OCTOBER 19, 2015
IN THE MEXICAN STATE OF VERACRUZ in Héctor Aguilar Camín’s 1986 novel, Death in Veracruz, Lázaro Pizarro is the union strongman and de facto ruler. He is a man of grandiose ambition and clever stories. He talks about and carries out imaginative projects in the name of his workers; his purview includes everything from overseeing vegetable farms to punishing an abusive drunk. Men line up outside his office to seek his help with or advice about family issues, money problems, job searches. He is respected and feared. He makes life-changing decisions for others without any second thoughts. He knows who he is and what he must do. He is described as having “the look of someone long acquainted with effort and adversity. They had left their mark on a body that seemed both dignified and mutilated by much hard work.”
Pizarro’s motto and, therefore, the motto of the oil workers, is “Destroy to create. Whoever can add can divide.” More than mere bureaucratic doubletalk, the motto underscores the multilayered, contradictory grid of betrayal and lies that serves as the foundation of Camín’s novel, where nothing and nobody are what they seem, and yet massive dishonesty and corruption are blatant.
Mexico in the 1970s was a land of stark contrasts. (The bulk of the novel takes place in 1976–1979.) In the first half of the decade the country experienced rapid economic growth. Oil discoveries promised a golden, secure future. Rhetoric from President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and other old guard politicians trumpeted a modern and progressive Mexico. Oil became the economy’s most dynamic growth sector, and the country went from an importer of oil and petroleum products to a significant exporter. Rising income allowed the government to continue its expansionary fiscal policy, partially financed by higher foreign borrowing. Between 1978 and 1981, the economy grew more than eight percent annually, as the government spent heavily on energy, transportation, and basic industries.
But the core was rotten. The dominance of oil came at the expense of other products and industries. Food production especially suffered. Fiscal mismanagement and government scandals combined to scuttle the economy, and by 1981 Mexico had to deal with falling oil prices, higher world interest rates, rising inflation, a chronically overvalued peso, and a deteriorating balance of payments — the country’s worst recession since the 1930s. The impact was severe. Daily life for the common Mexican family became a mean struggle for survival. Rising crime rates, increased criminal and governmental violence, and ubiquitous official corruption followed the wreckage of the dying Mexican financial structure. The Mexican economy remained stagnant for decades, and has yet to fully recover.
Written during that recession, Death in Veracruz is set against a background of violent land takeovers by the oil cartels. In Camín’s version, PEMEX, the state oil monopoly, seizes land, dictates policy to local and federal officials, and operates as a shadow government.
PEMEX and the workers’ union are unlikely bedmates, intent on bullying Mexico into the gilded future through any means necessary. Pizarro, one of the union’s more charismatic leaders, is linked by a respected but jaded journalist to numerous shady deals and illegal land seizures, accompanied by beatings and killings when required. Eventually, the reporter has to investigate the murder of an old friend — a mayor of a Mexican village who stood in the way of both oil developers and union interests. The mayor and his wife had revealed to the reporter their evidence of the union leader’s murderous enterprises. A mob executes the mayor before any of the proof surfaces.
The lynching of the mayor sets into motion a series of events that may or may not implicate the mayor’s widow in an assassination attempt on Pizarro, who may or may not have suffered grievous injuries at the hand of a hired gunman. Meanwhile, the journalist — the novel’s unnamed narrator — never knows the complete truth. Nor does he know who to trust or believe.
In the world created by Camín, no one has clean hands or a calm conscience. The journalist had been carrying on an affair with the mayor’s wife, a woman for whom both men had competed in their youth. Meanwhile, the enigmatic widow Anabela is consumed with such an intense desire for revenge that she hopes to match Pizarro bullet for bullet. And yet, the reporter, suffering from guilty ambivalence, continues their doomed affair.
The journalist moves uneasily from the bed of his best friend’s wife to the sterile and imposing office of the union leader, and to all-night drinking parties in Mexico City with fellow journalists, government clerks, and other such “contacts.” At the end, he has reconciled himself to a version of the facts that, if not completely satisfactory, at least accommodates his reporter’s need for closure. In classic Mexican fashion, the journalist, the novel’s narrator, grudgingly accepts the dark fate imposed on him and his friends and lover.
Death in Veracruz is the first novel written by Camín to be translated into English. It has been hailed as a “classic of Latin American fiction” by Ariel Dorfman. Unfortunately, though based on events from more than 40 years ago, the novel still resonates. Bloody Mexico continues to be an appropriate phrase to describe the country. The familiar drug cartel violence that has caused thousands of gruesome deaths has numbed the world into accepting a view of the country as a wild, blood-soaked land where no one is safe from the criminals or the police. Government-sanctioned violence is eerily reminiscent of the violence in Camín’s novel, although today the targets are not necessarily political enemies of the party in charge, but journalists and reporters who dare attempt to expose the brutality of the state.
On July 30th of this year, the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and social activist Nadia Vera were killed in Mexico City along with three other women. Espinosa worked as a photographer in the state of Veracruz. He fled to Mexico City after receiving numerous death threats that he was convinced came directly from the local government. Espinosa had been working in Veracruz for the news magazine Proceso. He reported on the 43 missing students from the state of Guerrero, as well as the government of Veracruz under Governor Javier Duarte. Vera also left Veracruz after receiving death threats for her work on behalf of human rights. She had been vocal in her opposition to the Veracruz government and believed it to be complicit in the violence taking place in the region. A year ago, in a televised interview, she warned that if anything happened to her or her colleagues, Governor Duarte would be responsible.
Since Duarte took power in 2010, 14 journalists have been murdered and three have disappeared. None of these murders or disappearances has resulted in convictions. 37 journalists have fled their homes and jobs after receiving threats. The violence against reporters is not confined to Veracruz. Since 2000, dozens of journalists have been killed in Mexico and 20 more remain missing. Most of these crimes have never been prosecuted.
In Death in Veracruz, the journalist/narrator takes risks to learn the story so that he can report it. He is aware that he could be killed for doing his job, but he also believes that because he is a reporter he will be given some leeway. His press credentials do protect him, to some extent, and they also provide access to people and places that are important to the story. For example, he can walk into Pizarro’s office, under the paranoid eye of Pizarro’s bodyguard, and engage the boss himself in a calculated but revealing conversation. Although the reporter is admonished to “try to understand,” an implicit warning that failing to understand would be a deadly mistake, politicians or party hacks cannot avoid him unless they want to see themselves on the front page.
The journalist is cautioned about interfering with the “professionals.” He is, after all, only an amateur. His government friends accept the need for flexibility in dangerous times, and they change their advice and opinions based on how the political winds blow. To reinforce this point, Pizarro blithely says to the journalist, “You’ve been told that I had people around Chicontepec killed to get their lands. Don’t let that bother you. Civilization has killed more people than you and I could ever mourn.” In other words, that’s the way it’s always been, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Camín is an award-winning writer, journalist, and historian who has published several novels and reported on numerous major Mexican news stories. Only he knows how much of himself and his own experiences are included in the character of his fictional journalist. While any immunity from violence the narrator of Death in Veracruz might have enjoyed does not exist in 2015 for reporters or activists such as Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera, much of Camín’s novel speaks to the truth of today. The violent exercise of power, the brutal methods for retaining that power, and the bloody body counts that measure the power brokers’ security, as portrayed in the novel, remain in place in Mexico, changed only by increases in number and frequency.