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A Fierce and Violent Land

An excerpt from Sergio González Rodríguez’s El hombre sin cabeza

Sergio González Rodríguez (1950–2017) was a Mexican writer and journalist best known for his influential reporting on the  femicides that overtook Ciudad Juárez beginning in the 1990s. Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert), his 2002 book on the Juárez killings, served as a key source for Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, in which a version of González Rodríguez appears as a character. His other works include Los bajos fondos (The Lower Depths), a study of Mexico city’s demimonde, Campo de Guerra (Field of Battle), a provocative treatise on modern warfare, and Teoría novelada de mí mismo (Novelized Theory of Myself), an experimental memoir. Though he wrote several novels, his reputation rests on his crónicas, a flexible genre of literary nonfiction that he reinvented to meet the urgency of Mexico’s convulsive entry into the twenty-first century.

In 2009, González Rodríguez published El hombre sin cabeza (The Headless Man), a meditation on decapitation, then an increasingly common feature of the drug war in Mexico. The book showcases his various skills: a knack for gum-shoe investigation, political and theoretical acumen, knowledge of philosophy and art history, and not least, imaginative reach. In the following excerpt, translated into English for the first time, González Rodriguez surveys the violence that has engulfed the coastal state of Guerrero, later to become notorious for the disappearance of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. He then travels inland to Morelos, where his grandparents witnessed the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution, and where drug-war carnage now blazes a trail from the coast to the interior. 

—Will Noah


The director of a local newspaper tells me that Acapulco is no longer the glamorous place that it was half a century ago, when the port was frequented by Hollywood film stars—Orson Welles, John Huston, Rita Hayworth, Johnny Weissmuller, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, María Félix, as well as John and Jacqueline Kennedy, the oilman J. Paul Getty. And Elvis Presley, who starred there in the film Fun in Acapulco (1963). The rise of the communists in Cuba, who shut down the island as a territory for debauchery, gave the Mexican seaport its boom. Soon the big hotel chains, the restaurants, nightlife districts, and luxury developments moved in.

While we’re traveling along Costera avenue, he points out the hotels built at the edge of the beach, in which little activity can be observed. “There’s a very high hotel vacancy rate,” he explains: “the violence put an end to the old Acapulco. Drug trafficking is what animates this city now; now that their investments are everywhere, the narcos are in charge,” he adds, pensive. He tells me that prostitution has become a principal source of work for the poorest young people, and he turns toward the mountains behind the bay, where the slums lie. I tell him that I’ve heard that in those neighborhoods there are even mobile brothels, trucks where patrons can drink and watch nude dancers move around a pole while music plays at full volume. A miniature Bangkok in the midst of brake slams, potholes, steeply slanted streets. “That’s not the worst of it . . .” he falls silent. As in the country’s other tourist destinations, the sexual exploitation of minors, male and female, spreads all over. Thousands. The prostitutes, including children, are as cheap as a gram of cocaine: ten or twenty dollars.

A flood of corpses adorned with written messages was unleashed, while corporal messages that dispensed with words multiplied.

Downhill in the cathedral, whose plaza is across from the bay’s promenade, the saints and virgins yawn at the absence of parishioners, the flowers withering in their vases. To one side, children in shorts and plastic sandals give out flyers for a pizzeria that just opened its doors. I head back to the Mirador and, incidentally, step on a brownish stain, now nearly faded, that reminds me of the blood of a local government official who was killed at the doors of the hotel just days ago. He arrived at eight to have breakfast, as was his habit, and two men opened fire on him with 9mm-caliber weapons. More than ten shots hit the windows and doors of his car. Splinters of glass and metal flew everywhere. The victim ran, wounded, trying to escape, babbling in search of aid. He was left stiff at the entrance to the hotel. I retrace my steps and try to find evidence of the bloodstain, the criminal choreography. Nothing of it is left, they’ve washed it away. People die and everyone hurries to forget. That’s how it is on the coast, they tell me, that’s how it is all over the place.

That killing was part of a series of crimes that have continued up to today in Acapulco, and whose victims include criminals, police officers, civil servants, businessmen, a journalist,[1] intelligence agents. The war between drug traffickers reached its climax here with the appearance of the carved-up remains of bodies, and with the decapitations. What had once been secret turned into a display of explicit challenges between the opposing factions. A flood of corpses adorned with written messages was unleashed, while corporal messages that dispensed with words multiplied. When two people were killed in Costa Grande, the hit men even issued a warning against using tinted car windows, to avoid mix-ups. The masters of the night get lost in their own domain, and can’t even tell themselves apart.

Hotel Casablanca in Acapulco, 1940 | Flickr

Acapulco, like the entire state to which it belongs, named Guerrero in honor of a hero of the independence movement who became president of the country, has the aspect of a fierce and violent land. In its pre-Cortesian antiquity, it was known as Cihuatlán, a Nahuatl word meaning “a place close to women.” Various tribes lived there, among whom stood out the Purépecha, the Chontal, the Mixtecs. And the Yope, always rebellious, who were nearly wiped out by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. During the colonial period, Guerrero was a transit zone for commerce coming from China via the Philippines, then a Spanish possession. A mountainous territory with contrasting zones of fertility amid hot and semiarid country to the south. The colonial city of Taxco was important, and it was the birthplace of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, a writer of merit who stood out in the Spanish Golden Age as a target of scorn for his contemporaries Francisco de Quevedo and Pedro Calderón de la Barca because he was hunchbacked, hobbled, redheaded, and from New Spain. Regiments of slaves from Africa arrived in the colony in turn. The port of Acapulco, a small village for hundreds of years, only began to grow midway through the twentieth century, when it became the country’s first large-scale tourist development. Soon came visitors, money, fame, legends.

Throughout the century, the Mexican Pacific coast and its communities grew somewhat foreign to the prestigious progress of the country’s center. Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, the coasts of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit, as well as Sinaloa and Sonora, represent another model of growth and culture, more attached to their deep pasts and to nature, less enthusiastic about cosmopolitan distinctions, except for those that they put on for the sake of mercantile complicity. Their regional prides remain nearly unscathed as the years go by. The natives of each province see their roots become emblems of a nationalism circumscribed around them, while remaining somewhat reluctant to adopt anything that comes from outside. They live off of communitarian traditions that have barely been altered by advances in technology and communication. The exercise of violence, the ultimate arbiter of who can claim to belong in these lands, has been shared between central and regional powers and, tied to both, anti-institutional power, whether it be that of left-wing guerrillas[2] or of organized crime. Among the guerrillas, those who weren’t gunned down were tortured to death, or even hurled from the height of a plane off the coast or over a lake. Or their corpses fell in ravines, pits, or wells, so that they would disappear, where no one hears or knows anything.

Four decades ago, the state opened a front on this Pacific coast in a low-intensity war against two enemies: the guerrilla fighters pursuing a revolution that aimed to impose a communist regime on the country, and marijuana planters. The military officials in charge of both operations would end up implicated in drug trafficking. In the coastal territories and inland, in the high mountains, huge expanses of marijuana and poppy have been planted. The exploitation of opium gum, derived from poppy, has supplied the pharmaceutical industry as much as it has the narcosis of addicts in the United States since the first half of the last century.

When I was a child, poppy was grown in some domestic gardens as an ornamental plant. I remember my maternal grandmother at her house in Tlaltenango tending to her poppy flowers, which grew in a wild garden at the edge of a farm amid fruit trees: guavas, sapodillas, oranges, and pomegranates. Tlaltenango, in the vicinity of Cuernavaca, is one of the multiple towns that line the highway from the center of the country to Acapulco. Hernán Cortés went there soon after conquering Tenochtitlan. The first sugarcane mill in the Americas was built in Tlaltenango. Beside where its remains still stood in the form of an arch and other vestiges sat my grandmother’s house, a simple, single-story construction with an interior terrace that preceded the damp, warm garden, which sloped down to a small ravine. What had once been the house’s stables, my grandmother told me, were built on top of the ruins of that inaugural sugar mill. Cortés’s footsteps were on that land.

Every time that I hear a woman cry, I hear my grandmother’s weeping.

The ticking of a slender wooden pendular clock reverberated within the sparsely furnished house’s high walls and ceilings and presided over the silent life of my grandmother, a short-statured mestiza woman with soft, light-brown skin, her grayish hair in old-fashioned braids. My family’s trips to Acapulco usually included a stop in Tlaltenango. Childhood’s journeys tend to repeat themselves indefinitely. The alternating feelings of curiosity, anguish, pleasure, fear, clamor accompany me every time I travel to the Pacific coast. One afternoon in Tlaltenango, my brother showed me the date that was still legible in the ruins of the arch: a figure formed by porous, volcanic stone, the color of coagulated blood, in roman numerals: 1527. It’s the number that I remember. He took me by the hand, and we went up, climbing a wooden staircase supported by the lateral wall that led onto the arch. We walked over the length of that structure with grass growing in its cracks. Even though it was only twelve or fifteen meters high, it was the first time that I registered a malady that would remain with me up to the present: it’s known as height vertigo. Acrophobia: a call from the void, a knot of alternating panic and fascination before the abyss.

My grandmother, Andrea Rodríguez Villalpando, was a benefactor of the Tlaltenango chapel, whose antiquity also dated back to the conquest. She would let us enter the chapel and go up to the roof, on which the battlements were laid out around a small belltower, typical of the first post-Cortés constructions on the new continent. The view extended to the mountains, where it faded out in their uneven orography full of vegetation. The chapel was built like a family prayer room. On the raised platform for the choir, there was a small pipe organ then in disuse, accompanied by the drowsiness of the dust and a few spiderwebs. The walls of the chapel lacked decoration, and only a Christ presided over the altar. It smelled of incense and weeds.

My grandfather grew flowers, vegetables, and fruit in his gardens, which he would bring to the capital to sell every so often. In the years of the armed indigenous struggle against the government, at the beginning of the 1900s, my grandfather was conscripted by the rebels led by Emiliano Zapata, who stole the money he stashed in cans beneath his bed; dozens of gold and silver coins. One of my mother’s sisters, the oldest, then five, died of shock from witnessing the soldiers’ violence. The aunt I never had. A photograph in sepia tones records the four of them before the disaster. Leónidas, that was the name of the girl who died. She had the same name as two decapitated heroes: one Spartan, the other Christian. When the image was taken, she was lost in thought, rubbing a bit of lace on her white dress, forever hiding her gaze from the world of the living.

I don’t know how long my grandfather was forced to stay with that precarious conscript army. Neither my grandmother nor him spoke of those years, of which only scattered echoes lingered in the occasional conversation. She tended to recall a more remote time, her childhood, or her visits to the capital, the parading figure of the president of the Republic, vanquisher of the French army. Her mind chose to look back on order, calm, avoiding, at least in front of the children, any talk of blood, or abuse. She recounted tales of apparitions who rode through cobbled streets after midnight in search of vengeance. With my mother at her side, she would cry, handkerchief in hand, and talk in whispers. Her weeping always intrigued me, I didn’t know why she was crying. All that resounded in my ears was the suspicion of a pain that was deep, telluric, savage. Every time that I hear a woman cry, I hear my grandmother’s weeping. The lament for a loss or an injury that predates the voice of she who weeps. My grandfather was missing part of the ring finger on his right hand. Huddled, the children shared among ourselves the cause revealed by some adult: it was a wound from the civil war. A gunshot had taken off the finger. Many years would pass before I learned another story: the rebels who took him had a custom of cutting a finger off of those who resisted them.

After my grandmother died, we stopped visiting the house. What had been a small village on the way to Cuernavaca and the route to the Pacific became a crowded neighborhood of that city. The house was taken over by family intruders. I’ve been back around there a few times to visit friends. I’ve never gone back to Tlaltenango.

Sergio González Rodríguez. | David Lida

Years ago, a friend of mine living in Cuernavaca married a doctor who was very close to Morelos’s then-governor. The governor’s son would carouse with his friends and seduce young women who came to their parties, where some said that alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine were consumed in excess. One night, that individual shut himself up in the bathroom with a girl. She turned up dead. The governor’s trusted doctor received an urgent call to come verify what had happened. My friend’s husband. The victim’s family objected to the false story that was being fabricated in order to keep the rapist and murderer out of prison. The police were able to cover up the crime, and the government authorities obstructed justice. The governor’s family was untouchable. The city was home to some of the biggest drug traffickers in the country, one of whom owned a mansion next to the governor’s. With the arrival of these criminals, cocaine and marijuana use became widespread, along with shady deals and illicit industries, including kidnapping, extortion, corruption.

The doctor was killed days later by a hit man who put a bullet in him while he was sitting in his car, waiting for someone who had arranged to meet him. It was doubtless an ambush set up to eliminate a compromising witness, but the police contrived a false motive for the crime: a vague insult, a smear against the doctor. They never arrested the murderer. Musical concerts, theatrical productions, literary conferences flourished in the city as never before. That onetime governor and his son can still be seen smiling in the capital’s restaurants. Sometimes the now ex-governor writes articles in the press in which he extols the importance of respect for the law.

The side of the highway from the capital to the Pacific has been a favorite stretch for the military, police, and criminals to dump the bodies of their victims, whether buried or out in open air, where dogs and birds of prey make them disappear. Or they’ve stuffed corpses in steel drums full of cement. Decades ago, a dozen opposition politicians were murdered there. Today the iron crosses that protect their memory are still there to see. The road to the pacific has been a foreboding path.

Over the last twenty years in Mexico, the use of bodies as messages has increased as the activities of drug traffickers have become public. Before, their work was silent and obscure. The violence of drug trafficking gave rise to customs and even rituals with the blood of its victims. Women mutilated while still alive, a nipple bitten off, or a triangular chunk of skin cut out. Corpses tossed into a pit and sprayed with a mixture of lime and acid to hasten their disappearance. Victims murdered by a bullet to the forehead, the ear, or the mouth to indicate a warning to traitors, meddlers, and informers, respectively. These days the killers write the letter Z on their victims’ foreheads as the signature of a criminal group, open their windpipes to pull their tongues through the gashes (they call it a “Colombian necktie”), dismember the bodies and throw the remains in a container that they douse in oil and set on fire until everything’s burned (they call it “the oven”). Other times, they pour the ashes of a victim into a pipe with cocaine. This ritual is known as “smoking the corpse.” Or they leave signs with messages by the heads of the decapitated. At the same time, threats circulate online in which gangs challenge each other, mock and boast about their manliness. They update old corridos or news-reporting songs for contemporary styles. Or they use the web to spread video recordings of murders and decapitating frenzy. Expanding panic.

In the spring of 2006, the mutilated heads of the policemen Mario Núñez and Alberto Ibarra were found along the grating outside a government building in central Acapulco. Weeks earlier, they had participated in a dustup between police and drug traffickers in which two died and around twenty were injured. Among the dead was a criminal boss. Next to the heads, the killers left a sign attached to the wall with plastic tape, with the handwritten warning: “So that you learn some respect.” For years, two criminal groups had maintained a presence in the port, the Juárez Cartel, whose disgruntled members would later be identified by the authorities as the Sinaloa or Pacific Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel. The countrywide struggle between these groups and their respective hit men—one side, from Sinaloa, called Los Pelones or Los Chapos; the other, deserters from an elite squadron of the Mexican Army, Los Zetas del Golfo—had become public.

The head falls into the basket in the same way that the photographer says: “Now I’ve got the photo.”

Around that time, a video circulated on the internet of the interrogation and decapitation of an individual, identified as a member of the Zetas, who confesses to having taken part in an attack on a government office in which a half dozen people died. Titled “Serve your country, kill a Zeta,” the recording shows the victim sitting in a chair, wearing black underwear, while he’s interrogated by two hit men whose hands, covered in black surgical gloves, are all we can see of them. A cruel pantomime. The victim can be heard confessing quietly, hesitatingly, to his participation in the attack, and explaining that he received orders from the head of the criminal group. The letter Z is drawn on the victim’s forehead, and on his back, along with another Z, appears: “Welcome, killer of women and children, follow Ostión.”[3] On one leg is written: “Z-14” and “Lazcano Humer,” which alludes to a leader of the Zetas, Heriberto Lazcano[4], and to someone else, whose code name was Z-14, who would be killed later.[5] “El Hummer” is a Zeta commander named Jaime González Durán, now in prison. At one point, the killers place a wire tied to a metal tube around the victim’s neck and use it as a tourniquet until they decapitate him. The image, which is cut at the moment that his head falls off, instantly changes to display the mutilated body and the head to one side, alone, perpetual, in a recording that will travel around the world.

In relating how the decapitation method of the guillotine functions, Patrick Wald Lasowski writes that the machine’s anonymity, the immobility of the victim, the effect of speed, and the instantaneous character of its operation anticipated and guided the invention of the photographic camera. The head falls into the basket in the same way that the photographer says: “Now I’ve got the photo.” An intangible moment that is only proven by the severed head in the executioner’s raised hand, or the photographer’s photograph. A pure immanence that answers only to itself.

In the case of the contemporary recordings, the images spill into an infinite audiovisual flow. The video camera also has an anonymous intent, but it becomes collective when it introduces its images into the network. The victim is visible as convulsive, captive flesh, subject to mechanical instincts, revulsions, and reflexes before a blade or a tourniquet takes action. A series of slow acts is arranged, subject to ritual pauses unconnected to the relief or catharsis of the spectator facing the ephemeral. An indefinite prolongation of voices in time and space. The film par excellence is the horror film, notes Julia Kristeva. A vertigo that adheres to the spectator, attracts and dissolves them. An impure significance that answers only to something beyond.

In Náhuatl, the word for “to cut someone’s head off” also means “to pick an ear of corn by hand”: quechcotona. Mexican history contains three icons linked to decapitation: the Aztec tzomplantli, or palisades, that held the skulls of victims sacrificed to the gods with obsidian knives; the severed head of the priest Migeul Hidalgo y Costilla, who proclaimed the war of independence at the beginning of the nineteenth century, displayed inside an iron cage by the Spanish troops as a lesson to the rebels; the last century’s revolutionary bandit Francisco Villa, whose grave was desecrated and his corpse decapitated a few years after his death. No one has been able to prove where the head is. A rumor has it that the skull belongs to a collection of the university sect Skull and Bones in the U.S. Another says that it remains buried in the mountains in Mexico. In any case, its memory hangs in the air, passing from here to there, in the imagination of many.

[1] Amado Ramírez Dillanes, a television and radio correspondent killed in 2007. Since 2000, fourteen journalists have been murdered in Guerrero. Aside from Tamaulipas (another fourteen) and Veracruz (twenty-nine), no other state in Mexico has been deadlier for the profession.

[2] In the late sixties and early seventies, peasant guerrilla organizations including the National Revolutionary Civic Association (ANCR) and the Party of the Poor (PDLP) organized an insurgency in Guerrero’s rural communities under the leadership of militant schoolteachers. The army retaliated with a scorched-earth “dirty war” campaign, disappearing hundreds and destroying entire villages.

[3] González Rodríguez does not identify him, but Ostión (“Big Oyster”) is the alias of Zeta commander Israel Nava Cortez. In 2009, the Mexican Secretariat of Public Safety reported that Nava Cortez was killed during a confrontation in Zacatecas. A year later, Proceso reported that his death had been faked, and that he had subsequently orchestrated the escape of fifty-three prisoners from Cieneguillas prison.

[4] In 2012, the Mexican Navy reported that Lazcano had been killed in a firefight in Coahuila. According to the authorities, his body was then stolen from the funeral home where it had been deposited by a squad of gunmen.

[5] Efraín Teodoro Torres, killed in Veracruz in 2007. Immediately after he was buried, armed men broke into the cemetery and carried off his remains.