Fue el estado

Tony Wood

  • Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza, translated by Mark Fried
    MacLehose Press, 240 pp, £14.99, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 85705 258 9

Writing in 1973, the Mexican critic Carlos Monsiváis argued that, for a number of reasons, his country lacked a genuine crime fiction tradition of its own. For one thing, if Mexican crime writers were to aspire to realism, the accused would never be punished ‘unless he were poor’. In fact, ‘the identity of the criminal is the least of it’; the suspense would come from how he went about disrupting the investigation or buying off the authorities. Monsiváis believed the nature of crime itself was different in his part of the world: ‘What is exceptional, what is unwonted, is not for a Latin American to be a victim, but that he might cease to be one.’ There was, he implied, a deep gulf between his country and those of Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Doyle, Christie, Simenon and the rest: ‘We have no crime fiction here because there is no faith in justice.’

It is, however, perfectly possible to produce crime fiction without that faith. It may even help not to have it. What if all the reasons Monsiváis gave for the non-existence of crime fiction in Mexico turned out to be its enabling conditions? There have been successful Mexican crime writers both before and since Monsiváis’s essay – Rafael Bernal and Paco Ignacio Taibo II spring to mind – but the bestselling narco-thrillers of Elmer Mendoza seem designed to turn his arguments on end. Mendoza has transformed the corruption, chaos and constant bloodletting of Mexico’s disastrous War on Drugs into blackly comic fiction.

He is best known for a series set in his home town of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, heartland of Mexico’s most powerful cartel. Silver Bullets, the first instalment, came out in Spanish in 2008, followed by La prueba del ácido (The Acid Test) in 2010, Nombre de perro (A Dog’s Name) in 2012, and Besar al detective (Kissing the Detective) in 2015. They all feature Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, a sardonic, lovelorn policeman fond of drink and classic rock, who is haunted by a childhood trauma. He doesn’t seem to be motivated by any high-minded notions of justice: he arrives at the first crime scene in Silver Bullets thinking, ‘I hope it’s one of those impossible cases, they’re the ones we’re best at … we never solve them and nobody cares or asks questions at three in the morning.’ He doesn’t show much sympathy for the victims either: ‘They killed John Lennon, so why wouldn’t they kill this loser?’ he shrugs at one point.

Mendieta may have a dark sense of humour – he deflects a reporter’s questions by announcing that ‘the victim lost his life because his head got smashed in by a meteor from Saturn, who we are now interrogating’ – but he also has a kind of stubborn integrity. Some of his colleagues interpret this as stupidity: you’ll end up dead sooner or later, so why not use your position to get yourself a red Lamborghini, like the one Commander Pineda from Narcotics has? (‘Guess who gave it to me?’ he asks Mendieta, who replies: ‘Nobody, you bought it with your savings.’) Mendieta also displays a gleeful willingness to disregard orders from above. It soon becomes clear that ‘above’ means not only his immediate superiors at the police station – one of whom is constantly seeking culinary advice from Mendieta while trying to shut down his investigation – but powerful players from outside the formal chain of command.

The plot of Silver Bullets revolves around a series of killings carried out with the unusual ammunition that gives the book its title. The first victim is the son of an ambitious local politico, who seems less bothered by the murder than by the discovery of the bisexual life his son had led. The son turns out to have been a former lover of Samantha Valdés, the daughter of the local narco boss. More victims pile up, but Mendieta has a hard time working out a connection between them or identifying a suspect, despite the killer’s flashy signature. (The town’s professional hitmen don’t approve of the silver bullets. When Mendieta consults one of them he is told: ‘You know the rich are nuts; we get more and more requests for services where they want the target cut to pieces, drawn and quartered, castrated, what is that all about, our company is an ethical firm.’)

Mendieta’s investigation takes him through every layer of Culiacán society, from street toughs and petty crooks to the moneyed and powerful. He gets help not only from fellow cops like Zelda Toledo, whom he hired as his assistant after seeing her fearlessly give two narcos a parking ticket, but also from various denizens of Culiacán’s criminal underworld. Some are former cops turned narco bodyguards; others – such as a man who sells his urine to truck drivers so they can pass roadside drug tests – Mendieta knows from growing up in the working-class area known as the ‘Col Pop’, the Colonia Popular. But it’s his encounters with the Valdés family that have most bearing on the plot. The family is a constant presence, hovering in the background of conversations even when the names of its members aren’t mentioned. It becomes clear early on that they run the town, if not the whole country: we see the ageing kingpin Marcelo Valdés on the phone, suggesting that the caller ‘tell the honourable minister I will not invest in that … and if he continues harassing me I will take my money out of the country and put it in Costa Rica or wherever, we’ll see who loses more.’

In many respects Marcelo represents the old way of doing things: briefcases full of cash, handshakes, a calculated use of force. His daughter Samantha is less measured in her cruelty: she is sentimental about her dog but ruthless with everyone else. You get the impression that for her, killing is where business and pleasure meet. Marcelo disapproves of the younger generation’s casual attitude to violence, telling Samantha on one occasion that ‘to waste powder on a little nuisance is reckless and stupid, this will be the last time you take care of somebody without my consent.’ But the book is set in 2006, shortly before Felipe Calderón launched his ‘war on the narcos’, and the kind of tit-for-tat slaughter committed by Samantha’s goons will soon become standard practice.

Silver Bullets is full of colourful terminology that is specific to its time and place: cuerno de chivo, ‘goat’s horns’, means an AK-47; darle piso a alguien, literally ‘to give someone floor’, means to rub them out; encobijado, which Mark Fried renders rather dubiously as ‘gangsta-wrap’, refers to a dead body wrapped in a blanket (cobija) and left in a public place – one of the narcos’ grisly calling cards. It’s not just the Sinaloan narco-lexicon that makes Mendoza’s prose distinctive. He writes in a compact, allusive style in which a single comma often indicates a switch of perspective or speaker, and much is conveyed in idiosyncratic shorthand – ‘cavalry charge’, for example, tells us Mendieta has received a phone call. (‘As he entered his office, cavalry charge: What are you up to, lazybones? Working like an idiot, this year I’m going to win a gold star for sure.’)

Perhaps the most striking thing about Mendoza’s crime fiction is that as the series progresses, the killings Mendieta investigates account for an ever smaller fraction of the overall body count – a few murders amid a welter of other, anonymous deaths. A cadaver seen at the very beginning of Silver Bullets soon disappears from view (‘a man, 45 or 50 years old, the detective calculated, 5’9”, Versace shirt, barefoot, castrated and with a bullet in his heart … we don’t need his name to know his line of work’). More encobijados turn up in the other books, mentioned almost in passing, and they increase in number – from one or two at a time to entire groups of nameless victims, often with placards left beside them carrying (misspelled) threats or warnings.

The battle between the cartels is not so much Mendoza’s subject matter as the medium in which the events he describes take place. The novels’ very construction suggests that in this world some lives matter a lot more than others, and that some deaths are not worth investigating because it’s obvious who did it. As Monsiváis put it, ‘the identity of the criminal is the least of it.’ Murder is a part of everyday life, a kind of routine violence that makes it seem arbitrary or quixotic to pursue any given culprit. Even though Mendieta is an employee of the state, he is more like the lone private detective of hard-boiled crime fiction than the maverick cop of police procedurals. His attempts to track down the killer are less a matter of professional duty than a personal quest, which he obstinately sticks to even as different state institutions – directly or indirectly in the pay of the narcos – repeatedly try to block his path. Applying the law is no longer something the state does, and investigating crimes has become a private concern rather than a public good.

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In her 2004 book, Crimes against the State, Crimes against Persons, Persephone Braham noted a turn in Mexican crime fiction that took place in the 1970s, as many Mexican intellectuals came to see the single-party rule of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) as the ultimate source of a whole complex of injustices. In the fiction of writers such as Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the trails of individual crimes usually lead to officialdom, rather than to the underworld. One of the main catalysts for this change in focus was the Tlatelolco massacre of October 1968. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s government dispatched soldiers to quell protests in Mexico City, and killed scores of people. The exact number is still disputed, but estimates range as high as 325. Before the massacre, few had harboured illusions about the progressive character of the PRI regime, but no one had realised how fiercely it would suppress any challenges to its authority.

In the 1990s, the corporatist system the PRI had built during its decades in power was quickly dismantled by the neoliberal reforms of Carlos Salinas. A privatisation drive handed whole chunks of the state to a small clique of well-connected tycoons, while Nafta, the free-trade deal signed by Salinas and Bill Clinton in 1994, blew away much of the Mexican agricultural sector, providing a cheap workforce for the maquiladoras – factories set up in increasing numbers to benefit from new tax breaks. The state that many Mexican intellectuals had identified as the chief villain was becoming something less coherent, but more corrupt.

The PRI was voted out of power in 2000, but remained the dominant political force in many regions of the country and regained the presidency in 2012 under Enrique Peña Nieto. By this time, Mexico was several years into the War on Drugs, which has revealed the deep inroads that crime and corruption have made into the state. The influence of the narcos is no longer a matter of bribes and side deals: it has become integral to the way the state functions. The result is that the supposed forces of law and order have become a collection of private armies, which put the coercive power of the state at the disposal of this or that crime lord. The fragmentation of the state, and the disappearance of the very notion of legality, form the backdrop to Mendoza’s fiction. Unlike the post-1968 crime writers discussed by Braham, he depicts the state as just one among many sources of criminality.

In the wake of the kidnapping of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in September 2014, thousands of protesters across Mexico took up the slogan ‘Fue el estado’ – ‘It was the state.’ Since then, the PRI government has engaged in a series of denials and cover-ups to prevent anyone finding out exactly who gave the orders to make the students disappear. It has also obstructed the work of an independent panel appointed to look into the case by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The panel has now left Mexico, after releasing a damning 600-page report. In the meantime, the search for the missing 43 has turned up one mass grave after another, containing bodies that turn out not to belong to the students. There are, it seems, dozens of nameless dead buried all over Mexico. Official neglect is such that the families of the disappeared have set up their own organisations to do what the state will not. In Sinaloa, a group of women known as las rastreadoras – ‘the searchers’ – spends days combing the countryside with metal detectors and spades. In this case, private interests have taken over the state’s duties to the public rather than its coercive power or revenue streams. It has become incongruous to assume that the truth about any killing in Mexico will ever be known, or even that anyone will bother to investigate it. The idea that crimes can be solved has begun to seem like a wild delusion of the kind only possible in fiction.