When a Corpse Is a Message

Álvaro Enrigue

  • Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers by Anabel Hernández, translated by Iain Bruce
    Verso, 362 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 78168 073 5
  • ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano
    Feltrinelli, 444 pp, £23.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 88 07 03053 6
  • Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
    Penguin, 248 pp, £17.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 59420 439 5

On 11 December 2006, Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, appeared on television dressed as a military commander and announced that he was ‘declaring war’ on organised crime. It was an unforgettable and grotesque gesture, which won him an invaluable spike in popularity. The news was unexpected: it was the first time his National Action Party (PAN) had used the militaristic liturgy of Mexico’s previous post-revolution governments. And the scene took place little more than a week after Calderón, a Catholic lawyer before becoming a member of Congress, was elected with a promise to be ‘the employment president’ in a country that was ideologically divided but at peace.

The declaration of war was an empty threat. It came too early for the president to have established his government’s security policies, or who would implement them. Calderón was giving himself more freedom to act than he had earned electorally – he had beaten the left-wing candidate by 0.58 per cent, and his party hadn’t won a majority in either chamber – at the cost of transforming a group of criminals into enemy combatants, a status they had never aspired to. Above all, Calderón’s gesture had turned vast areas of the country into rebellious territories over which the government no longer had any influence.

The president’s declaration forced the narco-traffickers to professionalise their operation. The army had far greater firepower than the police; the narcos’ self-defence strategies would have to be more sophisticated. Money wasn’t the problem: the production, export and import of drugs generates more than enough to arm a criminal gang, and it would be no trouble at all to pay higher salaries than the Mexican army could offer. Soon the narcos could command the services of men trained in intelligence-gathering and armed intervention by the military academies of the United States.

Such improvements, which the cartels originally made to protect themselves from the military, soon proved useful in the competition for areas of influence between different criminal associations. Taking control of a territory held by a few gun-wielding cokeheads is one thing; facing tough deserters capable of organising a surgically precise homicide in a well-protected neighbourhood, or intercepting enemy communications, is quite another. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that a military challenge to the narcos would lead to the militarisation of the narcos.

Money bought the cartels an army and better weapons, but it couldn’t buy the means to disseminate propaganda. A newspaper can censor itself to prevent reporters being assassinated, or it can be bribed not to publish particular pieces of information, but it can’t print publicity for groups that operate in the shadows and feel that this or that neighbourhood ought to belong to them.

Narco-traffickers began to use dead bodies to send their messages. The methods of killing – never less than appalling – indicated that certain activities were not acceptable in certain spaces ruled by a criminal gang. If a person talked too much, or if a journalist wrote something that shouldn’t have been written, they would capture and torture him in a way that left visible marks, finally cutting through his lower neck without decapitating him completely. They would then pull his tongue out through the wound. The method has a name: ‘the Colombian necktie’. The body isn’t merely tossed away on some piece of wasteland: it is a message, not just a corpse. It is displayed somewhere visible: hanging off a bridge over a busy highway, or tied to a lamp-post. In Mexico dead bodies show up at rush hour, almost always around 7.45 a.m., when parents are taking their children to school.

When Calderón assumed the presidency, Mexico was a country with a growing middle class. The venerable but fragile agricultural economy had shifted towards the production of high-tech goods. The economic improvement continued, which Calderón ought to get credit for: Mexico was one of the first countries to come out of recession after the 2008 crisis. But Mexico also used to be a country in which violence was on the decline. According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography, 8867 murders took place in 2007 – modest for a country of 120 million. The number of violent deaths in 2008 was 14,006; by 2011, it had risen to 27,213. To date between sixty and a hundred thousand people have been killed in incidents relating to the drugs trade, according to a conservative estimate. Reporters without Borders say that since 2000 eighty journalists have been murdered, and 18 remain unaccounted for.

A war like the one waged by Calderón’s government has the disadvantage, for those who write about it, of being broken up into countless fragments. Unlike armies or insurgent groups, the largest cartels operate without clear chains of command and objectives: distinct units fight at flashpoints all over the country. Sometimes two or three cartels will fight over a city, but more often they’ll be fighting over a neighbourhood, a square, a corner. In a country the size of Mexico, the accumulation of small conflicts is unmanageable both for the government and for journalists trying to keep up. A narco’s success is measured in banknotes, not in territory, and local bosses have absolute discretion when they go into battle. Faced with police harassment, narco-trafficking gangs tend to divide into ever smaller units.

The prototypical example is the feared Los Zetas cartel. They started out as an elite commando unit in the service of the Golfo cartel. When the head of the Golfo was arrested, Los Zetas became independent, and competed with their old enemies as well as with their former allies. Over the last two years, three successive leaders of Los Zetas have been removed: one was assassinated in a restaurant, the second was killed in a firefight with the marines and the third was arrested. Nowadays Los Zetas doesn’t have a single leader but dozens of cells operating without knowing whose orders they are following. In practice, they have become tiny cartels themselves.

Journalistic coverage of a drug war is unavoidably unstable. Sources must be protected, and the contents of documents can’t be revealed because they might jeopardise police investigations, or those involved in them. The people at the top of the narco-trafficking organisations are useful for a much shorter period than other professionals in the violence business – legal or illegal – and change quickly. What’s more, the gangs don’t respect the neutrality of journalists, so the media, whose first consideration has to be the safety of its reporters, are forced to exercise a huge amount of self-censorship. Although books that seek to sum up the state of the drug war in Mexico must continue to be published, the chances are that by the time a book makes it into the shops, several of its characters will be dead and many others arrested.

In the early days of the drug war, there was an urgent need to get hold of information about the enemy. Until then the narcos had appeared only on the back pages of newspapers, where crimes are reported. Anabel Hernández’s Narcoland was published in Mexico in 2010, just as the country was learning more. Where once the narcos had been seen as something between underground businessmen and mythical bandits, now they were enemies of the state and civil society. Hernández offers a way – perhaps the best we have had to date – to interpret the messages conveyed by the dead bodies.

Narcoland has been reprinted 18 times in three years, and remains on the Mexican bestseller lists. Complex histories are described in small, self-contained episodes, and as the war against narco-trafficking has changed, Hernández has been able to update the text, removing outdated sections and adding new ones. The book’s success is down to its structure and to the fact that it does without maps, statistical information or sociological data. It moves at the pace of an action movie, and follows the rules of well-told fiction so closely that at times it can seem suspicious. Every one of the characters – from the most heroic to the most abject – has a dramatic arc that begins in a sympathetic past and leads towards a fateful ending, their motives revealed along the way. These turn out to be the desperate struggle to get out of poverty, class hatred, a sense of pride at possessing strategic intelligence, incorruptibility.

Narcoland is a book of investigative journalism that reads like a thriller. And it has the striking virtue of not losing its sense of humour whatever the horrors it describes. Hernández has recognised how much the stories of popular figures – which is what narcos are – has to do with the Hispanic picaresque tradition, and has exploited the connection brilliantly. She tells us that the sinister head of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada García, for some time counted Estancia Infantil del Niño Feliz, or the Happy Child Nursery, among his money-laundering activities, and that from 2005 to 2006 his estates were signed up to an experimental programme run by the UN to reduce their gas emissions. And that one of Los Zetas’s most brutal hitmen used to sign the bodies of people he had horribly murdered with little notes including his less than scary nickname, ‘El Calabaza’, or Pumpkin.

In one of the book’s more questionable sections, Hernández looks at the involvement of the US government in the construction of the Mexican cartels. The CIA, she says, facilitated commercial links between Colombian coca producers and Mexican drug transportation experts, in exchange for the drug lords’ financial support of anti-Sandinista paramilitary groups in the Iran-Contra period. The story of the CIA’s meddling in the growth of a monster that can no longer be controlled works as an explanation of the narco gangs’ sudden transformation from wealthy farmowners into the rock stars of the international criminal world, but Hernández’s evidence isn’t always clear. If you look through her book’s notes, it often turns out that an assertion is based on a cutting from one insignificant newspaper, or that there is no reference at all. There are whole stretches of the book where we have no choice but to take the word of an informant who was presumably only speaking to Hernández in order to tell his own version of the story. However entertaining it is, Narcoland should be treated with caution. Much of the information in it derives from sources to which no one but Hernández has had access and which she gives no sign of having confirmed before presenting them as definitive.

Conversation in the Cathedral, Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about political violence in Peru, begins with a question that must occur to every Latin American from time to time: when exactly was it that Mexico fucked itself up? A conflict which has left between sixty and a hundred thousand people dead is not untraumatic. It may be – as Calderón’s government insisted – that a high percentage of the dead had knowingly opted for the wild pleasures of the criminal life, but thousands and thousands of others were collateral damage. Besides, even the worst criminals have the right to a fair trial, and everyone killed in the drug war had wives, children, parents, brothers and sisters who have suffered irreparably. The fighters in this war didn’t die for a political cause but for granting themselves the freedom to do business. The question about what has happened in Mexico is critical because the drug war is not simply a huge police problem but a massive firestorm that has taken most of the country’s inhabitants by surprise and directly affects their day-to-day lives.

In his 2009 book El hombre sin cabeza (‘The Man without a Head’), the critic and journalist Sergio González Rodríguez locates the beginnings of the war in the extreme violence of March 1994, when the presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated at a political rally in Tijuana: ‘The image of Colosio, surrounded by his bodyguards, his face serene yet simultaneously pained, his skull blown open, the blood and fragments of bone around him on the stone and the dirt, the eager hands of the people who tried to help him, already lifeless, reflects, in its deathly circularity, the past, present and even the future of a whole country.’ Yet if anything had characterised the country just a few years earlier in the 1980s, it was its stability and tranquillity. Apart from at certain exceptional moments, the Mexico in which I grew up, and in which my parents and my grandparents grew up, was a country where the army carried out rescue work after a natural disaster and showed their weapons only during a parade. The police, however corrupt they may have been, were a part of a national project in which the idea of bloodshed had no place. We addressed them formally as usted, but we also called them poli – an affectionate, knowing nickname. Corruption was accepted as a fact of life in a society where most problems, apart from economic inequality, could be solved. Giving money to a policeman in order to avoid a fine, or to an official in order to smooth the passage of some procedure or other, was seen as another way to distribute wealth.

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In ZeroZeroZero, the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano sees Mexico’s drug wars as part of a global insurgency of capitalists reluctant to accept the rules of the nation-state. He argues that the moment when everything aligned for the world’s mafias was the death in Mexico of the undercover DEA agent Enrique Camarena in February 1985. Camarena’s murder, Saviano thinks, was the illegal capitalists’ first direct challenge to the imperial power of the United States. A lone agent who infiltrated the closed drugs organisation was horrifyingly sacrificed – Saviano’s description of Camarena’s final days is something you wish you had never read – and in the process a Christ-like figure was created, with a universal consensus around him. The drug trade could now be declared a national security problem, not just a police problem.

In Midnight in Mexico, the US journalist Alfredo Corchado argues that nothing has ever worked well in Mexico. He goes back to General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s presidency in the first half of the 19th century to explain why the country has failed: ‘A lifetime of humiliations, betrayals and defeats is embedded in the Mexican psyche.’ The system of patronage that connected the senior politicians and narco-traffickers worked smoothly up to the end of the 20th century, but with the arrival of democracy, the central government stopped being a father-figure, and ‘without a strong, central authority to hold them in check, the cartels started running wild.’ Mexico, it would appear, is an immature nation incapable of democracy, a country that behaves well only when ruled with a firm hand. Corchado’s view of the drugs war is so simplistic it could be broadcast on Fox News. The author’s faith in his blue passport is such that when the book recounts a death threat he received from one cartel, what really seems to annoy him is the fact that being a US citizen no longer makes him untouchable. His presumption, like that of González Rodríguez or Saviano, is that Mexico’s drug war was a matter of fate.

If we accept that there is something damaged in the Mexican psyche – as if it were possible for a common mind to exist in a country where 65 different languages are spoken – or that the murder of a politician or a gringo cop could cause something on the scale of the drug war, there is nothing to be done but to believe that Mexico will always return to its rough, mythical origins, in which the high priests of an ancient cult, gory and glamorous, head out onto the streets every so often to impose their religion of death, severing heads and hurling them down the temple steps.

Narcoland, by contrast, doesn’t offer any general theories. Its pragmatic approach to the problem of violence associated with the transportation of drugs in Mexico, despite the occasionally suspicious neatness of the storytelling, seems more trustworthy, if only because it is more economical with its explanations. For Hernández, the drug war in Mexico hasn’t arisen more or less magically from the death of some mythical father figure. The freedom with which the narco-traffickers kill and get themselves killed is a recent phenomenon, and it is clear who’s responsible: a handful of officials in the Fox and Calderón governments who made fortunes exploiting internal schisms in the large cartels. It was more profitable for them to sell security to a handful of local drug barons than to a single universal boss. The people responsible for Mexico’s current crisis of security are, according to Hernández, high-profile figures in the police, politicians, businessmen and bankers, mostly living in America, who profit by laundering money from the sale of Mexican drugs in the US.

Hernández’s story in Narcoland isn’t pretty: it shows the way the corruption of a few can ruin the lives of millions. It is also a narrative in which the decline in Mexico’s social situation is the sole responsibility of Mexicans, who have been unable to generate a political class that acts in accordance with the wishes of those who voted for them, or to be sufficiently active to control them once they come to power. But it is, surprisingly, a hopeful narrative too. If, as Hernández suggests, the violence in Mexico has to do not with the country’s damaged psyche, but rather with a small group of white-collar bandits, then it’s a problem that could perhaps have a solution.

This essay was translated by Daniel Hahn.