home-cooked stewed fillings, were especially famous. They were sold on the street by an elderly woman, Mara, who doesn’t come out every night until one in the morning; she then works until six. Eugenia said hello to an old man that we passed known as El Abuelo. He worked unpacking tianguis and reassembling them in the mornings. Once, long ago, he’d been Mexico City’s foremost burglar and safecracker, and also the best dancer, a mambo king of the city’s old-fashioned dance salons. We stopped inside a busy little beauty salon to say hello to Jessica, a famously beautiful transgender beautician and model who is also one of the stars of Las Gardenias, a transgender and cross-dressing fútbol team that competes against a gay team every October 4, feast day of the Church of San Francisco, in Tepito’s Maracaná fútbol field. In the beauty salon a seated woman was getting her hair done by a beautician standing behind her, while also having her nails manicured by a manicurist who was simultaneously having her own hair done by the beautician standing behind her. I’d never before seen anything like that four-woman beauty-salon tableau.

And who are Tepito’s night workers? All around us, said Eugenia, behind the walls of the crumbling old adobe and concrete buildings surrounding the market, people were at work making pirated DVDs, and other fayuca. When we passed one of the market’s roofed and walled areas, this one known as El Rinconcito, she told me that it was here, behind these buildings, during the predawn hours, that hijacked container trucks arrived at the loading docks out back. She pointed out some of the more notorious vecindades, and I looked into their dark courtyards, saw illuminated shrines to the Virgin, while Eugenia shared stories about some of them. “That’s an especially bad one, I don’t even like to walk by it,” she said as we passed. “Sicarios live there,” meaning hired gunmen, assassins. Many walls were covered with colorful murals, some celebrating the barrio’s history and folklore. One depicted a sassy-looking young woman above a banner reading: “Women, Fighters and Workers, of the Barrio of Tepito.”

We turned on to Calle Tenochtitlán. Earlier, Eugenia had said she wouldn’t even consider going to that street unless her ex-husband, Jorman’s father, was going to be there, too. He was in a car, sitting with some other men, parked in front of a small tienda owned by his own mother at the head of the street. Jovial greetings were exchanged. Calle Tenochtitlán, dimly lit, lined with ramshackle one- and two-story buildings, a few with lowered steel shutters, roughly paved and littered with debris, is considered perhaps the most dangerous street in Tepito. It’s where drugs are sold. Many of the doorways lining the street led to rooms and labs where drugs are stored, prepared, sold wholesale to dealers, or individually to users. At the end of a street, nearly blocking it, is a police car, the red light atop its roof illuminated. Several police stood outside it, leaning on the car, talking. One got the feeling they weren’t there to prevent business from being done.

Also indigenous to Tepito is migas, a thick bread soup served with thick pork bones that you pull out of the soup and hold in your hand so that you can suck the marrow out with a piece of cut plastic drinking straw. It’s a hearty and cheap market meal that as far as I know you can’t get anywhere else in Mexico City outside the barrio. Eugenia said that Migas la Güera, considered the best, was closed at that hour, but we finished the night at a place still open, Migas del Gato.

• • •

The kidnapping and murder of Jerzy Ortiz and the other twelve had taken place amid a power struggle for control of the Mexico City street trade in drugs. Whoever was backing the kidnappers, it was a gang calling itself La Unión Insurgentes—not La Unión Tepito—whose dealers installed themselves in the lucrative plaza of the nightclubs and bars in the trendy party neighborhoods of la Condesa and Roma, packed nightly with moneyed youth. The owners, managers and security of those places were warned of the direst consequences if they resisted these incursions, and nobody doubted the truthfulness of those threats. Police looked the other way. In Bar Black, a Condesa bar known as a hangout for dealers from La Unión Insurgentes, a low-level drug dealer was murdered by members of La Unión Tepito. That crime provided the city’s police authorities with a credible-seeming pretext for portraying the Heavens kidnapping as a revenge killing. To this day, that’s how the Heavens Case is usually explained in the press. The most obvious problem with that theory is that none of the thirteen victims belonged to La Unión Tepito. It has never been proven or even specifically alleged by police or the media that any of the youths had a history of criminal involvement.

Photo credit: Kasper Christensen

Penélope Ramírez Ponce, though, has been studying the case for five years on her own. She keeps what she describes as a constantly refined and updated diagram of the crime in her head, one she can easily translate to paper, or into spoken words. Jovi and I came back to Tepito again, about a week after our nighttime visit. This time we came in the daytime, and the market was bustling. I saw no evidence at all that Tepito isn’t a safe place for shoppers by day. Police patrol the market on their motorcycles, but that isn’t why. It’s actually La Unión Tepito that does the real policing. They keep the market safe as a place to buy and sell, but they do this in exchange for extortion payments from the merchants.

This time Migas la Güera had run out of migas by the time we got there, so we had lunch in Migas de Chucha. The migas there were delicious. While we ate, Penélope explained to me how the crime had occurred.

It was true that La Unión Tepito had killed the drug dealer in Bar Black, who, though he was just an insignificant low-level street dealer, happened to have a relative in La Familia Michoacana, one of Mexico’s more dreaded cartels. Angered that this new gang of dealers had usurped its name, and was causing the Tepito La Unión to be blamed for crimes being carried out by La Unión Insurgentes, the tepiteño gangsters went to Bar Black to confront the upstarts, and that’s when the dealer was killed. Bar Crystal, on Avenida Insurgentes, was a hangout for the newer gang, and on a Saturday night soon after, waiters and dealers there noticed that there were a number of young people from Tepito in the bar, seated in their own little groups at separate tables. Many of those Tepito youths didn’t even know each other. Penélope said that young people from Tepito are always easy to spot. “They like to wear clothes with designer labels,” she said—clothes, of course, from their barrio’s market. “Always well ironed and clean,” she said. Tepiteños on a night out, she said, were typically well groomed, freshly bathed, wearing colognes and perfumes—doubtlessly only the best, from their singular market, too. Phone calls made by the denizens and employees of Bar Crystal set the night’s fatal events in motion. Waiters began to approach the tables where the Tepiteños were seated, handing out invitations and free drink passes to an afterhours club in the Zona Rosa called Bar Heaven. La Unión Insurgentes, as has already been suggested, was an entity made up of several newly allied groups, including, most likely, government and police authorities who’d risen to power along with the PRI and under the city’s new mayor, and, said Penélope, cells from various important cartels, including La Familia Michoacana.

• • •

It’s second nature in Tepito to regard the police as an enemy. With jolly impudence, Eugenia had shown me phone videos she’d taken near the Plaza de la Revolución of police using wire cutters to cut bicycle locks, after which they began to load the bicycles into a pickup truck. There was nothing illegal about parking bicycles there, and in the video Eugenia could be heard raucously taunting the police, accusing them of stealing the bikes and daring them to arrest her.

In late May, with national elections a month away, the furtive balances of power that undergird and drive the city were beginning to shift again. The PRI and Mayor Mancera, both now historically unpopular, were on the way out. AMLO, the former Mexico City mayor, was heavily leading in the polls to become the new president, and one of his protégées, Claudia Sheinbaum, was going to be the new mayor. A kind of restoration was perhaps getting underway. At any rate, Tepito was once again suddenly on the verge of one of its internecine wars. Our daughter, Azalea Francisca, was born on May 20. On May 24, I went back to Tepito with my wife’s sister, Carla, who’d come from her small town in Veracruz, to lend a hand with the baby. Carla and her husband have a small ranch, and she also has her own business as an aerobics instructor and arranger of quinceañera parties, teaching the teenagers to dance and choreographing the parties. But she needed better, stronger speakers than the ones she had, and to thank her for her help I took her to Tepito around noon to buy her the speakers she needed. Later we’d have lunch too, at Migas la Güera, finally.

But when we got to Tepito we learned that that very morning a murdered body had been found inside a barrel there, at the corner of Toltecas and Fray Bartólome de las Casas. A cardboard sign over the dead man’s face read “The Anti-Union Force … the cleansing goes on.” It was rumored, and was even reported in some newspapers, that the merchants, fed up with La Unión and its extortions, had formed and hired a force to take matters into their own hands. And the night before, El Rey Pirata, Tepito’s main distributor of counterfeit athletic footwear, had been murdered in one of his warehouses, reportedly in reprisal for refusing to pay La Unión its extortion fees. That same night a massive police operation was carried out in Tepito. On the Facebook page Alerta Tepito, the call went out, “Alerta banda, al tiro,” summoning residents to resist. Tepiteños fought with police in the streets for three hours, and gunshots were apparently fired from rooftops. In the end the police ransacked Tepito’s sneaker market, located in a covered hangar-like construction, overturning and destroying stalls and displays, and confiscating 30 tons of pirated footwear. According to the merchants and people of Tepito, the police were going to sell all that booty themselves.

I hadn’t known any of this when I’d set out for Tepito with Carla that morning. To get to the corner of the market where we were headed to buy speakers, we had to pass through the indoor athletic footwear market. What was extraordinary was that everything looked pristine, and that day, in this most popular part of the market, business was brisk. Tall walls of stacked new Nikes and Adidas and Reeboks and whatever else gleamed under showroom lights and hanging neon. In a matter of hours, the pirated sneaker merchants regenerated their markets and got back to work. And that seemed like a metaphor, and a synthesis, too, of lots of things that day: a certain hopefulness about Mexico’s future, and, at the most personal level, a persistence, healing, change, to bravely hewing to your own truths.


Francisco Goldman

Francisco Goldman is the author of Say Her NameThe Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle and Monkey Boy, to be published in 2019. He has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Harper's Magazine.

Compelling essays and stunning photography transport readers to the metropolis with ancient roots, modern conveniences and a thriving off-the-books economy. The guide features: Francisco Goldman on the trail of a kidnapping that leads him to the neighborhood of Tepito, Daniel ...

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