The cinematic nature of one reporter's take on violent new extremes in Mexican drug wars begs for scrutiny. Prefacing a Senate call to reduce arms trafficking to Mexico by a few hours, the Houston Chronicle's Dane Schiller described the chilling account of a member of the Zetas cartel who asked only to be referred by the apparent pseudonym "Juan" that combines Scarface, Saw and, unexpectedly, Gladiator:
If what he says is true, gangsters who make commonplace beheadings, hangings and quartering bodies have managed an even crueler twist to their barbarity. Members of the Zetas cartel, [Juan] says, have pushed passengers into an ancient Rome-like blood sport with a modern Mexico twist that they call, "Who is going to be the next hit man?"
"They cut guys to pieces," he said.
The victims are likely among the hundreds of people found in mass graves in recent months, he said.
Over the past few weeks, authorities have discovered a number of mass graves in and around San Fernando in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The road between the state capital Ciudad Victoria and Brownsville, Texas runs through San Fernando, and locals now call it either "the highway of death" or "the devil's road." The highway is often empty now as many bus companies cancelled routes after repeated kidnappings from buses hijacked by the Zetas and other cartels. According to Juan's account and local authorities, the kidnappings served as a means for recruiting new gang members, but intimidation techniques have gotten out of hand.
"It would be more for amusement," Peter Hanna, a retired FBI officer who investigated Mexican drug cartels, told the Chronicle. "I don't see it as intimidation or a successful way to recruit people." He added, "The stuff you would not think possible a few years ago is now commonplace … It used to be you'd find dead bodies in drums with acid; now there are beheadings."
To corroborate Juan's story, Schiller points to Borderland Beat, a blog run by a former law enforcement officer in the Southwest United States, who published a more detailed account of the death battles in April. We talked to the blog's founder, Alejandro Marentes, who explained that a writer sent him the story which had been published on a blog in Spanish, and Marentes translated and republished it on Borderland Beat. After the post got some pickup on the internet, Marentes added this editor's note: "To this point we have not been able to confirm its validity, we publish it for information purposes and for you to formulate your own conclusions."
It's easy to see why some readers might find the story unbelievable. From the post on Borderland Beat:
With that he ordered several of his men who were sitting inside another SUV to bring the sledgehammers and the men gave a sledgehammer to each man. "Ok listen up assholes, the trick is this, we are going to pair you in twos, and you are going to fuck up each other with the sledgehammers, and the one who survives will join us in our work and you get to live, while the one who does not survive, well you get fucked," he said sarcastically making his men laugh out loud. The passengers were stunned by the instructions from a narco who resembled more a nazi than anything else, they could not believe this was happening to them. Everyone grabbed their sledgehammer and took their position with their pair. They stared at each other with a look of pure fear. "Ok, fuck each other up," ordered El 40. […]
[After the fight] Comandante 40 gathered all the Zetas and said, "that is all for fun and game for tonight cabrones. Bring me all the winners" and they brought all the men who had killed their partner with the sledgehammer and El 40 said," Welcome to the Special Forces of the Zeta, the other military."
"It's hard to get any type of confirmation from anything that's happening there," Marentes told The Atlantic Wire. "We have some people in Mexico that have good contacts, but many times we have a hard time."
Marentes continued by describing a lack of journalists on the ground in the San Fernando area. Most journalists don't dare enter without police or military protection, but even then, many are threatened if not attacked. We contacted Dane Schiller, the Chronicle reporter, to find out more about how he found his source, he asked not to be interviewed. "I don’t want to make the story about me and my efforts," Schiller said in an email.
However, the original report is written like fiction. Victims from bus kidnappings--many of whom are illegal immigrants passing through Mexico to the United States--have reportedly been rescued from gang members, but there's no indication that the post's author was one of them. (Nevermind whether or not they managed to survive and tell the tale, if it's true.)
We asked Marentes, who's been covering the cartel wars for years, about his gut feeling on whether the reports of gladiatorlike battles could be true based on precedent in the Mexican drug wars. "The story's realistic," Marentes said. "All you've gotta do is look at what's going on with the brutality of the violence over there--I can see that happening very easily over there."