The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue

Mexico City: A Safe Haven?

When I first arrived in Mexico City last summer, it was still easy enough to believe that the madness of the drug war was a remote and relatively minor distraction: a dispute between rival cartels; a conflict largely confined to the border or distant mountain ranges that hide valleys of poppies and marijuana plants.

Streets of Mexico City, DF. Photos by Shawna Nelles,
Streets of Mexico City, DF. Photos by Shawna Nelles,

After all, I thought, Mexico City may be messier and more colorful than its northern neighbor, but ultimately it belongs to the same universe—the same logic—as the United States. Things are what they seem. A market is a market. The mayor is a mayor. Its avenues, modeled after its Parisian counterparts, are straight and wide, their sidewalks accumulating nothing more than the debris of everyday city life.

I had been offered an internship with the Associated Press in Mexico City while working for the New York Daily News. It was a Tuesday, and the entire staff was livid. Minutes before, a chorus of “you’ve got mail” chirps descended upon the rows of computers, followed by a cascade of what-the-fucks and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me’s. Lattes whizzed across the aisles, aimed at no one in particular. Management had just informed the staff that the paper would no longer contribute to their 401ks. “Get out while you still can,” warned the reporter next to me.

The AP editor called five minutes later. She was friendly and reassuring over the phone, quizzing me in Spanish and asking when I could start. I asked her how dangerous it was to report in Mexico City. She laughed. The closest she had come to violence was a neighbor’s mugging, she said. No big deal. I bought my ticket that night.

By the time I touched down in Mexico, the editor had moved to Phoenix. She had been happy to take the new job, I was told, after a shootout in front of her house left her family terrified and her garage door pocked with bullet holes. She had even pitched a story about it—drug violence descends on Mexico City—long before we had spoken on the phone.

Death waits for no one, and the drug war certainly did not wait for me to adjust to my new job. I spent each day frantically writing summaries of shootouts and kidnappings. I learned how to say, “beheaded,” “dismembered,” “strangled,” and “castrated” in Spanish. And I kept a mental map of the atrocities, their locations like needle tracks on all the main arteries winding away from Mexico City.

Then, in December, the violence crept a little nearer to home. A friend told me a sickening story over 10-peso beers. He had been waiting in line at a Starbucks in Mexico City when a man with a machine gun walked in and shot two men sitting directly in front of him. My friend dove behind a waist-high wall and, when the shooting stopped, left without talking to the police. After all, the victim had been a “protected witness,” my friend pointed out. “Why the hell would I go and talk to the police after that?”

Living in Mexico City is a lesson in will power: you learn to deceive yourself into thinking that the horrors that are everywhere else in Mexico—the cartels and their teenage assassins, the litany of meth labs and befouled bodies dumped along the highway—do not exist here. Even when cartel leaders are arrested in the city’s plush suburbs, and local soccer stars are shot in nightclubs by narcos, you believe that you are invulnerable because you have to.

But Mexico is a large country. Once on the highway, even the false comforts of the capital quickly recede behind you. A few weeks ago, I drove to the western state of Michoacán with a reporter friend of mine. Michoacán has long been famous for its winding mountain roads and marijuana, both of which have contributed to its newer reputation as home of the La Familia drug cartel. We drove through valleys blushing with purple Jacarandas and passed gas stations ringed by dead dogs. Our destination was Uruapan—where La Familia once rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor—to interview Antonio González Rodríguez. He had been mayor until May 26 of last year, when he was seized for suspected links to La Familia. Now, eight months later, he was out of jail (released for lack of evidence against him) and about to return to office.

González was detained along with nine other mayors and 18 public officials in Michoacán in what quickly became known as the “Michoacanazo.” The simultaneous raids were meant to show the federal government’s determination to uproot local corruption and instill a sense of fear into politicians on the take. But, with seven of the 10 mayors now back in their jobs, the “Michoacanazo” has instead become something of an embarrassment for the Calderón administration. After all, there are only two, equally depressing possibilities: either the government imprisoned innocent people or they rounded-up narcos only to let them go. Neither reflects well on a government struggling to regain its sovereignty from organized crime.

González, a former Xerox executive who belongs to the same conservative political party as Calderón, welcomed us to his home in a gated community overlooking Uruapan. His hair had yet to grow out from when it was shaved in prison, and his dark suit and eagerness made him seem more like a Jehovah’s Witness than a suspected narco. He spoke at length about his detention: eight months of confusion and humiliation. At one point during the interview, he pulled up his shirt and took off his shoes—banging them on the white couch, leaving sooty footprints—while showing us the daily inspection routine in jail.

“Your party has already forgotten about you. They’ve forgotten you exist,” he was told. “You are going to spend 15 years here.” But González professed to have little idea why he was detained in the first place. “Rumors. Rumors and lies,” he said. At first, his interrogators accused him of accepting $10 million pesos (roughly $800,000) in campaign financing from a drug cartel, González said, but the official charges against him listed only a lunch he allegedly shared with a narco named Gómez. “I’ve eaten with a lot of people. My job requires it. But I don’t remember any Mr. Gómez,” he said.

González passed the days jumping an imaginary rope in his cell. Outside, bodies kept piling up alongside highways and in drainage ditches: more than 3,000 during those eight months alone. Not even their deaths can clarify what is happening here, where mayors are arrested for being narcos and small towns are mere storefronts for drug cartels. In the drug war, death has been emptied of meaning.

“I don’t have any contacts with organized crime,” González said as we prepared to leave. “The cartels have never pressured me to cooperate. They have never called me.” Asked to explain how Calderón could have let this happen to a member of his own party, González paused and said: “I’m sure that someone lied to the president. Someone wanted to ingratiate themself and misled the president in order to justify their job or their position. That’s the only thing I can think of that might have happened.”

Back on the road, we drove like hell towards Mexico City, towards a semblance of logic and order. “If that guy’s a narco, then I’m a serial murderer,” my friend said to me as we passed through the city of Pátzcuaro, where Mexicans go to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Leaving town, we slowed down to pass a tour bus that had stopped on the shoulder. Its windshield was cracked and flecked with blood. In front of the bus lay two horses, one brown and the other mottled gray, the life leaking out of them, their legs bent at ungodly angles.

“Jesus Christ,” we both whispered, as the bus’s lights slowly blinked, uncomprehendingly.


Michael Miller

Michael Miller is a journalist based in Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues