The Challenge

by Gary Moore
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I began seeking the hidden puzzle pieces in the San Fernando massacre nearly a year ago, just after it occurred in August 2010. By now San Fernando, the ghostly town in northern Mexico,
has become world famous–but only superficially. Finding the buried truth is not easy–and it goes very slowly. This year the town’s atrocities redoubled. The August 2010 event, already far worse than anything before in Mexico’s “drug war,” has introduced a chain of such massacres on the same ground, continuing into 2011.

Previous posts here have looked at these events in detail, but to recap:
On August 24, 2010, the Mexican government announced discovery of 72 bodies in a remote farm shed AAA
in the municipio (city/county unit) of San Fernando. These people, including 14 women, were from non-Mexican nations, aspiring immigrants trying to cross Mexico’s dangerous turf, hoping to slip into the United States. The most basic of questions–why they were killed–soon grew lost in a series of changing narratives put forth by the government. Yet the killers,
at least, seem proven: an organized crime group called the Zetas. The paramilitary Zetas specialize in large, unexplained strikes–though no known previous incident had been even remotely as large as the August immigrant massacre.

Unadmitted by the beleagured government, a chain of Zeta atrocities at San Fernando would then continue into 2011, often tied to highway traffic, killing people either in private vehicles or, often, buses. AAA
By March 2011 this was peaking so disastrously that the government was forced to change course and acknowledge the pattern–though again amid veiled and changing narratives, raising more questions than were answered. In early April, troops were surged into San Fernando (much as had happened after the August peak). This ended the sprees for the moment. By late May, more than 80 suspects had been arrested, including more than half the local police force
of San Fernando, accused of being Zeta lookouts or worse. By June the government said that outside the town it had found 47 secretly-dug pits, containing a total of 193 corpses–the majority reportedly coming from passengers mysteriously pulled off buses and executed en masse. Something horrific had broken loose in this corner of Mexico–but publicly, there were only meager glimpses to suggest what that something really was.

The questions are urgent: Is this series of massacres only a local fluke, now destined to subside? Or is it a harbinger? Does it announce a grim new era in Mexico? Might Mexico as a whole be sliding into this new level of violence?

San Fernando is far from Mexico City’s center of gravity to the south, but disconcertingly close to the U.S. border to the north. It stands in the extreme northeast corner of Mexico, where the border runs out to the shores of the Gulf. There are many reasons to ask about San Fernando’s storms.

But the largest is simply this: How can human beings do this to each other? Take a look at the picture. No such collage of faces of victims from the August 2010 event has ever been constructed before. Despite momentary shouting in the news–over in a moment–no one bothered going to all the different sources that could show these people before the massacre, in order to capture their simple humanity. Human rights enormities like the San Fernando events are typically avoided, once a burst of initial publicity has satisfied hasty conscience. Case after case shows the pattern: they fade in and out of the public spotlight like half-remembered dreams. The publicity is like a magician’s quick left hand. The unanswered questions disappear.

AAAThis kind of puzzle has haunted my writing career, from the Balkans (where Southeast Europe gave
us the phrase “ethnic cleansing”) to historical research on Jim Crow atrocities in the United States. Latin America assignments have put me in Mexico, Central America and Cuba–and at one point inside a Mexican newspaper, writing in Spanish. Through all those turns, I hoped that some sort of systematic understanding could be brought to places like San Fernando, where secrecy and violence make the rules.

And there is an odder link. I first met San Fernando a long time ago, at the beginning of my career, when the lure of riddles pulled me into a quest. Wearing a backpack, with no rides en route, I set out to get to know Latin America first hand–by walking. Sending back periodic dispatches, I spent ten months hiking, eventually crossing seven nations and 3,000 miles. Writing a piece in Newsweek beforehand, I got a quirky spot on “The Tonight Show” just before I left.

AAAFour days in, I hit San Fernando. I had structured the route to start at the U.S. border and go south, from the border’s southernmost point at Brownsville, Texas. This had me stepping off into the northeast corner of Mexico–in a time when it wasn’t yet a war zone for cartel violence. San Fernando was a sleepy rural refuge, brightened by new friends.

It amazes me to think how long ago that hike was. So much has changed–in me, and in Mexico. I set out into the shimmering heat south of Brownsville in August 1978. The time span between then and now seems almost unimaginable. I was walking through a pre-millennial era a full generation ago, before cell phones, webcasts, even ATMs–a time when an idealistic hiker could stumble out into the expanse of Mexico and find only dust devils in the way.

A generation later, as the calendar rolled into 2010, I began seeing new glimpses of San Fernando in the news, even before the August massacre. It had become a cryptic node in the cartel war of 2010–a sidelight of the drug war’s overall violence. The 2010 battles (continuing with a vengeance in 2011) pitted Mexico’s most notorious organized crime group, the Zetas, against some powerful underworld enemies, in a syndicate called the New Federation. This included not only an arch-foe of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, but the big Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s largest smuggling group. From clear over on the Pacific, vehicle convoys of gunmen were reaching the battleground on the Gulf coast, where San Fernando waited.

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These complicated conflicts had been growing since the 1990s and earlier–
well before they deepened in 2006, with a new Mexican president coming into office and sending the military against organized crime. For at least a decade northeast Mexico had been shuddering. But the tipping point was 2010.
February 2010 saw the beginning of the New Federation war, and this set the stage for a flood of massacres–on a scale previously unthinkable in Mexico.

AAAIn the news, the size of the shift was camouflaged. The perspective of history was missing. Instead of historical depth, a stock phrase kept repeating: This atrocity of August 2010, it said, was the biggest of the four-year official drug war.

And this was a startling understatement. Fast-changing events were closing off the long view.

In fact, it could be argued that the landmark formed by the August massacre, in ghostly San Fernando, presented the single worst mass execution in all of Mexico’s modern century–back to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920–which was the birth of the Mexico we know. Our age has witnessed an epic wheeling of the stars–obscured by the short-sightedness of crisis mode.

Tunnel vision can hide some strange things. Short-sightedness on Mexico helps to obscure a cycle of centuries–or a chain of coincidental dates, if you prefer…

In 1810, Mexico’s War of Independence produced violence that lasted for a decade, until 1821. Then a century-long period led to 1910. Parade routes in 1910 were marking the hundred-year anniversary of Independence–as a new fire began. Violence erupting in 1910 would bring a tideAAA
of warring factions, seen in U.S. newspapers as faces in the smoke–like Pancho Villa. This was the Mexican Revolution, again lasting a decade, 1910 to 1920, as Mexico’s recorded population fell by a million.

After the turn of a new millennium in 2000, with drug violence growing, voices wondered about the next milestone in the cycle: 1810 – 1910 – … What would happen in 2010? Sociology frowns on talk of mysterious national cycles, but the footprints are tantalizing. If we raise our eyes for a moment from
the crisis of the moment, to gaze from history’s windswept battlements, there are some questions.

Do the rhythms foretell a dire new decade? Will 1810-1821 and 1910-1920 be self-fulfilling prophecies? Could a nation of ancient stress lines play out an unfathomable script? The 2010 massacre breakout came on schedule–or did it? The blinders of crisis meet the sirens of superstition, leaving one certainty: We are fundamentally ignorant of what we are watching unfold.

Now, in mid-2011, after prying for months into the chain of San Fernando massacres, I remain troubled by the holes in the publicly available record. History is not the only absence. The image seen in the media and official statements lacks even some of the most basic facts.

Mexico is so little known in the United States that each news bulletin has to introduce the drug war all over again, with its alphabet-soup players like the Zetas. Once that’s done, the few column inches or air-seconds allotted to the mystery-land have run out. The real mysteries go unspoken.

Mexico’s odyssey becomes a mirror, reflecting back the dilemma of the United States in an emerging global age. We gaze from the high vantage of the border parapets, seeing all that inscrutable horizon, so empty of familiar meaning, so filled with people speaking strange tongues–as the explosions grow, demanding to be understood.

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About Gary Moore

Investigative journalist, international and domestic issues,
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