Mexico Drug Lords Live On in Narco-Graveyard

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An elaborate cemetery in northwest Mexico, subject of a new documentary film, points to the ways drug lords continue to display their power and influence, even after death.

The Jardines del Humaya cemetery is the resting place for some of the once-powerful members of the Sinaloa Cartel, in state capital Culiacan. The site is known for its elaborate mausoleums, decorated with ivory and gold, some equipped with electricity, telephone lines and stereo systems.

A new documentary, titled “El Velador” (The Watchman), recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, observed the comings and goings at the cemetery for nearly a year. The film is among three Mexican movies shown at Cannes this year which address issues of drug violence and trafficking in the country.

Clips from “El Velador” show graves draped with pictures of the deceased, where family members come to leave flowers or mop the cement gravestones. In one clip, snippets from a news broadcast are overheard, describing the grisly murders that took place that day in Sinaloa, adding that a popular “narcocorrido,” or drug ballad, band had to cancel a performance due to the bloodshed. (See trailer below.)

Many of Sinaloa’s once-powerful drug traffickers now have mausoleums in Jardines del Humaya. Arturo Beltran Leyva, who led a former faction of the Sinaloa Cartel now known as the Beltran Leyva Organization, was buried here after dying in a shoot-out with Mexican marines in 2009. A few months after his funeral, rivals dumped a decapitated head near the grave, with a flower tucked behind the victim’s ear.

In an ironic twist, Beltran’s former rival Ignacio Coronel Villareal, alias “Nacho Coronel,” a head of the Sinaloa Cartel killed by the army in mid-2010, lies nearby in the cemetery, alongside Villareal’s nephew.

The older generation of Sinaloan drug traffickers have also built shrines in the graveyard.·Here are the remains of Lamberto Quintero Payan, a marijuana trafficker killed in 1976, who allegedly inspired one of the first-ever narcocorridos. Also buried in the cemetery are the wife and two children of Hector Palma Salazar, alias “El Guero,” one of the original leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel alongside Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo.” Palma’s family were kidnapped and killed in Venezuela in 1989. On the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, surviving members of the Palma family decorate the children’s graves with toys.

Film director Natalia Almador said in an interview that the film is intended to call attention to the ostentatious graves, in contrast to the sites of “utter anonymity and oblivion” where other victims of the drug war are buried. An estimated 5,400 people are thought to have disappeared in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon was elected, a vivid symptom of the country’s declining security. The discovery of mass graves in Mexico containing hundreds of unidentified bodies supports Almador’s argument that the·memorials to Beltran Leyva and Nacho Coronel remain visible symbols of the socioeconomic inequality which, in some ways, is the driving force behind the conflict. In marked contrast to Jardines del Humaya, in other municipal cemeteries in Mexico bodies are sometimes buried three to a grave.

The ornate tombs in Jardines del Humaya appear to fall in the same category as other luxury items used by some factions of the Mexican cartels, which have long fascinated the public. Diamond-plated guns, zoos full of exotic animals, purebred racehorses and designer cars: these are all goods used by cartel leaders to express wealth, power and authority. The mausoleums take it one step further, continuing to flaunt the economic power of the drug lords even after their passing.

To some degree, this tendency towards excess — visible in the large and gaudy tombs — can also be seen in the “narco-tanks” and the frequent, brutal massacres now registered across Mexico. As the Mexican cartels split into rival factions, incidents of extreme violence began to rise, as the cartels appear to try to outdo each other in the savagery of their killings. It is no longer enough to face rivals with armored cars; homemade tanks are needed. Rivals are not just killed, but decapitated, quartered, dumped in acid or hung off bridges.

This extreme use of force not only suggests that social restraints on violence are long gone: it indicates that language of excess is the cartels’ preferred mode of communication. How else to make themselves heard, when there are so many opponents fighting for a piece of the profits? In a way, the ornate stylings of the “narco tombs” are an expression of this same excess, which the cartels have adopted — in terms of violence, weapons and materialism — to survive in a crowded marketplace.

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