Barrio” can be an intriguing Spanish word. Once upon a time it simply meant “district, section or quarter of a village”. Hence, in New York’s Manhattan borough, “El Barrio” plainly designates that predominantly Hispanic north eastern quarter that extends from East 96th to East 125th streets, bound by the East River, Harlem, and Central Park. Across the Atlantic Ocean, “barrio” is also a perfectly adequate word when describing, say, La Moraleja, one of the most exclusive and posh districts of Madrid.

However, in Maracaibo, Medellín, Caracas, Colon, Guayaquil or San Salvador, as in many other Latin American cities, “barrio” almost invariably is shorthand for “populous, dangerous and smelly sinkhole on the fringe of civil society.” There are, of course, other accepted though more complex meanings of the word. Consider Tepito, in downtown Mexico City.

Its nickname—”el barrio bravo”—alludes to the braveness of Tepito’s working-class inhabitants during the world’s first general strike ever held in the 20th century. It broke out right here, in 1910, long before the Russian Revolution. Today, the stock phrase “el barrio bravo” rather warns you about the belligerent powerhouse of Mexico’s copyright piracy industry this tough district became in less than a decade.

According to IIPA (International Intellectual Property Alliance), a private sector coalition that represents 1,300 U.S. companies involved in copyright-based industry and business, in 2004 alone, global trade losses to piracy amounted to an estimated US $12.5 billion. China’s piracy level of 95% is the worlds highest and represents US $2,500 million in losses for U.S. firms.

Compared with China’s, Mexico’s piracy levels averaged only 67.8%, but still caused US $862.2 million in losses, surpassing South Korea’s 40% levels (US $709.3 million in losses) and second only to Brazil’s performance (US $960.9 million in losses) among Latin American countries where massive copyright violations take place.

But the really unsettling fact is that 70% of Mexico’s copyright piracy is done in just one barrio, Tepito, not very far from the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), and the Palacio Nacional, the President’s palace. Tepito’s 72 blocks cover an area comparable to that of New York’s East Village and are filled with remarkable historical landmarks. Founded on the outskirts of 18th century’s Mexico City, Tepito grew to be the capital’s artisan and guild quarter par excellence. Many street names in Tepito bear witness to those bygone colonial times, as in “Calle de los panaderos” (Baker’s street) or “Calle de los plomeros” (Plumber’s street).

For an online follow-up by Oscar Lewis on the Sánchez family, see A Special Supplement: A Death in the Sánchez Family in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 4, Sept. 11, 1969.

Right on the corner of Peluqueros and Avenida del Trabajo (that is at Barber’s Street on Labor Avenue) still stands la “Casa Blanca” (the White House) where American writer Oscar Lewis set his early 1960’s bestseller The Children of Sánchez, the book on urban Latin American anthropology that coined the expression “culture of poverty”. Oscar Lewis’s “Casa Blanca” was a typical Tepito’s “casa de vecindad”, a once stately 19th century’s ramshackle house deserted by its original owners and partitioned by its new landlords into a number of small flats so as to convert it into a multiple family hovel or boarding house.

At the turn of the 20th century, many of these “vecindades”, as they are called, became micro-communities populated by “gente pobre pero honrada” (“poor but decent people”) who had just arrived from the countryside in pursuit of a better life in what was soon to become the foremost Latin American megalopolis.

Something of its colonial artisan past was nevertheless kept alive well into the 20th century by its famous repair shops, or “talleres”, where any broken mechanical object or electric appliance thrown away by its rich owners could be mended and put to work again. Its many repaired goods shops bore the hallmark of Tepito’s reputation for ingenuity and hard work.

See Rent Control by Walter Block in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics for a discussion of the hidden consequences when governments freeze rents.

Once a hotbed of boxers and catch-as-catch-can fighters (actually one of Mexico City’s largest and more famous boxing arenas is still within its limits), Tepito’s gyms are today only derelict hangouts for the dwindling boxing business people. “Vecindad” is the Spanish word for “vicinity” and it has is a convivial overtone that Tepitans relished for more than two centuries. Not any longer. By 1945, Tepito was already one of the worst places to live in Mexico City. A city government decree froze rents in the district (a decree that is still in force), so “vecindades” boomed as clusters of 10, 20, 30 and even 50 rooms of 13 to 25 square meters each. Buildings centered around a dusty yard, usually without running water or sanitation facilities.

Yet it was precisely in the ’40s, during the Mexican film industry’s golden era, that the lives of young country people who flocked to Tepito’s “vecindades” were romanticized in naïve musicals that once and again resorted to pastoral love stories involving beautiful señoritas and their suitors singing duels. Today, drive-by shooting is Tepito’s preferred method of conflict resolution among drug dealers and thieves. And rival suitors, too.

Control of the district has long been tacitly ceded to ruthless drug gangs by the local police. Undertrained and poorly paid police officers have chosen to join with the powerful criminal mafias rather than fight against them. In the heart of Mexico’s capital, Tepito is now something of a “protectorate” of the infamous Tijuana drug cartel, the unflagging archrival of the companies represented by IIPA.

The whole barrio is now a thriving illicit marketplace as well as a thick human shield for the more than 500 underground digital labs, let alone the numerous warehouses where drugs and stolen goods are stashed. A maze of stands crowd Tepito’s streets. They sell anything imaginable: stolen stereos; pirated DVDs, music CDs, business and entertainment software; counterfeit brandname clothes and shoes; and even endangered bird species. Tourists can also haggle over the price of illegally imported or stolen genuine Levi’s and Rolexes. The price of weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles and Uzi submachines guns are listed in illustrated catalogues.

In 2003, a shady Tepito’s character offered me a cloned local Bancomer credit card for only 500 pesos. The 500 pesos were supposed to cover the few hours it took the local bank to detect and block the card. Detecting and blocking a cloned American Express card took longer: three days. “That’s why American Express cloned cards are worth 2,500 pesos each”, he said.

Clashes with special police forces are recalled as “battles” fought and won by the “protectorate”. All the few remaining law-abiding Tepitans can do is try to stay out the way. One of the most memorable clashes took place in November 16th, 2000, when more than 1,200 agents of a special police unit ventured into Tepito for an early-morning raid and seized more than 5,000 appliances and electronic goods that were believed to be stolen.

For the full article, see In Mexico, a Man With a Badge Isn’t the Good Guy by Ginger Thompson, in the New York Times On the Web, International Section, November 24, 2000.

According to Ginger Thompson, a long time Mexico City resident and New York Times correspondent, “a furious mob of hundreds emerged from their homes and shops, throwing bottles, rocks and gasoline bombs. As the police tried to flee, mobs blocked the streets with buses so the confiscated merchandise could not be hauled away. For the next nine hours, mobs of young men vandalized any cars and businesses in their paths. It was a scene reminiscent of the Los Angeles riots, with drivers bashed in the face and pulled kicking from their cars and gangs of boy hurling rocks into storefronts.” Only 20 arrests were made and nine of the detainees turned out to be local corrupt police officers.

In August 2003, 1,200 members of an elite taskforce was “deployed”, this time supported by helicopters and armoured cars, but absolutely to no avail: the raging barrio kept the cops at bay and only three arrests were made.

On any given day, children equipped with walkie-talkies and cell phones patrol the limits of the barrio reporting (to whom?) any suspicious movement made by the cops routinely stationed nearby in booths that amount to “checkpoints”.

Tepito’s labs and warehouses reportedly employ thousands of people but despite the impressive profits of the barrio’s illicit trafficking, Tepitans count themselves among the poorest people in Mexico. An average Tepito household earns much less than two minimum wages. Mexico’s official urban minimum wage today is barely above US $4.00.

Some say Tepito’s demise began right after the 1985 earthquake that left 150,000 homeless families in the center of the capital city. Many others assert that Tepito was the first “victim” of the NAFTA agreement signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada in 1994. They argue that once trade barriers fell, the licensed “informal merchants” who used to sell smuggled goods had no choice but to turn into drug dealers. Drug trafficking brought about the gangs, the shoot-outs, the killings and, ultimately, the enforcement of a whole barrio into playing for the Tijuana cartel the same role the FARC guerrillas play for Colombia’s cocaine cartels.

How the once picturesque and homely Tepito became a rogue community, the inexpugnable haven for a gigantic illicit industry is surely a distressing 21th century’s Latin American story. It certainly shows how inescapable are the forces of globalization, for good or evil, especially wherever city governments are accomplices in illicit activities and shrink away from enforcing the rule of law.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.