As Drug War Continues, Mexico Celebrates Its Deceased

In Michoacán, the Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead appeared to take on special significance.

Andrea Barro / Getty Images

Tzintzuntzán, Mexico—At cemeteries across Mexico, mariachi bands serenaded the dead, as people gathered to decorate the graves of their loves ones, making skulls and crosses out of flowers. Over the past two days, many across the country celebrated The Day of the Dead, a holiday that commemorates death as an integral part of life. But here in central Mexico, in the state of Michoacán, the holiday appeared to take on special significance.

Over the past six years, President Felipe Calderón has taken on the country’s infamous drug cartels, and Michoacán, his home state, has been a key battleground in the larger fight. Though many high-level narcos have been killed or captured, violence has spiked significantly since 2006. At least 50,000 people have died as a result of the drug war, and many innocents have been caught in the crossfire. Next month a new president—Enrique Peña Nieto—will take office, and many pray that the violence will ease.

Here in Michoacán, the threat of violence remains strong—both from the narcos and from the military, whose masked members often line the road, manning automatic weapons. Gilberto Hernandez, 38, a street vendor, certainly hopes things change. Several years ago, one of the local cartels offered him work packaging marijuana. It would have paid about $100 a day, more than 10 times his current income. He turned it down. “Guys who take those jobs wind up shot and dead,” he said.

The allure of working in the drug trade is strong for many, especially in areas where violence has dampened tourism. As a result, some such as Macedonio Angel, 67, have made the dangerous trek north to the United States. In a Tzintzuntzán cemetery, Angel cleaned the grave of his son, Omar, who was killed in a car accident in 2006. He was 17 years old. Angel used to work as an artisan in this Mexican village, but he could not support his family making crafts. He migrated to U.S. where he found a job at a factory. Now he’s a permanent U.S. resident but still has a home in Mexico. He only returns for short visits and for the Day of the Dead, to remember his son.

The essence of the holiday, which fuses Catholic and indigenous traditions, is that death should be celebrated, not feared. That’s why families decorate the graves of their loved ones. In cemeteries, some use flowers to make images of the Virgin Mary or skeletons. Often these skeletons, known as calaveras, are made of sugar or chocolate. But they have a dark side, especially for those who revere the saint of death; she is said to protect drug traffickers and corrupt police, and she serves as a reminder that death is ever-present on the front lines of Mexico’s war on drugs.

In a cemetery in Tzintzuntzán, as he shoveled dirt around the graves of his relatives, Jose Estrada, 62, spoke of the violence that has captured his state, his country. “If you take a narco out, another one will come forward,” he said. “You can’t even control the narcos in the United States.”

Estrada, like many Mexicans, questions whether Calderón’s policy of using the military to combat the cartels has worked. According to some experts, the president’s record will be mixed. On the one hand, he will be remembered for taking out some major cartel leaders, said Julie Murphy Erfani, an associate professor at Arizona State University and an expert on the U.S.-Mexico drug war. But he will also bear responsibility for the climate of death and destruction that the war created.

Going forward, Murphy Erfani predicted that Peña Nieto will reduce the military’s presence and may even negotiate a quiet truce with the cartels. The drugs, however, will almost certainly continue to flow.