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Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico

In Mexico, people will pay up to $70,000 dollars for a license to hunt and kill a bighorn sheep. Killing a man is much cheaper—about $2,000, according to the rates charged by hitmen in Ciudad Juárez, the most dangerous city in the world.

And yet, on occasions, death comes free. On August 24, 2010, in Tamaulipas, seventy-two migrants were murdered before they could achieve the golden American dream. The workers, who had no passports, came from Brazil, Central America, and various parts of Mexico. They were intercepted by a group of hired killers, who tried to recruit them as drug-traffickers, offering them easy money and food, as well as that most important commodity in these lawless deserts: protection. After their difficult journey, the migrants were quite happy to undertake any of the illegal jobs on offer in the United States, but they were unwilling to get involved in organized crime. For a few minutes, they “negotiated" with the AK-47s of those trying to recruit them, but they would meet the same fate as certain mayors who have dared to reject similar offers from the drug-traffickers. In that no-man's land where snakes and impunity from the law are the rule, saying “No" is an affront. The migrant workers were duly gunned down.

This incident came to light because of the testimony of a survivor (whose name has been carelessly bandied about by the Mexican and international press, putting both his life and the lives of his family at risk).

Néstor García Canclini, author of Culturas híbridas [Hybrid Cultures], said to me a few days ago: “The worst aspect of the whole affair is that it's hardly the first time this kind of thing has happened. In the last six months, ten thousand illegal migrants have been kidnapped. After all, they're the perfect victims: defenseless people with no identity papers looking for illegal work. The kidnappers get paid $400, payable via Western Union." These are insignificant amounts of money compared with the sums involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and women, but they reveal the scale of social decay and the lack of protection that characterizes much of the area.

Amado Carrillo was known as “The Lord of the Heavens"—not because he was particularly religious, but because of the regularity with which his cocaine-laden light aircraft took off—and in the 1990s, he proposed paying off the country's foreign debt in exchange for the government allowing him to continue his activities unimpeded. Drug-traffickers with a social agenda are a thing of the past. They are now openly violent and their violence affects everyone.

Death has long been a dominant feature of Mexican culture, from the popular celebrations held in cemeteries on the Day of the Dead to the artist José Guadalupe Posada's engravings of skeletons and skulls. The Aztec underworld (Mictlán) is the remote anteroom of works by modern-day poets, for example Xavier Villaurrutia's Nostalgia de la muerte [Nostalgia for Death] and José Gorostiza's Muerte sin fin [Endless Death].

Today, death is not just the inspiration behind rituals, poetry and philosophy. At the corner of Avenida Patriotismo and Río Mixcoac, one of the busiest crossroads in Mexico City, there is a bridge where people often hang advertisements and protest banners. Last week, I saw a yellow sign advertising a newly fashionable profession: “thanatology," the study of corpses and the manner of their death having become an urgent need.

To paraphrase the protagonist of Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in The Cathedral, we might ask: “Just when did Mexico get so screwed up?" Violence has been on the increase for decades, but the speed of that increase began to escalate about four years ago. In December 2006, after a much-disputed election, Felipe Calderón announced “a war on drug-trafficking." He had been in power for only two weeks, hardly enough time to plan a battle of that magnitude.

Four years on, the death toll is frightening: between 23,000 and 32,000 dead, many of them civilians. True, there have been significant seizures and arrests (like the recent capture of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias La Barbie), but justice moves far more slowly than crime: each month, the police confiscate 200 guns, but in that same month another 2,000 arrive from the United States.

The crucial political aspect of the “war on drug-trafficking" is that it lacks consensus. Without the backing of a solid social alliance, the “war" isn't seen as State business. Nor is it seen as an initiative on the part of the Partido Acción Nacional, which has governed the country for ten years, but as a personal initiative on the part of President Calderón. The controversial elections of 2006 divided the country, and he, as winner, was merely trying to divert attention away from the controversy. However, the social cost of that diversion has been enormous.

Many say: “It'll end in three years' time anyway, when the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] come back into power," because they are convinced that we are embroiled not in a national struggle but in a presidential one. This belief is based more on resignation than on hope. The party that governed the country for seventy-one years is seen as the anti-hero we need to restore order. A piece of graffiti sums this up: “We've had enough of incompetence, bring back corruption!"

If all wars are measured by the advances and retreats at the battle front, the war in which Mexico is engaged in its bicentenary year comes down firmly on the debit side. As Diego Enrique Osorno, the author of El cártel de Sinaloa [The Sinaloa Cartel], quite rightly says, the main effect of the war has been to push up the price of arms and drugs, and there has been no fall in the consumption and trafficking of drugs. Any obstacles placed in the path of the intermediaries have worked in their favor.

Over the decades, drug-trafficking has created a subculture, a kind of parallel normality. Nowadays, it's possible to give birth to your child in a hospital owned by drug-traffickers or narcos, baptize him in a church owned by narcos, enroll him in a school owned by narcos, bring him up in a condominium owned by narcos, hold his wedding reception in a function room owned by narcos, get him a job in a business run by narcos and hold a wake for him in a funeral parlor owned by narcos.

This phenomenon began in Sinaloa, the birthplace of the main narco bosses (among them, Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, the second richest man in Mexico after Carlos Slim), but it has spread throughout the country, with the exception of those cities considered to be the safest (Mérida, Puebla, Torreón), where the members of organized crime gangs choose to live rather than “work."

In a country where it never snows, the narcos have commissioned such architectural fantasies as Tudor-style ranch-houses. You only have to see these mansions adorned with satellite dishes to know what their owners sell. In Mexico City, one particular shop, El Triunfo, offers shamelessly kitsch ornaments for sale. If someone buys three tin giraffes, each three metres tall, then you know at once what business they're engaged in. We know which seafood restaurants are frequented by members of the cartels and the flame-haired beauties who accompany them; indeed, the chain of restaurants called Los Arcos has been rechristened Los Narcos. Martín Amaral, a journalist from Culiacán, wrote an eloquent article about this: “A young hired assassin washes his car." Clothes, cars, and dollars all betray those living a life of crime.

Drug-trafficking has prospered in broad daylight, creating traditions and accounting for 10% of the money in circulation. Having grown accustomed to the presence of tourists (those “subtle invaders" as Jean-Paul Sartre called them), for years, we saw narcos as a form of extreme tourism. They were people who weren't like us, but who left a tip on our table, people who were somehow different, who wore ostrich-skin boots, gold chains and strange tattoos, and who led a questionable lifestyle, but one, fortunately, that had nothing to do with ours.

“The Compassionate Assassin" and other musical successes

Mexican tragedies happen twice: once in reality and again in song. Music has contributed to normalizing dishonorable behavior, transforming criminals into emulators of Robin Hood. Many recordings are dictated and sponsored by the criminal bosses themselves (they are said to have paid as much as $40,000 for a “narco-ballad"). Oddly enough, the depressing melodies, primitive lyrics and dreary accordion accompaniment have found a wide audience, who are apparently prepared to be persuaded that the sordid is chic.

The effect is similar to that of stories romanticizing prostitution. In her book Esclavos del poder [Slaves of Power], Lydia Cacho describes how in a Mexican brothel, the movie Pretty Woman (starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) is used as a form of brainwashing. After they have been kidnapped and stripped of any documentation, the women are shown the movie in which Gere appears as a Prince Charming offering love in the world of prostitution. Believing that there is an alternative, although not to their life of subordination, helps the women to accept their lot.

These “narco-ballads" have given a dubious artistic pedigree to those who kill for a living. It is no mere chance that several performers have met a similar fate to that of the characters they sing about. On the night of June 26, 2010, Sergio Vega, known as Shaka, was murdered on Route 15 in the north of the country. True to form, he was driving along, still in his pajamas, in a red Cadillac. He was apparently heading for a concert he was due to give the next day. He left behind him seventeen orphaned children. He had been receiving death threats for years, which is why he had adopted a Zulu nickname (Shaka means “he who knows no fear"). One of his successes was “The Compassionate Assassin," which alludes to the trafficking of drugs: “I was a smuggler by trade,/well, if you want to make money that's the only way/I've smuggled tons of grass across the border in my day." He goes on to say: “To avenge my brothers/I became a killer."

The number of musicians who have been killed suggests a very murky relationship between crime and narco-ballads. In August 2006, the singer and composer of the group Explosión Norteña (who used to sing about the exploits of the Atellano Félix cartel) was badly wounded. One of their records had been recorded at a concert held in a discotheque in Tijuana, and, in a pause between songs, the singers can be heard exchanging greetings and banter with some of the narco celebrities in the audience.

Celebrating a criminal gang is a highly dangerous thing to do. While singers may have no direct contact with dirty money, they can be seen as propagandists for an enemy army. In a struggle in which decapitations have the symbolic function of both humiliating and diminishing the power of rivals, silencing a musician means erasing the enemy's history.

In July 2010, in Zacatecas, I met up with Élmer Mendoza, a novelist who lives in Culiacán, a bastion of drug-trafficking. With regard to the attacks made on journalists, he said, with a degree of irony: “It's not the baddies you have to watch, it's the goodies." The author of Balas de plata [Silver Bullets] was referring to the fact that while the major criminals tend to commit their crimes on the known drug routes, for anyone not involved in that world the most dangerous place is actually the area where the money gets laundered, where crime tries to take on a more legitimate guise in the form of entertainment, in hotels, discotheques, brothels and bars. A newspaper article or a narco-ballad can cause more ructions there than in the deserts where the enemies are the Army or the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). The narco-turned-concert hall owner is more of a danger to civil society because he's prepared to defend his reputation with bullets.

No Northern Mexican group has had more impact than Los Tigres del Norte, who received a Latin Grammy nomination for their album El jefe de jefes [The boss of bosses]. For years, Los Tigres were notable for giving a voice to migrant workers and to Mexicans in exile. However, they made a real blunder when they decided to glorify El jefe de jefes, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the head of a gang of drug-traffickers who used to send messages accompanied by the body parts of mutilated victims. This song in which the capo is portrayed as a benevolent, protective tree has met with surprising success in Mexico, the United States, and Spain.

Other musicians have been less fortunate. In November 2006, the singer Valentín Elizalde—nicknamed El Gallo de Oro [The Golden Rooster]—was gunned down in Tamaulipas, where, after singing “A mis enemigos" [“To my enemies"], he found himself on the receiving end of sixty-seven AK-47 bullets. In January 2007, Javier Morales Gómez, a member of Los Implacables del Norte, was shot six times while he was talking on his cellphone in a square in Michoacán. In December 2007, Zayda Peña, La Dama del Sentimiento, the vocalist with Zayda y Los Culpables, was wounded in a hotel in Matamoros and finished off by her attackers in the operating room of the hospital she was taken to. In December 2007, Sergio Gómez, vocalist with the group K-Paz, was murdered in Michoacán, after being horribly tortured. In December 2009, Ramón Ayala, El Rey del Acordeón, was arrested in Cuernavaca, while he was performing at a party held by the Beltrán Leyva gang.

In a way, any music that treats murderous attacks and escapes from justice as valiant exploits is guilty of normalizing crime. That's why it's so important to strip the narco-ballad of its romantic aura.

Best of enemies

Thirty years ago, Carlos Monsiváis gave a lecture on the detective novel with the incisive title: “You, who have never been murdered." Nowadays, such a title would strike a much grimmer note: we, the living, are victims by omission.

We no longer live at a safe distance from violence. Every Mexican has a story to tell. On November 26, 2008, I attended an editorial lunch for journalists from Reforma, the newspaper I write for. Our editor, Alejandro Junco, told us that he was leaving the country. He had been threatened by a drug cartel and had decided to move to Texas. He has lived there ever since. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán wrote that the first thing a journalist should know is who owns the newspaper he's working for; the second thing he should know is where the owner lives. When your boss has to go into exile to safeguard his life, that makes you realize just how precarious your own life is.

About a year ago, I tried to make an appointment to see an acupuncturist who had not treated me for a while. When no one answered the phone, I went to the clinic itself, where they told me his story. He had been kidnapped in order to treat a wounded drug-trafficker. He did a really splendid job, and his kidnappers told him: “Our orders were to kill you, but just to show you how grateful we are, we won't lay a finger on you if you agree to leave the country." The acupuncturist now lives in Austin, Texas.

On May 22, 2010, I went to Monterrey for the first night of my play Muerte parcial [Partial Death]. After the performance, we decided to have supper at a restaurant in Calzada Madero. We found the place locked. We were just about to give up, when the doorman appeared and told us we could come in. The restaurant was completely deserted. A heavy door closed behind us. The windows were all blocked off. The staff explained that bursts of machine-gun fire had become commonplace there. The street was full of bars and table-dancing joints, and the drug-trafficking mafias marked with bullet holes the places where their competitors sold their drugs. We dined in utter seclusion.

I am writing this on August 31, 2010. Yesterday, a female relative received the following e-mail message from Tampico: “Don't go alone to the supermarket because they're kidnapping people." Going shopping in that town has become a high-risk undertaking.

Violence is invading our lives to the point where that parallel normality is beginning to be our normality. Meanwhile, President Calderón is celebrating the bicentenary in grand style. A few weeks ago he had the bones of heroes paraded down the streets in mobile sarcophagi. At a time when there are narco-graves everywhere, could there be anything more absurd than using a public display of skeletons as a means of arousing national pride?

Richard Sennett warns that in the current economic climate, uncertainty is rife, despite there being no actual “looming historical disaster." It's normal now to change jobs and give up the security of a routine in order to follow the capricious activities of markets where accidents are more common than long-term plans. The individual has no stability and no direct relationship with his bosses; he works in increasingly diffuse networks and groups. The result is a “corrosion of character," a loss of values and of any sense of belonging.

“Flexible capitalism," as Sennett calls it, is preparing for a still vaguer scenario: black economies, offshore investments for laundering money, and piracy. It provides for another scenario too: drug-trafficking. Globalization links businesses together and destroys individuality.

A cultural variant of this topic has yet to be studied in depth. Seven million young people in Mexico are neither in education nor employment. They are known as Ninis. Their only chance of finding employment is in organized crime, not just in economic terms but as a way of integrating into society. The narcos offer support and shared values. It would be hard to find a better way of combining the local and the global in the new “flexible capitalism."

Putting an end to the problem will require a multi-pronged approach: legalizing certain drugs; closing down the narcos' financial networks; identifying collusion with various branches of government; improving military intelligence; extraditing the capos; and, most importantly of all, persuading the United States—as the main consumer of drugs and main seller of arms—to accept responsibility for their role in all this.

However, the crucial factor is education. Creating alternatives for young people will take longer and prove more costly than patrolling the entire country, but it's the only real way we can hope to rebuild the social fabric.

About once every century, Mexico becomes embroiled in a war. In 1810, it was the War of Independence; in 1910, the Revolution. In 2010, we are witnessing a battle between a government adrift in uncharted waters and criminals intent on going unpunished. All we know about the postwar period is that neither party will have any role to play in it.

August 31, 2010