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A Ding-Dong Year for Death in Mexico

As the Days of the Dead (Nov. 1st &2nd), Mexico’s most emblematic fiesta approach, the “calacas” (skeletons) are stirring en masse. Indeed, it has been a dingdong year for death in that distant neighbor nation, due largely to President Felipe Calderon’s foolhardy war on the drug cartels. Tens of thousands have perished since Calderon declared this Gran Guignol crusade just hours after being sworn in as the winner of an election many Mexicans continue to believe he stole.

The quantification of death is a tricky business. This July, Mexico’s top intelligence agency, the CISEN, calculated 28,000 kills since December 2006, a correction of 3000 over official figures issued some months before. This gristly count has certainly topped 30,000 by now boosted by the recent skein of double-digit massacres in Ciudad Juarez (16 killed at a birthday party), Tijuana (15 at a drug treatment center), and Tepic Nayarit (15 more at a local carwash.) Body counts run between 20 and 40 depending on the day of the week – weekend mayhem is always more gruesome. But whatever the true tally, those who will be remembered during the 2010 celebration of the Days of the Dead far exceeds past processions to the nation’s boneyards.

Los Dias de los Muertos are highly stylized rituals grounded in Aztec mythology when those who had passed on during the year migrate to the darkness of Mictlan in the north – the 1st is reserved for the innocents, the children, and the 2nd for the rest of us poor sinners. Traditional altars, garnished with cempaxeutl (a kind of marigold), photographs of the “difuntos” (deceased ones), jugs of tequila and mezcal, the favorite cigarettes of the dead, steaming bowls of turkey mole, and spun sugar “cranios” (skulls) blanket the land from border to border. Thanks to Calderon and the drug war that he launched to please his handlers in Washington which has triggered the cartels’ murder spree, the newly dead are dying faster than such altars can even be assembled.

The northern border is hardly Mexico’s only killing field. In the southern state of Oaxaca where marking the Dias de los Muertos is a cottage industry that attracts tourists to this stunning geography, the iconic piles of bones that mock the Mexican way of death so lovingly drawn by Jose Guadalupe Posada during the Mexican revolution whose 100th anniversary is to be marked this month, continue to mount up day after day.

Ever since 2006 under the bloody baton of Governor Ulises Ruiz and his gore-splattered squadrons of death, those who struggle for justice have too often been rewarded with the peace of the graveyard. During the rebellion of “Los de Abajo” (those underneath) that erupted that year, at least 26 local activists were gunned down, including U.S. Indymedia videographer Brad Will, the anniversary of whose murder this past October 27th has once again escaped the notice of Barack Obama’s State Department. Despite the publication of his murderers’ photographs on front pages around the world, Brad’s killers remain at large and Washington seems to want to keep it that way.

Under Ulises’s management, the killings in Oaxaca have continued full throttle ever since, particularly in the Triqui Indian corner of the state where it is said that 500 indigenas have given up the ghost over the past three decades. This year Ulises’s gang has encouraged wholesale homicide, mostly directed at Triquis who have declared the county seat of San Juan Copala an autonomous municipality. Among the altars that will blossom in this tragic landscape this year are those dedicated to the memory of human rights activist Bety Carino and a young Finnish observer Jyri Jaakola who had traveled to Oaxaca to offer his solidarity. As with Brad’s killers, those who opened fire on them April 27th have never been brought to justice.

Although Ulisis Ruiz will give up his job as chief executioner in December, his party having lost state elections to a mild-mannered challenger, his death squads continue to plague and pillage this impoverished, majority Indian state.

The conflation of politics and death and its cultural expression in the Dias de los Muertos has an oddball outcropping north of the border where Election Day 2010 coincides with the Days of the Dead. This November 2nd, voters will once again be offered an opportunity to vote for Death or at least the Death of the Hope that propelled Obama into the White House two years ago. Many of us regard this demise as one of our first Afro-American president’s own making. His inexcusable failure to pin the disastrous loss of millions of jobs and homes on the crimes of Wall Street and the banking cartels has plunged the Democrats’ credibility into bottomless quicksand from which it may never surface again. Obama’s never-ending wars on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have transformed him into a Ulises Ruiz on a global scale.

I, for one, remain convinced that this double cross was hatched in the backrooms of Chicago long before 2008 turned the corner. Here, you can move into the White House for the next four years, the Republicans appear to have suggested – let the black guy take out our garbage, knowing full well that American racism would cook Obama’s goose by the mid-terms. That the Dems knowingly cut this deal only makes manifest their insatiable lust for power and filthy lucre over the welfare of the republic.

The November 2nd election, coinciding as it does with the confluence of Halloween and the Days of the Dead, is poetic comeuppance. While junior vampires prowl from door to door, soliciting candy corn and other treats for the obese, the Big Trick will win the day.

San Francisco is an enclave occasionally insulated from the North American nightmare. While Halloween has its advocates here and despite the hysterics of baseball fanatics who usually have little to babble about – this year their Giants are participants in the mislabeled “World Series” – the denizens of our local barrio, La Mision, have celebrated the Mexican Days of the Dead for the past 30 years with creative gusto and despite the deviousness of this particularly scoundrel year, they will do so once again come this November 2nd.

Unlike the persona of Santa Muerte, the macabre cult around which the drug cartels have consolidated and who purportedly protects the true believers from the Grim Reaper, los Dias de los Muertos are designed to accept and mock Death, rendering it less terrifying for those of us who teeter on the brink. This year, I will wander the allies of our make-believe Mictlan disguised as my own cancer-ridden liver. We shall soon see who gets to laugh last.

JOHN ROSS is the author of El Monstruo.  You can consult him on particulars at johnross@igc.org

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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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