Last year, #Hashtags featured an essay by the Mexican-American artist and writer Robert Gomez on the relationship between online images of drug cartel violence and Aztec rituals, which we rerun today in light of the recent escalation in Mexican cartel violence. The discovery Sunday of 49 mutilated bodies on a highway near Monterrey, Mexico, brings this month’s total to almost a hundred. Analysts speculate that the ramp up has to do with turf wars between the Zeta and Sinaloa cartels, and that the victims were probably not affiliated with either gang, but chosen at random, perhaps even from migrant populations. Critics call the violences “irrational” and “mindless,” but we found ourselves convinced by Gomez’s argument that such violent public spectacles have a much longer lineage.
Please be aware that this article contains graphic representations of violence. The author and the editors of the site would like to make clear that we are not interested in exploiting the sensational qualities of these images, but rather in their complex social roles.
As Mexican-American, I am awed by Mexico’s cartel warfare, and by the seeming American ambivalence towards it. My first experience with Narco-violence started where you are now: at the computer, as I read through online articles about drug trafficking. Eventually, I came to El Blog del Narco. Hosted by an anonymous college student, El Blog del Narco claims to democratically post videos, pictures, and stories from anyone with information on the drug war. The moment remains vivid to me—it was a Tuesday afternoon, and the San Francisco fog was just beginning to roll across the sky. I clicked upon an article. At first, I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing. It looked like two bodies piled on top of each other, except the skulls were the color of pus. I scrolled down, and saw what looked like a flattened mask of a face. I realized the image was of two flayed men, one with his heart removed. I felt sick. This was real. There were no movie crews creating this image—no costume designers, no makeup. It was achingly raw. And yet in the same moment, I realized that I had seen this before, not in life, but in images of sixteenth-century Aztec ritual sacrifice.
In pre-Columbian Aztec society, ritual human sacrifice saturated all social functions. Five hundred years later, Mexico is in the midst of yet another wave of theatrical human violence. Digitally propagated Narco-execution videos have become a tool for warfare, assuming the role of systematic violence once reserved for elaborate rituals and architecture. New media facilitates a new experience of the spectacle of torture, and Mexico’s drug cartels are developing a theater for their executions comprised of computer-interfaced viewers and digital cameras. In doing so, they have also shifted traditional power relationships between image, warfare, and violence.
“Narco” is an abbreviated term that describes anything associated with Mexican drug cartels, including Narco-torture, Narco-santos [saints], and Narco-corridos [ballads]. There are even several Narco-novelas, or Narco-“soap operas,” primarily focused upon female cartel leaders, who glamorize, dramatize, and sexualize the consumption of Narco-culture. Are drug cartels, or Narcos, in Mexico researching Aztec violence for cues on how to conduct their own?
A more compelling question is how the spectacle of torture functions in both societies, and how its mediation transforms it into a weapon for social control. In The Origins of Violence in Mexican Society, historical sociologist Christina Johns argues that the development of Aztec human sacrifice was a form of state terror. The tzompantli was not simply a religious fetish, but a spectacle integral to the maintenance of power relationships between the ruling Aztec empire and its tributary subjects. The empire literally elevated the theater of violence to the sky, using large pyramids and elaborate ceremonies, and physical presence was of the utmost importance. Images of this violence were casual afterthoughts compared to such visceral, physical experiences.
The image above, Aztec Tzompantli, c.1545–1590, is from the Florentine Codex, a historical document made for the king of Spain forty years after the conquest of the Aztec empire. Very few people have ever seen the actual document—the image we see here just happened to be on a single piece of parchment, and was reproduced in modern times. To be subject to the Aztec system of torture, you had to be present at the altar where the subjects, stretched over large stones, had their still-pumping hearts removed by priests. Presence was power.
Both Aztec and Narco-warfare capitalize on the spectacle of expressive violence, or lethal violence whose primary utilitarian end is the expression of power itself. For the Narcos, however, the image has assumed the role once reserved for elaborate rituals and pyramids. We no longer have to be present to have a visceral, physical reaction to violence. We can feel sick at our desks, in front of our computers. Cartels are creating images and live action videos of heart removal, decapitation, and dismemberment to be disseminated over the Internet, and these images are vastly superior to images of Aztec violence in terms of immediacy, accessibility, and rendering. Perhaps ten people and the cameraperson witness a Narco-execution in real life, but hundreds of thousands have since witnessed it in digital space. I do not mean to say that the Internet creates this violence. Narcos will continue to dehumanize bodies with or without it, as has long been done in human conflict. My interest is simply in how Narco-execution videos have become weapons of Narco-warfare.
The twenty or so execution videos I have personally seen all share a common theater and script. Several masked and uniformed interrogators stand around the captive. They all wear black baklavas in the style of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. Their leader interrogates the victim. The victim answers all questions, and at the end, the leader executes him. It is shocking how physically difficult the work of cutting someone to pieces is.
The first execution I witnessed was that of Manuel Méndez Leyva. I say witnessed, but I was not physically present. The audio-visual, time-based format of the online video, however, made me feel that I was. It happened in a small, white room. There were four uniformed men, dressed like commandos, standing around a bald man. All four men had AK-47s in front of them. Manuel had duct tape wrapped around his head, covering his eyes. His hands were also duct-taped together, and his shirt was off. He had a large belly and a mustache. He and the leader played question-and-answer for seven minutes. His answers were smooth, the questions were regular. I remember asking myself, was this scripted? Did they rehearse these questions? At the end of the seven minutes, the leader tells him, “Thank you. Now, you are going to leave here.”
The leader: “Now it is time for you to leave.”
It seems like Manuel did not know what was going to happen, because as they pulled his head back, he calmly put his forearms in front of him, covering his face. His throat made a sucking sound as the broad knife hacked at his neck.
Narco-execution videos are directed towards opposing cartels. They name their opponents directly. Manuel Méndez Leyva supposedly worked for Los Zetas. Sometimes, cartels direct their interrogations to the public. San Juana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan was executed for being an extortionist, and her interrogators spoke generally to the people of Juárez. The video of her execution was placed on YouTube and through repeated postings received more than 500,000 hits.
The cartels compete with their videos, attempting to best each other. This competition in digital space accelerates dehumanization in physical space. The executions are not traditional warfare, and do not serve to gain territory or material. In the same way that the Aztecs went through the extra effort of capturing—not killing—their enemies, so too must any cartel that wants to produce an execution video. Aztecs mediated their violence through systematized rituals and elevated platforms; Narcos mediate their violence through digital recordings and digital platforms.
Why should Mexico’s economy of violence matter to us sitting in front of our computer screens in the United States? To begin with, the vast majority of drugs trafficked in Mexico are consumed in the U.S. In the past three years, there have been more than 40,000 violent deaths attributed to drug trafficking. Ninety percent of all weapons confiscated from cartel members come from a small number of registered shops in states with minimal gun-control, like Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Hitmen for the Linea cartel in Juárez, Mexico, are paid 300 dollars a month, no matter how many people they kill. They are not paid in Mexican pesos.
If we can return to the comparison of Aztec Mexico to Narco-Mexico, in the Aztec empire, thousands were sacrificed to ensure the rising of the sun each day. A pantheon of gods justified the integration of violence into society. What can we distill this ritualized belief system into? Power. The Aztecs were an empire that subsisted on tribute and subjugation, and the spectacle of violence justified that power. What can we translate as power today in Narco-Mexico? Dollars, drugs, weapons, and Narco-culture. Today, Mexican cartels sacrifice dozens daily, but to what end?