Neil Shea


Writing the Drug War

Dispatches from Mexico :: March 2008

Michoacan, Mexico—The small man asks me to move closer. To sit right beside him. He glances up and looks quickly around the cafe. I switch chairs and follow his eyes but I don’t see what he’s looking for. He opens the manila folder in front of him and shuffles through print-outs of police photographs until he finds it. The photo is dark, possibly taken at dusk. But in the camera’s flash the metal cross gleams like silver at the edge of a rural road. A human head hangs from it, the eyes closed. A cop stands in the background.

This is how it goes, he tells me. This is what they do to people. Six heads have been dumped right there.

The man writes about Mexico´s drug wars, and their latest escalating violence. He is a reporter for one of the biggest newspaper groups in the country and he agreed to meet me to talk about it. At 8 pm i stand outside the old cathedral in Morelia, capital of Michoacan state, a late rush of tourists parting around me. Flood lights wash the twin towers, the heavy green bells. They are closing the gates. I have no idea who I’m looking for. Then he appears, a short, dark man with a thin mustache and a bundle of manila folders under his arm.

I thought National Geographic was a little more interested in nature? he says.

He picks a nearby cafe in a busy market. He shows me more photos. Blood stained notes left beside bodies, more crime scenes. He looks over his shoulder often. At first I think it is because he’s worried about disturbing someone with the gruesomeness of it. I am unprepared. In 2006 there were 597 drug-related murders in Michoacan alone. Most of the dead were in the business; others were police commanders, drug enforcement agents, soldiers. Some people simply disappeared, including two journalists. Another journalist, a friend of his, disappeared a month ago. There has been no word, no clues. Their newspaper no longer runs the names of the men writing the drug stories.

He tells me he does it because it´s an important story. If journalists weren’t talking about it, writing about it, the government would say nothing. The new president has launched a new war against Mexico’s drug cartels, with help from the United States. It has had some good effect, he believes. It has also increased the violence as the cartels battle each other and government troops. There are places he will no longer visit, no matter what the story. In a cartel-controlled town in the southwest, he was stopped and warned one day.

Asking questions is dangerous, a man told him. It’s better if you don´t.

My companion got the message and left and never went back. His wife worries. He worries. Driving on country roads, he gets nervous when cars pull up behind him. I cannot imagine this feeling. I realize now it is why he scans the room every few minutes.

I take care who i talk to, and about what, he says. You never know who’s around.

There is one more photo he wants me to see. He turns the page, and I do not think it is real. On a September night in 2006, a group of men walked into a packed bar in Michoacan. they fired shots in the air, cleared the dance floor. From black trash bags they spilled five human heads. In the photo the floor tiles are slicked with blood. The crumpled, sticky bags. A view up into a man´s neck, another victim still blindfolded. The gunmen were not worried, they took their time. As the crowd stared, one of them began to write a note. The bodies were never found.

It is late, we are among the last in the cafe. At a table behind us, a group of five or so men laugh and smoke. A clerk mops with broad, angular strokes, as if she were painting. The man says he hopes I can do something with the story. Americans don’t understand their role in this, he says. Where there is someone to buy, there will always be someone to sell. When President Bush tightens the borders, the drug smugglers become more violent because there are fewer ways to cross. It is also true that the guns the cartels use arrive in Mexico from the US. He warns that if I take this story on, I will have to be careful, too. Like he is.

Please try not to use my name too much, he says.

The bill comes. We are heading for the stairs when a man from the last table gets up and walks quickly toward us. He wears a blue shirt and has a mustache. He stops my friend.

Are you a salesman? Or maybe in the tourism business? he asks.

Uh, no, the reporter says.


An uncomfortable silence. The mustache man turns back toward his table. The reporter is unnerved.

Was that strange? I ask, outside the cafe.

Yes. It was.

We walk. He says nothing. We pass the cathedral, glowing cold and white in the spotlight glare, like a fortress of bone.

I’m taking a cab, hesays suddenly. He doesn’t quite look at me.

His arm shoots out, a cab pulls over, he pats me on the back and says we’ll email and then he is gone. A sense of dread floods up in me. This is not a casual story. Reporters have vanished here, his colleagues. The police do nothing. Did i just get him in trouble? Quickly my mind says no, everything will be fine. I walk around for a while thinking about his job, about what he has chosen. The streets are quiet and mostly empty. An old whore in a red skirt shouts to me that she is the best, the most beautiful, in all the city. I head back toward the shit hotel, part of me wishing I had never asked him out to talk.

Other Dispatches
Writing the Future

January 09, 2014

Wedding Crashers

August 29, 2013

Al Taqaddum

April 18, 2013

Snapshots of a Fading War

December 19, 2012


January 03, 2010

Absolute Power

March 01, 2009

Writing the Drug War

March 15, 2008

Let Them Die Here

March 06, 2006

Hard Time

February 17, 2006