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?

A Cartel Victory in the U.S.

Retired Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos seemed clearly headed for a U.S. prison. An exhaustive investigation by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) showed that the former Mexican defense minister had taken heavy bribes to keep the military from interfering with the cartels whose drugs are poisoning Americans. As an aside, he aided one cartel against its rival. Such is politics in the narco state.

The DEA was dumbfounded. One of its top cases had exploded for no credible reason, hardly discouraging other traffickers from doing their business in the U.S. Mike Vigil, former international operations chief for the DEA, said freeing the general was a “huge gift” from President Trump to Mexico, perhaps for its help in slowing immigration. Keep the people out, let the drugs in.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda

Even by Washington standards the explanations offered were threadbare. The U.S. said there were “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” in the decision, too sensitive apparently to specify. A U. S. Justice Department spokeswoman said the case was dismissed because of confidence in the Mexican justice system, which in fact doesn’t exist. But don’t worry, U.S. Attorney General William Barr was assured, Mexico will soon serve up a narco boss trafficking in fentanyl. No name was given. Don’t want to alarm him.

From academy came a comforting explanation. Gladys McCormick, history professor at Syracuse University whose specialty is Mexico, said prosecuting Cienfuegos would have compromised intelligence for years to come. His arrest was “scandalous,” she added. “ He truly is untouchable and sacrosanct because of what he represents and the secrets he carries with him.” Cienfuegos could not have said it better.

It’s generally agreed this was a rare procedure in contrast to normal behavior. For example, U.S. prosecutors have resisted efforts by Turkey to get charges dropped against a state owned bank accused of violating sanctions on Iran. But Turkey is in the Middle East and hardly a threat. Drug smuggling Mexico is right next door.

A Welcoming Mexican Town

Don’t go to Agua Prieta, we were told. Too dangerous. Indeed there have been drug cartel shootings as recently as June a year ago. But today I can vouch that it’s easy and quite safe to visit the border town across from Douglas, Arizona. It’s humming with activity with a growing population, though it is of course under the control of the drug cartels which are in charge of the rest of Mexico.

My guide for the day, Keoki Skinner, is an American who has lived in Agua Prieta for thirty years. He married a Mexican woman, and they have five bilingual children who are at home in both countries. He takes pride in Cafe Justo, a coffee co-op started by a Presbyterian ministry that has lifted some forty growers in the south out of poverty. The prized coffee is roasted, sipped and sold at a congenial setting in Agua Prieta.

Picking coffee beans for Cafe Justo

Similarly, a group of equally industrious women called DouglaPrieta Works are engaged in sewing and painting a variety of items for sale here and in the U.S. They take time out from their pleasant work to offer visitors some food from the garden they tend. The aim of this kind of enterprise is to make conditions in Mexico livable so that people don’t feel they have to risk crossing the border for a better life.

The women of DouglaPrieta Works

But they are not entirely free where they live. Drug money rules Agua Prieta, as it does the rest of Mexico, and it’s an exacting boss. Offend it, and you become part of the statistic of an ever rising murder rate. If people mind their own business in Agua Prieta, the cartels leave them alone. Besides, the town is profitable and a nice place to live for relaxing cartel chiefs. Keoki points out their splendid mansions, what he calls “drug architecture,” clearly distinguishable from the lesser abodes around them. The most ostentatious one of all, outfitted with columns, is presently empty because its owner was forced to flee. Nobody seems in a hurry to take it over

Another home is owned by a sicario (combination body guard and hit man) who was given it as a reward for saving the life of the drug chief he served. His door looks open, but Keoki is not tempted to go in, though he says, not in jest, that if he’s in trouble, he would call a sicario rather than the police. His one brush with cartel activity came one night when he was awakened by the sound of an air cannon shooting bundles of marijuana across the border – a latest device to get their product to avid consumers

Wherever you go in Agua Prieta it’s hard to miss the houses of exchange where dollars of U.S. drug profits are converted to pesos. Business is booming. Yet many billions remain in the U.S. circulating into willing hands who are not so willing to have the fact revealed. That may explain why so little is heard or read about cartel activity. In a vast contribution to economic inequality in the U.S., the money that Americans pay for their poison further enriches the affluent.

Can Agua Prieta serve as a model for other Mexican towns under cartel supervision? It’s currently spared violence and can prosper. The cartels could moderate, but don’t count on it. Money is king. Many say the U.S., now involved in countless wars and struggles half a globe away, must turn its attention to the more threatening struggle just across its border.