The Red Carpet
According to Andy Warhol’s maxim, in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. This utopia of visibility makes sense in a society of the spectacle. Mexican political culture promises happiness in the opposite way: what is important is not what is seen, but what is hidden. A life of accomplishment doesn’t culminate in celebrity; it is achieved in secret. The Mexican utopia has consisted of enjoying your fifteen minutes of impunity.
For 71 years (1929–2000), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed without winning or losing elections. It perpetuated itself by means of an ongoing rotation of cadres that blurred the line between the public and the private, and it renewed popular hopes like a carnival barker: “If you didn’t do well this time, the next Revolutionary Government will do you justice.”
The Mexican mode of governance—transparency and accountability alike unknown to it—transformed our slang into a grammar of shadows. Politics was baptized la tenebra, political horse-trading was done in lo oscurito. The coming of light was dangerous; the conspirator had to act under cover of darkness, to get ahead of his adversary by rising before dawn. In his novel La sombra del caudillo (an impeccable portrait of the revolutionary generals who became politicians in the 1920s), Martín Luis Guzmán wrote: “He who shoots first, kills first. Indeed, the politics of Mexico, the politics of the gun, conjures only one verb: to rise early [madrugar].”
The exercise of power, an office of shadows, depended for almost a century on the political value of inscrutability. With the end of the PRI’s monopoly, the codes of the unpunished and unpunishable dissolved without being replaced by others. Welcome to a decade of chaos! Eight years after the democratic transfer of power, Mexico is a country of blood and lead.
The preeminence of violence has dissolved long-established protocols and relationships. The media have expanded their margin of freedom, but they work in an environment where telling the truth is increasingly dangerous. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mexico surpasses Iraq in its number of kidnapped and murdered journalists. In this new setting, events are confused with “pseudo-events.” It’s the sort of environment that would follow a shipwreck, in which the absence of principle disguises itself as prudence or “emergency measures.” Political exchanges are a masquerade: the Church supports the PAN [Partido de Acción Nacional] in Jalisco and receives immoderate alms in return; the National Education Workers Union (the largest trade union in Latin America) offers more than a million votes to Felipe Calderón and receives posts in areas of government of such consequence as national security; corporate monopolists play out a dirty war in the media during the 2006 presidential campaign, painting the leftist candidate as a “danger to Mexico,” and in return get deals that eliminate the competition. Like the Fantastic Four, the de facto powers rule from the margins. Impunity did not disappear when the PRI lost the presidency; it was dispersed in the midst of uncertainty. This has inspired a sort of nostalgia for the authoritarianism of the Official Party, who “at least knew how to steal.”
In the hermetic tradition of Mexican politics, protagonists left the stage and died without making significant revelations or leaving behind compromising diaries. Nothing carried greater weight than the secret. There was no greater hierophany than the coded gesture. The journalist’s mission consisted in deciphering signs that were practically esoteric. Every gesture was scrutinized like a pass in bullfighting or a pose in kabuki theater: if the president was in a good mood, he ordered huevos rancheros for breakfast on Monday; if in the same sitting he reached for the refried beans without addressing his Minister of the Interior, a cabinet change was imminent.
Political gastronomy now follows a very different course. We stand before an all-you-can-eat buffet where everyone snatches everyone else’s plate, yells at the same time, and carries off his leftovers in Tupperware.
The crisis in governance corresponds to a crisis in the media. The executive is now incapable of determining his own information agenda. If, for seven decades, to declare was more important than to govern (“your well-being” was a promise that didn’t allow for argument), now the president appears on the news for a few seconds between two assassinations, an official eye-blink amid the flying shrapnel. In this context, organized crime provides the new dominant symbolism.
The drug trade tends to act twice: in the world of events, and again in the news, where it very rarely encounters an opposing discourse. Television amplifies the horror by disseminating, in close-ups and slow motion, crimes with marks of authorship. It’s possible to distinguish the “signatures” of the different cartels: some decapitate their victims, others cut out their tongues, others leave the dead in the trunks of cars, others wrap them in blankets. In some cases, criminals record their executions and send videos to the media or post them on YouTube—after a not insignificant postproduction process. The mainstream news media become the narco’s late-night TV, the zone in which the offense committed in reality becomes an infomercial for terror.
The narco relies on the discourse of cruelty (cruor: the blood that spills, says Lyotard), in which wounds trace a sentence for the victim and a warning for the witnesses. The jus sangui of the narco depends on a Kafkaesque inversion of legal proceedings; the verdict is not the end but the beginning of a trial, the announcement that others might yet be called to court. “If you do not make the blood run, the law is indecipherable,” Lyotard wrote about “In the Penal Colony.” That is the implicit slogan of organized crime. Its words are perfectly legible. Meanwhile, the other law, “our” law, has faded.
Narcoculture expanded the radius of its influence by means of ballads, or narcocorridos, which are frequently paid for by their protagonists. In our atmosphere of confusion, troubadours with underworld associations enjoy the dubious glamour of criminal life, which benefits from a certain against-the-grain charisma and lays claim to “popular morality.” In the narcocorridos, depressing accordions accompany a saga of plunder; they glorify activities that, as much as they may bring roads and electricity to poppy-growing communities, can’t support all the comparisons to Robin Hood. Although it might sound fun or interesting or “authentic” to champion those who carry the hierba mala to the other side, narcocorridos belong to a sector of society that drives 10 percent of the national economy (the same percentage as petroleum) and is responsible for dozens of murders a day.
Taken as documents of the underworld, the narcocorridos are informative. What’s strange is that they have won space on mainstream radio stations and even in some literary anthologies. In the name of a suspect multiculturalism, a few years ago a group of writers protested the fact that two narcocorridos had been suppressed from a textbook. In their complaint, they neglected to consider that the lyrics would be studied not in a class about contemporary issues in Mexico but in one about literature, replacing Amado Nervo or Ramón López Velarde. The narco has relied on the consent of the radio stations that it threatens or subsidizes (the terms are interchangeable) and on the anthropological solidarity of those who overinterpret crime as a manifestation of tradition.
The shameless tendency toward instant gratification that characterizes modern life has allied itself, in Mexico, to “impunity.” In the world of the narcos, the supremacy of the present moment plays out in a ménage à trois between fast money, advanced criminal technology, and the dominion of the secret. The past and the future, the values of tradition and of a society’s long-term hopes, lose their meaning in this territory. Only the here and now exists: the opportune moment, the emporium of caprice in which you can have five wives, rent a hit man for a thousand dollars and a judge for twice that, and live at the margins of law and good taste, amid the colorful horror of Versace shirts, solid-gold giraffes, jewels resembling Amazonian insects, a $300,000 watch to tell the time, and turquoise ostrich leather boots.
As scholars like Luis Astorga and Ronaldo González Valdés have documented, fifty years ago the drug trade was regional, confined to the Mexican north. These days it involves the planetary flux of capital.
The drug trade has won cultural and informational battles in a society that hides from the problem through denial: “The sicarios only kill each other.” More than an accepted routine or an indifferent banalization of evil, news of the underworld has produced simple distance. It’s always about strangers, outlandish or faraway people. They must know why their throats are being slit.
Every morning the papers publish an indicator in red: the twelve beheaded in Yucatán from yesterday are replaced by the twenty-four executed today in La Marquesa national park. Nevertheless, the instinct for survival has created a mental isolation of the zones of violence. As long as “they” are the ones annihilating each other, we will be safe.
Julio Scherer García, doyen of independent journalism in Mexico, recently published an illuminating book: La reina del Pacífico. For months, Scherer visited Sandra Ávila Beltrán in the penitentiary where she has been held since September 28, 2007. Presented to the media as if she were the “Queen of the South” from Arturo Pérez Reverte’s novel, Ávila has all the necessary traits to captivate the public imagination. She is a beautiful, strong, defiant woman, imprisoned by a weak head of state who broke his bones falling off a bicycle (a kindergartner’s accident), and who is further diminished by the suits he wears (on him they all look extra-large). The Queen was irresistible prey for a president with small feet. Displaying her to the public is part of a larger propaganda strategy that has done nothing to diminish the brutal impact of the drug trade.
According to what she tells Scherer, Ávila’s involvement in crime has been less direct and in a certain way more alarming than what her jailers suggest. At 44, she has never known a life outside the drug trade. She talks about the industry the way Sofia Coppola might talk about film. She had open lines of communication to all the noteworthy capos, was kidnapped by a delinquent boyfriend, has been married to two narcos (one a corrupt police commander), underwent the kidnapping of her adolescent son, has watched people die at her feet, and has had at her disposal all the parties, all the jewels, all the cars, all the mansions (each occupied only for a couple of weeks)—every excess purchasable for cash. Although she studied journalism for a semester at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, she was not familiar with Julio Scherer, the country’s best-known journalist. For forty-four years she lived in a world apart, like the inmates of Biosphere 2.
Javier Marías has noted that the TV series The Sopranos relies on putting the private lives of gangsters on display, offering a ticket, without risk of death, inside the zone where Mafiosi are like us and have problems with their kids’ schools. The narco, for his part, relies on eliminating the outside and assimilating everything to his private life: buying the entire residential development, the country club, the soccer stadium, the police precinct, the bubble that Sandra Ávila can inhabit. There is no need to pretend. The spectators have been bought.
The Queen of the Pacific does not appear to be the strategist of evil that the president needs her to be, but something more commonplace and awful: the consort of crime. She has lived a full and complete life without passing for a moment within the bounds of legality. The most amazing thing is not her rank within the criminal hierarchy but the fact that she has fulfilled, “normally,” all the obligations of the subculture into which she was born (her only grievance is not having been a man so she could have played a greater role). From girl to widow, she has traversed a path that reads like a narrative of self-actualization that years ago was exclusive to Sinaloa, home of the Pacific Cartel, but now belongs to the whole country—a narrative in which no amount of waste is reprehensible. If someone thinks that one gadget called the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Watch boasted enough names to satisfy the Queen, he is wrong. Sandra Ávila owned 179 of them. Such strongbox excesses are complemented by the cartels’ waste of weaponry. Sicarios leave behind fifteen or seventeen AK-47s at the scene of a crime, proof that their arsenal is bottomless.
The narco’s theatricality relies on bullets and torture, but also on this profligate weaponry and on the disguises that allow him to be a transitory member of any police force in the country. The cartrancherels have so thoroughly infiltrated police power that it’s not surprising for them to have every kind of uniform at their disposal. What’s strange is that the police, accomplices in the crime, still wear uniforms.
For his entry into public recognition, the capo needs a nickname for a passport; he can take his name from theodicy (El Señor de los Cielos [Lord of the Heavens]), from ranching (Don Neto), or from cartoons (El Azul [Blue Man]). The most terrible ones are those that insinuate a sort of feminine coquettishness, brutally refuted by the facts: la Barbie [Barbie Doll], el Ceja Güera [White Chick’s Eyebrow].
Like superheroes, narcos don’t have histories or CVs: they have legends. Their counterparts in the United States stay anonymous. In Mexico they are ubiquitous and elusive. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a maximum-security prison or in a mansion with a mother-of-pearl jacuzzi. They never stop working.
Curiously, the state of denial about the violence has given way to a very informed fear. To confirm that the capos are “Others,” practically extraterrestrial beings, we memorize their exotic aliases and inventory their culinary habits: jaguar heart with gunpowder, lobster sprinkled with tamarind and cocaine.
The landscape has been transformed by the investment of dirty money. Any Mexican city features plenty of locations to film the death of a capo or a police commander. There, the ideal restaurant: a plastic and neon château where waitresses in miniskirts serve brontosaurus ribs, next to a Mercedes-Benz dealership and a hotel that looks like a mosque with Plexiglas cupolas. Places like Torreón or Mérida, which until recently had reputations as calm cities (because it was assumed that the narcos who built their homes there didn’t use them for “work”) have now also become the settings for executions.
In the new environment of fear, 10,000 companies offer security services, and close to 3,000 people have had a chip the size of a grain of rice implanted under their skin so that they can be easily located in the event of kidnapping.
On September 15, Independence Day, two grenades were tossed into a defenseless crowd in the municipal plaza of Morelia. The terrorist attack coincided with another of a virtual order: the inhabitants of Villahermosa received emails marking them as candidates for kidnapping. Crime can no longer be relegated to the tranquilizing territory of the foreign.
President Calderón came to power in a highly contentious election that divided Mexico. To demonstrate and solidify his strength, he ordered the military to patrol the country. This declaration that confrontation was thinkable provoked the cartels both to battle each other and to execute police officers. But while the corpses appeared on highways and in gutters, no financing networks were investigated, no criminal accomplices in government were detained. The last high-ranking government official to be arrested for his collusion with organized crime was Mario Villanueva, governor of Quintana Roo, who was investigated during the era of Ernesto Zedillo, the last president of the PRI. The two governments that have been in office since the democratic transfer of power have been incapable of investigating themselves and detecting the arrangements that allow the drug trade to prosper.
We have arrived at a new order of fear: we face a diffuse, delocalized war, with no notions of “front” or “rearguard,” in which we can’t even determine the sides of the conflict. It has become impossible to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty who belongs to the police and who is an infiltrator.
Our pact with crime has produced a decisive symbolic displacement. If, for decades, we protected ourselves from the violence by conceiving of it as something alien, now its influence draws ever nearer.
In the realm of art, the installation artist Rosa María Robles anticipated the resignification of fear. Her exhibition Navajas, shown in Culiacán, included the piece Alfombra roja [Red Carpet], which didn’t refer to the runway where the rich and famous parade on their way to Andy Warhol’s utopia, but to the bloodstained blankets of the encobijados, murder victims of the cartel, their bodies wrapped and dumped in this penal colony that claimed almost 5,000 victims in 2008.
The unrepeatable moment of the crime and the unlimited reach of the drug trade acquire new meaning in this installation. Robles managed to procure eight of the blankets from a police warehouse. With these she created her red carpet. Displayed in a gallery, it became a disturbing readymade. Duchamp collaborates with James Ellroy: the found object as proof of the crime. Robles staged impunity on two fronts: she put unsolved crimes before our eyes, and she proved how easy it is to penetrate the legal system and appropriate objects that ought to be guarded vigilantly.
Navajas provoked a controversy about the appropriateness of recycling criminal evidence. The real impact of the work was different: in the gallery, the blankets offered far more compelling proof than they had as evidence.
After some discussion, Alfombra roja was withdrawn. Rosa María Robles then dyed a blanket with her own blood. The gesture defined our Mexican moment with dramatic urgency. We all have a reason to step onto that carpet. Terror has grown simultaneously more diffuse and intimate. Before we could believe that the blood was “theirs.” Now it’s ours.
— Translated from the Spanish by David Noriega