When Mexican President Felipe Calderón first took office and had to contemplate the possibility of starting an all-out war against the drug cartels, it was the state of Michoacán that sealed the deal. By late 2006, Calderon's home state — he was born in Morelia, in 1962 — had become a perfect microcosm of institutional collapse. Given its enviable geographical position, Michoacán had long been prized territory for Mexico's drug dealers. "In Michoacán you have the whole narcotics related food-chain", one of Mexico's most respected security experts once told me: "production, domestic and international distribution, consumption…it's all there".
Soon after becoming President, Calderón got a call from Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, governor of Michoacán. What Calderón heard must have been shocking. "Cancer had metastasized", explained the President afterwards. After just a few days on the job, he sent federal forces to try and quell what was, by then, a failed state right in the heart of Mexico.
Truth be told, Michoacán had become impossible to govern. But not only for Cárdenas: the challenge he faced paled in comparison to the everyday struggles confronting the mayors of many of the state's one hundred-plus municipalities. They shared basically the same story: the mayors faced a simple and stark choice: either accept the cartel's demands or face death. Many of them (it's impossible to know how many, given Mexico's chaotic judicial system) probably gave into the criminals' demands. By doing so, they ceded control of the state's authority: as is the case with plenty of other places all across the country, many of Michoacán's towns were no longer ruled by Mexican law.
Of course, there were other mayors who — heroically — decided to fight the cartels (or their political allies, which are plenty). The one that impressed me the most was María Santos Gorrostieta, a beautiful young woman from Tiquicheo, a town in eastern Michoacán. She had tried to make a difference in a very dangerous place. Tiquicheo is strategically located near the border with Guerrero and the State of Mexico, both coveted by the "narco". It's easy to see why María's commitment to honest public service didn't bode well. By 2009, the cartels' patience had run out. In January, Maria's husband barely survived an assassination attempt. Nine months later, he wasn't so lucky: he was gunned down. María was hospitalized, severely wounded. Still, she went back to Tiquicheo. A few months after that, in January of 2010, the young mayor was again attacked by a group of armed men, this time in Guerrero. Defying logic, she again survived and managed to finish her term as mayor.
She then decided to make an example out of her violence-ravaged body. María posed for a series of photographs that are now part of Mexico's catalogue of ignominy. Splinters left deep wounds on her torax and right arm. An immense scar bisected her chest. And there, on the lower abdomen, in grotesque contrast to her female form, the crater left by the emergency colostomy she had to undergo. When asked why she had shared the pictures, María explained: "I wanted to show my injured, mutilated body because I'm not ashamed of it. It's the result of great hardship that has left a mark in my life and that of my children".