NARCO CULTURA

Mexico’s Secret Narco Museum

Deep inside Mexican army headquarters sits a crazy collection of bling and weapons nabbed from drug traffickers—and religious iconography praising the Messiahs of the drug wars.

01.23.16 5:13 AM ET

Hidden in the smog-ridden north of Mexico City, inside the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense—or Mexican army HQ—sits one of the most fascinating museums on the planet.

The army humbly calls it the Museo de Enervantes, which can be roughly translated as the Museum of Stupefacients. But this boring technical title underplays the incredible collection of artifacts on display, the highlights of what Mexican soldiers have nabbed from drug traffickers.

Some seized narcotics themselves are in the cabinets, but these are the least interesting items. A lot of people already know what marijuana, crystal meth, and heroin look like (although the black cocaine on show is a novelty). The drug lab machinery is more enthralling, including sprawling shiny contraptions to cook meth on an industrial scale. Pieces from trap cars, the vehicles used to smuggle drugs over the border in gas tanks, tires, and false seats, also illustrate the ingenuity of narco engineers. More frightening is the heavy-weapons room of captured cartel firepower; you see that narco thugs don’t only use belt-driven machine guns and grenades, they even possess shoulder-held rocket launchers, such as the RPG-29, or “Vampire,” which can take out tanks.

But the museum’s main attraction is undoubtedly a room under the title narco cultura. The narco culture cabinets display the ostentatious bling that drug lords buy with their billions of bloodstained bucks. Some pieces are worth high five digits in the stones and metal alone.

Guns are bathed in gold and decorated with gems in the shapes of words and pictures. Some stones form the names of their capo owners, such as a pistol with an engraving of ACF—Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies. Others have images of Mexican revolutionaries who the gangsters hail as heroes, including Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

Others still have names of fashion designers such as the Italian tailor Versace. I find it bemusing that drug lords can praise both revolutionaries and entrepreneurs; they are rebel capitalists.

The narco memorabilia extends to awards that cartel armies give their warriors for bravery. A medallion from the Zetas has a letter Z on one side and picture of gangster soldiers in heroic battle poses on the other. It is the narco equivalent of the Victoria Cross—or Tiffany Cross. Walking on through the hall, you see a cowboy waistcoat, which is really a bullet-proof vest; a cell-phone bathed in gold; and a carved wooden chair in the form of the grim reaper. It gets weirder and weirder.

Dominating the end of the narco culture hall is the weirdest item of all: a 4-foot-high statuette of a saintly warrior clad in medieval armor. It’s an impressive piece of art. Its core is a plaster figurine, which is worked over with gold and gems for the coat of mail and fine paint for the skin and goatee beard. The crusader vaunts red Templar crosses on his chest and sleeves and clasps a broadsword. He has that despondent expression of a holy man, wise but sad, as seen on images of Jesus and his saints. He also resembles one of Mexico’s most brutal gangster warlords.

Soldiers seized the statuette from cartel thugs who baptized themselves as the Knights Templar, after the order of warrior monks who fought for Christendom between 1119 and 1312. The narco Templars made dozens of similar statuettes and put them in shrines to kneel and pray before. They call them “Santos Nazarios.” It is the image of their leader, Nazario Moreno, known as El Chayo, or El Más Loco—the Maddest One.

Troops have also found prayers to Saint Nazario, printed in booklets in the style of regular Catholic prayer books that vendors sell at the stoplights in Mexican cities. As one says:

Give me holy protection,
Through Saint Nazario,
Protector of the poorest,
Knights of the people,
Saint Nazario,
Give us life.

Anthropologists can have a field day dissecting this narco holy image. Saint Nazario mixes Latin America’s popular Catholicism with the bling of the drug trade and the rock-star status of crime lords. Personally, when I first see a narcotics trafficker looking like Jesus, it seems hilarious; then I think about it for 30 seconds and realize it’s terrifying.

Adding to Nazario’s cult status, he wrote his own holy book. Journalists often refer to it as his bible. But Mis Pensamientos (My Thoughts) doesn’t have complete religious stories and parables like the Christian Bible. Instead, it is a collection of musings, similar in structure to Mao Tse-tung’s little red book.

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As Nazario authored his religious rant, named his cartel after crusading monks, and was venerated like a saint, this dominates coverage about him. In journalese shorthand he is “the head of the bizarrely named Knights Templar who wrote his own bible even as he trafficked tons of crystal meth to the United States.”

But these entertaining details overshadow other features of Nazario’s empire that are important to understanding what Mexican organized crime has become. Nazario moved from drug trafficking to a portfolio of crimes that made him a major player in the local economy—a gangster capitalist. The Knights Templar took over iron mines, ignoring environmental regulations so they could sell record quantities of metal to hungry Chinese factories. They took extortion to new extremes, making cents of every dollar that moved, even from big business, and attacking those who didn’t pay (they burned 30 trucks of a local unit of PepsiCo). And they waded into the avocado, lime, and cattle industries. For Americans, your guacamole on game day, the metal in your kid’s remote-controlled car, and the beef in your burger may have passed through the Knights Templars’ hands—alongside the meth smoked by your local fiend.

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In his home state of Michoacán, the Maddest One got his tentacles into the entire political and judicial apparatus. With mayors, police commanders, and politicians on his payroll, the state apparatus rotted to the core—making it later implode like a putrid tree trunk.

Nazario’s rule was so insidious and brutal it ultimately unleashed Mexico’s largest vigilante movement to take him down. The so-called autodefensas—or self-defense squads—became a significant third force in the Mexican drug war, fighting alongside the government security forces and cartel death squads. The militias unleashed a bloody but bewildering battle. They built a network of barricades that weaved through the state; they took back towns that the government supposedly controlled already; sometimes they fought alongside the Mexican army, sometimes against them. The conflict embarrassed President Peña Nieto and led his government to make a dangerous alliance with the vigilantes.

Migrants in the United States were also key in toppling Nazario. Michoacán émigrés from California to Oregon were so distraught by the terror in their homeland they helped finance the vigilante movement. Some returned home and took up Kalashnikovs. I found immigrants on the frontline who went within weeks from washing dishes in Los Angeles to fighting gun battles against cartel hit men.

And if that isn’t enough color for Nazario’s crazy tale, the narco saint also died twice. A drug lord of the Maddest One’s status has multiple lives.

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Nazario first died in December 2010. Mexican federal police claimed they killed him during one of the most ferocious battles of the Mexican drug war: a fight involving two thousand federal officers and about five hundred criminal gunmen. Amid the melee, the officers said they shot Nazario but his gangster henchmen carried his corpse away. His death was confirmed when a grave appeared with his name on it. (Apparently, police didn’t want to dig it up and check.)

The president at the time, Felipe Calderón, trumpeted Nazario’s demise as a grand victory in his war on cartels. It was especially sweet as Michoacán is Calderón’s home state and the place where the president had launched his campaign against organized crime.

After his supposed death, Nazario’s followers began venerating him like a saint and statuettes and shrines appeared. Even more bizarrely, people reported seeing his ghost wandering around Michoacán dressed all in white. Under the leadership of this phantom saint, the Knights Templar became more powerful than ever.

By 2014, the sightings of ghost Nazario had become absurdly common; on a single day, I spoke to three people who claimed they had seen him. But I still wasn’t sure. I discussed the testimonies with a fellow journalist. Were these sources really seeing him, we asked. Or was this a figment of their collective imagination?

The former turned out to be true. In March 2014, Mexican marines announced that Nazario was still alive. But they also said that they now had killed him. Really.

This bizarre situation reminds me of a quote attributed to Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The master supposedly said: “I won’t return to Mexico because it is a country that is more surreal than my paintings.”

To prove that Nazario was truly in heaven (or hell), the marines released a video of his body. It certainly looks like him. However, while the marines say they killed the Maddest One with two bullets in the chest, this film shows a face that has blatantly been beaten, the eyelids black and nose purple. In the murky world of the Mexican drug war, there is always a second story, and I hear a credible account that explains this bruising. According to this alternative version of events, Nazario wasn’t really killed by marines, but he was battered to death by his own bodyguards working with vigilantes. It is of course illegal for vigilantes to murder people (in theory). So the vigilantes handed in the corpse and it was convenient for everyone to say the marines did it. The bodyguards had gotten so fed up of Nazario’s megalomania they turned on him. His final legacy was not of his troops venerating him, but of them hating him.

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Nazario’s messianic complex illuminates a memoir he wrote. While most drug lords erase details of their lives, Nazario actually self-published this autobiography and distributed it to his followers. It was never on sale, but thousands of copies flowed around Michoacán towns and villages. It was a hot book. If soldiers found people with them, they would often arrest them for being Templar afliates.

The 101 pages are fittingly titled They Call Me “The Maddest One.” The book has a front cover with a silhouette of Nazario’s face over a deep red background. It is reminiscent of a silhouette image of Che Guevara printed on T-shirts throughout Latin America. As well as styling himself as a messiah, Nazario fancied himself a guerrilla hero.

Maddest One is written in decent grammar, maybe with the help of a writer with a gun to his head (Nazario says he didn’t do a day in school). Splattering its pages are amusing sayings such as, “Every nation has the government it deserves and every government has the criminals it deserves.” It also provides unusual insight into the life and deranged mind of this gangster warlord.

The memoir needs to be carefully scrutinized, but agents tracking him confirm many of the facts. A Mexican investigator who worked for the federal intelligence service and then a special unit fighting the Knights Templar gave me many rich details on the mob and shared his wealth of files. DEA agents also handed me information on the Maddest One.

Among the American agents who tracked Nazario’s mob was Mike Vigil, who spent 13 years working in Mexico, more than any other DEA agent. He often went undercover posing as a drug trafficker to get into their crazed world. During Vigil’s time, a trafficker shot at him from three feet (the bullets missed). Vigil also had the pleasure of turning down the offer of a $3 million bribe from Honduran kingpin Juan Matta Ballesteros—who was later convicted of the kidnapping of DEA agent Enrique “Kike” Camarena.

However, while the agents confirm many names and dates in Nazario’s account, they clash with his vision. Nazario portrays himself as a social bandit, subtitling his memoir “Diary of an Idealist.” Agents say he was one of the most dangerous serial murderers on the planet with few real ideals at all.

“I think he is a psychopath that wants to romanticize his criminal activities by writing these manifestos,” Vigil says. “The fact of the matter is that he is a drug trafficker, he is a killer, and he represents the worst of Mexican society but has these delusional romantic ideas.”

I have lived in Mexico since 2000, so my work on it goes deeper than the other countries covered in this book. I also had great help from Michoacán journalists, including Francisco Castellanos, Leo Gonzalez, Dalia Martinez, Daniel Fernandez, and Jesus Lemus. Lemus may be the reporter who knows most about drug cartels in the world thanks to a quirk of fate; he was jailed for three years alongside top capos. It is a painful story. He had written an exposé of a corrupt politician and in revenge prosecutors filed trumped-up charges against him, accusing him of working for Nazario. Lemus thankfully resisted days of torture and refused to sign a confession and the charges were thrown out after three excruciating years.

My reconstruction of Nazario’s life is also helped by many people from his homeland who knew him. The vigilante uprising to topple the Maddest One created a euphoric atmosphere and people were unusually open in revealing details of the crime world. Among those I talked to who knew Nazario were several of his gunmen who later became vigilantes, Apatzingán businessmen Cristobal Alvarez, a woman married to Nazario’s cousin, and a lime farmer who Templars tortured while Nazario was present.

The valley he hails from is a tight-knit community with broad inter-linking families. It is a land blighted by poverty, criminality, and beliefs in the supernatural. These features all helped mold the narco saint and his legend from when he was a small child.

This article is excerpted from Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Press.