Ascensión: A Tale of the Mexican Drug War
Michael L. Burgoyne
This wasn’t the first time Tacho had felt powerful. From his position in the passenger seat of the armored Chevy Tahoe he could see the lead SUV in front of him, three more were visible in the mirror. In his vehicle, he glanced at the four men each armed with an assault rifle. Tacho consciously placed his hand on the body of his rifle enjoying the sensation of strength that always came from the feel of the metal. The convoy was speeding down the desert highway under a late afternoon sun. Tacho scanned his surroundings, looking for any signs of trouble in the saguaro cactus and creosote bushes that populated the rocky terrain. His gaze shifted forward and he could see the small town rising out of the blur of the desert heat in the distance. Grabbing a hand-held radio from the console he gave the order to spread out.
The lead vehicle slowed and pulled left off of the paved road and onto the flat dirt plain. Behind him, two of the vehicles broke off to the right and made their way toward the town, leaving plumes of dust behind them. Tacho felt like a World War II general whenever they pulled this maneuver. The people in the town must feel helpless - as they should, he thought. No, not like a general, like a Viking raider or some kind of hoard of barbarians coming down on an unsuspecting village. Amused by the comparison, he let out a primal half grunt half laugh and told the driver to turn on some music. His driver, grinning, switched on the radio. The skeletal form of Santa Muerte was tattooed on the driver’s arm. Tacho didn’t think much of Santa Muerte or Jesús Malverede, whose image was dangling from the rear-view mirror, but Tacho appreciated the supernatural’s ability to motivate. The pounding rhythm and aggressive lyrics of Control Machete filled the vehicle as the town grew larger in front of them. He still couldn’t get used that norteño bullshit that most of the boys were probably playing right now to get pumped up. How could those punks get fired up listening to polka music? He wondered.
The formation of SUVs hit the town in unison, entering from different approaches. Tacho’s vehicle went straight down the main road to the center of the town. It was like many small towns in the area with a traditionally designed central plaza. The square was bordered by a sidewalk and a poorly maintained asphalt street. A few trees and park benches marked the edges of the square and a large gazebo sat at the center. Throughout the square, patchy grass fought dirt and weeds for dominance under the hot sun. The vehicles passed an adobe church with a small bell tower. Tacho continued looking for threats. On the west side there were small shops lining the square and to the south there was a cantina with a patio. On the east side sat a relatively large one story building with peeling bluish-green paint. It looked official and there was no police station that Tacho could recognize. If someone was in charge, they would most likely be in that place. Tacho directed the driver there. People were running in all directions trying to get to their homes or businesses. Windows and doors slammed shut as the SUVs rolled by. Tacho’s SUV screeched to a halt.
Tacho stepped out of the vehicle and oriented himself. The teams were going to work, kicking in the doors and dragging people into the square. He motioned for his crew to follow. They obeyed him without question. In his early-thirties, he wasn’t as young as he used to be, but he still had a solid base of muscle that had only recently begun rounding out from a less regimented lifestyle. It still felt strange wearing the rifle over a button shirt and jeans, but there was no need to get tactical today. One of his guys kicked in the door to the community center and he entered the building. Tacho confronted the group of people hiding in the center.
“Which one of you is the mayor,” asked Tacho in Spanish.
The group all directed their gaze to a somewhat chubby man with dark skin in his mid-fifties thumbing through his cell phone, no doubt trying to call someone for help. Tacho watched the man, wearing bifocals, a sweat stained white dress shirt, and slacks, reluctantly step forward. One of Tacho’s men grabbed the phone from his hand, took him by the arm, and dragged him outside while the others were herded out behind him. Tacho led them to Heraclio. Tacho always thought his boss, Heraclio, looked more like a rancher than a criminal mastermind. At least today he wasn’t wearing the damn cowboy hat.
“This is the mayor jefe.”
The man seemed to find courage and blurted out, “My name is Pascual Rodriguez Rubio. What is the meaning of this? Do you know who I am?”
Heraclio simply smiled, “Come with me por favor.”
Tacho nudged the mayor to follow.
In the square, the gunmen stood over the crying and whimpering townspeople. Most of the men stared down at the ground, while a few looked up in defiance. Tacho’s boss began his speech like some kind of twisted political rally. Heraclio seemed to really enjoy this shit, Tacho thought.
“Good afternoon! I’m sorry to have disturbed your party but I have some business here. Last night a few of your boys decided to get in a fight with one of my soldiers. They nearly killed him! I’m afraid he is in the hospital.” He looked back and nodded to Tacho.
Tacho knew that this was coming. He walked behind his SUV and opened the back, pulling out a large bag. Tacho walked beside his boss and dumped out the contents of the bag in front of the crowd. The crowd drew back in terror as three severed heads rolled to a stop in front of them.
Heraclio turned to the Don Pascual, but spoke loudly enough for all to hear. “These are tough times and I can’t tolerate the loss of even one man. You understand, don’t you?”
Don Pascual responded, his voice shaking, “Of course, of course...but please we will cooperate. These boys must not have known. They must have been confused. We have no desire to get in anyone’s way. Please...”
Heraclio lifted his hand to his chin and looked over the men in the crowd. “Certainly, yes I understand it was a mistake but one needs to pay for one’s mistakes. I’m afraid that I am still short a man, and he was worth a lot.”
Like a twisted orchestra conductor, Heraclio pointed out two of the stronger looking men. Four of the gunmen took the two by the arms and pulled them forward.
Heraclio placed his arms around the two men, smiling. “Gentlemen, one of you has been given a wonderful opportunity to join the ranks of the Fuerza Negra. Best of luck!”
The narcos dragged the two men to the center of the half circle formed by the stunned townspeople and forced them to their knees facing each other about twenty feet apart.
“Are we recording this one?” one of the men pulled out his cell phone.
Tacho shook his head in approval. It will be good for the brand, once it’s posted. Tacho handed a large hammer to each man. The men looked first at the hammers in shock and then at each other. Tacho guessed that they knew each other, probably grew up together. Tears ran down their faces as the crowd reeled in horror. The crowd began wailing for mercy. When their cries became too loud, Tacho fired his rifle into the air, returning them to a state of submission.
Tacho pointed his rifle at the two men. “Fight or I’ll put a bullet in you and see if your women have bigger balls.”
An animal instinct to survive took hold of one of the men. He looked up in a rage, jumped to his feet and attacked his friend. The other man, caught off guard, took the first blow on the shoulder. He somehow managed to scramble to his feet, holding his arms up to deflect the blows of his opponent. He swung hard with the forked end of the hammer catching his opponent’s forearm, opening up a bloody gash.
“Mr. Mayor, perhaps we could sit and have a drink?”
Don Pascual, in a daze, nodded to Heraclio and pointed to the small bar with the concrete deck. As they walked, Don Pascual kept his eyes forward away from the battle going on in the square. Tacho listened to the cheers of the gunmen, now rooting on their favorites. Heraclio seemed oblivious, as if he had completed one task and was on to next. They walked up onto the small patio of cracking concrete covered by a tin awning. Heraclio motioned to a small plastic table and a couple of chairs. They sat across from each other. Heraclio ensured that Don Pascual had a view of the plaza. One of the gunmen brought them beers and tequila from the vacated bar. Heraclio lifted his shot glass. Don Pascual sat confused, mesmerized by the scene in front of him. Heraclio, chuckling, lifted Don Pascual’s glass and chinked it against his own.
Cheers and bursts of fire rose up from the square. Tacho looked over his shoulder and observed one of the men on his knees covered in blood, looking at his hands, above the prostrate body of his dead opponent.
Tacho wasn’t surprised by the result. It didn’t matter how many times they did this, the winner was always the first one to strike. They just wanted to live more or maybe the other idiot just didn’t have the instinct to do what had to be done. Tacho directed two men to take the winner and place him in one of the SUVs. Then he returned to the bar.
“Jefe, we have a winner. Should we burn the town?”
Heraclio looked at Don Pascual and smiled. “No, I like this place. Such friendly people. Let the men have some fun and grab something to eat. I will be along in a minute.”
Don Pascual straightened himself. “This is insanity. Does Señor Hernandez know you are here? You know Señor Hernandez and I have been good friends for many years.” He paused not seeing the recognition he expected, “Why just last year I went to his daughter’s wedding. I sat at the same table as the governor—”
Heraclio smiled again. “Señor Hernandez is dead my friend. His son in law is dead and you can ask Tacho about his daughter. Tacho couldn’t help grinning at the thought of that day.
Don Pascual returned to a slouch and placed his gaze downward. “But…but…we had an arrangement…you do your business, we look the other way, no one gets hurt —”
Heraclio interrupted forcefully, his cordial smiling demeanor disappeared. “You had an arrangement! I’m in charge of the plaza now and I will give the orders now.”
Tacho looked out at the town. Chaos seemed to have engulfed the once peaceful square. Gunmen were emptying stores while others were dragging women off to secluded locations.
Outside of a small home on the town’s main street, gunmen exited dragging a young 18-year-old girl in a summer dress past potted plants, a table and plastic chairs. She was screaming and clawing at her captors, but without effect. Behind them a tall, overweight man in his fifties stumbled out of the now shattered door, blood flowing down his face.
“Miiija!” he screamed, tripping and losing consciousness on the cement patio in front of the home.
Karla sat in the back of the small classroom filled with children of various ages from five to ten years old. A picture of the president, a Mexican flag, and educational posters lined the cracked walls, and an assortment of poorly maintained desks and chairs filled the room. Maestra Carmen was grey and stooped; she seemed to battle gravity to stay upright. She stood in front of the children leading the lesson while Karla was taking notes on her teaching techniques. A little girl was reading aloud from a book when the shooting started.
The sound of gunshots and screeching tires disrupted the lesson. Karla looked around and quickly realized what was happening. The children began to cry.
Karla froze but Maestra Carmen didn’t hesitate. “Okay everyone, let’s all lay down on the floor. Let’s sing a song. How about we sing a song. Miss Karla, please sing us a song.”
The children continued to cry.
Karla calmed her breathing and forced the words out. “I’ll start and you sing with me.” Karla started to sing and the nervous children joined in.
"Las gotas de lluvia serán de chocolate, em encantaría estar ahi…. Quien quiere chocolate?"
Karla stopped for a moment in silent prayer. “Señor Mío y Díos Mio, protect us.”
Tacho thought for sure the mayor was going to faint. These political types could never hold up when they faced violence. That was his world.
Heraclio continued his lecture. “El soldado your boys put in the hospital was well trained. Training is expensive. The man I am taking from you will cost me a fortune to make useful. There is a war going on you know. The old agreements are over. All the cartels, Sinaloa, Gulfo, los Zetas, La Familia, and the government are fighting. Only the strong will survive. And the Fuerza Negra is strong.”
Don Pascual could only sit there and sip his tequila nervously.
“I will make you an estimate, yes?”
“Alright,” Don Pascual answered.
Heraclio’s demeanor shifted again, almost like he was selling a car. “Wonderful, well I think it’s only fair that your town help pay for the training of my replacement soldier. I think it will cost perhaps...50,000 dollars.”
“Señor, this is a poor town we don't have that kind of money. The Party is no longer subsidizing us, instead we have to pay them too, and the federal government keeps the money tight… besides they have made it difficult to get dollars from the other side, and no one wants to take them any more…” Protested Don Pascual.
“Oh amigo, I thought you might say something like that. Tell you what, I will take two to pay for one.”
Heraclio held up two fingers. Tacho nodded and held up two fingers to his men.
“I am the CEO of a grand enterprise Mr. Mayor. I’ll take two of your young women here and have them work off the 50,000 in one of my establishments,” explained Heraclio.
Don Pascual stood and looked into the square. Narcos were pulling the young girl in the summer dress toward one of the trucks. “No, no, no, you can’t do this!”
Tacho pushed the mayor back down into his chair before descending into the square. He moved through the still kneeling crowd. This was always a weird sensation, choosing. It provided a feeling of total control and Tacho enjoyed control. He picked out a pretty young girl in a white blouse and blue skirt. He gripped her arm and pulled her to her feet. She kicked and scratched at him. Her mother clung to the girl, begging. Tacho didn’t hesitate, he lifted his weapon and smashed the woman in the face with the butt of his rifle. She collapsed to the ground. After seeing her mother’s face erupt in blood, the girl seemed to calm down and accepted her fate. Tacho pulled her to one of the vehicles without much effort.
Tacho slammed the door and returned to his boss, who was still enjoying his conversation with the mayor. “Patron, we have two girls.”
“Excellent!” Heraclio stood up and threw his empty glass against the wall.
He gripped Don Pascual’s shoulder. “It was a pleasure doing business with you. Until the next time.”
Hercalio began moving to his SUV. Tacho signaled the rest of the narcos to mount their vehicles. The gunmen cut off their activities and jumped into their trucks. Tacho kept a count as the vehicles each tore out of the square as quickly as they came. He took one last look. In the glow of the setting sun, Don Pascual stood there shaking over the crying townspeople, severed heads, and the dead body of the hammer fighter. Tacho savored the moment.
* * *
Juan looked up at the sign. CONSTRUIDO CON SOLIDARIDAD it said in big block letters. When they wrote that it meant something. Right now, it seemed like a joke, he thought.
They had never been more alone.
The interior of the community center, like the outside, was several years old with peeling lime green paint, stained linoleum floors and fading political slogans and pictures on the walls. Florescent lights flickered over the room with a steady hum.
Across the well-worn and scratched wooden table sat Karla, Don Pascual, and Carmen. Karla was failing to contain the tears as she spoke. “Poor Lily...they killed her father. And...and Carlitos’ father...he...they took him. How do I explain this to the children? These people...they aren’t human.”
Karla was attractive. Not a model, but enough for men to take notice. In any case, she was too attractive for Juan and he knew it. Really, she was too rich and too attractive for anyone here. Juan was the right age for her, in his early thirties, but he had the dark skin and dark hair of a more rural Mexican, and he certainly didn’t have money.
In the six months that Juan had been in town, he had avoided her for the most part. She seemed like one of the gringo charity workers that came to Sinaloa to build a school or a library for a town. She was getting some experience with the poor and downtrodden before going back to her privileged life. It was nice that she was teaching, but it was charity. Juan didn’t understand why Maestra Carmen would bring in a rich fresa to swoop down and teach. He knew that she would leave, probably soon, and the kids would still be here just like when she came.
Why was she even at the table? She wasn’t a member of the town. Still, she had been here today. And more importantly, she was here now. She could have left. Juan respected that. “I’m so sorry Karla. It’s a miracle none of the children were hurt. If only I had been here.”
Don Pascual interjected, “You would have done what? You would have stopped them? By yourself? You think they will respect that uniform you’re wearing? Come now. The question is how should we collect the money to get the girls back... I can collect about five thousand dollars, we can sell the cars, and if we have to, the TVs.”
Juan was astonished. “Collect the money! You think that will solve anything? If we pay them, do you think they will give the girls back? They will just ask for more.”
Don Pascual took up a patronizing tone that only infuriated Juan more. “Mira, I have dealt with the narcos for years. Remember I was the municipal party leader and before that I was the assistant to the governor. Next election when the party comes back into power, peace will come back I will be back in the state capital and these people won´t bother us. We just have to be patient. This Heraclio is aggressive sure, but in the end, he will see that it's better to negotiate. We look the other way and not aggravate them and things will be fine.”
Juan raised his voice, “It doesn’t work that way anymore. Are you blind!? Did you see the heads? Did you see what they made Jorge and Carlos do?!”
“What other option do we have?”
From the corner of the table, Maestra Carmen began speaking in a low tone, “We can take them back. We can fight.”
Don Pascual rolled his eyes.
Karla was surprised by the idea from the senior teacher. “But how Carmen? They have guns.”
Juan seized the moment, “We can get guns! We can go to the border and buy weapons just like the criminals do.”
The frustration started to show on Don Pascual’s face. “This is insanity. You know that many of those men are ex-military and ex-police. They have training. What are you going to do give Karla a rifle and have her shoot it out with the Fuerza Negra?”
Juan tried to interrupt, but Don Pascual continued to speak. “If you don’t want to pay them, fine. I will handle this. I’ll call on my friend at the State Police and ask him to intervene. I’ll go to Santa Marta tomorrow and figure this out. In the meantime, no more talk of arming ourselves.”
“The State Police were no help when I was looking for the missing boys. They didn’t know anything. They sent me to Hermosillo. They won’t help us.”
“Joven, there is a difference between when you speak with people and when I speak with people.”
Juan sized up Don Pascual again. He and Don Pascual had been on separate sides of issues in the town since Juan had arrived. The former municipal police officer was a close friend of Don Pascual’s and basically did whatever he wanted. Juan had made it clear that he was not going to work as an armed minion for the mayor. When Don Pascual had ordered Juan to collect “taxes” from the local businesses, Juan even threatened to arrest him.
Despite his obvious problems, he remained respected by many of the people in Ascensión. Juan’s strategy had been to slowly overcome Don Pascual’s obstacles, but these events might call for more immediate action. Still, he was right, it would be a leap for the people to arm themselves.
“Fine, I’ll go with Don Pascual. But I’m going to talk to my cousin who is in the army. We would be better off if they were involved.”
Don Pascual ceded to the younger man’s recommendation. “Fine, good idea, fine talk to your cousin in the army, let’s see if they can work this out.”
Don Pascual’s dusty maroon Nissan Sentra worked its way down the long two-lane highway toward Santa Marta. The road was in poor condition and made a torturous path over and around the rocky hills. Surprisingly, Juan always found Don Pascual to be very personable in normal conversation. During the drive, they talked about sports and tequila.
He’s a hard man to hate. That’s probably why he has been able to keep the town under his authority for so long, thought Juan.
As they approached Santa Marta, Don Pascual gripped Juan by the shoulder. “Juan, I know you are very enthusiastic, you think you can change the world. I was like you once, believe it or not, but I learned the way things are, in our town, our state, in our nation, Christ, in the world. You’re a smart guy and a hard worker. One day you’ll figure all that out, one day you’ll understand things like I do.”
“I will never understand things like you do.” Juan enjoyed the feeling of saying those words, words without compromise.
The conversation ended as they reached Santa Marta. They wove their way through an unmanned army checkpoint constructed with concrete barriers and dirt berms and entered the town’s busy center. Santa Marta was somewhat larger than Ascensión because a pair of two lane highways came together at the city center. In a large triangular median where the roads met there was a monument to Felipe Angeles. The revolutionary military figure with rigid posture sat atop a stone horse looking out over the desert. Off the asphalt were packed dirt stretches lined with shops and stores. On the northeast side, a small police station was marked by a sign and a couple of dirty police cars. To the north, a military unit had occupied a government building and fortified it with sandbags and concrete barriers. They parked their car on the dirt just off the street near the police station.
Inside the car, they took a moment to prepare themselves.
“Look, Juan, don’t do anything stupid. Go straight to your cousin. The narcos have eyes everywhere.”
Juan nodded in agreement and they exited the car. They split up, Juan walked toward the entrance of the military outpost. The sign outside of the gate read: Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA). After a brief exchange with the guards Juan entered the base.
When Juan had seen Cancha in Santa Marta a few months ago it had been a surprise. He and Cancha had some history together in Ciudad Juárez. Cancha told Juan not to hesitate if he ever needed anything. It seemed better to Juan to simply claim to have a cousin in SEDENA than to explain his whole past.
The soldier escorting Juan knocked on the door and a firm “adelante” commanded them to enter. Lieutenant Cancha still had a standard military look with a tight haircut and desert combat fatigues. He raised his eyes from his paperwork and acknowledged Juan’s presence.
The soldier saluted smartly. “Mi Teniente, sorry to disturb you…”
“That’s fine, thank you, I know this man.”
Cancha reached out and shook Juan’s hand with a firm grip.
Cancha wasn’t exactly a good friend. They had worked together in Juarez. Juan as a member of the Federal Police and Cancha as part of the 5th Military Zone. After everything that happened in Juarez one good thing was the respect Juan had gained from Cancha. Today he would need it.
With the same disciplined tone Juan remembered, Lieutenant Cancha started, “Please come in, sit down. I have a few minutes. How can I help you?”
Juan sat down in the uncomfortable metal chair while the escort stood in the back of the room at parade rest with his hands neatly folded in the small of his back.
Don Pascual walked down the busy street with his eyes darting from one doorway and window to the next, he stopped and pretended to look at his watch so he could turn around and look for anyone following him. His feet kicked up dust as he passed a frantic mother pulling a small boy. A man dressed in a cowboy hat stomped out of the building his eyes on the ground, he didn’t seem to even notice the nervous mayor. Don Pascual entered the police station.
Don Pascual moved straight to the secretary to the right of the entrance. The square shaped waiting room was lined with well-worn fake leather chairs surrounding a large wooden coffee table. After a short discussion that included some heavy flattering, the secretary stood and guided Don Pascual into the Deputy Commissioner of Public Security’s office.
“Señor, el Presidente Municipal de Ascensión, El Señor Pascual Rodríguez Rubio,” announced the secretary.
The Commissioner, wearing jeans with a tan blazer at least one size too small and a loose bolo tie, stood and smiled broadly. He came from around his desk and shook Don Pascual’s hand, pulling him close and slapping him on the back.
“How are you my friend? How is your wife Lola?”
“Ah, she is as difficult as ever!” laughed Don Pascual.
“Of course! She has to tolerate your wandering, you dog! What was the name of that girl in Hermosillo? Never mind. Please sit down, sit down!”
Don Pascual’s confidence surged as he sat in the overstuffed leather chair.
“Officer Madero, I am afraid that I can't be of much help right now. I am very sorry because I know you are in a difficult position. We have a few options but if I were to go free the two girls, the Fuerza Negra would know that your town was involved. I would not expect that the police and the judges will put them all in jail,” said Lieutenant Cancha.
Juan replied, “But why couldn’t you just protect us? Rescue them and then guard our town?”
“The truth is we are spread thin.” Cancha picked up a pen and tapped it on his desk. “I could dispatch a squad to your town for a few weeks but I cannot leave an element there permanently. We are here as reinforcements only, and will likely return to our home base in Puebla.”
“…but if you only stay a few weeks Heraclio will wait till you leave —”
Cancha interrupted, “—and take vengeance on you. Yes. I’m afraid I have my hands full here. I can set up checkpoints on the routes near the town once or twice a week.”
“And the checkpoints...they would not be permanent either?”
The lieutenant looked up and dismissed the soldier. Once the soldier closed the door, Cancha leaned forward and lowered his voice. “No, not permanent.” He set the pen down. “You need to find a way to get the girls out of there without the Fuerza Negra knowing it was you.”
Juan felt an emptiness fill his center when he heard the words. It dissipated after a moment.
“And if they come looking for them in Ascensión?”
“You can call me directly.”
He quickly jotted his information on a scrap of paper and handed it to Juan. The paper felt unusually light and flimsy in his fingers.
“I can send my quick reaction force if they come back before we leave.”
Juan searched for clarification, “And your quick reaction force? It takes four hours to reach our town from here.”
“Look, realistically... I can get to you in five hours that’s the best I can do.”
“So, if we can hold our own for five hours?”
The two men looked at each other in an unspoken understanding.
The lieutenant rose and extended his hand to Juan.
“Buena suerte, Señor Madero”
He lowered his voice again and pulled Juan close gripping the back of his arm.
“I’m going to give you some advice. Don’t go to the local officials, not even the governor. They are all bought or compromised. Every time I nab one of these bastards either he’s out in 24 hours or I get the human rights people shouting I abused him.”
He looked Juan directly in the eyes with a seriousness Juan remembered from Juarez.
“Si los tienes en la mira...mátalos en caliente.”
“Pascual, I’m sorry but things just aren’t the way they used to be. The president and the governor aren’t even in the party. I can’t just call like I used to.”
The words hit Don Pascual like ice water.
“We’ve all had to make different arrangements. Perhaps you should make some new arrangements as well.”
Don Pascual’s voice shook, “So you can do nothing for me?”
“Look, I promise I will try to see what I can do” said the commissioner rising out of his chair signaling the end of the conversation.
Don Pascual was frozen in his chair. The commissioner walked around his desk, standing over his guest and extending his hand. “You know politics. I'm sure you can work something out with Heraclio. It has been so nice to see you.”
Don Pascual took his hand, rising in a daze, confronted by the fact that the political power he always wielded was now impotent. He walked out of the office into the waiting room past the secretary’s desk. The color drained from his face. Sitting in the waiting room flipping through an old magazine was Tacho. He looked up from his magazine a smiled at Don Pascual. Tacho rose and walked by Don Pascual greeted the commissioner with a handshake and entered his office. The door shut and Don Pascual stared at the closed wooden doors in disbelief, tears welling in his eyes.
Juan sat pretending to look at his cell phone, but was in reality intensely focusing on a two-story stucco building across the street with a large neon sign. Outside the building, two young men were drinking beer. They were dressed in typical narco fashion, like a mix between a rapper and a cowboy, cowboy hats and boots but with a flashier shirt and jewelry. An older man in a stained white shirt walked out and spoke briefly with the two men. He yelled back into the bar.
Juan recognized Liliana immediately. She placed two more beers on the table in front of the men. One of the narcos reached out grabbing at her breasts. She clawed at his hand pulling back away from the table yelling. The old man took hold of her hair and yanked her backward, shoving her toward the door. The old man said something and all three men laughed.
That was enough for Juan. He rose from his perch on a short concrete wall, pulling a pistol from the back of his jeans. This wasn’t smart. Who knows what was inside that place, but who cares? He would cross and hit those two malandrines first and see what happens. He just wanted to wipe the smiles off their sick faces. He crossed the potholed street with the pistol concealed behind his back. They were talking, still oblivious to his presence, joking. He never got the practice he needed, he would need to get close, make his shots count. Halfway there.
The maroon Nissan pulled right between Juan and the narcos. Don Pascual looked at Juan impatiently. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Let’s go—”
He saw the look on Juan’s face. Juan shifted his gaze across the street. Don Pascual followed his eyes and realized what was happening. The car stopping had caught the narcos’ attention and they had honed in on Juan. There demeanor changed and their hands moved below the table.
Juan was ready. It was farther than he wanted but he could make the shots. Liliana exited the bar again, she took in the scene and motioned to Juan to stop, desperation in her eyes. Juan grimaced, opened the car door, and sat down in the passenger seat.
Don Pascual spoke just loud enough for the narcos to hear, “okay amigo, enough looking at the women, we don’t have time for that today.” Then he drove off, quickly turning the corner.
As they drove back to Ascensión, Juan felt a kind of weakness and lightness after the adrenaline wore off. He thought of Liliana and those arrogant bastards. He looked at Don Pascual’s plump sweaty face. The anger came, washing over him like a wave, this had to stop and he was going to stop it.
 Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde are religious icons that are popular with criminals and narco traffickers in Mexico. Jesús Malverde is the “patron saint of drug traffickers” and is an unofficial folk saint not recognized by the Catholic Church.” La Santa Muerte or Death Saint is a skeleton wearing a robe that plays on a long standing Mexican cultural affinity for death with roots in pre-conquest culture. Santa Muerte has been linked to ritual killings and grotesque acts of violence in Mexico. Pamela Bunker, Lisa Campbell, Robert Bunker, “Torture, beheadings, and Narcocultos,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 21, no. 1, 2010.
 Small Mexican towns have been frequently raided by heavily armed criminal groups. A video from 2010 shows heavily armed criminals taking control of Creel, Chihuahua. The small towns in the Valle de Juárez that runs along the Rio Grande river to the south and east of Ciudad Juárez have been described as “ghost towns.” One of the most brazen and violent examples of these types of attacks was the Allende Massacre. In that event the Zetas occupied the town of Allende in Coahuila and kidnapped and murdered around 300 victims, possibly in retribution for a member of the group that had provided information to U.S. law enforcement. “Sicarios Operando en Creel Chihuahua,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5eUgmus13Y. Zorayda Gallegos, “The Mexican Town where even the Police Fear to Tread.” El Pais, 5 February 2018, https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/02/02/inenglish/1517564534_505047.html. Lucy Clement La Rosa, “Remembering the Allende Massacre.” Justice in Mexico. 27 June 2017, https://justiceinmexico.org/remembering-allende-massacre/.
 In 2006, 20 armed men in ski masks entered the Sol y Sombra bar in Uruapan Michoacán and rolled five severed heads out onto the dance floor. Jaime Márquez, “Decapitan a 5 en Uruapan; tiran cabezas en un bar,” El Universal. 7 September 2006, http://archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/62434.html.
 Gladiatorial combat of the sort depicted here was identified during the Zetas’ war for control of northeastern Mexico. In San Fernando, Tamaulipas, the Zetas pulled 72 migrants off of a bus and murdered them. There were reports that, during the same time period, the Zetas were forcing their victims to compete in gladiatorial combat with sledgehammers. The winners would be given the “opportunity” to serve as a sicario (hitman). Adam Clark Estes, “Mexico’s Tales of Bus Passengers Forced to Fight to the Death.” The Atlantic. 14 June 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/gladiator-death-fights-mexico-drug-war/351738/. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Los Zetas Inc., Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. pp. 42-43.
 In 2011, Martha Rivera, a teacher in Monterrey, Nuevo León helped her children by singing during a firefight outside of her school. On another occasion, a teacher in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora was widely praised after posting a video on social media where she comforted her students during an exchange of gunfire near her classroom. Ignacio de los Reyes, “Martha Rivera: la maestra más valiente de México, no cree en héroes.” BBC News. 31 May 2011, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2011/05/110531_mexico_maestra_monterrey_video_balacera_gotitas_irm. Amalia Escobar, “’Tenemos que cantar pecho tierra’: maestra a niños durante balacera en Sonora.” El Universal, 17 January 2018, http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/tenemos-que-cantar-pecho-tierra-maestra-ninos-durante-balacera-en-sonora-mexico.
 There is a strong argument that changes in political power increase violence and competition among criminal organizations. Mexico’s transition from single party rule and the alternation of political power broke the government’s monopoly on violence and disintegrated existing agreements between the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional; Institutional Revolutionary Party) and their criminal partners. Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, “Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alteration, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large Scale Violence,” Comparative Political Studies. Vol. 51, 2017. pp. 900-937.
 The most infamous example of this phenomenon was the formation of Los Zetas which were created from Mexican army personnel including a special forces unit (GAFE; Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales). However, most, if not all, Mexican transnational criminal organizations have employed military or police personnel in support of their operations. Guillermo Valdes, Historia del Narcotrafico en México. Madrid: Aguilar, 2013. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Los Zetas Inc. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.
 More than 65 percent of the Mexican population believe that state police forces are corrupt. The Cifra negra in Mexico is 92.4 percent. That is the level of crimes not reported or never brought to preliminary investigation. Police reform in Mexico has been an elusive goal for multiple Mexican administrations. As a result of systematic failures in policing and in the justice system, Mexico ranks in the bottom five of all countries for impunity. Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geográfica, Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Publica 2020. December 2020, https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/programas/envipe/2020/doc/envipe2020_presentacion_nacional.pdf. Juan Antonio Le Clerq Ortega and Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, Índice Global de Impunidad Mexico 2018. Puebla: Universidad de las Americas en Puebla, 2018, https://udlap.mx/igimex/. Diane Davis, “Undermining the Rule of Law: Democratization and the Dark Side of Police Reform in Mexico,” Latin American Politics and Society. Vol, 48, No 1, 2016. pp. 55-86. Maureen Meyer, Mexico’s Police: Many Reforms, Little Progress. Washington D.C.: Washington Office on Latin America, WOLA. 2014, https://www.wola.org/sites/default/files/Mexicos%20Police.pdf. Daniel Sabat, “Corruption or Insecurity? Understanding Dissatisfaction with Mexico’s Police.” Latin American Politics and Society. Vol. 55, No 1, 2013. pp. 22-45.
 Beginning in 2006, the Mexican government under Felipe Calderón greatly increased the use of the Mexican military in its fight against transnational criminal organizations. The role of the Mexican military in internal security and as part of a multi-party democracy has been a topic of intense debate. Iñigo Guevara, Adapting, Transforming, and Modernizing Under Fire: The Mexican Military 2006-11. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2011, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB1081.pdf. Jordi Diez, “Civil-Military Relations in Mexico: The Unfinished Transition,” The Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Rodric Ai Camp, Mexico’s Military on the Democratic Stage. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Craig Deare, A Tale of Two Eagles. Lanham, ND: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Interview with Alexei Chevez Silveti
Alexei Chevez Silveti is a Mexican security consultant and analyst. He is the Director of Training for Equipos y Soluciones Integrales Mexico (ESIM) and has spent over 20 years training and advising Mexican military and police units on tactics, professionalization, and capability development. He has been a guest lecturer at several universities including the Universidad de las Americas Puebla and the University of Arizona. He is a frequent commentator for El Financiero, Aristegui, and other media outlets.
In the story, the Fuerza Negra displays an impressive level of military capacity. How powerful are these groups?
Fuerza Negra is an adequate description of the reality that many communities in the country face. Unfortunately, this reality has changed and now we have organized criminal groups that are better armed and crueler than those described in the story.
Heraclio declares “the old agreements are over.” What is the role of political power and control in the ongoing criminal violence problem in Mexico?
I don’t believe this “arrangement” between organized crime and political powers at the state and municipal levels exists. The criminal groups have grown so much in their power that now they are the ones than impose conditions and subordinate politicians to their will. Plata o plomo (silver or lead) is the new arrangement.
When Juan and Don Pascual go to the authorities for help they find limited support and corruption. Why has police professionalization been such a challenge for Mexico?
It is very expensive to professionalize the state and municipal police. You have to give them exams that cost a lot of money and the majority would not pass a physical exam. Training requires that police be pulled from the streets and placed in classes a minimum of two weeks every six months, but these are police that are needed on the street. The governments don’t believe in the training and professionalization of the police.
Juan’s visit to the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) unit highlighted the role of the Mexican military in internal security. What is the military’s role and is it necessary?
The presence of military personnel in public security duties is indispensable now that there is no national police, state police, or municipal police that can maintain control of their territory. Criminal groups are many times better equipped and armed than the police. There isn’t a state police force that can even confront the criminal groups in its region – they need the support of the armed forces and their firepower.
Editors' note: For additional background on this except see "FICINT – Ascensión: A Tale of the Mexican Drug War." SWJ Blog, 12 April 2021.