Carrillo: Chronicle of a Death Not Told

Francisco Goldman is a novelist whose most recent book is "The Ordinary Seaman" (Grove-Atlantic)

Thursday, the peripatetic, presumed corpse of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “the Lord of the Skies,” was finally returned to his mother, Aurora. Six days before, when the corpse still went by the name of Antonio Flores Montes, Mexican anti-drug agents had confiscated and delivered the body from a provincial funeral home to Mexico City for forensic testing. That Sunday, as Mexico voted in perhaps the most important election in its history, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. government incited a mini-storm of astonishment and resentment by announcing that the hemisphere’s most-wanted narco-trafficker, a 42-year-old billionaire, had died of a heart attack days before in a private Mexico City hospital, under another name, hours after having plastic surgery on his face and liposuction on his midriff.

The DEA said the corpse’s fingerprints matched Carrillo’s. Mexico’s government--still embarrassed over the recent misidentification of a skeleton, unearthed on the advice of a ludicrous fortune-teller, as that of a vanished congressman suspected of involvement in an infamous political murder--had every reason to be cautious. But their reticence and anger at the U.S. announcement looked suspicious too: Carrillo had run a shadow government of corrupted officials. Even Mexico’s top anti-drug official, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, until his arrest in February, had been in the employ of the “lord of the skies”--so named for his ability to fly refitted airliners packed with cocaine undetected across borders.

At first the story was drowned out by the uproar of the elections. But the Carrillo story was persistent. Had the drug trafficker planted a phony corpse to escape what seems to be the inevitable fate of even the most powerful drug lord: Death in the hail of bullets, or an eternal prison sentence? Why did it seem as if there was something uniquely Mexican, or Latin American--that is “magical realist”--about the mystery surrounding the alleged death of the lord of the sky. And why, every time something outlandish happens in Latin America, this insistence on mistaking a literary genre for reality?


This had actually been nagging at me since Sunday night, when I’d had my own small “magic realist” encounter. At the party at Cauhtemoc Cardenas’ campaign headquarters, an Argentine politician had introduced a friend of mine to the two women accompanying him: The elderly sister and much younger niece of Evita Peron. The niece had the same platinum hair and style, the same alabaster-gray tint to her skin. But it wasn’t until they were climbing a staircase, when the niece paused to fidget with something against her thigh through the fabric of her dress, that the ordinary specificity of just that old-fashioned yet suggestive gesture of adjusting a garter turned her into “Evita.”

I remembered the first rule of magical realism as practiced by the literary masters: The extraordinary should appear absolutely ordinary. Carrillo’s presumed death did have something of this quality--the latest chapter in a series of macabre and horrifying events that Mexicans, as if finally numbed, had seemed to come to accept as ordinary if entertaining.

But over the last week, as excitement over the election waned, the corpse became Mexico’s biggest media star, photographed and filmed from every possible angle. TV reporters seemed especially to relish the dramatic irony of pronouncing the name “the lord of the skies” over a corpse so earthbound, weighed down by the indignity of his death and the dark lesson of a life so full of crime, murder, corruption, fabulous wealth and power, finally reduced merely to this. Every time I contemplated the body I thought, “I’ve never seen a corpse that looked so dead.” He looked dug out from a Siberian glacier, a frozen Mammoth mafioso in dark suit and red tie: His weirdly discolored, grimacing face both bloated and papery taut, his huge and petrified-looking hands. One thing was certain, the corpse bore absolutely no resemblance to the newspaper photos of Carrillo in life. “He looks exactly like Perez Prado!” a friend exclaimed, referring to the Cuban mambo star of the ‘50s.

For a week now, Mexico has been co-habitating with this corpse. “The lord of the skies” has been transformed into a sort of relative, huge and grotesque, lying in everyone’s sala, mute, yet constantly telling his absurd stories: Fourteen liters of fat was sucked from his body! He’d rented an entire floor including three operating rooms of the hospital! Now they’re saying he was suffocated with a pillow by one of his bodyguards! Months ago, depressed after a narrow escape from the law, Carrillo phoned a Mexico City talk show to discuss suicide. Recently, on the run, he’d been spotted in Russia, South America, Europe--why hadn’t he had his surgery there? It’s possible to sew another’s prints onto the fingertips of a corpse. If he could buy the head of Mexico’s anti-drug agency, why couldn’t he pay a forensic lab to say it was his corpse--while he goes free in his new face, like some laughing Posada skeleton!

“Those aren’t his hands,” said my barber. “Those are the hands of a classical pianist.”

“You saw his hands?”

“Of course, in the pictures of him before, in the newspapers!”

“Magical realism” is a literary technique, coined decades ago by the Cuban author, Alejo Carpentier, who thought only a baroque, fantastic style could convey the hybrid complexity of Latin America and the Caribbean. The novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez popularized it. Garcia Marquez has said he first realized he was “allowed” to write in such a manner while reading Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”--the story of a man turned into a cockroach, told in the same straightforward way his own grandmother had told her own fantastic stories.

Not every significant Latin American author writes magical realism; and not every magical realist delivers the bright tropical astonishment many associate with the genre: Think of Juan Carlos Onetti somber gray-hued magic, and the searingly melancholy Mexican ghost magic of the great Juan Rulfo. The Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau offers this justification in his novel “Texaco”: “rubbing the real with the magical (as practiced in Haiti since the moon was born) has added to the waves of apprehending human truths.”


Chamoiseau also describes the Creole city as: “multilingual, multiracial, multi-historical, open, sensible to the world’s diversity.” That’s what we mean when we think of other cultures as possessing an intrinsic “magic.” Not just Latin America, but Africa, Asia, India, just about the whole world seems to possess those ingredients that set it apart from the Protestant and supposedly ultra-rational cultures of Northern Europe and the United States.

In the United States, many seem to gaze out at this diverse world with longing--not realizing such cultural heritages have roots in their own country, but have been ignored. The hybrid heritage of Mexico, includes this Spanish Catholic, Aztec, Mayan, African--with all their magic religions; it even includes the medieval Judaism of converso conquistadors and Portuguese traitors. Add to this the acknowledged tendency of enslaved and colonized peoples to hide themselves behind masks, to protect themselves by never giving a straight answer.

Culture is something humans make themselves, over centuries. It is because Mexican culture is fascinated with death, and decoratively celebrates skeletons, that Mexicans feel death’s presence close by, that they can talk of an intimacy with death. It’s just another way of dealing with death, their way.

Often, when North Americans think of this “magic,” they want the “rubbing”--all the fun, childlike, imaginative, astonishing stuff--without the “real.” But the “magic realism” of great Latin American literature is rooted in the “true,” an eternal human truth deciphered in the culture Latin Americans have made for themselves. Remember that the word most associated with the art of Garcia Marquez is not “magic,” but “solitude.” The solitude of lonely lives and forgotten villages, their fevered hallucinations; the solitude of tropical spinsters choking on fruitless dreamers; the terrible disillusionments and solitude of power.

This brings us closest to what Mexico has been experiencing, living in such intimacy with the corpse that was probably the lord of the skies. Corruption is one more form of solitude: It traps people with their lives. Corruption as a style of government forces a kind of solitude on everyone: It gives them nothing to depend on as true, destroying the social contract by forcing everyone to decide for himself what to trust. It creates a fantastic world--full of outlandish murders and mystifying skeleton tales--that everyone comes to accept as ordinary. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes just wrote, “The paradox for us, the Mexicans, is that the abnormality of the PRI past has begun to seem normal to us while the normalcy of democracy seems abnormal.”

There’s nothing magical about the life and death of Carrillo. He rose to power, they say, because of his genius for making others fear him--he liked to torture his victims. And he died, comically small and pathetic and depressed, terrified of justice. But Carrillo, in life and death, does seem like a character out of a magic realist novel. This public wake has seemed like a novel composed by all of Mexico: A meditation on the solitude of corruption and power during a decisive moment, when the country seems to have grabbed its chance to reject that combination, opting for multiparty rule, for democracy and the challenge of openness. Is the lord of the sky really dead?