Penitents, Pedophiles, Poets, Movie Stars, Silversmiths, and Drug Lords: When Hollywood Flocked to Cartel Country

Taxco, on the road to Iguala where students disappeared, has long been known for scenic streets and beautiful silver. But some of its history is dark indeed.

Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images

TAXCO, Mexico — It was Holy Week in Mexico, and the village of Taxco in the state of Guerrero was atoning for its sins with the grisly processions that have been a fixture here since at least 1598 (with the occasional decades-long hiatus, depending on who was running things).

Hundreds of chained men and women in black hoods and horsehair-belted robes walked to a single violin scratching an ancient melody, their ankles rattling a coordinated left-right-left. Some of the sons of Taxco serve as hooded encruzados, bramble bundles weighing 100 pounds roped to bare shoulders, walking their own private Calvary. Others elect to be flagelantes, sinking to their knees on the cobbled streets every few minutes for some self-inflicted blood-sport with a nail-encrusted whip.

It is said the absolute worst part is going barefoot on stones hot as coals during the day—the body numbing the more obvious flesh wounds with endorphins.

“If your father did it, you wanted to do it, too,” says 87-year-old journalist-historian Juan Crisóstomo Estrada. He remembers the occasional priest who’d object to the practice, and the years the processions happened in secret inside blush-pink Santa Prisca church on the town square.

The rest of the year, Taxco is perhaps the prettiest colonial town in all of Mexico, like some love child of Santorini and Córdoba, clinging to a steep hillside, all whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, and potted geraniums. Cortés had heard from Montezuma there was metal here, but it took a Frenchman, José de la Borda (né Laborde) to pinpoint a rich vein of silver a century later. He became the Trump of his time, the richest man in Mexico (and perhaps the world) but almost went bankrupt gilding the baroque guts of Santa Prisca, his twin-towered ticket to heaven.

Taxco is plenty worth seeing; the too-bad bit is that Guerrero state is nationally No. 1 in homicides since 2012, even if most of what is euphemistically referred to as “the bad news” happens off in the countryside amongst feuding opium-poppy farmers and down in Acapulco, which the United States finally issued a travel advisory against in April. In and around Holy Week, Acapulco reportedly hosted 43 homicides—all supposedly intra-cartel—but assassins on jet skis taking out beach vendors does not a great postcard make.

Still. The Mexican tourists were coming to Taxco, which is not nearly as Acapulco-dangerous, not lately, not relative to some other places, not unless you happened to be in Taxco’s town center in January, standing beside the guy executed at the “No Joke” taquería in a motorcycle drive-by.

In Taxco, the agenda of the penitents had expanded. The newspaper Diario 21 announced they were now offering their suffering “for peace in Guerrero aside from purging their own sins…to end this senseless war.”

It was a decent turnout for Taxco: 130,000 people, mainly Mexicans. (The municipality’s rest-of-year tourist stats peaked in the ’70s and ’80s—before all the bad news.) Companies like Coca-Cola and Volkswagen have blown Dodge, so tourism is now estimated to be more than 80 percent of Guerrero’s economy, such as it is. The newspapers nattered hopefully about hotel occupancy rates going up since last year’s dip—after 43 student-teacher protesters kidnapped off buses in Iguala were turned into cremains—or so goes the official (and now, contested) story. Poor Taxco, on the road to Iguala from Mexico City; it received its own State Department-advisory downgrade in late 2014.

Omar Jalil Flores, Taxco’s new-ish publicity-loving mayor (as often as not photographed with his beautiful, busty wife), says he wants people to see Taxco as a “cultural gateway” to Guerrero. Which perhaps explains why Taxco is also pushing for the kind of Guinness World Records that nobody realizes exist: Creating the world’s largest flower out of 10,000 poinsettias (first discovered in Taxco); dispatching a government-funded biggest cast-silver Virgin of Guadalupe in the world off to Mexico City to be blessed by the pope, thereby burnishing its résumé for pious money-spending pilgrims.

The town barely remembers its now extinct American artist colony. Novels in English are the potsherds of this lost tribe, left behind at such bougainvillea-boughed villas as Casa de Las Palmas, a highly regarded bed-and-breakfast where American artist Clinton King landed after his wife, the former Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley, died of tuberculosis.

“You’re not going to see Angelina Jolie in Taxco,” says the town’s acknowledged official historian Javier Ruíz Ocampo. “The service is better in Cuba.” Hotels like the Borda, new when John F. Kennedy and Jackie honeymooned in Room 12 (and also where Marilyn Monroe shacked up with Sixties’ playboy-director José Bolaños), are feeling their age.

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In the fading lamplight of the Depression—then later, with Nazis overrunning Paris— Taxco was a giddy Western Hemisphere Montparnasse, where people came in the ’30s and ’40s to behave badly and not get their work done.

Out on bail for demonstrating in Mexico City, muralist David Siquieros laid low here, his presence a honey drawing other arty radicals—Tamayo, Covarrubias, Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco, Sergei Eisenstein, talking up Marxism, singing ballads of the revolution in the second-story bars and restaurants. Katherine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and Trotsky were early arrivals, as were Aldous Huxley, George Gershwin, and Leopold Stokowski.

It was one of the few towns in Mexico where novelist Patricia Highsmith could get away with wearing trousers. A notion she was noodling about artist expats prefigured The Talented Mr. Ripley. But it was hard to get work done in Taxco, where “they drink for total oblivion,” she said. At one time, there were 150 bars.

The Berta is basically a carbonated, honey-sweetened twist on the Margarita, which allegedly was invented by novelist John Dos Passos at Doña Berta’s still-kicking cantina on the town square (one of six bars in Mexico claiming its paternity).

In search of what he calls “barbarism, color, glamor and risk,” Saul Bellow turns up with wife Anita in 1940—and has an affair. (To spite him, Anita takes up with a handsome Mexican.) None of the people Bellow meets “had a very firm grip on anything at all,” he later writes, admitting to keeping “low company,” playing cards with pulp-fiction writers. Every morning he is up hunting lizards with an eagle owned by some local eccentric American, an experience watercolored in The Adventures of Augie March.

A Guggenheim fellow who never wrote a lick of his promised epic poem on Montezuma, Hart Crane sleeps with Taxco landscape painter Peggy Cowley, convincing himself he is not a homosexual by getting engaged months before his suicide. Pre-fame Paul and Jane Bowles met future lovers here (composer Ned Rorem and Helvetia Perkins), Paul and Aldous complaining about the town’s bohemian pretensions, the insidious fog of alcohol.

Silver jewelry and objets modeled after Aztec and Mayan relics were everyone’s favorite souvenirs, emblematic of a newly conscious Mexico. The designer was another foreigner key to the town’s development: William Spratling.

Mexico’s most famous American expat, Spratling was a surly hyper-connected architect who also built the citadel overlooking the former Convento de San Bernandino de Siena where Leon Trotsky holed up. (There are many such high-walled houses around, girded with razor wire.)

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg called Spratling the “most unforgettable character” he’d ever met, a daredevil pilot and expert on art and archaeology who turned up in the ’30s in dubious circumstance and wound up kick-starting an entire silver movement after being introduced by friend Diego Rivera to primitivist art.

It was Hollywood who first stopped and shopped here—Cary Grant, John Ford, Leslie Howard, Linda Darnell, Lana Turner, Mae West, Dolores del Río, Errol Flynn, Henry Ford, Clare Boothe Luce, Orson Welles. John Huston bought pre-Columbian relics from Spratling and shot parts of The Fugitive.

Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all sought Spratling out. Marilyn Monroe lunched at Spratling’s and bought an entire suite of furniture for her home in Brentwood, her chairs still there at his ranch outside town, undelivered after her suicide. Historian Ruíz says Marilyn taught some of his friends the Twist that night, a glass of Champagne in one hand.

More than 10,000 silversmiths work in Taxco today. But in this week of brutal conscience-examination, it was evident the town had never quite come to a reckoning with the jut-jawed gringo who put it on the map—and the part Taxco has continued to play keeping the man’s dreadful secrets.

About 5,000 penitentes were expected, a figure including those hauling the vivid statues around on a bier. The barefoot veiled “damsels” pointing the path to the masked “Bent Ones,” their vision impeded by the angle. For years, the number of encruzados held at around 180. By 2003 there were 450 of them, but historian Ruíz estimates the number of flagelantes and encruzados today to be as high as 1,500.

Nobody keeps official score; for more than a decade, “pirate penitents” have slyly embedded themselves along the parade route—men with no interest in attending the six meetings and semi-annual retreats and confessions demanded by the now 90 or so participating brotherhoods. In these parts, it’s a bit like running the marathon and for some, a major ego trip.

On Good Friday, a line of encruzados stretched down Calle Miguel Hidalgo as far as the eye could see, bundles on their aching shoulders. Because of a dip in the street, they looked like logs floating down a canyon. The exploding numbers begged the question of whether some were narcos. “Maybe,” says Ruíz carefully, noting anybody can participate from the surrounding areas and that émigrés return from overseas to do the walk. The mayor who installed the Cristos monument towering above the town—Jesus Christ’s outstretched arms Rorschach-ly either embracing humanity or maybe stiffly emulating an encruzado—was himself a known encruzado.

Federales lined the two-mile (and on some nights, much longer) route, a presence since the end of 2014 when the federal government took over security in several municipalities including Taxco, claiming local police were infiltrated by organized crime and shouldn’t be carrying guns.

It was after midnight on Holy Thursday in 2009 when the “Procession of the Christs” was in full swing, bloody icons from sundry parish churches bobbing down the streets on their biers. Suddenly, people heard what sounded like the staccato bursts of submachine guns. Which caused multiple stampedes. Which led to loose talk in the weeks after of masked men firing guns, ordering people to hit the dirt.

The encruzados were left standing helpless and alone, stunned birds for whom flight was entirely out of the question as the anonymous shooters supposedly walked the line, checking under the hoods in search of some somebody who’d pissed the wrong person off.

The then-mayor blamed a street brawl coinciding with a transformer-box blowout. A Christ-on-the-cross had snagged a power line, is how the story went. Citizens were offended by the insinuation of mass psychosis. But this being Mexico, a milagro, a miracle immediately followed; the Guadelupe church’s Christ statue began to weep for Taxco—for YouTube.

Pope Francis has dispatched a bishop late of conflict-zone Israel, Salvador Rangel Mendoza, to “promote a dialogue” with Guerrero’s cartels. A proposal to legalize poppy cultivation for medicine has been floating around the federal government and everyone’s been musing aloud in what-ifs—Guerrero’s governor, the Archbishop of Acapulco. Not eight months ago, federal police destroyed an actual poppy field inside Taxco city limits; Guerrero is a top producer of opium and methamphetamine and a transit hub for South American cocaine. The idea is to give desperate farmers something to do that’s regulated. (The cartels’ bottom line won’t change much.)

In the hills of Taxco, dormant mineshafts have been used as graveyards by the Guerreros Unidos, a spin-off of the weakened Beltrán-Leyva cartel. And while a former cop said to be a leader of the Gulf cartel was captured in Taxco two years ago, far more ink has flowed about the mysterious September arrest of Gildardo López Astudillo, aka “El Gil,” the Guerreros Unidos leader alleged to have ordered Iguala’s student-teacher massacre.

After much obfuscation, it was revealed that El Gil was apprehended in a luxury apartment complex up near the landmark Hotel Montetaxco. This was the residence of the son of a wealthy merchant assassinated in 2012 who was close to ex-mayor Salomón Majul. The son’s day job was now private secretary to a mayor appointed when Majul left office to pursue (and win) a seat in federal congress. As an aside, another former mayor and local federal Department of Economy representative also lives in the complex.

Omar Jalil Flores, the current mayor of Taxco, is Majul’s cousin, and people are still making their minds up about him. In October, drones and helicopters were dropping flyers around Taxco accusing Salomón Majul of links to organized crime.

There was a time William Spratling was the focus of the town’s paranoia, although of a rather different nature.

Nowadays, it is to the town’s advantage to paint Spratling as merely a genially quirky rascal.

An architecture instructor late of Tulane who sidelined as an artist, Spratling landed in Taxco seemingly after some kind of breakdown. Talk persisted that something sexual, possibly involving a student, had forced his resignation. Spratling “had a special preference for children,” says Ruíz. “It’s difficult to say because in Taxco, of course, now he’s like a God. Nobody says nada.”

After brokering a deal between Diego Rivera and outgoing United States ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow whereby Rivera would paint murals as a gift to Cuernavaca, Spratling was able to buy a house in Taxco where, low on funds, he thought he might make a bit of money in silver.

The silversmith hired to teach him the ropes, Artemio Navarrete, recalled in 1988 that “some of the children who lived in the neighborhood used to come and bathe in the fountain in Don Guillermo’s house.” Parents of boys between the ages of 10 and 16 paid Spratling to teach them English. Economist Stuart Chase, who visited Spratling in this period, was struck by “a live faun in his little patio, an Indian boy” cooking up frijoles.

There were always boys hanging about, to run errands or be sketched naked. Starting in 1931, Navarrette and Spratling took some apprentices, paying 25 cents a day for work done there on premises. Spratling called them his zorritas—little foxes—a term still in use in Taxco for child apprentices observing over the shoulders of more experienced maestros.

In retrospect, it seems a textbook case of what pedophilia experts call “grooming.” Spratling would take his charges on weekends to the bars and dance halls of Iguala, a bigger town not so nearby. When the money started coming in, he bought a 30-foot yacht in Los Angeles and sailed it down to Acapulco, replacing it in 1941 with a 52-foot yacht sleeping 11. Silversmiths past and present—and the young son of his cook—were invited to join him in Acapulco, 15 at a time, he blithely admits in his autobiography, File on Spratling, which was published after his death from a car crash in 1967. (“One needed to invite many people on board to justify the luxury,” he writes defensively.)

There was naked swimming and lounging, Ruíz was told by Raul Dominguez, one of 14 unsettlingly young apprentices who appear in a 1934 picture of Spratling’s taller. Where there was Spratling, there was nudity.

“Here, everything is natural. You must get the sun on the skin,” went the argument. In his autobiography, Spratling brags that he eliminated one expat female rival for the attentions of “my boys” by showing her a photograph of the half-naked young men on the deck of his boat, casually mentioning almost all of them had syphilis.

Ruíz says Raul Dominguez claimed Spratling had sexual relations with some of the boys. Many people knew about this, says Ruíz, but because of the stigma, “the boys would never say it happened to me, it happened to that one.”

From 1951 to 1952, Ruíz (now 74) was himself a zorrita in the studio of Jorge Castillo, one of four brothers who’d worked for Spratling in the ’30s and cousin to four Castillos in the 1934 portrait. Ruíz was warned not to go work for Spratling; around Castillo’s studio of 50 silversmiths, Spratling’s pedophilia was a kind of running joke.

In his autobiography, Spratling mentions he knew poet Hart Crane from New York, had written Crane’s recommendation for the Guggenheim bringing him to Taxco as his houseguest. Only Crane “had a particular fondness for young boys” and one night had not been able to “resist the charms” of the “young body” of the son of Spratling’s cook, asleep across the doorway as the de facto night watchman.

“I have never been able to feel censorious about anyone’s peccadilloes as long as their acts do not create problems in other people’s lives,” Spratling continues, adding he told the garrulous alcoholic poet he could no longer overnight there so as to shield himself “from any trace of scandal.” (What he fails to mention is that Crane was soon thrown in jail for the offense and banned from town.)

With local mining on a downturn, the town had embraced Spratling—and his business that, by January 1945, employed 400 silversmiths. Overextended financially, experiencing partner problems, and “in order to have an escapatoria from the pressure of life in Taxco,” Spratling writes in his often dissembling and disingenuous memoir, that he bought a strip of land 10 miles out of town, at first intending only to install a giant swimming pool. The pool was purposefully landscaped so as to not be visible from a house and workshop that later followed, at an intentional remove from the casual visitors’ sight lines.

“I must confess I have a slightly controversial swimming pool,” Spratling writes. “ I call it controversial because, since the pool belongs to me, I have the right to prohibit the use of any swimming apparel.”

Forced out of business by partner issues by the end of 1945, Spratling undertook to get a similar government–funded business underway in Alaska, importing eight Eskimo boys to Taxco for several months of training. In 1953, Spratling was named a Hijo Predilecto of Taxco town, a favorite son, with a street named after him and a bust and plaque installed in the center.

Almost immediately there was backlash, the bust repeatedly overturned in the night and attacks leveled at him in local newspapers, according to Joan Mark’s biography The Silver Gringo. Among various charges (he had indeed been trafficking in pre-Columbian antiquities real and fake) was the accusation he’d been seducing young men. The father of one “young boy” said he’d kill Spratling should he ever show his face in Taxco again, or so Sherwood Anderson’s ex-wife Elizabeth (and Spratling’s closest confidante) reports in her memoir Miss Elizabeth.

In this small town, there are still people who resent Spratling being credited as the “father of Mexican silver,” his designs elevated above those of others. There is now a Spratling-dedicated museum behind Santa Prisca (Ruíz is a former director). But Spratling spent the last 14 years of his life in a kind of exile, at the remote ranch down the road, his shop and workshop also relocated, reportedly slipping into Taxco only occasionally and never staying overnight, scrupulously avoiding the road through town as he made his weekly trip to Mexico City.

At the ranch, silversmiths were encouraged to swim naked just as at his 400-silversmith facility, the historic Hacienda del Chorrillo, where Ruíz’s father Rafael worked, and where Spratling also installed a pool that is still there. Women (Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard) were not exempt from pool rules, the silversmiths peeping, agog, through veils of giant bamboo at Spratling’s urging, according to Mexican sculptor Helen Escobedo.

An Italian bought up Spratling’s houses and rights to the brand at his death. The ground floor of the house in town is now a wonderful restaurant serving molé lasagna. There are plans to turn the ranch into a bed-and-breakfast, but it has an eerie vibe. The Italian family built another, different house for themselves right over Spratling’s still functioning workshop, pointedly digging their own swimming pool.

Spratling’s living quarters—his bare-mattress bed—abide in a state of forlorn decrepitude, the “slightly controversial swimming pool” where God knows what went on now entirely hidden (it appears, for good) under a giant white tarp.