Under the Cartels

With this issue, n+1 begins the Magazines of the Americas project (MOTA), an effort to establish a network of intellectual magazines in North, South, and Central America. Our goals are to share information and manuscripts across Spanish, Portuguese, and English, and to publicize the conditions of 21st-century life throughout this hemisphere. The republics of Latin America and North America have always had a lot in common, but economic and political divergence for a long time obscured their similarities. Recent years have seen more convergence: the consolidation of democracy in Latin America and its hollowing out in the United States; redistributive programs from Bolivia and Brazil to Mexico coinciding with increased inequality in the US; the rising relative weight of the bigger South American economies along with the declining relative weight of the American one. The absence, from Tierra del Fuego to the Yukon, of the fighting between religions and across borders that afflicts so much of the rest of the world is another condition in common. The Americas, increasingly resembling one another, should learn to talk to one another too.

These inaugural articles concern Mexico and the narco-violence there. In the United States we have kept our eyes on Afghanistan and Iraq, a world away, and ignored the civilian massacres and the collapse of peaceful society on our southern border—funded in large part by our domestic desire to smoke weed and snort cocaine without taking on the responsibility of legalization.

“An Anonymous Murmur” first appeared in Etiqueta Negra (Peru), Juan Villoro’s “The Red Carpet” in El Malpensante (Colombia).

Rosa Maria Robles, New Red Carpet, 2007 (detail), White blanket stained with the artist’s blood, pewter chamber pot.

It has always been said that the Mexico-US border is dusty and dirty. Ugly. I know because I grew up in the northeast. A hundred kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico, from which the bloodiest drug cartel in the country got its name, el Cártel del Golfo. This land that dozes on the edges of the Rio Grande and goes to sleep with Texas when the lights go out. It is a harsh land. If the Spaniards didn’t stop in Tamaulipas for more than the necessary rituals, it wasn’t just because of its 100-degree heat in the shade, but also because of the ferocity of the native tribes. The most notorious ones were called comecrudos, “raw-eaters.” The colonizers who stayed behind proved just as tough. It would have to be there where, in November 2008, the government carried out the largest weapons confiscation in Mexican history: there were half a million cartridges, almost 300 long-barrel and 127 short-barrel weapons, more than 150 grenades, fourteen anti-armor rifles, a cache of gold-plated pistols, a rocket launcher, and several thousand dollars, among other tools of the trade of those who believe themselves immortal.

In the late ’90s, when I moved to the city of Monterrey, people made jokes about my origins: surely my father carried a gun, surely I was coarse and crude—I was from a border town. In turn I was certain that Monterrey, that industrial metropolis where I went to pursue my studies, was perfectly safe. Nothing would scare me away from there. In 2002, when things started to change, when there too the executions and the gunfights began, the complacent Monterreyans were content to distance themselves: “It’s still not like it is on the border. There they kill people every few minutes.” I remember my anger at hearing a judicial official declaring to the press, after a notorious shooting in a luxury shopping mall, that if they still had no information about those responsible it was because the crime was doubtless done by outsiders, people from other states. Where I come from, in other words. That stuff doesn’t happen around here, the citizens of Monterrey insisted, unwilling to wake up.

They didn’t understand. The narcos I grew up with killed only certain people. That’s why, in those years, we didn’t breathe the same air that people breathe now in Monterrey, the air that makes them not want to park far away from the entrance to the theater when they go to the movies, that makes well-heeled women afraid of “even going to the supermarket.” On the border, when I lived there, there were shootouts, even bombs. But it was the bad guy’s house that got blown up. The guy in the business. If you had nothing to do with that particular industry, your house was safe.

The exceptions proved the rule. There was always the cautionary tale about the doctor’s daughter who lived in the Colonia Ribereña, the neighborhood with the eponymous road that is now lined with dozens of altars to the Santa Muerte. That girl from a good family who died in a “car accident” twenty years ago, because her boyfriend was the son of a man who was into bad stuff. In a settling of scores they killed the son—who on that day was driving around with his girlfriend. That’s why you didn’t associate with them. You said hello in restaurants, you sat in the same pew in church, but that was it. It was easy to know who was who. So-and-so lived in front of your grandfather’s house, but your grandmother never asked his wife for a cup of sugar. Even trafficking was simpler then: a clutch of men controlled a business that was basically distribution, transportation.

In my elementary school there was a shy girl with plump cheeks. She liked to read and spoke very good English. I liked her. In her house she had a macaw and a monkey. It was a sort of squirrel monkey that walked across her shoulders as if it had been trained to do so. More than once I saw the monkey sitting in the SUV with the chauffeur and the nanny, all of them parked outside my house, waiting for us to finish doing our homework, or playing, or whatever 10-year-old girls do. She had a chauffeur and a nanny and a monkey because her dad did something mysterious that I wasn’t supposed to ask about. At that age I didn’t comprehend it, but it was clear from the glances and the tones of voice adults used when they talked about it. It was also clear that I would never visit my friend’s house to see if it was true that she had a macaw and a lot of books in English. But she and the chauffeur and the nanny and the monkey could come to my house whenever I wanted. Could we go out to get an ice cream for the heat? The answer was always no. My mom didn’t take us anywhere, and I never rode around in the car with the chauffeur. We saw each other at my house and at school and we all understood that that was how it should be.

Not long ago my younger cousins went to a birthday party. The parents of the birthday boy discreetly excluded a narco’s son who went to the same school. The day of the party the boy showed up calmly, smartly dressed and with a chauffeur. He brought a huge present. The hosts of the party received him. Everyone understood the message. I suspect that that afternoon the adults exchanged the same glances I had learned to recognize in Monterrey. I’m sure the silences that accompanied the glances were no longer charged with reproach but with fear.

A customer was leaving a store where they rent movies and sell candy when two suspicious men got out of a car, which they left running on the sidewalk. The men grabbed the customer, forced him into the car, and drove him away. A fellow student of mine who witnessed the incident told me, still shaken from the scene, “Then I got in my car because nobody did anything, and I went to City Hall, because I know there’s always a patrol car parked there.” He knocked on the bored police officers’ window and described everything he’d seen, down to the hair on the men’s faces, as any decent, concerned citizen would do. And then, he added indignantly, “They told me I’d better go home.” He didn’t understand. I said to him, the cops did their duty with regard to you, at least: they protected you. He complained that they hadn’t done anything. Because he still believes in the duties of the authorities. Because he doesn’t know that nothing is gained by reporting crimes, and that a lot can quite possibly be lost.


The lights go on in a nightclub while it’s still too early to go home. Armed men walk up to the tables and request (request; they don’t grab) everybody’s cell phones and digital cameras. Then, once no one can record what’s about to take place (except in their stunned memories), every table gets a fresh bottle of whatever it was drinking—whiskey, vodka, tequila. Courtesy of the man who just walked in, who has requested that the lights go down and the music start again. The capo wants to have fun, just like everybody else. Except now all the doors are locked and no one can leave the party until he’s tired and leaves and everyone gets their gadgets back. The bill has been taken care of.

There is no way to count the dead. We hush them up. We silence the bodies dissolved in acid. We silence the bullets to the head. We don’t know what to call it. We say se lo llevaron, they took him, because the truth—they killed him—is too terrible. And too common. And we resist the thought that death and torture live so comfortably among us. We don’t want to look at death. We busy ourselves with the living. Even if among the living are, as they say now in Tamaulipas, los malos. The other day someone said, los de la letra—those of the letter—and everyone understood. Nobody calls them by their name, los Zetas. Whereas those beyond their reach define them so clinically: “the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel.” Outsiders talk forthrightly about the ex–elite military men who were recruited into the drug trade in the ’90s, and point to them directly as those responsible for the violence in the campaigns to eliminate rival cartels. In the US and Europe they spell out “kidnapping” with all its letters when they talk about our cities (our dusty towns, in the New York Times and on the BBC!) and they don’t feel our shame. The same shame that certain women must feel at the doctor’s office, women who can’t bring themselves to say “penis” and “vagina” out loud. “150 Executed in Chihuahua This Year,” says the paper on January 29. That’s five dead per day. Five lifeless bodies a day, and only in Chihuaha. But we don’t think about it in those terms: the paper says, “executed,” and I can only think of the software on my computer, executing tasks.

The silence we kept before was for the sake of caution and comfort. It wasn’t fear. Like the fear we felt when we saw the first heads: detached from bodies, arranged on top of cars in residential neighborhoods. The corpses that carry messages carved with ice picks. Before, these things weren’t visible. Public acts of terror: a grenade that exploded in Michoacán in the middle of a crowd celebrating Independence Day in September 2008. The cynicism. The absence of trust in the authorities, in institutions. Knowing that nobody is in charge. A few days ago, in a prison in Torreón, the state next to Coahuila, a group of gunmen walked in to kill three people and release nine more, without anyone showing any resistance. Not even the prisoners are safe.

The terror of thinking about torture, physical pain—but we all keep going. We bury the fear. We ignore it. Up to our knees in fear. People put on their rubber boots and step in the blood. There is no novelty. We no longer cover our mouths in shock when we hear the latest. What happens after a group of gunmen arrives in the small town of Creel, in Chihuahua, and kills thirteen people, among them a 1-year-old infant? What follows the fear? Anger? The faceless dead. Bodies that go unclaimed, out of fear.

We go out only to find that young people, women and children with their faces covered, have blocked the biggest avenue in the city. Two hours stuck in traffic because the guys in the luxury SUVs paid them each 500 pesos to build barricades and protest the presence of the army.

The conclusion to draw is that no one can protect us. Why so much fear? Because there aren’t rules anymore. Or maybe there are only two: They run the show, and nobody is safe.

Panic of thinking that you’re next. Panic of knowing you’re unprotected, of feeling like a target. “The Narco Imposes His Rule,” says the headline of El Norte on February 13. Instinctively I look for the byline—who dared to say it? Staff. Every day there is more news that nobody signs, or that everybody signs, because it comforts us to think that they couldn’t possibly go after everybody.

My friend had to leave the country because they took away her husband. Now she seems to know everything. From her painful distance she keeps count of the incidents and the bullets and the bodies. She tells me that she read in the papers about the man who dissolved 300 corpses in acid, about the soldiers (how do they manage to behead seven soldiers? who does it?), about the kidnappings, which are more common by the day, then she notices that right next to the news item online there are headlines announcing the success of a concert. She is silent. Then she says, “There are concerts in the city. People go to concerts!” And she laughs incredulously. As if she were waiting for me to tell her that our lives, the lives of those who stay behind, have also stopped.

Before it was the narcos who led double lives. They have transferred their fear to us. They have shed their discretion, their precautions, and now they go around flashing their guns on corners and at red lights.

Now the others, the foreigners who see us on television, are afraid of us. We are the Colombians of the 21st century. A news article says that, along with Pakistan, we represent a threat to the security of the United States. Peru announced that it would keep close watch over the influx of Mexicans into its territory. It doesn’t matter that a lot of us have nothing to do with it.

Withholding my name might seem like an inexplicable, irrational decision. Such is the way of fear. The vertigo produced by the act of saying something about the people who live next door, of knowing who they are and what they do. One of these days, typing all the letters will be worth it. The day I turned in this piece, there had been a week’s worth of street closures in Monterrey orchestrated by criminals, and several crossing points along the border suffered the same fate. In the border city of Reynosa, ten people died in a shootout that lasted an hour and a half and included grenades exploding. The online newspapers starkly reported the incident, while on the same pages dozens of anonymous citizens—anonymous like me—reported, in real time, what they saw, thought, and felt. The real report was there, in their words. The rest was lost in fear.

—Translated from the Spanish by David Noriega

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