Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico
by Juan Villoro
Words Without Borders
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.
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