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Such improvements, which the cartels originally made to protect themselves from the military, soon proved useful in the competition for areas of influence between different criminal associations.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.

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