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.
After reading articles like “Don’t Stick Dominoes in Your Dick” and “’Ruff Buttlove’ and Other Prison Raps,” we knew that Bert Burykill, our prison correspondent, would translate well to video. Drugs remain a problem for Bert, and he consistently fails urine tests which send him back to jail over and over again. In this two-part series, we examine Bert in his most vulnerable state as he tries to stay on the straight and narrow.
Part two will air Monday, April 22.
Watch Jailbert – Part 1
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.
It’s not a problem of a few bad apples, as some people suggest, but instead a matter of irresponsible leadership, a pathological law enforcement culture, and a public ready and willing to sacrifice notions of justice, fairness and humanity for … what exactly?
Coffee, Coca, and Government Favors
If you hate the War on Drugs, Ricardo Cortés should be one of your favorite illustrators. Though his most well-known work is probably the art for last year’s viral children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep, he’s been working to convince people that our counterproductive prohibitions on certain substances need to end since at least 2005, when his book for kids about marijuana, It’s Just a Plant, sparked a lot of less-than-level-headed debate. He also published a pamphlet on jury nullification, which is the idea that juries can choose to declare defendants not guilty if the law seems unjust to them—his idea, shared by other anti-Drug War folks like The Wire’s writing staff, is that this controversial power should be used to acquit everyone charged with a non-violent drug offense regardless of evidence. (I interviewed Ricardo about this a year ago.)
This week, Akashic Books published what’s probably Ricardo’s most ambitious picture book: A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, which he has been working on for six years. During the research process, he found a bunch of letters between Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first drug czar—who held the post for 42 years and is responsible for many of the US’s anti-marijuana, anti-narcotic policies—and Ralph Hayes, a Coca-Cola executive. Their friendly correspondence, which, as the book documents, went on for decades and ended in the 60s, helped the soda company secure the exclusive rights to import and process coca leaves, which are otherwise illegal to possess in the US. (The New York Times uncovered Coke’s use of coca back in 1988, but the company has yet to acknowledge their use of the plant.) Ricardo’s book isn’t limited to a critique of this favoritism—there’s also a history of past attempts to criminalize coffee, and interesting stuff about the US government growing coca in experimental farms in Hawaii. I called Ricardo up and talked to him about the book, which, by the way, would make a nice holiday gift for Drug War doves of all ages. (You can buy it here.)
VICE: Hey Ricardo, thanks for talking to me. I heard from the press materials that this project started out as an idea for a kid’s book, like It’s Just a Plant.
Ricardo Cortés: When I did It’s Just a Plant, I got a lot of criticism about, “We shouldn’t be teaching kids about marijuana.” The book wasn’t about teaching kids how to smoke, of course. But I got a lot of people that were like, “Well, why don’t you do a kid’s book about cocaine?” and they kind of gave me a challenge to think about that, and to think about if that would be relevant to kid’s lives. And I wasn’t really interested in doing a children’s book about cocaine, but I did think, Well, the coca leaf is highly relevant to children’s lives in the Americas. Maybe not to children in the US, but in South America, kids actually pick coca leaves and families subsist on it, and it’s been part of the culture for thousands of years. So, yeah, the book started out that way, and that’s why it sort of looks like a children’s book. Originally I was thinking it would be talking about the coca plant, and as I got deeper into the history of cocaine and Coca-Cola, which even though it takes up a huge part of the book, was kind of a secondary aspect of it. It evolved into the adult book it is.
I kind of see the book as two things. There’s a first part of it, which is kind of a meta-conversation about the evolution of cultural and legal taboos against intoxicants. And that’s why it starts out with the image of tomatoes and potatoes, because these things have been banned at one point or looked at askew, just like coffee. I kind of see all these plants as things that through these cultural evolutions where people scapegoat them and ban them. Like when some in this country thought that apples were the fruit of the devil and got people drunk back when people were fermenting apples. Then, decades later, we’ve got the expression, “As American as apple pie.” So I saw coffee and coca as these two plants that grew on the same mountainside, were picked by the same people for thousands of years, and are both really benign stimulants. Both have been transformed into global commodities, but coffee is totally legal and accepted culturally around the world, and coca is this super-illicit, super-illegal, Drug War-starting plant. The conceit of the book was to introduce coffee, then talk about coca and show how these plants have developed over time and established these relationships with people. So, really, I think the story of Coca-Cola is a vehicle for telling the bigger story which is largely about drugs in general, but I really got into the nitty-gritty of the research.
It’s really remarkable to read the letters between Hayes and Anslinger in your book. They’re really upfront about saying, “We’re want to use this plant you want to make illegal for our legal product.”
Some of that stuff is on my website, where you can actually see the actual documents. But my favorite part was just how chummy they got. You kind of get a sense of their different styles. Like Ralph Hayes was just a total kiss-ass, but really professional about it, a real professional, diplomatic guy who would constantly say to Harry, “Oh, you’re the best at what you do, and your department is like a beacon to the world.” And Anslinger just ate it up.
A BIRD OF HEAT IN KINO BAY - THE SEARCH FOR THE INFRAREALIST HOLY GRAIL AND THE ESSENCE OF ROBERTO BOLAÑO IN THE NORTH OF MEXICO
The above image is part of a work in progress by Mexican photographer Eunice Adorno. It’s part of a series tentatively calledNo Hay Tal Lugar (There Is No Such Place) that’s partially inspired by the fictional city of Santa Teresa, Sonora, which is loosely based on Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and serves as the main setting for Bolaño’s 2666. Eunice’s goal is to create a portrait of a nonexistent city made up of multiple locations ravaged by the country’s war on drugs.
There is a night checkpoint right at the entrance of Kino Bay in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Passing through, two cops stopped us, pointing their flashlights at us in the dark. One of them walked slowly between the headlights of our Expedition, keeping us within the sights of his 9mm pistol; the other one stopped less than two feet away from the driver.
“Where to?” the cop asked.
“To Kino,” our driver answered.
“Do you know what week it is?”
“The unholy week.”
“OK. Watch out.”
Our new friend had a gold tooth, or at least it was gold-plated. He smiled as if he had just killed someone. Our driver, a man experienced in such matters, estimated that he had killed a couple, at the very least. Perhaps the officer’s last victim was a Seri Indian lying on the ground, among cacti, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his back. Or maybe a junkie from Arizona looking for thrills in the small towns of Sonora, and instead getting one right between the eyes courtesy of this murderer with a badge.
Kino Bay was calm on our arrival. Six fat couples in bathing suits were playing volleyball; some kids were drinking Tecate Light and listening to reggaeton next to a bonfire. It was almost serene. Then we noticed the row of bulletproof pickup trucks with blacked-out windows. They were filled with tough guys whose favorite activity is driving down the only avenue in town, listening to norteño music at a worrisome and suspense-inducing low volume.
Smack in the middle of the avenue, which is to say, right in the middle of the town, was another Sonora state-police checkpoint: five cop cars with their lights flashing, piercing the darkness of the night. Inside were ten very annoyed Sonora police officers who looked like they had just been released from a military mental asylum.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, just before arriving at this second checkpoint our driver stopped the music. We had been listening to a CD by Los Cadetes de Linares, a band that’s from the Mexican northeast—near the Texan border—and not the northwest.
He slid in another CD, this time a bootleg, and scanned forward to track 7. It was a Chalino Sánchez tune based on Manuel Acuña’s poem “Nocturno a Rosario,” and its alexandrine verses came belting out of the speakers in a screeching wail. Chalino was a hitman before he became a professional singer. He quickly turned into a star but could not escape his past and, eventually, was shot dead at the age of 31.
This time there was minimal dialogue at the checkpoint; there wasn’t even an attempt at interrogation, and the journey continued. Our final destination, which we hoped to reach by evening, was Lorenzo Pinelli’s hostel. He had surprised us by announcing he had a copy of Pájaro de Calor (Bird of Heat), the legendary 1976 infrarrealist1 anthology that is so rare it may as well not be real. It is a key artifact of the literary movement, and arguably one of the many aesthetic cornerstones of Roberto Bolaño, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary author to write extensively about Mexico, even if he was from Chile.
We arrived at the hostel and met Lorenzo Pinelli, a pleasant Dostoyevskian character exiled in this Siberia of sand: all muscles, thick mustache, and kind eyes, like those of a giant marine insect.
Oddly, Roberto Bolaño never went to Sonora during his lifetime. But Sonora was to Bolaño what Macondo was to Gabriel García Márquez, or Yoknapatawpha to William Faulkner. Bolaño only knew Sonora through maps made by Julio César Montané, a scholarly Chilean who had been exiled in the state since the 1970s. (To put this in context, a Chilean in Sonora is as strange and extravagant as a Finn in Oaxaca.) Montané, a literature professor, historian, and geographer, served as the basis for the character of Amalfitano in Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666. In the novel there is a long passage in which Amalfitano speaks about a subject that, in Mexico, is as delicate as that of the narcotraficantes.
“It’s an old story, the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power. I’m not saying they’re all the same. There are some notable exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who surrender do so in bad faith. Or even that they surrender completely. You could say it’s just a job. But they’re working for the state. In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under the PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches over him in silence… They only hear the sounds that come from deep in the mine. And they translate or reinterpret or recreate them. Their work, it goes without saying, is of a very low standard. They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they strive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only a deafening and hopeless silence. They say cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal.”
The Mexican upper classes blamed the Chinese immigrants for the early drug-trafficking networks while those same people got high in Chinese-run opium dens. Meanwhile, most of the profit from the drug trade went into the pockets of European traffickers and corrupt politicians.
More and more often when I go out partying in Mexico City, I notice that my friends somehow feel guilty for indulging in a joint or doing a line. When they do it, they can’t avoid thinking—at least for a second—that they are in some small way contributing to Mexico’s drug war, which has been responsible for 50,000 deaths and the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during the current government’s reign. Perhaps it’s even fair to say they no longer just smoke some weed or do a bump of coke: They smoke a finger, snort a tongue, take a bong rip of a torso. Then they laugh and get over it.
Since the 1940s, Mexicans have prosecuted, jailed, and killed one another because of the joys and profits that come from controlled psychoactive substances—profits that derive, at least in part, from the war on drugs having made supply scarcer while demand remains insatiable. But today, the violence has reached a new level of intensity.
Continue: We Can’t Get High Like We Used To - A look at when drugs were legal in Mexico