Between Fiction and the Brutal Reality of Mexico’s Drug War
An interview with the critic-turned-journalist who inspired a character in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666
In Mexico in the mid 1990s, the writer and literary critic Sergio González Rodríguez realized that in the forgotten city of Ciudad Juárez, something was going on that the rest of the country wasn’t paying attention to: huge amounts of women were being killed, just for being women. He was 46 when he started publishing articles about the crimes there—having no prior background in investigative journalism. And he began to uncover a situation that would lead him to suffer tragic consequences: a hearing impediment, a large scar on his head, and a painful limp were some of the permanent signs of the torture he received from the criminals. And yet, for the next 20 years, he continued to publish his op-ed columns for the newspaper Reforma as well as novels and non-fiction, which won him several international awards. Sergio also famously inspired one of the characters in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, one of the novels that best portrays the violence in contemporary Mexico.
Diego Enrique Osorno: Who commissioned you to write about the femicides in Ciudad Juárez initially? Who was your initial source?
Sergio González Rodríguez: Actually, it was just my own curiosity that lead me to it. Articles kept cropping up in the news: “A woman was murdered in Ciudad Juárez and the body was dumped.” A pattern started to emerge that looked odd to me, but the whole picture wasn’t clear. One day I said to the editor-in-chief of special investigations at Reforma, “I’m going to Chihuahua city because I was invited to a literary festival, but I’m thinking of going to Ciudad Juárez afterwards. I’ll pay for my own trip, would you be interested in an article on this issue?” And he says, “Sure, go for it.” When I arrived, the panorama was truly unsettling. It was the first time I did any kind of reporting on criminal activities, and it was the borderlands, during the most troublesome period when women were migrating there from all over Mexico. The Juárez cartel was still strong, and the cartel boss, Rafael Aguilar, had just been assassinated. The tension was palpable.
DEO: Can you remember the title of the first article?
SGR: No. The headlines were written by the sub editors: “Women are being killed in Ciudad Juárez!” Things like that. As time went by things looked increasingly tangled. The authorities were lying and you had to actually travel there to see what was happening. This was when the state governor of Chihuahua was Francisco Barrio of the PAN [National Action Party]—and their ambition was to win the presidency [after the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) had been in power for 72 years]. The PAN government officials were not pleased. The functionaries of the PRI weren’t happy either, but in this case, those of the PAN were furious. I was criticizing them in the articles and it became quite complicated. Eventually there was no way around it and I said, “I’m going to write a book instead.” The book, Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert), was published in 2002.
DEO: How did Roberto Bolaño find out about your work?
SGR: I think he had access to the manuscript via our editor at Anagrama, Jorge Herralde, but he had also been following the investigations over the internet. He even wanted me to transcribe forensic documents for him. I’d managed to get hold of part of some investigation files. Especially when I went to interview Abdul Latif Sharif, the Egyptian man they wanted to incriminate for the majority of the deaths. The guy spoke broken English and no Spanish at all; he couldn’t understand a thing. Somehow it just looked like they were accusing an innocent person. I could see the guy looked stunned and in disbelief. I asked to interviewed him personally, through his private attorney, Irene Blanco. Through her I started to investigate and I had access to part of the file and that’s why I could transcribe things for Bolaño. The authorities would not give you access to any documents. They didn’t like you getting involved.
DEO: Especially since they were fabricating evidence…
SGR: I started asking a lot of questions because it was obvious they were making things up. In fact, they had the testimony of a 14-year-old girl. When I met her with her mother, the girl starts telling me this officer grabbed her by the hair and slammed her against a wall and said “you’re going to declare this thing and that,” to incriminate Sharif. And I realized this was very serious. I started publishing longer articles, until it was only possible in a book. The subject was also very complex: the regional history, migration, violence against women, the maquiladoras. That’s what the book was about. Then Roberto Bolaño included me as a character in his novel. It took me nine months to be able to read that part about the crimes where I appear. I’d read a few pages and then stop. It was brutal, because you start to reconstruct the facts and you have one foot in the reality and in another you see yourself as a character.
DEO: What was the communication with Bolaño like during that time?
SGR: It was very difficult to communicate because emails were being monitored… horrible things. Bolaño would become exasperated and complain to Juan Villoro: “Why won’t Sergio reply to my emails?!” And Juan would appease him: “No, look, Sergio must be having trouble.”
Finally, Bolaño and I met in 2002 because my book was published by Anagrama, in Barcelona. I said to myself: “I’m going to visit Bolaño.” He lived in Blanes, a town near Barcelona. And at his home he says to me, “I’m writing you as a character in my novel.” “What do you mean?” I say. “Yes, there’s a journalist in Mexico City researching the crimes, but it’s you, with your name.” And I say, “Are you out of your mind?” “It’s going to be awesome,” he’d say, and chuckle. Bolaño was very funny. A very charismatic person and extremely intelligent. A wonderful person.
When I read the book I didn’t enjoy it. It was very, very dramatic. The section called “The Part About the Crimes.” A long chapter where Bolaño, as a project, systematically reproduces every single one of the murders that took place in Ciudad Juárez during one year.
DEO: When you were in Blanes with him, what did you talk about apart from crimes?
SGR: Actually, he talked about his novel in broader terms. He was familiar with my book, but his project had a wider scope. He didn’t want to reveal any details before it was published. But I asked him, “what’s the novel about?” “Well, there’s the part about the murders of women, but in my novel the town is called Santa Teresa.” That’s the name he gave it. “But there’s a lot in it.” And I’d ask him to give me some examples. He’d kid around and say, “you’ll read it in good time,” but he didn’t give me any more details. Rather, he hinted that it was a much larger project. Originally 2666 was five novels. When he died, Herralde made a decision and said, “no, it has to be one volume.” But Bolaño’s idea was to publish them separately.
DEO: But that was for financial reasons, right?
SGR: I think, rather, that Herralde felt that the five novels would read better as a whole. He didn’t choose that solution for financial reasons, but because he thought the project would read better that way.
Later on, when Bolaño died, there was a version, though I don’t know up to what point it’s true because Jaume Vallcorba, a close friend of Bolaño’s, passed away. At some point Jaume said to me, “The way Roberto described it to me, I understand this as a very vast project. And in his mind there was more than 2666.” Because there was going to be a science fiction element, and many other things.
DEO: Do you think that literature has portrayed the situation in Ciudad Juárez better than journalism? This question applies not just to this case, but in general around these dark times…
SGR: In literature there’s a chance to reinvent reality. There’s reality, and there’s more. In journalism there’s just reality, which is interesting and complex, but the creative aspect always tends to take over. It’s like the Banana Massacre that Gabriel García Márquez fictionalizes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. He grew up hearing that there had been hundreds, thousands of victims, and when he’s writing the novel he says, “I’m going check how many there actually were” and he finds out there were just nine victims, but in the novel he needed to make a bigger indictment. And then the Congress of Colombia, on one of the anniversaries, commemorated the massacre of 3,000 peasants! In other words, literature made history. Because that’s where you’re seduced by the narrative voice. He’s saying things that are more captivating than a political or judiciary record.
DEO: What’s your conclusion 20 years on after you published your first article on the events in Ciudad Juárez?
SGR: In those days, I kept insisting that all the elements present were pointing to a phenomenon that we were not paying attention to. Of course some people said, “you’re exaggerating.” But you notice in the behavior of the authorities and the modus operandi of institutions an inability to contain crime. In the social world, there is a devastation that is not immediately apparent unless you look closely, and nobody wanted to see it. Remember that it was the time of the transition to democracy, the end of the PRI and so on. No one wanted to hear bad news. I always said, “if this continues, it’s going to spread throughout the country.” And that’s what happened. It’s very disturbing, very disturbing. And as you say, all the financial and social factors were already there, just that it became worse and more widespread. Now we’re used to it, so to speak—to all this extreme violence. But 20 years ago, nobody could see it. It was very strange.
DEO: It was seen merely as tabloid material…
SGR: Yes. Then you start to realize it’s not an invention of the tabloids but that there’s an economic, social, political problem, something more complex that is growing. Now, unfortunately, the opposite is true. In societies saturated with information, extreme phenomena tend to go by unnoticed. Violence is normalized. The famous phrase of the Governor: “The rate of murders of women in Chihuahua is normal.” Hang on a minute, since when are murders normal? And the institution itself is saying it. You can’t believe a governor has the brass neck to say that. But that’s how politicians see it; they have done for 20 years and they still do.
DEO: And this thing about Roberto Bolaño, about turning his life into literature, reminds me of the character in the novel Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, who suffers from the disease of literature and turns everything into literature. Did Bolaño give that impression?
SGR: Yes. Roberto was always deeply immersed in one literary project or another. Because let’s not forget one thing: in 1992, if I remember well, he was diagnosed with a very serious liver condition. It turns out his alcohol intake was average, but what they say is that he was very poor when he migrated to Spain from Mexico, and he did all sorts of odd jobs. During one of those stints he contracted Hepatitis B and never fully recovered. And in the version I was told, Roberto was at a party, smoking, chatting to a friend, and he suddenly realized he’d drunk an entire bottle of vodka and felt no effect. He thought it was very strange. Obviously you can’t drink for six or eight hours and be completely sober… So he went to see the doctor, and he said, “the problem is you’ve got nothing left between the alcohol and your liver”.
DEO: And he refused a liver transplant?
SGR: In 1992 he said, “I’m not going to go ahead with it. Because if I do, who knows if I’ll come out alive at the other end.” Back then, a liver transplant was a throw of the dice.
DEO: And that’s when he becomes even more devoted to literature…
SGR: He built the novels after 1992. Roberto was a poet. The thick of the narrative work was written from the moment he was told he’d have to go into the operating room. In 11 years he builds an extraordinary oeuvre, writing day and night, like crazy. He had children and he thought, “I can’t leave them like that.” And he writes The Savage Detectives which is a way of coming to terms with his Mexican past. I really like that book, the first part, before they go to Sonora. It’s extraordinary. Imagine creating hundreds of characters, each one with their own voice.
DEO: And a peculiar perspective on Mexico…
SGR: It’s also a settling of scores with the Infrarealists, all that, isn’t it? Roberto would ask me about Mexico. To Roberto, Mexico had become a spiritual or imaginary landscape, and his idea of Mexico is what he has left us in his books: the Mexico of the 1970s. He’d say, for example, “Is Kiko still alive?” “What Kiko?” “Yes, Kiko, from El Chavo del Ocho.” And I’d say “I don’t know, Roberto, how should I know?” “And does Adolfo Castañón still have a beard? Because he looks awful. And I told him so already.” Those kinds of comments.
When I visited him I brought him a bag of coffee beans from Café La Habana, because that’s the setting of the old Bucareli street. There was a little photo on the packet and he stared at it for ages, as if he were entering the Café in his memory. But I think he didn’t drink coffee anymore because he couldn’t. He did smoke like a chimney, though.
DEO: What are your favourite books by Bolaño?
SGR: I love The Savage Detectives, the first part especially, and The Unknown University, with a story of one of those steam rooms in Mexico City which is a masterpiece.
DEO: And his poetry is very prose-like, very narrative…
SGR: Exactly. They are poems but sometimes suddenly he spills out into prose. It’s a mixed genre, but very well-written, with intensity and with truly masterful poems like “The Donkey,” dedicated to his close friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. He dreams that Mario picks him up on a motorbike and they go up north. And in the desert, the motorbike turns into a donkey. Those notes about “Mexicanness” make his literature extraordinary, in my view extraordinary. In 2666, “The Part About the Crimes” is admirable although I don’t like being in it with my name, but of course I’m delighted that Roberto honored me in this way.
This interview was conducted on a train from Edinburgh to London, during the book tour for the anthology The Sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose Press, 2016), six months before Sergio died on the April 3rd, 2017, aged 67. Translated by Juana Adcock.