by Gary Moore
El Erasmo ran out of luck at Devil’s Curve, a fitting backdrop, framed by lonely pasture country nearly 800 miles south of the U.S. border, though less than a mile from the lapping Gulf of Mexico. It seemed an obscure reckoning: one more unknown face, one more blip in Mexico’s post-millennial “drug war.”
But La Curva del Diablo would throw
its own twist into the larger panorama. El Erasmo (real name Abraham Barrios, age 26) would offer a gem-like clue, shedding light on today’s startling new phase in Mexico’s violence. This phase swelled into sight in 2010 and has deepened in 2011–and yet in the news it presents a confusing jumble, as a morbid symptom is left largely in the dark:
The word “massacre”–a one-sided aggression where the targets are not shooting back–is automatically repellent. And to compare sizes of massacres, by body count, is especially macabre. But the fact remains: For more than a decade there have been relatively small, local massacres in Mexico, with some non-combatant victims mixed in. But then came last year. Something gave way.
In 2010 the maximum size of the massacres broke out, not just creeping up but exploding. Peak incidents began showing death tolls three times larger than the norm in prior years, or larger. Before 2010, a well-established ceiling on body counts had seemed to operate organically, simply through the mind-set of the warriors: Even the largest incidents in the “war” had seemed to kill no more than 15 to 20 people (in one-sided massacres), or (in a two-sided battle) the toll might very occasionally creep toward 30. This unwritten ceiling, for whatever reasons, had held fast through year after year of the violence–that is, through the official deepening of the drug conflict in late 2006, and through years before and after, back past the millennium–and up to 2010.
Twenty bodies was unspeakable enough. But 2010 would trivialize that horror. An invisible boundary seemed to dissolve. Suddenly a single massacre might take 70 or more victims. Comprehension paled. Public forums seemed almost paralyzed by the acceleration. Formula news reporting–and the personal feelings of observers–were outstripped. Almost in the dark, a solemn new journey had overtaken a nation of 111 million. Without official acknowledgement, Mexico had entered a cavern of the soul, a time of epic killing fields.
This sweeping backdrop, however, seemed not to intrude at Devil’s Curve–at first.
Erasmo met the curve on a humid Tuesday, this past June 28,
in the late afternoon while there was still sun–which was helpful. The narrow two-lane out of Coatzacoalcos, running coastwise in Mexico’s Veracruz state, was a gauntlet of potholes, while a lack of road shoulders put weedy drop-offs at the pavement’s edge. Two weeks earlier this same needle’s-eye had caught a despondent taxi driver, piloting unit 3952 after a two-day beer binge in a marital dispute: the taxi hit Devil’s Curve and flipped down the weedy bank, fatally, coming to rest on scorched grass where somebody had burned off the pasture. That was June 11. Twelve days later El Erasmo came along.
The silver Dodge Journey speeding him toward the curve was shiny as if recently washed, and pretty full. Besides Erasmo there were three companions, two Kalashnikov assault rifles with banana-curved ammo clips, two pistols for good measure, a fake license plate and, trussed in the back, a haunted 35-year-old female kidnap victim. During captivity of more than a week, it would later be reported, the hostage had been gang-raped.
But mainly, her four kidnappers wanted money. Erasmo was not the head of the squad. Both he and his boss (who wore only an undershirt in the coastal heat) were separately on the lam from other crimes, only narrowly escaping. Verdant Veracruz state, a long strand hugging the Gulf of Mexico, is far from the big smuggling battlegrounds on the U.S. border. Thus it forms a stronghold for the Zetas, Mexico’s most notorious crime cartel. The Zetas sometimes use Veracruz as a rearguard area, a place of refuge and regrouping. In the silver Journey the Zeta boss giving orders was called Crab (El Cangrejo, real name Ramon Evangelista Martinez), a balding 40-year-old who, months earlier, was said to have run out the back door of a marijuana stash house, escaping a raid. Apparently the Zetas’ central command–stubbornly surviving in deep secrecy despite many such setbacks–had hooked together these four dislocated foot soldiers and told them, as per custom, to fund their hiding-out by living off the land–which this week meant kidnapping.
In the days prior to Devil’s Curve the four had squeezed more than $12,000 from the abducted woman’s frantic relatives, who had apparently hocked everything in sight, even somehow delivering a couple of automobiles to the four entrepreneurs. And still there was one more demand: give us any remaining family jewelery. This last pound of flesh was supposed to be dropped off in the vicinity of Devil’s Curve.
Something in the relatives seemed to snap. Around 6:00 p.m. an army post received an anonymous phone call, revealing (at least reportedly) the point of rendezvous. By whatever chain of events, the silver Journey reached the Devil’s Curve area and did not find a pleading family member with a bag of broaches. Instead there were soldiers. The Crab, or whoever was at the wheel, tried to whip around on the tightrope road, then was luckier than the previous taxi driver, only falling off and getting stuck. Some reports said there was a firefight, with no one hit. And for one person in the Journey the curve was not devilish. The woman was freed. Like faint background static a nearby sign announced a settlement somewhere out of sight: Rancho Angel Negro.
The four new captives were soon posed for a photographer in front of the weed-sunk Journey, after their shirts had been doffed and then squeezed back over their cuffed arms, as makeshift straitjackets (except for Cangrejo, whose undershirt wouldn’t have worked as well).
Erasmo was barely mentioned in the first reports. He seemed a minor tag-along. The spotlight was on Crab, the boss, and on a flashy henchman, code-named The Chameleon. But all four were whisked 350 miles away to Mexico City, for special interrogation.
Thus, on June 30, came the bombshell: the obscure, somewhat baby-faced Erasmo was really the celebrity. He had confessed to key participation in the two great massacre events of Mexico’s new age. Both of those massacres had occurred a good 600 miles north of Devil’s Curve–and both were in the same Zeta-infested, myth-soaked killing zone. They occurred near a “town of death” called San Fernando, 90 miles below the U.S. border.
Erasmo’s first imputed massacre role was in San Fernando’s “immigrant massacre,” the burst that had kicked off the new era, eradicating, in a single storm of gunfire, 72 helpless migrants, who were not Mexican but came from nations farther south, in efforts to slip across Mexico to the United States.
The 72 were tied up in a farm shed, blindfolded and executed en masse. And the reason? Now we get closer to it–the twist in Erasmo’s clue: Incredibly, the reasons for the immigrant massacre were never satisfactorily explained. The mere fact of the massacre–as the bodies were discovered–was announced on August 24, 2010.
But now the curtain opens again. Erasmo also reported acting in a second great landmark event, more diffuse in time but nearer to the present. This was the sequence called “the bus massacres”–also in the San Fernando area but peaking in late March 2011, seven months after the August enormity. Here, too, the Zetas were well proven to be the perpetrators. In this one, they had begun hauling passengers off long-distance buses–bus after bus after bus–and then marched them off to mass execution. By June the government had announced finding 47 secretly-dug pits, containing 193 bodies. The majority were said to come from the bewildering bus massacres.
Bewilderment, in both cases, attached naturally. There was the same missing puzzle piece–that surreal, nearly absurd missing piece:
Why had these massacres been carried out? What in the world were the Zetas seeking to accomplish? Both the immigrant massacre in August and the bus massacres that climaxed in March–to name only the twin peaks–hit the Mexican public with gross intellectual insult, adding to the horror. These things made no sense. How could aggressions this large have no explanation?
From the first moments of publicity in August 2010,
official statements on the stream of massacres had an eerie, clueless tone. At first, the motive was said to be ransom–and simple robbery. Then almost immediately this changed. Government flaks began announcing that “forced recruiting” was the motive. Zeta wrath was said to have swelled because, somehow, bound and blindfolded captives had heroically refused to become slave gunmen for the Zetas. Privately, there were reporters who said this made no sense. Publicly, the news kept carrying these theories-of-the-week as if they were soberly proven fact. The weasel words–“may be” or “officials have theorized”–got discreetly buried in the rush.
So there was not just tne mystery within the Zetas–but another mystery in the government. Nobody seemed to be saying that the government’s blank stare had been purchased with a bribe (the best argument against that was the incoherence itself: What possible value could a briber be getting from
such incoherence?) At the outset at least one Zeta gunman was arrested, and soon the government was boasting that he had elaborately confessed. So how had they missed asking him the most fundamental question: Why? It seemed that an off-stage huddle was more interested in making everything fit the theory-of-the-week.
By October there were more boasts. A total of eight Zetas had been caught and charged with the immigrant massacre. But if they really did do it, didn’t someone ask: WHY did you do it? Clearly, incidental motives like extortion and forced recruiting might have played some part in the Zeta actions. But could they explain the whole orgy of killing?
Not even the government seemed to think so, for in time it would quietly drop the maybe-extortion-and-forced-recruiting theme–for yet another theory-of-the-week. Meanwhile a few weary reporters kept trying to go after the deeper story–and were rebuffed by silence.
Any inquiring Alice met a wonderland of rabbitholes. Could it be that the government’s interrogators were so incompetent–or so corrupt or complicit–that they were unable to grasp the mystery? This strained the imagination, too. Something was being hidden. But what was it?
All along there had been clues on two major possible motives that were being shunted aside. One had to do with payoffs (not exactly bribes). Especially on illegal immigrants, and on some other classes of people as well, the Zetas imposed their own “taxes”–a kind of permission fee for taking a breath on Zeta turf. When those protection fees were avoided, the welchers might be severely punished.
On March 24, 2011, police in El Salvador, more than a thousand miles south of San Fernando,
arrested a people-smuggling tycoon said to be involved with some of the immigrant victims in the August massacre. And this figure, Carlos Teos, was also said to be linked to the Zetas–though shakily. Teos’s organization had allegedly welched on a Zeta turf tax. The Salvadoran police were thus moved to give this as the long-sought explanation for the August massacre: It was a Zeta punishment for not paying up. Certainly possible. And yet Teos was said to be tied to only about 10 of the 72 victims; and again there were the weasel words–“might” and “could have been”–showing how deeply mysterious all this had become.
The road now gets closer to Erasmo on June 30, along devilish curves.
Some of the twists were small. Lost in the shouting was a mention on April 8 in the British daily The Guardian. An intrepid correspondent, venturing ear the massacre zone, had unearthed a neglected line of reasoning: Could the Zetas be massacring people in some kind of crazy witch hunt–a paranoid search for phantom enemies? Obviously, something had gone crazy. There was the background:
Since February 2010 the Zetas had been fiercely at war with their arch-rival in the underworld, the Gulf Cartel. Mexico’s overall drug “war” is a crazy-quilt of mafia feuds–aside from the government’s push to stamp out all the feuders together. By August 2010 the Gulf Cartel had the Zetas on the run, winning control of a populous Mexican border area, the Reynosa-Matamoros metro strip near the coast. But only 90 miles south lay rural San Fernando–still Zeta country. The Zetas, roaming such countryside in their packs of SUVs, threw a siege line around the Gulf Cartel’s metroplex. On the one hand, they were fenced out of vital smuggling gateways at the border. But they could still choke the main highway leading north into the Gulf Cartel’s urban redoubt. Rumors said that Gulf strategists, vexed by Zeta blockades, were trying a trick: allegedly bringing in new squads of Gulf gunmen on the highway, but undercover–on ordinary buses. Did the Zetas believe these rumors? Did they lash out?
Despite the hints, government statements kept saying that the massacres were done for forced recruiting. The news kept parroting this official line. But in June the line shifted.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a new crop of criminals was paraded before the press–and they were singing a different tune. June 16 brought the arrest of 22-year-old Edgar Huerta, an ex-soldier-turned-Zeta. As he was prodded toward the flashbulbs in a press conference, previous massacre explanations, saying forced recruiting, seemed to be forgotten. Huerta was touted as the devastating inside voice, revealing the real truth.
Sure enough, he said the massacres had resulted
from a sort of witch hunt–that is, that the Zetas had killed both the immigrants in August and the bus passengers around March because they were determined to stop the Gulf Cartel from bringing in new soldiers by bus. Placed before a video camera, Huerta was squinting noticeably and spoke in a rushing, almost whispering monotone, while the resulting tape gave only edited glimpses. But again there was a media rush. Huerta had “solved the mystery,” a headline announced. This news then shot to the top of Google’s hits.
And maybe Huerta had solved the mystery. But the rush was burying the deeper mystery. If a witch hunt in search of enemies had indeed been the real motive for the massacres all along, why would the government hide this fact for months? In its parade of pseudo-explanations, what could it have gained? Behind the curtain, was there some public-relations-Svengali-from-hell, demanding that the flaks control information through incoherence?
Nobody was saying. But whatever had changed behind the scenes, allowing this new explanation to emerge (true or not), the change in policy seemed to persist.
Because soon, on June 30, there would be Erasmo.
Stumbling out of Devil’s Curve and into the flashbulbs, he said it was true, that the massacres had flared because the Zetas were hunting for (phantom) enemies. He didn’t use the term “witch hunt,” but there was the image: superficial profiling cues pointing the finger at alleged Gulf-Cartel-soldiers-on-the-bus–which meant hideous torture and death for a lot of ordinary passengers, like something out of Torquemada’s Inquisition.
Two days after leaving the weeds outside Rancho Angel Negro, Erasmo was in his own perp-walk video, confirming the new company line. Press reports accompanying his June 30 photo seemed not to comment on a detail. Note the eye.
The earlier group photo on June 28, when the four arrested kidnappers were still at Devil’s Curve, didn’t capture many facial subtleties, but there didn’t seem to be a shiner, not at that point. Nor did reports from the arrest scene seem to mention a fist fight.
Within two more days El Erasmo, the sudden celebrity and monster-of-the-week, had been packaged to tell a story, black eye and all. This was a story which–for reasons unknown–had become permissible to tell. It might be completely true, partly true or otherwise. Independent clues do back it up. But it loses its punch, outflanked by surrounding mysteries.
The real message from Erasmo is not that the riddle of the massacre motive has at last been solved. Probably, in some way, a bizarre witch hunt did factor into Mexico’s new massacre era. But most of the picture is still deeply hidden. And hence the real message: A large nation of 111 million people, with a 2,000-mile border, is in the throes of something very big.
And there is no reliable public picture of what that something is.