Mexican journalist Diego Osorno profiles the rightwing businessman and former mayor of Mexico’s wealthiest city, Mauricio Fernandez Garza, who adorns his living room with the skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. While he was mayor, Fernandez Garza organized a private ‘intelligence body’ called the ‘Grupo Rudo’, financed by the town’s wealthy businessmen, which operated in secret and was accused of torture and other misdeeds.
Praised by some for fending off the narco-war from his small domain in the country’s north, he has paradoxically bragged that mafia families make their home in his city because it is so safe. Osorno’s film on Fernandez Garza opened this week in the US.
I buy into this notion, which might seem strange to some people and not so to others, but I don’t really care either way, that if I create the safest community in the world without a doubt I’m going to have a lot of bad guys who want to live here, as well as good guys. And I don’t think the bad ones will come with the idea of carrying on in their bad ways, instead they will come simply because they too value safety of the family. And maybe they have one good son, that’s what I imagine anyway. And so, if San Pedro were the least safe city in the world, not even the narcos would want to live here. In Colombia, the society was stricter in that they said, “No, the children of narcos cannot be in the schools.” But here they are in the schools and the schools know that the narcos’ kids are there. With all these efforts I’m leading, I don’t feel like I’m going up against them, because in this case we’re all united by the same interest: security. I could be mistaken. And if I am mistaken well, hell, send flowers to my grave. But if I’m not mistaken, I truly believe this is going to be a success story because I’m getting to the bad guys by way of something that we have in common. And I’ve got to mention, as I have publicly, that I am going hard after the public sale of drugs, and shady business too, and I’m also going to go after the casinos to get them out of here. I know that in other towns, the narcos look you up and tell you that as mayor you can’t do such and such, that the police force is theirs, the extortion racket is theirs and the kidnapping business too. So don’t get involved. That’s what they do. I think that organized crime makes contact with anyone who aspires to be elected into public office in Mexico, or at least the second they get sworn in. They looked me up when I was running for governor and now when I became mayor they looked me up too. They offered me 15 million and I didn’t accept it. Nobody can assure me that I’ll get out of all this alive. Without a doubt, it’s risky work. But something has to be done. I’ve never seen a war when the good guys win. In any war, the bad guys always win. The baddest guys.
The only turbulence to stir the Learjet taking off out of the private airport in Monterrey was what registered on the face of Mauricio Fernandez Garza when I asked him about his city’s new leader. The ex-mayor, who over three years successfully managed to impede the narco war from spilling over into the richest city in Latin America, looks annoyed. A few days ago his successor, the new mayor of [the wealthy Monterrey suburb]San Pedro Garza Garcia, was not able to impose his authority on a few residents who were unhappy with some pedestrian bridges recently erected along one of the main avenues. Instead he caved in to the pressure, announced that the structures would be demolished. This man, his former city clerk, who was supposedly going to act as a bridge with the outgoing administration and continue with his projects and style of governance, instead reneged on this project designed by a prize-winning architect, solely because some stuffy people said they thought it was ugly.
The residents of this city in the northeast of Mexico have an average income of more than $25,000 a year, which is almost four times that of the average income of Mexicans in general and even greater than the average in Spain. Besides being the richest Mexicans, they are often the most demanding of the authorities. A former local police chief told me that working there had been a nightmare because every early morning he would receive phone calls ordering him to release a kid arrested for drunk driving the night before. It was always “the son of” so and so.
“Everyone feels very important,” the policeman recalled. “Too many of them try to exert their influence.”
The current mayor, a very formal and even-keeled young man, had not been Fernandez Garza’s first choice for replacing him; rather he had preferred a charismatic director on the board of the Cementos Mexicanos conglomerate, who was known for being instrumental in getting Tigres the Mexican Soccer League championship, a feat the team had not achieved in 29 years. However, Alejandro Rodriguez Michelsen, the former mayor’s favorite, declined the invitation to govern San Pedro. He had accepted a position with the FIFA Committee for Club Football instead. Mauricio Fernandez Garza thinks that if Rodriguez Michelsen had been his successor those pedestrian bridges would be intact today.
“If you don’t have the character to govern, you’ll get hung,” the ex-mayor tellsme aboard the Learjet, as it cuts through cold air on a sunny winter day at the beginning of 2013. We were travelling to a ranch in the town of Lampazos. The ex-mayor would be supervising the final construction phase of his new country house, where he says he will live out his retirement.
The weakness of his successor bores the former mayor. These days he has a more exciting preoccupation in mind. In the profile picture on his private Facebook page, Fernandez Garza poses next to a monster’s skull that adorns the living room of his house and sums up the obsession to which he now dedicates the majority of his time. It’s the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex — “tyrant lizard” — and it’s not the only prehistoric animal fossil he owns. The jewel of his private collection is Einstein, an apatosaurus — “deceptive lizard” — which is around 13 feet high and almost 82 feet long, even though its head is barely the size of a football. The name paleontologists gave to this creature is meant to refer to the irony of such a small skull in comparison to such an enormous body. Einstein was found in a dinosaur cemetery in Wyoming, and Fernandez Garza says he paid 20 million dollars for it. He had to wait three years for the pieces to be delicately transported and slowly assembled to eventually compose the fossil that is more than 100 million years old and which, when totally put together, weighs some four tons. Einstein doesn’t fit in the living room of a house, not even the ex-mayor’s. It’s on display in Fundidora Park, the most popular of Monterrey, where the kids and their families visit and take pictures alongside it, which they too put up on their Facebook pages.
When he was a boy, Mauricio Fernandez Garza pursued less exotic animals than dinosaurs. He would sneak out at dawn from the window in his room to hunt hares on the hillside where years later would be built a city with quality of life statistics similar to those of Norway. His adventure companions were neither family members nor millionaire kids like himself. They were ranch hands and workers, all older, and at the service of his grandfather Roberto Garza Sada, an entrepreneur who would seal some of his business deals on the green of the professional golf course he had in his mansion’s backyard.
Adolescence allowed for Mauricio Fernandez Garza to broaden his horizons as a hunter. He travelled through dozens of towns in northeastern Mexico searching for prey that would demand of him greater skill and risk. During those trips when he would head out with locals whom he would hire as hunting guides, he would hear stories about the abuses of the PRI, the only political party to rule in Mexico at the time. The teenager would advise his new acquaintances to kill off the political bosses who they were being exploited by. On one occasion, one of the guides told him they were going to follow his advice, that they were going to kill a local boss. The boy became excited by the news and remembers seeing himself as a warrior. He imagined himself carrying out acts of justice with his own hands against all the tyrants in the Northeast. Some time later, his father tried to channel such energy, by signing his son up as a supporter of the new National Action Party (PAN), and he took him to the Tsabo National Park hunting grounds in Kenya, one of the three largest in the world. In Africa, a young Fernandez Garza killed dozens of deer, zebras, tigers, and even one elephant.
When he returned from Africa, the 20-something year old hunter married and decided to build his house on a mountainside that towers over all of the city of San Pedro. Instead of starting the construction with the floor and the cement, Fernandez Garza searched first for a roof for his home. After finding out that a warehouse in New York was storing some sheets of Islamic Mudejar ceiling from the 13th and 14th Centuries, he struck a deal with the owners who were heirs to the tycoon William Hearst. The ceiling pieces were meant for what would become the principal drawing room in the castle that would be built in San Simeon, California by the man immortalized as Citizen Kane in the film by Orson Welles. Today they are at La Milarca, the name by which the former mayor baptized his own palace of almost 21,500 square feet where he has nine bedrooms, ten storerooms, two art galleries, a library of antique books and an archive of his personal photos and documents. At the time of the estate’s construction, his preferred reading was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The young Fernandez Garza was so obsessed with the book he had received as a gift from his grandfather, that before even turning 30 he gave courses on the Carnegie method to others of the city’s entrepreneurs, like Alejandro Junco de la Vega, the current owner of Mexico’s Reforma newspaper.
As the favorite grandchild of Monterrey’s business patriarch, Fernandez Garza was among the candidates to preside over the consortium founded by his family and others of San Pedro to increase their financial dominion. The Alfa Group includes international businesses related to hot dogs, petrochemistry and aluminum auto parts. Instead, Fernandez Garza decided to establish a business relationship with the communist government of Cuba, based on cigars, beer and cell phone towers. He met with Fidel Castro multiple times, and to this day considers him a friend. Over time, he saturated his mansion, La Milarca, with extravagant objects such as the sword that had belonged to Hernan Cortes, the shrunken heads of the Jivaro tribe, the skull of a Triceratops dinosaur, sculptures by Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, and an old tommy gun used by Al Capone. His obsession with collecting led him to found five museums dedicated to numismatics (coins), popular art, ceramics, contemporary painting, and decorative arts. Now he wants to create a sixth, The Museum of Natural History, where he will display his dinosaur fossils.
Aboard the Learjet now, the former mayor is travelling with, in addition to his wife, his oldest son, a prestigious psychiatrist who looks him in the eye with great attention when he speaks. His previous flight was to Mexico City to meet with officials in the new government of Enrique Pena Nieto, to whom he explained his idea for the Natural History Museum.
“I want it to be a museum of an international caliber,” he informs me, “Not just any fucking thing.”
Even though the new government is presided over by a president from a different party, the former mayor was promised he would receive support for his project. The dinosaur Einstein will be the big star of the museum and Fernandez Garza knows that it’s not just a question of money; he’ll need as many politicians as millionaires backing him up in order to do it. In fact, he moves in both spheres simultaneously. His debut in politics was in the early 90s, while he conducted business in Cuba. He was mayor of San Pedro for the first time when the city was experiencing growth and was not confronting any war with drug traffickers. Later he was senator and he launched such proposals as the legalization of marijuana. Most likely for that reason he lost the chance in 2003 to govern the state of Nuevo Leon. When he was sworn in for the second time as mayor of San Pedro — in front of the governor, the head of the state’s Supreme Court and the commanders of the military zone — Fernandez Garza announced he would take unusual responsibility in preventing the narco war from reaching his city. He received a standing ovation.
The dinosaur collector created an intelligence task force financed by money from the owners of the area’s bars and restaurants who had an interest in protecting their businesses from mafia extortion. There is no mafia without nightlife and so he put his army of informants to work spying for him to tell him who was who and alert him to suspicious persons all over the city. One day Fernandez Garza announced that the security achieved in his district could also benefit the relatives of the drug traffickers. Some were outraged by the comments and protested. Among them were some of the same residents who would later oppose the pedestrian bridges that would be demolished by the next mayor of San Pedro. Towards the end of his administration, during the filming of El Alcalde (The Mayor), a documentary about his personality and his government, Fernandez Garza said that the number of deaths in Mexico resulting from the drug war was much higher than what the official count indicated. He knew of government and organized crime missions that had ended in the burial of bodies in abandoned lots, of which there was no report made or record. Something that was known to the public was how during his term three mafiosos who had wanted to kill him, themselves wound up dead. Along with his chief of intelligence and head bodyguard. The former mayor spoke in public about the possibility of being assassinated. He said that his eldest son, the psychiatrist who on this morning in 2013 travels with him on the Learjet, had asked him for permission to keep his head if he were to be killed. To study it, or to keep it on display in his office like the tyrannosaurus in the living room.
When my grandfather sold his mansion in Monterrey to the Church and came to San Pedro to build his new house and make his golf course, few people understood him. It seemed extravagant to them to go and live in a place that was undeveloped. But he told me that the best business deals he made were solidified on the golf course, since it was a great opportunity to chat with partners and clients. My grandfather would say, if you’re interested in business, you have to learn two things: to drink and to play golf. He told me that what is marvelous about golf is that you talk about something, you hit the ball and the only thing you’re sure of is that no balls will fall in the same place, so you are able to talk to someone in chapters, with pauses and time to analyze things. So you can reconsider while you’re there. A golf course is the only place where you will have three or four hours of play and you can have ample intervals of time to assimilate information. The other thing to learn about business was how to drink. He would tell me how it’s sheer stupidity when you go to someone’s office and he’s sitting behind his enormous desk and you’re the idiot sitting in front of him. It’s a distinguished position, and you look puny, in terms of who’s in charge, who’s boss, who controls the situation. My grandfather would tell me that when I wanted to do business, not to bring anyone to my office. To go to a bar — of course, not to get totally trashed — but to show the courtesy of inviting someone to a bar on a neutral playing field. Those are two lessons out of thousands that I learned from a very a young age. But the essential part of my family schooling was not just giving your all. It was achieving things, knowing how to fight for and educate yourself in order to get them. It’s a school that goes back a hundred years, that’s why my family is an unusual case. The saying about a “millionaire father, gentleman son and beggar grandson” gets turned on its head.
In the first minutes of the documentaryEl Alcalde, using a very serious tone a resident tells a television reporter her opinion regarding the methods utilized by the city’s new leader: “In truth, I think that deep down everyone supports him, because it’s what San Pedro needs and what Mexico needs, to just finish off the undesirable people.”
In a city that sees each day how in the neighboring districts the narcos hang their victims from the bridges over busy avenues, attack public places with grenades or figure prominently in shootings near schoolyards, an insane demand has sprouted, somewhere between cynical and desperate, to have authorities with a hard hand who prevent the barbarity of the war from reaching them. In 2012, a few months before Fernandez Garza’s term was to end, El Alcalde premiered in Monterrey, a documentary in which I had a hand as one of the directors. All of the theaters where it was shown were packed and the film festival’s organizers had to set up extra showings. At the end of each screening, the former mayor and the film received the majority approval of the public. Each showing was like collective catharsis, evidence of the audience’s support for a vigilante style of governance. While in the rest of Mexico he was accused of being a “paramilitary,” in the North he was seen as “someone who is actually doing something.”
Before flying with the former mayor on his Learjet, I had presented the film together with my co-directors at the Warsaw Human Rights in Film Festival. The reception by the audience was cold, and not just because the air we were breathing was 15 degrees below zero, but rather because of how shocking it was for the Polish audience to feel attracted to a character who, though he had a few progressive proposals, seemed to be invoking an ancient law in order to finish off the drug traffickers. That of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. One of the questions we were always asked at the end of the screenings was if the protagonist was aware of the things he was saying and doing. At another film festival, that of Baja International Film, a rumor was going around that the writer Barry Gifford, screenwriter for David Lynch and inventor of such eccentric characters as Sailor or Bobby Peru, had seen the movie and thought that Fernandez Garza was an actor hired to say what he said. From Monterrey to Warsaw, one left the theater with the impression that the audience, after seeing the documentary, admitted that the only solution to fight organized crime demanded a certain sympathy with more primitive instincts. My mother, who admires Fernandez Garza, says the ex mayor reminds her of Charles Bronson, one of her most favored cinematic anti-heroes, in the movie Death Wish. The former mayor knows what emotions are revealed and provoked by what he says and does. Years back, when I mentioned to him that multiple people I interviewed claimed he was crazy, his responded, “Totally normal, I’ve never been.”
For Fernandez Garza, sometimes everything boils down to a flirting game he plays with the public. The game of saying out loud, while being sworn in as mayor, that you are going to circumvent the Constitution because if you do otherwise, then you won’t achieve anything. That the other politicians, judges, and businessmen who are present applaud you because they do the same or would like to do so, but are too proper or cowardly to ever say so. In this sense, Fernandez Garza is an anti-politician, though such a word is just a euphemism for another way of waging politics. In Monterrey there are those who think that, if he had been elected governor in 2003, Nuevo Leon would not be the almost failed narco-state it is today. That controversial proposal he made to legalize marijuana and combat money laundering by criminal groups now is heavily debated in Mexico as a possible solution, but he was already promoting it a decade ago. Transgression as a means of maintaining some type of order is just one way to describe how the millionaire Fernandez Garza views public service. The mentality of the rich is a cliche that is still difficult to understand in Latin America. The typical narrative that’s been presented to us — through compassion or glorification — depicts the Latin Americans who are hungry, but not those who never lack in anything. In the documentary El Alcalde, we see a millionaire who takes action during an urgent situation of war. While “self defense” groups have proliferated in the South among peasants and the indigenous as a way to protect their communities, Fernandez Garza seems to be the man chosen to defend the wealthy in the Northeast.
The only time the man with the tyrannosaurus hesitated during the filming of the documentary was after he declared on camera that the official death toll from the narco war was false. Fernandez Garza said there were devastating police and military missions that were being kept secret. With such a statement, he was scared of stirring more rage among President Felipe Calderon’s team, which had already ordered judicial and financial investigations against Fernandez Garza during his term as mayor. Yet he hasn’t been the only politician to calculate that there are many more murders than those we already know of; he is just the only who has had dared to say so. Another three mayors agreed to tell me how they were witnesses to secret mass burials, but the three have asked that I not spread the details until conditions in the country improve. One of them has asked me to go public with the information, only if he were to be killed. In the daily news production circuit, especially in the circle that is always suspicious of the politicians, what is communicated to the public is really just a negligible portion, just the tip of the iceberg in a world with more and more impunity. Reporting on politics demands revealing just how wretched that world is.
After every screening of El Alcalde, a predictable debate erupts between the cynics who celebrate everything Fernandez Garza does and the more politically correct who judge him as a paramilitary or a murderer. The documentary only shows one of the extreme characters that are a product of the extreme reality of the war. Nobody after watching it has felt that such extremes are foreign to them. During the filming, when asked about what he thought about people who saw him as a paramilitary leader of Northern Mexico, Fernandez Garza responded:
“Sometimes people believe that my thinking is from a different time. The last hundred years on the planet have been thanks to great people. On average mankind is mediocre, destructive, and greedy. When it comes to doing something different, they try to exterminate you and that’s something I’ve experienced since I was a boy. If I do things differently, it’s because I see things differently. But I’ve never had a personal crisis over it.”
The ex mayor’s admirers believe that only someone with his strategy and hard hand is capable of stopping the narco war from destroying San Pedro. Those who continue to believe in the discourse of absolute respect for the law, in despite of his success, see him as a charismatic savage.
I get bored easily. Once I dominate something I look for something else. I think that life is full of generalities and not specialties, and so collecting specialties is the coolest thing. One of those for me is hunting. Hunting isn’t about killing just for the sake of killing. When you start to go after trophies –which are the biggest animals of a species in a record of 100 years — that’s something else that few people understand. I had the experience of walking for eight hours among ashes looking for a particular antelope. To hunt you have to have the optical ability and it implies a lot of knowledge and I’m very into a lot of topics, because well I like to dominate them, since I’ve always believed that if you do things, you better do them well. When I was in Tsabo National Park in Kenya, it had the greatest density of elephants in Africa and there was a serious overpopulation problem, so the government organized a killing. At that time there weren’t any fences or highways, so when the official killing started, the animals left the area they had been in and headed toward the hunting ground where I was. I had the experience of being among 400 elephants and I’m never going to forget that moment. I felt like I was a living being changing shape. When I get asked whether I believe in God I respond that I know there is a creation more unimaginable than what we think. We are in very diverse dimensions and surely millions more things exist than what we know. We are limited to a space we don’t understand. Our britches are too big for the little shits that we are. We feel so important, but we’re nothing.
Today, when the Learjet is about to land in the middle of an immense plain, where there seems to be nothing other than green and grey mesquite trees, the ex-mayor points out to me an enormous plateau where the only thing there is a buried man. Atop the Cartujanos Plateau, some 1,600 feet high and dozen acres wide, sits a chapel that houses the tomb of Santiago Vidaurri, an old leader of Nuevo Leon, who was very popular during his time for having defended the region from the Comanches in the 19th Century. Vidaurri fell into disgrace years after when he tried to separate the provinces of Northeastern Mexico from the rest of the country to found the Republic of the Sierra Madre, and when he decided to support the fleeting Napoleonic empire of Maximilian the First in Mexico.
“He’s a very fascinating figure, very controversial. Later I’ll show you some interesting letters of his that I have, written by his very hand,” tells Fernandez Garza.
Vidaurri’s attempt at secession was refuted by the hero Benito Juarez, but it was the militant Porfirio Diaz, a dictator after all, who sent him to the firing squad and erased him from the official history books. Almost no one remembers that Vidaurri is still buried there. From his jet, Fernandez Garza shows me the anti-hero’s tomb, not as if he is pointing out a mere coincidence but rather as if fate brought him to build his house facing the tomb of this rebel forgotten by history.
The trip all the way out there is so that the ex-mayor can supervise the final details at the construction site that will become his vacation home. According to popularity polls, if he wanted to, the former mayor would win the elections for governor of Nuevo Leon, but now he is more interested in creating the Museum of Natural History and in spending months out on his new property. The thought of returning to the administration of a territory makes him lazy, unless it is the domain where he plans to retire. The Learjet pilot makes a few landing maneuvers so as to use the dirt landing strip on Fernandez Garza’s ranch for the first time. Before the strip existed, the ex-mayor had to ask his neighbor — a former governor of Nuevo Leon –for permission to land on the strip he has on his side. The ranch belonging to the ex-mayor of San Pedro adjoins with the ranches belonging to the Zambrano and Milmo families, shareholders in Cementos Mexicanos and Televisa, respectively. All of them share land in El Jabali, as this arid zone far from the city is called, in the town of Lampazos where the population doesn’t even reach five thousand inhabitants. It’s intriguing that the powerful men of San Pedro would choose this dry and lost location as the site for their refuges. When the Learjet touches ground, an SUV with two escorts waits for Fernandez Garza, who alone gets into a pickup truck that he drives to the location where some construction workers labor over the finishing touches for the new house. Building a house in the middle of nowhere is another one of the ex mayor’s new specialties. Without being an architect, he drew up his own plans. The walls of his mansion are a showcase of diverse trophies: everything from European and Mexican stock options from the 19th Century to the taxidermy head of a bull, the most recent of the animals he claims to have killed. Last year during a party on a friend’s ranch, this bull became out of control and when he was about to charge a ranch hand, the ex mayor’s hunting instinct surfaced, thus he grabbed a shotgun and fired at him. Now the dead eyes of this animal look down on us.
In the main hall of his country home, there is no skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, only prehistoric fish arranged on the walls as if they are swimming in a tank made of stone. They are marine animals from the Cretaceous Period, of which the ex mayor possesses one of the four most important collections in the world. His passion for paleontology is recent, I’m told, while he explains in detail the history of each of the fish on his wall.
“Much of my paleontology is mounted on the wall like art,” he informs me.
Outside his house, even though the sun beats down fiercely, the cold can still be felt in the wind that passes through without the interruption of any buildings out in this arid wilderness. The best view from there is of the plateau where the man is buried who tried to make Nuevo Leon its own country independent from Mexico. For certain businessmen in the North, Santiago Vidaurri represents what Emiliano Zapata does for the peasants of the South; a symbol of inspiration and autonomy, though they are careful not to say so publicly. Zapata has his place in the Olympus of Mexican history, Vidaurri in a remote tomb protected by an inaccessible altiplano. In a few hundred years, perhaps, when another meteorite like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs on Earth will crash into the world of men, on this plateau the paleontologists of the future will discover the bones of other human beings. One of them, at the express request of his psychiatrist son, will be headless and no one will know it went by the name of Mauricio Fernandez Garza.
Translated by Emma Friedland and copublished with theborderland.org
16 Apr 2013