Drugs and Art
Trading Dime Bags for Salvador Dali
The head of the cartel is called ‘El Elegante.’ His rich-boy buddy styles himself ‘Indiana Jones.’ One tried to corner the drug market—the other went after art.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico—Through all the battles waged in Mexico in recent years over the shipment routes and markets for narcotics, San Miguel de Allende has remained as neutral as Switzerland in the Second World War. San Miguel, a 500-year old city nestled high in the Bajío Mountains of central Mexico, seemed to be literally above the fray, and to most of the artists and expats who inhabit it the drug violence at lower altitudes is a distant affair. The prevailing wisdom has it that narcos don't shoot up the places where they invest their money.
On October 1, a black Mercedes SUV with license plates from Querétaro pulled to a stop on a cobblestone street 10 blocks from San Miguel's central plaza. Two men stepped out and entered a modest seafood restaurant called Mario's Fresh Shellfish. They were the restaurant's only customers. Mario himself waited on them. There was nothing remarkable about the appearance of either man. They ordered the house specialty of scallops in lemon and chile piquín for an appetizer, plus two bowls of shrimp soup and two orders of ceviche. The older of the two men tasted the food and told Mario, “You have no idea of the customer you have just won over.”
Had Mario been more attuned to the affairs of local real estate or politics in San Miguel he might have recognized the younger man in the cargo pants and Indiana Jones hat. He was Germán Goyeneche, the developer of the Otomí Equestrian Club in San Miguel, and the posh Otomí residential complex beside it on the Ignacio Allende Reservoir, two miles outside of the city. He might have known that the previous mayor of San Miguel spoke at the inauguration of the development and commended Goyeneche by name as a fighter who believed in a dream and made it a reality. He might have known that the governor of the neighboring state of Querétaro (San Miguel is in the state of Guanajuato), who is a friend of the Goyeneche family, praised the men behind Otomí as the admirable type of investors who are prepared to put money in the land and generate progress.
The older man at Goyeneche's table, wearing a violet plaid button-down shirt and jeans, was Hector Beltrán Leyva, alias El Elegante, the most wanted drug-trafficker in Mexico and the head of a cartel that bears his name. He was living under the alias Alonso Rivera Muñoz as a middling real estate developer and art collector in Querétaro. As he and Goyeneche sampled the tamales that Mario served them on the house, two couples entered Mario's and opted for a table against the wall. They ordered appetizers and lemonades. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Beltrán Leyva, a gourmand, was savoring his tamale with its filling of roasted corn. The couples sprang from their seats with handguns drawn and ordered both men to put their heads on the table. They shouted that they were with Mexican Special Forces, and just then a team of gunmen rushed into the restaurant. “I thought it was the end,” one of the cooks later told a reporter.
Héctor Beltrán Leyva is the last in a line of brothers who built a drug cartel into a family dynasty. He is also known as El H, but of all his nicknames El Elegante is the most salient. Héctor's older brothers Arturo and Alfredo were men with the right temperament to preside over a multinational crime syndicate. Arturo in particular built up the organization and aligned it with the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels in the early 2000s. It was Arturo who waged war on the Zetas on their home turf and Arturo who later joined forces with the Zetas to challenge the hegemony of El Chapo Guzmán. Arturo was big, brash, impulsive, and menacing. He had all the money and power to win influence in politics and law-enforcement, but he lacked the social graces. They called Héctor El Elegante because he mixed easily with the élite of Mexico: the politicians, showbiz stars, foreign diplomats, even visiting royalty. It was a role every bit as important to the Beltrán Levya Cartel as coordinating delivery of a load of cocaine or settling a score with violence: Héctor not only bought political influence, he built relationships with the wealthy men and women from good families to help him and his brothers turn the proceeds from their drug sales into assets and investments.
In 1999, El Elegante threw a fashion benefit for more than 600 guests on the beach at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Acapulco. The fashion designer was Armando Mafud, the emcee was the famous model and television host Montserrat Oliver, the guests included an Italian baron, the French ambassador to Mexico, the owner of the Hyatt Regency Acapulco, the director of Fashion Week Mexico, and several telenovela actresses who were household names at the time in Mexico.
Much blood has passed under the bridge since then. Arturo was shot down during a Mexican Special Forces raid on his high-rise condominium in Cuernavaca the week before Christmas 2009. The year before that Alfredo had been taken alive in a police raid on a safe house in Culiacán. Héctor assumed the day-to-day responsibilities for the family business and the challenges to his authority occurred early and often from regional strongmen who broke off to form rival organizations. No city has borne a greater share of pain from the fracturing of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel than Héctor's beloved Acapulco. The glamour of the seaside resort has long since been eclipsed by spectacular violence.
A recent Mexican State Intelligence report claims that, after Alfredo's arrest and Arturo's death, Héctor made a conscious decision to lower the profile of the cartel and repair its hemorrhaging finances the way he knew best, by establishing ties with political and business elites and investing drug proceeds through them.
What distinguishes Germán Goyeneche from other men who have been accused as accomplices of the Beltán Leyva brothers is, above all, his pedigree. Men of his social stature in Mexico do no often appear on police blotters. Previous Beltrán Leyva henchmen had nicknames like El Grande or La Barbie and were stone-faced killers. El Grande was an ex-cop accused of 43 murders, a man who recruited contract killers and supervised the unloading of tons of cocaine at a time out of jet hangars in Mexico City Airport. La Barbie videotaped himself in the act of committing atrocities and mailed the evidence to The Dallas Morning News.
Goyeneche practices yoga and follows the Dalai Lama on Twitter. He juices with vegetables, romances on Tinder, and shops for rustic furniture built with reclaimed materials. The Mexican subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch awarded him a certificate of recognition for planting trees in San Miguel, and he the Mexican Green Party was advancing him for positions of leadership within its ranks. Goyeneche hails from what the newspapers in his native Querétaro call an “ancestral” family; his father is reputed to be a large landowner. He studied agricultural engineering at an elite private university in Mexico, speaks fluent English and passable Portuguese, and is publicly identified as the owner of three separate real estate and construction firms.
Goyeneche's reputation in San Miguel was that of a man-about-town who fashioned himself after Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films and even wore the hat. His Facebook profile has a photograph of Ford as Indiana Jones above a caption that reads, “The other me.” Given his alter ego, it may not come as a surprise that Goyeneche is into antiquities, especially of the pre-Colombian variety. The name of his equestrian club and residential land development derives from the Otomí native people of central Mexico. Indeed, the web site for Otomí Lake & Villas advertises as a selling point that the exclusive community is “nestled in an ancient pre-Hispanic ceremonial center.” The asking price for a villa ranges upwards from $265,000.
Indeed there is a pre-Hispanic ceremonial site located a scant 400 meters from the outer edge of the Otomí Lake & Villas property. It is known as La Cañada de la Virgen, and studies from the Mexican Institute of Archaeology conclude the natives constructed it as a lunar calendar to guide their activities of hunting and gathering. Ceramic pieces, metal fragments, seeds and human remains have been uncovered by archeologists at the site. This might go part of the way toward explaining why Goyeneche and his partners had to slog through paperwork with city hall for three years before finally gaining land use approval.
The Mexican Justice Department has made no details public about the art collection of Héctor Beltrán Leyva. But there are likely clues to be found in Germán Goyeneche's outspoken passion for the buying and selling of art. In May he attended the inauguration of a museum to house the works of the Ecuadorian painter Santiago Carbonell in Querétaro. Last year he purchased three paintings by the Mexican surrealist Meme Artist at the Galeria Libertad in Querétaro. One of his purchases was Music for the heart, a painting, he wrote on Facebook, “that personally has captivated me deeply.” The painting is of a human heart set inside a wind-up music box that has a metal rod poking out of the pulmonary artery. A ballerina, nude but for a pair of striped knee socks, sits beside the heart pressing the rod to her lips as if to play it like a flute.
There is a consistent aesthetic to the art that catches Goyeneche's eye. He showed no interest in the abstract. He is rather drawn to figures in pain, to the primordial, and to gloom. The painters he follows on social media use figures to represent allegories. In the work of Jaroslaw Kukowski moral and social concerns are raised symbolically through deformed human and mystic figures in great pain. In the work of Erik Thor Sandberg, human nudes are contorted in a dream state, in some cases suspended in the act of self-mutilation. Animals in agony or danger are used by Martin Wittfooth, often to hint at the future of the human condition. Many of the painters who appealed the most to the alleged financial operator of El Elegante toyed with notions of the exact, taking a concept like photorealism or classical portraiture in the style of Rembrandt and veering off in the direction of the surreal or grotesque. The portraits of Christian van Minnen are composed along the lines of the old masters but their faces are macabre, distorted, mutated, hosts to prosperous and colorful parasites.
As all this came out in recent days, Congressman Arturo Escobar of the Mexican Green Party, in distancing himself and his party from Goyeneche, claimed, “We have no way of knowing about the private lives of our activists.” There are so many mysteries. Whether it was in real estate, the stock market, fine art, or political campaigns, to Héctor Beltrán Leyva the act of investing money is what mattered most. Germán Goyeneche, on the other hand, was a man born into wealth who ingratiated himself with every corner of the high society in San Miguel de Allende. Two days before his arrest, Goyeneche appeared in a photograph wearing his Indiana Jones hat and seated in the front row of a campaign event for a Mexican congressman who is running for mayor of San Miguel. After the two were picked up, the photo was paired with Beltrán Leyva's mugshot and splashed across the front page of more than one daily newspaper in Mexico.
The congressman, Ricardo Villarreal, denied that friendship is what brought him and Goyeneche together. “San Miguel is a very small place and when someone shows up to invest lots of money, everyone hears about it,” he said. “I assure you there isn't a single local businessman who doesn't know the name Germán Goyeneche.” Back in Querétaro, Governor José Calzada Rovirosa omitted any mention of Goyeneche from his public remarks on the capture of Beltrán Leyva. Gov. Calzada made it seem as though the drug lord were captured alone.