Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

homero aridjis


artwork by PEDRO REYES
all artwork copyright pedro reyes, courtesy of lisson gallery

we are children of cruel gods

We are children of cruel gods.

No point looking at their ruined pyramids.

The blood still hasn’t washed from the steps.

Their hands still strangle our dreams.

Their likeness is graven on those stones.

Their ghosts stalk our cities.

Deep in the nightmare their hitmen

lie in wait for us with black daggers.

Should they leave this earth for elsewhere

we shall beget them again, again they will issue

from within us, bearing our features,

appalling, merciless. We are parents of cruel gods.

— Homero Aridjis

In the Aztec myth of the birth of the god Huitzilopochtli, he emerges armed from the womb of his mother, Coatlicue, to kill his 400 celestial brothers and his sister the moon, Coyolxauhqui, on the hill of Coatepec (the Hill of Serpents). This act was commemorated with human sacrifice on the altar dedicated to the god at the Templo Mayor, in a physical reenactment of the myth. Similarly, all festivals held in honor of the major gods in the Mexican pantheon — Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, and Tlaloc — were celebrated with human sacrifice.

If Franz Kafka were Mexican, he would have been a costumbrista author, and if Edgar Allan Poe were reborn, he would find new subject matter for his short stories in the atrocious acts of drug traffickers, in the intrigues of the political class, and in the macabre discoveries of the police. The prologue of the great unwritten Mexican noir novel began in February 1985, when Enrique “Kiki” Camarena — a federal agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who was investigating Rafael Caro Quintero, leader of the Sonora cartel — was kidnapped by five men off the street in Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco. A month later, his tortured corpse was found in a ditch on a ranch in the neighboring state of Michoacán. The plot of this Mexican noir novel continued in May 1993, with the case of Cardenal Juan Jesús Posadas, who was shot to death in the Guadalajara airport. According to a theory of the federal attorney general, the overweight cardenal was killed because a sicario (assassin), hired by the Tijuana cartel, had mistaken him for the boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo (“shorty”). The assistant federal attorney at the time, Mario Ruiz Massieu, refuted this hypothesis, saying that the killing of the cardinal was deliberate. And in the press, there was mention of the mysterious disappearance of a file containing the names of politicians and police officers involved in drug trafficking, which the cardinal had intended to hand over to the president of Mexico.

The assassination of the presidential candidate for the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power in Mexico from 1929 to 2000), Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, in Tijuana on March 23, 1994, provided the material for the second chapter. Among the curious details of the killing was the replacement of the alleged and solitary assassin, Mario Aburto, with another man after Aburto was handed over on the night of the crime to Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the governor of the state of Sonora at the time and later president of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of Mexico.

The third chapter began on September 28, 1994, outside a hotel in Mexico City with another assassination, that of José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, ex-governor of the state of Guerrero, secretary-general of the PRI, brother of the aforementioned Mario Ruiz Massieu, and ex-husband of the sister of Mexico’s president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Owing to a misfiring of his weapon, the perpetrator was apprehended and interrogated. Mario was appointed to investigate his brother’s murder, but soon resigned, issuing a resounding J’accuse! against the Mexican government, warning that “the demons are on the loose, and they have triumphed.” In 1995, he was arrested at Newark International Airport on his way to Madrid with tens of thousands of unreported dollars in his pockets; he killed himself in September 1999 after three-and-a-half years of house arrest in New Jersey, when he was about to face money-laundering charges in Texas.

The plot of this novel is so complex that often those unaware of its opening chapters can become confused. The Mexican noir novel is not being composed by writers but by politicians and criminals. From one day to the next, the accusers become the accused, the investigators the investigated, and the victims the villains. The unsavory double lives of several of these characters could have served as models for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Flush with such notable characters, both willing and unwilling, this serialized page-turner of betrayals that shook the foundations of the Mexican political system in the 1990s (more so than the earthquakes that took place on September 19 and 20, 1985) wasn’t a bookstore bestseller but a source of national and international news and photographs.

This realist — or hyperrealist — novel of the Mexican political system doesn’t lack black humor. Its plot surpasses fiction, and its real-life characters are more interesting than imagined ones. Worst (or best) of all, it goes on longer than a telenovela [soap opera].

The Aztecs skewered the skulls of their sacrifices on a tzompantli, or skull rack, located next to the Templo Mayor in the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlán, in present-day Mexico City. For the purposes of our novel, we should remember that the first decapitated heads that made the news during the infighting between drug cartels were the five heads rolled across the dance floor at the bar Sol y Sombra in Uruapan, in the state of Michoacán, on September 6, 2006. The sicarios left behind a message, “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people. Those who die deserve to die. Everyone should know that this is: Divine Justice — La Familia.

But how does the plot of this noir novel unfold in Mexico today? Does one write about a country where, in a war against drug dealers, casualties are counted in the tens of thousands, where a map of organized crime has been superimposed over the national map, and where our states are identified as the territories of drug cartels? Does one write about a country where the atrocities of today compete with the atrocities of the past, and where newspapers described Ciudad Juárez as the “deadliest city in the world” [Le Figaro] and Mexico as the location of “the new killing fields” [The Guardian]? Does one write about a country where gangs composed of human traffickers, bureaucrats, and police officers violate the rights of Latin American migrants on their way “to the other side,” while our own migrants are discriminated against in the country to the north by its racist laws and attitudes?

Every day, the simple act of opening a newspaper or turning on the news reveals a topography of crime that occupies the width and length of our nation like a sinister map. While we wait for tax reform, a new system of taxation has been levied by organized crime through extortion, protection rackets, and kidnapping.

In the face of this system’s efficacy, the government has lost its own competence. Nota roja [yellow journalism] has dominated media news since President Felipe Calderón launched a war on drug traffickers on December 11, 2006, a few days after taking office.

The daily headlines announce the chapters of this noir novel:

Four dead at the El Cazalote ranch, near the Michoacán border, two corpses found in the trunk
of a car, and one more hung from a bridge.

Four headless corpses found hanging from
a bridge in Cuernavaca.

55 corpses found in Taxco: the bodies of at least 55 people discovered in a rocky ravine over
100 meters deep.

Public servant decapitated in Morelos.

The warden of the Atlacholoaya prison abducted by alleged sicarios and his remains found in
four locations.

State police alerted to discovery of two naked bodies, with severed heads, arms, and legs, outside the children’s museum Museo La Avispa.

Mayor and city councilor of Tancítaro stoned to death.

Gunmen kill 15 high school students at
a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez.

La Barbie declares in a Federal Police bunker:

“El Chapo started this war.”

La Barbie trafficked one ton of cocaine
per month.

Zetas linked to the deaths of 72 migrants
in Tamaulipas. The migrants refused to work for them and were executed by the Zetas cartel.

Migration policy fails to stem extortions

and kidnapping.

Grenade thrown at police station in Monterrey.

Catholic and evangelical churches denounce threats by organized crime organizations if they don’t pay for protection.

Two executed and left in garbage bags

in Guerrero.

Kidnapped mayor murdered in Nuevo Leon: the body of Edelmiro Cavazos found handcuffed and blindfolded.

And more recently:

Gunmen attack drug rehab center in Irapuato, killing 24.

Shoot-outs, car chases, explosions, and narco-blockades besiege Reynosa, Tamaulipas,
for hours.

19 shot and burned bodies found in two vans near Tamaulipas border with the US.

Gunmen ambushed police convoy near Mexico City, killing 13.

260 bodies found in clandestine mass graves in Guanajuato.

At least 28 massacres so far during present administration, with 352 dead in 13 states.

After campaigning kicked off this past April for Mexico’s June 6 mid-term elections, 100 politicians were murdered, including 36 candidates for office,
21 of them women. Virtually no arrests were made.

The new face of horror in Zacatecas:
two men crucified.

As in my own novel Sicarios [Hit Men, 2007], organized and disorganized crime has taken control of the streets, highways, commercial centers, towns, and cities. A ubiquitous and vicious criminality is rendering Mexicans defenseless, with the government incapable of combating and controlling it. This fight against and among drug traffickers presents a disastrous image of Mexico to the outside world, one in which unpunished and increasingly sadistic criminals have become the scourge of peaceful men and women. A state that cannot provide safety to its citizens cannot provide anything.

As in my futuristic novel, La Leyenda de los Soles [The Legend of the Suns, 1993], it seems that the gods of human sacrifice of ancient Mexico roam freely through our streets and cities, and that we live once again in the mythic reign of Coatlicue, the goddess mother dressed in a skirt of snakes and human skulls.

But this Mexican noir novel has a deus ex machina. There is a cult in Mexico that is growing rapidly — the cult of La Santa Muerte [Saint Death]. This ubiquitous reaper, considered holy by her followers and satanic by the Catholic Church, is venerated by people whose lives are rife with danger and violence — criminals, gangsters, transvestites, the severely ill, drug addicts, and families living in precarious conditions. She is the only saint in the informal pantheon to whom a delinquent planning a kidnapping, assault, or other crime can appeal for protection while committing the act.

The most famous altar to La Santa Muerte, a glass-fronted cabinet on Calle Alfarería in Tepito, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Mexico City, is open 24 hours a day. Its figure is dressed in a satin robe trimmed in lace, draped in a white cloak, and crowned with a tiara. In her fleshless hands, she carries a globe and a scale whose trays are stacked with pesos, dollars, and euros. Rings adorn her fingers, and a medallion hangs on her chest. She turns her face toward the faithful as if her eyeless sockets look not only at what is in front of her but also beyond, into the invisible world. According to her devotees, next to God, there is nothing more powerful in the world than la muerte, death. For this reason, she is considered the Angel of Light, the Angel of Mercy, and the Mothering Angel.

This underground cult, which exists throughout Mexico, inspired another one of my novels, La Santa Muerte (2004). I first came across her image in the chapel of a ranch where a politician-businessman with connections to the drug trafficking trade was throwing a lavish 24-hour party. Later, I encountered her again when my daughter Eva was filming the documentary Niños de la Calle [Children of the Street]. In the film, drugged and dejected children sleep on a bench against a wall adorned with the lone image of La Santa Muerte.

This contemporary cult is a syncretic combination of pre-Hispanic and medieval Christian ideas of death. The nighttime ceremonies in Tepito resemble a danse macabre or an Aztec ritual. The ancient culture of death in Mexico has survived through the centuries, fusing with Catholic beliefs. Its current proliferation may be related to the emergence of Mexicanista movements, New Age esoteric fashions, urban violence, apocalyptic fears, the disintegration of the family unit, or the informal government of organized crime.

Those who believe in La Santa Muerte aren’t just drug dealers, criminals, prostitutes, police officers, kidnappers, convicts, and ex-convicts. They are also those who live exposed to betrayal, vengeance, and ambush, and ordinary people who have to face and survive difficult circumstances in a world infested with crime, injustice, unemployment, and drugs. La Santa Muerte’s protective scythe is a double-edged weapon. One can ask her to bless the gun, the badge, the money, or to destroy an undesirable person: “Jesus Christ victorious, defeated on the cross, defeat with me he who has been defeated, in the Lord’s name.”



essay translated by chloe garcia roberts
literary texts translated by betty ferber

[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

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