Many people were surprised this week by some news out of Mexico. Not only did authorities shoot dead one of the country’s most notorious drug bosses, Heriberto Lazcano, capo of the Zetas cartel. Afterwards, Lazcano managed to escape. That’s right. He escaped, dead.
Within a day of the shoot-out that killed him, armed men stormed the Coahuila funeral home where Lazcano’s cadaver was being held for investigation. The gunmen barged in, grabbed his body, and barged out. Without firing a shot.
How could they? And why would they? Even some seasoned Mexico watchers have been shaking their heads in wonder, saying things like, “Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Mexico…”
But the truth is, nobody should be surprised. Mexico has seen this sort of thing many times before. In fact the cadaver of Zaplana’s own boss, Zetas-founder Arturo Guzman Decena, disappeared too, back in 2003. Thieves, believed to be Zeta operatives, dug it up and hauled it away, presumably for burial elsewhere.
Just months before that, another Mexican drug lord’s body had vanished. That of Ramon Arellano Felix, head of the Tijuana Cartel. I was working for NPR in Mexico then, and flew up to the resort city of Mazatlan, on the Pacific Coast, to try to make sense of what had happened.
A couple of weeks prior, police in Mazatlan had engaged in a firefight with heavily armed thugs along Mazatlan’s tourist strip. Police soon realized that one of the dead gangsters had been Arellano Felix himself.
There were witnesses, there were photos. It was a clear victory for Mexican authorities. Until someone stole the body. From a funeral home, a la Lazcano.
On a visit to the funeral home, its owner, Gustavo Sosa, told me that some men had simply come in and claimed the body, saying they were relatives. They said they were going to have it cremated. Sosa hadn’t thought twice about it, in part because police never told him who’s body he had on ice. And, he told me, he simply hadn’t noticed the cadaver’s resemblance to Arellano Felix.
“Imagine if you looked close, looked close at every dead guy you see,” he said. “It’s gonna be a little tough for you at night. So you just do the job, and ‘erase the tape,’ day after day after day.”
Both incidents raise questions about police ineptitude or collusion with drug gangs. But whatever the reason, the gangs clearly win each time they recuperate one of their fallen. Trained to think like soldiers (especially in the case of the Zetas), they are loath to leave their slain leaders behind. By retrieving them, they not only maintain honor, they get to sow even more confusion among citizens. In Mazatlan on that same trip, for example, a local woman at the beach told me she was sure Arellano Felix was still alive, that he’d set up someone who looked like him to die, disappeared the body, then disappeared himself to lead a quiet life free from persecution.
Those sorts of rumors are what legends are born of, adding mystique and a touch of invincibility to the cartels.
All of this is recent history. Looking at Latin America over time you still see the pattern. What, for example, ever happened to the legendary Che Guevara’s body?
Bolivian officials say the Argentine revolutionary was buried next to an airstrip outside Vallegrande, Bolivia. Cubans say they dug him up and brought him “home.” Even more of a mystery: what happened to Guevara’s hands, which were cut off after he was shot so that his fingerprints could be compared with those on record. For a while, right and left were stored in a jar of formaldehyde. Then they vanished. The figure of the “Che” certainly has not.
A century earlier, Mexican soldier and politician Antonio Lopez Santa Anna lost his leg to a French cannonball during the “Pastries War.” He knew full well the symbolic importance of that lifeless limb, even if it was only a mere part of his body; he had it buried with full military honors.
And then there was Moctezuma, the Aztec leader who capitulated to the Spanish invaders led by Hernan Cortez, in 1520. Moctezuma is believed to have been stoned by his own people as he plead with them, under duress, to compromise with the foreign invaders holding him captive. Or, the Spanish killed him. Depends who you ask.
And what of his corpse? One version goes like this: Cortez’s men dumped it on the causeway below the palace where they were holed up. A group of Aztec men quickly recovered the body and took it some distance away in order to cremate it on a wood fire. As the flames reduced their dead leader’s body to ashes, onlookers berated him as a turncoat and coward.
What’s interesting to me is that even though the Aztecs had come to hate Moctezuma, they still made the effort to retrieve his body and dispose of it with some semblance of ritual. In other words, he may have been a son of a b****, but he’s our son of a b**** … to soften an alleged FDR quote.
Bodies, whole or in parts, are of course not just symbolically important to Latinos. They matter to Europeans, Americans, Arabs and others – and they take on even more significance if they are never found, or if they’re not properly displayed before disposal.
For proof of that, just look at spectacular rise and fall of the taxidermy shell of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Look at the myths around Adolf Hitler’s demise, including the conspiracy theory that he escaped allied forces with Frau Braun to live out their lives in hiding. Look at the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and how his hasty, secretive dumping at sea caused so much controversy.
So the next time a Mexican drug lord is gunned down and a bunch of AK-47-brandishing muscle shows up to reclaim it, don’t be surprised. Whether we win or lose, we want the bodies. They are worth more than their weight in gold.