Dispatches From Guerrero

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Transit. 2012, Oil and wax on canvas, 108 x 120”. Courtesy of LA Louver, Venice, California.

On September 26, 2014, forty-three normalistas (student teachers) from a school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico, were kidnapped in the town of Iguala and allegedly murdered by a drug gang with the cooperation of the mayor and local police. Originally published in the December 2014 issue of the Mexican magazine Gatopardo, Alejandro Almazán’s reportage explores the larger catastrophe of the drug war in the state where the kidnapping took place.

To lose your hair, to lose control,
You know, to lose valuable time,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To lose blood, your father and mother,
The heart you lost in Heidelberg,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To lose, again and again to lose,
Even illusions lost a long time ago.

— Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Sinking of the Titanic

I asked him to tell me about the poppies overrunning his district, but Mario Chávez, the young mayor of Tlacotepec, seemed as if he came from a different country: he told me that there were no poppies in his district, that it was just a rumor, nothing more, and then he started to tell me about a man with wings (though others insisted it was a dragon) who for many nights now had been flying through his town.

“Tomorrow the bishop will go to bless the sky for us from a helicopter that we chartered for him,” the mayor told me, as if this were their only salvation. I should have gone to Tlacotepec to see how the story ended, but outside the restaurant where we were chatting was the rest of Guerrero, and somewhere in it our dead, our disappeared.

Fifty percent of commerce in Chilpancingo has shut down indefinitely. Seventy percent of the still-existing businesses are shuttered by seven at night. A dozen money-exchange establishments have been shut down; they’d been laundering narcodollars for two or three years. Two hundred and fifty taxi licenses were given out to the narcos via the state government. One hundred and twenty garbage trucks are owned by narcos. Ten percent of the cost of each building project is the cut that politicians and narcos demand from the construction companies. Three hundred wealthy families have fled the city. Three hundred homes are on the market; only two have sold. Three thousand five hundred pesos is the amount bar owners remit as their weekly quota. Five thousand pesos are coughed up weekly by hardware store owners so that they aren’t kidnapped and are able to stay open and do good business. Fifty pesos is what the narcos charge for every pig the butchers buy from the slaughterhouse. Every taxi driver gives up twenty-five pesos daily as his contribution. In Iguala, a jeweler might be asked to hand over twenty thousand pesos a month if he doesn’t want to be bothered. Twenty thousand. Fifty percent is what the narco takes from a campesino when he receives benefits from social programs or the profits of his harvest. The narcos charge two pesos for every chicken sold in the pollerías, and fifty cents for the guts.

I wrote down each figure I heard from Jaime Nava, the president of the Coparmex (Mexican Employers’ Association) in Chilpancingo, but two trends say it all: among the few businesses that have prospered since the violence in Guerrero intensified are the private security industry and the speculators. The former owe their success to the kidnappings, extortions, and robberies. The latter live off the consequences: the people who go into debt to pay a ransom, to pay the weekly quota, or to escape from the city.

“Even just two years ago there were only five pawn shops in Chilpancingo, and now there are more than sixty,” complains Nava. Seconds later, he tells me that he owns a printing business and that, in fifteen years of business, the demand for signs — For Sale, For Rent, or We’ve Changed Locations — has never been higher.

“The funeral homes must do well too,” I said.

“They’ve always done well, which is why I didn’t even bother mentioning them.”

In the past ten years, according to the figures published by the National System of Public Security, Guerrero has been a death machine: 14,118 people have been murdered in the state.

Later I called I-Tec, a security-systems business in the center of Chilpancingo. The employee who took my call told me that the basic package — four cameras, one video recorder, and the installation — costs seven thousand pesos, that this was the most popular package, that they have cameras as expensive as eighty thousand pesos, that they’re ordered more often than you would think, and, as if it were a publicity slogan, that it was true, businesses like I-Tec succeed because of fear.

I met Javier Monroy in 2010, and back then the vultures were circling low over his head: gunmen were stalking his house on the outskirts of Chilpancingo. But a few months ago, the Templarios (Knights Templar) — the cartel from Michoacán that moves drugs in Guerrero as easily as if they were exporting fruit — picked him up and took him to see one of their bosses.

“He wanted me to help him clean up his image,” Javier told me. “Imagine that!”

Javier is an activist: for twenty years he’s led Tadeco (the Community Development Workshop), a collective that over time turned into an itinerant help desk that took on the cases of Guerrero’s disappeared, kidnapped, and murdered. They started investigating cases in March 2007, after one of their own comrades, Gabriel Cerón, was taken away. At the time of his disappearance, Gabo was an architect and about to be married. To earn extra money for the wedding, he drafted some blueprints for Francisco Cortés, a protected witness who had never actually cut his ties with the narcos. When Gabo went to turn in his work to Cortés, cops showed up and took the two men away, never to be seen again. Since then, Tadeco has had a small tent set up in the main square of Chilpancingo, where hundreds of people, from every district, have come to tell Javier their horrible stories. Since then, threats have been coming in too.

On December 25, 2009, for example, Javier and other members of the collective received a host of grammatically inscrutable text messages after another Tadeco member had his cell phone stolen:

We’re going to get to you by going after the person that would hurt you the most and we are referring to the woman in the center.

One of these days your going to be part of the mural of the disappeared. sincerely the family ok.

So easy it would be for us to took the girl in the black pant and brown sweater that’s under the tent

“One day they called to tell me that I should start shopping for my coffin,” Javier told me.

“And who do you think it was?”

“Tadeco is inconvenient for the authorities of Guerrero, for the army, for the caciques, and for the narcos. It could have been any of them. We’ve accused each of them of carrying out forced disappearances.”

The Committee for the Disappeared of Guerrero has reported that between 2005 and December 2013, more than 6,500 people were victims of forced disappearance or murder. Tadeco has received only six hundred cases over more or less the same period. The reason for the discrepancy is that Tadeco only receives cases in which a preliminary inquiry has already been made — something that happens rarely, since people either fail to bring their cases to the police or find themselves threatened when they do.

While we climbed one of the hills that hug Iguala — poor Iguala, which was once the “Cradle of the Independence and the Flag” and no longer lives up to any such renown — I asked a veteran campesino when exactly he thought Guerrero had gone to shit. “You’re getting to the scene pretty late,” he said. He said it without any resentment, but still I apologized. He was right: we’d all gotten here late. Only the narcos — El Crimen — had gotten here on time.

You could say El Crimen made its appearance in Guerrero as far back as the ’70s, when the Cuban trafficker Alberto Sicilia Falcón colluded with army leadership to oversee the farming of marijuana and poppies; today 60 percent of the opium poppy grown in the country is concentrated in the state of Guerrero. Or El Crimen may have come to town with the politicians who thought that the state was their personal plantation, like the Figueroas, the family that has governed Guerrero multiple times and today controls all the fertilizer in the region.1 Or maybe it came in 2001, when the Torres and Arizmendi clans, two groups who ran a large part of the drug trade in Guerrero, slaughtered each other in the town Kilómetro 30, near Acapulco. Since then the cartels have flourished in proportion to the corruption of the government.

Maybe El Crimen came in November 2009, when Comandante Ramiro, of the ERPI,2 was murdered by paramilitaries in the service of the army and the federal government. Ramiro was known for organizing villages, doing community work, and confronting the narcos. Or maybe it came a month later, in December, when the navy killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and his family business — the dominant cartel in Guerrero — split up into what are today the Rojos and Guerreros Unidos.

Maybe El Crimen came when the political parties started handpicking candidates on the basis of whether they could fund their own campaigns; the perredista (PRD party candidate) José Luis Abarca, the former mayor of Iguala and the one allegedly responsible for the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, wasn’t the first such candidate, nor will he be the last. El Crimen could also have come when the drug traffickers started to co-opt the local police forces; in Iguala, for example, Mayor Abarca’s brothers-in-law, the turf leaders of the Guerreros Unidos mini-cartel, controlled the police and even formed their own anti-kidnapping unit called Los Bélicos (the Bellicose). Or maybe El Crimen came when the public offices filled up with crooks. The former state secretary general Jesús Martínez Garnelo, to cite one case, was fingered in 2001 as the judge responsible for freeing one of the most violent and notorious kidnappers in the region, Pedro Barragán. Martínez was disbarred for doing so — but for only two years. Afterward, his license was restored indefinitely, until it came to light that he had ties to Mayor Abarca and took a call from him in the hours following the kidnapping of the forty-three students, and he finally resigned.

El Crimen could have come at any of these moments, and regardless I would have been late. “Forgive me,” I told the veteran campesino, and we kept walking.

In Chilpancingo, a garbage scavenger told me the narcos took his 12-year-old son two months ago and now force him to work as their halcón (hawk), or in other words as a lookout for their crime syndicate; a reporter colleague told me they kidnapped his brother in 2012; and a young businessman mentioned to me that he hadn’t taken his luxury SUV out of the garage since he bought it six months ago. In Zumpango, a lady told me that it was common to see pickup trucks passing by filled to the brim with dead bodies. At the Mezcala Bridge, a man from the area told me how all day Rojos and Guerreros Unidos alike throw their dead over the side. And in Iguala, I saw the army, the federal police, and the city cops pretending that they had control over the city.

I reached a point at which I wondered whether there was any hope left amid all the barbarity, and so I went to seek out the people from the Union of Villages and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG). They arrived in Iguala at the beginning of October. There are three hundred of them, and they came to search for the forty-three normalistas who (the official story holds) were disappeared by the police and the hitmen of the Guerreros Unidos this past September 26.

The UPOEG formed as a splinter group of the Regional Coordinator of Communitarian Authorities (CRAC), an indigenous organization that emerged in 1999 in order to protect villages from the narcos, the soldiers, the police, and paramilitary organizations. People affiliated with CRAC insist that the UPOEG actually started as an armed organization backed by the government, and that one of its leaders, Plácido Valerio, has ties with ex-governor Ángel Aguirre. “From the government we’ve accepted weapons, radios, trucks, and uniforms, but we’re not their strongmen,” I was told by Don Crisóforo García, another of the leaders of the UPOEG. “In Ayutla a lot of shit was going down: the authorities were protecting the bad guys, the bad guys were taking our women and our daughters, the military and the police were disappearing people, and folks were getting their lands taken away for the poppy crops. A lot of shit. And the same thing was happening in Tierra Colorada, in Tecoanapa, and in Valle del Ocotito. The town got organized quickly, we brought the experience of the CRAC, and we started to take care of each other. Our organization was born on January 4, 2013. In Ayutla, just about two months after coming together, we had already rounded up fifty-three criminals; thirty-six of them were descuartizadores [roughly, people who dismember] and gunmen. We handed all of them over to the district attorney’s office, and they let all of them go. That’s why, now when we catch a bad guy, we rehabilitate him ourselves: we sentence them to between six months and five years of community service. Many of the rehabilitated have stayed on to live in our villages: they’ve become good people. Think about this: one kid turned himself in all on his own, he told us that he’d already killed people and the council of elders spoke to him; and today he’s still among us, helping people. We also had a descuartizadora, but she just completed her sentence and left. The word on the street is that they’ve killed her.”

After the normalistas disappeared, members of the UPOEG went up into the Cerro del Zapatero mountainside. They found six graves, two of them empty but freshly dug and ready for use. They were willing to start digging, but they only had one shovel among them. “This fucking government, if they wanted to find the boys they would give us a hand, but they won’t even lend us shovels,” said Don Crisóforo.

At that point an old man showed up with another shovel and a crowbar: “My son was killed by the Iguala police, they just shot him for no reason, when he was walking out of the middle school, but on the death certificate they put down that he was a cartel hitman and had died in a shootout; at the district attorney’s they told me not to stir up trouble; that’s why I’m here, because in my mind I believe that if I help to find the normalistas, I’ll bring justice for something at least.” The guy immediately went to work digging.

By the end, the UPOEG had dug up three out of the four mass graves. They found sandals, a glove, and something that Don Crisóforo said was a finger. I can’t describe the smell, but I know that the whole day I carried it on my clothes and in my hair.

When I went to see the businessman Pioquinto Damián, he hadn’t left his apartment in 275 days.

Two guards patrol the entrance to the building, all of which is owned by Pioquinto. The doors are bulletproof, and there is a panic room in the event that things really go sour. He rarely looks out the window, and his wife and kids never leave the house without bodyguards. In his apartment I saw a bar stocked with good whiskey; I saw a dining room full of shining crystal and big enough for ten people; I saw a kitchen that would be a joy to cook in. It was all so clean that I suspected even Pioquinto’s two tiny dogs ate with a fork and knife.

“And you don’t miss the city?” I asked him at one point.

“You know, I feel fucking great here,” he answered me and tossed back the second coffee he had had in the half hour I had been there.

Pioquinto was once a congressional representative for the PRI (the Insitutional Revolutionary Party), but that isn’t why he doesn’t leave his house. His problem is with the current mayor of Chilpancingo, Mario Moreno.

As president of the local chamber of commerce, Pioquinto used to complain to Moreno that the police were working for the narcos. “I went to see the asshole eight times to demand security, and every time he played dumb.” On August 3 of last year, after meeting again with Moreno, Pioquinto received a call: a group of gunmen had tried to kidnap one of his sons. In the months that followed, Pioquinto barely left his house. He met with a capo so that they would leave his kids in peace, and he held a few press conferences in which he openly condemned Moreno, saying that he had given out permits for flea markets managed by organized crime, that he had given the narcos the license for the town fairgrounds, and that he was working for the mafia.

Then came January 28. On that day, Pioquinto was invited to a meeting with the policía comunitaria, or unofficial community police, of Mazatlán, an hour away from Chilpancingo. Plácido Valerio, one of the leaders of the UPOEG, had taken it upon himself to persuade him to go. “Cabrón, you know I don’t like to go out,” Pioquinto said, refusing the invitation. “We want to recognize you for all the help you’ve given the UPOEG,” insisted Plácido.

“As soon as we left the house I was nervous,” Pioquinto told me. “When we got to Mazatlán, and I saw that Plácido wasn’t there, I got really pissed. I had gotten myself out of the house for him, and the asshole had gone to a different event. I talked with the comrades at the UPOEG, and I started heading back in a caravan of something like twenty trucks. At an intersection, I told my son to go a different way and gun it for Ocotito, where I’d been told Plácido was. We lost the rest of the caravan. Once in Ocotito, I saw that Mario, the mayor, was there, speaking at a popular assembly. I tried to stay at the back to listen, but the crowd pushed me to the front and onto the fucking stage, which was the plaza bandstand, and then I found myself onstage, accusing Mario of being a narco. Anyway, you can watch it for yourself,” and Pioquinto gives me his cell phone so I can watch the video that someone posted to YouTube.

In the video, to the left of the frame, there is a man in a pink shirt with a face that looks like it was molded by machete blows; this is the mayor. The one in the striped shirt and dark pants, with the slicked-back hair, the one who is talking, is Pioquinto. Plácido Valerio is the short one who has his arms crossed. The rest of the men are the mayor’s bodyguards and other officials. The video lasts eleven minutes and forty-three seconds, and the majority of the time it’s Pioquinto who is speaking. “Don’t believe this crook,” he says. “He uses the army to stop protests against him. . . . He chose to be against the people; he chose the side of the criminals.” The video almost seems like a skit. The whole time, the mayor just laughs.

“When I finished speaking we climbed back into the Honda Pilot and headed out fucking full speed back to Chilpancingo. In the car was my son, driving; my daughter-in-law, as copilot; my wife, myself, and our friend Doña Viky in the back; and two friends in the very back row. We were going up to the Parador de Marqués, the first bridge you cross when you’re coming from Acapulco, when two SUVs showed up and started shooting at us. My son tried to swerve, but we crashed. The car was a fucking mess. Viky threw herself on top of me trying to cover me, I tried to hug my wife. They fired 180 rounds. My daughter-in-law died, my son’s hand was shredded by bullets, and my wife and Doña Viky were each shot in the foot. Me and my two friends came out unscathed, other than totally fucking traumatized.” It was a miracle, he said, an utterly historic occurrence.

“Has the mayor tried to find you?” I asked him.

“What’s that asshole going to come looking for me for? Here the only reason anyone wants to find you is to fuck you.”

Inside the small Calipso banquet hall, very near downtown Chilpancingo, live eighty residents of Santa María Sur, in the district of Teloloapan. They came to the state capital nine months ago, when they received an ultimatum: “If you don’t get out of here, we’re going to steal all of your daughters.” Eduardo, the commissioner of the communal lands, didn’t want to tell me who threatened them, but two women approached us and accused the narcos, the soldiers, and the police. “They all want land for growing drugs,” complained one of them.

In a few minutes, outside the Calipso, I would be surrounded by women and children. I wouldn’t take down any names — they asked me not to — but I would hear their stories: “In the sierra a woman can’t walk alone anymore; they do things to us. So we always go out together, so that one of us can run for help.”

Another woman said, “Up there [in the sierra] shootouts break out all the time. They last for a long while, and the government never shows up.”

A young man interrupted, “La Maña, the game, it takes everything from you: your life, your animals, your food. Because if La Maña is hungry, your women better cook for it. And then what happens? Other mañosos show up, other hustlers, the ones from the rival group, and they kill you for having fed the other assholes.”

Another woman: “Over there on our ranches we don’t have enough to eat meat, but we still eat well. Here the government gives each of us just twenty pesos a day [less than $2] for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s why we just buy forty-five kilos of tortillas a day, so we can at least feel full.”

Last August, the state government said that between January 2013 and July 2014, 2,897 people were displaced as a result of the violence. The news agency Quadratín Guerrero, however, did its own count and found that the records showed that more than four thousand people were forced to abandon their villages between July 2013 and July 9, 2014. The majority came from districts in Tierra Caliente, as did the eighty displaced people who are living in the Calipso.

“This is the worst crisis, and it started over a year ago, when I arrived at the Coparmex. I remember that I did a survey among our members to see what their needs were, and no one mentioned wanting lines of credit or contracts with the government. All they wanted was security. We’ve taken our own measures — we hired an Israeli anti-kidnapping group, we put up security cameras in our businesses, we have bodyguards, bulletproof SUVs — but that hasn’t been enough. The kidnappings and extortions don’t stop. A few weeks ago they kidnapped the owner of a cybercafé. His family paid the ransom, and they still killed him. The putrefaction coming out of Iguala isn’t unique. Chilapa, Acapulco, Nicolás Bravo, Heliodoro Castillo, and Chilpancingo are all areas full of mass graves, full of dead. Last year, we alerted the CNDH [National Human Rights Commission] to the situation, and by November, the CNDH had sent their observers to forty-six districts in Guerrero. Their conclusion: that the state was on the brink of social collapse. And what did Governor Ángel Aguirre do? He said that the report was a fake, because Raúl Plascencia, the head of the CNDH, is the puppet of the representative Manlio Fabio Beltrones, and Aguirre has had beef with him since way back. This situation gave us no other option than to go to the Senate and ask for the dissolution of the state government.* We really have done everything we could to save ourselves. We businessmen of Guerrero should be given a trophy just for surviving.”

I was told all this by Jaime Nava, the head of the Chilpancingo Employer’s Association, while he scrolled on his iPad through newspaper articles that supported his claims.

An old taxi driver from Tixtla complained to me about the lack of passengers these days and blamed his bad luck on the normalistas from Ayotzinapa. The manager of the Bancomer bank in Chilpancingo’s main square said that “thanks to the teachers” who set up protest camps in the plaza, nobody wants to go to her bank branch, and now she has to call her customers on the phone to offer them mortgage loans and credit cards in order to meet the monthly sales quota she’s held to. And in Iguala, a shopkeeper with an extraordinary capacity to maintain total indifference told me that those normalistas were very troublesome.

I wanted to make all of these people understand that the disappearance of the forty-three normalistas was a breaking point for Mexico. What I think I told them was that we should take back our dignity, that the government has criminalized the escuelas normales (rural teacher training schools) for as long as I can remember, that President Echeverría during his term closed twenty of them all at once, that the normalistas are just young people and the sons of campesinos, and that they are ours.

Juan Villoro wrote on October 30 in El País:

The culture of letters has been a challenge to a region that settles disputes with bullets. In the 1960s, two thirds of the residents of Guerrero were illiterate. The Escuela Normal of Ayotzinapa sprang up in order to mitigate this lack of development, but it couldn’t turn its back on greater evils: the social inequality, the power of the caciques, the corruption of the local government, political repression as the only response to discontent, the impunity of the police and the increasing meddling of the drug traffickers. . . . The Escuela Normal represents a crucial center of dissent. . . . On the night of September 26 there were four different shootings and just one target: the young people. With the support of organized crime, the mayor José Luis Abarca sowed terror that night to intimidate the normalistas who were mobilizing to honor the victims of the [1968] Tlatelolco [student] massacre. Once the repressive mechanism was unleashed, a soccer team also got in its way and was peppered with gunfire. Their crime? Just being youth; that is to say, possible rebels. . . .

Che Guevara spent his last night in a rural school. Already wounded, he stared at a sentence written on the chalkboard and told the teacher, “It’s missing the accent.” The phrase was “Yo sé leer” [“I know how to read”]. Already defeated, the guerrilla went back to a different way of correcting reality. . . . Forty-three future teachers have disappeared. The dimensions of the drama are encoded in a phrase that opposes impunity, shame and injustice: “Yo sé leer.” The Mexico of guns fears those who teach others how to read. This country is missing the accent. The time will come to put it back.

Felipe Arnulfo Rosa speaks Tu’un Savi, a dialect of the Mixteco (indigenous) language. He learns Spanish. He hires himself out as a laborer in his village, Rancho Ocoapa, in the district of Ayutla. He wants to keep studying; he splits his days between school and working in the fields. Sometimes he works as a blacksmith, other times as a carpenter. He takes the entrance exam for the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college; he wants to study for a degree in elementary education, with an intercultural bilingual focus; there are only forty spots available. He’s accepted. He arrives at the Normal and has his head shaved, as is the tradition for freshmen. He has a B average, he plants flowers, he feeds the livestock. Felipe Arnulfo Rosa goes to fund-raise in the streets with his first-year friends (before their trip to Mexico City); they arrive in Iguala. They’re shot at. They disappear.

Doña Dominga Rosa, Felipe’s mother, doesn’t speak Spanish, but Kau, a reporter colleague of mine from Chilpancingo, acted as a translator on the morning of October 30. “If I haven’t dreamed about him, it’s because he’s still alive,” said Doña Dominga through Kau. “The anguish is killing me; in our village we abandoned our cornfield, we abandoned everything because without Felipe, nothing works.” Doña Dominga was sitting at a corner of the basketball court at the Normal. Since the disappearance of the normalistas, that had been the epicenter of their loss: the parents spent hours there, waiting for news, but none came.

Doña Dominga didn’t understand why the federal government hadn’t been able to find Felipe or the forty-two other normalistas. “They have to be hiding something,” she said. Her husband, Damián Arnulfo, had participated in meetings with President Enrique Peña, and Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio and Attorney General Jesús Murillo, but he hadn’t heard anything encouraging, just pure rhetoric. “Today I’m going to return to my village for the Day of the Dead, and I’m going to ask my eldest to bring Felipe back.”

“Your eldest child is dead?” Kau asked her. They spoke for a while. Then Kau told me:
“They killed him two years ago. He was going to the sugarcane fields when some robbers attacked him. He died right there. She has another child, a daughter. She’s in Ayutla, participating in the takeover of the Municipal Palace.”

That’s Ayotzinapa this year. Look it up on the map. Where forty-three normalistas are missing, that’s where you’ll find Doña Dominga.

Up until very recently, Cocula was a town ravaged by the Guerreros Unidos. It’s not that Good has triumphed. It’s just that the gang decided to leave for now because the town trash dump had become global news: that’s where the federal government says the bodies of the forty-three normalistas were burned.

“Just wait for everyone to leave here, and that’s when La Maña will return,” I was told by a man I can’t name. “We’ve been here for years, with so much violence, so much extortion, so much robbery, but last year I realized that this wasn’t going to ever stop, the night that they took seventeen young kids.”

It happened on July 30, 2013. A group of gunmen invaded three villages. Among the kidnapped were two high school students and three women. Nobody knows their whereabouts — though in Cocula they say that the women did reappear, but they don’t live there anymore. A month earlier, the mayor, César Peñaloza, had been ambushed. He survived. And six months before that, in November 2012, they murdered Tomás Biviano, who had just been named chief of police.

“Cocula was falling apart from one day to the next,” I was told by the wife of the man whose name I shouldn’t remember. “Shootings, kidnappings, disappearances, everything they say happens in Iguala happens in Cocula and worse. I’m an engineer, and I used to work at the Nuevo Balsas mine; I quit because La Maña takes as much as half of all the workers’ salaries. I opened a business here, but I closed it because of all the extortion.”

Later, outside the church, I ran into four women who had hung a banner in front of the atrium; on it, four men were shown, three teachers and one youth, and it said that the federal police had arrested and beaten them and were trying to tie them to the disappearance of the normalistas. “They’re our relatives. Some of them were detained at a checkpoint and others were pulled out of their homes,” I was told by one of the women, the one who was carrying an iPad and looked at it constantly, who knows why. She told me the whole police-abuse story, and when she was done I asked her to tell me about the violence in Cocula. “No, señor,” she said. “Our town is very calm. I don’t know how anyone can say they brought the normalistas here.”

Mario Chávez, the mayor of Tlacotepec, was telling me about the man with wings who kept flying through his town when, out of nowhere, he told me, “You’ve got to come to my town and see the Boeing 737 that they gave me.”

“Someone gave you a plane as a gift?”

“Yes, it was given to me by Miguel Ángel Mancera.” Mancera is the mayor of Mexico City. “I don’t know where he got it from, but I brought it over here on two trailer trucks. Now it’s been turned into a computer center for kids, the first of its kind in Latin America,” he bragged, and asked the waiter for the check.

“So there’s no crime in your town?”

“None. I say that in all seriousness. It’s just a bad reputation.”

I didn’t want to tell him that I had read an article written the past August about how he, the mayor, was asking for help from the state because the narcos had threatened to pick him up.

It was almost midnight when I stopped a taxi. “The bus station,” I told the driver, but he didn’t hear me at first.

“I’m really out of sorts,” he apologized. “I just dropped off a lady, I took her all around, collecting money, but then I made her get out.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, until he told me the story from the beginning. That’s when I understood that the lady had a clothing business, and her husband, a high school teacher, had been kidnapped. The lady needed to gather two hundred thousand pesos for her husband to be freed. “She wanted me to accompany her to pay the ransom,” the taxi driver told me.

“Would you have gone with her?” he asked me.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and felt ashamed. That’s why I had to tell this story.

 — Translated by Emma Friedland

  1. Both Rubén Figueroa Sr. and Rubén Figueroa Jr. presided over despicable human rights violations during their terms as governor of Guerrero. The former’s government targeted activists, campesinos, and students as part of the larger Mexican Dirty War campaign against progressives during the 1970s, and the latter had to step down after the Aguas Blancas massacre of 1995, when seventeen activist campesinos were slaughtered during a political rally. 

  2. The Insurgent People’s Revolutionary Army, a leftist rebel group local to Guerrero. 

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