by Gary Moore
Before dawn on May 13, at a lonely road shoulder in northeast Mexico, only 75 miles south of the U.S. border, a reported total of 49 severely mutilated bodies were dumped in a single event, by a shadowy truck or trucks. The number 49 thus became another marker in Mexico’s mysterious descent into violence: 72 dead in a 2010 massacre, 52 in a 2011 event, 24 in a body dump barely even remembered from 2008, and on into the mists.
But be clear: To travel the Mexican countryside today is not to be automatically swarmed by bandidos or thugs. You typically meet the age-old quiet and hospitality of the legends. Even as massacres and firefights trace out a national crisis on some fronts (in the “drug war” that began officially in late 2006), foreign tourists are not targeted as such. The talking heads on TV are right about one thing: the big Mexican resorts remain overwhelmingly safe for the adventurous vacationer.
But beyond that, Mexico-boosters have to fall discreetly silent–because the beast, too, is horribly real. Something is loose in this nation of 112 million, and there are only puzzled guesses as to what that something really is. If you happen to stray into one of the secluded hot zones–and the confrontation can be random or unwarned–the mysteries of sociology may leave scant time for taking notes.
On May 13, the sheer number of corpses piled defiantly beside Mexican Highway 40 confirmed a years-long trend, involving desensitization to atrocity. Likewise the condition of the corpses: many (or all, in most reports) had been ploddingly beheaded, as if on a tireless assembly line. There was also amputation of hands and feet. The shadowy dumptruck was performing a work of horror-art: creating a monumental pyramid of cropped torsos, atop a sheen of clotting russet that oozed toward early-bird motorists. The details make the point: the very urgency of this thing is what blocks it from urgent discussion. It is too horrid for discourse–like trying to debate policy with a thundering jackhammer.
The assembly line of amputation that was functioning somewhere behind the scenes can only be guessed from its roadside effects. Publicly it is a blank. Even after arrests on May 18–amid the customary official snakedance of changing accusations–there was no glimpse of the slaughterhouse where the amputations were actually performed. If all 49 victims lost all the reported appendages (heads, hands and feet), that means 245 amputations. This wasn’t quick work.
We don’t even know who the 49 corpses were (the amputations over-killed most of their identifying marks, and no mass disappearances seem to have been registered). From the rushed parade of white forensic vans taking the body parts off to an adobe compound at an over-stressed morgue, news emerged that six of the bodies were female. Rumors hissed that two were pregnant. Calculated guesses pegged the women as girlfriends, hangers-on or even Ma-Barker operatives in one of Mexico’s warring drug cartels, killed in retaliation by a rival cartel. But there were also more shocking guesses. They could have been completely innocent kidnap victims, for all anyone could say.
The jackhammer of intolerable images is not kind to the news process. For a few days there was little more than a curt announcement that this enormity had happened at all. Then came a cloud of wrong guesses. And then a few puzzle pieces relating to the May 18 arrestee–which contradicted earlier puzzle pieces. The thinness of the news could always be papered over with boilerplate cliches about the cartel wars in general–plus the requisite disclaimer: rejoice, the resort beaches are still safe. Eerily missing is background investigation of the cobra-deadly gangster world that spawned the atrocity–as if in the American Civil War our intrepid horseback correspondent were to chirp knowingly that some of the mysterious combatants seem, by golly, to be wearing uniforms that are gray.
Journalism has always had its flaws, and these can multiply in today’s Mexico. As techno-change reduces news organizations to impoverished remnants, the Mexican atrocities refuse to be cheaply studied. Stateside audiences do the eye-glaze at the mere mention of unmanageable Mexico, and Mexico itself almost seems to reciprocate–by supplying urgencies too horrible for the talking heads to talk about.
The 49 corpses even cast doubt as to which Mexican crime cartel (or bandido horde, if you prefer the historical view) was the artist in this performance art–and which other cartel, haplessly, might have supplied the truncated raw material. The immediate presumption, fed by superficial clues, was that the killers were in the Zetas Group, the most egregiously brutal of the cartels, now emerging as one of the top two titans in the battle for underworld profits.
But almost as soon as authorities announced the surface indications fingering the Zetas, analysts and nervous residents began pointing to a deeper level: this torso-dump could easily have been a disinformation operation by the Zetas’ mammoth rival, the even larger Sinaloa Cartel, or its Gulf Cartel allies–making the rapacious Zetas the savaged victims this time, with their lower-level gunmen (and perhaps their girlfriends) donating the torsos.
But then the official winds shifted again, putting the blame back onto the Zetas–with a new official explanation: the Zetas were trying to make the body dump look like a rival false-flag op–a pretense within a pretense. In this fog, an air of looney, coked-out dream-logic is almost all that’s left.
On a stunning human rights landmark, we are allowed no clear focus for our outrage.
No wonder eyes glaze.
The one solid fact–49 deaths–does fit into a historical frame. Mexican drug smuggling goes back for decades, but at the end of the twentieth century giant profits turned old corruption into crisis. In a new millennium, cartel firefights had been raging long before President Felipe Calderon declared official war on the cartels in late 2006. Then under attack the cartels splintered. Epidemic feuds consumed the splinter groups. The voracious new cycle had its first apparent beheading in January 2006, well before Calderon’s crusade (as far back as 1989, capo “Whitey” Palma was sent his wife’s head in a box). In September 2006, five heads were tossed onto a disco’s dance floor–still before Calderon’s official anti-cartel war. At about the same time a grenade in a public plaza (in Morelia, more than a thousand miles south of the U.S.) marked the first high-profile targeting of bystanders for sheer terrorism.
As multi-sided gunfights pulled in troops, police and rival mobs, mob massacres of unarmed targets initially struck at rival support networks. But they began toying with the easy use of bystanders to send a message. Nightspots became cash cows for cartel extortion or money laundering, so rivals could burst in and machine-gun random patrons. Family groups of pot growers or robber barons might be butchered. From 2008 into 2010 a hunger seemed to grow, until the next great leap–which dwarfed everything before it, making news worldwide. Previously, Mexican massacres had stayed under 25 fatalities and usually were much smaller. Not even two-sided firefights or hideous prison riots reached 30 dead. But then came the San Fernando immigrant massacre of August 22-23, 2010. Suddenly the seemingly insatiable Zetas had executed 72 immobilized captives, all at once. The herded-together targets were linked to organized crime only because they were illegal migrants, seeking to cross dangerous turf.
It was unclear at first whether 2010’s San Fernando immigrant massacre might be a fluke, but this was only because the Mexican government was keeping large secrets, well knowing that other massacres of innocents were apparent, but failing to step in and pursue the clues–until April 2011, when new revelations became too large to ignore. Then broad areas of mass graves were revealed, holding some 200 or more acknowledged bodies each, on separate sides of the country. The secretive body disposal made it hard to gauge the size of any one massacre involved, but the targets were just as dead. Meanwhile, even the concealment of bodies in mass graves turned out to be a passing phase. A new phase was foreshadowed in July 2010 by two public body dumps for shock effect, of 15 and 12 corpses. By September 2011 the state of Veracruz was seeing a public-display body dump of 35 corpses, and many smaller incidents ran the surrounding total toward 100. Beheadings and mass hangings from bridges were multiplying–while something else was growing smaller and smaller: the reassuring belief, once seen everywhere, that these killings were just gangster-on-gangster hits, and ordinary Mexican citizens, if they kept their noses clean, weren’t in any danger. Today the undertone is the opposite. Rumors try to guess just how many of the anonymously dumped bodies might be disguised bystander kidnappees, thrown in by unknown cartel killers to run up the body count and goose the shock. A gunman’s confession on May 8 purported to give the details of just such a tactic, aimed at non-criminal passersby. Escaped kidnappees provided verification.
But the fog is still thick. Modern Mexico’s eruption has no Pancho Villa inviting Model-T newsreel cameras into his bandoliered cavalry, as in the last big blast, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The dates have sparked comparison, pairing 1910 with 2010. Some say Mexico may convulse in grand cycles, once a century, like Old Faithful or a volcano in a cornfield, releasing the angst of the ages. In that view, the August 2010 immigrant massacre came somewhat on schedule, catapulting the chaos into world-class atrocity, and opening the massacre floodgates, on the centennial of 1910–while, symmetrically, 1910 itself came on the centennial of a still earlier burst, the 1810 War of Independence, with its own decade of destruction, 1810 to 1821. You could take this back to the Aztecs and their Cortez apocalypse of 1521. Hocus-pocus numerology looms large when chaos burns other bridges. Few anthropologists are seeking to politey interview the drug lords.
The 49 corpses almost demand mystical speculation (Are we to explain them by logic? Was this done out of some kind of rational self-interest?). The day after they appeared, Youtube aired an apt reprise, a Mexican narco-video so wildly horrific that it was immediately yanked by scandalized censors. This video’s relationship to the 49 (and to yet another video involving them) remains obscure. But its presence would become known, through an alternative window. An English-language digest Web site called Borderland Beat forms a lonely watchtower on the Mexico battlements, manned by a small cadre of Mexican-Americans (my work has appeared there as well), who set themselves the vital mission of archiving any available news on Mexico’s meltdown. Borderland Beat decided to run the horrific video, entering the moral minefield that surrounds great evil. The video is unspeakably toxic, easily classed as something that should never be viewed–and yet to avoid this dragon’s lair is to avoid taking the real measure of the dragon. If we gaze on its face our imaginations are irrevocably scarred; and yet if we tightly shut our eyes, so Medusa can’t turn us to stone, our imaginations are left to run wild. Me, I didn’t watch the damned thing. I’ve been there before. But the descriptions by people who did watch it, sent as email replies to the displaying site, cast deep reflections. Even those accustomed to such viewings seemed stunned.
The video came with a title, tacked on by its unknown originators: “Comandante Diablo y Rey de Reyes Acabando con los Zetas” (“Commander Devil and King of Kings finishing off the Zetas”). It’s not shy about apocalyptic theology–but, gloatingly, the title leaves the paralyzed viewer to guess which contemporary players might be meant by the nicknames. Leaving aside guesses that the King of Kings means not only Jesus but El Chapo (the fugitive billionaire head of the Sinaloa Cartel), the core is really elsewhere, in that essential element of insatiable evil, The Nemesis: El Diablo. The best guess on who Comandante Diablo is (and the chatter is all over the scale) points to a super-shadowy figure in the Sinaloa-allied Gulf Cartel, a berserk manager of hitmen, vaguely accused of a reign of terror going back to the first shock-theater body dumps of July 2010. The video never directly says whether its title means that “Comandante Diablo” was the supervisor of the particular obscenities it shows–much less whether megalomania might have him actually believing he’s the devil (there was another ghost from 1989, on Diablo’s same Gulf Coast turf, who did take such a satanic leap of faith: sorcerer-cannibal-capo Jesus Constanza, the fiend of the Matamoros border). Down on this rung of hell, the roads to evil seem to come slouching together, whether called satanic or sociopathic.
The video shows a multiple beheading, of two different men, one while still alive. In that one the knife is held by a woman, and she has to keep hacking. Could this be a ghastly glimpse of the 49? In reply, there is only the taunting silence of El Diablo.
But in one way his evil is defeated. Certain after-effects of the video manage to do the seemingly impossible. They take the measure of the beast at the heart of the Mexican meltdown–by means of a simple tool. There are the email replies sent back to Borderland Beat from the people who watched the video. Each sender, shocked into frankness by the intensity of what was seen, provides a separate glimpse of the Shadow in the Cave–here a scale of the hulking dragon, there a flicking tongue, or a smoldering eye, or a twitching tail in musty gloom. Each writer is a lens. And there are very many such writers. Maybe nobody wants to be alone in such a pit.
Replies to Borderland Beat from viewers of the video, May 15, 2012:
A. mexican people
you are dead to the core
no longer human beings
what the hell are you doing?
the funniest thing is I’m writing from Poland, thousands of miles from your sick country
and I’m shocked
B. Nothing new, the Aztecs were doing this more than 500 years ago to their prisoners of war. Nothing new under the sun.
C. What a rough way to go out and what a pathetic way of life for these people. Esta de la chingada
D. Que desmadre… :/ So fucked up man
These dudes are the biggest cowards
E. I agree, Mexico=FAIL
F. I understand revenge but I don’t understand beheading. These people enjoy the act. Something very wrong with Mexico at the moment.
G. It takes a very special person to do this, a very demonic person. Life has lost it’s way with some people caught up in the drug war.
H. Wow!! What is wrong with these individuals they are no longer human. But Zetas are evil monster. its amazing (in a bad way) how someone can reach to this level where killing a human is just as easy as killing a bug.
I. Man that is unbelievable, that’s one of the worst ones i seen. You actually hoping someone would just chop his head off for some mercy to the poor guy. You cannot justify shit like this,they trying to top one another for horror and how bad-ass my crew is. How the fuck did it come to this? What are they doing that shit for? It is not even for money that they are doing this. The beheading videos online aint got nothing on this. Pure brutality, with no sense or purpose whatsoever.
J. If you never watch things like this, or are curious. DON’T WATCH IT. This is more barbaric, more disgusting than any you will see from Taliban and Iraq. They behead a poor old guy who just lies there screaming, i wonder what he did to deserve this. MEXICO,WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOUR PEOPLE?
K. omg how could people do that!!!!so disgust at how they just kill.
L. Wow This is one of the sickest things i have ever seen in my life. Yes I know this is a “daily” occurence in mexico, and have been following it for some time. But MAN this was gruesom and totally just a joke. I mean, killing someone is one thing, shot to the head, etc. But to show on video a MAN having his head cut off while he is alive, is just atrocious. I mean the guy was grimmacing, and without sound on, it didnt look like he fought his fate. I mean to sit there and know you are going to die, and that your HEAD is being fucking cut off! This is at its worse. Even having a female sit there and hack away with a knive, i mean, INSANE!!! Somehow this shit has to stop. I will NEVER go down to Mexico ever again, period.
M. It send a message of accessibility to those how have become no more than D.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.V.E. INHUMANE R.O.B.O.T.S who use weapons on other human beings.
N. I don’t understand the complacency of the captives? How they sit there kneeling obediently. Why are they not running around, screaming, kicking, biting, cursing, crying, praying to God for forgiveness, spitting in the face of the executioner, cursing their executioner’s souls to hell. I don’t actually ever watch the videos, but from the still shots and the descriptions I read, everyone seems to willingly submit to their fate. I don’t get it? Also, they always say, never let anyone take you to crime scene B. It’s always going to be worse than crime scene A. Make them kill you there on the spot rather than letting them take you away. Do the hope that somehow they will be freed if they comply? Someone please explain.
O. See Mexico you’ve destroyed your respect in the world.
P. just because a couple of sick bastards are running around recording themselfes desmebering people doesnt mean this reflects to all of us mexicans in genral , when you have a corrupt goverment currupt laws there is nothing the good people can do but stay quite and look the other way. you people on here commenting saying we as mexicans are sick and lost cause need to stop with that that bs and maybe think its the elite oligarchs runing and letting this shit happen.
Q. For your information, the majority of Mexico is safer than our very own country. Yes, there are beyond-horrific events occurring in Mexico, but it is limited to a few states. Even worse is that you include all Mexicans in your ignorant statements about “mexican people being dead to the core” and such. Do me a favor, don’t ever let me confront you in my community, I will beat the living shit out of you-in my AMERICAN military uniform.
R. Stupid idiots from poland and other places calling mexico a sick country dont they know its only cartels doing this. Mexico has a population of 112 million people out of those less then 3 million are cartel members. That leaves clearly over 100 million people in mexico that would never decapitate a human shame on anyone thinking all of mexico is sick like the fools on the video chopping heads. Once again get it in your head stupid idiots theres waaayyyyyy more good people in mexico then bad people just like in the u.s theres more people that aren’t racist then those that are racist pricks believing in kkk ideas. All in all dont judge a barrel of apples just because of some bad apples.
S. Dont really get why people keep saying the cartel members are cowards it takes balls the size of basketballs to cut some ones head off while there alive. Also takes balls to get into a gun fight with the army or other cartel hit men armed with ak 47’s. Thats why the cartel have gained so much power they aint scared of nothing even the real devil saids dam them cartels are hardcore. One thing i agree with is that the cartel sicarios may do some crazy gangster shit and overkill which is just plain hard to see but there not soft cowards there the opposite stone cold killers that will fuk u up and put u in a bodybag. Its funny though the ones commenting here saying the cartels are punks cowards are really cowards themselfs yeh cuz talking big shit about cartel members behind a computer screen and not in person yeh thats real tuff lol your all just failed internet tuff guys.
T. wuuut this shit is thiss first time they cut a head off dont they know you gotta break the spine off not whak at it anmurtures
U. wow that was coolest shit i have ever seen :) but i dont want to see any mexican in my country turkey. cuz i think i am going to kill these little red shits ! but i want to watch more of these videos.
V. The end is near, Satan will rule the Earth 1 thousand years….Jesus Saves its not too late
W. i am from Morocco but this is the sickest footage ever seen so far, no joke, the devil live in Mex
Mexico’s wall of mystery has many sides. Some replies above point to the ghosts of conquest half a millennium past. The theme was captured by Mexico’s poetic giant Octavio Paz in his Labyrinth of Solitude, the great disquisition on a people’s collective wound–a wound seen every day in the strangely ordinary evidence of everyday street slang.
The words “la chingada” and “desmadre” in the replies echo Paz’s labyrinth, as does the reference to Aztec sacrifice. The shadow has many faces in the dark, and those who look must bear the knowledge.