Freedom and Information: On Anabel Hernández's “A Massacre in Mexico”
Anabel Hernández | A Massacre in Mexico | Verso Books | Oct. 16, 2018 | 432 Pages
In December 2017, Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández gave the 20th Freedom Lecture at De Balie, a 19th-century courthouse in Amsterdam that now hosts public debates and theater. She spoke on the subject of the press, which is to say she painted a portrait of her own life in media res:
“I really think that freedom is not something that someone can give you, that freedom is something that you have to feel inside,” she said. “I think that the only way to help the people become more powerful inside and more free is [the] work of a journalist, because journalists can help to the people to have the correct and accurate and in-the-right-moment information to be able to take their own decisions. Information is the key to be able to take decisions every day.”
In A Massacre in Mexico, Hernández provides such information to her fellow citizens. This information runs counter to the official narrative of a major crime, one repeated across incongruent iterations by the federal government and the military. Hernández, with her searing analysis of an ongoing brutality, adds another notch to a history of Mexican journalism and public indictment against the government; where officials sought impunity for their actions, their massacre of innocent citizens, they found only the determination of Hernández's reporting. For her work, she has lived under threat of death for years.
The titular massacre rests disquietingly in the eye of the storm. Hernández, in her conveyance of decades of political churning in Mexico, returns again and again to the night of Sept. 26, 2014, revisiting the violence from different angles and with the benefit of added layers of insight and details provided along the way. On that night, dozens of young students from the rural Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School of Ayotzinapa were traveling through Iguala en route to a protest in Mexico City. They were ambushed at multiple locations in the city, and, ultimately, 43 students were “disappeared”. Three were murdered. The official state government narrative is that local police and the mayor were in on it: Long-simmering political feuds had brought them to this single event, apparently, and they killed these students and handed the others to a local gang. To this day, the students remain disappeared. Gone.
What actually happened is far more horrific than the “historical truth,” the narrative etched into public consciousness by those in power. The state's explanation immediately triggered Hernández's finely tuned critical faculties, and she set to work as a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program in Berkeley, California. By digging through the muck of police cover-ups and vicious episodes of torture in her home country, Hernández limns a resounding conclusion: The state did this. The state committed these crimes.
Her evidence is compelling. A Massacre in Mexico is a limber display of investigative journalism. The reader, no doubt, leaves this book informed of how things work in the halls of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto's Mexico.
Along the way, this riveting nexus of truth and lie is a sickening reading process. Like other atrocities in Mexican history, the Iguala massacre is a gruesome catalyst: “[T]hese acts unleashed a host of further crimes and wove a net of complicity that served to obscure the truth and protect the perpetrators,” Hernández writes. Without understanding the former, citizens cannot know the latter.
The stakes in this story, packaged in one heaving trek across years of political history, are the same ontological stakes stringing together any crime against humanity. What is to be believed? What does it all mean? How will you live your life in the shadow, inevitably, of government violence?
The book reads like a long, immersive magazine feature, one that takes a surgical blade to a labyrinthine corruption scandal that ties the state government to the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel—and histories of cooperation between the two. Why would the state commit this brutal crime? The journalist connects broad political dynamics that aren't immediately visible in the daily newspaper; it takes hard work to elucidate the motives behind the state-sanctioned disappearance of young, politically active students from the countryside. Hernández has devoted her life to this work, and the result is a story that makes more sense than the rote press conferences held in the wake of the massacre.
Structurally, Hernández circles her subjects like a hawk, or, rather, like a savvy producer; what I mean to say is that this book flows elegantly for the narrative-obsessed reader otherwise unfamiliar with the political leitmotifs of Mexican civil society. It's not an easy read, but its simplicity in prose is an achievement. It reads like a season of Serial on the page, one might say.
Americans will find this story not entirely foreign to them. Iguala is a two-hour drive from Mexico City, which a curious U.S. citizen could wake up and decide to visit via direct flight by suppertime. There, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, the heroin trade flourishes. The federal government and its bought-and-sold fiefdoms—small, fortified cities like nearby Huitzuco, which plays a backdrop role in the sequence of events leading up to the massacre—prioritize safety for cartels. The peasantry is an afterthought. It is this power dynamic that led to the creation of the Normal Rural schools in 1920s, at any rate, and this political imbalance is found in every sentence of Hernández's book. These leftist students traveling to a protest in the capital, indeed, are the enemy of the state.
The backdrop of heroin plays a quiet role in this story, but it's important. By the book's end, American readers will note the proximity of this particular massacre with the ongoing opioid addiction and overdose crisis this side of the national border. The demand for heroin in the U.S. is fueled by political corruption and poppy production in states like Guerrero; the violence that surrounds the drug trade in Mexico, then, is but one cog in the machinery killing an increasing number of Americans each year. What happened in Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014, is intrinsically connected to skyrocketing overdose rates and local gang violence in places like Cleveland, Ohio.
All of which is to say: Hernández's work informs Mexican citizens, but the story of the massacre in Iguala also casts light on the meaning of political power in a modern, drug-addled world. Her structure and prose—translated here by journalist John Washington—places the reader on the sun-baked paving stones of Juan N. Álvarez Street, where even today the memory of gunfire and gently flowing rivulets of innocent blood lingers. This is a story “with no clear end, and no obvious beginning,” Washington writes in his introduction to the book.
Violence is omnipresent.
What's most striking, then, is that Hernández draws her narrative almost exclusively from state government records. Shortly after the Iguala attacks, in a story for a local left-wing news magazine called Proceso, she revealed the existence of the C4, a broad communications network that funneled emergency services calls through the state government and military. Real-time reports bounced between state law enforcement agencies that night, confirming that the state, indeed, knew exactly what was happening in the streets of Iguala. These records provide the raw numbers and facts concerning the events, but they also provide the color, as Hernández regularly quotes the snide and often presumptuous state prosecutor and federal investigators directly. Traveling back in time, she uses primary-source documents again and again to efficiently and exactingly describe each government official's rise to power.
Following the massacre, those government officials manufacture a story out of torture and forced confessions. But when every word is placed on a desk before a clear-eyed investigative reporter, the “historical falsehood” crumbles beneath the weight of a naked, bloated truth.
“The True Night of Iguala,” the piece Hernández published in Proceso in December of 2014 and the foundation of this 2018 book, “with its radical rethink of the Iguala affair, made the rounds of the Mexican and international media and caused much discomfort within the federal government,” she writes. “Two days after its publication, on December 16, the families of the missing forty-three held a press conference in which they demanded the federal government open a line of investigation into the participation of the 27th Infantry Battalion and the federal police in the attacks against the students.”
Without a doubt, the investigative journalist becomes a part of the story in a way that other news reporters do not. The cavalcade of public events that manifests from the living organism of a piece of investigative journalism simply cannot exist separate from that work. Truths uncovered by the investigative journalist are not otherwise rendered by the normal functioning of a government system. Whereas much of journalism is simply the relaying of a sequence of events, rearranged in an order to inform taxpayers and voters, investigative journalism upends political reality.
It is not without consequence or pain, however, that Hernández simply does all that. Hers is the other story written between the lines in this book. She's worked for the past 24 years as a journalist, with the last 12 spent sharpening a focus on “links between political and commercial entities and drug cartels.” While she was forced to flee her home country in early 2014, she continues to lay her life on the line for this work.
Last year, at De Balie, Hernández told the crowd: “My worst fear is becoming indifferent and losing the power of myself to fight against all this. I don't want to become one more statistic among the number of dead journalists. … I don't want to die as a victim. I also don't believe that journalists are heroes; no one is. We didn't want to be. It's true: Death pursues me, but so does the hope that by not keeping silent these things will change.”
A Massacre in Mexico, a milestone achievement in Hernandez’s career—in her life—is an incarnation of that hope. She will not stay silent in this power construct, surely, and her readers will be compelled to join her in an ongoing call to action. This is, after all, a story with no clear end.