A War Fought by Assassins: Ioan Grillo on Mexico’s Crime Scenes

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

This extract from Ioan Grillo’s new book “El Narco” features reporting from the type of crime scene that is all too common in today’s Mexico, where the slaying of five police at a stop light only makes a brief item in local newspapers.

“El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” features reporting from the frontline of Mexico’s drug war. The following excerpt is set in Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa, the northwestern state that is home to the Sinaloa Cartel and is known as the cradle of Mexican drug smuggling.

“A killer arrived in Hell,
To inspect his work,
Without knowing that his dead,
Were already waiting for him,
He just went through the door,
And there began his end.”

– Grupo Cartel, “A Killer Arrived in Hell,”

Twenty seconds of shooting. Four hundred and thirty-two bullets. Five dead policemen.

Four of the corpses sprawl over a shiny-new Dodge Ram pickup truck that has been pierced by so many caps it resembles a cheese grater. The cadavers are twisted and contorted in the unnatural poses of the dead; arms arch backward over spines, legs spread out sideways; the pattern of bodies that fall like rag dolls when bullets strike.

After arriving at too many murder scenes, I often felt numb staring at the lead-filled flesh spread out on the concrete, dirt roads and car seats. The images all blur into one. But then little details come back: the twists of elbows over backs, heads over shoulders. It is these patterns that come into my mind when I think about the murder scenes; and these patterns then filter into bad dreams when I am sleeping in a bed a thousand miles away.

This particular crime scene is on a sweaty December evening in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The state policemen had hit a red stop light next to a shopping center when the triggermen attacked. BANG. BANG. BANG. The assassins shoot from the side and back unleashing bullets in split seconds. A customized Kalashnikov with a circular clip can unload 100 rounds in 10 seconds. This is lightning war. People tend to shudder at the fact that Mexican gangsters have rocket-propelled grenades. But the AK is far more lethal.

The fifth dead policeman is a muscular forty-eight year old commander laying ten feet away from the pickup, bathing in his own blood. His right hand is stretched upward clasping a 9-mm pistol, creating a death pose that could have been set up for a Hollywood movie. When the hit men sprayed, the commander had managed to jump out and run, pistol in hand. But the killers followed him with their shower of bullets, finishing him off by the edge of the sidewalk.

The commander has hard features, with high cheekbones and a broad nose over a finely trimmed moustache. His eyes are wide open staring at the Heavens. The left side of his face, just above his neck, is ripped open by a Kalashnikov bullet, distorting his visage with a gaping hole. Up close, it somehow looks like a rubber mask rather than the face of a real human being. Death is hard to comprehend.

We arrive 10 minutes after the shooting and the police have yet to cordon off the area or cover the bodies with plastic sheets. Soon the block will be swarming with soldiers manning mounted machine guns, ski-masked homicide police and forensic teams. But for now we can walk all over the bullet-shells and stick our cameras to the faces of the victims.

A crowd of onlookers thickens on the street. Four young teenagers breathlessly analyze the attack. “That one is a Kalashnikov bullet. That one is from an AR15,” says a skinny kid in a baseball cap, pointing at a long silvery shell next to a shorter gold one. Besides them, middle aged couples, old men, and mothers with small infants all gawk at the morbid display. The local press corps huddles together on the sidewalk, checking photos on viewfinders to make sure they have the best images for the police pages. They are relaxed, cheery; this is their daily bread.

Thirty minutes after the attack, a battered Ford Focus speeds through the crowd and screeches to a halt against the police tape. The wife of one of the victims jumps out and screams hysterically at the olive-clad soldiers guarding the scene. Her swinging arms are held back by her brother, his eyes red with tears. A few feet away, I grab the shoulder of my cameraman and pull him away to make sure he doesn’t get a smack from an angry grieving relative. It is only when I see the pained look on their faces that the loss of human life really sinks in. The screams show the suffering of those who knew the man in his best and worst moments, as a husband at the altar, as a father dancing with his daughter on her 15th birthday, as a lover in the dark of the night.

Another day. Another murder. In the Mexican Drug War, such violence has become so common that the slaying of five police at a stop light was a brief tucked in local crime sections. The victims become more numbers for newspaper and government tallies, their human stories and struggling families soon forgotten.

These ambush-style killings account for the vast majority of deaths in the conflict. They are known as “ejecuciones” or executions. Even the name is chilling; it explains that someone has ordered a death sentence on the target. The gunmen rarely miss. Mexico has no death penalty, but the worst days have seen more than 60 “executions” — two dozen in Ciudad Juarez, more sprinkled over Michoacan, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Durango, Tijuana. The next highest number of war victims are people who are kidnapped, murdered and have their bodies dumped. Deaths in shootouts account for a small percentage. This is a war fought by assassins. And their hit-and-run tactics are extremely difficult to defend against.

Ioan Grillo’s “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” published by Bloomsbury Press on November 1.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+