28. Horseshoe and burning cross: Nicolás Romero

Villa Nicolás Romero in the furthest reaches of Northwest Mexico City felt like its own little city among the hills. The municipality is built up of interlocking villages amidst creeks, pastures and trees. But the central village was one of the few places on the edge where I felt I was part of a small city, not a suburb and not a village engulfed by the city. The central plaza was being used as a parking lot and was full of cars. The streets crawled with traffic. There was even a hotel on the central plaza, a rare sight in the periphery.

What really clinched it was that Villa Nicolás Romero had a small red-light district down a steeply descending alley, just off the crowded city center. In it there were three or four relatively large bar-cafés dedicated to prostitution and loose living. In more conservative areas, places like these are found on the edge of the city or just beyond it. However, small Villa Nicolás Romero had its red-light district, just like Amsterdam.

Walking around the hotel on the central square in the morning I found these bars down a small alley descending steeply down the hill on which the city was built. They were closed, but I walked out of the village resolved to return to them that night. Then I left the Villa Nicolás Romero walking among scattered fields and buildings among the hills and valleys. The edge of the city dissolved into a fragmented archipelago of buildings. Upon reaching the crest of a hill and a ceremony outside a church with white and blue balloons strung along its courtyard, I decided to return.

After resting in the clean bare hotel room I descended three stories back into the center of Villa Nicolás Romero. I walked down the dark and neon-lit alley. In front of one of the bars I spoke to the bouncer, an athletic, large, broad-shouldered man in his forties with black hair and a cruel, strong face. His nickname was Pantera and he reminded me of El Chorri in Milpa Alta, who also looked immensely strong. He wasn’t from Nicolás Romero.

Several girls, short, robust, with dark complexions and wearing high heels, loitered around the entrance. Some had died their black hair. They were between eighteen and thirty years old, some maybe younger.

As the night darkened El Pantera was given a bag of sawdust. He measuredly poured it over the concrete sidewalk in front of the establishment forming a pattern. Then he took out a bottle of barbeque lighter a sprayed it over the sawdust. This he lit and a horseshoe with a burning cross in it sprang to light in the shadows of the alley. He said the ceremony brought good luck to nightclubs, so they would pass through the night without problems. It was called the ceremony of the horseshoe.

These places had sprung up over the course of the last couple of years. The area had rapidly urbanized. I had seen the same ceremony in Valle de Chalco on the other side of the city. He wouldn’t allow me to talk to the girls. I walked inside. It was dark, there were some wooden tables and a bar with a long-faced middle-aged barkeeper and a big mirror with bottles and religious images. High up among the bottles stood the image of Jesús Malverde, patron saint of narcos.

The girls came from villages outside of the area, such as Tultitlán and places lower down in the north of Mexico City. They were ashamed to be seen prostituting themselves in their own communities. They stood in the chilly evening gamely, far from home, arms folded over each other. It was still early and the place was empty. The black ashes of the horseshoe and cross lay scattered on the pavement.

I was reminded of the prostitutes I had seen posing on the highway from Los Reyes to Texoco, ravished and hardened by time and abuse. This work makes the epidemic of murders of girls in the State of Mexico completely understandable. Far from their communities, impoverished and at the mercy of gangs living by violence, they are among the most vulnerable groups. It was easy to see how they might be killed.

El Pantera was getting slightly impatient and eager to get on with the night’s business. It didn’t seem like the kind of place to ask too many questions. I had seen enough. It was time to leave.

I walked up the hill past the other bars that were slowly filling up, with touts outside of them beckoning me inside. Then I was out of the alley and up among the shops toward the central plaza.

With the cars on the square, the hotel and the red-light district Villa Nicolás Romero had the feel of a boomtown. It had grown so fast that there was no place anymore to put the cars. It had grown so fast that the social chemistry had changed. Shops and people didn´t seem to know exactly who they were anymore. Villa Nicolás Romero was no longer itself.

And there were many strangers in town. I returned to my room.