My Strange Weekend at a Bike Race with Lance Armstrong and a Crack Addict
Above: The author (behind Lance Armstrong) and Geoff the crack addict (in the green shirt).
I had no idea there was a huge bicycle race about to take part in Oaxaca. In fact, I’d only headed there because I’d stumbled around Mexico’s dusty north for too long, and the Lonely Planet guide suggested Oaxaca—a municipality around 300 miles south of Mexico City—as a great place to stop before I took the plunge down into the jungles of Guatemala.
I was on the second flight of the day (Monterrey–Mexico City–Oaxaca) when a woman leaned across the aisle and asked if we were athletes. I glanced at the guy next to me, who looked at me as though I might have the answer to the woman’s question. I knew I wasn’t an athlete—I get exhausted playing Mario Kart—so that much was certain. But the guy next to me was small and compact—wiry, with a shaved head that looked like it might make him better at sports.
“I’m not an athlete,” he said, as though it was a question he was asked every day.
“Me neither,” I said, over the top of the passing drink cart.
The woman sat back in her seat. “Oh, I thought you were taking part in the race.”
The small muscular guy and I exchanged glances. Clearly, neither of us knew the slightest thing about any race, but looking around the plane, it did seem that something was afoot. Ridiculously healthy-looking people from all over the world were crammed into their seats, looking tanned and toned. I looked down at my skinny, bright red arms, then across to my new friend; this woman had to have been messing with us.
Interview with a Mexican Coke Dealer
Julián is a coke dealer. He’s 44. He’s been working Mexico City for two decades. He agreed to take us on a ride-along as he worked. The phone never stopped ringing, not for a minute.
VICE: You couldn’t see us yesterday because you had a really important poker game. How was it?
Julián: Great, man. I won. We split the pot. I got 1,000 pesos. It was relaxed. There was a tournament today, but I won’t be going.
Do you have contacts with the police or politicians?
Of course, with the AFI [Mexican FBI]. Everyone is well connected, and everyone is so full of bullshit—epecially over there in the organized crime and anti-kidnapping units. I take care of the heavyweights from the AFI. They send their bodyguards to me in armored cars and shit.
[At this point, Julián pulls up to a drugstore.]
You buying medicine?
No, just candy for my diabetes. Oh, yeah, I’m diabetic. If you do not complicate your existence, fuck, life is worth shit. I won’t be long, hang in there.
[Ten minutes later we are driving south of Mexico City.]
Julián: Look at that guy [pointing at a trannie]. Shit. It’s a shame he’s got an antenna.
Have you ever gotten a blowjob from one of them when you were really coked up and horny?
With hookers, of course. At my age, I can’t be judged if I do a guy or I don’t.
Easter in the Mountains – Forget Egg Hunts, the Cora Paint Themselves and Hold a Sacred Dance-Off
The Cora, or Naayari, as they call themselves, were the last indigenous ethnic group in Mexico to be conquered by the Spanish—they held out until 1722. Many of them still live in isolated communities along the Sierra del Nayar mountain range, remote settlements that are only reachable by plane and lack basic services like running water and electricity. Not much has changed since precolonial times. The Cora adhere to their own idiosyncratic blend of Catholicism and animism, which manifests in their unique way of celebrating Easter.
I shot these portraits during the Judea Cora (their version of Catholicism’s Holy Week), in San Juan Bautista, a small town in the state of Nayarit. The celebration’s rituals involve physical acts of contrition, similar to Lent, but the Cora also celebrate in all-day ceremonies meant to represent a cosmic battle with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, while simultaneously depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s pretty confusing, but as I understand it, the significant rituals begin on the night of Ash Wednesday, when participants covered in body paint made from burnt, ground-up corn—who are meant to represent Jews and Romans—perform a dance that signifies the “rise of evil.” On Thursday morning, these Cora fast while wandering through town in a ritual that evokes the Romans’ search for Christ. Later that afternoon, another set of dancers, this time representing Christ’s apostles, paint themselves white. Then the two factions meet in the center of the village for a ceremony—the “Jews” eat while the “apostles” dance until nightfall, after which they host a separate meal before returning home. The Jews then dance from dusk until around midnight, when they go out in search of corn to “steal.” (In reality, a farmer donates the corn in exchange for a blessing of his harvest.) This year, the Jews left the town center at 1 AM and returned with sacks full of corn around 6 AM. Other biblical characters like the Pharisees and figures from the Coras’ own myths round out the cast.
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Jaime Maussan is Mexico’s leading ufologist. His TV show, Contact, has run for decades, and he consistently packs auditoriums, where he enlightens audiences with his knowledge of the cosmos and life on other planets. He has many detractors, of course, and he’s no stranger to being called a fraud.
We met Jaime at his house in the forest right outside Mexico City, and he gave us a tour of the tunnels of his underground abode. He also showed us his monkeys and told us about some of his most exhilarating adventures. But most importantly, he shared with us his vision of life outside our planet.
The Fugitive Reporter Exposing Mexico’s Drug Cartels
These are the opening paragraphs of Dying for the Truth, a book written about the infamous Blog del Narco, which fills Mexicans in on the (often bloody) activities of the murderous local drug cartels, where the nation’s mainstream media has failed:
Shortly before we completed this book, two people—a young man and woman who worked with us—were disembowelled and hung off a bridge in Tamaulipas, a state in the north of Mexico. Large handwritten signs, known as narcobanners, next to their bodies mentioned our blog, and stated that this was what happened to internet snitches. The message concluded with a warning that we were next.
A few days later, they executed another journalist in Tamaulipas who regularly sent us information. The assassins left keyboards, a mouse, and other computer parts strewn across her body, as well as a sign that mentioned our blog again.
However, we refuse to be intimidated.
As you can see, the people who keep the blog running risk their lives to do so. The book, which will be published in both English and Spanish by Feral House, will include a selection of the most relevant posts and pictures published between March 2, 2010, when the blog first started, and February 2011. Choosing to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the blog’s editor finally agreed to talk about her work, and the threats and trials she and the site’s programmer have faced in order to keep this project alive for so long.
According to the book, in 2012, their website—whose aim is to collect uncensored articles and images about the Mexican cartel’s extreme violence, their activities, and the government’s fight against them—registered an average of 25 million visits a month. According to Alexa, it is one of the most visited sites in Mexico. Although criticized by some media outlets for publishing gory images and information that’s given to them by cartels (such as executions and video messages aimed at rival organizations), the blog has become an essential source of news for journalists, citizens, and visitors.
VICE had the opportunity to speak with Lucy (a pseudonym she has chosen to protect her identity) about her blog, her new book, and what’s next for Blog del Narco.
VICE: Let’s start from the beginning. How did Blog del Narco come about?
Lucy: It was a way to show we were angry with the authorities and the media who had forgotten their number one responsibility, which is to keep the public informed. I’m a journalist, and my partner does both social networks and programming—so the idea was born, and on March 2, 2010, we went live with the blog.
Was there anything in particular that made you act?
Stories from people like, “I went on vacation to Tamaulipas and they were saying absolutely nothing on the news. I walked into the lion’s den and the gangs stole my vehicle, they locked me up for two days”—that kind of situation. People who had nothing to do with this, but ended up being affected due to a lack of information.
Why weren’t the media reporting what was going on?
They had been gagged in two ways: the federal government had told them, “You won’t say anything, there’s nothing going on here,” and on the other hand, there was the pressure from the criminal organizations.
The People of Guerrero, Mexico, Have Taken Justice Into Their Own Hands
above: Militia members in Cuautepec, Guerrero, where they gathered to take an oath to defend their communities against organized crime. Photos by Carlos Alvarez Montero.
On January 5 in El Potrero, a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a man named Eusebio García Alvarado was kidnapped by a local criminal syndicate. Kidnappings are fairly common in Guerrero—the state, just south of Mexico City, is one of the poorest in the country and the site of some of the worst violence in the ongoing battle between the drug cartels and Mexican authorities. Guerrero’s largest city, Acapulco, is known to Americans as a tourist hot spot. It’s also currently the second most dangerous city in the world, according to a study released by a Mexican think tank in February.
Eusebio’s kidnapping, though, was exceptional. He served as the town commissioner of Rancho Nuevo and was a member of the community activist organization Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), and the brazenness the criminals showed in snatching him up pissed off his neighbors so much that they took matters into their own hands.
Gonzalo Torres, also known as G-1, the leader of the UPOEG militia in Ayulta.
The day after Eusebio was abducted, hundreds of people from the nearby towns of Ayutla de los Libres and Tecoanapa decided that they could do a better job policing their communities than the local authorities. They grabbed whatever weapons they had—mostly hunting rifles and shotguns—set up checkpoints at entrances to their villages, and patrolled the roads in pickup trucks, often hiding their faces with ski masks and bandanas. Overnight, UPOEG transformed from an organization of advocates for better roads and infrastructure into a group of armed vigilantes operating without the endorsement of any branch of the government. The kidnappers released Eusebio that day, but UPOEG’s checkpoints and patrols didn’t disappear with his return. In fact, there was a groundswell of support. Five municipalities in the surrounding Costa Chica region followed suit and established their own militias. Soon, armed and masked citizens ensured that travelers and strangers weren’t allowed to enter any of their towns uninvited.
These militias captured 54 people whom they alleged to be involved in organized crime (including two minors and four women), imprisoning them inside a house that became an improvised jail. On January 31, the communities gathered on an outdoor basketball court in the village of El Meson to publicly try their detainees. The charges ran the gamut from kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and homicide to smoking weed. More than 500 people attended, and the trial was covered by media outlets all over the world.
Crossing Mexico’s Other Border
People tend to assume that the immigrants crossing the US–Mexico border are all Mexican. The reality is that a large percentage of them come from Central America, and their journey north is grueling. To get to the US, they first have to pass through Mexico, an ordeal that often ends up being even more difficult than getting into the United States. Most migrants cross into Mexico on rafts, via the Suchiate River. After that, they need to protect themselves from corrupt Mexican police, drug cartels like the infamous Zetas, and even fellow migrants. They often travel by foot and by pubic transit, but many of them ride on top of “the Beast,” the freight trains that travel from the south to the north of Mexico.
While the majority of the migrants are young men, a small percentage of them are women who endure hardships like the possibility of being raped by basically anyone they come across. Some of them are forced to stay in the border state of Chiapas and work as prostitutes because they are too weak to keep going, need to save some money to continue their journey, or, if they decide to stay, so they can travel back and forth between Mexico and their home countries to visit their kids.
For this episode of Fringes, we followed Yoana, a young girl from Guatemala who has been living in the small town of Huixtla, Chiapas, working as a prostitute to make money to help her two sons. We tagged along with a special unit from the state government that is in charge of protecting migrants as they travel through Chiapas. We then hopped on board the Beast with more than 400 other migrants traveling from Arriaga to Ixtepec, Oaxaca, to try to understand the hardships they go through and why they leave their homes in the first place.
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MEXICO CITY: WAS THE PEMEX BLAST A BOMB OR AN ACCIDENT?
The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex—Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people—is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City’s brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.
Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.
According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack—another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.
Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas. The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obredor, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to “defend” Pemex from “privatization” with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.