Paul Theroux visited Mexico seven times over the course of one year while doing research for his new book, On the Plain of Snakes. He drove the entire length of the U.S.–Mexico border and spoke with immigrants fleeing poverty, corruption, and gang violence. He was charmed by dynamic cities like Monterrey and Mexico City. He visited areas populated primarily by indigenous communities and had at least one scary run-in with a corrupt cop. And he got to meet Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
But the event that really stood out for Theroux, and for him seemed to typify his south-of-the-border experience, occurred in San Dionisio Ocotepec, a small town in the state of Oaxaca. It was there that Theroux happened to be invited to a family meal during a period of mourning for an old woman who had just died.
“I was invited to this meal, and I was sitting under a tree with 30 or 40 other people,” says Theroux, “and I realized I was in the bosom of a family grieving for their grandmother, and they were very conversational. It was an amazing experience of generosity, hospitality, people confiding in me, and being part of the family. I found Mexicans to be among the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.”
The 78-year-old author, whose distinguished career has included critically acclaimed travel books (The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express) and novels (The Mosquito Coast, soon to be a mini-series for Apple TV+, starring his nephew Justin Theroux), went to Mexico because, as he says in the book, “Mexico is not a country. Mexico is a world.”
“You have 500 years of colonial culture, and thousands of years of civilization,” adds Theroux, in his interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s the landscape, the food, the language. Americans don’t know enough about Mexico; we are ignorant of the way Mexicans live their lives, and the richness of their history.”
Theroux’s book bounces around from town to city, trying to find the Mexican essence. He does not shirk from writing about some of the biggest issues that face the country: the violence of the drug cartels, cross-border immigration, and the corruption that permeates everyday life. The latter, he says, stems from a variety of factors, including a state weakened by numerous small wars the country fought in the 19th century, the disastrous revolution of 1910, and a country which doesn’t pay its taxes and is sustained by informal trade, which involves petty corruption and police looking the other way in exchange for a mordida (bribe).
What this means, Theroux says in his book, is that “the experience of living under a corrupt government and trying to stay honest yourself made people cynical and distrustful of authority, but at the same time self-sufficient and dependent on friends and family.”
Theroux also recognizes that the so-called border crisis, far from being static and unchanging, has evolved over the years. Where once a large percentage of the migrants were Mexicans escaping poverty and drug-related violence, now most are Central Americans fleeing corrupt governments and rapacious gangs—with a heavy sprinkling of Africans, Indians, and Pakistanis.
“Mexicans are as worried about immigration as we are,” says Theroux. “They have a problem with migrants, and it’s the same problem we have. We need to have really good relations with the Mexican government. We need to respect them, we need Mexico as a partner, and we don’t have that. We share a border, but we are making an enemy. Our diplomacy has to be a lot better.”
And then there’s the issue of drugs, guns, and the cartels, in which the country north of the border plays a significant role. In this case, a quote from former Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, which Theroux does not employ in the book, seems relevant: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” The fact is, Mexico has strict gun control laws, which means many of the weapons used by the cartels originated in the States. And, says Theroux, although a serious law enforcement partnership on the part of the Mexican and American governments could make a difference, “it would help if Americans decided to rid themselves of their cocaine and fentanyl dependency.”
Easier said than done, of course. And it doesn’t seem to help that the Mexican government appears incapable of concerted action that would rid the country not just of cartel violence but the corrupt police and military who are complicit in it—in many towns, the police force is staffed by narcos.
As an example, On the Plain of Snakes spends some time recounting the story of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, who in 2014 commandeered a bus for a demonstration, were taken into custody by police, handed over to a local crime syndicate and murdered. The case has become a national scandal and, Theroux writes, shows that “people in power—police, politicians—believe they can get away with murder. Ayotzinapa reveals the penetration of the cartels in all Mexican institutions.”
What seems to make the situation even more tragic is that the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, is a leftist elected on a reform platform. But so far, he has had little or no effect on the country’s problems. And that, claims Theroux, says a lot about Mexican power politics.
“I think that the problem is that in the DNA of Mexican power no one gets very far from the reins of power,” he says. “There’s one bunch of people, and he’s drawing [cabinet ministers] from that group. Mexican politics is sort of a family, and there are no new people.”
But On the Plain of Snakes is not simply a depressing recitation of Mexico’s problems. Theroux also finds to praise. He’s dazzled by the city of Monterrey, which he says is “so big, so prosperous, there was so much happening there, in terms of culture and manufacturing.” He loves Mexican cuisine and writes about the many excellent meals he had. There is a deep love for the indigenous Mexican culture and history that exists primarily in towns and cities in the southern part of the country, and in its magnificent ruins. And Theroux calls Mexico City “one of the greatest cities in the world, a great cultural center,” adding that “some of the best writers I have ever met, I met in Mexico.”
He’s also utterly star struck by Subcomandante Marcos, a former college professor who spent years in the jungle earning the trust of the indigenous people of Chiapas and then helped lead them in a movement that essentially set up a separate state within Mexico. “I thought he was an example of someone who is completely idealistic, and humane,” says Theroux. “He’s a completely admirable person.”
Ultimately, Theroux wrote On the Plain of Snakes because he wants the kind of people who vacation on the Mayan Riviera to realize that Mexico is not just “tacos, sombreros, and mariachis, it’s a big, complicated, interesting place. A big, vibrant country full of subtlety, cultural differences and a place that’s humane—it’s not a cartel dominated place. The humanity of Mexico is what I’d like to see [readers] take away from the book.”