The latest addition to Akashic’s great city- and neighborhood-centered Noir series, which began with Brooklyn Noir in 2004, Mexico City Noir contains new stories by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Eugenio Aguirre, Eduardo Antonia Parra, Bernardo Fernandez Bef, Oscar de la Borbolla, Rolo Diez, Victor Luiz Gonzalez, F.G. Haghenbeck, Juan Hernandez Luna, Myriam Laurini, Eduardo Monteverde, and Julia Rodriguez.
The book was edited by Paco I. Taibo II, author of the popular mystery series starring Mexican Private Investigator Hector Belascoaran Shayne. Akashic has also published his collaboration with Subcomandante Marcos, The Uncomfortable Dead, which will be reviewed soon on Molossus.
The stories in this collection engage with Mexico City with the intimacy of Bolaño, from Roma to Colonia Buenos Aires, following their hard-boiled protagonists through its thousands of neighborhoods. Our title above alludes to a line from Francisco Hernández’ poem “The Degradation of Spring,” another intimate portrait of the “infinite city”, in which he writes, “I observe her intensely, I try to see the sun through her haze. At such / an early hour the city is a yawning pachyderm.”
Thanks to the generous editors at Akashic, we’re proud to publish Taibo’s eloquent introduction to the collection of stories set in “the best city on the planet.” It’s 2010 in Mexico City, where there’s never been a more relevant time to explore the boundaries between reality and fiction, where those boundaries have never seemed more permeable, and where there’s never been a time that longs for more heroes.
Snow White vs. Dr. Frankenstein
Twenty-one million residents in the metropolitan area. An infinite city, one of the biggest in the world, a fascinating blanket of lights for those arriving on planes; a huge Christmas tree on its side—red, green, yellow, white; mercury, tungsten, sodium, neon. A city gone crazy with pollution, rain, traffic; an economic crisis that’s been going on for twenty-five years.
A city famously notable for the strangest reasons: for being the urban counterpoint to the Chiapas jungle; for having the most diverse collection of jokes about death; for setting the record for most political protests in one year; for having two invisible volcanoes and the most corrupt police force on the planet.
Mexico is talked about more in jest than in earnest—how local law enforcement agents made martyrs of torturers in Argentina, how they bribed corrupt Thai cops, how they taught Colombian narcotraffickers to snort coke. But the rumors are miles behind reality. Here, a timid Snow White dictates the police report to Dr. Frankenstein.
To put memory in order, let us recall: in the early 1980s, the city’s chief of police, General Arturo Durazo Moreno, was in charge of chasing down a gang of killers associated with South American drug dealers who were found massacred in a blackwater collector in the city’s sewage system. The case provoked waves of newspaper ink, and the police suggested that it could have been a settling of scores between Central American gangs. A couple of years later the scandal resurfaced, and this time General Durazo was indicted. He was accused, among other things, of having given the order to kill rival Colombian dealers. The assassin, in that magical alchemy that is Mexican insanity, turned out to be his own prosecutor. His second-in-command, the chief of the state police, Francisco Sahagún Baca, was the head of the antidrug force, though he himself was one of the most notorious drug traffickers in the country.
The paradox: heaven’s door in Lucifer’s hands. Evil is everywhere. Each year, hundreds of police officers are fired, attempts are made to democratize Mexico City . . . but the cancer keeps metastasizing. Authority within the city depends on the police, no matter how corrupt they are. Now, in the name of modernity, everyone’s uncomfortable with this. They don’t know what to do. When the Division for the Investigation and Prevention of Delinquency was disbanded some twenty years ago, a spate of robberies inundated the Valley of Mexico. There were sixty-one assaults with a deadly weapon in a six-month period. The ex-cops turned a section of the city into their own turf. But it was just a small transition. As a matter of course, when they were still active officers, they had extorted, abused, robbed, and raped. Every now and then they went after some thief who operated outside of their jurisdiction. As ex-cops, they continued doing the same thing, perhaps pushing the envelope a little bit.
If you’re lucky, you can stay away from it, you can keep your distance . . . until, suddenly, without a clear explanation of how, you fall into the web and become trapped.
What are the unwritten rules? How can you avoid them?
Survey question: how many citizens do you know who, when assaulted on the street, will call the police? A few, none; maybe one of those boys in blue who patrols the intersections of this newly democratic city? A secret cop? Not on your life. What do you want, to be assaulted twice?
How big is the Mexico City police force? They say fifty-two squads. How many are officially sanctioned? How many bodyguards, paramilitary forces, armed groups associated with this or that official unit are there?
You wake up in the morning with the uneasy feeling that the law of probabilities is working against you.
You’re going to die, the guy tells the man on his knees, and he repeats the phrase, showing off the gun barrel. The kneeling man, who’s bleeding a bit from the bridge of his nose, doesn’t respond; he reflects that, yes, he’s going to die.
Hours later, when he tells his story to a pack of sleepy journalists, he thinks that, yes, he died, he died a little.
The man is Deputy Leonel Durán, member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) National Council. Sometime in July 2007, a black car cut off his vehicle at an intersection. Using both a pistol and an automatic weapon, they made him get out; political threats got tangled up with the vulgar assault, they threw him in the trunk, beat him, stole his credit cards, drove all over Mexico City with him imprisoned back there; they took his watch.
In the end, they left him in an open field, after threatening to charge him with running away from the law.
One of his cards was overdrawn and was therefore swallowed by the bank machine. This infuriated the cops most of all.
Toward the end of the ’90s, a series of rapes that followed a certain pattern took place in the southern part of the city: a group of armed men would assault a young couple. First the robbery, then the rape. They usually stuffed the boyfriend in the trunk of a car. All the rapes were followed by death threats. Terror was practiced without reason—apparently, just to see what it felt like to wield the power of death itself. In a few cases, things got out of hand: a girl was strangled to death, an aggressive boyfriend was shot, another one asphyxiated in the trunk.
The majority of the rapes weren’t reported. That was traditional. But in one case, the victim was the daughter of an important political operative. There was a police investigation. Other young victims emerged and recognized their assailants in a police photo album.
In a photo album of known delinquents? No. It contained pictures of political operatives. The gang of rapists consisted mostly of members of Assistant Prosecutor Javier Coello Trejo’s bodyguard corps; he was deputy to the attorney general of the republic in charge of antidrug operations. The guys had too much free time sitting in parked cars, hanging out by building entrances, lounging at the homes of politicians. They had to pass the hours somehow . . .
Several of the killer rapists went to trial, others remained free. The assistant prosecutor was let go from his post and transferred to the Office of the Federal Prosecutor for the Consumer. There he could go after those who upped the price too much on video cassettes.
Can it be that the black cloud of pollution that runs in the fast lane from the northeast to the southwest slowly drives us crazy?
Yet there’s something beyond madness here: discipline. In Santa Clara—the industrial zone in the city’s far north, a neighborhood full of chemical slush and loose dirt—a patrol car waits at dawn for the workers to emerge from the graveyard shift at the Del Valle juice factory. The laborers have once again each received a small allotment of canned juice from the company. It’s a miserable concession to union demands in a time of crisis. The cops stop them a few meters from the exit and steal half of what’s in each worker’s box. They stuff the cans in the backseat of the patrol car until it’s full and they leave, the engine in low gear.
One day I saw the workers get together to protest their treatment by throwing rocks at the police. The cops didn’t retaliate, they just left. Do they sell the juice to a little store in some nearby neighborhood? Do they take it home to their families?
In these last few years, the winds of change have blown through Mexico—citizens have more power, protests have managed to kick out the old administration. But they have only been able to improve relations with the cop on the corner, not defeat the march of crime.
The madness comes back with new variations. Now we have a killer of old women, a cannibal who eats his girlfriends.
A cop stops me. My motorcycle is missing a mirror. I’m not willing to pay a bribe. We both laugh at how forthright I am. He tells me he has to pay for that corner. His supervisor charges him a weekly sum. If he doesn’t pay, they send him to a worse corner, without traffic. Plus, he has to pay for whatever goes wrong with his motorcycle, and he has to do it at a private garage—in the police shop they steal the new parts and replace them with used ones. He also says that he goes out every day with only half a tank of gas, though he has to sign a receipt that says he received a full one. I tell him I’m not going to pay a bribe. He refuses to give me his name. I refuse to give him mine. We wait, it starts to rain. He gets tired of me. With a wave, he tells me to go. He smiles. There’s not even ill will, it’s all routine.
Paloma, my wife, comes home in a fury and tells me a story about two guys she overheard reading headlines from a magazine in front of a newsstand.
The conversation goes like this:
Man #1: He stabbed his wife forty-two times. Forty-two times, bro.
Man #2: Can you imagine? She must have been driving him nuts . . .
My wife is indignant. She adds that, to top it off, the men didn’t even buy the magazine.
A couple of undercover cops come to your door to tell you they’ve found your car but wonder why you haven’t reported the theft. In fact, you didn’t even know your car was missing. You peer out the window to check if it’s true, that your car has vanished from where you parked it the night before. They tell you again that they’ve found the car. And where is it? you inquire. They give you the runaround. They finally ask for 10 percent of the car’s value (marvelously, there are fixed rates)—that is, if you want the car back; if not, they’ll drive it out of the city . . . and that’s that. If you have insurance you tell them to go ahead; but if not, you’re caught in the trap. Your car is worth 90,000 pesos and you’ve got to put 9,000 on the table. You’re now certain that these two characters sitting in your living room and drinking your coffee have stolen your car, checked the papers, and are here to do a little business. You assume that this type of transaction is a daily occurrence for them.
There was once a marijuana trade here. Domestic product. Mexican names for unregistered brands: Acapulco Gold, Tijuana Black, Oaxaca Small. I sense that it’s gone now and that more alcoholic traditions have taken over. The narcotic seemed to disappear when hippies became bureaucrats during the economic crisis, and it’s only occasionally at a rock concert that you smell weed in the air. Heroin never got much of a foothold in Mexican society. Every once in a while you hear about a case, but it’s rare, and people talk about it as if it were something out of Hollywood, an extraterrestrial that no one entirely believes in. Cocaine, the yuppie and executive drug, provokes gossip and nothing more. The rumors sometimes become isolated newspaper articles. Here and there they say the white stuff floats around in Televisa bathrooms. There’s a story about a movie star who needed surgery to reconstruct her nasal passages, and another one about the comedian who hosts children’s programs and has to snort a little before facing the cameras to tell his jokes. But hard drugs aren’t a part of everyday life—although they’re available in just about all of the middle-class nightclubs. Here, the word “drug” is more associated with trafficking than usage.
We’re the great airplane hangar, the way station to the United States for tons of marijuana, kilos of cocaine. Local and South American product crosses the border on ghost trucks, right past blind customs officials.
Narcotraffickers in Mexico City find themselves persecuted and uncomfortable, but powerful. They show off their gold bracelets and sip cognac in the company of cops. The trained dogs at Mexico City’s airports usually can’t get past the smell of Loewe cologne.
On other corners of the city, human throwaways roam the streets for everyone to see, stuttering kids only five, eight years old, with glassy eyes, hands and faces smudged with dirt. There are thousands of them. They’re called “chemos”—they inhale chemical solvents like paint thinner and turpentine, they get high from sniffing glue in plastic bags. It’s the drug of the lowlife, of misery. For a few pesos they sleep forever. The neurons die. Life is shortened.
Violence isn’t usually part of humanity’s social fabric. The economic crisis pushes more of the neighborhood waste to the city’s center. On Zaragoza Street, in the eastern part of town, assaults on buses by kids with knives became quite common in the ’90s. They robbed workers coming home from their jobs, maids, folks who worked in the markets. Hordes of desperate adolescents would descend on Santa Fe, one of the city’s poorest areas, and steal from beverage trucks. But the neighborhood has changed: today it headquarters the new bourgeoisie. In the grocery stores around Lomas de Chapultepec, right in the heart of Mexico City’s millionaire’s row, a different style of robbery emerged over the last decade. Men would steal from women returning home from shopping; they would confront them in the underground parking lots, armed with the tools of their trade—screwdrivers, picks, scissors—and they’d ask the women for the bags of food. But they rarely took the car, or money. It was theft caused by hunger. In the last few years, there have been fewer of these; social programs have been slowly having an effect.
I’ve said many times that statistics reveal a surprising city: one that has more movie theaters than Paris, more abortions than London, more universities than New York. Where nighttime has become sparse, desolate, the kingdom of only a few. Where violence rules, corners us, silences us into a kind of autism. Shuts us in our bedrooms with the TV on, creates that terrible circle of solitude where no one can depend on anyone but themselves.
The writers in this volume aren’t afraid of trying to exorcise the demons. Though using very different narrative styles, what they have in common is that they speak to, and about, a city they love. They understand that the only way to stop the violence and abuse that surrounds us is to talk about it. They are all professional writers but they are also professional survivors of life in Mexico City. Almost all of them, of us, take refuge in humor, a very dark humor, acidic, which allows us enough distance to laugh at Lucifer.
Another shared element in the stories that follow is an interest in experimentation, in crossing narrative planes, points of view. The neodetective story born in Mexico is not only a social literature but also one with an appetite for moving outside the traditional boundaries of genre.
Mexico City Noir may not be sponsored by the city’s department of tourism, but if anyone, from anywhere on earth, were to ask whether the writers recommend visiting Mexico City, the response would be both firm and passionate: “Yes, of course.”
Because this is the best city on the planet, in spite of itself.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas. © Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Akashic Books, reprinted by permission.