The Mexican underworld’s taste for bizarre nicknames was on full display in February, when Mexico City police filed kidnap and murder charges against a gang whose aliases sounded like something out of Snow White.
There was “El Salivotas” (the Drooler), “El Guero” (Blondie), “El Enano” (the Dwarf), “El Duende” (the Elf), “El Cejas,” (Eyebrows) and “El Tamalon” (the Big Tamale).
The lone female member was legally named Dulce Maria, or Sweet Maria.
Ordinary Mexicans use nicknames a lot. “Gordo,” for instance, means “Fatty” and is considered a term of endearment. But criminal aliases that turn up in charge sheets can be so bizarre that even Mexicans are lost for explanations.
“Winnie Pooh” was Oscar Guerrero Silva, a triggerman for Mexico’s drug cartels. Hardly a lovable bear, he belonged to a gang of Mexican army deserters who worked for the drug lords. His specialty -- before dying of a gunshot wound to the head in February in an apparent suicide -- was busting drug suspects out of jail at gunpoint.
How about “El Cachorro” -- The Puppy? That Mexico City mechanic allegedly specialized in kidnapping and abusing young women.
One mainly male gang of northern Mexican hoodlums named themselves “Las Carmelitas” -- roughly the Carmelite Sisters -- after their female leader, Carmela.
Many suspect that cops and crime reporters encourage, embellish and even invent some of the stranger nicknames. (That’s akin to what has happened in the United States. Think “Black Dahlia,” the grisly 1947 murder. Even today, it’s not unusual for law officers to nickname bank robbers or burglars.)
Presented with police reports that often list up to a half-dozen aliases for one suspect, the media and the public usually focus on the most outrageous one.
“If you want to get a crime story on the front page, you’ve got to have an impressive nickname, and if the suspect doesn’t have one, you’ve got to look for one,” says Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who writes detective novels.
Some gangs were almost certainly “dubbed” that way by the public, press and police, like the two most famous kidnapping gangs of the 1990s: “The Ear Loppers” and “The Finger Cutters,” who did exactly that to their victims.
Journalists deny inventing nicknames, saying those bubble up spontaneously out of Mexico’s violent, socially frayed neighborhoods.
“People in some of these neighborhoods are known more by their nicknames than their real names,” says Celeste Saenz, the general secretary of Mexico’s Press Club. “The nicknames give them some status, some sense of belonging to a group.”
Federal prosecutors acknowledge that they collect as many nicknames as possible on crime reports, but only so they can fully identify and locate suspects who might use several tags.
But lawyer Americo Delgado, who has defended some of Mexico’s highest-profile drug suspects, contends police sometimes try to slap labels on his clients -- “The Lord of Methamphetamines,” for instance -- to make them appear guilty.
“Then, even if they are acquitted, those labels stick,” says Delgado. “Some people still talk about them as ‘acquitted drug lords.’ ”
According to Taibo, the public’s fascination with criminal nicknames goes back at least to the 1920s, when hoodlums with monikers like “The Black Cap” roamed Mexico City. But back then, even the worst bandits were known by fairly innocuous monikers like “The Gray Car Gang.”
By the 1980s, the drug wars and an influx of cultural imports -- everything from U.S. movies to Kung-Fu videos -- gave birth to a strange new nomenclature, Saenz says.
Aliases became more high-flown and grisly, like “El Senor de los Cielos” -- “The Lord of the Skies” -- for a trafficker who flew planeloads of cocaine into the United States.
Movies appear to play a big role, says Luis Astorga, a researcher on the sociology of crime at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
A beefy housewife who allegedly dominated the drug trade on Mexico City’s rough east side had a gang calling itself “Ma Baker.”
“I’m sure they saw a pirate copy of a U.S. movie about Ma Barker and thought that would be a good nickname,” Astorga says. “They just got the spelling wrong.”
The same appears to apply to the diminutive armed robber known as “Chuky, the Diabolical Doll.” Chuky is the Mexican spelling of Chucky, the murderous doll in the 1988 U.S. horror movie “Child’s Play.”