A photographer kidnapped in Mexico, part two

John Sevigny
Feb 15 · 9 min read

Read part one here.

A woman working as a prostitute in Guadalajara, Jalisco shows off her Santisima Muerte tattoo. Photo by John Sevigny, 2006.

Read part one here. See more of his work here.

After years prowling Mexican barrios and slums I know them as well as the place where I grew up. They’re all the same. Makeshift houses with DIY expansion jobs halfway finished. A cinder block church with a playground. A graffitti-covered municipal basketball court with no nets in the hoops and teenagers smoking crack in a far-off corner.

There are kids playing soccer in the street. There are dogs unleashed. There are little houses with open doors where men with AKs will sell you sex, drugs, and for big money, cars and guns.

I’ve watched boys become men in these neighborhoods and get recruited in the transition. Some rise through the ranks in gangsta-land to become big brass. Some become kings. Others never rise above the the rank of “halcon” — lookouts who sit on corners with cell phones. If they see soldiers or federal cops, they text a numeric code across the network to warn everyone else. It’s a dull, dangerous, low-paying job. They are cannon fodder for rival cartels. The word halcon means hawk. Lookouts are not predatory birds but they need the same eyes.

I’ve watched as book-bag toting school girls with high, white socks and tight pony tails morphed into addict-zombie-whores with skeleton legs and the drug-contorted faces of old women when they were still in their 20s. But many honest people survive in these neighborhoods, people who come from economically stable families with strong values. Poor is not a synonym for violent.

Most people, in places like Colonia Zapaliname in Saltillo, end up strung out, dead, or in prison. But everyone in the barrio — saint or sinner — fights to survive.

The bigger, bloodier fight is to become someone.

Anyone.

Pendants for sale at a stand in la Plaza de Armas outside the Cathedral in Saltillo, Coahuila, photo by John Sevigny, 2011.

Cartels find their foot soldiers among the young, the angry, and those who are broken by the time they are teenagers.

In barrios like Tepito, San Juan de Dios and La Independencia, cash is a currency backed by street-corner credibility, a thing that cannot be bought but only stolen, often from the pockets, purses, and glove compartments of the dead.

I knew the men who kidnapped us in January because I’d spent well over a decade in their neighborhoods. I had known their mothers — or women much like their mothers — who worked as prostitutes in dirty bars in Cordoba and La Merced in Mexico City. I didn’t know those exact men. But I knew where they came from and how they became monsters and victims, deformed by the wickedness of the world. Each had been a nobody. Each had cast off invisibility in exchange for a hundred dollars a week, a gun, and a steady supply of drugs.

And credibility.

Those things brought them girlfriends, praise from aging, hungry parents, and most of all, hope. If there was a little money now, there would be more later. If the cocaine was cut with chlorine and aspirin today, it would be melt-in-your-nose pure tomorrow. Today’s badly worn 30 caliber revolver was a promise they’d have Uzis, cars and more of everything else tomorrow.

La Santísima Muerte, the ghetto saint and skull-faced queen of paupers, addicts, and human smugglers looked at those concrete gardens of corruptible youth, awaited a harvest of cadavers, and saw that it was good.

In secret rituals at hidden temples veiled in smoke and sweet with the smell of incense and candle wax, the miserable and desperate give themselves over to the pseudo saint, paying for a shot at a seat at the table of power. Because when you eat, breathe and shit death, you come to believe she is the true, higher power. When even Jesus, with his message of life, has no time for you, you turn to death.

And who wants eternal life, anyway, if it’s such a bad dream?

It’s hard to blame them.

You’d be crazy not to exchange a ton of powerlessness for a few grams of uncut glory. I’ve heard young mothers say, “Better that he works for a cartel and dies young than grows old, bitter and tragic without a peso in his pocket.”

That may be wrong-headed and negligent but from so far down in the filth it looks like redemption.

There’s a law in the universe that also comes into play: marginalized, invisible people, from South Africa to Watts, from Sao Paulo to Mexico City, will eventually turn violent. It happened in Miami, Los Angeles, and soon it will happen in Managua.

I understand the men who kidnapped me but there are things they did that I will never understand. Bizarre, pseudo-satanic nonsense, rituals carried out with serious, solemnity, and the one constant of my 38 hours there: cruelty.

Gear including a state police badge, radio scanners and drug packets printed with a cartel logotype taken from an organized crime group during a recent operation by federal police.

But I want to go back to the night after we were kidnapped.

We were held in a small, upstairs bedroom somewhere within a 15-minute drive from downtown Cordoba. In retrospect, and considering geography, time, and practicality, I believe we were on the Highway 143 which leads to Xalapa, somewhere in the vicinity of San Jose Neria or Chocoman.

It’s a lush, green region of winding, two-lane highways where sugar cane, coffee plants, banana and papaya trees spring from the soil. Mountains, some of them improbably capped with frost, provide stunning views.

It’s a poor place where land is cheap and there are few cops — apart from those employed by criminal groups. Drug cartels have bought up houses, ranches and land in the area. We could not have been too far from Cordoba, or from the highway. I could hear city buses rattle past outside. I wished I was on one.

In that room we were re-cuffed, tied at the ankles and blindfolded. I was able to see a few things from under my blindfold but not much. A tile floor. Feet. Hands holding guns. Young men from the lowest levels of society in Halloween masks.

While my friend and I were interrogated, a third person came in, a young, heavy-set guy, kidnapped apparently for stealing from homes while working as a carpenter. I guess he robbed the wrong family.

I immediately disliked the carpenter because he said “yes sir,” and “no sir” to the gunmen. I never called my father sir. I’ve never called a police officer sir, either. I’m no fan of authority, legal or not, and I wasn’t going to extend courtesies to people who’d kicked my teeth out. When we were released much later, he apologized to the kidnappers for any trouble he’d caused them.

It was a gratuitous example of what someone once told me: Mexicans don’t respect the law. They respect authority.

In that house, that day, the men with the guns were in charge and he respected them. He helped one repair his broken cell phone. It made me want to wretch. But it’s hard to blame people for undignified reactions when their lives hang in the balance.

As tough as you may think you are, when meth-crazed men with guns grind the barrels into your scalp and threaten you with sodomy, you will denigrate yourself on command. Say you won’t and it only shows you don’t know.

Someone came in the room and thanked me for my cell phone which he’d stolen when we were kidnapped, along with my passport, all of my friend’s clothes, and her television set. For some reason they didn’t touch my computer or digital cameras but grabbed a big, medium format camera that’s hard to come by but worth nothing in a nation with few film labs.

Someone held a phone to my ear and said, “Talk gringo.”

I assumed they’d dialed someone on my contact list hoping to get a ransom. I spoke in English. Hello? Who is this?

The man holding the phone hit me on the top of the head with his pistol, knocking me dizzy.

“It’s our boss, idiot,” he said. “Speak with respect and speak Spanish.”

Being pistol-whipped is nastier than I may have imagined. A gun may be blunt but the pain it inflicts is sharp. You can hear it, not with your years, but with your brain. It sounds like bones being snapped and leaves you stunned, speechless and not able to decide between fight and flight. Not seeing it coming because you are blindfolded makes it worse. It was like being kicked in the face by a mule.

I could tell through the light filtering through my blindfold that it was nighttime now.

“John,” the voice on the phone said, his accent revealing a refined man who was not from any barrio. He sounded genuinely excited to talk to me, which was just part of his con, his gig. “It’s such an honor to have you as a guest. I trust you’re being treated well?”

I’d met men like him in their prison cells, which they’d converted into luxury apartments. I’d met them in their mansions and bars. They all seemed to have seen the Godfather too many times and this guy was no exception. I almost expected to hear softly plucked guitar music in a minor key with a corny violin playing over the top.

“Not precisely treated well,” I said tailoring my words to avoid triggering the gunmen around me.

He laughed, not in any sinister way. It was the amicable laugh of an old man who understood or pretended to understand what I was going through.

“I’ll be there soon to meet you and we can figure out how to resolve this issue,” he said in a tone that was comforting at a time of grief— the tone you’d hear in the voice of a particularly good funeral parlor employee looking to sell you a coffin.

The phone was taken away from my ear and we were told to lie down and go to sleep.

All the gunmen left the room except two young men I soon heard snoring on the job. Were there more in the room? I didn’t know. But I was able to lift my blindfold for a moment and see that we were in a small bedroom with no furniture. It was well lit. There were benches on the other wall made of boards and cinder blocks. There was a door. Where did it go? Who was behind it? Trying to escape would have been stupid without knowing those things.

There was a jukebox, for fuck’s sake, all lit up like a Christmas tree stuffed into a glass box.

I looked at one of the guards. He might have been 27. He was a fat guy with a baby face. He wore thick, black glasses and I thought he might be dreaming about playing video games or saving up to trick out his car. I was sure his mother loved him and believed he worked as a security guard or something. He was another barrio casualty with what looked like a Sig MPX machine gun strapped to his body, his sleeping hand on the trigger of that weapon which goes for $1,600 on a good day — a short-barreled gun that can fire 12 bullets per second.

A young girl outside the market in Cordoba, Veracruz, Mexico, 2018, John Sevigny

I covered my eyes again and said out loud, “Are we going to resolve this situation tonight? You’ve made a mistake and I think your boss knows that.”

Baby face woke up, and with clear agitation in his voice said, “Maybe tomorrow, gringo. Sleep. This is just beginning. This could take seven, eight days.”

He got up and handed me a sheet of plastic so I could be warm while I slept. I didn’t sleep and the tile floor was as cold as ice. My face was swollen, I could taste blood in my mouth, and I couldn’t imagine what I looked like.

The next day I’d be interrogated by the boss, a high ranking figure from the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico. It would also be, by any measure, the strangest and worst day of my life.

John Sevigny is not a photojournalist but a fine arts photographer whose work is rooted in 19th Century Realism, Baroque painting, and draws on his own experiences. He lives wherever he can. See his work at www.johnsevigny.org