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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Alpha -- Zeta

The Narco Bible
In a gunfight on Sunday, Oct. 6, Mexican marines killed Heriberto Lazcano, aka “El Verdugo,” described as the leader of the Zetas cartel.  (Perhaps "a" leader is more accurate, as other reports have it that Miguel Treviño Morales took control of the group in August....which could explain how Lazcano was located).  The day after, masked gunmen raided the funeral home holding his body and spirited it away. 

The Zetas are an especially brutal cartel, one faction in a drug war that has left over 50,000 dead in the last six years.  War is truly an apt description, but does little to evoke the almost surreal scale of violence in parts of Mexico, routinely involving beheadings, dismemberment and the public display of body parts.  In one case we've mentioned on LoS, 6 victims had their hearts cut out; in another, 5 human heads were found in ice chests.  This is only the tip of the iceberg; mass killings have involved victims numbering into the dozens....70+ in a mass grave here, 49 headless bodies by the roadside there.....

This graphic helps visualize the numbers.

LoS readers will have recognized that "death and dismemberment" is one of the blog's long-standing interests.  Beheading, de-handing, lost arms, floating Canadian feet....we've covered it.  It's a macabre field of inquiry and perhaps we sometimes laugh a little too easily, but rather than take this as a sign of cruelty, try to see it as a kind of psychic defense against the steady bombardment of our conscious and subconscious minds with violent images and information.  It's enough to make one want to stay home all day with the doors locked; a little laughter is a good dose of anti-paranoia medicine.

Dismemberment is a powerful and distressing tactic, hitting us almost physically; in all other respects being equal, I think it affects us more than a "mere" killing does.  A severed limb or head is somehow humiliating, adding insult to injury, as it were.  It's also a lot more creepy to think of either the perverse commitment it takes to actually dismember a corpse...or the killer whose flare of passion has erupted and now, back to reason, must find a way to dispose of his victim.  On some primal level, even the least superstitious among us might feel that desecration of the corpse makes it harder somehow for the dead soul to rest in peace, to pass on to the other side.  Desecration is rich in symbolic import, poetic resonance and archetypal gut-punchery.

I went over this quite a bit in a post about the theft of St. Laurence O'Toole's heart and the power of relics.  I would reiterate that in the cult of the saints, a piece of the saint's body is often regarded as the most vital sort of relic, that in this case dismemberment allows for the spiritual wealth to be shared; the part is as powerful as the whole, and a small fragment of bone is enough to get the job done.  The power of the body part is deftly illustrated.

At the time I wrote that post I was reading an anthology entitled Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America.  I had a brief correspondence with contributor Dr. Donna Guy from OSU about her article on popular saints and the Pérons in Argentina.  The whole book is highly recommended, but her essay is a very enlightening stand-out.  Rebels, outlaws, usurpers and the usurped, the ways in which the remains of the dead are used by the living form a rich and variegated historical canopy, an interesting point of entry into wider historical issues.

Without re-hashing every detail, suffice it to say that the power of the corpse should not be underestimated and in this anthology is illustrated by the post-mortem fate of several famous political figures from various Latin American countries.

The Obama administration realized this power when they made the decision to quickly dispose of the body of Osama Bin Laden after he was clubbed to death by SEALs (LoS post), ostensibly to avoid allowing his buried remains to become the focus of a pilgrimage site.  The practical benefits of this denial are inexorably bound with its symbolic and spiritual aspects.  (I'd found it odd that Lazcano was described as having been killed by the Mexican navy, but a navy team killed Bin Laden, so why not).

The same rationale was applied to the corpse of Che Guevara, whose dismembered body was scattered for the same reason Bin Laden's was dumped into the sea.  Che's remains were eventually re-patriated to Cuba and are located in an elaborate memorial there.  But in the interim before Che's re-interment, a more humble and organic shrine had developed.  At the site of his death, there is no corpse, but there is a folk cult of a saint--no longer "in the making"--but pretty much already canonized.  Locals venerate Che as a saint alongside established Catholic models, complete with relics, candles and prayer.  All the trappings of your typical saint.  Here we can juxtapose the power of the corpse both as Cuban state propaganda, like Lenin in Red Square, as well as something more spontaneous and "natural":  a saint created from popular devotion, outside the canonization process of the Church, and often at odds with it (see Héléna, the cemetery saint).

Then there is the case of Juan Perón.  The grave robbery which led to the amputation and subsequent ransom of Perón's hands (with their own Wikipedia page) was ostensibly about an 8-million dollar ransom, but it also had the potential to lead to other tangible political results.  Symbolically, it was an extremely powerful act.  More striking perhaps than a castration; both render the once mighty man in his splendid tomb somewhat ridiculous, pathetic and impotent, but the removal of hands seems much more mysterious.  The public never saw his penis, so if it disappeared....?  The public knew his hands, and the imagination can work much more easily when it can envision what once was, gone.  As Wikipedia points out, Lyman, editor of Death, Dismemberment, etc. argues that the theft was "a catalyst to destroy the symbolic cult of Perón".

Eva Perón's body also suffered indignity in death; her corpse was ignobly shuffled about before returning to Buenos Aires.  After the military coup of 1955 her body disappeared.  It was secretly put into a crypt in Milan under the name María Maggi (Mary Magdalen?).  "Evita" was exhumed and repatriated in 1971, placed in an elaborate and highly secure tomb, which has become a popular shrine, and she, revered like a saint.   What is important is that her body has remained intact.  In his essay on "Latin America" in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, John McManners "claims that Eva Perón consciously incorporated aspects of the mythology of the Virgin and of Mary Magdalene into her public persona."  In this case, the theft of the body demonstrates its importance; but at least it remained whole and undefiled. 

Talk about laws of silence:  at the time when Evita's body was being hidden, the military had outlawed even speaking the name of the Peróns in public.  The missing body was part of a wider effort to wipe them out of public memory.

This "body politics" dealy is what caught our eye upon seeing the titles of articles about the killing of Heriberto Lazcano.  The titles of the articles I've seen are telling.  The Washington Post articleZetas cartel founder killed, Mexican navy says; masked gunmen steal body.  The New York TimesMexico Kills a Drug Kingpin, but the Body Gets Away.  The fact that the body was taken is as important as the death itself.

The tangible results of his death will depend on the follow-though by the Mexican authorities and the inner organizational strength of the cartel itself.  Perhaps he was an irreplaceable strategist whose absence will seriously undermine the power of the cartel, or perhaps a capable lieutenant will step in and assume the duties.

Maybe in the resulting power struggle, violence will flare up; hopefully, the contenders will stick to killing each other as opposed to the hapless police, prosecutors, journalists and assorted bystanders gunned down and carved up in alarming numbers.

The propaganda value of Lazcano's death should have been enormous.  The Mexican government would have been able to hold it up as a success, as way to show the public that the police have scored a victory in its ongoing fight against the narco-traffickers.  But the brazen "theft" of the body mitigates the symbolic value of the victory, if not rendering it completely void.

As the cliché might have it, this cartel boss wields the power to confound the state from beyond the grave.

Mixed up with this propaganda and symbolic value is a spiritual mytheme that is all the more potent for its deep and long presence in Western thought, found among some of the earliest known mythology.  The myth of Set and Osiris seems relevant here.  Egyptian religion was a dominant Mediterranean cultural influence over a period of centuries, even millennia, and it is still today relatively well-known among the educated public, especially among students of esotericism, the occult and ritual "magick".

Plutarch tells of a conspiracy wherein Set conspired to assassinate Osiris.  Set tricked Osiris and trapped him in a box he then tossed in the Nile.  Osiris' wife Isis searched for his remains and found them embedded in a tree trunk supporting the roof of a Phoenician palace.  In some versions of the story Osiris is resurrected and impregnates Isis, dying afterwards.  Sometime later, Set discovers his body and becomes enraged, tearing the body in fourteen pieces which he scatters across Egypt in an attempt to deny him a proper passage into the afterlife and to erase him from memory.  Isis then reassembles the pieces (except his penis) to be buried anew.  The Gods then resurrect Osiris again, making him god of the underworld, often associated with the flood and retreat of the Nile.  The underworld and the Nile.  Need one say more?  The importance of these aspects of Egyptian civilization cannot be overstated, and Osiris, dismembered, becomes associated with these aspects after being re-membered, so to speak.

In another version Osiris is murdered by his brother Typhon, identified as Set.  Typhon divided the body into 26 pieces and distributed them among his co-conspirators.  After Typhon was killed by Isis and Hercules/Horus in revenge, these parts were recovered (excepting again the phallus) and buried in secret locations.  She did, however, make replicas of the parts and distributed them throughout the land, where they became shrines to Osiris.

History doesn't lack for examples of how final resting places and death sites become places of worship.  The graves of famous men and women become shrines, this is a fact.  Hence the Soviets' diligence in ensuring that the remains of Hitler were never given a grave.  Indeed, what exactly happened to them is a mystery, but they were buried and exhumed no less than 8 times, burnt, mixed with ash and thrown into the Biederetz River, if Pravda is to be believed.  It would also explain why some Egyptian Pharoahs destroyed rivals' monuments or effaced their inscriptions.

Closer to home perhaps, is the story of Jesus.  While not dismembered, the fate of his body had a decisive effect on the history of Western Civilization.  After his crucifixion, the three Marys went to his tomb to anoint the body and discovered that it had disappeared.  Unlike the disappeared body of Che and Bin Laden, the lack of a body here was proof of the resurrection and turned what had been a less-than-desirable end into the founding myth of Christianity.  For over a thousand years history was driven by the story that a body wasn't where it should have been!

In one of the earliest post on LoS, we translated a Mafia initiation ritual which involved vaguely occult practices.  One Mexican cartel based in Michoacon refer to themselves as TemplarsAnd another early LoS post speaks of Jesus Malverde, a kind of saint among the drug traffickers, so prevalent that shrines erected in his honor are regularly bulldozed by the Mexican authorities as part of its fight against them.

Thus a criminal battle extends into the spiritual realm.  Malverde is the patron of narco-traffickers, especially their hitmen.  Given the extreme level of brutal violence in the ongoing drug war, it's tempting to frame the cartels as a kind of death cult, with killings performed if not exactly for Jesus Malverde, than at least with Malverde being thanked and honored.  There's a fine line between thanking a saint for services rendered and performing actions in that saint's honor.


Malverde, however, was a Robin Hood kind of figure, and it's hard to see the Zetas, who regularly brutalize the poorest and most disenfranchised of Mexicans, honoring that legacy.  Yet, at times the cartels do in fact serve as a kind of local benefactor, spreading their largesse among those they deem worthy.  The price of disloyalty and collaborating with the forces of order are high, but there are rewards for helping the cartels, if only by remaining silent.  Malverde is referred to as the "angel of the poor" and a "generous bandit".  Clearly, the traffickers play upon this mythology; a whole sub-genre of  music, the narcoicorrido, celebrates their exploits and continue to thrive despite sporadically being banned from the radio.

The Sicilian Mafia itself began as a kind of political entity, a guerrilla force, which was probably from the get-go a kind of brigandry.  A number of political and revolutionary secret societies borrowed ritual elements from sources such as Freemasonry and over time mutated into criminal enterprise.  Tale for example, the FARC.  Are they really Marxist rebels these days, or are they drug traffickers, extortionists and kidnappers?  In method, they're not much different from a cartel, despite the vestiges of revolutionary ideology.

This brings us back to the Templar cartel, who have been described as "quasi-religious" and who apparently use initiation rituals described as "cult-like.  What these rituals consist of is anyone's guess, but police have reported finding plastic Roman centurion helmets they say were used in initiations.  Back in March,it was reported that 120 helmets had been found.  That's a lot of initiates!  Perhaps the initiations include passion plays?

Whatever the case the Templars do have a veneer of a spiritual and revolutionary mission, explicitly setting themselves up as contemporary Malverdes.

The Templars were so named in 2011 from the remains of La Familia Michoacana.  According to Wikipedia, Familia leaders Nazarion Moreno González and Méndez Vargas called their assassinations and beheadings "divine justice".  The cartel's spiritual teachings are influenced by Swedenborgian interpretations of the New Jerusalem.  Swedenborg's idea is that "the New Jerusalem described in the Bible is a symbol for a new dispensation that was to replace/restore Christianity."  Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith was heavily influenced by this interpretation, which which finds support in the writings of Karl Jung, as well as in New Thought.  La Familia's "boss and spiritual leader"  published a spiritual work mixing "evangelical-style self-help with insurgent peasant slogans" based on the work of John Eldredge, a contemporary American Christian author, lecturer and counselor.  Apparently his work is required reading for gang members and the cartel has provided funding to circulate Eldredge's writings.  The cartel promotes religion and family values, doesn't tolerate substance abuse or the ill-treatment of women and children and includes regular attendance at prayer meeting as an advancement criterium.  The cartel also distributes money to those in need and manipulates the local media into singing its praises.

"Social justice" is one of their aims and when the pope visited in 2012, they put up welcome banners and promised to refrain from violence during his visit.

Nazario Moreno was shot dead by police in December 2010 in a gunfight, but he lives on, reportedly worshipped as a saint himself!  MSNBC:

"Soldiers raiding criminal safe houses in the western state of Michoacan have recently found altars topped with three foot high statues in the image of Moreno, shown in golden medieval armor and carrying a sword. A local verse dedicated to the dead trafficker invokes him as a supernatural force.

"Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life," goes the "Prayer to Saint Nazario".

Now calling themselves the Knights Templar, after the medieval military order that protected Christian pilgrims during the Crusades, members carry a code book decorated with pictures of cloaked knights with red crosses."

So the process of sanctifying outlaws is not merely an historical phenomenon, the process is ongoing; the "narco-saint" is a type of folk saint.

When I began this post, I set out to put the theft--or recovery--of Locanzo's body in the wider context of "death, dismemberment and memory" in Latin America.  In searching to widen to spiritual scope, I recalled the mafia initiation rituals, which bring the criminal organization closer to the secret society, of which a mafia undoubtedly is.  I went on to the idea that these mafias, or cartels, even have their own pantheon of saints; in the north, Jesus Malverde is lauded in song, and shown devotion by ruthless hitmen.  Death itself is also worshipped, making these cartels something like death cults.

In Michoacan, however, the "Templar cartel" has sanctified one of its original leaders and functions more clearly like a sect.  Recruiting among addicts, it exhorts its members to clean living and prayer.  All the while cutting heads off in the name of God and Saint Nazarion, author of their spiritual text.  Interestingly, the stated goals of the cartel include social justice, dignity and peace for the campesino.  The Robin Hood meme in full effect.

They are also ruthlessly dedicated to eradicating the Zetas, which adds an interesting element into the mix.

The Mexican drug war is certainly a war for power and narco-dollars, but could there also be an underlying spiritual battle being waged?  Is the idea of social justice a la Robin Hood and the "apotheosis" of former leaders a ploy, or a genuine belief?

And will Heriberto Lazcano become a saint?

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