Read To Die in Mexico: Dispatches From Inside the Drug War Online

Authors: John Gibler

Tags: #History, #Latin America, #Mexico, #Political Science, #International Relations, #General, #Law Enforcement, #Globalization, #Social Science, #Criminology, #Customs & Traditions, #Violence in Society

To Die in Mexico: Dispatches From Inside the Drug War


“An intrepid California-based journalist who risked his life to pursue the interviews he records with Mexican officials and victims here, Gibler (
Mexico Unconquered
) recounts an endless litany of violence that has exploded during the tenures of Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox and, especially, Felipe Calderon. . . . Gibler argues passionately to undercut this ‘case study in failure.’ The drug barons are only getting richer, the murders mount and the police and military repression expand as ‘illegality increases the value of the commodity.’ With legality, both U.S. and Mexican society could address real issues of substance abuse through education and public-health initiatives.
A visceral, immediate and reasonable argument.


“Many writers have pondered the evil and madness of the Mexican/American ‘drug war.’ Few have analyzed it with such vividness and clarity as John Gibler.”—Howard Campbell, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, El Paso

To Die in Mexico
 shows all the horror of Mexico’s current turmoil over drugs—but goes beyond the usual pornography of violence to its critically-informed broader context. Gibler also reveals the brave civic resistance to death cults and official silencing by, among others, some of the remarkable Mexican journalists trying to tell the drug war’s hidden story.”—Paul Gootenberg, author, 
Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

“If you want to cut through the lies, obfuscation and sheer lunacy that surrounds Mexico’s so-called drug war, read 
To Die in Mexico
. John Gibler reports from Ciudad Juarez, Reynosa, Culiacan—the bloodiest battlegrounds in a fever of violence that has left more than 38,000 dead. But he accepts none of the prevailing myths—that this is a war between rival criminal enterprises, or between a crusading government and assorted barbarous bad guys, that it is a war at all. An antidote to the sensationalism and mythologizing that dominate the discourse, 
To Die in Mexico
 is at once a gripping read and the smartest, sanest book yet written on the subject in English.”—Ben Ehrenreich, author of 
The Suitors


“Gibler is something of a revelation, having been living and writing from Mexico for a range of progressive publications only since 2006, but providing reflections, insights and a level of understanding worthy of a veteran correspondent. His incisive analysis of the causes of injustice in Mexico . . . offers an essential introduction to the country’s brutal political and social realities.”—Gavin O’Toole,
Latin American Review of Books

“We are fortunate to have in John Gibler, an astute and thoughtful journalist. Over the past few years, he has reported on conditions and struggles in southern states (Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas) and elsewhere in the country and its northern neighbor. 
Mexico Unconquered 
shows us close-ups in the current chapter in a long-running story on our continent. ‘Chronicles’ isn’t precisely apt. Gibler doesn’t just serve as a narrator. His prose offers a window into people’s lives, letting us meet the participants in revolts, in their days of triumphant success or traumatic repression, in lives of vision, persistence and hope. We spend time beneath the tarps of [the] Oaxaca teachers’
(protest camp) in the central square. We ride to the hospital alongside a critically-wounded protester in Atenco. We stand in the visitor’s line of the prison in Ecatepec. We hear first hand about the ordeals of migration to the US, the violence of the drug war, torture, and disappearances—as well as a daring women’s takeover of a [television] station.”—Carwill James,
Left Turn

“A mix of fast-moving reporting, poetic reflection and wide-ranging historical texts, 
Mexico Unconquered
is penned in an accessible and uplifting fashion. A clear historical link is made between the author’s close relationships with social movements in both Mexico and in the U.S., making the book a useful tool for those looking to delve deeper into the history and ongoing struggle for revolt and liberation in Mexico.”—Stefan Christoff,

“Part journalistic travelogue, part political manifesto, 
Mexico Unconquered 
recounts some of the more bewildering revolts and upheavals that have roiled Southern Mexico from the turn of the 20th century through contemporary times . . . Gibler is at his best—informative, entertaining, provocative and fluid.”—Liliana Valenzuela,
Texas Observer

“The pages are quilted passages involving literature reviews, analyses and fierce reporting from talking to ‘los de abajo,’ or the underdogs, with observations bringing the pueblos alive. His bottom-up chronicle makes him the Howard Zinn (
A People’s History of the United States
) for the next generation.”—Traci Angel,
Jackson Hole News & Guide

“Enlightening and informative, 
Mexico Unconquered
is a must read.”—
Midwest Book Review

“From Spanish colonization to today’s state and corporate repression, 
Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and
, by John Gibler, is written from the street barricades, against the Slims of the world, and alongside ‘the underdogs and rebels’ of an unconquered country. The book offers a gripping account of the ongoing attempts to colonize Mexico, and the hopeful grassroots movements that have resisted this conquest.”—Benjamin Dangl,
Upside Down World

“For anyone who has felt confused, confounded, disappointed, disturbed and yet still enchanted by Mexico, John Gibler’s
Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt
offers some relief. . . . Gibler’s interpretation of a ‘Mexico unconquered’ testifies to the urgency of current struggles, and celebrates the fierce spirit of Mexican resistance, past and present.”—
In These Times

To Die in Mexico

Dispatches from Inside the Drug War

John Gibler

Open Media Series
City Lights Books

Copyright © 2011 by John Gibler

All Rights Reserved

Cover design by Pollen

Cover photograph by Rodrigo Cruz. Inside a car where a man was gunned down by assassins in Guerrero, Mexico.

The Open Media Series is edited by Greg Ruggiero and archived by

the Tamiment Library, New York University.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gibler, John.

To die in Mexico: dispatches from inside the drug war / John Gibler.

p. cm. — (Open media series)

 ISBN 978-0-87286-517-4

1. Drug traffic—Mexico. 2. Drug control—Mexico. 3. Drug traffic—United States. 4. Drug control—United States. I. Title. II. Series.

HV5840.M4G53 2011



City Lights Books are published at the City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133

Visit our website:

Morir en México
, (To Die in Mexico), by Antonio Helguera. Published in Mexico by
La Jornada
on March 15, 2010. The gravestones read clockwise from the left: “She must have been into something; It was a gang feud; They murdered amongst themselves; What was he doing at that hour?; It was a settling of accounts; She dressed provocatively; Who knows what he was getting into; She was a whore.”


Silence demands that its enemies disappear suddenly and without a trace.

—Ryszard Kapuscinski

they pass beyond the edge of anything credible. Who would believe, for example, that the warden of a state prison would let convicted killers out at night and loan them official vehicles, automatic assault rifles, and bulletproof vests, so that they could gun down scores of innocent people in a neighboring state and then quickly hop back over the state line and into prison, behind bars, a perfect alibi? Who would believe that a paramilitary drug-trafficking organization formed by ex−Special Forces of the Mexican Army would kidnap a local cop and torture him into confessing all of the above details about the prisoners’ death squad, videotape the confession, execute the cop on camera with a shot to the heart, and then post the video on YouTube? Who could fathom that the federal attorney general would, within hours of the video-taped confession and execution being posted online, arrest the warden, and then a few days later hold a press conference fully acknowledging that the prisoners’ death squad had operated for months, killing ten people in a bar in January 2010, eight people in a bar in May 2010, and seventeen people at a birthday party in July?

Difficult to believe, but all of it is true.

The city is Torreón, in Coahuila state, which shares a border with Texas. On January 31, 2010, an armed convoy attacked three bars in Torreón, killing ten people and wounding forty. Five months later, on May 15, an armed convoy attacked the inauguration party of a new bar in Torreón, killing eight people and wounding twenty. On July 18, at about 1:30 a.m., an armed convoy pulled up to a private birthday party at the Quinta Italia Inn in Torreón. Five men wearing bulletproof vests and carrying AR-15 assault rifles crashed into the party hall, shooting indiscriminately. They killed seventeen people, including Carlos Antonio Mota Méndez, who was celebrating his thirty-first birthday, his brother, Héctor José, and four members of the hired band, Ríos. They wounded another eighteen people. After each massacre the killers drove back across the Durango-Coahuila state line to the Centro de Readaptación Social de Gómez Palacio, the Gómez Palacio prison, or “Social Re-adaptation Center.” Prison director Margarita Rojas Rodríguez had left instructions for the prisoners to be allowed back inside without a fuss.

But no one would have believed this. The drug war body count rose, headlines tabulated the dead at each massacre scene, and federal investigators speculated that the bar owners must have had some links to organized crime. The dead, somehow, must have been dirty. And then on Thursday, July 23, 2010, someone posted a video online that was quickly reposted on a website called

You may want to look away.

The video begins with three men in the frame—the image is a little shaky, the resolution low. Two men stand with AR-15 assault rifles, wearing T-shirts, military vests loaded with clips, and what look like stylized solid-black hockey masks that cover their faces from beneath the chin to above the forehead. The third man, between them, is on his knees, shirtless, hands tied behind his back. Only his face and part of his torso are visible in the frame. A voice off camera asks, “What is your name?” The kneeling man responds, “Rodolfo Nájera.”

Nájera’s face is deformed. The swelling under his left eye makes it look as if a rock had been surgically implanted under his skin. His left ear is only half attached. Blood streams from this ear and down his chest. Nájera looks at the camera and answers quickly and precisely all questions. He knows the men with the camera will kill him.

“What do you do?” the voice from off camera asks.

“I am a Lerdo police officer,” Nájera responds.

He speaks with difficulty. His voice seems unnaturally low, in contrast to the voice off camera that enunciates clearly, forcefully, and calmly, with the articulation of one accustomed to exercising authority.



“Whom do you work for?”

Nájera pauses for a beat. “For the Pirate.”

“Who are those?”

“Some Lerdo pushers.” Nájera uses the term
, which comes from the English term pusher and refers to street dealers.

The video has been edited; it cuts in and out. The trails of blood that run down Nájera’s chest multiply and elongate each time the image jumps forward in time. The off-camera voice asks who controls the runners. The Pirate. He asks whom the Pirate works for. Nájera says the Delta.

“Who is the Delta?”

“A guy in the prison.”

Nájera is developing a twitch, his head jerks to the right and back.

“What is the Delta’s name?”

“Daniel Gabriel.”

“And this guy, what’s his deal? What’s his job? What does he do?”

“He sends the killers out to murder people.”

“What’s he doing at the prison?”

“He got busted with drugs and guns.”

“He’s a prisoner?”


“How often does he leave the prison?”

“Everyday after eight at night.”

“Who lets him leave?”

“The warden.”

“What is the warden’s name?”

“I don’t know her name.”

There is a pause and you can hear voices in the background. You can hear other voices that sound as if they are coming through radios, police radios. You can hear the wind blowing into the camera’s microphone and see the wind shaking the tree branches in the background. The man to Nájera’s left in a blue T-shirt looks down to the ground and shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again, then looks into the camera. He is wearing a baseball cap turned backward under his mask. He is several inches shorter than the man on the right, and seems thin, pale, and very young.

The off-camera voice asks for names, nicknames, and ranks of the police and government officials that provide protection to the prison death squad. Nájera struggles, but provides a name each time the voice asks, “And who else?” At this point the camera zooms in on Nájera’s face. His right eye is swollen shut. There are bruises, cuts, and burn marks across his face. Nájera provides another name and is met instantly with the same question, “And who else?” He pauses, twitches. The man in the blue T-shirt to his left looks from the camera down at him, then calmly reaches out to his semi-detached ear and folds it down. Nájera provides another name. And then another, and another, and another until the camera cuts.

In the next frame Nájera is out of breath, struggling. The man in the blue T-shirt is standing slightly behind him, pointing his rifle at his back. The voice asks who is this Güero Pollero. (The nickname means roughly “Blond Smuggler.”) Nájera says that he is the one who goes out with the death squads to kill people in bars in Torreón. The voice asks who sent him and why. Nájera says that a man named Arturo, who is rumored to have fled to Guadalajara, sent the Güero Pollero to bring heat down on the Zetas in Torreón. Here you can hear another voice off camera to Nájera’s left, coaching him. The men with the guns are Zetas, members of the ex-Special Forces cartel that has been the main target of federal anti-narcotics operations throughout President Felipe Calderón’s drug war. In a brief pause while Nájera answers the why question, the voice off camera to the left nudges him on, saying, “To bring heat down on us.” Nájera follows the cue quickly, speaking over the off-camera voice, “To bring heat down on the Zetas.”

The voice leading the interrogation asks, “Who killed the people at the Quinta Italia?”

Nájera, “The same, Güero Pollero and his people, following Arturo’s orders.”

Nájera goes on to describe how the killers leave the prison heavily armed, wearing bulletproof vests, driving prison vehicles. You can hear an off-camera voice whisper advice to whoever is leading the interview. Nájera describes how the prison warden allows the killers to leave prison grounds, knowing full well that they are going out to murder. He repeats the details several times: the men leaving the prison at night in prison vehicles, with prison weapons, to kill innocent people in the territory of the Zetas, and the warden allowing it all to take place.

The video is nine minutes and fifty-four seconds long. At 9:21, the frame cuts and it is suddenly night. The men with guns are on opposite sides of Nájera. A loud mechanical noise fills the microphone, a generator perhaps, or a truck engine. Headlights and flashlights illuminate Nájera’s beaten face. The blood running down his chest is now one thick current. A voice off camera says that those of “the last letter” don’t commit acts of barbarism or kill innocent people. The voice asks why then the Gómez Palacio gang would kill the innocent in their territory. The voice asks if they prefer to kill innocent people because they can’t face “the last letter,” the Zetas, or Z’s. Nájera responds, “Yes sir.”

“Because they can’t defeat us?”

“No sir.”

The frame cuts again. Nájera kneels alone now. Two shadows step away, one to each side. A shot rings out and he pitches forward.

The video was posted on a Thursday night. The next morning federal officers detained Margarita Rojas Rodríguez, the warden of the prison in Gómez Palacio, and three other prison officials. On Sunday, the spokesperson for the federal attorney general’s office announced the arrests and the death squad’s responsibility for the recent massacres in Torreón but did not mention the video posted on

a death with no name
A death that extinguishes who you were along with who you are. A death that holds you before the world as a testament only to death itself. All that is left is your body destroyed in a vacant lot, hanging from a highway overpass, or locked in the trunk of a car. Your name is severed, cut off, and discarded. The only history that remains attached to your body is that of your particular death: bullet holes, burns, slashes, contusions, limbs removed. The executioners of this killing ground destroy each person twice. First they obliterate your world; if you are lucky, they do so with a spray of bullets. But then, once you are gone, they will turn your body from that of a person into that of a message. You will appear as a flash on a television screen. You will be printed on tabloid front pages in full color and strung up on the sides of newspaper stands in cities across the country, your disfigured body hanging next to soccer players and bikini-clad models. You will lose your name. You will lose your past, the record of your loves and fears, triumphs and failures, and all the small things in between. Those who look upon you will see only death.

But names travel too far to be entirely erased or destroyed. Names always leave a trace. Even when they kill you, dismantle your body, or bind it in duct tape, and leave your remains on the side of the road, your name waits.

José Humberto Márquez Compeán. He was found like so many: tortured, killed, wrapped in a blanket (
is the term of art), and discarded in a vacant lot on the edge of San Nicolás de los Garza, near Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico. At first glance he would appear to be only another death to add to the body count of 22,000 drugland executions in Mexico between December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) launched his self-proclaimed “war” against drug traffickers, and late March 2010, when a local reporter photographed Márquez Compeán’s body lying lifeless and bound across a dry scratch of earth. Such were the facts: death, a beaten corpse, a barren field in San Nicolás de los Garza. Behind these facts one can glimpse the intentions of those who killed Compeán and dumped his body there: to end his life and turn his body into a nameless mass of death.

But there was a glitch. The reporter assigned to the story saw beyond the message of death. By sheer coincidence Francisco Cantú, a 37-year-old reporter for
in Monterrey, recognized a coffee-colored shirt with an orange letter B stitched over the chest. Cantú had seen the shirt and the man wearing it, José Humberto Márquez Compeán, only hours before. In fact, he had photographed Compeán only hours before.

Cantú had just started his shift at 5:30 a.m. that Monday morning when his editor told him there was a shoot-out in San Nicolás de los Garza. Cantú hit the road, but then got a call while he was en route. There was no gun battle, but rather a body found in an abandoned lot, his editor said. He might as well take the picture anyway. Cantú kept driving and was the first reporter on the scene. “I took the first photos from a distance,” Cantú told me, “and then I slowly got closer to see if the authorities would say anything.” When he noticed that the police were not paying attention, he walked right up to the body to take more photographs. “I take the photo and when I look at it and I see the B on the shirt I say, Oh damn! This is the same guy from yesterday.”

To confirm his observation, he went back to his car and opened his laptop to review and compare images from the day before. “I can see that it is the same person,” Cantú said, “because of the T-shirt, he had that same brown shirt, but his face was all beaten. His face was messed up.” The man lying dead on Monday morning in San Nicolás de los Garza was the same person, José Humberto Márquez Compeán, that Cantú had photographed on Sunday afternoon in perfectly good health. In the first set of images, Compeán is walking with his hands tied behind him, looking down, an expression that appears caught between stoicism and dread on his face. Soldiers from the Mexican navy surround him, and then lead him into the back of a navy pickup truck. Compeán is in military custody, handcuffed, uninjured, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. It is Sunday afternoon. He would next appear before the world on Monday morning as a dead body in a field.

Compeán’s wife, Hilda Rodríguez, told Cantú and his colleagues at Milenio Televisión, a branch of Multimedios, “I saw him in the news, how they put him in a police truck and then a helicopter, and then he turns up dead. Why did they kill him? Who killed him? I want justice. I have three children.”

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