Thursday, January 6, 2011

Notes From the Crime Beat: Zeta Uno

Two radio handsets, perched on top of a city trash can at the base of the Monumento de la Revolucion, bleep and squawk muffled and garbled information and codes, punctuated by screeching sirens, incoherent speech and interference. These bursts from the scanners monitoring the police and emergency frequencies are urgent and dramatic...and usually followed by complete silence.

It's about ten o'clock on a Sunday night and I just arrived at ‘El Monu’, the de-facto operations base for the members of La Nota Roja, the Mexico City crime photographers I am working with. It’s not the most attractive place to spend eight hours of your life and in the wee hours of the night but it’s central and the media hawks from the local papers, television and radio stations can quickly scramble to most parts of the city as nocturnal events in Mexico City’s underworld unfold.

'El Monu'

I feel double-lost in translation on these cold nights.

For one I’m straining my ears trying to decipher the incessant static firing out of the police scanners. Things sometimes sound dramatic and urgent, rapid fire speech and howling noise belches from the handset but mostly 'La Nota Roja', Luis, Jaime, Alex, Gabriel and all remain calm and go back to chatting, leaning against their cars, smoking and hanging out. When the prospect of a news event dissipates with the lowering of the volume on the radio, I’m forced to switch back to trying to figure out the rhythm and cadence of the speech of 'La Nota Roja' themselves. This at times proves more frustrating than trying to understand the police scanners.

Their patter is fast and laden with Mexican street slang and my ears only pick up several words and phrases. I spend my time trying to string things together often with little success. The wordEl Verde’ was being used so much for the first few days I worked with 'La Nota Roja' I was convinced it was a swear word, only to find out that ‘The Green’ was the nickname of Jaime, one of La Prensa’s photographers and a fatherly figure among the group. ‘Pinche Verde' or 'Fucking Verde’ they would mutter joking amongst themselves.

'El Verde'

Mostly I’m lost between two worlds of double talk but Alex gives me a dig out and begins to explain the significance of the police codes.

If the radio squawks ZETA UNO (Z1), he says, it means there’s been a murder. ZETA DOS, a shooting but the subject is still living. He goes on through the list detailing the litany of grizzly circumstances which make up the bread and butter of La Nota Roja.

DOS BRAVO, EQUIS TRES (X3), ‘Un Catorce’, the romantic sounding ‘Apperitivo’ and so on. Car crashes, police raids, drug busts, the dead, wounded and mutilated, it’s a grim list of codes that I was probably better off oblivious to. But now I know.

I’m a little tired of the night shift. I bring less equipment than normal after a dead quiet week and show up a little late to the ‘Monu’, where for the last seven nights or so I have been eating tacos and sleeping in the back of whoever’s car has a spare seat.

'Es la Navidad’ Jacobo told me earlier, ‘Los Sicarios van a vaccaciones'

Ca-Qua, a radio journalist from the radio station Cadena Tres has two radio’s in his hand, he adjusts the volume to a minimum and catches up on the scandals from the various Christmas parties that have been going on all week.

Luis or 'El Virgo', a photographer from Universal and my main point of contact with the group arrives even later than me and we all shake hands. Luis has taught me that things can happen at any moment in this type of work and often do.

Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to get what you wish for and it’s not long since Luis has rolled up in his massive old red Ford that our quiet week is to be transformed.

Ca-Qua has turned his radio up to full and the TV Azteca guys are scrambling to check their equipment. Something is happening somewhere in the city. I turn to Luis, slinging my backpack over my shoulder and making for the car. ‘Zeta Uno’ he tells me, ‘a man killed in the Barrio Buenas Aires’ but he doesn’t elaborate any further. Everyone is rushing for their cars, phones begin to ring and engines are started.

'El Virgo'

The calm and tranquility from what seemed to be a lazy Sunday evening is gone. Luis urges Gabriel to speed up as we pull out of the ‘Monu’ and hit the accelerator. Checking the side streets with a glance before shouting clear as we punch through a succession of red lights. Luis’ Nextel bleeps as he receives and relays information as to the location and nature of the incident. The line goes quiet for a minute drops the phone his ear and checks his flash is working.

I’m mostly oblivious to the communications, my body tensing as we hurtle over Mexico City’s potholed and speedbumped streets.


In ten minutes we arrive at the Barrio Buenas Aires, the corner of Dr. Vertes and Morones Prieto and the scene is a Kaleidoscope of red and blue flashing sirens. As Gabo finds a place to park the car, Luis has the door open, ready to jump out.

I hit the street running behind Luis and it is immediately apparent that this incident is still unfolding. At first sight I can see a plethora of police arriving and people are moving in all directions. To my left I can see that they are fleeing a nightclub, streaming through the door and scattering past the arriving policemen.

In front of the nightclub door lies the body, unattended, fallen between two parked cars. It is later revealed that the body belonged to one Ricardo Tovar Leyva, 45, commonly know as ‘El Charro’ or The Cowboy, who has recently suffered a shotgun wound to his head.

'El Charro' is not going anywhere for now and after a preliminary few photographs, Luis is off down the street following the action as it unfolds. It is difficult to decipher what is actually happening amid the confusion. Police scurry after the fleeing nightclub patrons, grabbing some and holding them for quick questioning. A man is dragged into a squad car kicking. He puts his head down as the media begin to assemble around the car, his face caught in freeze frames of red and blue light.

A Federal Police man in full flak jacked and helmet marches past me, short and impossibly squat, he looks like the Sandman from Fantastic Four. In a cordon of police cars, other officers brandish what I assume to be the murder weapon in the car headlights, a destructive looking thing that they twist and turn in curious examination.

The situation is highly charged. I spot the TV Azteca guys nearby and finally my eyes catch Luis’s long red Tampa Bay Buccaneers jacket as gunshots, three in quick succession, cackle from around the corner.

The tempo leaps again as Luis urges me to get down low. I do and find it hard to run as police begin to stream past me, pointing their weapons into a building site on the corner.

I crouch for a minute with Luis and Alex. I photograph the cops as they storm over the temporary chain link fence, evidently where the shots came from. Alex follows the police over, his large frame tumbling over the collapsed fence, his tiny HD camera still glued to his right hand. TV camera lights and flashguns illuminate the scene as the police surround the building site Portakabin.

The voices of the officers rise above everything, ordering whoever is inside to emerge with their hands up. Policemen have their guns aimed at the little site office as the door opens slowly. A heavy set, middle aged couple, scared out of their wits stand in the white light as police move to them. They are unarmed and although certainly not the culprits are most likely witnesses to the shooting, who, for their own safety may not want to give information to the authorities. I fleetingly wonder how they managed to climb into the building site so quickly as the man is dragged back across the fence in a hail of flashes and thrust into a police car.

Two more shots ring out, this time on the opposite corner and everyone scrambles again. I run across with the police officers and take up a spot behind a parked bus, crouching down as a line of cops take up positions facing the building, everyone screaming and shouting. I poke my head around as cops point to various windows and towards the roof. Two cops begin to scale the fa├žade of the building.

Federales in heavy body armor line up across the street, other cops lean against a cruiser with their guns cocked, movie shootout style, three in a row. A helicopter begins to circle the building, descending low enough to kick up a cyclone of dust and leaves, whipping it across the street and into the faces of all assembled. The spotlight rakes across the building scanning it for activity. I’m shooting video and scrunching up my eyes against the dust and leaves.

Luis is on the corner and he is the only one of La Nota Roja I can see. On the other side of the bus, another man is dragged down the street and into a police car but I can’t tell if he was hiding out in the building or was the one firing at the cops. I shoot a picture through the dark window of the cop car but it is all black.

Luis, leaning against a lamppost, watching the proceedings, looking cool as you like. Instead of church and a few hours on the couch of a Sunday it seems he can be found at hanging out at the odd police shootout. Just another day at the office.

The helicopter zips off to another part of the city, the thwack of it’s rotar blades fading into the night.

I ask Luis what the fuck just happened but he kind of shrugs and I pass him by to see what has become of El Charro.

Order is being restored to the crime scene, police begin to stretch their hot pink ‘Peligro’ tape in a wide cordon around the body, pulling it tighter as it waves and flaps in the wind.

The body, obviously, has not moved. Dry winter leaves swirl gently in a pool of dark, crimson blood and a shock of bright red brain matter that left Tovar Leyva’s head with the force of the shotgun blast, a .30 caliber.

People begin to gather to look at the body and the restored order is once again punctuated as a small group, maybe friends or relatives arrive at the scene. Two women are distraught, screaming and crying and trying to push their way closer to the body past the police cordon only to be restrained and comforted by a female cop. They push their way along the cordon to get closer.

Another relative arrives, she twirls and spins, wailing, distraught and overwhelmed. She feints in the street, flat on her back, her arms flayed out beside her. Bystanders look on as the closest to her aid her to her feet, all the while the continuum of red and blue flashing police lights pulsing across the scene.

I’m roaming now, watching people watching the dead guy. A man holds a toy dog inside his jacket, both watch on with curiosity. Mothers arrive with prams and their youngsters, youths adjust their sportswear and toy with their mobile phones, comparing their knowledge of weapons, bullet trajectories and cars: Barrio Buenas Aires is a well known neighborhood for chop shops and the auto-mechanic underworld and the dispute between El Charro and his assassin is likely over stolen cars.

Traffic, long since blocked off from the busy intersection once again begins to move along one side of the street in deathly slow single file. A giant red Coca-Cola truck passes by and my mind drifts to memories of tv commercials; a scene of snow covered countryside and a caravan of rosy red trucks with jolly, illuminated Santa Clauses on the side, chiming their way along in the half light. I remember that it’s Christmas.

The forensics van arrives and the detail work begins. Two men place little yellow signs with numbers around the corpse, near the white BMW alongside which the deceased lies and at other areas of interest. It’s a curious sight, these men in white coats moving back and forth around the scene like curious tourists, taking photographs with utmost attention to detail and leaving their little markers like sightseeing spots ticked off their map.

Luis and Alex are smoking cigarettes and snapping the occasional picture. They already have everything they need for their story and have witnessed scenes like this many times. They’re ready to leave and head back to the ‘Monu’.

The white chalk lines are drawn and I’m still curious to see the scene through, to see the street empty out after the body has been lifted and to feel calm return to the Barrio Buenas Aries but the guys want to leave.

I make a few final frames, long exposures, of the forensics guys tending to the body of El Charro and make my way back to the car.

Gabriel clips his radio back to the sun visor above the drivers seat. I’m back to being lost in translation but Gabriel and Luis’ chatter is all about the scene we all just witnessed and I feel a little more involved. ‘Bien Cabron’ remarks Gabo. ‘Si Guey’, ‘yeah man’ confirms Luis as we pull away from the scene. ‘Una chinga madre’ is all I can muster by way of remark about the night's events so far.

A real motherfucker.

The radio bursts out another siren howl and the voice of a police man or an ambulance driver somewhere in the city. I look at the guys to see what’s happening, raising my eyes inquisitively. 'Zeta Siete' they say and I’m back in the world of codes and double talk. Gabriel presses the accelerator and Luis reaches into his bag to pull out his flashgun and we’re off again, I sit back in the seat and watch the city flying by, waiting to see what’s going on in Colonia Centro.


Conor Finnegan said...

mad sheeet ross, you be careful now.

JB said...

Nice write up. Stay safe

Vanessa Hetty said...

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