Writers on Writers
Richard Grant, author of God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, talks with Dominique Godrèche, French journalist and anthropologist, about the drug-based "golden triangle" of the American Southwest.
A French version is available from the acclaimed French indie publisher 13E Note Editions* under the title Un Gringo dans la Sierra Madre.
Richard Grant's book, American Nomads and Bull riders (Grove Press, 2003) won the 2004 Thomas Cook Travel Literature Award.
Dominique Godrèche: Why did you decide to write a book on the Sierra Madre ?
Richard Grant: Living in South Arizona, hearing these stories about the Sierra Madre, a lawless place, big and unexplored, where “it is too dangerous to go”, a “forbidden zone”, where people still live in caves…it had a mythological aspect ! I was amazed by the existence of such a territory: so I read a few books, and decided to go, out of curiosity, to know what it was like.
How does the term “golden triangle” apply to this area ?
It is used as a reference to the golden triangle in Asia, and designates the area where Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango come together.
You describe it as “so close from the border”, (about thirty kilometers), but so different, an “outlaw zone” ?
Yes, the wild west sitting in America’s back door: standing on the us side of the border, the mountains are right there… But you drive down to the other side of the border, and the geography becomes extraordinary, so rugged: no paved roads…An extreme environment! I could not imagine the existence of such a place in the 21st century !
Is it the geography, that makes the area so special ? It seems like an acculturated area, neither Mexican, or Mexican American: “another country” ?
Yes, as its culture is determined by its topography. Those huge canyons…One after the other, where the police has a hard time getting over. This part of Mexico near Douglas, Arizona, begins in Sonora, and Chihuahua, and goes down into Durango, Sinaloa, Aguas Calientes…And yes, the Sierra Madre is its own place !
What is local economy based on ?
The main economy is drug; and then cattle ranching. And the money goes into gold guns. People do not believe in the future: future will steal your money, because life is short ! …
So, how is that area controlled ?
The army is present, but some of them are corrupted, paid by the drug dealers, and sell drug. While another part of the army fights it. And the police is corrupted too. So behind a façade of law, but if you scratch a bit, you see it is inexistent: lots of intrigues, different layers of corruption... The main economy remains the drug.
Are there schools ?
No, as they cannot get teachers to come up there: they are not able to house them, and it is so far from any where…They only have television schools.
What was your main interest, regarding that story about the Sierra Madre ?
I am interested by zones with no government control, and its role in the drug trade; and that area is one of the biggest in the world ! Living on the border, we know that a lot of the drug is grown in the Sierra Madre: 50 billion worth of drug coming through this border!
Is this drug traffic still important, growing ?
It goes on: with more death…50 000 killings in the north of Mexico when I was there! This incredible violence in the mountains, is now spreading all over Mexico, where there are more killings then in Afghanistan! Especially in Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana.
You mention that the Tarahumaras tribes of the Sierra Madre are getting involved in the drug traffic?
Yes, the youngest do; the Tarahumaras wanted to be left alone. But it is difficult: people cut down the trees to plant drug, and the tarahumaras get in conflict with them, as they are losing their land. So they either work for the narcos, or grow their own drug.
Who visits the Sierra Madre, apart from the tourists, in Copper Canyon ?
Not very many people, really: it is very difficult to travel there, because of the geography. Also, strangers are not welcome, and have never been; even before the drug. They are like hillbillies up there: living in small clans, suspicious of outsiders, closed. It is their cultural attitude.
You have been able to travel in the sierra Madre because of your conexions and “protections”: is that the only way to move around safely in that area, by knowing its social texture ?
Yes, it is the only way, except for Copper canyon, where it is possible for anyone to travel safely. Otherwise, you need someone to recommend you, and make sure that the people know you are not part of the drug enforcement agency (Dea): that is how I managed to travel.
So, as isolated as it is, people know each other all over Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora…?
Yes; I stayed there for three months, and found out that everything depended on whom I was with: if they trust that person, they are hospitable. Though it does not always continue, because of the high consummation of cocaine and alcohol: everything can swing, all of a sudden !
What relations do Mexico and the United States have in regard to drug trafficking ?
The traffic represents an industry of $50 billion a year, on which Mexico depends. Before President Calderon, there was a tacit understanding between the Mexican government and the cartels, allowing the business to continue. But Calderon fighting the cartels, provoked an increase of violence. Meanwhile, the drug -marihuana, cocaine, heroine… is still getting in the usa in same quantity, and cheaper. The bulk of it is marihuana.
You describe rituals, observance of traditions..Is there a strong religiosity ? A specific culture of the area, with the “corridos”, (narco songs) a certain type of fashion, look etc …?
Yes, there is a very rich tradition of shamanic rituals, mixed with Catholicism, and folk beliefs: mythical creatures, hidden treasures… And Saint Jesus Malverde, a Sinaloa bandit, the patron protector of the narcos, is very revered. The Narcos dress with ostrich boots, carry fetichised ak47 guns …And play their “Narcocorridos”…
What is their relation to the United States: any North American influence?
They supply the market; a lot of them have relatives in the usa, as there has been such a huge migration of Mexicans there. Economic relationships are powerful. But there is no north American influence as such. And apart from Copper canyon, no Americans go to the sierra Madre. Tourists are protected by the narcos: nobody wants them troubled. It is good business! So this slice, with the railway line, in the middle of the mountain, remains safe. From los Mochis, to Chihuahua City; and Creel, the tourists town.
Is the drug money reinvested in the infrastructure of the area ?
No; the money will go on status symbols, such as pick up trucks, that they lift, as a display. But also because there are no roads. They also spend it on huge parties, with a lot of alcohol, flying in musicians… There are no cities, aside from the little town of Creel. Only villages, and ranches.
Is there a narcos exodus to the usa ?
Narcos bank their money in the usa; “big” ones have their children in good schools there. The important untold story, about the drug trade, is the banking, and the money laundering of Mexican money in the United States: in Tucson, el Paso, you see those huge expensive banks! the money laundering by American banks is a huge aspect of the trade organized by cartel bosses, up to billion dollars…
Will you go back to the Sierra Madre ?
Only to Copper Canyon! Not where they tried to kill me ! As I mention in the last part of my book…
You think you live in an age of connectedness… But this place is so different, so far away…Even from the rest of Mexico: it is really another country!
Richard Grant is a British writer and journalist, author of Crazy River, God’s Middle Finger, American Nomads, and a contributor to the Telegraph magazine, the Sunday Times, and many other publications. Born in Malaysia, he lived in Kuwait and London, studying history at the University College, and later chose to settle in Tucson, Arizona; he currently resides in New York. His book, American Nomads and Bull riders (Grove Press, 2003) won the 2004 Thomas Cook Travel Literature Award.
Dominique Godrèche is a French anthropologist, writer, free lance journalist, author of Santana, and contributor to various medias in France, and Europe. Born in Paris, she studied in India, Mexico, and New Mexico, where she specialized in Native American and Hispanic cultures, attending anthropology and psychology at the University of Paris, and at Ehess. (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales de Paris). She is a laureate of the Prix de la Villa Medicis Hors les Murs en littérature 1933, for her essay on Native American story telling, and the Prix spécial de la Fondation pour l’Enfance de Paris, for her research on Native American and Hispanic acculturation and youth in the American Southwest.
*13e Note Éditions, publishes a remarkable selection of American counter-culture writers, including : Dan Fante, William Burroughs Jr, Sam Shepard, Charles Bukowski, Barry Gifford, Nelson Algren, Mark SaFranko, Barry Graham, Ruffin… Says director Eric Vieljeux:
“Je tiens à découvrir des auteurs atypiques, parfois même non publiés dans leur propre pays...Ils n’ont d’autre échappatoire que celui d’écrire : ce sont eux qui présentent une nouvelle facette littéraire, un autre visage de l’Amérique ».