By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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 Jan. 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.