article

06.08.10

Headless Bodies in Endless War

As Mexico’s drug war leaves a trail of the dead, El Nuevo Alarma! photographs the casualties in gory detail that has the tabloid flying off newsstands. Bryan Curtis on a sick paper for a sick war.

The wretched violence in Mexico has produced at least one winner. With every ritual execution, with every decapitation, the editors of Mexican tabloids like El Nuevo Alarma! (warning: graphic photos) snap into action. Alarma! is Mexico’s most shameless tabloid, like the New York Post with one-100th of the editorial discretion. Since 1963, Alarma! has specialized in publishing graphic photos of Mexico’s dead, and, now, the drug cartels have handed the paper an unending stream of bodies. “ Ellas También,” reads the cover headline of a recent issue, alongside the photo of two youngish women who had been murdered by the cartel that calls itself La Familia. The editor, Miguel Ángel Rodriguez Vazquez, told me the photo piqued his interest, because it’s not every day he sees a woman so casually executed.

The May 17 issue of Alarma! features the head of a middle-aged, mustachioed man on its cover, his eyes closed, his body nowhere to be found.

Reading what Rodriguez calls his “catalog of the bad” is a nauseating experience. But just as the New York Post’s editors were the tone poets of the Big Apple’s ‘80s crack-up (“Headless Body in Topless Bar”), Alarma! offers perhaps the most unflinching forensic view of Mexico’s drug war. It is one thing to read that some of the 20,000 Mexicans have been killed in the fighting since 2006. It is another thing to see them—these headless bodies in an endless war—up close.

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Alarma! is a weekly newspaper. It claims a circulation of 80,000, with 15,000 to 20,000 of those copies sold in the United States—the bulk of them in southern California, Texas and New York. Every week, there’s a fresh stack of gore-packed issues selling at the newsstand inside the West 4th Street subway station in Manhattan. The paper is often placed at the back of the stacks, like Playboy and Penthouse. But one newsman told me the other day that he always sells out of Alarma!.

Since the 1950s, Mexico has had a profitable news beat called nota roja, or the “red news,” so named for its sanguinary qualities. In normal times, nota roja stories might be car accidents or crimes of passion. The 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed 10,000, sent Alarma!’s circulation through the roof: its print run briefly went to 2.5 million, according to Vice magazine. Rodriguez told me the drug war has also been good for business: his circulation is up 20 percent.

Rodriguez, who took his first job at Alarma! in 1981, is a creation of its blood-soaked pages. “I was made at Alarma!,” he told me, “not made in Mexico.” He commands a staff of about 40 would-be Weegees, who are paid to cultivate contacts with police and paramedics so that they show up at a crime scene and get the picture first. Lately, their photos have been pouring in from the flashpoints of the drug war: Michoacán, the home of the narco-religious terrorists La Familia, who once tossed the decapitated heads of five rivals into a discotheque; Ciudad Juárez, the border town the powerful Sinaloa cartel recently took over after a fierce battle; Cancún, where the mayor was indicted last week for allegedly being in cahoots with two different cartels.

To flip through the pictures of Alarma! is to see the evolution of narco violence. “Twenty years ago, when a drug trafficker was executed, it was with a bullet, or they'd throw him out of his car on the highway,” Rodriguez said. The narco weapon of choice was often the cuerno de chivo—an AK-47. “Now,” Rodriguez said, “that is no longer enough.” As Alarma! has documented, cartels torture enemies, light them on fire, decapitate them. The May 17 issue of Alarma! features the head of a middle-aged, mustachioed man on its cover, his eyes closed, his body nowhere to be found. Before the recent drug war, Rodriguez, who has seen more crime-scene photos than a lot of police detectives, had never seen a narco decapitation.

To Rodriguez’s insistence that he does not try to goose circulation, we can roll our eyes. But he’s not the only one being manipulative. Mexico’s drug war is also a battle to dominate the media. Cartels are their own eager publicists. A favorite tactic are narcomantas: banners tied to bridges with messages that taunt the federal government or another cartel. So, too, are the poster board and Sharpie signs left with dead bodies. These days, the corpses in Alarma! carry warning messages. One recent sign, attached to the women who were executed, was inscribed with a threat from the cartel La Familia. Another on the opposite page carried a retort from a rival gang to those pendejos who support La Familia. It is as if the Zodiac Killer and the Unabomber were having an epistolary debate in the newspaper.

Felipe Calderon’s government has used the newspapers as a vehicle for its propaganda, too. As the Los Angeles Times’ Ken Ellingwood noted, the federales celebrate major arrests by parading suspected cartel members in front of the media in a ritual called presentación. It’s like a painfully distended version of the American “perp walk”—the young Mexican suspects look bewildered as photographers snap way.

Last December, when Calderon’s military killed its biggest target to date, the cartel kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the photo of his corpse became a must-see media trophy, like the corpses Uday and Qusay Hussein during the Iraq War. Alarma!, for once, didn’t get the picture. (Rodriguez told me he gave his photographer a gentle chiding.) The photo turned out to be a doozy. When Beltrán Leyva was shown to the press, his body was covered in peso notes and dollar bills, as if his corpse had been bathed in money.

Rodriguez says he immediately knew the photo was staged, and the rest of the press was right behind him. The best case seemed to be that the government, for reasons unknown, was sending a narco-style message to the narcos; the worst case was that the narcos had infiltrated the government and were simply carrying out their usual ritual. (Local forensic examiners were later suspended for tampering with the body.)

None of which is to say that the Alarma! approach should take its place alongside the reporting of respected Mexican outlets like El Universal and Proceso, or the heroically level-headed accounts filed by reporters like William Finnegan of The New Yorker. But when Rodriguez says, “We are telling the story of what’s happening in Mexico,” he is not just peddling a tabloid proprietor’s party line. Alarma! is the story of what’s happening in Mexico—at least, what’s happening to certain people who have fallen under the nimbus cloud of the drug war. In its typically gruesome, exploitative way, Alarma! imparts some understanding, which is one of the jobs of journalism. It’s a sick paper for a sick war.

I asked Rodriguez how he managed to sift through so many images of death. “I am an extraterrestrial,” he replied. He’s on his sixth marriage, which he blames on the perversities of the job. “Look, the people who look at these photos, we’re weird,” Rodriguez said. “I mean, we’re not crazy, we don’t get turned on by blood. … We look at it with moderation, with restraint. We know that [violence] is something serious, but that it happens, that it is reality and that we can’t erase it. Despite everything, I do have feelings.” To show his humanity, he sent me some poems he’d written.

Rodriguez added that he wishes Mexico’s drug war, whatever small profit it has produced for Alarma!, would end. “If it doesn’t happen, well, all the better,” he said. “We’ll publish something.”

Translations by Paula Kupfer.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.