“ ‘My brother managed to hear the laughter of many men, and loud music,’ Isabel said.”
“ ’Armed men have grabbed us!’ cried Pablo, before the cellphone was knocked down.”
by Gary Moore
Bus 3550, another big land cruiser with flip-down video in the ceiling and 600 miles under its fanbelt every 24 hours (between squeegie washes and vacuumings of tostada crumbs), would be particularly hard hit. The macabre eruption of the bus massacres concentrated during March 19-April 2 of this year—another bewildering year of “impossible” surprises in Mexico.
Mexico’s bus massacres have marked a quantum leap in atrocity only 90 miles from the United States. Despite a veil of Mexican government silence on even basic points, evidence creeping into public view points to a parade of at least 10 different long-distance buses caught by shadowy murder squads in a notorious outlaws’ roost. Dozens of helpless passengers were marched out, hauled away and killed.
It only sounds like a dream. On April 6, Mexican authorities confirmed the first glimpses as they announced discovery of mass graves, dotting lonely brush country near Mexico’s Gulf Coast, below the boot-tip of Texas. Slicing through the chaparral there, Mexican Federal Highway 101 provides a main border access route north along the coast. But it hits a chokepoint at the troubled town of San Fernando, “the town of death” on this “highway of death.” A once-quiet farming center swarmed in recent years by organized crime, San Fernando has begun to reveal a devil’s archipelago. By mid-June, 47 clandestine grave pits had been officially reported there, containing 193 confirmed corpses. Investigators have said that the majority of these buried victims came from the doomed buses.
The 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is an old filter for panicky illusions, but verified events of the past year have pointed to an epic shift in Mexican violence. An intensified new phase has begun as of August 2010, when a new panorama of world-scale massacre opened. The urgency has sharpened with the bus massacres this year. However, to news consumers in the United States this new ground has often appeared as a dim jumble, looking little different from long-accustomed Mexican violence at a lesser level. Both traditional media and Web pipelines have been left largely in the dark, as management of information by the Mexican government has often amounted to stark suppression, and harrowing dangers limit independent investigation.
The result is like peering into thick smoke and being able to make out
only a few screams.
On March 24, astonished bus passenger Zaira Aguilar sat beside her husband as she realized Bus 3550 was easing to a stop, just after its scheduled pause in San Fernando, 90 miles short of the U.S. border. She saw SUVs and pickups blocking the road, and armed men. A voice began barking orders, telling some passengers to get off—for reasons unexplained. Ms. Aguilar would recall seeing 10 of her fellow riders singled out for cryptic captivity, all male. One was her husband. The number was more or less typical—though you could multiply it by the many different buses hit in much the same way (or worse ways, as the pattern reached its blood-drunk crescendo on March 29). The prisoners were never seen again—or at least, their loved ones never saw them again alive.
Emerging scraps of testimony, like the few grudging official admissions, do seem to bear out one thing: Bus 3550 came and went on its cross-Mexico trajectory at least twice in the main period of horror, and was hit repeatedly, as if in a slow-motion dream, with nobody able to stop the nightmare. And this was not the unluckiest bus. At least one other—maybe more—disappeared entirely: passengers, driver, driver’s assistant, fenders, fold-down video and tostada crumbs. Gone.
Nor was this the worst. There was the method of killing. More than 130 of the bodies unearthed in the busjacking aftermath reportedly showed similar cause of death: a blunt instrument crushing the skull. Few were said to have bullet wounds. In the stillness of Easter weekend, April 23-25, the Washington Post, alone among media Mexican or international, convinced unnamed Mexican investigators to reveal a certain photo. It showed a sledgehammer found among the pits. Apparently this weapon was used repeatedly–up and down, up and down, in plodding progression–on trussed and prostrate forms, as if in a low-tech, mass-production slaughterhouse.
Mexico convulsed with the revelation. Rumors and Web fantasies rushed to fill out the many suppressed details—but the real picture lay tightly concealed behind the government’s blackout curtain. An arrestee nicknamed El Loco (Armando Morales Uscanga) reportedly was a low-level drudge in the sledgehammer murders, and allegedly confessed to the particulars—but these details, too, were withheld publicly. Glimpses remained at the level of what an investigator confided to the Mexican daily La Jornada: “They preferred to use blunt objects for the killing, instead of wasting a bullet to spare the victims suffering.”
The nightmare aspects can be translated: Breakdowns in social norms, once they begin snowballing in a stressed culture (whether momentarily in the form of a lynch mob, or longer-term in an “ungovernable” no-man’s land), can present a picture so unlike ordinary expectations that it becomes difficult to process. Long ago in the history of Mexico—more than a century before expressways and cell phones—horseback bandidos so regularly hit stagecoaches to Mexico City that there were jokes about debarking passengers making a mad dash for their hotels, because the pistoleros had stolen even their clothes. But this was supposed to be safely tucked away in the distant past, like conquistador helmets and crossbows. The disconnect helps explain why the bus massacres have made such an inscrutable (and seemingly incomprehensible) muddle in north-of-the-border news.
The bureaucratic niches of Mexico’s government have long displayed a near-mystical aversion to real public information, especially on law enforcement, but now they sit atop a volcano. Emerging is a question as monumental as it is taboo: The bus massacres—and related atrocities—ask whether the entire century of the familiar, modern Mexico we know—the stable, growing place climbing ambitiously out of Third World disadvantage—could be not an immutable trend but a decades-long spike in a wave, threatening to oscillate back toward the panoramic equilibrium of Mexico City stagecoaches.
You won’t find many buyers for this proposition, and hence the riddle of the bus massacres. They sit before us bewilderingly, like Columbus’s caravels appearing to awed Caribbean islanders: way too bizarre to compute. On the one hand, placid Mexican resorts continue purring securely (Puerto Vallarta is as far from the bus massacres as Chicago from New York). And yet great squares of a national checkerboard have caved into no-go zones, where whole villages can burn.
“In the afternoon today,” said one of the first bus headlines, on April 6, “a military contingent in the municipal area of San Fernando found the bodies of 43 murdered persons…” Actually, authorities in the San Fernando no-man’s land had been finding pits and bodies for at least a week. By April 6 the news could no longer be contained. At the outset a source had hinted—in a world of hints and leaks in place of comprehensive public truth—that the real number of bodies found was over 200. Only slowly did official admissions begin bearing this out—first admitting 43 bodies, then days later saying 59, then waiting days more before discovering that the “real” number was 72. Then over a hundred. And so on—like Groucho Marx announcing Jack the Ripper.
The rules of believable news—or even believable fiction—seemed to melt and run, especially since the San Fernando area was already a poster child for the inexplicable. Last August 24 the new massacre phase began when San Fernando produced Mexico’s previous record mass execution, disgorging the bodies of 72 murdered immigrants, amid the same dream-like uncertainties—the unexplained motives, the information blackouts.
The August enormity was a bombshell because it was far larger than the accustomed run of 15-to-20-corpse murders that Mexico’s slide had been producing for years, in its post-millennial “drug war.” The new intensity made the bus massacres of March-April a double shock, the proof of a pattern, showing that the August explosion could not be dismissed as an isolated fluke, but seemed to mark a threshold crossed. This region of Mexico was descending into something unfathomable—and well nigh indescribable.
So let’s start small—with the letter “Z.” The word for “z” in Spanish is “zeta,” the equivalent of “zee” in English. Any echoes of Zorro here are apparently only ironic, but the jargon of Mexican police radios gets closer. From obscure roots, the name “Los Zetas” has settled onto a particularly violent organized crime group, born out of border drug trafficking and weaned around the San Fernando area, but by now diversified into many forms of crime, and spreading like a virus to just about all of Mexico. Even the shadowy Zetas themselves seem to acknowledge that it was their squads who committed the San Fernando massacres. At least on this point, the post-arrest confessions are backed by persuasive context.
But this doesn’t mean we get soul-searching looks into the minds of individual mass murderers, or crisp, gripping accounts of how, exactly, the horrors went down. Public information in Mexico doesn’t work that way. Like public order, public truth in this nation of 111 million is being revealed by the present emergency as a hostage to bureaucratic malaise, notably monolithic secrecy.
The general truth about the bus massacres can indeed be obtained—but it has to be teased painstakingly from a wealth of small clues that have slipped past the government’s hoarding of information—a hoarding that has played havoc with certain other rituals (also smug and outworn) that move international news reporting. Add the barriers of language and culture, and Mexico’s extremely specific eruption becomes a phantom blur.
On April 2, days before official acknowledgement, the bus massacres became a federal case, bringing national police teams from Mexico City to pry the investigation away from swamped (and traditionally complicit) local agencies. Massacres continued into April 2 even as the feds came in. By mid-April, 17 of San Fernando’s local police had been hauled off to jail, accused, basically, of being security guards for the nebulous Zeta swarms that had done the actual killing. And no shortage of ex-cops or even present ones were closer to the fray.
The April arrests removed more than half the municipal force in San Fernando’s combined city-county unit, population maybe 60,000 (many residents had quietly fled, the Zetas having ruled there since at least 2002). Before the Mexican government’s belated show of force was over, more than 83 cryptic suspects were under arrest in the bus affair. By May a military surge had displaced Zeta ravages into less publicized hinterlands—for a moment. A state security official, Morales Canseco, showed bursts of candor in dealing with the press, explaining that three specific buses were known to have been hit as they crossed the San Fernando outlaw’s roost, on March 24 and 29.
And this was staggering understatement. Other hard information—some of it from the government itself—leaves no doubt that the number of buses hit by murder squads on the San Fernando stretch was at least 10. And this is just in the narrow span, March 19 to 31, admitted by federal prosecutors as the abduction period — though, eerily, the government itself has noted well-confirmed bus hits both before and after that period. And a larger pattern stretches back more than a year. Factor in the slaughtering of people in private vehicles on the same “highway of death,” and we begin to approach the label seen occasionally in Mexico for the whole apocalyptic ride: “holocaust.”
After Bus 3550 survived its first hit (though ten or so passengers did not), it traveled two hours more to its destination at the border. There, its corporate owner, Omnibus de Mexico, remained ghoulishly mum, with no warnings to future passengers. Bus 3550 turned around and went back 600 miles, deep into central Mexico, and returned again within 24 hours, on its regular run—to meet San Fernando again—and get hit again. And still the bus line kept quiet. Unknowing future victims kept buying tickets, and kept climbing onto more buses to die. Another bus line, Transpais, seemed conspicuously to suffer no hits at all, though its rates for a ride through San Fernando precipitously rose—causing rumors that Transpais might have dutifully paid protection fees to the Zetas under the table, while, the rumors speculated, maybe Omnibus had tried to tough it out. That the government would not immediately make comprehensive public statements on these implications, sweeping away the rumors and warning its citizens, seemed to suggest that, behind the curtain, the crisis was so large that being seen as a liar or a slug was the least of the government’s worries.
Even later, once the secret was (vaguely) out of the bag, the government would release no list of savaged buses, no systematic look at passenger lists or reported victims. Crumbs of disconnected details were dribbled out royally, like Marie Antoinette dispensing cake. A few international media made investigations, at least for a moment while the news was hot. The Associated Press and the Washington Post were among the leaders. The fast-changing cyber-age found the New York Times apparently not even sending a correspondent into high-risk San Fernando, but looking from afar, while using its Mexico space in May on an article that mentioned the unthinkable, acknowledging that in a cash-strapped new Web-world, the Times itself had become partially owned by an influential new investor–a billionaire in Mexico. The buses were blurred from many directions. Another U.S. medium kept its respected Mexico correspondent out of the massacre region, then filled in with budget-friendly (though discredited) innuendo from north of the border.
When the Zetas were founded in the late 1990s they were only an obscure department of another crime cartel, but soon branched into hoary patterns of mafia-style muscle. Their arsenal, and a stoic paramilitary ethos, proved handy at imposing protection rackets, while blitzkrieg Zeta squads committed a daunting array of garden-variety felonies: casino heists, tappings of oil pipelines, the kidnapping of seemingly anyone in sight, rich or poor. They were only one puzzle piece in a growing climate in Mexico, which, by early 2006, had already crossed assorted thresholds, as with a national epidemic in beheadings. The Zetas were far from being the only bully on the block (nor even the largest crime cartel), but they became the most poisonous symbol.
“Old Mexico,” the quaint land where Ma and Pa once puttered in the Airstream — the mañana-land of tourist pratfalls, surmountable imperfections and great hopes — was by 2010 being called “a new Colombia” (not really a fair comparison, referencing the 1990s meltdown in South America). Some even called Mexico a “failed state” (also unfair, invoking mob-ruled ruins like Somalia in East Africa). Still, the fumbling for labels gave notice: this was new territory. Some ancient fault lines (slang use of the word “coyote,” meaning corrupt wheel-greaser, goes back to colonial days in Mexico) had begun colliding with torrential global markets. The descent was unique, local. No one seemed to have adequate labels.
On March 27, Isabel Martinez stood 500 miles south of San Fernando and watched her husband Gerardo leave central Mexico for the United States—legally, on a seasonal work visa, as part of a great flood each spring, both legal and illegal, sapping manpower from dusty villages in central Mexico. Missouri, where Gerardo was headed, was thawing out, ready for his landscaping job. Hour by hour, Isabel felt relief as his cell phone rang back from the road. Everything was fine on the bus.
On March 30, Pablo Cote was 250 miles from Isabel Martinez but also in central Mexico, and also on a cell phone—talking to his father, who was on a trip to a border area to buy a car. His father’s voice on the phone described buying a Ford Windstar minivan, and said he was now leaving to drive it home—from a place called San Fernando.
On March 23, small-time people-smuggler Jose Nuñez, also in central Mexico, was a couple of counties away from Isabel Martinez—and also 500 miles south of San Fernando—as he gazed at 11 young men he had talked into an adventure. Far to the north at the border he would deliver them to brincadores and raiteros, specialists at crossing the Rio Grande and reaching the depths of El Norte—no visas involved, except for floating inner tubes on the river under the moon. Nuñez, age 34, a border crosser since he was 17, would shepherd the easy leg of the trip, north through Mexico, where they were simply legal travelers in their own country. They eased down into 12 reclining bus seats.
On March 28, Vicente Piedra was on a 600-mile bus toward the United States because of debt on a bad watermelon crop. On March 24, Sergio Rivera was coming back from visiting his mother. Raul Arreola was a legal resident of Chicago, riding back north with his wife and sister. Many were in the big spring push.
And all those named above would disappear.
A driver’s license found in a mass grave confirmed Pablo Cote from the Ford minivan. The cell phone carried by Gerardo Martinez, mute for a day, suddenly was answered by a brusque voice, that said stop bothering me or else. Raul Arreola’s body was identified in a pit. And perhaps someday the out-boxes of weary morgue techs will verify the dirt-caked forms of Vicente Piedra the indebted melon farmer, and Sergio Rivera who visited his mother—and the more than 150 other bodies confirmed as occupying the graves. Drifting like dust clouds among the forensic excavations was a report, never confirmed, that one arrestee had said the real number of people in the mass graves might reach 600.
In the late 1990s, founding leaders of the Zetas had enjoyed a haughty advantage in the underworld, for they were renegade ex-soldiers, basically cartel mercenaries. Most such Zeta veterans, however, were eventually killed or arrested, to be replaced by less exotic thugs, bums or kids, pulled into the ancient patterns of bandido depredation. There were some gestures of chivalry—the way bandidos have always done—and there were the startlingly merciless atrocities, a flood of them. The Zetas seemed to get accused of just about everything—and verifiably they did do much of it, in a typical anarchic pattern that might gloatingly fund a Children’s Day party one day, and then, a few dozen miles away, mow down a few screaming children in a chaotic rush, reasons never explained. The stories about gang “rules,” supposedly protecting bystanders from genteel duels, were part of the myth. So was the role of drugs in creating killing machines. The grapevine described cartel hitmen as using Rohypnol (the myth-soaked date rape drug) in combination with alcohol, cocaine or marijuana, not only to deaden sympathies for the target but supposedly to induce amnesia, blotting out memories that the drug-taker had committed an atrocity at all. The rumors were a long way from proving how specific massacres occurred.
Across Mexico, TV sets above cafe tables or in living rooms now throb with riddles. An anxious air of exaggeration vies with brooding denial and cover-up. There are valiant Mexican journalists who risk it all, shoving scraps of the reality onto the record. But the islands of publicly verified fact sit like mountaintops in seas of fog.
In late 2006 a new president, Felipe Calderon, came into office and declared war on the crime syndicates (about five main Mexican trafficking cartels were then operating–and locking horns in maze-like feuds). Calderon’s “drug war” would have the bleak effect of splintering these groups into ever greater cartel violence, with tens of thousands of dead—and tens of thousands of other citizens becoming fed-up protesters in the streets, shouting that Calderon himself was to blame for the menacing new atmosphere in Mexico—while he, not to be outdone, turned and pointed the finger elsewhere—at that reliable target up north, saying that gringo appetites for cartel-smuggled drugs, and a glut of easily exported guns floating around the U.S., were corrupting Mexico’s martyred innocence. All the arguments have their logic—and the shouting is cheap, on both sides of the border—while a remarkably deaf ear is turned to the real history.
A couple of months would be required for the government to announce identifications of the bus corpses–and this was on a mere 12 of the 193 bodies discovered in the 47 pits. All of the 12 can be shown to have come from waylaid buses—-that is, from at least six different buses, and perhaps as many as 10, depending on whether unrelated groups of abducted travelers happened to be on the same bus.
And this only scratches the surface, leaving 181 other bodies–at least some from still other buses–as those bodies await the snail-like timetable for official identification. To talk about 10 busjackings is only to place a conservative starting point. On any given day in the core massacre period, 20 or more of the big transports were funneling through San Fernando’s deadly Dardanelles, each bus with 36 seats or more. The real number of vehicles hit (including private motorists) begins to look like a state secret.
“The town without law,” “the place that smells of death,” “the San Fernando triangle”— catch-phrases waft like the smell from the morgues. Emerging in flashes—which government silences then sought to damp—is a mammoth scenario at San Fernando, a weeks-long grand opera of the damned, on which the many witnesses, too, often stayed as silent as stones, fearing the nationwide reach of the Zetas.
The sense of dreaming-while-awake comes from many directions. There is the motive. What was the reason for these killings? Repeatedly, the Mexican government said it could offer only vague guesses as to motive. How could this be? Why would the Zetas plunge into such horror? What could they possibly gain? You didn’t need to slaughter people en masse just to rob them—or even to enslave a few in your depleted ranks, if that was part of the tortuous aim. On the vast majority of the kidnappees there seemed to be no ransom call, no stereotyped extortion. And yet surviving witnesses (who were let go as if to spread the word) reported no frenzy or lunatic display in the moment of abduction. To witness Zaira Aguilar and various survivors on other buses, the herding looked rather cold and orderly, almost routine.
As press coverage cascaded from responsible reporters to a great sea of gossip, a boilerplate version of the story made it look invitingly simple and understandable: These were just ransom kidnappings. Or, in some versions, these were massacres for the purpose of forced recruiting. Few simplifiers in the media talked about the hidden web of underworld payoffs that backdropped the carnage. And the greatest nuance—that many incidental whims might have come together at once, in a grand ballroom of anarchy—well, what good was this as punchy gossip?
With the government hauling in so many arrested suspects—whom it sternly labeled as important Zeta operatives, allegedly confessing all over the place—did it never think to ask them: SAY, WHY DID YOU DO THIS? A publicity dance seemed to waltz through the looking glass—as official stonewalling met a media mill too willing to rubber-stamp the absurdities. All had impotence to cover up in the face of Mexico’s new phase, as the publicity mill played flamingo croquet.
And uninvited to the ball was a stodgy wet blanket: the perspective of history. As the massacre sprees carved a watershed in Mexican human rights history, any explanation of the historical stature was notably absent from hasty coverage. Modern Mexico’s institutional stagecoach is only about a century old, and as it entered its valley of the shadow, tunnel vision cramped the view. Few if any bulletins looked at the August immigrant massacre (leaving aside for the moment the more voracious bus-sledgehammer spree) from history’s windy perch. Unexplored was another shocker: that the body count in the August event seemed to outstrip all other Mexican massacres going clear back to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, at the last great cycle of breakdown. Even the gore-soaked Cristero War of the late 1920s apparently had no single mass execution of non-combatants to match our own startled era, beginning in August 2010. Modern Mexico’s century has produced an obscure roll call of landmark massacres—La Barca (1927), Topilejo (1930), the Almazanistas (1940), Atoyac (1967), Tlatelolco (1968), Acteal (1997)—but the list lies mostly uncollated in musty archives, not exactly the cup of tea for pack journalism. Thus the 2010-2011 quantum leap would be buried under an easily repeated cliche—“the worst violence of the four-year drug war”—a bit like calling the crucifixion the biggest thing all week. A hamster wheel of revolving press releases kept chirping, and the big neighbor across the border wall kept blinking, like one of Jay Leno’s man-on-the-streets: Oh, yeah, that guy George Washington….
On March 28, a 38-year-old landscaping foreman named Armando Villegas also felt his bus slowing in the dark. From his small hometown in central Mexico he was shepherding three younger seasonal visa holders to the U.S., all close relatives or in-laws. He watched as they were marched off the bus. But the brusque abductors left Villegas alone. They apparently were siezing only younger men, in some form of morbid selection. He heard the bus start back up. The younger men had not returned. At that time, on March 28, secrecy still cloaked the bus massacre pattern, but there was general knowledge of many previous disappearances, so the dangers were frighteningly clear. Villegas, left in his seat, knew how narrowly he had probably missed death. But as the bus engine began rumbling, about to leave his younger companions to their fates, he rose. He walked forward and stepped out into the dark, to do what he could. He, too, was never seen again.
So back to the motive. There is the obvious generality: The Zetas were sending a message—hideously and arrogantly. Whatever else they might be up to, the murderers were saying they could squash people like bugs, whenever they liked, with the authorities left to sputter out some kind of explanation. The grandiosity sounds impossible, irrational—or suicidal. The government’s response, via mass arrests, was predictable. Why would the Zetas bring this on themselves?
Possibility One, the easy answer, packages the bus massacres as a mix of practical aims: robbery, forced recruiting, sporadic ransom. But even if this is true, it doesn’t fully explain the killing. So we move to Possibility Two: Could there have been unseen demands made to third parties, whether in the government or the underworld? Give us what we want, in money or free rein, or we’ll start killing people till it ruins you at the polls (the government) or brings a government crackdown (rivals in the underworld). And this bleeds into Possibility Three: mere terrorism, showing the government, the public and rival gangs that the Zetas are a power (they had previously met some embarrassing defeats). And this blurs into Possibility Four, which might be called the turf tax. Mostly, the hijacked buses were headed for the Reynosa-Matamoros border strip, which is home to the Zetas’ arch-rival, the Gulf Cartel. Paralyzing the Gulf Cartel’s highway entrance might choke off some of its revenue, especially in underworld cuotas, or tolls, paid by people-smugglers moving visa-free pollos (“chickens,” or illegal immigrants) toward midnight swims on the Rio Grande.
And maybe all of these possibilities are partly true.
But there is still Possibility Five, the strangest one.
An enduring specter lurks in human affairs, often confusing observers. This specter is the improbable-sounding mass frenzy called the witch hunt.
On June 17, a stocky, nervously squinting individual named Edgar Huerta was paraded before reporters at a Mexican government press conference. Huerta was identified as a major Zeta henchman, now under arrest. But this was not the blockbuster. A government spokesman announced that Huerta (never before mentioned publicly by the government) had been the key organizer in both of Mexico’s epochal massacre bursts, in August and March. Unfortunately, other announcements like this had been appearing for a half year, on other suspects, seeming to play monster-of-the-week. A succession of shadowy figures had been trotted out in handcuffs, never really explained and then quickly disappeared, each characterized for a moment as the Big Perp, while previous candidates seemed almost forgotten. Huerta was one more shadow–but he still deserves a special look. A statement attributed to him brought up some important context.
Since February 2010 the Zetas have been formally and brutally at war with another crime syndicate, the Gulf Cartel, once their sheltering umbrella, now their hated nemesis. The Gulf Cartel, though scarcely angelic, has repeatedly labeled its anti-Zeta war as a crusade, a push to exterminate the loose-cannon Zetas utterly. Heaps of executed Zetas have been piled at crossroads. Youtube has swelled with back-and-forth beheadings, torture-greased interrogations. Cities have shut down in firefights, settlements have burned, long trains of attack vehicles have borne public insigna of the factions. And as Zetas fell, a stream of young lookouts and errand boys got promoted into combat roles, going up to the heady $2,000-a-month ranks (if the fragmented but still defiant Zetas could pay them at all).
In the midst of this, the Huerta statement suggests, the Zetas got a little jumpy. There is the impression that they started seeing enemies everywhere, behind every bush. Arrestee Edgar Huerta said that when all those passengers were dragged off bus after bus, they were then taken to safehouses in the San Fernando area. He said the purpose was torture – in a sort of inquisition, to make them confess to being demonic enemies. Reports had already surfaced that more than 150 of the 193 known San Fernando bodies showed torture damage. And for months there had been vague rumors of another sort, claiming that the Gulf Cartel might have tried to outflank the Zetas transportation-wise, allegedly bringing in reinforcements from southern Mexico – by bus. So how could the wary Zetas get the proof?
It’s questionable whether even the Zetas themselves believed that many of the trembling bus passengers were really Gulf Cartel invaders. But you never could tell. They had to be tested. If they turned out like the dunked witch (sinking when tossed into the pond, rather than devilishly floating), there was always handy disposal in a mass grave.
Other-worldly as this may sound, the clues ask a question: Had the Zetas (with no shortage of cocaine to tweak their paranoia) gone increasingly daft? Implied was not a leaping cartoon frenzy but a more self-important and somber form of lunacy, the kind seen in witch hunters ranging from Jim Crow lynch mobs to the McCarthy scare, with pious excuses to speed the big thrill.
Of course, Huerta’s description could be as phony as a three-peso bill. The Zetas, for all their death wish and paramilitary mystique, have not produced a brain trust. As the press peered at monster-of-the-week Edgar Huerta it wrestled with his nickname, “El Guache.” Few seemed to attempt a translation, but in Huerta’s home region of southern Mexico it means “The Kid.” This accused organizer of massacres, towering over the vales of Mexican history, was a grizzled veteran of 22.
But whatever his age, he is shadowed by another player in Mexico’s modern calvary: the official blackout screen hiding most of the information from the public. Is Mexico teetering like the Titanic? There is no coherent public picture to suggest an answer. Government secrecy, media impotence and cartel terrorism are all converging to keep the screams in the dark.
[The two opening quotes are from the Mexican newspaper El Universal, in an admirably detailed story April 15, 2011, and from the international wire service Agence France Presse, interviewing victim relatives on April 16. There have been many such instances of brave and skillful journalists, some of them giants in the field, revealing key pieces of Mexico’s massacre puzzle. And yet ultimately these are engulfed by a panorama of official secrecy hiding nearly all of the context—and particularly the forbidden moment, when the sledgehammer fell.]
[Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, sporadically tying Bill Gates for the title of richest man in the world, has a net worth sometimes estmated at $74 billion and a surname tracing to his father’s immigration from Lebanon. Anti-trust charges in April 2011 accused Slim of seeking to monopolize the Mexican cell phone market, whose handsets, coincidentally, carried last glimpses of the March-April bus massacre victims, as they phoned home from attacked buses.
In January 2009, Slim signed a $200-million loan to the New York Times Company, in which he already held substantial interest, to become “the company’s largest creditor…poised to become one of its largest stockholders—after members of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which has controlled the Times since 1896,” reported New Yorker magazine, gazing over a neighbor’s troubled fence:
“A Times correspondent who covered Mexico for the paper was stunned when he heard that the company had been bailed out by a man he considered an exemplar of Mexico’s crony capitalism.” The New Yorker added that “In modern history, no one has dominated a major economy as overwhelmingly as Carlos Slim does that of Mexico.”
As the bus massacres erupted near the U.S. border, titans of Mexican finance were clashing far to the south, in Mexico City, over control of the electronic future. Slim protested that television broadcasters were freezing him out of the video world, while he parried, withholding prodigious advertising revenues.
There were suggestions that horrors at street level were distracting from Mexico’s ancient dilemma, that of being the prize in more secluded battles, waged behind closed doors among the privileged.]