Preface. Collapse can be local rather than national. There are 5 states within Mexico the State Department warns not to travel to: Colima,Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas because violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, are widespread. There are 11 more states the state department says you should reconsider travel due to violent crime and gang activity being widespread: Chihuaua, Coahulla, Durango, Estado de Mexico, Jalisco, Morelos, Nayrit, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi, Sonora, Zacatecas.
There are patterns to what happens in a collapsing city or state or nation that are common to all places and all times. If you’re curious how things will go down in the U.S. at some point during the Great Simplification, this article will give you an idea of what to expect. Though given the extremely high level of gun ownership in the U.S., it could be worse…
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
William Finnegan. July 2, 2012. The Kingpins. The fight for Guadalajara. The New Yorker.
At the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Enrique Peña Nieto, who is forty-five, boyishly handsome, and generally expected to be the next President of Mexico, was asked to name three books that had influenced him. He mentioned the Bible, or, at least, “some parts” (unspecified), and “The Eagle’s Throne,” a Carlos Fuentes novel (though he named the historian Enrique Krauze as the author). And, for a few excruciating minutes, that was all he could come up with. The crowd laughed wickedly. Peña Nieto’s wife, a former soap-opera star, squirmed in the front row. His teen-age daughter didn’t help matters when, in a tweet, she scorned “all of the idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy.”
That debacle was in December. It did nothing to slow Peña Nieto’s well-financed march toward the election, which will take place on July 1st, but it did provide a welcome distraction for Guadalajarans, who are justly proud of their annual book fair. It is the second largest in Latin America, drawing more than half a million visitors, nearly two thousand publishers, and hundreds of authors, including, over the years, Nadine Gordimer, William Styron, and Toni Morrison. Guadalajarans sometimes offer it up as Exhibit A for the case that the city is a civilized place where life goes on unmarked by the violence that disfigures large parts of Mexico.
By late 2011, that argument was hard to make. Two days before the fair opened, twenty-six corpses were dumped under the Millennium Arches, a downtown landmark. Near the bodies, which bore signs of torture, was a message—what is known as a narcomanta—signed by the Zetas, the most feared organized-crime group in Mexico. The message taunted the Sinaloa cartel, the country’s biggest crime group, and its leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo (Shorty). Sinaloa has controlled Guadalajara, which is the capital of the western state of Jalisco, for decades. “We’re in Jalisco and we are not leaving,” the Zetas announced. “This is proof that we are deep inside the kitchen.” Most narcomantas(which appear virtually every day somewhere in Mexico) are disinformation, their assertions dubious, their true authorship unknowable. But the Zetas have been pushing westward from their strongholds on the Gulf Coast, and they had already taken the neighboring state of Zacatecas, so there was no reason to doubt that they coveted Jalisco, a rich prize, or that this was indeed their atrocity and their message to Guadalajara.
In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something—a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a “discovery” of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events. This may help to explain how a city widely understood to be under the control of a leading international crime group—the U.S. Treasury Department recently labelled Guzmán, who is fifty-five, “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker”—can regard itself as a jacaranda-shaded refuge of high culture and legitimate commercial vitality. Both descriptions are true, and both realities are under siege. When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantallas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts. Peña Nieto is depicted, in cartoons, as a carnival mask behind which laughs Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a former President, who is still regarded as enormously powerful. I can’t count the number of times I have asked someone about a news story and been told, “Pantalla.”
This is a problem for journalism. You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not so much what happened as what people think or imagine or say happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalists. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.
The six-year Presidency of Felipe Calderón is coming to an end, and this election can fairly be seen as a referendum on his military-led offensive against drug traffickers, which has cost some fifty thousand lives and left the country psychologically battered. Calderón’s National Action Party (pan) is far behind in the polls. Its Presidential candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, campaigns under the slogan “Josefina diferente,” hoping to distance herself from Calderón, but she served in his Cabinet, and her proposals for restoring security are not notably different from current policies. Peña Nieto’s security platform is nothing special, either. He might eventually return the Army to its barracks and, like virtually every recent President, revamp the federal police. His slogan is “Tú me conoces”—“You know me”—which many people find amusing, since they don’t know him at all. He was the governor of Mexico State, a populous but small horseshoe around Mexico City, and his time as a national politician has been short and heavily stage-managed, with limited press access (and no more literacy tests). Mexicans do know his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which ruled the country from 1929 until 2000. Throwing out the corrupt, authoritarian pri, in 2000, was a great moment for democracy in Latin America. Now it seems that Mexican voters are poised to bring the Party back.
The PAN is often described as center-right, the PRI as center-left, and the country’s third party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (P.R.D.), as left-wing. But these labels carry little weight in Mexico today. “The parties have no ideology,” a magazine editor in Mexico City told me. “That aspect is meaningless. Power here is about money.” The P.R.D. candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a popular former mayor of Mexico City, who nearly won the Presidency in 2006, has moved toward the center this year, dropping his confrontational rhetoric. Indeed, in 2010 the P.R.D. and the purportedly rightist pan combined forces successfully, backing the same candidates for governor in three state elections. The pan and the pri are both avidly pro-business. But it was the pri that presided over the privatization of more than a thousand state companies during the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Carlos Salinas, during his sexenio, privatized hundreds of companies, as well as Mexico’s banking system, turning a lucky circle of his friends into billionaires. This creation of a new economic élite, with effective monopolies in fields such as transportation, mining, and telecommunications, resembles the creation, around the same time, of the new crony-capitalist oligarchy in Russia. And in Mexico nearly all its beneficiaries owe their fortunes to the pri, not the pan.
Calderón began his military assault on the cartels immediately after he took office, in December, 2006. He had narrowly won that year’s election. López Obrador, in a rancorous aftermath, had refused to concede, and many people believed that Calderón started his “war” in order to change the subject—to try to consolidate his legitimacy in office. A career pan functionary (his father co-founded the Party), Calderón is not a particularly colorful or forceful character, and his sudden assumption of the role of wartime leader was also seen by critics as overcompensation. Once engaged, he found himself regularly accused of going easy on the Sinaloa cartel. A zero-sum analysis of an anti-crime strategy is, understandably, the default view in Mexico: any government assault on one cartel must be at the behest of its rivals. And Sinaloa did seem underrepresented among the casualties and captured narcos as those numbers spiralled up. Reasons advanced for this alleged softness included Chapo Guzmán’s web of informers inside the government and a secret Calderón strategy to weaken Sinaloa’s rivals in order to produce a single, credible interlocutor for organized crime with whom the government could strike deals.
In yet more overcompensation, Calderón has seemed to be pounding extra hard on Sinaloa in recent times. His Hail Mary pass to keep his party in power has been a highly publicized effort to capture or kill Guzmán. In February, federal police missed getting him, they claimed, by a matter of minutes at a rented beachfront mansion in Cabo San Lucas. Afterward, in Mexico City, Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, predicted that Guzmán would be caught, citing the successful manhunt for Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden didn’t have the Pentagon on his payroll; Guzmán’s bribe network inside Mexico’s security forces is formidable.
Calderón has pursued a “kingpin strategy,” like the “deck of cards” that the United States used in post-Saddam Iraq. In 2009, Mexican authorities listed the thirty-seven drug capos they most wanted. They have so far caught or killed twenty-two, and some cartels seem to have withered after losing their leaders. But organized crime controls more resources today, and sows more terror, than ever. The most common fallout from the kingpin strategy has been the fragmentation of narco-trafficking into smaller, warring, ultraviolent factions. This cops-and-robbers version of the drug war cannot, in any case, be taken at face value. The idea of a unified state that is furiously pursuing bad guys is pure pantalla. The low-grade civil war in Mexico takes place on the ground, among factions with shifting loyalties, in cities and villages with tangled histories. The “government” has innumerable faces—it has more than two thousand police agencies, for a start—and its corruption controls are too weak to counter the power of narco billions. Every local commander, every official, and every community must work out an accommodation with organized crime.
Metropolitan Guadalajara, population four and a half million, sprawls across a sunny, mile-high plateau. It’s been the administrative center of western Mexico since the sixteenth century—the older parts of town are filled with imposing churches, plazas, and public buildings—and it’s still a financial, industrial, and educational hub. Electronics and software are booming fields—people call it the Silicon Valley of Mexico. The University of Guadalajara has more than two hundred thousand students. The city has good restaurants and music, great old neighborhoods, shiny new malls, and a flourishing methamphetamine trade.
The Mexican meth trade got a big boost in the nineteen-nineties, when American law enforcement started to crack down on U.S. meth labs and production moved south. For the Mexican cartels, meth has many advantages. With cocaine, they are middlemen, dependent on producers in South America and obliged to move the product, first, across Central America. Marijuana and heroin require cropland, rainfall, harvesting, and, in the case of heroin, processing. Meth, like other synthetic drugs, is produced indoors. It has, by some estimates, the highest profit margin of all the major illegal drugs. Whether smoked, snorted, injected, or swallowed as a pill, it is extremely addictive. Worldwide consumption has been rising for decades. According to a recent United Nations report, amphetamines have passed cocaine and opiates to become the second most used illegal type of drug, after marijuana. In 2010, a hundred and sixty-six meth labs were busted in Iran; the Czech Republic shuts down some four hundred labs a year. Mexico, with the U.S. market next door, is believed to have become the world’s largest meth producer. The cartels, particularly Sinaloa, cook meth on an industrial scale that would not be possible in the U.S.
In a 2008 report (later WikiLeaked), titled “Chemical City,” the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara listed the factors that made Jalisco a major center of crystal-meth production: “geography, availability of materials, adequate infrastructure, and brain power.” The Sinaloa cartel, which got its start growing and smuggling marijuana and heroin, and then became extremely rich transshipping cocaine from Colombia to the United States, branched into the meth business sometime in the nineteen-nineties.
Its Guadalajara chieftain, Ignacio (Nacho) Coronel Villarreal, became known as the King of Crystal. He lived in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood but ran his operations without flamboyance. The profits were apparently fabulous. Then, in July, 2010, Coronel was killed in an Army raid on his home. Speculation was rife. Armchair warriors wondered if El Chapo had set up his old friend Nacho, out of concern that his Jalisco kingdom was becoming too independently powerful. In any event, everyone said that taking Coronel alive was out of the question. The “gentleman narco,” as I heard him called in Guadalajara, knew who in the Army was on whose payroll. That was why the Army sent a hundred soldiers to attack the house where he had lived, more or less openly, for many years.
“That was when things changed in Jalisco,” a bookstore clerk on Avenida Chapultepec told me. “That was the end of the peace.” The Zetas, who reportedly know nothing about cooking meth but are old hands at the hostile takeover of going concerns, started making more aggressive alliances with disaffected local gangsters.
“Heating up the plaza” is the term of art for what’s happening in Guadalajara, mainly in the poor barrios and in the badlands on the outskirts, the places absorbing the city’s wild recent growth. Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, a big, shapeless municipio (the rough equivalent of a county) on the city’s southern edge, has seen its population quadruple in a decade, to almost half a million. The pri’s candidate for governor recently described the area as “a dumping ground for corpses.” Bad guys dropped their victims in local ditches. The Army conducted raids on local meth labs. In February, the Army announced that it had seized, in a “historic” bust, in Tlajomulco, fifteen tons of methamphetamine. The street value of that much meth was, by the Army’s figuring, some four billion dollars. If true, that would indeed make it the largest meth bust in history. But was it true?
Víctor Hugo Ornelas is never without his camera. It’s a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, which he carries on a shoulder strap and swings silently into focus on garbage piles, flooded roads, bad potholes. He’s a tireless blogger (he is also a stringer for Milenio, a national daily), and these shots go up with notas (short articles) about derelictions, hazards, and other small outrages around Tlajomulco. Most will make it into La Verdad (The Truth), a weekly paper for which he covers politics, writes a column, and does investigations. He photographs corpses, too, and writes those notas. Unlike many papers, La Verdad doesn’t publish blood and gore, but Hugo’s laptop contains a stomach-turning archive of headless torsos, hacked-off limbs, heads on poles with narcomantas attached.
“The bodies are messages,” he told me. “If it’s missing a finger, it means you pointed to somebody. Missing legs means you changed groups. Missing the tongue means you said something you shouldn’t have. A hand cut off means it was a thief.”
We were driving around western Tlajomulco, a sunbaked miscellany of ranches, factories, subdivisions, and rough hills. I parked in a patch of shade. Hugo wanted to check out a scruffy warehouse that had caught his eye. This was on the main highway running south from Guadalajara. An old couple appeared. They lived next to the warehouse, and told us that stinking water ran out of the building. They didn’t know the name of the company that used it, but they thought it produced condiments. “They burn their trash, and we breathe the nasty smoke,” the woman said. It was hard to hear her over the roar of trucks. Hugo leaned in, took notes. He wore a dress shirt, jeans, and boots. He had beaded leather bracelets on both wrists. He is slender, thirty, with a severe face—high cheekbones, wide-set eyes. We watched him hobble off to snap pictures of the warehouse. He has used a cane since February, when he suffered a severe fracture of his left leg playing league soccer. “They pasted me,” he said.
Many people would like to paste Hugo. He was once studying a strange-looking house, figuring that it was a meth lab, when a pickup truck suddenly wheeled out of the driveway and blocked his path. Four armed men jumped out. They threw him and a female companion on the ground. With a boot on his neck and a gun at his head, Hugo played the fool. He babbled about how he admired the federal agents known as afis (the Federal Investigation Agency was a squad created to fight corruption and organized crime), pretending that he thought the narcos were afis. The ruse seemed to confuse the gunmen. Hugo allowed himself a faint smile when he told me this story. The narcos did not spot his camera, which he had quickly hidden in the car. That, he thought, probably saved their lives.
“But I fear the government more,” he said. He meant officials, police, and soldiers—those he usually offended with his investigations. Yet, he said, “You have to confront them, or they will just come more and more. I wrote a nota about corruption in the municipal police. They were taking wrecked cars and selling off the good parts. I named names, gave a lot of details. One of the cops came to my office, armed, in uniform. I told him that City Hall was down the street, if he wanted to make a complaint. I told him he shouldn’t come threatening me, and I picked up my camera. He turned and ran. I got a good picture of him running.”
Most confrontations don’t end so merrily. Anyway, if someone wants to do you real harm, he can just hire a sicario—an assassin. “It’s only a thousand pesos,” Hugo told me—less than eighty dollars. “And that’s not just in Tlajomulco. It’s everywhere.” The day before his leg was broken in the soccer game, two men accosted him. They were waiting outside his house, in the rain. “They were very aggressive. One guy asked me, ‘How low do your balls hang?’ That’s a rude question. I was sarcastic. I asked them if that was supposed to scare me. I still don’t know who sent them.”
Was there a connection to his soccer injury?
Hugo looked at his cane. “They weren’t going for the ball,” he said. He was blindsided, and never knew who hit him. The game was stopped. Nobody from the other team spoke to him. His teammates, perhaps doing him a favor, said they did not see who had pasted him. He kept writing notas from his hospital bed. I had noticed, on his Twitter page, a photograph of him out cold, awaiting surgery. It was probably best to stay in the public eye—to try to seem cheerful, unintimidated. Hugo heard that a young man who worked at City Hall said that they should have broken both his legs.
Hugo likes to go undercover. He recently posed as a building inspector, to get a look at the paperwork for a new banquet hall. The permits were bogus, as he suspected. Developers normally get their way in Tlajomulco. They have thrown up a large number of spectacularly shabby subdivisions, not bothering with even basic services. Some of these places have now been without water for years. Five thousand houses in the new subdivisions are already abandoned. The owner of the illegal banquet hall went ballistic over Hugo’s article. He cornered him in a parking lot, letting him know that he had crossed the wrong guy. Unfortunately, that could be true.
Could the police be of any help?
“The corruption is so deep,” Hugo said. “No.”
“The soldiers here don’t speak. They don’t investigate. They don’t know who anyone is. They wear masks. They just follow orders and attack. Then they go back to their bases.
“Some cops I trust,” Hugo went on. “I even help them with things. They call me to help them find a certain place. They don’t know all the fraccionamientos”—the dirt-poor new tracts. We were passing through one, called Santa Fe. The tiny row houses, the gray cinder-block walls, seemed to stretch for miles. Gang graffiti and newly painted pri propaganda competed for wall space. We crossed a culvert. “They have dumped bodies there,” Hugo said. He directed me to a modest police substation, where there was an officer who might speak to me.
“Call me José,” the officer said. It was clearly not his name.
José said that there were two hundred and forty thousand residents in his sector, and a total of ninety cops. The worst problems were gang violence and robbery. The Army blew through occasionally but did not communicate with police. There was little point in arresting people, because there were so few prosecutions. A local capo, known as El Puerco (the Hog), who worked for a cartel called La Resistencia, which had thrown in its lot with the Zetas, had been arrested, José said, for drug dealing, robbery, and multiple homicides. Three days later, José said, he was released. The Sinaloa cartel kept a lower profile. Its local affiliate was called the Jalisco Cartel New Generation. Meth addiction was one of the ways the cartels recruited. Kids got into drugs and gangs and, if they survived, were allowed to join the cartel.
José’s men kept strolling into the room where we talked, checking me out. They wore bulletproof vests and carried assault rifles. I knew that José would not have agreed to talk to me if I had not arrived with Hugo. “This is not the U.S.,” he said. “But things have to change, or we’ll go the way of Afghanistan. The next President has an obligation to change things.”
Local security had deteriorated since the arrival of the Zetas: “Now you don’t know who is connected with whom, or where the threats are coming from.”
Two years before, José had been ambushed. “I was on patrol,” he said. He pulled his shirt up to reveal huge, frightening scars. “They never caught the shooter.”
Hugo later said, “He’s a good guy. I trust him. But he’s been scared since he got shot.”
There are reportedly three capture/kill squads working full time for Felipe Calderón’s government on Chapo Guzmán. The Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. security agencies are said to feed the Mexican military intelligence information on Guzmán’s movements, and are frustrated by the Mexicans’ failure to kill or capture him. After the near-miss in February, an American official told ABC News, “Every time he gets away, they tell us, ‘He got out the back door.’ ” The Americans had started joking that “there is no word for ‘surround’ in Spanish.” Press reports put Guzmán in Argentina, Guatemala, England, Honduras, or, most often, simply back home in the state of Sinaloa, in the rugged Sierra Madre range where he grew up.
Last October, President Calderón suggested, bizarrely, that Guzmán was living in the United States. He seemed to be referring to the news that Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel, had recently travelled to California, where, in August, she gave birth to twins in a hospital in Los Angeles County. But Coronel had returned to Mexico. U.S. law enforcement had tracked her back as far as the border.
The fact that Guzmán’s freedom has been embarrassing the Mexican President for years reflects a fundamental power shift between the Mexican state under the pan and Mexican organized crime. Before 2000, under the pri, crime groups prospered, but the national government ultimately called the shots. There were well-understood lines that the cartels could not cross. One of those was crossed in 1993, when the Archbishop of Guadalajara was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport. This was unacceptable. The circumstances of the murder were murky, but someone had to pay, and Chapo Guzmán was arrested sixteen days later—in Guatemala, despite, according to Malcolm Beith’s book “The Last Narco,” having paid a local military commander more than a million dollars for protection. Guzmán did not deny having been at the airport when the archbishop was killed, but he claimed that he was the intended victim: the assassins, rival narcos, had fired into the wrong car. This became the government’s theory of the case—there are many others—and the homicide charge was eventually dropped. He was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to twenty years.
In 2001, just after Vicente Fox became the pan’s first President, and just before Guzmán was expected to be extradited to the United States, he escaped from a maximum-security prison. He is said to have rolled out in the bottom of a laundry cart, his exit smoothed by bribes. Other versions have him coming and going freely for years, and finally leaving for good dressed as a guard. Under the pan, Guzmán has reportedly become a billionaire, making the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people in each of the past two years.
o one believes that the government is calling the shots today in Mexico. It isn’t even clear that capturing or killing Guzmán would bring the Calderón administration a popularity windfall, let alone help the pan make up the ground it needs in order to win the now imminent Presidential election. In Guadalajara, there was a large-scale Army raid, with helicopters, near the city center in March. The military tried to seal off the target neighborhood. The narcos responded by hijacking twenty-five trucks and municipal buses, setting them on fire, and blocking the city’s main roads. The Army, ever-secretive and rightly mistrustful of other government agencies, had not informed the governor, the mayor, the state police, the municipal police, or the federal police of its plans, so Guadalajarans huddled in their homes and workplaces, phoning and e-mailing one another, waiting in vain for advisories or information from the government as the sky filled with black smoke and the city rang with sirens. A young man I met spent the afternoon of the narcobloqueowatching TV news with a local family. One of their great fears that day, he said, was that the Army might be killing or capturing Chapo Guzmán. These were middle-class Guadalajarans, painfully aware of what organized crime is doing to Mexico—not fans of El Chapo by any stretch—but they feared that, if Guzmán were no longer running the Sinaloa cartel, all hell would break loose in Guadalajara. This is a widespread view, based on hard national experience of the fallout from Calderón’s kingpin strategy.
The Army captured a lesser capo that day, one Erick Valencia Salazar, a.k.a. El 85, whom authorities described as the leader of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (C.J.N.G.). A more important leader, according to security experts, and the real target of the raid—a gangster known as El Mencho—had eluded troops. The C.J.N.G. plastered the city with narcomantas apologizing to the public for the narcobloqueo. It had been an emotional outburst, the mantas said, in reaction to the loss of El 85. The narcos were sorry about the day’s events (which included the death of a bus driver who was inadvertently burned alive), and would now return to their main mission, which was keeping Guadalajara safe from the Zetas. Some amateur scholars of the drug trade speculated that Chapo Guzmán might have tried to set up El Mencho, whose ambitions were said to be trumping his loyalty to Sinaloa. The experts I interviewed all said that the narcobloqueo had actually been a tactical maneuver, meant to distract the Army and law enforcement, so that narcos more important than Valencia could leave the city undetected. Inevitably, Chapo Guzmán was rumored to have been among them.
How can Guadalajarans continue to see their town as a haven? The most tenacious local myth is that powerful narcos want it peaceful because their families live there. This idea may once have had validity. A crackdown in the late seventies on traffickers in Sinaloa, fuelled largely by U.S. demands, drove many narcos from that state, and some of the top dogs did settle in Guadalajara. The money laundering was excellent, and they bought hotels, restaurants, night clubs. They married into some of the best old families, sent their children to good schools. Their wealth drove a local mini-boom.
Chapo Guzmán, too, lived in Guadalajara, rising within an organization disrupted by U.S.-driven arrests to form the Sinaloa cartel. Although he had only a third-grade education, his aptitude for international smuggling was high. He cultivated cocaine sources in South America, secured routes through Central America and western Mexico, and built elaborate tunnels under the U.S. border. He could be ruthless. The story was that he built his tunnels with slave labor and, in the interests of secrecy, killed the workers when they were finished. He gave no quarter in battles over plazas that he considered valuable. At the same time, he gained a reputation as a reasonable business partner, and built alliances across the globe. This was particularly important in the meth trade, where production relies on chemicals manufactured primarily in Asia. In Mexico, it is estimated that Guzmán employs, directly or indirectly, a hundred and fifty thousand people. His influence, even his popularity, runs especially deep in Sinaloa. Local joke: How can you tell when times are tough in Sinaloa? El Chapo had to lay off ten judges.
The prison that he escaped from, known as Puente Grande, is on the outskirts of Guadalajara. His elusiveness, at least some of which must be put down to luck, only burnishes his legend. He is the subject of many narcocorridos, the popular ballads that celebrate outlaw exploits. Emma Coronel is his fourth wife. She caught his eye while Guzmán was hiding out in her village, in Durango. He helped see that she won a local beauty contest, where she was named Miss Coffee and Guava. Their wedding, on her eighteenth birthday, in 2007, was, from all reports, a great blowout. The Army showed up a day late. Emma Coronel is the niece of Nacho Coronel. Frequent reports that Guzmán travels with a uniformed, heavily armed security detail of up to three hundred men were belied by the government’s version of the bungled raid in Cabo San Lucas in February. Guzmán appeared to be staying in the rented mansion with a retinue of four, one of them a local prostitute, whom the police interrogated extensively.
Few seem to believe that Guzmán’s capture or demise would put a noticeable dent in the Mexican drug trade. A succession plan is undoubtedly in place. Some analysts think that Guzmán is not even the chief executive in the Sinaloa cartel. “Chapo is a brand,” a Guadalajara academic told me. “He does not make major decisions. His fate will be decided for him, just as his ‘escape’ from Puente Grande was the result of a deal.” Intellectuals who discount Guzmán’s agency in the multi-decade telenovela of his life see him as a mere manager of narco-trafficking, a distraction from Mexico’s problems of corruption, poverty, impunity, and bad government. For both Calderón and the country, chasing him is avoiding the hard work of building a more transparent, modern democracy.
But the power of organized crime in Mexico now holds hostage large areas of the country, including major cities, such as Monterrey, and terrorizes the rest with performances of stupefying violence. Calderón’s deployment of the Army, first justified by the military’s relatively clean reputation, has only besmirched that reputation, as soldiers commit a rising number of crimes against civilians, and fail to resist financial temptation. Four senior commanders, including three generals, one of them Calderón’s former No. 2 at the defense ministry, were arrested in May on suspicion of working for organized crime. (No formal charges have been filed.) More than fifty-six thousand troops have deserted under Calderón.
Some Guadalajarans find cold comfort by looking north, to Monterrey, where security has been in free fall for the past two years. It is Mexico’s third-largest city, and its wealthiest. But the police have lost control of the streets. Kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and murder are commonplace. The number of killings there tripled between 2009 and 2010, then nearly doubled again in 2011. Army checkpoints now lace the city. Guadalajara has experienced nothing close to Monterrey’s nightmare. What happened there? The Zetas and the Gulf cartel started a war. The local police reportedly went to work en masse for the cartels. Now the Zetas are pillaging the city.
The Zetas are unlike other Mexican crime groups. Their founders were deserters from the Mexican military’s élite special forces, recruited in the late nineteen-nineties as bodyguards and enforcers for the leader of the then formidable Gulf cartel. The cartel paid many times what the military did. The Zetas’ numbers grew. Trained as paratroopers and intelligence operatives, they introduced a paramilitary element to narco-trafficking, outgunning police units. They ambushed the Army. They seized plazas and drug routes from other cartels, with an efficiency and a brutality not seen before. Beheadings became their signature, along with castrations with genitals stuffed in mouths and corpses with a “Z” carved into the flesh. Their ranks swelled with infusions from a notorious Guatemalan counter-insurgency unit, the Kaibiles.
Traditional crime groups like Sinaloa were family-based, often deeply tied to a region. The Zetas were military. Their mission was to kill and destroy. When they outgrew their role as enforcers, they turned on their employers. They beat the Gulf cartel down to insignificance. Their only real rival now is Sinaloa. The Zetas, who are estimated to have more than ten thousand fighters, control virtually the entire east coast of Mexico, and have laid claim to several of the busiest cargo crossing points on the U.S. border, including Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo. It is believed that they are pushing west because they want to open a corridor to a major Pacific port, such as Manzanillo, just south of Guadalajara.
The Zetas approach a town, a city, or a state as a shakedown opportunity. They fight for the right to terrorize a community, and bleed it dry. They also threaten the central government. One of their mantas, hung from a bridge in Monterrey in February, said, “The government must make a pact with us because if not we will have to overthrow it and take power by force.” A recent government study found that the Zetas are now active in seventeen of Mexico’s thirty-two states. (The same study found that Sinaloa is active in sixteen.) They have even moved into the state of Sinaloa, where they are reportedly fighting ferociously, village by village, for control of Chapo Guzmán’s home turf.
The Zetas traffic drugs, but their specialties are kidnapping, extortion, murder, robbery, human smuggling, and product piracy. Their punishments for failure to pay protection money are extravagant and meant to be cautionary. Last August, they firebombed a casino in Monterrey whose owner had not paid, killing at least fifty-two customers. They kidnap migrant workers, mainly from Central America, and demand ransom from their impoverished families. Some of their massacres make no obvious sense. In 2010, seventy-two migrants were found dead at a ranch near the U.S. border. In 2011, a mass grave with the remains of a hundred and ninety-three people, presumably migrants, was discovered in the desert in Tamaulipas. Migrants are now crossing further west, in Sonora, hoping to avoid the Zetas. Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, says that the Zetas have begun tapping its pipelines, stealing millions of barrels of crude oil a year.
The Zetas’ esprit is remarkable. When Zetas are captured, other Zetas break them out of prison. There have been dozens of attacks, riots, escapes. In December, 2010, a hundred and fifty-one Zetas broke out of jail in Nuevo Laredo. This February, twenty-nine escaped from a prison in Monterrey, but not before stabbing and bludgeoning to death forty-four incarcerated members of the Gulf cartel. Given the group’s reputation for steely invincibility, it is not surprising that gangbangers across Mexico want to be Zetas. Simply dropping the name does wonders, reportedly, for the success rate of extortion schemes. But fake Zetas risk retribution from real Zetas. And the Zetas’ torture methods, including decapitation, are always available for review on the Internet.
Rival cartels have often been just as bad. La Familia Michoacana nearly matched the Zetas beheading for beheading during a struggle for supremacy in the west-coast state of Michoacán, a struggle that La Familia won. (Afterward, La Familia splintered.) And, when the Zetas began to threaten Jalisco, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation formed a squad called the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers)—said to be led by El 85, and subsidized by Chapo Guzmán—which carried the fight into the Zetas’ heartland. The Mata Zetas released a strikingly composed, politically tinged video announcing their plans to annihilate their degenerate foes, and in September, 2011, the Jalisco group dumped thirty-five bodies on a busy avenue in Veracruz at rush hour. Two weeks later, thirty-two more bodies were found in three safe houses around the city. Veracruz is Zetas territory. It is also the main seaport on the east coast of Mexico, and therefore interesting to Chapo Guzmán—useful, clearly, for cocaine moving northward, and for meth chemicals arriving from overseas. More immediately, though, the Mata Zetas’ plan was simply to open a rearguard path to try to slow the Zetas’ advance on Jalisco. The corpses thrown under the Millennium Arches in November were a retaliation.
Mexican election campaigns are short—ninety days for the Presidential contest, and usually less for state and local contests. Enrique Peña Nieto bravely launched his campaign in Guadalajara, historically a pan stronghold. By mid-April, the city was saturated with political advertising. Every taxi was festooned, every wall and billboard. Television and radio often seemed like a solid wave of slogans, jingles, appeals, attacks. By far the most numerous “spots” were the pri’s. The pri candidate for the governorship of Jalisco, Aristóteles Sandoval Díaz, is the current mayor of Guadalajara. He looks like a provincial version of Peña Nieto—young, guapo, prone to platitudes. Sandoval began the year by declaring that he would “armor” his campaign against infiltration by organized crime. In his previous campaigns, he reportedly received financial backing from several Sinaloa cartel mobsters, among them Ignacio Loya Alatorre, identified by federal prosecutors as Nacho Coronel’s money manager, who was assassinated in 2005, and Tony Duarte, who was a car thief before he became a prominent Guadalajara businessman and alleged Sinaloa bagman (he was assassinated, in Puerto Vallarta, in 2011). Sandoval’s declaration may have been reassuring to voters: he is far ahead in the polls.
Does organized crime favor one party? Or do particular cartels back particular parties? Not notably. Each of the major parties has had corruption scandals. The pri’s pre-2000 dominance meant that most, if not all, of the agreements, known as acuerdos, between organized crime and officialdom during that period involved the pri. But that was when the pri was the only game in town. Even López Obrador, the P.R.D. candidate, originally made his name as a prileader. With the rise of other parties, new acuerdoswere made. The narcos are most concerned with local politicians and police and military units. They want to be able to land this load at this airfield. Their acuerdos tend to be with individuals. If they prefer to work with one candidate for mayor, or governor, they may intimidate or, in the case of the Zetas, even kill his opponent. But the party affiliation of politicians, let alone Army or police commanders, is irrelevant.
Joanna Jablonska Bayro is a sociology student. For her doctoral dissertation, she has been interviewing twenty Guadalajarans about how they perceive their city and their security—where and why they feel unsafe, how they protect themselves from risks.
“People fight hard to maintain the fantasy that Guadalajara is an oasis of tranquillity,” she told me. “With the corpse dumping at the Millennium Arches, there was a lot of effort by the authorities to show that the dead were all narcos. Then the news came out that the victims were ordinary people. That’s when people here panicked. Then, about a month later, the authorities announced that they had caught the killers, and that, no, the victims were all narcos. They were trying to reëstablish some equilibrium, some sense of safety in the city. But who knows what’s true?”
Nobody, rich or poor, in Jablonska’s study feels completely confident that the government will tell them the truth. And everyone is mortally afraid of the Zetas. “After this recent narcobloqueo, all the mantas that went up were about protecting the people from the Zetas. The Zetas are the incarnation of the threat.”
Attitudes toward the security forces break down along class lines. The upper and middle classes are still enthusiastic about the Army, the poor far less so. As for the local police, people with more resources regard their corruption as only a nuisance, while the poor find them dangerous: “They’ll put drugs on me, and cause me a lot of problems.” Everyone in Jablonska’s study feels that Mexican social and political institutions, including the state itself, are weakening. “Some of this institutional weakness comes from the post-pri fragmentation of power,” Jablonska said. Everyone has lost confidence in the rule of law. Nearly anyone who can afford it, including the lower middle class, now lives in a gated community, with private security. “People in more precarious neighborhoods must build their own networks of protection. They rely on pit bulls, family networks, and, of course, organized crime. They never call the police.”
Ninety-eight per cent of serious crimes in Mexico go unpunished, according to a recent report by the Monterrey Institute of Technology. For kidnapping, which is rarely reported, the figure might be even higher. Kidnapping is the horror lapping at the edge of nearly everyone’s mind, and it’s known that kidnapping is one of the Zetas’ favorite crimes. Corrupt police are often involved—one of the reasons it’s rarely reported. Private security companies seek to capitalize on the public’s panic. When you read a crime story online, the advertisement blinking alongside the text is often an offer of private protection for you and your family against secuestro—kidnapping. If someone disappears and no ransom call comes, should it even be called kidnapping? Human-rights groups estimate that more than five thousand people have disappeared in Mexico in the past five years.
Mexican TV provides a P.R. forum for the police and the military. “People love these big drug busts, these acts of bravery,” Jablonska said. “They have real value.” The police and the Army play to that taste, with a constant stream of handcuffed ruffians presented to TV cameras. Behind the captured narcos stand black military helicopters. Drugs and cash and weapons, some gold-plated, are laid out on banquet tables. The government even produces YouTube-ready videos with dramatic musical intros, graphics, and sleek institutional logos. (And now: the Confession of La Barbie!)
Weary of pantallas, I tried to get to the bottom of a single bust—the “historic” meth-lab raid in Tlajomulco that confiscated some four billion dollars’ worth of drugs. Were the drugs seized really worth that much? Well, no. The more experts I consulted, the lower the number sank. Maybe it was a billion, if the meth was pure. Then was it really fifteen tons of “pure meth,” as widely reported? Well, no. There had been some confusion. There were precursor chemicals. A lot of equipment—gas tanks, reactors. Maybe it was eleven pounds of pure meth. Eleven pounds? Nobody wanted to speak on the record, but the spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Guadalajara, a young man named Ulises Enríquez Camacho, finally said, “Yes, five kilos.” Eleven pounds. The fifteen tons had been methamphetamine ready for packing, according to the Army. But it was not “a finished product,” and there had been only five kilos of crystal. In the U.S., where meth is often sold by the gram, that amount might be worth five hundred thousand dollars. So the reported value had been inflated by a factor of eight thousand?
I wanted to get the Army’s side of the story, so I went to the headquarters of the Fifteenth Military Zone, whose troops had carried out the raid. The base is in Zapopan, northwest of Guadalajara. The chief of staff, General Gerardo Wolburg Redondo, said he would need permission to speak to me. He later phoned. Permission denied, he said, by Mexico City, because of Article 41, a provision of the Mexican constitution that forbids the diffusion of government propaganda during an election-campaign period.
Article 41 had suddenly become a popular law in government offices, I found. Sorry, love to chat, but—Article 41. People were happy to talk off the record, however, about the Army’s operations in Jalisco. It had been raiding meth labs at a torrid rate—sixty-three in the past year, by the Army’s count, with many of those in Tlajomulco. Arrests almost never happened, though. Why not? Ulises Enríquez explained that it was difficult for troops to arrive at a meth-lab site without neighbors seeing them approach and warning the narcos to flee. Why, I asked, would the neighbors do that? They were paid lookouts, he said. How did the Army know where the labs were? Different neighbors, made suspicious by high traffic or strong chemical odors, called—or, more often, e-mailed—the police or the Army. Anonymous denunciations.
This scenario was derided by most of the people I consulted, in law enforcement and elsewhere. Narcos ratted out rival narcos—that was normally how the authorities learned things. Or the narcos and certain authorities came to an agreement. What civilian would drop a dime on a cartel? That could be suicidal. There was no way to know who would be on the other end of that call or e-mail. Anyway, labs that were up to date on their protection payments usually had nothing to fear. Meth labs operated in networks, moving materials and personnel between facilities to maximize production and minimize risk. Losses from seizures were a cost of doing business, and rarely catastrophic. The networks in Jalisco were very big now. Sinaloa had recently ramped up production. The remnants of La Familia Michoacana had moved labs here, getting them out of strife-torn southern Michoacán. But the commander of the Fifth Military Region, General Fausto Lozano Espinosa, was on a rampage. He wanted meth labs. The Army had almost no field intelligence, but the government needed dramatic busts, headlines, and so an acuerdo had seemingly been reached. The locations of some labs would be disclosed, and they would be busted, but there would be no one there—no guards, and certainly no chemists or cooks, who were highly valued employees.
The Army’s version of the great February bust was doubted by U.S. officials, too. One told me that it had actually happened two weeks before the announcement claimed. The press release went out to the wider world before the drugs were properly tested, along with photographs of masked soldiers standing among blue barrels filled with yellow powder. According to this official, the Army often told no one, certainly not the police, and sometimes not even the federal prosecutor’s office, about its raids—not even afterward—until it had a reason, usually political, to do so. It was all about the credit. Evidence collection and preservation were not part of the Army’s mission—that was the federal prosecutor’s job. No one seemed to be in a position to question the wisdom of smashing up places, learning nothing, carrying off drugs, and calling it a blow against organized crime.
The great bust took place near a village called Buena Vista, at a “ranch” called Rancho Villarreal. Although the Army had closed its investigation almost immediately, Ulises Enríquez said that the federal prosecutor still had an investigation open. So I asked him who owned Rancho Villarreal. He said that it was difficult to determine. It was a party venue, really, with a swimming pool, a bar, cabanas. It was for weddings, quinceañeras, company picnics. But the owner of a property couldn’t be held responsible for everything that tenants did there. When I asked around about the disposition of the drugs seized at Rancho Villarreal, someone close to the case told me that he believed the product had been quietly returned to its owners, for an unknown price.
Víctor Hugo Ornelas and I went to Buena Vista. I had been there a couple of times before, checking out Rancho Villarreal, but the villagers had been reluctant to talk. They claimed not to remember the Army raid, let alone the narcolaboratorio. I believed I was endangering them just by lingering. Hugo, however, knew people there. A young guy I’ll call Ramón took us out on the back roads of Buena Vista in his 4 x 4. “Some of the kids around here really look up to the narcos,” Ramón said. “The girls, especially. It’s too bad. They go to their parties, enjoy the narcocorridos, get pregnant. One pregnant girl’s boyfriend disappeared. We assume he’s dead. But the other pregnant girls are still happy. They want the babies. The guys are from Sinaloa and Michoacán. Some from Jalisco. They all have money, nice trucks, nice ranchos.
“The priest likes having the narcos here,” Ramón went on. “Some are quite religious. They fixed up his church. They get their kids baptized there.”
We were bumping down a deeply rutted road. It was rough, open country—plenty of room for clandestinity. “Those ranchos with the big walls, the heavy gates?” Ramón said, pointing out homesteads visible here and there. “Those are all narquitos. They have watchdogs, fighting cocks. You can tell. Palm trees.”
“Yeah, palm trees,” Hugo said. “What is it with narcos and palm trees?”
“I don’t know. They just have to have them.” They laughed.
We stopped and gazed down a very long driveway at a huge new house. The driveway looked practically impassable, even for a 4 x 4. “They can afford to improve the roads,” Ramón said. “But sometimes they prefer an ugly road. It lets them see their enemies coming.”
Were the cartels fighting?
“No. Not right now. It seems like La Familia Michoacana is dominant around here at the moment. But most of the labs belong to the Jalisco cartel. They employ a lot of lookouts.”
We passed a small airstrip. “That’s for model planes,” Ramón said. “Hobbyists. Soldiers.”
He and Hugo exchanged a look. “Incredible,” Hugo said.
We regained the paved road where we had left my car. Two sedans with big, brightly painted, carefully hand-built model airplanes lashed to their roofs were turning off the road onto the dirt track.
Hugo and I went to Rancho Villarreal. It was at the end of a long, twisting, unpaved road. The brick outer walls were ten feet high. The gate was padlocked, with a warning posted that the property had been sealed by the federal prosecutor. “Who would want to have a wedding out here?” Hugo said. “These places are for money laundering.” He poked in the grass with his cane, spearing a cardboard box, which he lifted for inspection. The box had contained a “Respirator—Full Facepiece,” made by 3M. Respirators were essential meth-lab gear. Hugo stabbed in the grass again. “Military,” he said, lifting a pair of wool khaki gloves with no fingertips. He turned and walked into a log-walled guard hut that I had not noticed before. “Family,” he said, from inside. “Woman”—he lifted, from the trash-strewn floor, a sanitary napkin on the tip of his cane. “Child”—he lifted a tiny pink child’s backpack. “Man”—he lifted a work boot. He bent and picked up a golf ball, and pointed to a set of numbers stamped on it. “We could find out who bought this, possibly, and where,” he said, dropping the ball in his bag.
Back outside, Hugo stared at the high walls of Rancho Villarreal. Palm trees rose against the sky from inside the compound. At the far end of the front wall, also inside the compound, was a narrow, two-story outbuilding. “That’s a watchtower,” Hugo said. He pointed to a pile of bricks and tile in a corner where two high walls met. “That pile was for jumping over,” he said. “For getting away fast.”
While driving back toward the village, Hugo asked me to stop the car. We parked next to a white-walled farm of some kind, surrounded by fields. Hugo hiked down to look at a pair of hoses. They came out of the farm, passed under the road, and emptied into a field. He smelled the hoses. He shook his head. He pointed to a set of pipes and wires running through the bottom of the white walls. “Those, yes,” he said quietly. He looked down at the hoses. “These, no.” That was when I noticed that this place, too, had a tall, narrow outbuilding in the corner of the compound, affording a view over the high walls. “Watchtower,” Hugo said. “Palm trees. Not a farm.” He got back in the car. But he did not touch his camera.
On May 9th, Guadalajarans woke up to a new Zetas atrocity—eighteen headless, dismembered bodies left in two vehicles parked near a popular restaurant out past the airport. Then the police found some more body parts in a safe house in Chapala, a lakeside community that is popular with retired Americans and Canadians, about an hour south of the city. Half of the dead were soon identified. They were local people who had recently gone missing. Ordinary citizens, not narcos, kidnapped and murdered. Four were said to have been students at the University of Guadalajara.
That turned out to be only part of the story. It seemed that the Zetas had planned to kidnap and kill fifty people, and to distribute the dismembered corpses around Guadalajara on Mother’s Day. The details of this plan emerged after a kidnapper on guard duty, Laura Rosales Sánchez, fell asleep and a dozen victims, seizing their chance, escaped. It was too late to save the eighteen—and two boys under Laura Rosales’s guard who failed to flee were also killed—but the police managed to arrest four of the kidnappers, who, under interrogation, revealed the grand plan to kill fifty. The kidnappings, their leader confirmed, had been done at random. They just grabbed whomever they could—waiters, a construction worker, a dance teacher in a primary school.
The purpose behind all this carnage? To “cause terror,” the arrested leader, who is twenty-seven, said. He seemed vaguely bored at his perp-show press event, where he nonetheless tried to answer every reporter’s question. He was just following orders, he said, from a Zeta named Fernando, who remained at large. Laura Rosales, who is twenty-five, said that she had been mainly helping her brother, Angel, who also remained at large, and that the Zetas were responding, with this massacre, to the killing, up north, of twenty-three Zetas by Chapo Guzmán’s forces.
After the Mother’s Day massacre, thirty thousand people, led by University of Guadalajara students and dressed in white, marched silently through the city, protesting the ever-rising tide of violence and the government’s apparent helplessness before it.
Around the same time, tens of thousands of students marched in Mexico City in a sudden revolt, launched just weeks before the election, against the constantly reported inevitability of a Peña Nieto victory. Acuerdos between the pri and the country’s biggest broadcasters, including alleged payoffs exposed by the Guardian, were making this a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the protesters. There were more marches in June, but the student movement seemed unlikely to stop the return of the pri.
The federal prosecutor’s office announced that it had incinerated the entire haul of drugs from the super-lab in Buena Vista within ten days of the seizure. I asked Ulises Enríquez where this massive chemical fire had taken place. At the Club Canada shooting range in Tonalá, he said, out toward Puente Grande. They burned narcotics there each month. In the open air? Of course. His office oversaw the destruction.
I went to the shooting range for the next bonfire. There was a compact-car-size mound of drugs already piled beyond the first target berm. It contained, I was told, just under a ton of marijuana, six hundred grams of cocaine, forty grams of ephedrine, just over a thousand tabs of synthetic drugs (Ecstasy, meth), and slightly more than thirty pounds of crystal. Six men from the Tonalá fire department torched the hillock of dope, and the heat got worse. A federal narcotics agent I’ll call Rodríguez was in charge.
Rodríguez was dressed in baggy shorts, boots, a gray T-shirt, and a little blue cowboy hat. He had a Beretta 9-mm. pistol in his waistband, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He accused the firefighters of deliberately staying downwind of the fire, from which pungent black smoke billowed. “Look at those crazy firemen,” he called. “Watch, they’ll start dancing.” In fact, the firefighters were staggering around in heavy protective gear, including masks and helmets. There were a dozen workers from the federal prosecutor’s office in attendance, but they stayed back in the shooter’s pavilion, far from the fire, drinking Coke. The handful of us out in the field retreated to a patch of shade, where Rodríguez regaled us with tales of street drug seizures.
“I like to come up to the pinche dealers like I’m dying for a fix,” he said. He was startlingly good in the role of a desperate addict. Then he was just as good playing a gruff, paranoid dealer—funny, convincing. Then he whirled from a dope-snorting crouch, whipping out his pistol, knocking the dealer to the ground, cackling triumphantly as himself, the undercover cop. “And now, pendejo?” He had his boot on the dealer’s neck. The dealer was crying for his wife. Rodríguez, grinning wildly, was, for a moment, God. Should he arrest the guy? Rip him off? Beat him up? All of the above?
I asked Rodríguez whom he worked for. “afis,” he said, straightening up, sticking his gun back in his shorts. (The afis had actually been disbanded, but everybody still calls their replacement, the Federal Ministerial Police, by that name.) “They commissioned me from the municipal police.”
Rodríguez struck me as a man living at the coal face of Mexican life, right where legality and illegality clash and overlap. As other people drifted away, he told me that he had made twelve hundred arrests, maybe more. He had been a cop for twenty-two years. He was forty-four. Before that, he worked in Alabama, planting trees. That was great money—three hundred dollars a week. He demonstrated his tree-planting technique, making it look quick, precise, gruelling, and comical.
How did he get to Alabama?
“I was wet,” he said—illegal.
Rodríguez turned and shouted at the firefighters. They weren’t stoking the blaze correctly. He ran out, grabbed a pitchfork, and started throwing flaming bales of pot in the air, until the fire was roaring again. His energy was maniacal. He was also weirdly loose-limbed. When my cell phone rang, he started dancing to the ringtone.
How was his pay as a cop?
Bad, he said. The afis picked up some of his expenses, but he had to work a second full-time job, as a stonemason.
He changed the subject, to politics. “If the pri wins, everything’s going to change,” he said. “Everybody will start getting paid again. They know how to do it.” He pantomimed a paymaster, counting out cash to a circle of people. “The media, too,” he said, mock paying me.
It was true: the pri, when in power, paid some journalists extravagantly, and supported many newspapers and other media in return for coverage that suited its purposes.
“There will be just one big group,” Rodríguez said. “Maybe it will be El Chapo. But there will be peace.”