Of crime, impunity and powerlessness

Last Tuesday I attended a funeral mass at the church in Sosnavar, a hardscrabble village two kilometers from us, for Eduardo Arzola Chávez, age 30, whom I’d never met but somehow felt some connection to. He’d been shot to death a couple of days before.

The small church was packed. Seemingly everyone in town had shown up, in addition to a few mangy dogs that hung around in the plaza in front. Hovering over this somber event too was the pall of impunity, that handmaiden of most violent crime in Mexico. 

Eduardo was taken to the local cemetery in a late-model Lincoln Navigator hearse with Mexico City plates, whose roof was covered with white and yellow flowers. At his grave he will be remembered again by his disconsolate family during Day of the Dead commemorations at the end of the month.

The chances, though, that his killer will ever be arrested, much less punished, are well-nigh zero.

Let us pray. Again and again. 

I found out about Eduardo’s death through Félix, who’d shown up for work on Monday, long-faced and quiet, and said that he would have to take part of Tuesday off to attend the wake of a close buddy who had been fatally shot three times in the chest the day before in broad daylight during a party at the nearby ranch of La Campana. I still don’t know what caused the shooting, which occurred after Félix had left the party, shortly after noon.

The assailant took off full-gallop on his horse, bandido-style. No one seems to know where he went, though everyone present knows who he is, according to Félix.

Both Eduardo and Félix are part of the dense Arzola family tree. According to Félix there are four or five predominant last names in Sosnavar, population twelve-hundred people or so, and Arzola is one of the most common.

Félix was particularly shaken because Eduardo left behind a seven-year-old son, almost the same age as Félix’s own son Edgar, plus he and his friend were roughly the same age. Though he didn’t articulate it, I suspect an ominous thought echoed in Félix’s mind: “It could have been me.”

“He was a nice guy, not a troublemaker,” Félix said. “We were talking and joking Sunday morning, and that evening I find out he was dead.”

I didn’t know Eduardo but was saddened, even pissed, not only by Felix’s loss, but by the recurrent theme of crime and impunity around here.

Last year an estimated thirty-two thousand people were murdered in Mexico—the highest number since 1997—while more than an estimated ninety percent of those cases were never solved, according to the Mexican think-tank Zero Impunity.

“Félix, I’m sorry you’ve lost such a good friend,” I said, both of us standing by the kitchen door. “But what’s really awful is that all sorts of shit keeps happening and you folks seem resigned no one is ever going to be arrested or punished. You accept killings and all sorts of crap, as if it were an act of God.”

My perhaps arrogant American optimism rising to the surface, I offered to work with the widow, whom I don’t even know, to demand the police investigate this latest murder and nail the guilty.

“There must be something that can be done,” I said.

Félix cracked a weary smile at my naivete, and said the murderer was probably well on his way north to The Other Side—the United States—and will never be heard from again. Once more, Félix ingrained sense of fatalism and powerlessness left me stumped.

That’s happened several times, Félix explained, though in one case a local thug from El Tigre, another nearby town, was arrested when he applied for an ID card at a Mexican consulate somewhere in Texas, and an astute clerk somehow figured out he was wanted for murder in San Miguel. He was arrested, shipped back to Mexico and is now serving time at the local jail. Miracles do happen.

Before this latest horror, two years ago, I’d accompanied Félix on a visit to his friend Pablo, also a guy in his thirties, who had been shot by a drunk during Sosnavar’s annual fiesta. The bullet entered a couple of inches above his friend’s right eye and went out the back.

I found Pablo bedridden and almost completely paralyzed in his dark bedroom, while his grief-stricken wife mechanically related the details of the shooting, and their litter of  kids, none older than eight of nine years old, stood by uncomprehendingly.

I was completely at a loss for words, in English or Spanish, and all I could think of was to offer to bring a wheelchair, which Félix and I delivered in our second visit, so Pablo at least could get out of bed, go outside and catch some sunlight. 

The worst though, came when I asked Pablo’s wife if she intended to press charges so they could nab the dirtbag who left her young husband paralyzed.

Surely, I said, the shooting occurred in broad daylight in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and the crime should be resolved in no time at all. I was carrying on as if this were a case out of Law and Order San Miguel, in the hands of a crack local detective in the style of Lennie Briscoe.

The woman slowly shook her head, her eyes fixed on the ground, as if she were listening to a hopeless dimwit. No, the guy is never going to spend a day in jail, she told me. And so he never has.

I can readily think of several unresolved crimes near the ranch and in San Miguel proper. A kid on a horse got run over nearby by a drunk driver one Saturday night, killing both the rider and the horse. In another case, two teenagers died when the inebriated driver of the pick-up they were in lost control and it rolled over.

No one was ever charged in either tragedy. The only memory of these two events are crude roadside memorials decorated with plastic flowers.

I only stayed at the memorial for about twenty minutes. I felt out of place, for one thing feeling self-conscious about being about ten inches taller than anyone in the place.

I also felt like an impertinent gawker at the scene of a private tragedy.

The bearded Fr. Gerardo listlessly intoned some unintelligible Roman Catholic boilerplate for the dead through the crackly public address system. He’s probably presided over dozens similar tragedies and repetition has dulled any noticeable sensation of tragedy, anger, frustration or even emotion in his voice. Likewise, the congregation repeated the canned liturgical responses mindlessly, drowning out the sobbing of Eduardo’s family.

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