Friends Can Also Betray You
The American press continues to report the body count in Mexico's "War on Drugs" at more than 50,000 dead.
But Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University, tallies more than 100,000 Mexicans killed to wage a war financed and mandated by American authorities and led by Mexican president Felipe Calderón.
The carnage has been so remarkable — mass executions, beheadings, mutilations, men, women, children — that the outgoing Calderón has announced he may leave the country lest he become a statistic.
And yet The New York Times on July 4 declared the War on Drugs a cruel failure, claiming that the price of cocaine, for example, is 74 percent cheaper now than it was thirty years ago. America has spent $20 to $25 billion a year to stem the flow of narcotics, to no good end.
The evening news vibrates with the mayhem in Syria, where the recent uprising has cost 17,000 lives. During the twelve years of the Vietnam War, broadcasts tracked the 50,000 Americans who perished on the other side of the world. But the 100,000 Mexicans lost supplying America's thirst for drugs are, for the most part, unremarked upon. Mexico elected a new president earlier this month. Enrique Peña Nieto promises to put an end to the killing, yet his only new proposal is to create another paramilitary force — like those implicated in much of the killing happening now.
Arizona author Charles Bowden and his New Mexico partner, Molloy, have written a highly personal tale of the devastation as illuminated by the trail of murdered Mexican journalists. Survivors have gathered at a barbecue in Texas, where the story unfolds. — Michael Lacey, executive editor, Village Voice Media
Children play in the pool, hamburgers and hot dogs sizzle on the grill. The exiles will be here shortly after their year in flight from a house full of dead people. Everyone at the party has dead people murdered in Mexico by the Mexican government with the silent consent of the United States government. There are 100,000 slaughtered Mexicans now. These gatherings will grow larger.
Carlos Spector hosts this fiesta. He is an American immigration lawyer in El Paso, but in the past four years his practice has been taken over by political-asylum seekers, Mexicans with no money fleeing a Mexican government that wants to kill them. He is also a product of Mexico and spent a lot of his childhood on the other side of the Rio Grande. Now he cannot go there, because the Mexican army would like to kill him, also.
Like everyone here, he had planned a different life. His father came down from New York, fell in love with a Mexican girl and raised a family across the river, in the village of Guadalupe. When Carlos left the U.S. Air Force, he studied sociology but gave that up because "it was too slow. I didn't want to study the state; I wanted to smash it."
An old woman sits silently at the party. Sara Salazar, matriarch of the Reyes Salazar clan, is about eighty years old and from Guadalupe. Carlos Spector knew her people as a child. They killed some of her grown sons — one, two, three, just like that — and two daughters, also.
The woman in the blue blouse with the bangs and the ponytail worked as the police secretary in Guadalupe "before they killed everyone," she notes. The man in the green shirt — he was a city councilman before he fled for his life. The man with the sober face — he is the sole surviving son. He was a baker before the killing got bad. Then they burned the house down; the family library of 3,000 books perished in the flames. In his bakery, he always had someone reading out loud while everyone worked. The same day the house burned, the crosses vanished from the graves of murdered family members and were deposited against the Mexican army barracks in Guadalupe. In their little town of 3,000 people, 250 have been murdered.
Saul, the baker, the surviving brother, says, "Sometimes I start to cry. I lost half my family, my job. What more can I lose? Sometimes I worry even here in El Paso, but if I am murdered here, at least it will be investigated."
He has a book where he has carefully written down the names and dates of all the dead because he thinks someone should remember what has happened to his town and his nation and someday tell it, lest the lies become the history. Martha Gellhorn, the fearless novelist and reporter portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the recent HBO series Hemingway & Gellhorn, came out of her wars and wrote, "If nobody puts it down on the record anywhere, then the monsters win totally."
At last the exiles arrive: Miguel Angel López Solana, 32, his wife, Vanessa, younger. People came and killed Miguel's father and his mother and his brother. For months, he and his wife bounced between their home in Veracruz, Mexico City and the border. Finally, they fled to Corpus Christi, Texas, and waited for a chance to return to Mexico. Then in May of this year, four more people from their circle were slaughtered, and they knew that a return home was impossible. They called Carlos Spector.
About 40 percent of Spector's firm's time now goes to pro bono cases of Mexicans seeking political asylum in the United States. Some weeks he wonders if he can make payroll. He says, "There was a time I stopped doing these cases, and that's when I got fucked up. This is now a calling for me, not a profession."
In the United States, there are reports of a war between the Mexican government and the drug business. In the United States, drug laws fill prisons and recruit citizens to be convicts and rural Americans to be jailers. In Mexico, the whispers are of the Mexican government killing Mexicans. In Mexico, the secret history of the American War on Drugs is being written on the corpses of the Mexican people.
Carlos sits at the fiesta in his backyard surrounded by messengers from the dead.
Sara Salazar is silent, her hair gray, a face carved from stone.
Miguel Angel López Solana and his wife smile.
They also know things Americans find hard to believe.
They must tell their stories.
It is all they have left.
Miguel is determined to remember. When the killings come to his life, he sits down and writes: My father, Miguel Angel López Velasco, known as "Milo Vela," began working at Notiver about 30 years ago. My mother, Agustina Solana, was a homemaker. My younger brother, Misael López Solana, was a photojournalist and worked with my father. Milo's journalism was characterized by publicizing citizens' complaints, exposing corruption and narcotrafficking. He expressed his opinions about all of these things. Milo Vela's journalism was critical.
In the old faded photograph, Miguel the son is two years old and sits at the keyboard of a telex wire machine in the newspaper office in Veracruz.
Milo Vela spent most of his career at Notiver, the daily paper of the port city of Veracruz. He covered crime, became a columnist and edited the police section. He taught his sons not to believe in political parties, since they all lied and were corrupt. He taught his sons that news was a calling. Sometimes Miguel and his father would simply sit in a car outside of the Red Cross center waiting for an accident to be called in. They were newsmen.
Ever since I was a child, I remember that my father worked all day for the newspaper, Notiver. I only saw him sleeping while I was getting ready to go to school in the mornings, because by the time I got home from school, it would be the next morning before I would see him again in bed.... I got to know his co-workers, among them, Yolanda Ordaz [de la Cruz], who covered the police beat. Nothing kept any of them from covering any kind of news. I remember once in the 1980s, Yolanda and my father were beaten up by federal police when they went to cover an intensive operation carried out in the area near the port — apparently something to do with securing a shipment of weapons.
In 2007, a severed head is delivered to a corner near the newspaper offices. Then a video appears on YouTube claiming that Milo Vela, his reporting partner, Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz — called the "fat black woman" in the video — and the son Miguel Angel take money from the criminal group called Los Zetas and go to parties with them. Everyone but the father flees the city of Veracruz temporarily.
The family home is brick, two stories and modern, with lots of windows, two blocks from the police station. Miguel's brother Misael, 21, lives at home and works as a photographer at Notiver. Miguel lives ten minutes away and is also a photographer for the paper. They are given to family dinners and celebrations. On June 19, 2011, Miguel and Vanessa attend a Father's Day dinner and eat salpicón made with crab and a seafood stew.
There had been signs of trouble before the dinner. Something was bothering his father, but Miguel knew better than to ask. A week before, at the funeral for an uncle, he mentioned to his father the attack against another reporter.
His father said, "Don't worry."
Miguel noticed that for the past month, his father had begun calling him early each morning and again in the evening to make sure he was okay. A few days before the dinner, his father had a loud argument with the nephew of the governor over his paper's stories, and the morning after Father's Day, he had a column coming out that questioned the reputation of two candidates for chief of traffic police in Veracruz.
During his first term at Notiver in the 1980s, Milo Vela was attacked on his way home to sleep. I don't remember the date, but I do recall that his car was shot full of bullet holes.... I remember asking him once about what had happened, and he didn't tell me much. "Well, I was driving down the Morelos bridge and passing the factory when these dark guys pulled out like 'bats out of hell (hechos la madre)' and I realized they were chasing me, so I sped up, but I saw they were going to catch up with me so I pulled over and jumped out of the car and ran toward the beach...." This is all he told me, but then he turned around and said, "But, Miguel, this is all over now."
The call comes at six a.m. from a fellow photographer at the paper, Gabriel Huge, a man who survived a bad accident and rides a scooter to crime scenes and walks with a cane. He is also a man who does not back down: Miguel has photographs of a swarm of federal police in flak jackets surrounding him for taking pictures without their permission. In the images, his face looks fierce and empty of fear.
Gabriel says, "You need to come to the house. Something has happened."
When he arrives, the city police have taped off the residence.
Gabriel says, "They have killed your father, mother and brother."
Miguel walks up the stairs to the second floor. His mother is outside the door of the bedroom, face down in a pool of blood. His father is propped in a sitting position on the bed, his face destroyed by bullets. Down the hall, his brother Misael, known as el gordo in the family because of his weight, is face down in blood. He is wearing yellow shorts his mother had made for him because it was hard to find clothes in his size. He has three rounds in the back of his neck and head. Miguel thinks of all the times he has come here early in the morning or late at night and tiptoed down the hall lest he wake anyone. He goes back into his parents' room, sits down in front of their bodies and says goodbye. He is weeping now.
The police ask, "Is there any electronic surveillance or closed-circuit TV at this house?"
He says, "No."
Miguel knows what the question means: If there is a security camera, they want to know so they can destroy the evidence.
He helps carry out the bodies. First, his mother wrapped in sheets. Then his father — he remembers thinking as he carries him of reproaching him for not having any security measures in the house. And, finally, his brother, el gordo, the fat one, his brother wrapped in an old red bedspread. It is very hard to get him down the stairs. Miguel breaks down sobbing. He asks himself, "What happened here?" His family has just been annihilated by 35 gunshots fired at close range. While the state police are still at the house, they tell him they will send a special team of bodyguards.
No one asks him for a statement.
At the funeral home, Miguel makes arrangements. A reporter from La Jornada, a major left-of-center Mexico City daily that both he and his father had done work for, tells him he must get out of Veracruz if he wants to live. He remains at the funeral home all day, and just before dawn, makes a quick trip to his parents' house with Vanessa, then his fiancée, to get some clothes. The bodyguards ride with them. On the way back to the funeral home, a taxi follows them for fifteen blocks. The guard draws his gun, tells Miguel to speed through a red light at a roundabout, and they manage to lose the tail. They get back to the funeral home, and it is under 24-hour guard by Mexican Navy troops wearing ski masks and Veracruz state police. At the funeral, he writes down later, "A neighbor told me that he had seen three trucks and two people who had gone into my parents' house. Another neighbor told me she had heard shots and that for about a week before, she had seen a group of people on motorcycles who seemed to be watching.... She had heard them talking on their radios, saying, "We are already here guarding the spot."
None of these neighbors give statements to the police.
Officials are at the graveside, the caskets lowered into the sand that is Veracruz. Navy vehicles escort the cortege. State dignitaries promise an investigation, justice and punishment. The ceremony is surrounded by soldiers. This does not make Miguel feel safe.
The day after the funeral, the security detail escorts him and Vanessa to the airport and they flee the city where his father is famous, where he has spent his entire life. Miguel ponders the military precision he saw at the crime scene and the neighbors' whispered accounts of the killings.
He remembers opening the door to his brother's room that morning and wanting to say, "Wake up! Wake up!"
Miguel goes to the Mexico City headquarters of La Jornada. The editors give him a desk job because they do not think it is safe for him to be out on the street. Simply leaving Veracruz cannot protect him.
Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, Milo Vela's reporting partner, is found at four a.m. July 26. For the past month, she had been investigating Milo Vela's murder and had gone missing two days before. The body is dumped outside another Veracruz newspaper, Imagen, the head cut off. A message left with the corpse advises, "Friends can also betray you." The attorney general of Veracruz announces that this "unusual assassination was due to the fact that the woman and single mother maintained links with criminal gangs." He asserts her murder has nothing to do with her work as a journalist.
Miguel and Vanessa are paralyzed. For three days they cannot leave their Mexico City apartment. They have entered a new phase of exile. First they lose their native state. Now they feel their nation slipping away. In Veracruz, 15 crime reporters flee the city. Gabriel Huge gets a call informing him he will be killed. He flees, also.
Miguel had tasted threats before, as had his father. But things began to change in 2006, when the new president, Felipe Calderón, announced that he was hurling the Mexican army against drug organizations. Strange criminals suddenly appeared in Veracruz, guys who did not even know the streets, their reckless driving causing more car accidents. And killings. Miguel is covering a crime scene or accident, and someone shoves a gun in his mouth and lectures him on how he should do his job. Death threats mount.
One night in May 2010, a cop pulls Miguel over. Vanessa is riding along. The cop is hostile but allows Miguel to drive on. A few minutes later, the street is blocked by guys with AR-15s wearing federal police uniforms. They tell him, "Right now you are going to get really fucked up." ("Vas a ver, hijo de la chingada.") They take him, leaving the girl behind. They go behind a hotel, beating him all the way there.
At least four more vehicles arrive, and a man with one glass eye and the look of the boss gets out and tells him that what he was doing could get him killed. Miguel asks the man if he is a Zeta and he nods. He asks Miguel if he wants to die, and Miguel says no. The man says, well, you can go this time, but the next time we will kill you. They dump him where he was originally snatched. He calls his father, who advises him not to report the incident.
Miguel explains, "In Mexico, you learn to live with fear. You see bodies decapitated, you see police covered in blood. The fear just gets bigger and bigger. You see the decay of everything."
By July 2011, when Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz is butchered, she is the seventh Mexican reporter killed that year, the third in Veracruz.
On September 20, during the afternoon rush hour, two trucks block the viaduct by a high-end shopping mall in Boca del Rio, a suburb of Veracruz. Drivers watch men methodically dump 35 bodies, twelve of them women. The men then leave, and no one stops them and no police come. The bodies are marked with the letter Z to suggest they are members of Los Zetas, a criminal organization that began as a special military unit created by the Mexican government and trained by the United States to fight drug organizations. The unit was designed to be incorruptible. Almost immediately, the DEA began secret payments to the group. Eventually, its members left for the better employment benefits of the drug industry and became the Zetas. The dumped bodies in Boca del Rio are bound with plastic ties at the wrists and ankles, restraints only available to the police and army.
The official story, that the dead are Zetas, holds for a while and is widely reported in the U.S. press. Then it cracks. Reforma, a right-of-center pro-government paper, talks to the families of the dead and discovers that they are mainly petty criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes, if they had any criminal records at all. These facts are hardly reported in the U.S. press and soon vanish from the press in Mexico for fear of repercussion.
Miguel gets reports in Mexico City. His friend and fellow photographer Guillermo Luna has a cousin who is walking to get a bag of ice in Boca del Rio on September 16, Mexican Independence Day, when he sees some adolescents celebrating in the street. Police sweep in and take the kids.
A woman goes to the police station seeking her teenage son. She is told he is not in custody. Later she learns his body is one of those dumped by the fashionable mall. A video circulates on the Internet from a group called the Zeta Killers. They wear masks and sit at a table and claim credit for the killing. Miguel learns that they are really former Veracruz policemen playacting.
Miguel and Vanessa spend the rest of the year in limbo. The United States usually denies political asylum to Mexican reporters, because to grant it would constitute an admission about the real nature of Mexico. They return to her grandparents in Veracruz and hide. Then they fly to Reynosa, on the Texas border, and begin the paperwork for a U.S. visa. They return to Veracruz, get their car, and fling themselves into a new land.
They go to Corpus Christi and end up in a cheap motel as their tiny hoard of cash dribbles away. They cannot legally work. They yearn for Mexico. At times Miguel can hear his mother's voice.
The years passed, and at the beginning of the 1990s my father left Notiver...above all because they were censoring some of his articles and his columns.... Then my father ended up without a job and went to work as a taxi driver, saying that he knew the city perfectly from covering the news and it would be an easy job for him.
In Corpus Christi, Miguel and Vanessa begin to learn English. Miguel remembers his father's admonition: "You have to do before you can be." So he begins traveling down this new path in the new year. January passes, and February and March, and then, on April 28, a tremor passes through their world.
Police find the body of Regina Martinez, 49, lying in the bathtub of her home in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state — strangled. She writes for Proceso, the most prestigious magazine in Mexico, a publication read by the educated and powerful and generally spared much government censorship so that the state can point to it and claim a free press. She covered corruption and drug trafficking, and in 2007 had written a well-known story on Mexican soldiers raping and killing an indigenous woman. She becomes the fortieth reporter killed since Calderón took office in December 2006. The government of Veracruz suggests the killing was simply a robbery because two cell phones and her laptop are missing, precisely the items one would take if looking for her contacts.
"I didn't know her," Miguel says, "but I knew her reputation and her reporting on the abuses of officials. When my family was killed, I thought nothing can be worse than this. But when Regina was killed, I thought they can do anything."
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Police in Veracruz find black plastic garbage bags in a canal. They hold the chopped-up bodies of four people, three of them press. Guillermo Luna, whose cousin witnessed the abductions in September 2011, worked as a photographer at Notiver, as did Gabriel Huge, the man who had called Miguel the morning of his family's murder to tell him of the slaughter. Esteban Rodriguez also had been a photojournalist. Irasema Becerra was Gabriel's girlfriend. The three men had fled Veracruz in 2011 but returned in 2012 because they could not find work. Rodriguez had gone to work as an auto mechanic. None of this mattered. On the day of the kidnappings, just an hour before he was reported missing, Gabriel had gone to a cousin's house to ask her to care for his daughter should he vanish.
Three weeks later, on May 31, Noel López Olguín surfaces from a secret grave in Veracruz. He'd disappeared on March 8, when men in SUVs took him away. He worked for La Verdad de Jáltipan, a rural paper in the state of Veracruz, and wrote a column exposing official corruption and often attacking drug people by name. After his kidnapping, some media in Veracruz denied he'd ever worked for them. The exhumed body is photographed, caked with dark-brown earth.
Miguel realizes he will never feel safe in Mexico again. For him, he explains, it is like a sheet of white paper that you crumple in your hand: No matter how hard you try to iron it, it will always show the wrinkles.
He says, "I no longer have trust in anybody or anything."
A few days later it is Memorial Day, and Carlos Spector hosts that party at his home in El Paso, and Miguel and Vanessa drive across Texas to eat and drink with the other dead men and dead women walking.
"I am an orphan now," Miguel says.
He clicks through photographs on his computer: his family and mother beaming; his brother, el gordo, laughing and acting out; the huge carnival in Veracruz each year just before Lent; the beach; the laughter of life.
He dreams of a family dinner, and in this dream his father looks up and says, "Miguel, it is okay to leave us behind now."
Since January 1, 2007, more than 100,000 people have been murdered in Mexico, according to the government. The last official release, in January 2012, said that "drug-related" or "organized crime-related" homicides totaled 47,500 through September 2011. Media estimates since have ranged from 50,000 to 80,000.
No one knows or will ever know the real death toll. Officially, the government says that 90 percent of the dead are criminals. Officially, the government admits it has investigated fewer than 5 percent of the deaths. No one knows what percentage of the homicides can be attributed to fighting between rival organized crime gangs, fighting between law enforcement and/or military and drug gangs, or fighting among different law enforcement and/or military groups. Many murder victims are retail drug sellers and other petty street criminals killed on the job or for other reasons. Some of the dead are disposable people — drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, migrants, street kids and others deemed human garbage who become victims of social cleansing, or limpieza social. A Mexican Senate document reveals the existence of government-sponsored death squads linked to some of the mass executions in recent years.
There is one solid fact: more than 100,000 new corpses. Calderón boasts that 90 percent of the dead are criminals — his government does not investigate the murders, and then it makes up reasons for the murders.
This is a characteristic of the slaughtered in Mexico: Officially, they deserved it. The bodies of dead reporters and photographers are still warm when the government begins insinuating they were actually mixed up in organized crime: "He (or she) was sucio (dirty)." Case closed.
Sandra Rodriguez, an award-winning reporter in Ciudad Juárez, the city with the highest murder rate in all of Mexico, studied more than 3,000 homicide case files from 2010 and 2011. Most files contain only the forensic description of the bodies, a catalog of the ballistic remains and a note about the weapons used. If a witness is interviewed at all, the only question is, "What did the victim do?" And there is always something that will be construed as a link to organized crime and so ends the investigation. Rodriguez's study also showed that in only 2 percent of the cases were weapons found near the victims' bodies. So the state claims the dead were cartel members, but if so, they were gangsters who refused to carry weapons.
The slaughter in Mexico has several other characteristics. People hang corpses off bridges, dump bodies on busy streets, move with death squads through major cities, and no one ever sees them or sees anything. The U.S. press seems baffled by these feats. Mexicans are not. They know that the only entities able to move so freely and kill so publicly are the army and the police or criminals cooperating with them. They know that many, if not most, of the killings are by the Mexican state against Mexicans. Miguel, for example, thinks that at most, 30 percent of the dead are killed by drug organizations in a fight for business.
The kidnapped are almost never reported because in many parts of Mexico, the police finance themselves through kidnapping. Those who are taken (levantados) almost never return and are not counted among the dead. The bodies that turn up in mass graves are seldom counted, either, because the government says it is too hard to assign the corpses to the proper year. In Sinaloa, the key drug state on the west coast of Mexico, the governor announced in May that he suddenly had discovered ghost villages in the Sierra Madre, apparently emptied of all human beings without anyone in government noticing.
All of this death is the real violence spilling across the border, and it spills south, not north. The United States sends about $500 million annually to fund Mexico's security forces through legislation called the Merida Initiative. The Mexican army, officially tasked with killing drug people, has lost fewer than 200 soldiers in about six years, while tens of thousands of other Mexicans have perished. There may be no safer job in the world than being a Mexican soldier assigned to fight the drug industry. And there may be no more dangerous job in the world than to be a reporter or photographer assigned to cover this war.
Sara Salazar watches the children play in the pool at Carlos Spector's home as the evening shadows grow and the desert heat lingers. Spector sits with a glass of wine talking to family members about what they must do to make the world know of the killing fields of Mexico. The old woman is silent. There is a famous photograph of her at the funeral of her daughter and son. The coffins sit side by side, and Sara, with her gray hair, ancient face and black trench coat, reels backward, arms outstretched over her dead. A kinsman catches her. Her mouth is open, and in the photograph you can hear the scream roll out over the valley and across the Rio Grande into the United States. Mexican reporters asked her at the time if she felt guilty for getting her children involved in politics now that they had been murdered for their activism. The press knew better than to investigate who killed her children. There were 500 soldiers at the burial, guarding the remaining Reyes Salazar family members. None helped to dig the graves.
Protest is in the family blood. The father, a baker, got involved in politics after 300 students were murdered by the government in 1968 and many more disappeared in Mexico City on the eve of the Olympics. The family became Communists or joined other facets of the left in Mexico. In 2008, daughter Josefina Reyes, a longtime human-rights activist in the Juárez Valley, protested after her son was kidnapped. She told interviewer Julian Cardona,"Now you see all these big billboards, 'We [the army] have come to help you' — but it isn't true. They have come to pillage us, to ransack our homes. They take the food in the refrigerator, jewelry, anything...and they destroy property. It is not a secret who they are."
Josefina leads demonstrations, and eventually her son is released. But he is arrested again in 2009 and charged by federal officials in Mexico with being part of a drug organization based in the Juárez Valley. He is imprisoned in another state in Mexico and has not been tried. Another son of Josefina's, Julio Cesar, is taken a year later by unknown parties and killed. Josefina blames the army for her son's death. Rumors spread that he also was involved in drugs. Some members of the family leave Guadalupe and try to establish their bakery business in another town about 100 miles away. On January 3, 2010, Josefina walks into a restaurant in Guadalupe. Men approach, some in uniform, and shoot her multiple times. Army vehicles are parked outside. Six months later, her brother Ruben is killed. He had continued to speak out to the media, calling the military to account for the attacks on his family and others in Guadalupe.
On February 7, 2011, Sara Salazar is riding with a granddaughter and three other family members: her son Elias and his wife, Luisa, and her daughter Magdalena. All have chronic illnesses and are barely able to walk. Just after they pass a military checkpoint, masked gunmen stop the car. They force Sara and the granddaughter to the ground at gunpoint and take the others away.
On February 15, the Reyeses stage a protest in Ciudad Juárez outside government offices. At the same time, their home in Guadalupe, less than 100 yards from an army barracks, is burned to the ground by armed men. Sara and two other daughters travel to Mexico City to protest, and they speak on national media, begging for the safe return of their missing family members. A couple of weeks later, the bodies of Elias, Luisa and Magdalena turn up by the roadside, covered in dirt and lime. The government announces that they have been killed because of their ties to the drug world.
Now the survivors sit under trees in the yard by the pool in El Paso as children play. More than 10,500 people have been murdered across the border in Juárez since 2008. The city is one of the most dangerous places on earth, with murder rates over the past five years ranging from 150 to 300 per hundred thousand. In the nearby small town of Guadalupe, the murder rate is closer to 2,000 per hundred thousand. New York City's murder rate is about six per hundred thousand.
The United States, the nation worried about terrorism, gives half a billion dollars a year to a Mexican army that murders and terrorizes Mexicans. The United States walls off Mexico on national-security grounds and then decries imaginary violence spilling north across the border. The United States constantly praises the Mexican government for its brave fight against drug organizations, even though in the five and a half years since President Calderón launched the war that has resulted in the murders of at least 100,000 Mexicans, the delivery of drugs has not been disturbed and prices have not increased. The United States has helped to create a death machine, and now the eyewitnesses come north.
Americans must ask themselves this question about their War on Terror: What if the enemy is their treaty ally Mexico, and what if the problem is the state terrorism by that ally against the Mexican people?
A businessman crosses the bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. The state police came to his business. He could not meet their increased extortion demands, so they held him down in front of his friends and cut his feet off. Now he rolls across the bridge, his mother driving him to safety. He seeks asylum. He calls Carlos Spector's law firm. He enters a system worthy of Franz Kafka.
Of the 20,000 U.S. grants of political asylum in 2010, only 192 were for Mexicans. Most such applicants arrive at the line with no money or papers. Many are cast into the gulag of U.S. immigration prisons for months or even years. If released, they are unlikely to be allowed a work permit for months. If entered into the process for political asylum, they could wait years for a hearing. No Mexican is likely to apply unless death stares him or her in the face. Political asylum is not some tactic Mexicans use to game our system. But it is a test of our claims of being for freedom and justice and elemental human rights.
After the spate of killings in Guadalupe, flyers circulated saying, "Si no se van del pueblo, les pasarán lo mismo que los Reyes Salazar" ("If you don't leave town, you will get the same as the Reyes Salazars.") Most of the Reyes family still wait to have their pleas for asylum heard. The doors to their country have closed forever behind them. A surviving sister, Marisela Reyes, says: "Nuestro nombre en Mexico significa la muerte." ("Our name in Mexico means death.")
There is a rhythm to state terrorism in Mexico. First there are threats, such as the footsteps clearly heard by Miguel's father in the days preceding the slaughter of the family. Then there is the killing itself, the indifference of the police, the pious laments of government officials. Then more terror, such as his father's partner, Yolanda, being decapitated, such as Miguel's fellow photographers winding up dismembered in garbage bags. And finally, if one refuses to follow the rules, there is the destruction of a person's reputation. This last stroke is inevitable if the person speaks out about the nature of the Mexican government.
Miguel speaks out at a forum in Austin, Texas, in late May 2012 about the controlled nature of the Mexican press and state-sponsored terror in Veracruz. He repeats the same things a week later at an El Paso press conference with Carlos Spector.
Two days later, Notiver, the paper to which his father devoted his life, announces that the son never really worked there but was simply kept around as a kind of pet because of his father. They say Miguel could solve the murder because he probably knows who killed his family. They imply that he is an informant for the DEA or the FBI — a dangerous allegation in Mexico. Proceso, the influential newsmagazine, repeats most of the charges without any questions. The charges are all lies or smears. But that hardly matters.
Miguel is no longer simply an exile. He is no longer a victim. He is dirty, likely a criminal, never a real part of the press and hardly eligible for political asylum if he was never even a reporter. Now he is the basic Mexican, a person vilified if he complains about the fist of the state in his face. And Miguel and Vanessa are among the lucky few who just might qualify for political asylum in the United States. For the millions living in terror of the Mexican government and of Mexican drug gangs, there is no such hope.
Sara Salazar spoke about her family at a press conference in El Paso on February 8, 2012, the anniversary of the kidnapping and murders of Elias, Luisa and Magdalena Reyes:
"My family were always hard workers, honorable, always helping the poor. Our hard struggle began when the soldiers came into our houses looking for weapons, drugs and other things they said we had but they never found. But they kept on persecuting us because we got in their way.... My daughter Josefina denounced them...and they persecuted her to the death. We continued to protest, but what could we do, since it was the government that was after us? We got in their way.... I had ten children and only four of them are left. They have killed them all. And what can I do? I have gone to demand that they find who killed them, but the files are nothing but blank pages. They have done nothing. We have no protection in Mexico. No protection. This is all I can say to you. Now my heart is dry."
by Molly Molloy
Editor's Note: Molly Molloy, Border and Latin American Specialist at the New Mexico State University Library, has made it her mission to document the number of people killed in Mexico's wave of violence. Using official government reports as well as press accounts, Molloy has created a detailed record of the violence in Ciudad Juárez since 2008 and makes her data available to reporters and other researchers; she also distributes daily "news and analysis" through the Frontera-List that is read by subscribers ranging from international human-rights groups to U.S. congressional staffers. Molloy and author Charles Bowden first teamed up when Molloy did research for his 2010 book Murder City, which covered homicides in Juárez. They also co-edited El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, published in 2011.
In Mexico, you get to be a criminal as soon as the Mexican government kills you. Until that moment, most people who knew you had no idea you were a bad person. I will explain. This will take a little patience, but when you get through the numbers, you will be an expert on how to lie about murders.
Most U.S. and international press accounts of homicides in Mexico during President Felipe Calderón's term (December 2006 through November 2012) rely on two official tallies. The first was posted in January 2011 on the president's Web site; it covered December 2006 through December 2010 and totaled 34,612. A literal translation of the description of the victims tallied here is: "deaths due to presumed criminal rivalries."
Another report appeared in January 2012, this time from the Attorney General of Mexico. It covered December 2006 through September 2011 and tallied 47,515 homicides. The murders in these reports are designated as "drug-war-related" or "organized crime-related" based on superficial observations of crime scenes such as the kinds of weapons used, the number of people reported to be involved in the attacks, whether the body is mutilated in some way, whether there are signs or symbols left on or near the bodies, and a variety of other criteria deemed to indicate some relationship to the drug business. These official reports echo over and over in the media as real numbers even though the Mexican government itself admits that fewer than 5 percent of the crimes are investigated.
I have tried to gather more complete homicide data from Mexican government agencies that have reported consistently over the years and with a bit more distance from the political necessities of the Calderón administration, though there are inconsistencies in all of the data available.
The Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) compiles homicide data from death certificates; homicides may be homicidios dolosos, comparable to aggravated or intentional homicides in the U.S., or other lesser classifications such as negligent or accidental homicides. INEGI data covering 2005 through 2010 includes all homicides and shows sharp increases, from a low number of 8,867 in 2007 to a high figure of 24,373 in 2010.
Since 2010, I have used the data reported by the National System for Public Security (SNSP), which compiles crime statistics sent in by local and state police agencies. SNSP reported a total of 22,223 aggravated homicides (homicidios dolosos) in 2011. The latest SNSP data shows 8,662 homicides from January through May 2012, an average of 1,732 per month, thus leading to an estimate of 10,394 homicides in Mexico for the first half of 2012. Extrapolated through the end of 2012 at the same monthly rate, we can estimate total homicides for 2012 at 20,788.
Despite this slight decline from 2010 and 2011 numbers, using the estimate based on the first six months of 2012 and the actual reported numbers from Mexican government sources for 2007 through 2011, we can estimate the total homicides through June 2012 at 99,667. Assuming that a similar rate of murder continues through the remaining months of this year, the homicide toll at the end of Calderón's presidency will add up to 110,061 victims.
For the sake of comparison, the U.S. homicide numbers as reported by the FBI Uniform Crime Reports have declined from about 17,000 in 2007 to an estimated 14,000 in 2011 and 2012. An estimate of the total homicides in the U.S. for this period comes to about 92,000 — this out of a population of more than 312 million, about three times larger than the population of Mexico.
Despite Mexican government statistics adding up to more than 110,000 murders during Calderón's term, the international press continues to report estimates of the death toll in Mexico ranging from 50,000 to "more than 60,000."
This feat puts magical realism in the shade.
The press also parrots the Mexican government's claim that 90 percent of the victims are criminals killed by other criminals. From my daily reading of crime reports from Juárez — the city still at the epicenter of the violence — it is evident that the majority of the 10,800-plus murder victims there since 2007 are ordinary people and most of them are poor: small-business owners who cannot pay extortion demands, mechanics, bus drivers, prostitutes, addicts, boys selling newspapers, a pregnant woman washing cars on the street. This city of only 1.2 million accounts for 10 percent of all of Mexico's murder victims since 2007.
And the truth is, we may never know the actual numbers of people killed. Mexican agencies like INEGI and SNSP must rely upon local entities to report homicide numbers, and there is little reason to trust the state and local police and justice officials responsible for such reports. There is also the number that will never be known: the cifra negra — the black numbers — a term used for the missing, the kidnapped who never return and whose bodies are never found, and those who simply disappear.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.