The British have always been an adventuring people. Since they are a literary people also, it is not surprising that they should excel at the art of travel writing. In modern times, George Borrow, Richard Francis Burton, Charles Doughty, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene spring to mind as exemplars of that art. And now there is Richard Grant, a British citizen residing in Tucson, Arizona, who came to the United States as the British correspondent for an American magazine and stayed on to write books about the kind of nomadic misfits in which America has always abounded.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Grant developed a fascination also for misfits south of the border who, by the success they have achieved in the northwestern states of the People's Republic of Mexico, are misfits no longer but rather the dominant majority.
These are the denizens of the Sierra Madre Occidental who grow the fabulously lucrative drug crops raised in the sierra, smuggle them within Mexico and into El Norte, defend these growers and smugglers against their rival narcotraficantes, and battle that portion of the police and the federal army that remains unbought by them. Together, they have created the drug culture that has become the mainstream culture of Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Durango states.
Rashly—almost insanely—Richard Grant decided that he must and would travel the length of the Sierra de la Madre to experience the reality of this surreal region for himself.[Watch a clip in Youtube.]
He began by paying a visit to J.P.S. Brown, the novelist and sometime gold prospector who had spent almost forty years traveling horseback in the Sierra, at his ranch in Patagonia, a small town northeast of Nogales on the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Brown had two questions for his guest. Can you ride a horse? And, Can you speak Spanish? Grant answered no to both questions. Well, said Brown, in that case I don't see how you can possibly come out of that place alive.
Brown himself taught Richard Grant to ride a horse, and Grant enrolled in a month-long Spanish immersion course in the city of Guanajuato in Mexico's central highlands. The riding lessons, as it happened, were largely unnecessary, as Grant reports having ridden a horse only once in Mexico. The Spanish lessons, on the contrary, probably saved his life. Fluency in Spanish and an initial caution, plus a generous measure of good luck, combined to bring him safely through his travels.
When that caution was eroded in the end by over-confidence, and the good luck abruptly ran out, Grant came perilously close to becoming another victim of the culture of the Sierra Madre in which murder is no more than a pastime, "to please the trigger finger", as the locals down there say.
Richard Grant describes his Mexican sojourn in God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (Free Press, 2008). The book is audaciously conceived and brilliantly executed. The setting and characters are observed closely and in telling detail, the language and style are masterful, the dramatic and narrative pacing flawless. As a work of travel literature, it is quite simply at the top of its class. The book is also, in its implications, a disturbing geo-political document.
Grant is fascinated by Mexico and by the Mexican people, of whom—despite the book's deeply disillusioned ending—he remains a friend. He knows both the fascination and the horror that so many non-Mexicans have always felt for Mexico, and he is deeply aware of his conflicting feelings and impulses.
God's Middle Finger affords no clue to the author's opinions regarding Mexican immigration, legal or illegal, to the United States. (Mr. Grant, after all, remains a British subject.) And so I have no intention of attributing to him whatever conclusions I myself draw from his book. Whoever has an interest in Mexico, or in literature, or simply in a fascinating narrative compellingly told, should read God's Middle Finger. So should people with a care for what moves north from Mexico, and into this country.
"Everything that happens in Mexico turns to sh-t", a local acquaintance in southern Sonora told Grant. Grant asked another friend whether he agreed with that assessment:
"'Absolutely,' said Gustavo. 'That's why we don't believe in the future. We don't plan and build to make a better future for ourselves because our history and our experience teaches us that everything always turns to shit.'"
Later, the man expands on this remark.
"The thing about Mexico is that everyone is out to get everyone else, except within your family and your closest friends….We live with our senses and suspicions on full alert because who knows where the next plot against you might come from? Maybe someone thinks your wife is prettier than his wife so he whispers something to the police, or the mafia, and the next thing you know the police are planting drugs in your truck and you're going to jail for ten years or there's a bullet in your head and you may never know why."
The drug culture of the Sierra Madre, which developed in part from one in which "everything turns to sh-t", is both the epitome of, and the synechdoche for, that broader culture in which shit always happens. "Our art movement is not needed in this country", said André Breton, the French surrealist, when he visited Mexico. Mexico has always had a strong surrealist component. But the Sierra Madre is pure surrealism; indeed, it is surrealism raised to the level of supra-surreality.
And in the sierra, everyone makes a business of getting everyone, if only because nobody knows who really is who, or on which side, given the extreme fluidity of identities and of roles. Federal police sent by Mexico City each fall to burn out the marijuana fields—but not too many of them, and chiefly for the purpose of reassuring Washington, D.C. that the Mexican government is "doing something" about drugs—may actually be in league with the growers themselves. Police officers in cantinas in cities between the mountains and the Pacific coast drink beer by the quarter-gallon while blasting parakeet (snorting cocaine) and smoking mota (marijuana). (he house rule, which the cops don't always trouble themselves to observe, is, Go into the baño to do a line. Soldiers kill growers, and growers kill soldiers, whose comrades may be paid off by growers. The drug mafiosi and narcotraficantes kill each other. The roads are full of asaltantes (bandits) robbing people and killing as an afterthought, or to please that trigger-finger. (Tourists are usually spared, so long as they keep to the beaten track, since the federal and state governments have determined that killing them is bad for the national tourist industry.)
In the Sierra Madre, where men wear t-shirts and baseball caps printed with marijuana leaves and AK-47s, what might be taken as a fashion statement is really a statement of a different sort. There, and in the lowlands, towns, and cities surrounding the mountains, legal anarchy and corruption have led to anarchy and corruption in morals. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Or perhaps it is impossible to say which has led to which. The point is, society and government scarcely exist in Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango.
Nor does moral restraint in any form. Appetites and impulses are freely, recklessly, suicidally indulged. And not the drug appetite only. "¡El hígado no existe!"—"The liver does not exist!" (Mr. Grant calls this "the most Mexican of all drinking toasts".) Sexual morality too seems non-existent in Sierra Madre culture, where fervent supplications to the Mother of God have been replaced by rhetorical invocations of the Grand Raped Whore and the Great Fornicated Bitch. (Grant explains that the lady in question is probably the Aztec Indian princess who served as Cortés's interpreter. If she also served him in another capacity, that would establish her as the mother of Mexico's subsequent mestizo majority).
If the Estados Unidos were one day to legalize drugs, the economy of Mexico would be instantly destroyed, more completely than if its oil reserves were suddenly to dry up.
As the situation stands today, whenever the Mexican army burns a farmer out of his "crop that pays", everyone dependent on that crop heads north to the border, where the illegal crossing is greatly facilitated by friends and relatives, in Mexico and the U.S., with mucha experiencia smuggling drugs onto American soil. In this way, the violent, murderous, treacherous, immoral, and hideously destructive narco-culture of the Sierra Madre is gradually extending itself northward, into the American Southwest where it has already succeeded in infiltrating Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, and many other places.
If the process continues, God's middle finger will inexorably penetrate deeper into American territory and the American political and social fabric alike, with results dreadful to contemplate.
I will not spoil Richard Grant's climactic scene for interested readers by giving the story away here, but a passage from the final paragraph may be quoted without harm.
"I drove out of the mountains and then north across the plains and deserts and I didn't stop driving for fifteen hours until I was in striking distance of the U.S. border. I was willing to write about celebrity bathroom fixtures for a living, designer footwear, what your window treatments say about you. Some other fool could go into Sinaloa. I never wanted to set foot in the Sierra Madre again. The mean drunken hillbillies who lived up there could all feud themselves into extinction and burn in hell."
My guess is that Richard Grant remains fascinated by Mexico. I suspect further that he is glad that such a place as Mexico exists, and not too far from Tucson, either.
But I feel absolutely certain that he is grateful that a place that is emphatically not Mexico still remains "in striking distance" of the People's Republic.
If he is as intelligent a man as his book suggests, he wants to keep things that way.
And so do I.
Bellamy London [Send him mail] travels frequently in northern Mexico.