Artist of Murder

Understandably, most Mexicans do their best to avoid the violent drug cartels that have turned their country into the most murderous on earth. Not artist Teresa Margolles who is steeped in their misdoings. Her inspiration is not the artist studio or the scenic countryside but the morgue. There she finds the ingredients of her art in the victims of violent crime of which there is never a shortage in Mexico. She says they are a mirror of the living with their disdain for lfe. While still born foetuses are routinely discarded in Mexico, she has embodied one in stone.

The dead almost seem to be her companions. Trained in forensic medicine, she is as attentive to the dead as to the living. Little escapes her scrutiny. “Every murder leaves a mark,” she says. “Even after months, years, the first drop – the moment the family is told – will always be there.” Femicide in particular overwhelms her, the murder of a dozen women in Mexico each day. “Women are seen as disposable,” she says “I research loss and pain so that people can understand it. My intention is to be a filter so audiences can feel the pain.”

Margolles, Teresa. Pista de baile de la discoteca “Tlaquepaque” (Dance Floor of the Club “Tlaquepaque”), 2016.

Yet all this anguish is embodied in work that is mostly abstract and minimal. Death is there – parts of corpses and the fluid used in cleaning them – but the viewer has to fill in the blanks. A plain looking concrete bench seems to invite people to rest. Once seated, the visitor reads an inscription that notes the ingredients of the morgue that have gone into its construction. Is it a bench or a tombstone?

How do the cartels respond to this artistic assault on their work? If it were in writing, the answer would be simple and direct – death. More journalists are killed in Mexico than in any other country. Since art is silent, it can be ignored. And what about the American drug consumers who finance the cartels while poisoning themselves? Since little is reported about Mexican violence in the American media, could art somehow fill the void and awaken people to this disaster next door? That would be Teresa Margolles’ triumph.

Trotsky in Mexico

What’s another murder amid the carnage of today’s Mexican drug cartels? But the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City still stands out. It occurred at the apex of Communist influence around the world following Stalin’s great victory over the Nazis and the consequent expansion of Soviet power. Indeed power talks and converts, and that was true of Mexico as elsewhere. Mexico City was crawling with Stalinists who were awaiting his every command.

In this environment Trotsky sought refuge. The arts were embroiled. Famed artist Diego Rivera welcomed the exile, while equally famed David Siquieros staged an unsuccessful raid on him. Trotskyites, as they were called, visited him and offered homage. As it was becoming apparent, even to loyal intellectuals, that Stalin was a boundless tyrant, Trotsky would replace him in communist affections. This was partly illusory in that Trotsky was a fierce dogmatist who believed in “permanent revolution” of a violent sort largely conducted by superior minds like his own.

Leon Trotsky

And that was his failing. He thought that Stalin had a “third rate provincial mind,” when in fact the canny strongman outmaneuvered him throughout. Trotsky dropped from being the star of the Bolshevik revolution, esteemed for his oratory and organization of the Red army, to a hapless outcast with his life in danger wherever he went. He defended himself with reams of writings denouncing Stalinism, but as Stalin noted: “Paper will put up with anything on it.”

Still, compared to Stalin Trotsky was almost humanitarian, and there was always a certain glamour to him as biographer Isaac Deutscher notes in a touching description of his last days in The Prophet Outcast. Knowing full well the end was near, he was kind to those around him and acknowledged his shortcomings while remaining steadfast to his Communist vision. “Life is beautiful,” he writes his wife Natalya. “Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

Today’s drug cartels would not have botched his assassination, just a quick bullet to the head. Instead a Stalinist spent months courting a woman who gave him access to Trotsky and then smashed his skull with an ice axe. The blow was fatal but not instantaneous. Trotsky lingered in pain for close to a day. So Stalin got his revenge and then some. When the assassin was released from prison twenty years later, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia.

Trotsky’s legacy in today’s Mexico? Not permanent revolution but what about permanent drug warfare? Communist brutality is no longer with us, but it set a precedent for unceasing violence. If the communists can do this, the drug lords might say, why not us? It’s in the best intellectual tradition. The Stalin-Trotsky duel remains fixed in history.

The Media Discovers the Drug Cartels, Sort Of

In the absence of any genuine reporting or analysis of the Mexican drug cartels, Fox News has now filled the void in part. Reporter Lara Logan went to the area in Mexico where nine Mormons were slaughtered by the cartels and interviewed survivors of the attack in a gripping presentation but had little to say about the cartels or how they operate – a media tendency.

If there is any significant area of the world which the Americana media fails to cover, it is right next door, Mexico. Yet it is one of the most dangerous places on earth, where the cartels murder with impunity as they send their poisonous drugs to the U.S with earnings approaching 100 billion dollars a year.

Maria Ronita Miller and four of her children, including 7-month-old twins, killed in cartel attack.

Even so, the media slumbers with far more coverage of lesser violence in such far away places as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan. Fox news has now broken the pattern with an hour long feature on the killing in November 2019 of nine Mormons – three mothers, six children, including baby twins – that is truly heart-wrenching. Yet as the program fails to make clear, this is an every day affair in Mexico with one of the highest murder rates in the world and still climbing.

Don’t Mexican lives matter? Racism might be a conventional response, but it’s rather a vast, inexplicable indifference to the suffering south of us. Ignored by the media and the government, it doesn’t exist for Americans. Out of sight, out of mind. The Mormons interviewed by Logan tell compelling stories, but it has to be said that they are American citizens living in Mexico. They get attention because of that while Mexicans keep getting murdered in the shadows.

At a break in the Fox program, someone is caught saying the Mexican situation is a U.S. national security issue. Indeed. Along with enormous quantities of drugs, cartel bosses are crossing the U.S. border and even took over an Arizona border town until an aroused citizenry threw them out. Enthusiasts like to compare today’s expansive U.S. with the long lived Roman empire. But it’s as if Rome treated neighboring Gaul – about the same size as Mexico – with similar indifference. Do as you like, we don’t care. Julius Caesar would be dumbfounded and the Roman empire would not have lasted.

The U. S. deserves a better fate. The Fox program is a step in the right direction. Much more is needed.

Traveling Safely in Mexico

The Wall Street Journal devotes a full page to the delights of Tulum, a Mexican resort town on the Caribbean. The accompanying pictures help tell the story: bicycling on the road, relaxing on the beach. We’re informed there’s cultural and culinary abundance.

The beach, Tulum, Mexico

There is, to be sure, the danger of Covid which afflicts Mexico along with the rest of the world. Having too much fun may hide the danger, the article notes. Visitors should make sure masks are worn throughout. Even so, while fewer Americans are visiting Mexico these days, they are staying longer. Paul Safarti, an international tour operator, says a small hotel he owns in Tulum is nearly full. “They’re partying like there’s no Covid.”

The streets of Tulum

But something far worse than Covid is overlooked by these enthusiasts – a rising, high violent crime rate in Tulum as in the rest of Mexico. Ana Pereira, a local resident and author of The Tulum Safety Guide, writes that she is getting increasing reports of serious crimes against tourists.

Last December visitors from Sweden, Martin Graham and his wife, were walking along a main street at nine in the evening when they were accosted by a small kid with a gun who demanded money. Graham refused and the boy pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun didn’t fire, and the pair managed to escape to their hotel where they called the police. Three hours later the cops arrived but wouldn’t take a report because it would be bad for business. For the Grahams it was back to Sweden in a hurry.

This incident illustrates a recruitment ritual of the cartels. An aspiring member of the criminal organization must prove his worth by randomly killing someone, a Mexican usually, but a foreign tourist will do. “Cartel violence is now part of Tulum,” says Lilly who lives there. Executions occur in broad daylight, she says, and armed muggings are common. She concedes that tourists are not likely to be hit by stray bullets, but they can easily witness some gruesome act during their stay.

While urging visitors to come to Tulum, author Pereira nevertheless offers a long list of warnings. Among them: Don’t wander too far in the daytime and don’t walk anywhere at night. Keep emergency money hidden, and when you pay for something, keep larger bills out of sight. Don’t keep your phone out all the time. If someone tries to take your stuff, let him. Safety first. These could be usefully included in the Journal’s next story on bountiful Tulum.

Armed woman in Michoacan

Coincidentally, the same day – January 16 – of the Journal story the Associated Press reported on women who are organizing against the Jalisco cartel in the crime ridden state of Michoacan. They had little choice since the cartel had killed or kidnapped most of the men in the community – husbands, sons, fathers, brothers. Carrying assault rifles and posting road blocks, the women are taking the fight to the enemy much to the applause of long suffering Mexicans. This story rings true.

Assange Invited to Mexico

A British judge has prevented Julian Assange’s deportation to the U.S. which has been doggedly pursuing him for disclosing reams of secret and embarrassing government documents. For Assange, currently imprisoned in Britain, Mexico beckons perhaps. “Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance,” says Mexican President Lopez Obrador. “I am in favor of pardoning him.”

Julian Assange

In a breathtaking irony, the country where more journalists are murdered than anywhere else on earth has now offered asylum to one of of the world’s most famous journalists. Revenge is at hand. The drug cartels which basically control Mexico resent U.S. efforts against them like the wall and legalizing marijuana, their chief product. Assange is a handy cudgel to bat the threatening northern neighbor.

How would Assange live in Mexico presuming he could somehow get there? No doubt quite well. The cartels’ word is law and if they can readily condemn Mexican journalists, they can just as easily save an American one. “Assange’s harsh imprisonment is the equivalent of torture,” says President Lopez Obrador who should know. Torture is a specialty of cartel rule. Considering his value, Assange might be the only person in Mexico exempt from torture.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

How would the U.S react? The American media which basically ignores Mexico or misreports it (crime? what crime?) might be spurred to action since the U.S. is involved. The cartels might then let Assange respond in a battle of the headlines. To silence these the U.S could launch a covert action to recover the errant newsman and end its humiliation by a lesser country.

In the meantime, the cartels could bask in their new found glory, enjoying fame as civil libertarians while chalking up record profits from drug sales – a win-win situation.

Whoever thought the case against Assange would lead to this?

Narcos Is News

The Drug Enforcement Administration, established by President Nixon in 1973, has been overshadowed by the more celebrated CIA and FBI. In the television series Narcos, two swaggering FBI agents taunt a DEA undercover: “Dogs at airports now do your work.” They picked on the wrong guy. The DEA agent helps bring down the notorious drug lord Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, now in prison, though that is hardly the end of the story of a battle that continues uninterrupted to this day.

The show pulls no punches as it tries to get to the heart of the matter. The drug villains are no cardboard creations but full bodied portrayals. Gallardo, elegantly played by Diego Luna, is a loving family man while perfectly vicious as a cartel boss. He dreams of creating an organization that mirrors any legitimate business, and he approves the hideous torture of a DEA agent who threatens that business.

The agent, real life Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, discovered a 2500 acre marijuana field in an obscure setting in Mexico. Gallardo’s cartel is enraged, but as one member notes, the field will be worthless once the U.S. legalizes marijuana, which implies a certain futility on the part of everyone. Suffering Camarena is drilled full of holes for a product that will soon be discarded for more profitable cocaine.

Enrique “Kiki” Camarena

The series shows that the problem is far larger than just trafficking. Politics are involved at the highest level. Outfitted in a tuxedo that seems as comfortable to him as working clothes, Gallardo attends sumptuous dinners as a ranking member of the Mexican elite. The president returns his calls, may even call him. Billions of dollars of drug money, thanks to American consumers, keep everyone content. Only unrelenting DEA pressure brings Gallardo to justice. But in the show’s final scene, Gallardo tells his DEA antagonist that by putting him out of action, you have splintered the cartels into various parts that will be even bloodier and more dangerous.

Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo

And what of U.S. involvement? The film doesn’t go there except to note accurately that American drug consumers finance the cartels that run and ruin Mexico. Without the demand there would be no supply. But are there powers beyond consumers that keep the drug trade going? Is there a culpable American establishment akin to Mexico’s? “Narcos” producers, why not take a look?

The Charitable Cartels

The drug cartels are killing more Mexicans than ever, far more than are dying from coronavirus, but with a new twist. They’re also trying to keep some alive by supplying needy Mexicans with food and other supplies they don’t get from the government. “Who do they think they are?” asks an indignant President Lopez Obrador. “The government?” That seems to be the case.

With much fanfare and social media promotion, the cartels are enjoying their new charitable image. It can’t hurt business. But true to form, they’re also imposing a strict quarantine in parts of Mexico. Troubled U.S. states like Michigan and New York might take note of their means of enforcement. No fine or reprimand but in one case – according to the Wall Street Journal – a stiff whacking of a violator with a paddle marked “Covid 19.” Mexicans stay willingly indoors.

Though drug czar El Chapo Guzman is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison, he is nevertheless an influence in the relief effort. His daughter Alejandrina is distributing boxes of supplies with his familiar face stenciled on them. No escaping El Chapo if you want to eat. Alejandrina in fact has a business offering products in the name of her father whom she describes as a “humble orange seller with many goals and ambitions.”

An unidentified woman distributes provisions in boxes stamped with the image of the convicted drug trafficker (Mexico News Daily)

There’s an even more impressive name associated with cartel enterprise: Osama bin Laden. In fact, a leader in the Sinaloa cartel is known as “El bin Laden,” who appropriately uses heavily armed gunmen in pickups to distribute supplies bearing, course, the image of bin Laden. He taunts authorities by saying if you don’t like bin Laden, then provide supplies of your own.

Sometimes the cartels cannot help themselves and go back to business. Some criminals disguised as health workers approach elderly people with sanitation tips. With a special lubricating oil on their hands they quickly slip off rings, bracelets and other jewels, leaving their victims in worse condition.

What matters is that in sickness or in health the cartels rule.