In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press
“[The book] is an amazing piece of crime noir . . . and it also serves as a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy and how those democracies can transform into authoritarian regimes and narco-states.”
Mexico has long been described as a “violent democracy.” Indeed, it is the most dangerous place on the planet for journalists outside of active war zones.
In the Mouth of the Wolf, does a deep exploration of the murder of one hard-hitting political journalist, Regina Martínez, whose specialty was political corruption. That placed her at a most-dangerous nexus: organized crime interpenetrates with state politics and its attenuated oligarchs. Like a type of fusion, the result is the creation of a new political form that smashes them together into what has been termed a “mafia.”
Early in the book’s preface drug cartels are called “de facto authorities.” That label comes up again as the narrative progresses. It somewhat misses the point because it wants to cling to the idea that the state still exists and has lost its authority, legitimacy, and control.
Once upon a time, politicians at the state and federal level were passive players with cartels, charging them what amounted to a protection tax. While that still exists, many have gotten into the business themselves, as Katherine Corcoran clearly underscores.
In fact, all of Mexico’s major institutions have been interpenetrated by one or another drug cartel including all levels of its security apparatus; local, state, and federal politics; and the judicial system. Any notion of the rule of law is shed when the mafiosi can act with total impunity. In a nutshell, anyone could be a narco. How could everyday citizens have confidence in public security and civil authority? Add to this the presence of weak civil society norms and institutions, perhaps the most important of which is a free, independent press.
This is the world in which Regina Martínez worked as a well-known, hard-hitting investigative journalist whose pieces regularly gave politicians a healthy dose of disquietude. Her beat was in the notoriously corrupt State of Veracruz on Mexico’s eastern coast where she did her reporting for Proceso, arguably the best political weekly in the country since its founding on the mid-1970s.
Corcoran had spent considerable time as the bureau chief for the Associated Press in Mexico City. She was well aware of Martínez’s work and sought to get to the bottom of her untimely death. Aided by four of Martínez’s close colleagues, she chased leads, undertook many hours of interviews, and ran down one rabbit hole after another to no avail. It was a journey for Corcoran that was hardly without some degree of personal risk. Of course, that risk is multiplied many times for the Mexican journalists who worked with her. She was, after all, a foreign outsider with strong institutional protections as a U.S. citizen and elite member of the AP.
Yet it is undeniable that almost immediately after Martínez’s murder, the State of Veracruz embarked on a coverup claiming before any investigation had begun that she was the victim of domestic violence. There was no proof of this, of course. In the classic coverup scenario, a couple of marginal neighborhood men were fingered. One was taken into custody and there was a confession extracted by torture. The other disappeared. These kinds of convenient framings are well detailed in the award-winning documentary, Presunto Culpable/Presumed Guilty (2009), which explores the plight of a street vendor in Mexico City who was arrested, charged with a murder he knew nothing about, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The documentary reveals how the justice system works against anyone convicted of a crime regardless of innocence.
Along the way, Corcoran bumps up against everyday citizens too terrified to talk, a bevy of corrupt politicians, numerous shady characters, and a system designed to cover up and disappear all manner of misdeed when convenient.
Corcoran argues incisively that there is a “third rail” of Mexican politics; that conjuncture where organized crime and the state’s political operatives are completely intertwinned. Put even more bluntly, the government has become a competing cartel.
How did such a thing happen in a country that had all the trappings of a democracy for 100 years? It is useful to recall Mario Vargas Llosa’s characterization of the 70+ year control of political power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI in its Spanish acronym) as “the perfect dictatorship.” This extended period was characterized by PRI domination at all levels of government in an electoral system designed by them and for them. Yes, there was a loyal opposition just to make things look a bit more legitimate.
As illicit drug production and trafficking fired up in the 1970s, the PRI slowly began to establish systems of protection that were stable and predictable. In this arrangement the cartels and civil society kept their distance and everyday citizens went about their lives untouched.
Corcoran touches on an incredibly important observation that that bears highlighting and underscoring, for it is a remarkably provocative idea. It’s darkly ironic that the advent of real democracy starting in 2000, when the PRI lost the presidency, was also the beginning of Mexico’s democratic downfall.
How could this be one might, quite rightly, ask? It is because the well-established systems of drug cartel protection were being disrupted. Recall that major illicit trafficking had shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico in the mid-1980s. By 2000 this was a massive, high stakes business.
In 2006, a second opposition president, Felipe Calderón, militarized his home state of Michoacán and embarked on a drug war that rages to this day. Rather than taming the cartels or putting them out of business altogether, the drug war has seen a remarkable spiral of violence, instability, and an endemic destabilization of the country. By going after kingpins, the drug-war strategy fractured cartels into smaller, competing operations that vied for power and territory through terroristic levels of violence.
Cartels, then, had to try to reestablish systems of protection through state actors and their institutions, thus leading to the transformation of the state into yet another competing cartel. The state has been replaced as a privileged partner of capitalism by these new mafias who were simply better at undertaking all manner of illegal activity and had access to transnational markets.
In fact, the fragility of emergent democracies is hardly just a Mexican phenomenon. Under conditions of weak governance institutions and civil society norms, shaky leadership, corruption, and other ills, anti-democratic impulses often get an opening as a savior. We need look no further than the collapse of the Soviet Union and the utter incompetence of Boris Yeltsin regime (1991–1999) as setting the stage for Vladimir Putin (1999–) to gain control and shift Russia to an authoritarian system over the past 20+ years. We could also look elsewhere in Latin America—Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador—where authoritarian regimes have emerged out of democratic institutions.
Corcoran does turn her attention to our own challenges in the U.S. with democratic norms (rigged elections) and challenges to truth and fact (fake news, alternative facts, and other gaslighting), the comparison is not particularly robust. For our institutions and civil society norms have thus far withstood the challenge.
While the Mexican citizenry has yet to see the myriad cartels as a savior, they would most certainly embrace a return to safety and stability. As state and federal governments fail to provide those qualities, it’s an open question where people will turn for solutions. The future is unwritten, but the outlook is far from a good one.
In closing, In the Mouth of the Wolf reads like an amazing piece of crime noir. It is, at once, a fine-grained story of a murder, a coverup, government corruption, narco-politicians, byzantine bureaucracies, failed rule of law, and endemic threat, danger, and the potential for violence. It also serves as a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy and how those democracies can transform into authoritarian regimes and narco-states.