Pablo Szmulewicz, a Mexico City artist, remembers the pitch from the newspaper hawker who held a front page with chopped-up human bodies.
"He told me: 'Buy it — it's a good story,'" Szmulewicz said, recalling the encounter that took place three months ago in the central state of Morelos. "I'm saying, 'But … these are people.'"
Szmulewicz knew he had found a terrible inspiration. When he got home, he downloaded death-scene images from the Internet and went to work.
The result is a series of paintings depicting discarded bodies, bound and blindfolded and lying in heaps; rows of severed heads, arrayed on shelves and eerily lifelike, are based on photos of real victims, bruises and all.
The 55-year-old painter has no idea where he will exhibit his new work, a departure from his favored themes, such as migration. But he hopes to challenge what he sees as a growing societal callousness to the carnage that is Mexico's drug war.
"People are losing the ability to be shocked, and when you lose the capacity for shock, it creates an opening for worse things," Szmulewicz said. "The reality is so harsh, so heartbreaking, that people look the other way to survive."
Bodies are dangled headless from highway overpasses. Heads turn up in ice chests and trash bags. Corpses are found marked by torture wounds and taunting, hand-scrawled messages. Body parts, rearranged for humiliating effect, are left for all to see.
Mexicans have watched the carnage — at first with horror and disbelief, but increasingly with a stunned fatigue as drug-trafficking gangs try to one-up rivals or scare authorities with new heights of savagery.
Some worry that people could adapt to depravity as the new norm: The nation's health secretary, Jose Angel Cordova, said last week that, four years into the drug war, Mexico risked becoming a country where "killing someone can be seen as normal or natural."
The violence bleeds into Mexican life.
Grade-school children draw severed heads and point-blank executions of blindfolded victims. A recent billboard campaign for a life insurance company in Mexico City warned that "people are dying who weren't dying before." The new feature film "El Infierno," or "Hell," has been stirring uneasy laughter with its all-too-real depiction of small-town drug killers lopping off limbs.
"My concern is that there is no opposition to the barbarity, to the insanity," Szmulewicz said. "It can't be part of our daily landscape."
The question, printed on a snow-white banner, is plaintive and scolding at once. "If crime is organized," the banner asks, "why aren't we?"
The sign is among a series of nearly 100 anti-violence banners that have popped up, anonymously, in and around Mexico City this fall, posted by a group working in secret and the dead of night.
Taking a page from the narco-traffickers, those behind the undercover effort hang their banners from footbridges and highway overpasses for maximum effect. Last month, they placed a "Why aren't we?" banner on the same bridge in the city of Cuernavaca where hit men had hung the corpses of victims.
"How many have to die for us to get together and do something?" a person identifying himself as Arturo Calzada wrote on the group's blog. The group, which calls itself Be United Mexicans, did not respond to an interview request submitted via Twitter.
That it has to act with such stealth is a sign of how difficult the group's task is likely to be. Mexicans may be jittery, but, given their history of corrupt, top-down rule, they are also deeply distrustful of the authorities and reluctant to take a stand.
Instead, many avert their eyes and mutter, "El que nada debe, nada teme" — roughly translated, a person who doesn't get involved has nothing to fear.
When President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and announced he was going after the drug cartels with full force, extreme violence was already part of the landscape. But it was still rare.
People were aghast when gunmen dumped five human heads on the dance floor of a bar in Michoacan in 2006. Since then, more than 600 people have been beheaded as feuding among drug factions intensified in the face of the government crackdown. Now decapitations often garner little more than summary mention on the TV news or in the country's main newspapers.
"It makes me afraid for the country we are constructing," said Raul Villamil Uriarte, a social psychologist. "I feel depressed. I feel ashamed. I think the generation of my children won't have a country that is peaceful and calm."
Villamil, 53, said the drumbeat of extreme violence has paralyzed Mexico with a kind of collective post-traumatic stress.
"We haven't recovered from what happened yesterday when something even worse happens today," he said.
Villamil said he sees the mutilation of bodies as a form of social disfigurement: Mexican values get warped a bit each time a beheaded or dismembered corpse is found. The result is an "upside-down world" in which killers assert their legitimacy through awful acts and repudiate "all the rest of us mistaken idiots who want to stay on the right path," he said.
"We never imagined heads, decapitated, and then pretty soon they appeared. Then you said, 'OK, what's next?' And there are decapitated bodies, with the heads of pigs in place of their own heads," Villamil said. "It keeps going faster and faster."
As the public response gets more muted, the hit men have turned to steadily grislier methods to draw notice for their exploits.
"Organized crime — in the cruelest way it can — is sending a message," said Cuitlahuac Cardoso, director of the coroner's office in Cuernavaca, where this year bodies have been scattered in pieces and hung headless from bridges. "It is sending a message to society. It is sending a message to the authorities. It is sending a message to rivals."
Messages need a messenger, of course, and often it is Mexico's media, which offer wide, if indirect, exposure even when bodies are deposited late at night. The country has a long tradition of publishing gory photographs of killings and accidents in its crime-oriented tabloids. But the drug war has thrust equally gruesome images onto the news pages of mainstream media, stoking debate over how much is too much.
Hector Aguilar Camin, who writes a column in the daily Milenio newspaper, publicly upbraided editors in April for running a photograph of a pile of bodies on the front page. He said such displays cheapen traditional journalism and distort reality by creating the impression that the violence is more prevalent than it is.
"Violence has imposed its barbarous law and turned the media into allies of its evil message," he wrote, urging restraint.
But Aguilar conceded his cause was probably quixotic, in part because it was likely to be viewed as a call for censorship. "I understand this is a doomed argument," he said.
Still, hit men don't need newspapers or prime-time television. The violent images are increasingly showing up in newer media: on YouTube and narco-related blogs, which gangs use to threaten and taunt one another.
A video that has made the rounds by e-mail shows masked men interrogating a rival foot soldier, blindfolded and bound. At the end, with camera running and the subject alive, the questioner pulls out a knife and saws the prisoner's head off.
The reality of rampant brutality is itself an illustration of a kind of growing acceptance, at least within a segment of Mexican society. But, it turns out, even hit men need to be conditioned to new depths.
An accused former enforcer for the notorious cartel known as La Familia told police this year that he took newcomers to a far-off spot in the Michoacan hills for lessons. They learned how to behead and dismember people — using real victims.
The suspect, former state police officer Miguel Ortiz Miranda, said in a videotaped statement that peer pressure worked on reluctant trainees. After watching others cut into victims, they eventually joined in.
In a matter-of-fact tone, Ortiz said the dead were dismembered with a foot-long butcher's knife and then burned over a pit fire until no trace remained.
"It's not difficult," he explained, saying he had no qualms.
"Nothing," he said. "You don't feel anything."