Travel Thursday: It’s Not Stalkerish, It’s Training

At the request of someone who shall remain nameless–yes, it’s tough going through life without a name, but hang in there, persevere, so on–here’s the story of surveillance training in Mexico City.

The Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, better known as UNAM, is located on the south side of the huge metropolis known as Mexico City. I knew this huge campus better than most of the 270,000 students–if you can believe that number–having been all over with friends instead of just one particular part of the campus, whatever their study area might be. Finding it extremely amusing that the lady I would be following–to hopefully catch her bastard criminal boyfriend–would be coming out of the Law building, I set up shop on a bench under a tree and waited.
As I killed time I made sure I was ready for a lengthy tail, with plenty of money in case I had to hail a taxi, plus copious amounts of small coins necessary for buses and collectives, and more than enough metro tickets. My atlas of the city was tucked into the side pocket of my camera bag, which I was carrying not only on the off-chance of taking some pictures of the target in question but also for camouflage; my jeans, light jacket, and baseball cap rounded out my touristy look.
I had received a picture of the lady I’d be tailing by fax, which didn’t help much, but I figured I’d be able to recognize her. The written description claimed she had streaks of blonde hair, even more likely painted in this country than in others, and I was sitting close enough to the front door to keep a watch on it, but of course no one had told her she had to use that exit.
If I’d had more time, I could have set this up properly, having a man at every door, pictures of her to show people, more than enough men to have a box around her, backups in case someone was spotted. Surveillance would be made harder by the fact that I didn’t know how experienced the target was. Would she know enough to spot a tail, or be completely oblivious? Depending on that answer, I could then formulate my approach to the situ–
No time left to wonder; there she was.
The photo hadn’t shown it, but she was very attractive, pretty enough to turn a man’s head briefly, though no movie star. Her hair had been blonde once, as a kid, but had changed somewhere along the way. Nice legs, better than average figure, didn’t dress rich enough to make me think her body had been surgically enhanced. Too bad she was hanging around the bed of a major-league bad guy. . .
But none of that mattered. Much to my delight, I found she was wearing a bright red sweater, one that I would be able to see from a distance; I’d have no problem keeping her in sight.
She led the way to the metro, dropping down the stairs into the bowels at the beginning of line 3. The ends of each line were always crowded, and it was going-home time for most, so it made for an incredibly tight space as we waited for the next train. The crowds, as with everything else so far, had its good and bad points: I was almost certain not to be spotted, of course, but if she made a sudden move, I would be hard-pressed to stay with her.
She got on through the last door of one car, forcing me to enter the first door of the next one. I did not find this satisfactory at all; if it hadn’t been so crowded, I would be able to see her through the windows of the always-closed connecting doors, but the crush made it impossible to see anything.
The metro left, northward-bound. I stayed near the entrance and looked up at the route above the center seats. I knew the stations by heart, but I wanted to see on which side of the cars the doors would open. The poster didn’t say; either someone had taken the info I needed down or all the doors opened on the same side all the way down the line. I knew which one of those alternatives I preferred, since it would be impossible to get from one side of the sardine-like train car to the other in a hurry.
At every stop, so far all of them on the same side, I held on to the bar while swinging my head just enough to see out the door. Many of the people getting on didn’t like it, and it was best in such cases to be inconspicuous all the time and not raise a scene, but it was the best compromise I could get away with.
Things only got worse, if that was possible, as we headed toward downtown. All the people who worked between there and the university and lived toward the north were trying to pack the sardine tin ride even tighter. It was getting harder for me to keep an eye on the exit at every station, and there were more than a few irritated people by now.
Finally, at the tenth station, Centro Medico, I saw the flash of red about ten feet in front of me. I quickly stepped out and moved away from the door, then waited for all the rest to get on and off. I wanted her to get a bit ahead of me, but I hadn’t realized this was a transit point to line 9. When I did, I started walking at one and a quarter speed, not enough to look suspicious, just another guy who was in a hurry. I made the most of my weaving talents, learned from years of trying to avoid being caught by linebackers and safeties and sadistic soccer defenders–well, that last one was redundant. I also took the stairs instead of waiting for the escalator to do its job. If I’d realized I’d actually used the dreaded stairs, I would have been surprised at myself, but this time speed and mobility were more important than my irrational hate–fear?–of the climbing apparatus.
Though it was full, it was not the worst I could have drawn, I thought wryly. If she had gotten off two stops later at Balderas, the transit point between lines 1 and 3, it would have been a complete seething mass of insect-like humanity, being one of the three busiest stops, kinda like Times Square on New Year’s Eve when someone was handing out thousand-dollar bills.
Sorta. . .
I followed the target, hoping no one else was wearing something so brightly red, as she led me to the line 9 landing that would head for Observatory. Good; we would be heading away from the center of town, so it wouldn’t be as full. The landing was still crowded, but not like the last two. I reasoned I could be as much as two cars away from her this time.
I watched her as she checked the time; apparently satisfied by what her watch told her, she leaned back against the wall and let the first train fill up. I suspected we had made good time from the University and she was in no hurry now. This told me she was probably going home from here, maybe on foot. Luckily a few other people decided to chance the next one, so I didn’t look like I was waiting for her.
Unfortunately, time turned out not to be the case.
Line 9, not the last to be built–somehow it was done before line 8–had far fewer stations than the earlier-built routes, and in only three stops we were at the end of the line, Tacubaya. Of course it was crowded, since everyone had to get off, but I managed to consistently be about 20 feet behind her as I surreptitiously checked my map book while keeping an eye on both her and the crowd. I especially had to watch out for vendors, who often set their wares up in the middle of the walkways during the lonely day and were now in the middle of everything.
As I finally got to the page, I found with a shock that it wouldn’t be needed. She was not heading for any of the exits or the connecting trolley lines; she was heading for the transfer point with line 1.
Line 1 had been built in the late sixties, the first, this time being logical. It went all the way from west to east while cutting through the center of town. The west terminus was also the west bus station, for those who took the one-hour commute from their homes in the nearby city of Toluca. But it was soon discovered that this line was carrying far more people than the other two lines at the time, and none of the planned routes would do much to ease that. The solution was to build another line that would start and end at the same place, but bypass the center so people going from one end to the other could avoid the heavy crowds in the center.
In this they were only partially successful, but it was still easy to tell the difference, I thought as I kept the tail, immensely suspicious; I couldn’t figure out why she’d hop from one line to the other. It was very possible that I’d been spotted; another thought was that she did this all the time in case someone was following her, but that didn’t jive very well with her time check. Still. . .
Line 1 was seething, far more than line 3. This time I managed to get into the same car and keep an eye on the back side of her red sweater. I noticed she was standing near the door, so I stayed close to my own exit.
She got off after only two stops, at Chapultepec. Hardly anyone got off at this station, but there were many people waiting to get on, most of them tourists who had been at the park all day and now were heading downtown.
Now I saw what she’d done and had to admire her logic. Instead of getting off at what was sure to be the busiest transit point in the world, she’d taken a more circuitous route, and had probably saved time and a few gropings in the bargain. She waited for everyone to get into the cars before making her way out of the station. I followed her up the stairs at a discreet distance, knowing that the first thing we would come to would be a fountain, followed by the fence delineating the huge park. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was almost seven. Time flew on the metro, though it didn’t feel like it in the crowds. I knew the park ordinarily closed at five but was kept open late on Fridays and Saturdays, probably till dusk.
She made straight for the entrance, but the guard, one of the short guys in epaulets, wouldn’t let her through. I got as close as I could and took out a light meter from my bag to point it toward the castle on the hilltop, listening intently. She asked the guard how she could get to Paseo de la Reforma if she couldn’t cross through the park, so he pointed the way to take the long route, which would eventually lead her to the Statue of Diana, I knew. She thanked him and went on her merry way.
Obviously dissatisfied with the remaining light at dusk to take the picture, I went up to the guard and asked him, in very broken Spanish, how to get to the Presidente hotel, which I well-knew was a little past the Anthropology Museum. I was offered the same route as the red sweater, so there was no suspicion when I began following her again; in fact, I had to hide a grin when the cop told me to simply follow the lady.
It was a pretty long walk, and darkness had just about set in, but the red sweater was visible a long way away. She seemed to be walking fast, faster than her natural pace, and for the first time I noticed that though she had just gotten out of classes, she carried no books. I made my stride longer, but it was clear she was outdistancing me.
I tried to hold my breath as we passed a bus depot, the ancient machines spewing even more poison into the air; hopefully no birds would crash on my head. A little farther on we came to an oxygen booth, where for a minimal price you could get one minute of the pure life-giving gas, but I had no time for that, even if the line had not been so long.
It seemed like I’d been following her for hours. Due to my exertions of the day, I was getting pretty tired, but I’d never had a problem with simple walking; one foot in front of the other and ignoring the pain signals from the feet was all it took. What was so hard about that? I couldn’t rest until I got back to the hotel anyway, so pain and fatigue didn’t matter, right? Right? Somebody answer me. . .
Finally we arrived at a place I recognized, a big old building that would lead onto Paseo de la Reforma. I wondered how I could cross the huge street without drawing attention from her.
When I got to the huge street, she was gone.
I did not panic; instead I looked around like a simple lost tourist. It was an unusually quiet moment on the street, which meant there was a red light down by the Anthropology Museum. There were no taxis, buses, collectives, or even cars pulling away from my position. So where the hell was she?
Suddenly I saw the flash of red across the street, coming out of an underground tunnel. Glancing hastily to the right, I saw the entrance to the sub-surface passage, which hadn’t been here the last time I’d passed through. Quickly making my way down the stairs, I ran through the tunnel at full speed. Some wise guy told me the cars couldn’t get me down here, but I ignored it as I climbed slowly up the stairs, catching my breath and making sure she wouldn’t notice me.
I found myself right in front of the statue of Diana, and the lady in red was gone again. Too bad the bronze figure couldn’t tell me. Venus might have, but not Diana, though technically I was doing some hunting, and she was the huntress. . .
My mind was babbling, so I had to choke those thoughts down ruthlessly. Glancing right, I could see the long line of Paseo de la Reforma heading toward the Zona Rosa; no red. She could have gone into one of those buildings, but I doubted it. Then I looked past the statue at the freeway which passed underneath. She was not on the bridges bordering to either side. So left it was.
I had a swell time crossing the entrance to the freeway. To my disgust, a station wagon stopping in front of me, where a woman was driving and a man rolled down the window to ask me directions. Not wanting any delay and trying not to feel sorry for them, I gave them a quick “no hablo espanol” and walked past the wagon. I noticed the woman laughing as she started the car up, and I had time to see she was good-looking before going on; instincts popped up in the strangest places. . .
Before me was the part of Paseo de la Reforma that headed away from downtown; it would continue through the rest of the city and become the highway to Toluca, but right in front of me was a long, tree-lined walk that would lead to the Art and Anthro museums. Even though it was crowded, though, I saw no red among the walkers.
That left only the street that followed in the direction we’d been heading. There was a huge building occupying the space between the street and the freeway entrance, so I had to get to the side of it to see down the street. There, far in the distance, I saw the lady in red.
Trying not to grin, I picked up the pace, but let her remain quite a bit ahead of me. Once or twice I lost sight of her, but by the time I had reached the place she had disappeared, I’d caught sight of her again. It turned into another long and boring walk.
I’d been closing in on her, sensing she was reaching her destination, when she dropped from sight again. This time she was nowhere to be found, and I was stopped by a red light at the intersection. I did not allow my frustration to show, though I did shake my head in disgust for a small instant.
It was enough; the shake had moved my head to the left far enough to see a red sweater entering the building across the street. Fate played tricks on me all the time, and sometimes I managed to pay her back. . . or something like that.
Knowing it was too late to cross the street behind her, I waited for the green light in front of me and crossed that street, then waited for the next light to cross left. This cross street dead ended into the building, so once I made it across I climbed the stairs and went in.
Having no idea about the building as I went in through the double doors, I realized the first glance didn’t help. Didn’t seem like an office building, but there were a number of desks to the left side. The corridor that led from the doors continued forward for about twenty feet before being interrupted by a security gate. Interesting!
Completely ignorant, I was not about to try to talk my way in. Instead I looked around, as if searching for someone, which was true, then sighed and reclined against the wall by the door. Any person noticing me as I glanced at my watch would assume I was waiting for someone. . . which was true as well.
To pass the time I read the bulletin board behind me, instantly noticing every single ad had a sports theme: doubles partner needed, a new volleyball team being developed, so on. Nothing about skating, I thought wryly as I read every single one.
Turning back to the doors and heading outside, on the steps I had just mounted, I spotted a man sitting and reading a newspaper. Next to him was a small window that various people approached, passing off sports equipment to him; he opened the window and tossed the equipment inside haphazardly, showing the dedication of workers all over this country.
Feeling the weariness, I sat on the stone railing of the stairs, at the very bottom. Still a little elevated from ground level, I could now see, off to my right, a swimming pool beyond the fence. I had more than enough evidence, but wanting to make sure, I took out the atlas and quickly located where I found myself at the moment.
Chapultepec Sporting Facilities and Country Club.
Now what? Did I check in and inform the locals to get some surveillance to my location on the double? I was really tired, and I had no wish to do any more following. I also didn’t feel like waiting, since she might be in there quite a while.
I was still looking at the map book when she came out. Sitting facing away from the doors, I knew she wouldn’t recognize my back, but I also didn’t want her to see me and maybe recognize me later. I was a bit surprised to see her again so soon, but I noticed she now had a bag; a bit of logic told me she probably had a locker and had only come to pick something up.
I waited for her to get ahead again. She did not cross the street this time, but walked back in the direction we had come from. I was just about to get up and follow when I heard a male voice calling her name. It was dark enough for me to stare at the caller without suspicions being aroused.
The man was in the center divider of the street; not waiting for permission from the traffic light, he dashed across at the first opportunity to where the target was waiting patiently. When he jumped onto the sidewalk she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, calling him Tigre. I tried not to laugh at what was obviously a nickname he had given himself to try to impress chicks like her.
They talked for less than a minute, and then she walked away laughing. Tigre came towards me, climbing the stairs and going in, giving me a smile as he passed. I smiled back and gave a shake of my head as if to announce I was suitably jealous.
Making sure Tigre wasn’t watching me, I finally got up and followed the target again. She had a long head start by now, but this side of the street was much less crowded; I had no trouble keeping her in sight until we got to Paseo de la Reforma again. As soon as she made the turn toward the Anthro museum, she flagged down a passing collective mini-bus.
In a flash I was sitting at one of the many benches on the sidewalk and whipped out my telescopic lens. There was just enough light to make out the logo–Route 2–and I could even see her paying the driver and finding a seat before the bus managed to get back into the heavy traffic.
I looked around to flag down a taxi, but instead went back to the club and its public phone outside. Quickly calling in, I requested two surveillance teams: one to jump on the bus route and hopefully follow it in time to see her get off, and the other to take over for me at the club, for I had a very sneaking suspicion about Tigre. . .
{to be continued. . . maybe}

;o)

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