Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666' | The Nation


Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666'

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Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

The Part About the Journalist

About the Author

Marcela Valdes
Marcela Valdes, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, last wrote for The Nation about Alejandro Zambra.

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In the summer of 1995, the year Bolaño wrote to Carla Rippey, the bodies of several young women were discovered semi-nude and strangled just south of Juárez, near the local airport. That September the city offered a $1,000 reward for information about The Predator. A month later, police arrested Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, an Arab-American with a history of sexual aggression, and charged him with the five murders, plus a few others committed in September. But two months later, while Sharif Sharif awaited trial in prison, fresh corpses began to appear. The police maintained that Sharif Sharif, a chemist, had directed these murders from his cell, paying $1,200 for each woman killed. His accomplices, they said, were eight teenage boys they arrested in a sweep of nightclubs. They were called The Rebels.

Almost 1,000 miles away, in Mexico City, this news fascinated a reporter named Sergio González Rodríguez. A novelist and arts journalist, González Rodríguez had launched his career during the 1980s by doing reviews for Carlos Monsiváis, a leading cultural critic and a pioneer of the nueva crónica, or New Journalism, style in Mexico. By the time the newspaper Reforma came calling in 1993, González Rodríguez was well known as a centrist critic who wasn't afraid of riling the government: he'd been fired from the magazine Nexos for publishing an article in Reforma that questioned the ethics of intellectuals who allied themselves with then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who'd been elected in 1988 amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. This independent temperament made González Rodríguez a good match for Reforma--the paper had a history of serious investigative reporting--and he was hired to edit one of the paper's weekend cultural supplements, "El Ángel." (These days González Rodríguez still serves as the section's editorial consultant. He also writes three regular columns for the paper.)

The news from Juárez reminded González Rodríguez of the movie Silence of the Lambs, which he'd seen a few years earlier. Could it be, he wondered, that Ciudad Juárez held a real Hannibal Lecter? Answering that question wasn't part of his regular beat, but as he explained to me in a series of interviews last summer, he'd always been interested in literature about violence. His favorite books include Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Politics and Crime. He already had plans to travel to the state of Chihuahua to teach a seminar. It wasn't hard to persuade Reforma to pay for a jumper flight from there to Juárez so he could report on a press conference that the chief suspect planned to hold, in prison, on April 19, 1996.

That day González Rodríguez watched a tall, middle-aged man with green eyes talk to some thirty reporters. Sharif Sharif barely spoke Spanish--he'd lived in Mexico for less than a year--so he gave his presentation in English while a bilingual reporter translated. What he said sounded like a soap opera. According to Sharif Sharif, the femicides were being committed by a pair of rich Mexican cousins, one who lived in Juárez and the other just over the border in El Paso. He told a love story involving one of the cousins and a poor, beautiful girl from Juárez. The press corps was annoyed--they exchanged glances, cracked jokes. González Rodríguez felt pretty skeptical himself, but the critic in him was intrigued by Sharif Sharif's style. Rather than pound his chest and declare his innocence, the suspect calmly recounted his ninety-minute tale. He seemed to believe that if he provided an alternate explanation for the murders, the charges against him would be dropped.

At the end of the session, González Rodríguez introduced himself to a local reporter. In a park near the prison, the two chatted about the strange presentation. A mother and her daughter approached them.

Are you journalists? the mother asked.

Yes, they answered.

Then we want to tell you something we think that you should know.

The 14-year-old girl beside her wore a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. She told the reporters that the Juárez chief of police had forced her to accuse The Rebels. The chief, she said, had taken her by the hair and banged her against a wall until she agreed to say exactly what he told her.

For González Rodríguez, perspective suddenly shifted. Old facts (the nightclub sweep, the escalating charges against Sharif Sharif) glittered in a new light: the police were beating witnesses. "This," he thought, "is the undercurrent." Later, he learned that while Sharif Sharif had been holding forth in prison, the State Commission on Human Rights had announced that six of the eight witnesses against The Rebels had been detained illegally by the Juárez police.

González Rodríguez flew back to Mexico City and published an article about his findings and the suspicious treatment of the witnesses. Soon after, Reforma asked him to join a special investigations unit devoted to the situation in Juárez. The head of the unit, Rossana Fuentes Berain, sent a journalist undercover into the factories where many of the murder victims had worked; she assigned other reporters to track the details of individual police investigations. González Rodríguez was given the task of studying the big picture for patterns and motivations. Though Berain edited González Rodríguez like any other reporter--sometimes demanding that he corroborate sources or provide additional proofs for his more damning assessments--she also allowed him considerable interpretive leeway.

For three years he traveled back and forth between Juárez and Mexico City, juggling book and film reviews with criminal investigation, until, in the summer of 1999, his reporting began to suggest that the policemen, government officials and drug traffickers of Juárez were all connected to one another, and to the femicides. An attack on the son of Sharif Sharif's lawyer earlier that year had hardened his suspicions. Why would someone attack a lawyer's son if the justice system was functioning properly? he wondered. Then, on June 12, together with a reporter from the El Paso Times, González Rodríguez interviewed a prisoner who implicated local police and a prominent senator in the femicides.

In his book Huesos en el desierto, González Rodríguez recounts that three days later he was kidnapped and assaulted by two men in Mexico City. He had hailed a taxi in the posh neighborhood of Condesa, heading home after a late night. The taxi drove for a while and then stopped. Two armed men jumped aboard. They ordered González Rodríguez to close his eyes and sit between them in the back seat. The taxi took off--the driver was complicit. Though González Rodríguez didn't resist his captors, the men cursed him, punched him, pistol-whipped him and pierced his legs with an ice pick. They would kill him in a deserted spot south of the capital, they said. The taxi stopped again. One of the men got out, and another, whom they called The Boss, sat down. The beatings and threats of rape and death resumed. A patrol car passed nearby with its flashers on. The men dumped González Rodríguez on the street. He filed a police report and went to see a doctor, who prescribed painkillers and bed rest. On June 18, his article "Police Are Fingered as Accomplices [in Juárez]" appeared in Reforma.

For the next two months, González Rodríguez lived like a zombie, writing reviews, editing his section and going out with friends even as his vision clouded, his speech slurred and his memory disintegrated. Finally, on August 11, when he couldn't even brew a cup of coffee in his own home, two friends from Reforma rushed him to a hospital, where he had emergency surgery to remove a life-threatening hematoma that was pressing on his brain.

Against all expectations, he made a complete recovery, but the beating marked a turning point in his life. Before the attack, González Rodríguez had had problems with his home and cellphones--strange noises, deficiencies in service. After, he was often followed. His friend Paola Tinoco recalls that whenever she and González Rodríguez ate in a restaurant in the months following his surgery, they were watched by people wearing earphones. Terrified and helpless, the two took refuge in humor, telling each other absurd stories every time the strangers were present. One night, for example, they recited the lyrics to a popular children's song called "The Ducky":

Ducky goes running and searching in her purse-y
For pennies to feed her own little duckies
Because she knows that when she gets back
All the ducks will run up and ask
What did you bring me, Mamá, quack quack?
What did you bring me, quack quack?

When González Rodríguez flew to Juárez in 1995 looking for a Hollywood-style serial killer, he recalls, "I had no idea what I was getting into." Instead of Hannibal Lecter, he found a system of impunity that protected the worst criminals in Juárez, simply because they were ruthless and rich, a system that implicated the police and judicial institutions of the city, the state and the country. Once he drew these conclusions, there was no going back. "You're in a hell," he says, "that you don't know why you've been chosen to live." The heat incinerated many of his old illusions about accountability and justice, revealing Mexico's black heart.

The authorities, he believed, were deliberately trying to confuse and obscure the realities in Juárez, suggesting that the numbers were exaggerated, or that the murders were crimes of passion, or that the victims were prostitutes. He wanted to make a permanent record of his findings to contradict those stories, a record that wouldn't be tossed out at week's end.

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