THE PRIEST GOES to the fiesta to christen a child. The food is lavish, as is the rancho. There are many men of power there, men who have survived the life and now live large and feast on danger. One old man is the boss and he wears a very large gold crucifix encrusted with diamonds and a giant emerald. This gleaming treasure catches the priest's eye. The padre slips out and goes to the federal police and tells them of this convocation of narcotraficantes. He is a very good source for the police because he hears confession from the men in the life and then sells this information. The police hit the fiesta. They find a lot of cocaine and a million in cash. The priest gets the crucifix as his reward. The cops turn over the rest of the loot to the country's chief drug enforcement officer at the time. Later it is revealed that this man, Javier Coello Trejo, enforces the law against some cartels, but not the Gulf cartel, which pays him millions for such discretion.
Years later, a long caravan of fine pickup trucks with darkly tinted windows takes up both lanes of the highway leading into Ascensión. There must be 20 or 30 vehicles rumbling into the isolated community of 18,000 in the Chihuahuan desert. The town is surrounded by dying farms, many of them abandoned because of drought and the low prices that came in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Army has seized some of these farms and squats on them. People live off a few bars, some small stores, and the drug industry. At the moment the caravan arrives, the streets are empty and no one looks out a single window. There's a store security videotape of the caravan, but it is impossible to make out any faces behind the glass. Emilio will never know whom this convoy is guarding. He will never ask. Just as the Mexican Army stationed in the town will never record its arrival. Rumors say it is Joaquín "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzmán Loera, leader of the Sinaloa cartel whom Forbes recently named the 701st richest person in the world. But to investigate such matters is a fatal decision.
Emilio and I are sitting in the sun somewhere in the United States of America as he tosses out the tales of the priest and the strange caravan of fine pickup trucks. He is hiding now with a man who has family and business interests in northern Chihuahua. If it were known he sheltered Emilio, the man's relatives would be kidnapped and possibly killed, his livelihood jeopardized. As we soak up the sun, Ascensión is in a state of siege. Four women have just vanished and are probably murdered. In October, a parcel containing four heads was delivered to the police station. The director of the bank and his wife have been kidnapped and then returned in bad shape. Also, the bank has just been strafed by machine-gun fire.
In Palomas, a town that like Ascensión falls within the gravitational pull of the sprawling border city of Ciudad Juárez, the entire police force recently resigned, forcing the police chief to seek shelter in the United States. The town is dying. Few people cross from America to shop because of the violence. There is a gray cast to the children begging in the streets that suggests malnutrition. Work has fled—the people-smuggling business has moved because of US pressure in the sector and so the town is studded with half-built or abandoned cheap lodgings for migrants heading north. Also there is an array of narcomansions whose occupants have moved on. And there are eyes everywhere. I walk down the dirt streets tailed by pickups with very darkly tinted windows. The biggest restaurant in town for tourists closes every day at 6 p.m.—get home before dark.
The Mexican Army is everywhere and can be ill tempered. Last year, I was with a friend who took a photograph of soldiers in Palomas a block from the US port of entry, and they came racing at us with machine guns. In April 2008, one of the generals in command of the state held a press conference. "I know that the media are sometimes afraid of us," he said, "but they should not be afraid. I hope they will trust us." As for reports of deaths at the hands of the military, the general added, "I would like to see the reporters change their articles. Where they say, 'one more murdered person,' they should instead say, 'one less criminal.'" Reporters were also issued a common explanation by Mexico's defense department: Yes, there would almost certainly be a spate of robberies and rapes committed by men in uniform but these were to be explained as the deeds of drug traffickers disguising themselves as soldiers to embarrass the Army. Any questions?
EMILIO WAS ONE of eight children born and raised in Nuevo Casas Grandes, a small Chihuahuan city set against the Sierra Madre. His father was a master bricklayer, his mother a housewife. His childhood was poverty. He always wanted to be a writer and worked on the high school paper, a weekly printed on a mimeograph machine.
The Army has a post in his town. One day, a very pretty classmate named Rosa Saenz turns up, her hair and skin coated with mud. Her breasts have been sliced with blades and she has been stabbed 50 times. She has been raped, also. Emilio sees her body in the back of a car in front of the police station, a vehicle dragged in as a monument to a quest for the truth. Two of her classmates are blamed for the murder. The police smash the testicles of one. The other flees and when he returns much later, he is kind of crazy. In the end, no one is charged with the crime. But everyone in the town knows the girl was raped and murdered by the Army. And no one in the town says anything about it.
Emilio is 13 years old.
This is part of basic Mexican schooling: submission. I remember once being in a small town when the then president of Mexico descended like a god with an entourage and massive security. The poor fled into their shanties until it was over. The streets emptied, and when the president did a staged stroll to greet his subjects there was no one standing on the sidewalks except party hacks. Mexican literature is rich with this obliteration of public self and sequestering of private self amid the security of family. The nation's Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, etched this trait indelibly in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
Emilio emerges from high school with average grades but a sharp mind in a country where curiosity can be a fatal trait. He learns photography and when he graduates at 18, he is hired by a small paper to take pictures. Soon he is a reporter.
He explains the system in simple terms. Let's say a reporter earns $100 a week. Every Monday, a man comes who represents the police, the government, the political parties, and the drug leaders. He gives each reporter a sum that is three times his actual wage. This is called the sobre, the envelope.
"Ever since I was a little kid," he continues, "I listened to my parents criticize bad government. We knew it was corrupt."
"Corruption at the paper," he explains, "was subtle. The politicians would win over my boss with dinners and bags of money. The reporter on the beat would sometimes get pressure from the boss not to report certain things like the bad habits of politicians, the houses they own, the girlfriends. And it was understood that you never asked hard questions. The narcos also gave out money but I was always afraid of them. They own businesses and horses, buy ads, have parties with celebrities and you cover that, they would pay you to cover that, but you never mentioned their real business."
He sees his Mexico as genetically corrupt. A corrupt Aztec ruling class fused with the trash of Spain, the conquistadors. This thesis helps him face the reality around him.
"In Mexico," he says, "we operate in disguise. There is one face and under that is another mask. Nothing is up-front. The publisher wishes to perpetuate the system. But if it is clear you are taking bribes, you will be fired. You must take it under the table because if you talked about it openly that would affect the image."
He is entering a bar one night when he sees a local mayor leaving with some narcotraficantes. The mayor pauses by the street, drops his pants, and pisses in the gutter. Emilio writes up the incident—minus the narcos; he is not an idiot—and puts it in the paper. He is young and he does not understand the rules about propriety.
The next day he is called to the mayor's office.
The mayor is at a big desk with a check ledger.
He says, "How much?"
He wants Emilio to publish a story saying his earlier story was a lie.
Emilio does not take any money. He realizes later that this is a serious error because he learns that the mayor and the publisher are very close.
"I quit and take a job in radio before something bad happens."
He makes one report on how the drug counselor for the local schools was fired. He wonders on the air if the officials themselves are actually clean. He soon finds out because another local mayor is listening. The mayor has just gotten out of a treatment center in El Paso for cocaine addiction. He storms down to the radio station and offers the owner 10,000 pesos to fire Emilio. The owner obliges.