After a truly horrible murder, the story of the blood that’s shed can be like a psychologist’s Rorschach test: What may be most revealing is what people think they see in it.
When an entire family was massacred last month—five women, four men, and two children brutally slaughtered at a tiny settlement in Mexico’s remote southern mountains—the atrocity shocked even a country where the savagery of drug cartels has made blood and gore a commonplace. Just last week in the virtual war-zone nearer the U.S. border, for instance, at least 15 people were killed in what might be called the usual violence.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out last year, “98 percent of all crimes in Mexico remain unsolved, with the great majority of them never even properly investigated.” The most well-known was the “enforced disappearance” of 43 students in the town of Iguala in 2014, but there are many, many other examples. “The combination of fear, greed and chronic impunity is potent, and millions of people are suffering,” said Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.
But what lay behind this murder in the campo, far from the battlegrounds of Ciudad Victoria, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Juárez? Why did it happen?
The first reasons given, or imagined, were links to organized crime in a region known for growing opium poppies—the scourge of the drug trade runs deep—or maybe the killing was linked to religious persecution in a part of the country where the beliefs of Christian evangelicals clash with the established faith and traditions of Roman Catholicism. Those were the most common theories.
San José El Mirador, the scene of the crime, is a collection of primitive houses in sparsely populated hills known as La Sierra Negra, the black mountains, near the border of two states, Puebla and Oaxaca. To get there from the nearest town of any consequence, Coxcatlán (population 6,300), is a trip that lasts hours climbing winding dirt tracks.
Among the scattered hamlets, people speak the ancient Aztec language Náhuatl more often than they speak Spanish, and they travel mainly by foot on lawless roads and trails.
Photographs taken later, when the settlement was left abandoned after the murders, show where the Sánchez Hernández family lived, in a home made of crude mud bricks and rough-hewn wood slats. The smell of the cooking fire and the corn ground on a stone hangs in the air in such dwellings. Not long after sunset everyone is sleeping as best they can.
On June 9 the night was dark, with only a thin crescent moon in the sky. The killers came in the dead-still hours long before dawn, and they must have brought flashlights along with their guns—maybe on their guns—which were AR-15-style assault rifles and carbines, according to the local prosecutors: the kinds of weapons the sicarios, or hit men, of the cartels like to use. And even in the dark, the shooters covered their faces, just the way many sicarios do.
“Cruelty’s like a searchlight,” Graham Greene once wrote about places like this, where people live on the margins and law is absent or an excuse for oppression. And on this night the cruel lights of the gunmen focused on people who, in the small, violent, and intimate world of these mountains, had become outcasts.
Some 15 years ago, the Sánchez Hernández family was driven out of the hamlet of El Potrero, where they were “humiliated constantly” because of their evangelical Protestant beliefs, according to a report about the murders on the news site Expansion. Eventually they fled to El Mirador, nearly an hour’s walk away from their former neighbors.
The women in the family, isolated and vulnerable, must have seemed easy prey for some men in the region, and nine years ago, when Silvia Sánchez Hernandez was about 14, she was raped and impregnated by a local man. He warned her never to marry anyone else and never to tell anyone that he was the father of her son.
But Silvia, in what must have been an extraordinary act of bravery, accused him of raping her and sent him to prison.
A few days after the massacre at El Mirador, the president of the Coxcatlán municipality, Vicente López de la Vega, gave reporters his version of the killing:
“We’ve dismissed the two theories that existed: organized crime and religion,” he told the press. “It was a vendetta.”
In a similar vein, the Puebla state prosecutor said in a statement, “The information from witnesses and the preliminary investigation show that nine years ago one of the murdered women had a child with one of the presumed attackers, probably as a result of a sexual assault.”
The 8-year-old boy in question was at El Mirador when the shooting took place but escaped without injuries, according to press reports. Witnesses now under state protection said the boy’s father had threatened the family in the past, and he recently was released from prison.
(Two other witnesses were little girls, aged 4 and 5. They were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.)
A few days after the massacre, one of the alleged accomplices to the crime, identified as Carlos “N,” was arrested by police, but Adán “N,” the main suspect, managed to escape into the rugged mountains along the Oaxaca-Puebla border.
So, the story of the personal vendetta was presented in much of the Mexican press as if it ruled out the violent atmosphere created by the drug cartels and the bitter religious bigotry in the region, but of course it doesn’t. They are all part of one picture, where the weak have no recourse and no respite.
Thus, when another family was slaughtered—nine women and two men—in the bloody narco-war battlefield of Ciudad Victoria last week, chroniclers of the violence noted they seemed to have no criminal connection, and given the shacks in which they lived, they certainly appeared to have little money.
A message ostensibly from one of the chiefs of the Zetas (now called the Cartel del Norte) appeared the day after the Ciudad Victoria killings, claiming that he’d paid the state governor of Tamaulipas for protection, but wasn’t getting it. If his “businesses” in the border city of Nuevo Laredo were not given better protection by the government against their rivals—“rabid wild animals”—he said, he would “continue ordering attacks on civilians in Ciudad Victoria.” In that fight, people are becoming disposable symbols, objects of random terror.
We know more about those who were slaughtered last month at El Mirador, which suggested the complexities of hate and fear, life and death in modern Mexico, even among what sometimes are described as “simple peasants.”
The funeral was held in Coxcatlán three days after the bodies were brought down from the mountain on litters. The mutilated corpse of Silvia’s husband was taken by his family to their home town for burial. The rest were laid to rest side by side.
Although all the initial headlines had said there were 11 people killed, there were 12 coffins. Silvia was eight months pregnant when she was murdered, and the fetus, removed during her autopsy, was buried separately in a white casket, as were the two other children slaughtered that night.
An evangelical pastor spoke to say the dead were only sleeping, and to ask the survivors to forgive those who committed such a crime. Neighbors performed an ancient rite, blowing horns to call the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl. Mariachis accompanied the procession to the grave, playing “Paloma Negra.”
Reporters on the scene were told not to ask any questions.
It was left to a Catholic priest known as Padre Tacho, who delivered his homily in a parking lot outside the municipal building, to try to say what could and could not be said about the murders.
“Their lives have been taken from them, and we ask, ‘Who did it? Why was it done?’ Whatever the reason—because they were of a different religion, because of boundary disputes, a settling of scores, because of sentiments and resentments, whatever reason there was, this was not justified.” Another priest, designated “protector of the rights of indigenous people” said, “To call for justice in this country is like listening to a voice in the wilderness.”
When the bodies finally were lowered into the ground, the incantations were in Náhuatl, a language from before the conquistadores, before the Christians, and before the cartels.