What you can expect from Organized Crime in Acapulco after Hurricane Otis

What you can expect from Organized Crime in Acapulco after Hurricane Otis

With winds of up to 165 mph, Category 5 Hurricane Otis tore through Acapulco in late October, leaving a trail of unprecedented devastation.

It strengthened so quickly there was little time to prepare for the strongest storm to ever hit Mexico’s Pacific coast. In just a few hours, Otis left Acapulco in shambles, changing the iconic tourist destination into a water-logged war zone. At last count, 39 people are dead.

Before the storm, Acapulco was already staggering under the weight of one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, high poverty, and a sagging tourism industry.

Can it recover from Hurricane Otis?

Maybe the bigger question is what will the region’s powerful organized crime cartels do now?

My ties to Acapulco

Acapulco is the setting for the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series in which the first female police detective takes on cartels, corruption and Mexican machismo. The Detective Emilia Cruz series was inspired by my experience as an intelligence officer focusing on counterdrug issues.

I chose Acapulco as the setting for the series for three reasons:

Stunning backdrop: Acapulco is undeniably one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its horseshoe-shaped bay and mountain backdrop.

Familiarity: Most readers instantly recognize the name of the city. It’s been an iconic destination for generations.

Have vs have-nots: I knew that social and economic factors could be a source of tension (something you always want to build in a mystery) for the character of Emilia Cruz.

The series explores the two faces of Acapulco; the one that tourists see made up of glittering water, white skyscrapers, luxury hotels and fabulous nightclubs. Then there’s the other face of Acapulco–street gangs, endemic poverty, crooked cops. The port is a drop zone for incoming shipments of fentanyl precursors from China and a drug distribution route into the United States.

The Detective Emilia Cruz series doesn’t flinch when addressing the impact of organized crime in Acapulco including missing persons, cartel rivalries, and widespread official corruption.

Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series

Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, books 1-8

Sometimes the series can be a little too authentic, but I’m following the old adage of write what you know.

Related: #free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library

Acapulco was flayed alive

As i write this, Acapulco’s infrastructure is all but obliterated.

The basics are gone for half a million people in the city: no drinking water, electricity, shelter, transportation, etc. Widespread looting is going on. https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexico-starts-clearing-up-hurricane-otis-wreckage-casualties-reach-27-2023-10-27/

According to CNN, “Otis rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to an extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane – the area’s strongest storm on record – in just 12 hours.” After the rain, photos show ravaged buildings and mountains of debris against an unflinching blue sky. https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/26/weather/hurricane-otis-acapulco-mexico-impact-thursday/index.html

The picture-postcard row of iconic white beachfront skyscrapers were flayed; their skeletal framework exposed after walls and windows were torn away. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lamented the loss of every electrical pole. The main highway along the Pacific coast was battered. The Acapulco airport closed. The Mexican National Guard is there now. and about 10,000 members of the military have been sent to help.

An initial estimate put total losses at $15 billion, according to the Reuters report. Yes, billions.

Acapulco skyline in happier days

The famed view of Acapulco’s skyline around the bay, before Hurricane Otis.

The aftermath (and opportunities) for organized crime

The aftermath of Hurricane Otis almost certainly will provide violent plot lines for the Detective Emilia Cruz series.

Organized crime has a history of exploiting vulnerabilities and crises. The aftermath of Hurricane Otis is unlikely to be the exception.

Here’s how criminal entities could use the chaos and destruction left by the hurricane to extend control:

Disrupt Law Enforcement

As military and law enforcement prioritizes disaster response and recovery, organized crime elements will be working overtime to reestablish their own supply routes and communication links. The two opposing forces will be after the same resources in short supply, potentially leading to violent clashes when the city can least afford it. Criminal alliances may shift as deals are made to oppose law enforcement and access supplies.

Exploit New Vulnerabilities

Despite the glitz of Acapulco’s waterfront, the state of Guerrero (where Acapulco is located) is Mexico’s second poorest. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-poorest-states-in-mexico.html

Neighborhoods that were already home to grinding poverty and rival street gangs are now even more ripe for exploitation. Organized crime organizations, flush with money from drug sales, extortion, kidnappings and other illegal operations, can extend their territory and influence by offering financial support. They may offer aid in exchange for protection, cooperation, and information.


The destruction of so many hotels and residences mean thousands are without shelter in Acapulco. Cartels can infiltrate these displaced communities, offering security and services that the government or private charities don’t provide. New members join because they see the government as ineffective, understand that working for a cartel means their family can eat, or need the sense of belonging offered as a way out of the chaos. Basically, by offering economic incentives or promises of protection, organized crime groups can swell their ranks during times of crisis. They might use these communities as cover for their operations, too.

Corruption and Infiltration

The uncertainty following a hurricane can provide an opportunity for cartels to corrupt local officials or even infiltrate emergency response organizations. This allows them to manipulate relief efforts to their advantage and further their control and potentially even seize control of vital resources such as food, water, and medicine. By controlling distribution, they can manipulate and exert influence, possibly even making deals with officials to allow vital resources to get through to populations in dire straits in return for favors, influence, territorial access, the proverbial blind eye, etc.

Exploit Rebuilding

As Acapulco rebuilds in the hurricane’s aftermath, cartels will want to influence construction and development projects. By controlling contracts and decisions related to reconstruction, they can launder money, invest in legal businesses, and expand their economic assets. The construction business is a known vehicle for money laundering and it will be interesting to see how, when and to whom such contracts to rebuild are awarded.

Bottom line

The factors that led to Acapulco’s high poverty, homicide and violent crime rate will all intensify in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis. Organized crime will seek to exploit the situation and will probably be successful, depending on the government’s effectiveness in restoring services and supporting the city.

It’s crucial for the Mexican government and international organizations to provide swift and effective disaster relief, enhance security measures, and address the socioeconomic factors that make communities susceptible to cartel influence.

Unfortunately, with claims that the destruction is being overestimated by his political rivals, President López Obrador is already being accused of gaslighting the public.

I won’t be writing a happy ending any time soon.

Detective Emilia Cruz Starter libraryGet the #free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library

Sound of Freedom movie producer wants to be president of Mexico

Sound of Freedom movie producer wants to be president of Mexico

I guess he won’t have time to star in the film adaptation of my book.

Eduardo Verástegui, the impossibly handsome Mexican actor and film producer, announced 8 September on Instagram that he’s running for president of Mexico as an independent candidate. His platform is simple: “Mi lucha es por la vida, la familia y la Libertad. Neustro camino la comenzado.”

My fight is for life, family and liberty. Our journey begins. 

Eduardo Verastegui's Instagram announcement

Instagram announcement @eduardoverastegui


As of 12 September, the Instagram announcement has more than 89,000 likes and over 8280 comments, many of which call on God to bless his efforts. He’s got 905,000 followers on Instagram, 320,000 on X and 2 million on Facebook. Dedicated fans have multiple accounts across all platforms. The Milenio media group’s YouTube report of his candidacy got 37,000 views in 3 days. The Spanish-language edition of People magazine, which has followed him for years, jumped on the story, too. https://peopleenespanol.com/celebridades/eduardo-verastegui-candidato-presidente-mexico/

Perhaps not exceptional attention, but Eduardo Verástegui is just getting started on an uphill battle to be elected president of Mexico as an indie candidate from outside the political system.

His new logo is a stylized  “V” against an orange background, using the colors of the Mexican flag. The V riffs on his name but also Verástegui’s signature “V for Victory” gesture, which of course reminds us of Winston Churchill. In motion, the letter cleverly twirls like clock hands, as if counting down the days to the election. His signature hashtag #junotsomosmas (together we are more) is catching on.

Verastegui was the producer for the movie Sound of Freedom, currently the #1 movie in Latin America. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/sound-of-freedom-number-1-movie-latin-america That he would run for president of Mexico shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows him online or paid attention to the movie’s release. I wrote last July that the movie delivered one surprise after another. The buzz about him being introduced jokingly at release events as the next president of Mexico now doesn’t seem so surprising.

Squarely in the conservative camp, Verástegui was a featured speaker at CPAC events in the US, Japan and Hungary over the past year, burnishing his bona fides with global leaders. He’s credited with bringing the CPAC brand to Mexico. He is a Roman Catholic who has made a return to religious worship a cornerstone of his platform. His move follows the Mexican courts’ decriminalization of abortion, according to the Human Events blog. https://humanevents.com/2023/09/08/breaking-sound-of-freedom-producer-eduardo-verastegui-registers-to-run-for-president-of-mexico

Over the past two years, his Instagram feed has shown him with a parade of notables such as former president Donald Trump, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the presidents of Central American countries, Pope Francis, Tom Cruise, and Spanish politician Santi Abascal. In July, he joined Donald Trump and friends for a private screening of Sound of Freedom at the former president’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

He’s traveled extensively, speaking passionately against pedophilia, human trafficking, and abortion. He champions a return to faith-based values as well as combating poverty and corruption. Crowds have gotten progressively larger and his team is doing a good job of capturing presidential-like moments when he is speaking to packed stadium-sized venues or signing pledges like the “Carta de Compromiso” against trafficking with the mayor of Lima, Peru. The Catholic faithful flock to prayer events with him, such as during a May visit to Aguascalientes.

English-language media isn’t going to make too much of his quest for the Mexican presidency and probably wouldn’t have noticed at all if Verástegui wasn’t affiliated with the Sound of Freedom movie. Of course, The Guardian couldn’t resist referencing QAnon when reporting his candidacy, resorting to clickbait keywords before discussing political dynamics in Mexico. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/08/mexico-president-sound-of-freedom-film-producer

In outlook and personal appeal, Verástegui has much in common with Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy. Although Verástegui is more than 10 years older, both candidates have an appealing youthful energy. They’re both good looking, well spoken, comfortable before the camera or the big crowd, are motivated by religious faith, family values, and espouse strong conservative views. They both have significant grassroots support.

With Ramaswamy in the White House and Verástegui in Los Pinos, US-Mexican relations would certainly enter a new phase.


Los Pinos presidential residence Mexico City

Los Pinos, the presidential residence in Mexico City. Photo via https://www.journeymexico.com/


While Ramaswamy has an outside shot at winning the Republican nomination, Verástegui is shut out of the two major parties in Mexico, both of which have selected female candidates.

Yet at the very least, Verástegui can force the major parties to address his message about human trafficking and rampant corruption. Perfectly bilingual, Verastegui’s message will resonate with Mexicans living in the US who agree with his views, especially about corruption, and wish to vote in their country’s election. The Catholic vote could also prove pivotal for him. According to The Daily Caller, “Verástegui is supported by several religious groups and the Republican Mexico party.” https://dailycaller.com/2023/09/08/eduardo-verastegui-sound-of-freedom-producer-announces-running-president-mexico/ 

Culture and business law commentator James Hirsen dives into Verastegui’s background and sources of support in a thoughtful essay, saying “In Mexico, Eduardo Verástegui is a household name. He’s a musical entertainer and telenovelas superstar . . . An amazing arc of success surrounds Verástegui’s life. A providential win of the presidency could be forthcoming.” https://jameshirsen.com/2023/09/11/sound-of-freedom-producer-eduardo-verastegui-offers-mexico-a-presidential-choice/

Even if he doesn’t win Mexico’s presidency this time around, it could be the start of an extended political career for the photogenic conservative.

The Mexican election is 2 June 2024. Between now and then, I expect to see the pace of Verástegui’s public appearances skyrocket. More global conservatives and Spanish-language media outlets will take notice as his campaign builds up steam.

The Hidden Light of Mexico City thriller

In a curious coincidence, the book is about an upcoming presidential election in Mexico. Find it on Amazon.


Meanwhile, my dream of having Eduardo Verástegui play crime-fighting attorney Eduardo Cortez Castillo in the movie adaptation of political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City is on hold. Of course, maybe he’ll be available later next year.

Or maybe not.

Arrests made in the next chapter of 43 MISSING

Arrests made in the next chapter of 43 MISSING

Mexico’s Truth Commission investigating the mass disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College may finally solve the 8 year old crime that inspired the Detective Emilia Cruz novel 43 MISSING.

As more details are uncovered, it appears that complicity in the students’ kidnapping and murders involves virtually all levels of Mexican military and civil authority, and was driven by drug money. Some are calling it a state-sponsored crime.

Ask me why I’m not surprised.

43 MISSING Giveaway

To bring awareness to the issue, I’m giving away 12 signed paperback copies of 43 MISSING on Goodreads. Find the giveaway here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/353598-43-missing-an-emilia-cruz-novel NOTE: the giveaway ends 6 October 2022.

Got a Kindle? Get 43 MISSING on Amazon here: https://geni.us/read-43-missing

43 MIssing

Murillo’s Arrest

So far, former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam is the highest official thought to be involved in the crime. He was arrested at his home in Mexico City in mid-August in connection with the Sept 2014 mass disappearance in the state of Guerrero, not far from Acapulco. Murillo served as attorney general from 2012 to 2015, under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Murillo was charged with torture, official misconduct and enabling forced disappearance. Along with him, charges were brought against 20 army soldiers and officers, five local officials, 33 local police officers and 11 state police, and 14 gang members. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2022/08/20/mexico-attorney-general-arrested-43-missing-students/7855468001/

As CNN reported, the arrest followed the Truth Commission’s report which labeled the students’ disappearance a “crime of the state.” The commission, which began in 2019 and is the latest in a string of investigations over the past 8 years, combed through “thousands of documents, text messages, phone records, testimonies and other forms of evidence.” https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/19/americas/jess-murillo-karam-mexico-missing-students-intl-latam/index.html


Since Murillo’s arrest, more news has leaked out about the crime, much of which is being aired (at least in the English-language press) for the first time. The reason that facts were obscured and reporting muffled for so long appears to be a conspiracy that included local drug gangs in Guerrero, which may well have ties to larger organized crime organizations, as well as the highest levels of Mexico’s federal government during the Peña Nieto administration.

The commission report described a “deep coverup, involving multiple levels of local and federal government offices. Officials concealed facts and covered up links between the authorities and the gangs . . . At all times the federal, state and municipal authorities were aware of the students’ movements. Their actions, omissions and participation allowed for the disappearance and execution of the students.”

One shocking revelation from the commission is that six of the 43 students were kept alive for as long as four days after the initial kidnapping by police in the city of Iguala, at which point they were killed and their bodies hidden on the orders of the local army commander.

Enough, I’m Tired of This

Murillo is the one who famously said Ye me canse, meaning “Enough, I’m tired of this” in early November 2014. In a short press conference, he announced that two suspects led authorities to trash bags believed to contain the incinerated remains of the 43 missing students, then abruptly cut off reporters’ questions with the off-hand remark.

Ye me canse blew up across social media, and became a rallying call for those sick of Mexico’s narco violence and disappearances. “Enough, I’m tired of crime/narco-state/violence/government apathy.”

Meanwhile everyone else was asking Donde estan. “Where are they?”

Illustration from The Artist

This illustration from THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA asks “Where are they?”

“Historic Truth”

Murillo left office having created a narrative called the “Historic Truth.” This was an attempt to end the outcry with a story that the local police arrested the students then turned them over to the Guererros Unidos gang, which killed them and burned the bodies, tossing the remains into a dump.

Yet in September 2015, a group of independent experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a 500-page report refuting the theory as scientifically impossible. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/ayotzinapa-disappearances-pena-nieto-s-ultimate-test/

Origins of the Crime

The impetus for this sad tale of crime/coverup/collusion/conspiracy is still murky. Why did the police seize the students in the first place?

The inciting incident was when the students commandeered buses in Iguala to go to a commemorative rally in Mexico City. This isn’t necessarily a big issue in Mexico where transportation is hard to come by. The Ayotzinapa students supposedly did it every year for this event.

But this time, the students may have unwittingly commandeered a busload of drugs being transported by the Guerreros Unidos gang. And who was the gang’s partner in drug transport and distribution? Could it be the Army? Local officials? The local police? All of them?

Military angle

Mexico News Daily reported on military indictments:

“Retired Gen. José Rodríguez Pérez, a then-colonel who commanded the 27th infantry batallion at the time of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College students’ disappearance in Iguala on September 26, 2014, is accused of ordering the murders of six students several days after they went missing.

“On August 19 – the day former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam was arrested in connection with the students’ disappearance – the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) said that a federal judge had issued a total of 83 arrest warrants against 20 military commanders and soldiers belonging to two battalions in Iguala, five administrative and judicial officials in Guerrero, 33 municipal police officers from Huitzuco, Iguala and Cocula, 11 state police and 14 members of the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos.” https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/arrest-warrants-ayotzinapa-general/

Unexpected Twist

After more than three years digging into the current investigation, prosecutor Omar Gómez Trejo quit this week, “raising questions about the authorities’ willingness to take on politicians and the military,” according to the Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/27/mexico-ayotzinapa-missing-students-prosecutor/

Mexican Attorney General’s Office recently persuaded a judge to vacate 21 of Gómez Trejo’s 83 arrest warrants listed above. Sixteen of the 21 were for military officials.

Was the prosecutor sidelined? Is this a sign that Mexico won’t hold military officials accountable for atrocities?

Interestingly, this comes at a time when President López Obrador is relying on the military for a variety of tasks. He recently shifted put the civilian National Guard under military control. The military has taken on the civilian law enforcement role as well as chasing organized crime and running infrastructure projects.

Solving the crime in 43 MISSING

I wrote 43 MISSING, the 6th book in the Detective Emilia Cruz series, out of a huge sense of frustration with the “Historic Truth” narrative being spun at the time. There was some great counter reporting, however, notably Francisco Goldman’s content in The New Yorker. I read everything I could get my hands on and came to the conclusion that those buses were key to the mystery.

And so I wrote my version of the crime, putting Detective Emilia Cruz into an investigation not unlike the Truth Commission. In the fictional version, a new investigation brings together police officers from across Mexico to take a fresh look after previous investigation were either unequal to the task or actively prevented from investigating. Again, much like real life.

43 MISSING takes Emilia out of the familiar surroundings of Acapulco and into Mexico City. She and the team must cull through a massive amount of documentation, including video transcripts, and are given few resources for the overwhelming job.

Emilia finds those responsible for the mass disappearance . . . She finds the bodies of the dead, too.

The real Truth Commission has done the first part. Let’s hope they can do the second and without paying the price that Emilia pays in 43 MISSING.

Featured image courtesy Kindel Media via pexels

Don’t forget

Don’t forget to enter the Goodreads giveaway before 6 October for a signed copy of 43 MISSING: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/353598-43-missing-an-emilia-cruz-novel

Got a Kindle? Get 43 MISSING on Amazon here: https://geni.us/read-43-missing


43 MIssing poster on display

Find 43 MISSING and all the Detective Emilia Cruz books on Amazon.

Hard truths about the war on drugs from a retired US intel officer

Hard truths about the war on drugs from a retired US intel officer

Chris Reed, deputy editorial and opinion editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, recently wrote a piece entitled “Add Mexico to Afghanistan, Iraq to list of nations U.S. has severely wronged.” I was surprised to find that the article centered on the views of Don Winslow, author of THE CARTEL, etc.

Given my own opinions on the US-Mexico relationship, formed during my intelligence career and reflected in my crime fiction, you can imagine my interest.


Don Winslow and I both write crime fiction set in Mexico. Our books often reflect real events. But do we share similar views?

Yes, to a significant extent.

Reed’s article maintains that Winslow believes that “the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] made it so easy for cartels to move cocaine, marijuana, heroin and now fentanyl across the border into the U.S. that it has warped Mexico’s economy, undermined its democracy and gotten more than 100,000 Mexicans killed.”

The NAFTA agreement gave the US “an economic incentive to not inspect the thousands of trucks that cross the border every day with a thoroughness that would limit the cartels’ ability to earn billions of dollars by catering to American appetites for illegal drugs . . [Winslow’s] research found that DEA agents call NAFTA “the North American Free Drug Trade Agreement.”



Fast forward 6 years from 1994. I was beginning to focus my intel career on the Western Hemisphere. The drug cartels were firmly entrenched and making millions every week from America’s insatiable appetite. Stories about missing persons, cartel violence, and mass graves were gruesomely common. Mexican tabloids routinely pasted horrific images across their front pages.

Gruesome and dismembered sells.

The US was spending heavily to stop the drug trade. FYI, the latest reports claim that the US has spent a trillion on the war on drugs, $34 billion in 2020 alone. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/17/the-us-has-spent-over-a-trillion-dollars-fighting-war-on-drugs.html

Those of us in the intelligence community did our best to fight organized crime, target cartel leaders, and staunch the flow of drugs into the US.

But we were pouring our efforts, like water, into a sieve. Lots of dirt got sifted out to be sure (Pablo Escobar, El Chapo, etc) but the rest of the US was subsidizing the drug war we were trying to stop.

The odds were not in our favor.

Related: Detective Emilia Cruz’s Origin Story


In his article, Reed quotes Winslow’s 2015 open letter to the White House:

“It’s not the ‘Mexican drug problem.’ It’s the American drug problem. . . It’s simple: no buyer, no seller. We fund the killing, fuel the killing, and sustain the killing (my emphasis) . . . You’re so concerned about terrorists thousands of miles away that you don’t see the terrorists just across our border. The cartels are more sophisticated and wealthier than the jihadists and already have a presence in 230 American cities. The cartels were running the ISIS playbook — decapitations, immolations, videos, social media — 10 years ago.”

In short, organized crime/cartels are armed, cunning, and ruthless, and we are paying them top dollar.

The year after Winslow penned that letter, US drug users spent $150 billion on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, according to the Rand Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR3140.html

Let’s get some perspective. $150 billion is more than 7% of the US GDP. According to largest.org, which calculated the largest industry sectors in the US, $150 billion per year is more than each of the following economic sectors: durable goods manufacturing, finance and insurance, and state and local government spending. https://largest.org/technology/industries/

That was in 2016. What are we spending now?

More recently, Addiction Centers posted an astounding graphic, claiming users in the US spend $56 million per day on meth and almost $47 million per day on cocaine. I didn’t see their methodology but neither do I have information to say those numbers aren’t for real. https://addiction-treatment.com/in-depth/what-america-spends-on-drug-addictions


The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control keep rolling out statistics that should be front page news, but sadly are not.

Let’s start with cocaine. According to the CDC about cocaine-related deaths in the US:

  • 90,000 deaths by overdose in 2019.
  • 93,000 deaths by overdose in 2020.

Now some joy about fentanyl. FYI, it’s called the “Drug of Mass Destruction.”

  • 42,687 overdose deaths (OD) involved fentanyl in the 12 months leading up to May 2020.
  • Fentanyl OD rates are rising 2.5 times faster than heroin ODs.
  • Fentanyl ODs outpace prescription opioid ODs 550.94%.
  • 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram) of fentanyl contains 250,000 lethal doses.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, “Fentanyl seizures in 2021 have nearly doubled 2020 numbers, according to records quietly released by Customs and Border Protection. The “Drug Seizure Statistics” tool run by the agency disclosed [earlier in September] that agents already seized 9,337 pounds of fentanyl by the end of July, a 94 percent increase from the 4,791 pounds seized in the entirety of 2020 . . . Experts say that just two milligrams of fentanyl can cause a lethal overdose to people with no tolerance for the drug, meaning the amount of the drug seized by CBP through July could potentially kill two billion people.https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/fentanyl-smuggling-surges-at-border/

NYPD data from April 2021 shows that one out of every 10 bags of cocaine sold on the street in NY contains fentanyl.

  • 80% of the heroin tested by the NYPD contains fentanyl.
  • 2/3 of OD deaths in NYC involved fentanyl.

I recently saw articles about the party scene in New York City coming back, warning friends to stay hydrated and carry Narcan because the cocaine supply is laced with fentanyl. https://gothamist.com/news/if-youre-partying-again-in-nyc-be-wary-of-fentanyl-laced-cocaine

No articles telling friends not to take cocaine.


In RUSSIAN MOJITO, I wrote: “Money flowed through each operation, and in Mexico, money and drugs always swam in the same river.”

The money that the US pays to consume illicit drug washes through every sector of Mexican society. Drug money is a way to sidestep Mexico’s rigid social system, lack of rural infrastructure, and weak civil leadership.

Fueled by the US appetite for drugs, organized crime is leaching away civil authority. Politicians are easily bought and even if they weren’t, the organs of civil order are too small, too poorly paid, and too poorly vetted to stand against the bulldozer of organized crime.

Organized crime factions vie for control of the industry even as they branch out into extortion, kidnappings, fuel theft, etc. The result is more violence, more pressure on civil authority, more money to line pockets.

For example, look at the 6 June 2021 elections in Mexico. Think of it as Mexico’s mid-terms. 500 seats in the lower house of the federal Congress, 15 state governorships and thousands of local leadership positions were up for grabs.

It was a massively violent election season. Reuters reported that 97 politicians were killed and almost 1000 were attacked, most at the local level.

In Tijuana someone threw a severed human head at a voting station on election day. Plastic bags filled with body parts were found nearby.

If you read the news from the region with any regularity, bodies in trash bags are mentioned far too often.


In the Detective Emilia Cruz series, she keeps a binder of reports of missing women that she calls Las Perdidas. Emilia’s hunt for them is a running theme throughout the series and the plot of the 2019 Silver Falchion award winning story, The Artist.

Why write about missing persons? Because the numbers of missing and disappeared persons has become the benchmark of how bad things are in Mexico.

The number of missing in Mexico continues to rise. No one really has a hard number but something like 90,000 people have gone missing in the past 15 years.

That’s a quarter of St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s the entirety of Murfreesboro, Tennessee down the road from me.

It’s the number of overdose deaths in the US in 2019.

Mexico is littered with mass gravesites full of unidentified bodies but lacks good recordkeeping so it’s hard to know just how many bodies have been discovered. Nor is there a link between finding bodies and a database of the missing. Ergo, identification lags far behind discovery. http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2021/09/platform-on-mass-graves-is-born-in.html

When they were looking for the remains of the 43 students who were victims of a mass kidnapping back in September 2014, the tragedy I wrote about in 43 MISSING, they found scores of unidentified bodies in graves in the state of Guerrero, not so far from the resort city of Acapulco.

But those weren’t the bodies they were looking for.


Chris Reed and Don Winslow remind us that US drug use paid for all those graves.

Why aren’t more people talking about this?


Some links to check out:

National Security this Week with guest Carmen Amato: https://kymnradio.net/2021/08/04/national-security-this-week-with-carmen-amato-8-4-21-intelligence-operations/

The Ascent of Narco Noir: A Literary Game Changer: https://www.criminalelement.com/ascent-narco-noir/

CLIFF DIVER: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 1: https://geni.us/cliff-diver

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

Everybody has heard of Don Quixote. The image of the fictional tilter-at-windmills is everywhere in Mexico, which has long adopted Spanish literature and legends as its own. But when I went looking for the literary hero for my fictional Mexican hero in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, I needed someone more, ahem, successful than Don Quixote.

El Cid movie posterMovie star

El Cid was a character I’d seen mentioned by Mexican authors. With little more context than the Charleton Heston movie, I assumed he was a fictional creation like Don Quixote.

But I was wrong. It only took a little digging to find El Cantar de Mio Cid, or The Poem of the Cid, the only surviving epic poem from medieval Spain. The poem, similar in form to The Song of Roland, recounts the adventures of the real Spanish warlord and nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. He was called El Cid Campeador, a title that reflected the esteem in which he was held by both the Moors and the Spanish. “El cid” was derived from the Moorish al-sidi, meaning sir or lord, while “campeador” means champion in Spanish.

El Cantar de Mio Cid is a dramatic retelling of daring deeds with a heroic figure, facing down enemies with courage and his sword. A continued refrain in the poem is that El Cid, with zest for the fight, was born in a fortunate time.

Historic figure

El Cid had already made a name for himself fighting the Moors for King Ferdinand when the king died. The lands Ferdinand had ruled were divided among his five children. They immediately started fighting each other. Sancho, the son who’d inherited Castile, named El Cid commander of his armies. When Sancho was assassinated, his brother King Alfonso was the chief suspect. El Cid made Alfonso publicly proclaim his innocence. Angered, Alfonso forced El Cid into exile alone, in effect holding his daughters and beloved wife Jimena hostage.

literary heroOn his warhorse Babieca and brandishing his sword Tizona, El Cid became a mercenary, mainly fighting the Moors but not being too fussy in his choice of employer. Eventually he managed to squeeze Alfonso into relenting on the exile and was reunited with his family. Aligned once again with Alfonso, El Cid conquered Valencia where he and Jimena ruled in Alfonso’s name until El Cid died in 1099. His daughters became queens of Aragon and Navarre. His sword is preserved in Spain’s Museum of the Army.

Role model

El Cantar de Mio Cid is as much about leadership as anything else. Surprising for his time, El Cid often “took counsel,” asked his men for input, and actually listened to their advice. As a result, his men were fiercely loyal to him; 115 knights spurned King Alfonso, went into exile with El Cid, and fought by his side as mercenaries.

This was the perfect role model I’d been looking for as my fiction hero, Eduardo Cortez Castillo, leads a brotherhood of cops sworn to be incorruptible. In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, “Los Hierros,” the Iron Ones, will take on not just police corruption but a scheme to allow Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel to buy political power through the Mexican presidential elections.

El Cid’s relationship with his beloved wife Jimena gave the role model an extra dimension. Like El Cid, Eduardo falls in love, although with a woman who by the unspoken laws of Mexico’s rigid class structure, cannot stand by his side. Yet Eduardo tells Luz de Maria about his role model and references to El Cid become a secret code between the two lovers.

I hope you check out THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and find the clues to El Cid.

But most of all, may you, like El Cid, live in a fortunate time.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


literary hero

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

writing advice

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.


Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


writing advice

Steal away with mystery author Lynda Lock

Steal away with mystery author Lynda Lock

Canadian mystery author and blogger Lynda L. Lock transports us to the fabled island of Isla Mujeres on Mexico’s Atlantic coast not far from Cancun. First known for her popular blog from Isla Mujeres, Lynda’s new mystery series is a charming slice-of-island-life with a mystery twist featuring authentic island life and an ensemble cast that hangs out at a restaurant called the Loco Lobo.

mystery authorLynda and I met through the dynamic Mexico Writers group on Facebook and I can’t wait for her next book!

Carmen Amato: Lynda, thanks so much for stopping by. We’re both members of the incomparable Mexico Writers group on Facebook and you were one of the contributors to The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. I love your blog about life on Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, but you also write mysteries! Tell us how your writing career has evolved.

Lynda Lock: Hi Carmen, and thank you for the invite and for including me in The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. My writing career started with a Christmas story I wrote in grade five. It ended in a complete disaster as I nervously shredded the paper while trying to read what I thought was a hilariously funny story to my stone-faced classmates.

Over the years I wrote hundreds of stories for my own entertainment.  Eventually I was offered a position as a contributing writer for an American magazine, while at the same time I managed our bed and breakfast and worked in our micro-brewery. When my husband and I retired to Mexico I rediscovered the desire to write books. I started with a bilingual book for children and then progressed to novels. The Adventures of Thomas the Cat / Las Aventuras de Tomás el Gato won a silver award at the International Latino Book Awards in LA for Best Picture Book Bilingual in 2016.

mystery authorCA: Your mysteries, TREASURE ISLA and TROUBLE ISLA, capture life on Isla Mujeres down to the smallest detail, including the impact of its relative remoteness. How does setting influence your mystery plots?

LL: I enjoy the Mexican culture, but living on an island is entertaining, no matter where the island is located. The people who inhabit islands are typically self-sufficient, resilient individuals, with quirky personalities that make great characters for novels. We lived on a similarly sized island in British Columbia Canada for 17 years. One day I intend to write a series of novels based on that experience.

CA: One thing I love about the Isla books is the wonderful cast of continuing characters and the touch of romance. The population of Isla Mujeres is quite a mix–Mexicans, expatriates, vacationers, etc. How did this inspire you?

LL:  I am fascinated by pirates; their history, their stories, and their personalities. A few years ago our well-respected local historian, Fidel Villanueva Madrid, wrote an interesting account about the pirates that had visited and at times inhabited the Isla Mujeres.

Another islander, Ronda Winn Roberts, enjoys translating articles from Spanish to English and posting the translations on her blog to give English speaking newcomers have a sense of the island’s history. That’s how I first discovered the story of the blonde-haired Dutch pirate, Captain Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf.

The possibility of the handsome, charming and apparently well-educated de Graaf, nicknamed the Scourge of the West, visiting Isla over 300 years ago was the spark for TREASURE ISLA. He reportedly sailed to Isla Mujerea in 1683 after the siege of Veracruz and buried his plunder here on the island. According to all accounts de Graaf never returned to the island but was killed in another battle. Alright then, let’s go find that treasure.

Another pirate, who is better known to islanders, Captain Fermin Mundaca lived on Isla in the mid-1800s. His empty tomb really is located in the cemetery in Centro, and his hacienda covers a large part of the center of the island.

mystery authorThe second book, TROUBLE ISLA begins with a kidnapping of one of the main characters from Treasure Isla. It seems that the pirate’s horde is just bad luck for everyone. The story is more about the present day characters; their interactions, friendships and love affairs and less about the historical characters of Mundaca and de Graaf.

The third book continue to explore relationships between the characters while they deal with murder, mayhem and a hurricane.

I enjoy researching and writing stories that have a historical basis. Digging out the bits and pieces and trying to reconstruct an era is fascinating. Fortunately for me there are a number of webpages and blogs with interesting tidbits of information about pirates and the items have been found over the years.

The interactions and reactions are a never ending source of material for the novels, too. Everyone has an opinion on how the island should be managed and many discussions start with, “my little Isla …” There is an amusing rivalry between the born-on-the-island locals and foreign residents, between the home owners who live here six months of the year and the visitors who have been vacationing every year for 30 years, but everyone picks on the dreaded day-trippers arriving in hoards from the Cancun hotels.

CA: I wouldn’t call your books cozy mysteries, but neither are they hard-boiled crime fiction. How do you categorize them?

LL: I think they are humorous-adventure-mysteries. Is there a category for that?

CA: What is next for you as a blogger and a mystery writer?

LL: Book #3 TORMENTA ISLA is scheduled to be released in February 2018. The cast of characters still have a few more stories to tell. Meanwhile, the blog is a weekly labor of love and both my husband and I contribute articles. It’s a good vehicle to congratulate volunteers, to introduce old-time islanders to the newbies, to express our quirky humor, and to just generally get to know other people who love Isla Mujeres.

CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

LL:  Oh my, so many choices. I read a novel a day and have many favorite authors, but I will have to say Ken Follett would be my first choice. I am a huge fan of his Kingsbridge Series; Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and the newest one just released A Column of Fire. His attention to historical detail, his characters, and his descriptions are breathtaking.

I have read the first two books three times each and still discover things I missed in the previous readings. As for dinner, we are very basic cooks. We live on the edge of the ocean with sand drifting through our patio doors and the turquoise sea to enjoy. Our meals are basic and easy, giving us more time to soak up the beauty of our view.

Assuming Mr. Follett isn’t a vegetarian, we would probably grill steaks and an assortment of vegetables like peppers, onions, baby carrots and broccoli, then make a crispy salad, and set everything on the table with a couple of bottles of good wine. If we were lucky the grocery store might have a freshly made baguette – not quite but almost as good as the baguettes in France. The fresh bread would go nicely with our stash of imported New Zealand butter. (Good butter is a rare find on the island! When a supply comes in we buy lots and stash it in the freezer.)

CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

LL: “No regrets. No bad memories.” It’s a favorite saying we picked up from two friends who are slightly older than us and also on second marriages. What it means to me is enjoy life, learn a new skill, be open to new adventures and don’t worry about the past. Life is short, savor your time.

Thank you!

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BLOG: Notes from Paradise, Isla Mujeres

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


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New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO was released this week on Amazon, Nook, Scribid, Playster, Inkterra, and Kobo. It is already #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list for the Mexico Travel category!

It’s a unique collection of stories, essays, and photographs that you won’t find anywhere else. I was delighted to edit the collection.

The book started life last year as a project of the Mexico Writers group on Facebook. Contributors could print and use it as they liked–hand out in shops, giveaways to readers, etc.

Contributions grew and so did our audience. It was time to publish!

In THE INSIDE’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO, 42 writers, artists, educators, travelers, business owners and others share their experiences. Art, Beaches, History, Literature, Special Places and Experiences are some of the categories. Most of those who contributed stories are expatriates who have found opportunity and inspiration in Mexico.

These insider stories are neither formal guidebook, social commentary, nor a substitute for unbiased news. They are an effort to share a landscape and lifestyle that have found a place in the hearts of so many.

My fiction often dwells in the dark places of Mexico. But like anywhere else, Mexico has both both sunlight and shadow. THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO celebrates the light. Whether you are contemplating your next vacation, retirement, work-related move to Mexico, or are simply an armchair traveler, please enjoy these unique insider stories.

Contributors: Carmen Amato, Ellie Balderrama, Tony Burton, Ellie Cusack, Anne Damon. Joel R. Dennstedt, Kathryn Ferguson, Aileen Friedman, D. Grant Fitter, Kelly Hayes-Raitt , Karen Z. Hendin, Michael Hogan, David & Veronica James, Susan Penelope James, Jim Johnston, William B. Kaliher, Cynthia Katz, Jeanine Kitchel, Michael Landfair, Lindy Laing, Lawrie Lock, Lynda L. Lock, Mely Martinez, Dean & Shari Miller, Mikel Miller, Katie O’Grady, Guillermo Paxton, Kim Peto, Jennifer Silva Redmond, Robert Richter, Susannah Rigg, Fabiola Rodriguez, Dianne Hofner Saphiere, John Scherber, Kristine Scherber, Jinx Schwartz, David Steelman, Sara Sutter, Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, Joseph Toone, Sam Warren, and Kerry Watson.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


best of Mexico

New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Fiesta Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexico’s rich culture is a big part of my Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco and inspired a new project: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. This free guide is a collection of great stories from 36 experts who shared their insider tales of where to eat, play, swim, and stay in Mexico. Here are a few of the fiestas from the free Insider’s Guide, which you can get here.

Merida Weekends

Mexican fiesta in MeridaMérida weekends are all about fun. The Plaza Grande is huge and inviting. Flanked by the oldest cathedral on mainland America, it’s filled with covered stands selling the colorful embroidered clothing of the region, toys, and musical instruments. Food stands ring the edges. The people of this region are the friendliest in all Mexico. Sunday is the day for people to bloom. It begins with everyone headed to church in puffy jackets, since the temperature can plummet overnight to 72º Fahrenheit.

On the Paseo Montejo, a Victorian promenade boulevard, white horse-drawn carriages beckon. When sisal fiber, a product of the agave plant, was developed for rope and clothing in the 1880s, the wealthy planters built their townhouses on this street. France offered design ideas, and the influence of the Second Empire was strong. Here their daughters were introduced into society, and their sons into business. This was the only period of great wealth the Yucatán ever had. When artificial fibers came in, it was over within 75 years.

On Sunday, the Paseo’s outbound direction is closed to traffic. It streams with families on foot and on bicycles. The greatest of these mansions, the Palacio Cantón, is now the Anthropology and History Museum, which houses a stunning collection of artifacts from the surrounding jungle cities.

John Scherber, author of the Paul Zacher mystery series and other books, www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

San Blas Day

San Blas is a centuries-old west coast port town, rich in history and character but always struggling to outgrow its status as a second class tourist town. Still more kin to Bogart’s Casablanca than to contemporary Cancún, the town is too old to put on Riviera airs. Long accustomed to conquistadors, adventurers, and schemers, San Blas has come to comfortable terms with itself, past and present, mellow and wise with endurance, unimpressed with the slick and pretentious; a Mexican port town of hard-working fishermen, shopkeepers, and restauranteurs, not a resort catering to the pampered tourist.

San Blas dayNamed after the martyr St. Blaise, fourth century physician and Bishop of Sebastia, Armenia, San Blas celebrates its namesake Feast Day on February 3 each year with religious processions, a parade of floats and local children in native costume, dances in the plaza, and the old-style firework tower of screaming, smoking, whistling, whirring explosive madness that would cause strokes in State-side mothers and OSHA inspectors.

The fiesta highlight comes with a procession taking the saint’s statue from the church, parading him through town with a brass band, then transporting him on a shrimp boat out the estuary to the Rock of the Virgin with all the local fishermen and their families following in a fleet of decorated boats.

On the open Pacific waters each boat passes under St. Blaise in the shrimp boat bow to receive blessing of sprinkled holy water and a prayer for year’s bounteous catch.

Then there’s fiesta.

Robert Richter, author of the Cotton Waters mystery series, http://www.robertrichterauthor.com/

Related: Why set a Mystery in Mexico

Monumental Alebrije Parade

The story goes that alebrijes, colorful monsters with parts of various animals, were first seen in the nightmares of cartonería (paper maché) artist Pedro Linares in the 1950s, who claimed they whispered their name to him.

Paper float from MexicoTrue or not, this story is part of the lore that the creatures have as both scary and magical at the same time. Their allure in Mexico City and beyond has only grown over the decades and can be credited with saving cartonerìa. In 2007, the Popular Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular) decided to challenge artisans to create “monster-sized” versions which have over the years exceeded over two meters in height and five meters in length. My husband and I have been fortunate to work with this innovative museum and receive special permission to cover this event and others for Wikipedia and my blog.

The giant creatures are created as a labor of love, to appear only in one parade, taking months to make, not to mention many kilos of paper, paste, wire and more. Each year the alebrijes become more creative, both in design and the materials used, although cartonería is always the base. On the day of the parade in October, these creations are wheeled by their makers and others from the main square of Mexico City to the Angel of Independence monument. The event draws thousands of spectators as well as extensive local media coverage.

Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, Professor in English as a Second/Foreign Language, Tec de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México, Mexico City creativehandsofMexicodotorg.wordpress.com

Ready for the rest? Get the FREE Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico here.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


insiders guide

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

As a mystery writer, my Detective Emilia Cruz police procedural series usually explores the dark side of Mexico: cartel violence, police corruption, and missing persons.

But Mexico’s rich culture is as much of a character in the books as Emilia herself. Mexico’s art, food, landscapes, and history create a dramatic setting for a mystery series.

I’m not the only one inspired by Mexico’s cultural riches: 36 experts got together to write The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Read this excerpt about Mexico’s art world then get the FREE Guide here.

The Otomí Embroidery of Hidalgo

The colorful embroidery work of Mexico’s Otomí women has become a popular textile around the world. The cheerful combination of animals (birds, rabbits, deer, dogs, insects) with swirling flowers is frequently seen in many American design magazines and can be used for bedspreads, tablecloths, headboard covers, wall hangings lampshades and other creative craft projects. These large textiles, known as “Tenangos” because of the region they come from in Hidalgo (Tenango de Doria), come in many different colors and a few standard sizes. The textile is not available as a bolt of fabric (as many people request) but in a few standard sizes.

Otomi cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon

Usually Otomi embroideries  are done on an off-white muslin background, occasionally on black or gray cotton. The lore is that they are a more recent development in the traditional arts of Mexico and some say they are based on some cave paintings in Hidalgo state. That’s been hard to verify. Many of the small towns within the Tenango region are home to women’s collectives who make and sell these beautiful works of art.

Each 6′ by 6′ piece is one-of-a-kind and takes a approximately three months to complete. The designs are drawn in water-soluble pencil or marker on off-white 100% cotton muslin and then hand-embroidered. Women often work together on a piece using their embroidery hoops and sitting and chatting.

The Otomí live in various regions of Mexico–Hidalgo, Puebla, Oaxaca, Mexico–and their textiles can be found throughout the country due to a very good distribution system. If you purchase an Otomí piece on a vacation to the coasts of Mexico be careful about the quality, for it can vary widely depending on the skill of the artisan. If you are interested in a high quality piece that has been personally selected, take a look at our current stock!

Anne Damon, Owner of Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

Mural Art in Ajijic

I first visited the small village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala in 1980, looking for art. Ajijic had gained the reputation of being the artistic center of the Chapala Riviera. Over the years the village had attracted many foreign artists, including such famous names as Sylvia Fein and Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson). More recently, art education programs, now managed by the Lake Chapala Society, have helped stimulate a formidable pool of local talent.

Mexican mural

Photo courtesy Tony Burton

Ajijic does have its studios and galleries, but much of the art on view today is public. Colorful murals and artwork provide interesting diversions on any stroll around the village. A large tree stump on the plaza has been given an extraordinary new lease of life by local sculptor Estela Hidalgo. The centerpiece of the Ajijic Cultural Center is a vivid mural by Jesús López Vega telling the story of the lake’s mythological fish-princess Teo-michicihualli. More than a dozen other murals grace this lively artistic village, where the art scene today is even more vibrant and creative than ever before.

Tony Burton, author of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury, and Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales, http://sombrerobooks.com

Emilio Sosa Medina: Scary and Beautiful

Tucked into a small space near the corner of Hidalgo and López Mateos, sits an unassuming little store, Artesanías Glenssy.  The walls are hung with brilliantly colored, very scary creatures.

artisit profile

Photo courtesy Lynda Lock

The artist’s name is Emilio Sosa Medina, and he was born in Yobain Yucatan in 1955. A political activist since he was a teenager, Emilio left his home town in 1974 to move to Isla Mujeres.

In 1986 Emilio took lessons at the local Casa de la Cultura to learn paper maché techniques and he was intrigued by the possibilities. Using up to 40 kilos (87 pounds) of newsprint for some of his larger sculptures Emilio creates supernatural beings from Mayan mythology, plus his own fantastic monsters.

Crafting each intricate piece is a slow process. Layer upon layer of newsprint are carefully formed over a wire frame and left for several days to dry naturally in the warm Caribbean climate. Several coats of vivid acrylics, followed by a final glaze of clear polymer resin, give the paper maché vibrancy and character.

Even though Mexican mask folk art has been in existence for thousands of years, Emilio brings new life to the art form. His one-of-a-kind pieces enhance interior spaces in homes on Isla Mujeres, and around the world. His legacy of scary and beautiful sculptures will live on beyond his time.

Lynda Lock, author and blogger, www.amazon.com/author/lyndalock


After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. 

–Excerpt, The Hidden Light of Mexico City 

religious retablo inspires a mystey series

Photo courtesy of Carmen Amato

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capture a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.

In one, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from an ox (el buey) in Jalisco. The other depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetery in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey.

Just like you.

Carmen Amato, author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, carmenamato.net

The Collective Muse

As an artist, I have found that I have become a much more enriched artist by travelling to Mexico. In fact, I can directly attribute my journey in expansion of form from writing to painting to photography to my annual trips to Mexico. When you develop a passion for a place and for its people, you develop a way of seeing that culture in a way that you can’t with that which has become familiar. You begin to appreciate differences, rather than sameness and you feel safe in this unfamiliarity. You are more willing to step outside of yourself and there is a natural sensation that is triggered that requires one to have an appetite for more than just the local cuisine. Language, skin color, mannerisms, landscape, design choices and leisure preferences all become intriguing and an inspiration for the development of new works of art. I have travelled the world and I have settled finally in a place with people and customs that I am so happy to collectively call my muse: Guayabitos, Mexico.

Kim Peto, painter and photographer, http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/kim-peto.html

The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico was written by 36 experts who want to share their best Mexican stories with you. Download the free guide today.

You’ll also get the free monthly Mystery Ahead with featuring protips, reviews, book news, and interviews with my fellow mystery and thriller authors. The Emilia Cruz series has already been optioned for film and readers of Mystery Ahead will be the first to hear all the production details. 



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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Insider's Guide

Friends with Books: Leigh Thelmadatter of Creative Hands of Mexico

Friends with Books: Leigh Thelmadatter of Creative Hands of Mexico

As a mystery author of books set in Mexico, I have been lucky enough to build a great network of friends with books. Mystery readers love following along with the Detective Emilia Cruz series and the steamy relationship between Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz and hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

Other readers are drawn by Mexico’s mystique.  I’m in good company when it comes to writing about Mexico. We hang out at the Mexico Writers Facebook group which includes novelists, non-fiction writers, and bloggers.

Friends With Books is a series of conversations with members of the Mexico Writers group. Each conversation has a few surprises about Mexican #culture and #protips about the writing process. Enjoy!

Today’s conversation is with Leigh Thelmadatter, non-fiction writer and blogger at Creative Hands of Mexico. Her blog specializes in long-form posts about amazing artisans across central Mexico.

On Writing

Why do you write?  I want to document ideas, people, etc. which do not get the attention they should.

Is there any book you really don’t enjoy?  I’m not the biggest fan of fiction, which I know is a very strange thing to write. I prefer to stick to the real world … facts, figures …

Tell us about your new book? What’s it about and why did you write it?  Its my first book and it will be on Mexican cartonería… which is not your 2nd grade arts and crafts paper maché. It is used to make a number of items, traditionally in relation to various Mexican celebrations. The best known of these is the piñata. It interests me because it has been undergoing a major change since the mid 20th century, incorporating a lot of modern influences, which attracts young artists and artisans. There is a pretty good selection of books on Mexican handcrafts in general, but relatively few that go into more regional/local traditions in any depth.

Thelmadatter_toroloco_maclovio_3020504665What’s your next project?  After the cartonería book, I want to do one on the La Catrina phenomenon in Mexico.

How did you develop your writing?  Believe it or not, Wikipedia. It began as a hobby, writing articles about what I see in Mexico, in part to force me to read more Spanish but mostly to see beyond the superficial.  Otherwise all the towns look the same… church, main place and municipal hall…

Where do you get your inspiration?  Mexican culture. Before I arrived, all I knew was the Arizona-Sonora border area and images from the beaches. Central Mexico, which is the cultural and economic powerhouse of the country, is vastly different.

What is hardest – getting published, writing or marketing?  As far as Wikipedia and my blog, Creative Hands of Mexico, I don’t have to sell my work. I’m working on my first book on Mexican cartonería (a hard paper maché). The idea of convincing someone to publish it scares me. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

What else do you do to make money, other than write?  It is rare today for writers to be full time. I am a professor. My writing, including Wikipedia work with students, complements what I do in the classroom.

How do you write – lap top, pen, paper, in bed, at a desk?  Lap top at home desk or at work.

Life beyond writing

What other jobs have you had in your life?  Too many. Soldier, hotel receptionist, burger flipper, stay-at-home mom.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?  I would stay in Mexico. I hope to live on or near the beach someday.

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support? My husband, Alejandro Linares Garcia … his support has been unwavering and unconditional.

Tell us a bit about your family.   I was born in New York City but grew up in suburban New Jersey. My mother was a single mom in the 1970s, which was extremely hard for her, not only because of social stigma but familial issues. She died in 1983 at age 44. I changed my last name in 2001 to Thelmadatter (daughter of Thelma in Norwegian) in her honor.

If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask? My mother.

How do you feel about self-publishing?  Personally, if it gets people reading my work, I’m all for it. In the digital age, especially in the next 10 years or so, the divide between self published and traditional publishing will blur, at the very least. Right now, as a professor, I still kind of need that publisher stamp of approval.

Last book you purchased?  A small, locally published book in Spanish on cartoneria.  There were bits and pieces of good information and research leads, but too short and too vague to be of help in really showing the craft’s cultural value.

Thelmadatter_Kennedy_CookbookWho do you admire?  Anthropologist and handcrafts researcher Marta Turok. I did her Wikipedia article. Second is food researcher Diana Kennedy.

What is your favorite quality about yourself?  Dedication

What is your least favorite quality about yourself?  That it took me 45 years to get dedicated to something. But I’ve always been a late bloomer.

Thank you, Leigh, for chatting and sharing the “toroloco” picture from Creative Hands of Mexico.

Need a little more Mexico? Get the first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery  CLIFF DIVER for just $0.99 for Kindle. Emilia is the first and only female police detective in Acapulco. She can make it in a man’s world. Unless one of them kills her first.

See what happens in CLIFF DIVER when Emilia is put in charge of the investigation into a dirty cop’s murder. When she dives in, will she hit the rocks? Or the water?

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friends with books


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

If you want to understand Mexican culture, DEVOTED TO DEATH must be in your personal library. It is a detailed examination of Santa Muerte, Mexico’s most famous folk saint. Santa Muerte is regarded as the personification of death; a active deity with amazing powers.

I expected dry and factual content that occasionally strayed into the scary and creepy. But R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies, has a very readable style blending field research, academic rigor, and personal humor. The book is organized into chapters based on the color of candle lit at many a Santa Muerte altar. Each color represents a different petition or characteristic of the folk saint, who is always shown as a female skeleton holding a scythe and a globe. Chesnut explains all of the symbolism related to the folk saint, as well as its origins and profiles of today’s worshippers.

His research took him to the altars made by devotees across Mexico. He also explains the Catholic Church’s opposition to Santa Muerte, the saint’s links to drug cartels, and the relationship in Mexico’s narrative with the Virgin of Guadalupe. A fascinating read and the only book of its kind I have found in English.

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