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Worldview: My old man

Ways of dying in northern Mexico.

Since 2006, when president Felipe Calderon staked his prestige on an all-out war against the cartels, at least 15,000 people have died in what Mexicans call "la crisis." Most of the casualties are thought to be associated with two of Mexico’s most powerful narcotics syndicates — the Juarez and Gulf cartels — which are purportedly battling over access to the vast U.S. market along the lucrative Juarez corridor. Yet in places like Juarez, the killing has become general. Street vendors and teachers alike are shot down. Last week, destitute refugees began trudging with armfuls of belongings to a main road in the city; smoke spiraled from torched hovels in the nearby slums. There were no official explanations. There rarely are. Last month 236 people were assassinated in Juarez, a record for March.

Novel theories help explain this waking nightmare. The latest rumor in Juarez: Bored sicarios — cartel goons — are simply amusing themselves between hits. One game, called the "intersection gamble," involves an SUV filled with thugs idling at a green light. If the hapless motorist behind toots his horn in frustration, the gunmen step out and put a bullet through his brain. If, however, this random driver waits patiently — 10 seconds, 15 seconds, the time intervals vary, and are the object of a lethal wager — he "wins" a roll of hundred-dollar bills. Such traffic roulette smacks of urban legend. Yet how else to explain the frequent shootings of ordinary commuters?

Even in the historically lawless Sierra Madre, where much of the drugs are grown, such violence has exploded.

In September I visited Don Beni’s ranch to celebrate his 99th birthday. I found the party canceled. Don Beni’s spry octogenarian wife, Dona Martina Parra Perez, had baked a goat in a wood-fired stove, but in vain. The old man’s favorite granddaughter, a lively, 39-year-old school teacher, had been murdered two days earlier. Men in a SUV had snatched her, raped her and then axed her to death. The family told Don Beni that she had died in a car crash. The ancient muleteer, who was still walking then, spent a lot of time alone in the stables, fussing over his last two horses.

* * *

Homer suggested that we straddle time with our backs to the future, our faces to the past.

This of course is the classic rap against Mexico — that it is a country with its head screwed on backward, a culture mesmerized by old disappointments. According to this trope, the United States is the forward-looking neighbor, unburdened by history, heedless of consequence. Thus, the good citizens of El Paso could watch the "Mexes" shelling each other across the river as sport. And today, a U.S. senator from Arizona can demand more troops in Humvees to choke off the violent spillover of an American drug craving worth at least $8 billion a year. But which way should they face?

As for Don Beni, he may have been a relic of the Old West, but I soon learned that he wasn’t trapped there. He always looked sideways in time, peering intently into the present. He never touched a television. But he was deeply curious about the larger world as it came to him — usually in the form of a yellowed newspaper that he consumed over the course of a month, at the speed limit of his second-grade education. Why, he’d ask, was that fatty Slobodan Milosevic so attractive to the Serbs? And what made Baghdad suicide bombers tick? I watched him fit the election of America’s first black president with aplomb into a curio cabinet of racial phantasmagoria that included the belief that Chinese were born with their eyes closed — like puppies.

When I last saw him in Creel, Don Beni had trouble holding his own eyelids open. He was deaf. During his moments of clarity, we scratched out messages to each other in a notepad. When I finally jotted in block letters, by way of a goodbye, “I am going back to Africa,” he roused himself from bed and placed a trembling palm atop my head. It was his blessing of protection. "Quiero irme ya," he rasped into my ear. "I want to go already."

A fading link to Mexico’s last cycle of mass upheavals, Don Beni died on Jan. 29.

His sons lowered him on ropes into a hole pick-axed into the frozen mud of the Creel graveyard. A great-grandnephew employed at a U.S. auto assembly plant in Juarez notified me via email. That same week, another drug massacre wracked the city. Fifteen people, mostly school kids, were shot dead at a house party by killers unknown, for reasons unreckoned. Another victim in a nearby state had his face cut off and stitched to a soccer ball. And so the blood rises in the soil. The great-grandnephew concluded his note: “We are OK — I think.”

Leaving Don Beni’s deathbed, it was hard to tell whether I was moving through an unknowable new Mexico or merely traversing some recycled version of its wild frontier. Certain American analysts have taken to warning that Mexico risks collapsing into a "failed state" if the drug mayhem continues. Such dire predictions ignore history, and the fact that criminal states are among the most durable polities in the world. Mexico, I suspect, will outlast us all. And, in any case, any place that produces Benito Parras isn’t to be loathed.

I will never forget the drive out of the sierra.

Down from the pines at 7,000 feet, the mountains opened themselves up as landscapes sometimes do when you abandon them. Dry grasslands shined in the foothill valleys like bronze mirrors. Storm clouds scraped the continental divide, where snow had fallen the night before. The white ridgelines of the sierra receded southward in a succession of paling cardiograms. There were horsemen everywhere. They clopped through rawboned towns. They galloped and clowned across corn stubble. A pair of cowboys barreled down the highway embankment, driving slat-ribbed cows with popping ropes. Never had I seen so many. They were flawed men, I imagined. Some were weak men. A few, perhaps, were even violent men. But each was perfect in his moment.

Paul Salopek is a writer based mostly in Africa. He is working on a book about wandering. The profile photo of Salopek was taken by Sterling Trantham.