When the police arrived at the cedar-shingled duplex in a middle-class part of Tizayuca, Hidalgo, the place seemed completely deserted. In the backyard, they found the bodies of 7 women and 4 men laying on the pavement, each slashed to death. Eventually, they heard murmurs in the bushes nearby, where they discovered four terrified children, trembling and unable to speak.
The cops told the reporters gathered at the scene that it was a settling of scores between criminals, and that most of the victims were convicted felons. The host, a man named Rubén, had just left Barrientos prison, where he served time for kidnapping, theft and larceny.
The kids later testified that as the killers sliced off parts of each victim’s body – their mothers and fathers – they didn’t move a bone, just listened intently from their hiding spot.
Since the beginning of 2017, killings in Mexico have risen dramatically. In May alone, 2,186 homicides were recorded – nearly 500 per week.
These days, this type of event is fairly common – a settling of scores involving families. What’s puzzling is why the killers even bothered to leave four kids alive in the bushes.
In some ways, the violence reminds me of my childhood in the NY boroughs in the early 80s, when swathes of Brooklyn, Bronx and Manhattan were still no-go zones. More than a dozen cops were still being killed each year; even more taxi drivers were murdered.
In Little Italy, Staten Island and Howard Beach not a week went by without a shooting in a restaurant or Italian-style café over steamed mussels and linguine. Sometimes, a dirty cop was involved.
But police were rarely killed back then, in no small part due to the NYPD’s take-no-prisoners policy that wreaked havoc for months on every mafia family that could even be remotely tied to the hit. In those days, NY mafiosi tried hard not to involve outsiders.
There were exceptions, of course, especially with the Asian gangs, like when a dozen teenagers born-and-raised in war-torn Saigon burst into a Chinese restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, spraying the dining room with AK-47s.
I used to eat noodles at that place. I still remember the front pages: 7 diners killed instantly, 12 seriously wounded. The place never opened again.
Events like that rarely happened, despite sporadic outbursts of violence that occasionally happened within each ethnic tribe. In those days, I was more worried about stumbling into the cross hairs of a sick Rambo type than getting knocked off in a mob hit.
In Mexico, however, things work differently.
What these killers did yesterday, for example, was strictly in the line of duty. In this new reality, women, kids and families no longer get a free pass.
I don’t know how much each killer received for slashing a bunch of party-goers to death in front of their kids. Hopefully it was enough to pay for a long cruise in Acapulco, where they can slurp icy beers and tequila and peer out at the sea. And if they don’t get too smashed, maybe they’ll notice the families gathered by the shore, or think – however fleetingly – of the kids they left alone in the world.
But the real question is: How many others would be eager to fill their shoes? After all, these assassins were once ordinary teenagers, looking for a leg up in the world. They didn’t make the rules. What they offer is in demand; they occupy a vital niche in the food chain.
As the cops said, everybody connected to this tit-for-tat knew what to expect. That’s what they meant when they told reporters that the victims were all criminals.
That’s how the game is played. Rubén and the others knew that.