by Gary Moore
They are the two great landmarks in Mexico’s emerging violence: 1) the August immigrant massacre of 2010, and 2) the “bus massacres” of 2011. The shocking size of these twin peaks cries out for a full accounting.
But unfortunately, most information on what actually happened is being withheld by the Mexican government, and independent investigation is hard pressed to take up the slack. Severe dangers at the scene are almost prohibitive. The resulting public picture is glossed by terse media language, but underneath it dissolves into smoke and mirrors, in a maze of unanswered questions and bizarrely contradicting official statements. The news, goaded by impatient consumers, strains to connect the few available dots, but this can hide the shakiness of the whole image.
The map alone poses riddles. The two landmark massacre eruptions are not at Mexico’s center but squeeze lopsidedly into its extreme northeast corner. They are at almost the same spot, near the wedge where the U.S. border runs out to the Gulf of Mexico. So why there? How did upheaval drift so far from Mexico’s populous heart? Are these just sideshows, unlikely to affect the whole country?
In both cases there is another trait as well: the villain in both seems to have been
a notorious crime cartel called the Zetas.
At least five major underworld syndicates are in play across the breadth of Mexico, battling each other and the weary government. The Zetas are not even the largest cartel. So how can they dominate the human rights panorama? Can their social breakdown be isolated? Or is this the first cough in a pandemic–a glow on the horizon, saying wildfire?
The death toll in the immigrant massacre of August 2010 was 72. There is no evidence to indicate that these people were cartel warriors or otherwise “deserving” of their fate. The Zetas apparently killed them and left the world to figure it out (the pattern is one of their calling cards). Seven months later, Zeta squads were again the apparent aggressors in the bus massacres, tied to a highway 10 miles from the August event. Such massacres of passengers on buses–again without explanation–had been occurring secretively for more than a year, but accelerated in late March 2011. In April a surge of government troops finally stopped the wave. By June, 47 clandestinely dug pits had reportedly been found in the area, containing 193 bodies. The majority of these were said to come from massacred bus passengers.
The general scope is blatantly evident. It would be natural to think that a full public picture is available. Norms had failed, allowing the slaughter of large numbers of people. Where might this lead? Wouldn’t there be a demand for answers?
It’s no secret that human rights atrocities can seem to disappear in a fog of denial. Few people like to think about massacres. The very size numbs sensibilities, and public memory fails. Not to mention the Mexico Factor: an entire national profile dwindling to a distant speck in media north of the border. Mexico correspondents have to choose only a few precious words to describe massive events. Not much space is left to confess how little is really known. When Mexico’s wave of world-scale massacres went public in August 2010, shock waves circled the globe. People in China and Africa saw gruesome news photos of heaped bodies–the victims in the August event. It seemed that reporters must be swarming the scene, so that any day now, as the swarms continued prying, the full picture of this massacre would be abundantly filled out for the public–and would explain the most basic of questions: Why were these 72 people killed? Glancing at the headlines and graphics, many may have naturally assumed that the questions already were answered, if you cared to plow down through the news columns.
But the reality? It seems never to have been directly admitted, but the story was covered by long distance. Reporters didn’t go out there. It was too dangerous, too forbidden, too complicated–and too expensive. A few brave souls did go to a town 13 miles from the killing ground, but most stayed nearly a hundred miles away, or farther away, reading press releases in Mexico City. The killing site itself has apparently never been examined by a media representative. Information about it was stage-managed by the government, as an unidentified functionary took the photographs, then a select few were doled out to the media, in some cases to be re-branded afterward as if coming from on-site legwork.
Also parroted was a government announcement that the massacre had occurred near a settlement called El Huizachal. Since reporters didn’t explore it, they didn’t detect a spelling error (the real name is “El Huizache,” residents and atlases agree). This minor glitch then became a dismal flag, as the fudged name went around the world with the photos, presenting itself as taut factual detail, but silently marking a climate of hurried assumptions.
An historic event–arguably the largest massacre in North America since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920–had been left in a blur of pseudo-facts and unacknowledged guesses. The naming error was never publicly corrected–except by forgetfulness, which soon made it moot as the the riddles dropped from the news, unanswered. Why were these people killed? Nearly a year later the official story is still changing.
On April 6, 2011, seven months after the immigrant massacre, government announcements told of a new enormity on the same general ground. The "bus massacres," coming to a head last spring, cinched the global fame of northeast Mexico. At first, government spokesmen muttered cryptically that frightened bus passengers had been killed after being yanked off two long-distance buses. There were almost no details–and quickly even this picture began falling apart. In a few days it was muttered that the real number of attacked buses was three. Or was it? The non sequiturs became an avalanche. Was it four buses? Or five, six? Eight, nine? Leaks to the press, glimpses and info-fragments began to reveal that in the target area, public order had broken down so shockingly, over such a long period of time, that a flabbergasting parade of public transport had been systematically and repeatedly ravaged.
How many buses were really attacked? The best guess–though not appearing in the news coverage–would be around ten buses, and that’s just in the narrow time span of March 19 – 31 that the government admitted as an incident period, despite other verified cases both before and after that period. There was never an officially announced final count of attacked buses. And the media, focused on press conferences and official communiques, mostly avoided the raw evidence. Obviously hard information existed. These were commercial buses with passenger lists, schedules and manifests, not to mention cell phones. As Mexico tilted toward a largely undescribed abyss, even simple truths failed to reach the public.
In human rights secrets worldwide, often one of the deepest mysteries is how many people really were killed. Arguments persist over Bosnia, Rwanda and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, which gave us the phrase “killing fields.” But in Mexico’s disorienting meltdown the dilemma is the reverse. In the northeast Mexican eruption, the number of bodies is about the only thing that seems reasonably certain. The 72 fatalities from the August immigrant massacre have been formally cataloged. All but 14 have been shipped home to grieving relatives. In the bus massacres revealed seven months later, the 193 bodies (distinct from the 72 in August) are also confirmed. Not all of the 193 came from bus incidents, but agreement seems general that most did.
The thing that is happening in Mexico is not an echo of Bosnia or Rwanda. In Bosnia’s Srbrenica slaughterhouse, or Rwanda’s machete sprees, it would have been absurd to say that no one knew the motive. Everyone knew the motive, immediately. It was ethnic hatred. But in Mexico something else is unfolding, something that does not require ideology or fanaticism for great masses of people to meet execution. The Zetas have unlocked a different pandora’s box, contents unknown.
A fire is looming at our southern border, causing frightened cries that it is spilling north. Most of the shouting breaks down into old patterns of political advantage or mass hysteria, for violence has always gone back and forth across the border to some degree. At present–even in Mexico’s time of trials–no dramatic new spillover seems to have appeared. At least not yet. In an information vacuum, predictions are all the more meaningless.
Whether we spy illusional Mexican invaders in the desert (the caricatured version of how Mexico looks when viewed from the political right) or turn a blind eye to unpleasant practical issues (the caricature attaching to the left), one thing is the same. Something tremendous stands before us, just beyond the border’s shimmering heat. And we lack even the most fundamental knowledge of what that something is.