The late-September disappearance, and likely massacre, of forty-three students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero has stripped bare the symbiosis between Mexico’s political establishment and its criminal underworld. Based on what prosecutors have learned so far, a mayor and his wife, the local police force, and members of a drug gang called Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) were involved. Meanwhile, horrifyingly, repeated searches for the students have turned up scores of other bodies, in mass graves, in the area where they vanished.
Across Mexico, mounting public outrage over the case has galvanized anti-government street protests, which now appear to threaten the twenty-four-month-old administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. His government was slow to respond to the massacre, and then did so clumsily. A leading figure in the current protests, Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest, told the Independent: “This is a crucial moment in Mexico. The people want the change they’ve been denied for years. Now they’re saying ‘Enough!’ We don’t want this country anymore. It’s a horrible, corrupt country. We want to start a new Mexico.”
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. But a nation that was born out of a political revolution a century ago may yet retain enough muscle memory to unleash another. If not, it could be that sheer collective disgust is enough to bring about change. A young Mexican friend of mine e-mailed me this week and described herself as “terrified and angry about the missing forty-three students,” but also “fed up.” Like many of the Mexicans who are now demanding Peña Nieto’s ouster, she holds the state responsible for the students’ murders.
Anyone who has spent time in Mexico in recent years knows that the country’s police officers—and most of its politicians—are habitual figures of fear and loathing, often with good reason. In the early nineteen-eighties, none other than the Mexico City police chief, Arturo “el Negro” Durazo, was found to have amassed a fortune through kickbacks, racketeering, extortion, and drug trafficking: while in office, he had effectively became the capital’s crime boss. Since Durazo’s arrest and imprisonment, however, Mexico’s official corruption has only worsened. In 1997, it was discovered that the country’s top anti-narcotics official, a military general named José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was in league with one of Mexico’s most powerful narcotraficantes, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as el Señor de los Cielos—the Lord of the Skies. In 1999, Mario Villanueva, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo, on the Caribbean coast, vanished from his post and went on the run for two years after being accused of permitting the drug cartels to ship cocaine through his turf.
And so on. A pattern of official complicity with the country’s criminals carried on, in one way or another. Then, in 2007, in an abrupt break with tradition, Peña Nieto’s predecessor, President Felipe Calderón, declared a full-fledged war on drugs, and went after the country’s cartels, deploying the Army, rather than the more obviously corrupted police, to do so.
The result, eight years on, has been carnage, with a tally of around a hundred thousand dead, and at least twenty thousand missing. It has not been a clear-cut “war,” but a multifarious campaign in which the state, via Army troops, has gone after the cartels (some of them more than others) and the cartels have both struck against the state and turned on each other, killing a lot of civilians along the way. Throughout, the U.S. government has aided and abetted the effort, with money, intelligence, and advisors.
But Mexico’s drug war has not ended the country’s narco economy, nor has it curbed its widespread culture of criminality. If anything, Mexico’s narcotráfico and its attendant miseries seem to have metastasized.
Calderon ended his Presidency a repudiated figure, and immediately left the country for a fellowship at Harvard. Since taking office, Peña Nieto has pointed to an overall reduction in the drug war’s casualties, a noticeable downturn in violence in notorious “murder cities” such as Ciudad Juárez, and the surprise capture, earlier this year, of El Chapo Guzmán, the fugitive boss of the Sinaloa Cartel. But all the talk of improvement has been turned to trash by the case of the forty-three students. Referring to the case a few days ago, Uruguay’s outgoing President, José Mujica (whose blunt honesty while in office has made him Latin America’s most popular leader), said that Mexico has begun to resemble a “failed state.” Although Mujica has since tried to walk back his remark, I know few people in Mexico who would wholeheartedly disagree with his description.
On a visit to the northern Mexican city of Monterrey last year, Diego Enrique Osorno, a friend and renowned reporter of Mexico’s narco wars, asked if I would be interested in interviewing a member of the Zetas, Mexico’s most brutal criminal organization. The Zetas are notorious for their murders and, thanks to their violent YouTube videos, for their slasher-flick media savvy. Diego had already met the man in question. He was a “soldier” who was in a state of limbo because his superiors were either dead or in prison. It was an unusual opportunity. First, I had to be vetted by an intermediary. Our meeting took place at a breakfast table in the restaurant of a large hotel. Our go-between was a slim, well-dressed man in his mid-thirties. He looked like a young executive. Over huevos rancheros and nopal juice, the man, who had clearly Googled me, probed me with questions about my reporting work. The name Zeta (which means “Z” in English) was never mentioned, only the simple euphemism, “La Letra”—The Letter. An hour or so later, Diego received a phone call saying that my meeting had been approved.
At the appointed hour, the Zeta man—a big fellow in his late twenties, wearing a military jacket, showed up. Diego filmed the encounter while I conducted the interview. (Sections of it were later posted on YouTube.) He wore a black mask that covered everything but his eyes and had little breathing holes in it.
The Zeta man claimed that the gang’s victims were usually the members of enemy cartels, kidnapping victims whose ransoms weren’t paid, or interlopers trying to sell drugs on Zeta turf. But it came down to a matter of following orders. If his commander ordered him to kill, he did, and that was that. He said that it was the custom for soldiers to call their commander Papá, “because he gives us money and feeds us.” When he first joined, he’d received military training from ex-soldiers. He spoke about people called halcones, hawks, who were the Zeta’s lookouts whenever they carried out their operations or needed to lay low somewhere. Children were sometimes halcones, but policemen often performed this function.
Many of the Zeta’s victims, meanwhile, ended up in la cocina, the kitchen, a specially chosen place in the hills, away from the roads and the towns. “That’s where you take detained people and some gas containers. Have you seen those fifty-gallon drums that have three levels, with lateral stripes around them? You make holes in the drum from the second stripe downwards and then place it near a stream or a pit. Then put the person in head-first” (afterward, he clarified that the majority were already dead) “and start pouring in diesel. With twenty litres, you can be disappeared from this world.”
I asked if he had nightmares. He said:
Sometimes. I remember certain people. Sometimes innocent people get taken for one reason or another. There was a time in San Luis when we got three dudes. One was from Chapo Guzmán’s cartel … but the other two were nothing. They were in a disco and had a bag with cocaine on them that was different to the kind we sell. We surrounded them until our commander arrived and he asked them, “And you guys, what?” The innocent dudes said, “We don’t know anything.” But the commander said, “They have to be killed so there are no eyewitnesses and there is nothing left.” He opened fire. He shot them in the head right there in the disco. Right outside there were some policemen, but they were in our pockets, so they didn’t do anything.
At the time of our meeting, Enrique Peña Nieto had been only been in office for several months, but rumors already swirled that his emissaries had approached the cartels with an offer: “Don’t kidnap and kill so much, and in return, we’ll let you work.” The Zeta man said that he had heard similar things, but he was doubtful. There were simply too many competing factions, even within the various cartels, much less between them, for anything like a national pact to hold. I think everything’s going to stay the same,” he said. When it came to changing things, he said, “I don’t think the government has enough power.”