The Kingpins

At the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Enrique Pe__a Nieto, who is forty-five, boyishly handsome, and generally exp... At the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Enrique Pe__a Nieto, who is forty-five, boyishly handsome, and generally expected to be the next President of Mexico, was asked to name three books that had influenced him. He mentioned the Bible, or, at least, _some parts_ (unspecified), and _The Eagle_s Throne,_ a Carlos Fuentes novel (though he named the historian Enrique Krauze as the author). And, for a few excruciating minutes, that was all he could come up with. The crowd laughed wickedly. Pe__a Nieto_s wife, a former soap-opera star, squirmed in the front row. His teen-age daughter didn_t help matters when, in a tweet, she scorned _all of the idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy._

That debacle was in December. It did nothing to slow Pe__a Nieto_s well-financed march toward the election, which will take place on July 1st, but it did provide a welcome distraction for Guadalajarans, who are justly proud of their annual book fair. It is the second largest in Latin America, drawing more than half a million visitors, nearly two thousand publishers, and hundreds of authors, including, over the years, Nadine Gordimer, William Styron, and Toni Morrison. Guadalajarans sometimes offer it up as Exhibit A for the case that the city is a civilized place where life goes on unmarked by the violence that disfigures large parts of Mexico.

By late 2011, that argument was hard to make. Two days before the fair opened, twenty-six corpses were dumped under the Millennium Arches, a downtown landmark. Near the bodies, which bore signs of torture, was a message_what is known as a narcomanta_signed by the Zetas, the most feared organized-crime group in Mexico. The message taunted the Sinaloa cartel, the country_s biggest crime group, and its leader, Joaqu__n Guzm__n Loera, known as El Chapo (Shorty). Sinaloa has controlled Guadalajara, which is the capital of the western state of Jalisco, for decades. _We_re in Jalisco and we are not leaving,_ the Zetas announced. _This is proof that we are deep inside the kitchen._ Most narcomantas (which appear virtually every day somewhere in Mexico) are disinformation, their assertions dubious, their true authorship unknowable. But the Zetas have been pushing westward from their strongholds on the Gulf Coast, and they had already taken the neighboring state of Zacatecas, so there was no reason to doubt that they coveted Jalisco, a rich prize, or that this was indeed their atrocity and their message to Guadalajara.

In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something_a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a _discovery_ of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events. This may help to explain how a city widely understood to be under the control of a leading international crime group_the U.S. Treasury Department recently labelled Guzm__n, who is fifty-five, _the world_s most powerful drug trafficker__can regard itself as a jacaranda-shaded refuge of high culture and legitimate commercial vitality. Both descriptions are true, and both realities are under siege. When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantallas_screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts. Pe__a Nieto is depicted, in cartoons, as a carnival mask behind which laughs Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a former President, who is still regarded as enormously powerful. I can_t count the number of times I have asked someone about a news story and been told, _Pantalla._

This is a problem for journalism. You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not so much what happened as what people think or imagine or say happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalists. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.

The six-year Presidency of Felipe Calder__n is coming to an end, and this election can fairly be seen as a referendum on his military-led offensive against drug traffickers, which has cost some fifty thousand lives and left the country psychologically battered. Calder__n_s National Action Party (PAN) is far behind in the polls. Its Presidential candidate, Josefina V__zquez Mota, campaigns under the slogan _Josefina diferente,_ hoping to distance herself from Calder__n, but she served in his Cabinet, and her proposals for restoring security are not notably different from current policies. Pe__a Nieto_s security platform is nothing special, either. He might eventually return the Army to its barracks and, like virtually every recent President, revamp the federal police. His slogan is _T__ me conoces___You know me__which many people find amusing, since they don_t know him at all. He was the governor of Mexico State, a populous but small horseshoe around Mexico City, and his time as a national politician has been short and heavily stage-managed, with limited press access (and no more literacy tests). Mexicans do know his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country from 1929 until 2000. Throwing out the corrupt, authoritarian PRI, in 2000, was a great moment for democracy in Latin America. Now it seems that Mexican voters are poised to bring the Party back.

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