The Lost Boys of California Are Literally Dying to Pick Your Fruit
t the age when most American teenagers are trying to decide whom to ask to prom, Ernesto Valenzuela was instead weighing whether it was worse to die of thirst in the desert or have his throat slit by gangsters.
That’s the choice the 16-year-old faced in his hometown of Mapulaca, Honduras, a drowsy village where MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangsters are known for recruiting youth—sometimes as young as kindergartners—into their cartels. If the kids refuse, they are often killed. Now Ernesto was being recruited, and he didn’t want to end up one of the 6,000 people murdered each year in Honduras. With a total population just shy of 8 million, that means nearly one of every 1,000 Hondurans is a victim of homicide, making it the most dangerous place—after the war zones of Iraq, Somalia, and Syria—in the world.1
After mulling it over for months—and trying to dodge the tattooed gang members who wanted to sign him up—Ernesto decided his potential fate at home presented far more danger than what he might face at any distant desert crossing. So, early one morning in June 2013, after his mother sobbed and begged him to stay safe, he set out for a place he’d only seen in movies, a place where he’d heard a kid like himself—with just a fifth-grade education—could earn $60 a day working in the fields: America.
Yakiri Rubio Killed Her Rapist in Self-Defense—Now She May Go to Prison
Imagine that you are a 20-year-old woman walking at night to meet your friend or lover. Two men approach you on a motorcycle and say, “Get on, girl; we’ll give you a ride.” You tell them to fuck off, but they force you to get on their bike. Moments later, you have arrived at a hotel. With knifes poking your back, they take you to their room. Once there, they hit you, cut you, and one of them rapes you. When he is about to cut you with his knife again, you take it away from him and slash his throat with it.
You kill him. But hours later, you are the one facing charges for capital murder.
This is what happened on December 9, 2013, to Yakiri Rubí Rubio Aupart, a girl from Mexico City, who was imprisoned until recently at the Tepepan Female Center for Social Readaptation, located south of the city. She spent two months there on charges of “qualified murder.”
This week, Yakiri Rubio will be freed. On Monday, at the Court of Supreme Justice in Mexico City, her charges were changed from qualified murder to excess of legitimate defense. She will be released on bail.
But Yakiri still faces legal trouble—she will now be tried for “excess of legitimate defense.” If found guilty, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Exactly a year ago today, February 24, 2013, in “Tierra Caliente,” Michoacán, a group of farmers and businessmen in two communities organized themselves to take up arms against the Knights Templar drug cartel. Tired of the absence of the rule of law, the lack of governability, and persistent corruption, they took matters into their hands and formed what they called “autodefensa” militias in towns of Tepalcatepec and La Ruana. In January, we returned to meet the militia leaders, to find out what is happening today in the region known as the Hot Land.
The goal of the self-defense movement was to do away with the extreme violence that gripped “Tierra Caliente.” The Knights Templar not only had control of the production of marijuana and methamphetamine in Michoacán, they also diversified to such a point that the local communities had to pay them extortion “taxes.” Kidnappings, assaults, and homicides became commonplace.
The Knights Templar calls itself a “brotherhood” with its own statutes and codes. Its members use military-style uniforms modeled on the Middle Ages, and even its founding “spiritual” leader, Nazario Moreno, is venerated as a saint.
Little by little, the self-defense groups have expanded into places where the Templarios are strong. In each community they enter, they build barricades and set up checkpoints at every access point. They guard towns around the clock, armed with AK-47s, AR-15s, and other weapons that they claim were decommissioned from the Knights’ forces. However, some authorities have suggested that the self-defense groups are being armed by one of the Knights Templar’s rival cartels, Jalisco Nueva Generación. The “autodefensa” groups deny the claims.
A year after the self-defense uprising, the conflict continues. Negotiations with the government have led the militias to be folded into a little-known body within the government called the Rural Defense Forces. Yet, the principal leaders of the Knights Templar remain at large and uncertainty reigns over the Hot Land. The leadership of the self-defense militias has seen splits and ruptures, increasing the tension.
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He’s stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. If half his stories are true, he’s the best in Mexico, but that’s hard to say for certain. There’s no way to quantify achievements in petty theft, no Pickpocket Hall of Fame, but there was a time—if you believe him—when the Snail was so respected by the police that they let him go about his business undisturbed.
I found out about the Snail after I became interested in pickpockets—their stories, their ethics, their art of nonviolent robbery. I started asking people with ties to the criminal world whom I should talk to, and everyone from former beat cops to the pirated-DVD vendors on the street told me I needed to find the Snail, who they referred to as the “king of the pickpockets.”
I tracked him down and discovered he’s retired now, a dark-skinned man in his mid-50s running a soup kitchen on the El Paso border. He still receives gifts from old friends— cops and gangsters both—and a handful of glommers-on are always around to rub shoulders with greatness and pick up tips and tricks. One recent afternoon, I drove out to the kitchen to meet him.
The Mexican Doctor Who Leads a Militia Against the Cartels
Michoacan, the fertile agricultural state in western Mexico, is in the midst of war. There are three main players: the cartel known asLos Caballeros Templarios(the Knights Templar), the Federal Police and Mexican Army forces, and the armed civilian groups that have emerged in Michoacan—as well as other states—in the absence of peace and safety.
A sort of moral leader has arisen from these militia groups. Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde heads the General Counsel for Self-Defense and Community Police Forces of Michoacan. Since communities in the region took up arms to defend their towns from crime last February, Dr. Mireles has been their public voice, appearing on magazine covers and in televised interviews, defending every Mexican’s right to protect themselves from lawlessness.
Last week, photographer Hans-Maximo Musielik spent five days with Dr. Mireles, getting closer to the leader than anyone before. He documented Dr. Mireles, as well as his guards and commanders, as they kept road blocks and sought the expansion of the territory under the command of the self-defense council. On December 29, they peacefully overtook the municipality of Churumuco. Everything remained calm until January 4 when the community police forces took over Paracuaro, the tenth municipality to be added to the self-defense zone. But unlike Churumuco, the arrival of the self-defense groups met resistance, leading to fatal fighting. At least two gunmen for the Templarios were killed during the reported shootings. Two Mexican Army soldiers died in an ambush nearby. Hans-Maximo’s photos also capture the death of one member of the self-defense forces, a killing that was not counted in the major news reports.
"Are you going to win?" the journalist asked the rebel.
"We don’t deserve to lose," the rebel answered.
That was the first exchange journalist Gaspar Morquecho recalls having with the revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos on January 1, 1994, in the central plaza of San Cristobal del las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Morquecho, feeling a mixture of still drunk and hungover from the New Year’s celebrations the night before, interviewed the Zapatista leader minutes after he and his comrades had stormed and taken over the municipal hall of San Cristobal.
Twenty years after the Zapatista uprising, VICE traveled to Chiapas to meet Morquecho, the first local journalist to speak with the Zapatista Army face-to-face, so he could recall the events of that fateful day—it was the first indigenous armed uprising in Latin America in the internet age.
1 On April 1, Malcolm L. Shabazz was arrested at a bar in South Bend, Indiana, where he was visiting friends. “America is eating me alive,” he told his imam. 2 He returned to his hometown in the Hudson Valley and flew to Los Angeles to meet his friend Miguel Suarez. 3 Miguel, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant and labor organizer, was deported from Oakland on April 18. Malcolm met him in Tijuana, hoping a trip south would inspire him to live up to his legacy as Malcolm X’s grandson. 4 Miguel and Malcolm took a two-day bus ride to Mexico City. They dreamed up a plan to unite black and brown people in Mexico and beyond. 5 On May 8, their plans—and Malcolm’s tumultuous life—were cut short after a bar scam they fell for went horribly wrong near the Plaza Garibaldi.
Above: “Broly”, an alleged member of the Knights Templar Cartel, posing for a selfie with his handgun. (All images courtesy of Antoine Nouvet / Open Empowerment Initiative.)
Members of Mexico’s drug cartels are really starting to harness the power of the internet, using it to run positive PR campaigns, post selfies with their pistols, and hunt down targets by tracking their movements on social media.
Antoine Nouvet from the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organization, has been working with drug policy think-tank the Igarapé Institute on a project called the Open Empowerment Initiative. The project looks into “how cyberspace is empowering individuals and rewiring relations in Latin America” and has uncovered a wealth of information about how cartels are using the internet to their own nefarious ends.
Some gold weapons posted on a cartel member’s Facebook page.
The first point Antoine touched on was how cartels have utilized cyberspace in much the same way as a TV company’s PR department might: “They advertise their activities, they conduct public relations initiatives, and they have basically turned themselves into their own media company,” he explained. “Colombia’s cartel groups or drug traffickers in Myanmar in the 1990s were very sophisticated at public relations, but they didn’t have this massive broadcasting platform.”
Anabel Hernandez Thinks the Mexican Government Is Behind the Country’s Drug War
On January 19, 2001, the head of Mexico’s largest drug cartel escaped from his maximum security prison. According to Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloas cartel, was escorted through the prison dressed as a government official—accompanied by conspiring government officers—and out to a helicopter that whisked him away to sweet, sweet freedom. The official government report, however, claims that El Chapo escaped in a laundry bin, which—given he’s only 5 foot 5 inches and looks like Super Mario—seems plausible, albeit slightly unlikely.
If what Hernandez found while researching Guzmán’s escape is true, it’s pretty much the pinnacle of the government corruption that she alleges has aided Mexico’s drug cartels throughout their long and bloody grip over the country.
Hernandez was looking into El Chapo’s escape as part of the research for her new book,Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, which investigates the Mexican government and business elite’s ties to the country’s drug cartels. In the book, she claims that ex-president Vicente Fox started the war between Mexico’s cartels, and that—since El Chapo’s release—the government has continued to conspire with the Sinaloa cartel, allowing the web of corruption that keeps Mexico’s cartels thriving to keep on growing.
We spoke to Anabel earlier this year after another discovery led to the Mexican chief of police allegedly instructing his men to make her disappear by any means necessary. Now that her book has had its English-language release, I thought I’d get in touch again to talk about the discoveries Anabel made while investigating the Mexican government’s complicity in their country’s drug trade.
VICE: Hi, Anabel. How would you describe the Mexican government’s war on drugs? Anabel Hernandez: Ever since the 1960s in Mexico, the war on drugs has been fake—it has never existed. In the 60s, the federal government provided protection to all the cartels, letting them grow and continue their business while they paid money to the government. It wasn’t a bribe, it was like a tax; the Mexican government used that money for government projects. So, in the 80s and 90s, these medium-sized drug cartels and criminal organizations started to grow with money from cocaine. Mexico started to increase the scale of the cocaine that came from Colombia, then the Mexican cartels moved that drug into the USA.
Then what happened? [The cartels] said, “Well, we don’t want to make an arrangement with the government—we don’t like the government telling us what we can do and what we can’t.” So, instead, they paid bribes to members of the government and the government started to lose control over the cartels. The cartels started to buy judges and congressmen, started to buy governors, police chiefs, and generals, and started to create their own world, on their terms.