On Thursday I began rethinking Mexico.
We learned that day that Bobby Salcedo, an assistant principal at El Monte High School and El Monte City School Board member was shot to death with five other men in the town of Gomez Palacio.
Mexican authorities tell us the men were casualties of the ongoing drug war. A war that in Gomez Palacio during 2009 claimed countless lives including that of the town’s police chief.
If the U.S. State Department’s warning issued in August against travel to Mexico clinically pointed out brutal drug violence has plagued that country, Salcedo’s assassination brought it home in a way that none of us in the San Gabriel Valley will soon forget.
Salcedo, 33, was a rising star in a community that lacks credible role models. He worked his way through school, he mentored kids and volunteered to help the less fortunate in South El Monte’s sister city – Gomez Palacio.
It was there he met his wife, Betzy. It was there Salcedo was abducted, shot to death and dumped in a ditch.
The answers aren’t clear. Some say it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the answer, Salcedo is a casualty of a vendetta among rival gangs, local authorities and the federales, all fighting for control of something no one can control.
That is what Mexico has become. It is why so many Americans are afraid to travel there anymore. Forget about surfing at K19, having Ortega-style lobster at Puerto Nuevo, or sipping daiquiris at sunset at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
It wasn’t always that way.
I think back to spring break 1980.
Bill Morrow from Whittier and I concocted a simple plan. We would drive from UCSD to a small fishing village south of Ensenada and hang out for the week.
Of course we needed a car, so we enlisted Gene Helsel, who had a sky blue Ford Fiesta with a tape player. We popped in Pink Floyd’s “Animals” and hit the road.
A late winter storm cleared in time for us to make the journey. Things were smooth until we hit Ensenada. From there we played a game counting the road signs that said “devastacion.”
The mostly dirt road had been washed out in parts by untamed creeks. Mud was everywhere, but the skies were blue and wildflowers were just beginning to bloom.
At more than one point we stopped as a flock of chickens crossed the road. We hit San Quintin at nightfall and stayed in a motel that had a restaurant and bar.
Even though we were teenagers, we drank tequila and beer and watched a group of fishermen down flaming shots of 151.
A few days later we returned home after a stop at Hussongs on Lopez Mateos in Ensenada where we listened to mariachis, bought panchos and counterfeit Marlboros and ate bean cones from a street vendor.
We didn’t even get sick.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed many trips south, I’ve viewed the sunset from a friend’s trailer in the hills above Ensenada, and eaten borrego while drinking sweet port on a vineyard farther east.
I’ve been to the barrios of Mexicali, factories in Tijuana and colonias outside Rosarito.
That was when Mexico was safe. It isn’t anymore.
When it exactly changed no one can say for sure. But after Bobby’s death it will never be the same.