The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War
Mexico’s drug war has few heroes. Yet many Mexicans have found one in Don Alejo Garza Tamez, or Don Alejo, as he has come to be known. In November a group of Zetas arrived at his ranch and told him he had twenty-four hours to clear out. A wealthy 77-year-old businessman from Monterrey, Garza had retired to Tamaulipas, in the heart of territory contested by the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. After the Zetas left, Garza sent his workers home and gave them the next day off. A seasoned hunter, he went about preparing for a siege, positioning weapons in various windows of his house. When the monster came for him the next day, he refused to leave, and a firefight ensued. He killed four gunmen and wounded two others before the Zetas finished him off with a grenade.
Norteño groups, whose music more often celebrates the brutality of narcos than those who defy them, quickly composed corridos immortalizing Don Alejo’s last stand. The most famous, “His Last Hunt,” has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube:
For the thugs he was prepared,
They came to intimidate him,
He answered them with bullets.
From his noble trench,
He took down four,
It was his life and his ranch, it was a
Question of honor.…
Even more revealing than the ballads are the comments they’ve generated on social networking sites. “The time has come for Mexico to defend itself against all of the tricks of narco-whores who think they can do what they want,” wrote one commenter. “May god keep in his saintly glory this old man who had balls, and fuck the Zetas and the whole lot of damn criminals,” declared another. For a public battered by violence and disenchanted by the powerlessness of its politicians and police, Don Alejo’s popularity reflects Mexicans’ yearning for someone willing to stand up to the cartels. “Thank you, Don Alejo, for giving us an example of courage and honor,” said another commenter. “All honest and honored Mexicans are proud of you, wherever you are.”
Macabre endings are increasingly common in Mexican literature and films about the cartels. One of the most popular movies of 2010 was Luis Estrada’s El Infierno (Hell), a dark satire about a man who briefly reaps the riches of working for a cartel, only to be betrayed by it and ruined. Estrada’s film ends with the protagonist mowing down all the players in the corrupt system—the cartel boss, the police, the politicians—who have assembled on a stage to celebrate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence.
A novel published in 2009, Carlos Fuentes’s Adán en Edén (Adam in Eden), tells the story of how the rise of organized crime threatens Mexico’s elite families. The book concludes with the protagonist hiring foreign assassins to sweep in and exterminate the entire criminal class. Fuentes seems to acknowledge the inadequacy of this solution when he has the narrator concede, “We are fighting against a poly or multiformed monster, and the solutions that occur to me…are insufficient, temporarily and in the long term…. Cut off the head of the hydra, two more are born.”
Javier Sicilia, a poet, is trying to imagine a different ending. On March 28 the body of his 24-year-old son, a university student, was found in a car along with six other corpses. All the victims had been bound and asphyxiated. A note found nearby warned that this is what happens to people who make denuncias—or anonymous complaints—to the military. It was signed C.D.G., an abbreviation for the Cartel del Golfo, the Gulf Cartel. The following week, Sicilia published an impassioned public letter condemning both the cartels and politicians, and calling on Mexicans to take to the streets to demand an end to the violence. His message hit a nerve. On May 8 tens of thousands of citizens marched with him to Mexico City’s Zócalo, or main plaza. “We are here to tell ourselves and them that we will not channel this pain into hatred or more violence, but rather use it as a tool to help us restore the love, peace, justice, dignity and faltering democracy that we are losing,” Sicilia told the crowd.
For now, Sicilia’s movement is defined more by what it opposes—the brutality of the cartels and the military, rampant impunity and corruption—than what it supports. Yet Sicilia’s plea has drawn national attention to a debate that, until recently, was confined to the margins. Next year is an election year in Mexico, and the poet is calling on voters to boycott the polls if the candidates do not offer a genuine alternative to the failed “war on drugs.” If Sicilia’s movement continues to gain momentum, it could play a significant role in choosing Mexico’s next president.
Still, the allure of Don Alejo’s example will be difficult for Sicilia and others to counteract. Terrorized by gangs, and skeptical of the ability of police and courts to bring those responsible to justice, citizens increasingly see no option except taking the law into their own hands. The results can be horrific. Last September, residents in the small town of Ascensión, Chihuahua, population 8,000, caught five alleged kidnappers as they were attempting to abduct a 17-year-old girl. A mob of some 400 residents surrounded two of the men and beat them ferociously. As the mob prepared to burn them alive, federal police intervened, extricating the suspected kidnappers and loading them into a police car. But the mob counterattacked, surrounding the car and wrenching the driver from the front seat, all the while preventing police and soldiers from rescuing the alleged kidnappers. The two men bled to death, handcuffed in the back seat.
Authorities refrained from praising the Ascensión residents as heroes, but they have yet to put any of them on trial, and officials say the investigation into the incident has been shelved. The popular reaction to the killings in Ascensión was not unlike the response to Don Alejo’s last stand. As one commenter said of a news story about the incident: “I agree with the angry people who killed those two weaklings…. This class of people does not deserve to live.”