1611-A Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe
The A.F.I., Mexico’s Federal Agency of Investigations, was modeled after the F.B.I. with the aim of halting, or at least reducing, drug cartel activities throughout our neighbor country but especially along the Mexican border with los Estados Unidos, and specifically the Ciudad de Juárez just over the line from El Paso, Texas. These cartels have become exceptionally powerful through the highly effective tool of terrorism, mostly in the form of torture and murder, supported by huge amounts of cash, plus the addictive nature of the goodies they traffic in. (No, we’re not talking about Afghanistan here, although the same principles apply.) Corruption and death are the by-products of illegal drug production, most of which is purchased in the U.S. Not only do users put money, with every nickel bag they scrounge, into the hands of murderers, worse yet is the fact that men in extremely elevated positions of power—on both sides of the border, including A.F.I. and D.E.A. operators—play major roles in the system. It’s all about the allure of power in the form of money; but with illegal drugs, there are no government controls over your product and the amount of money you make pretty much depends on what you can get away with. Intimidate the bulk of a population, including its so-called leaders, and you have free reign over your fiefdom. As the artist stated about her work in Redoubt, “extreme capitalism … underpins cartel operations: profit at any cost.” In this system, sooner or later, everyone takes levanton, “the last ride.”
Alice Leora Briggs, an outstanding skilled draftsman and courageous human being, spent most of last year at the Border Art Residency in La Union, New Mexico. There, in her second-floor studio with a view of fruit tree–covered fields along the Río Grande, she was within ear shot of the crackling and popping sounds of drug-related executions, executions that took place on a daily basis. The artist spent days in seclusion, working at her sgraffito drawings. On other days she ventured across la frontera into the sites—a morgue, asylum, bar, and condominium—where murders were planned and implemented, bodies clandestinely buried.
Briggs’s art became a means for her to negotiate between the terrains of sanctuary and uncertainty. She used calavera imagery, inspired by the profoundly Mexican art history of newspaper illustrations by José Guadalupe Posada, who used Day of the Dead skeleton figures to lighten the gruesomeness of the early-twentieth-century Mexican Revolution. Briggs also created a series of fictive cigarette-pack and postage-stamp pictures, as if to convey the magnitude of the illusion that the drug trade leaves any government agency untouched. Several of the sgraffito drawings are based on images of what she saw. Exodus, for example, may not seem stereotypically Mexican, yet its content conveys the crumbling infrastructure of the Mexican and American economies that have made the success of the drug cartels inevitable. The railway trestle, an extant architectural structure in El Paso, stands near a barely functional cement plant. In the foreground, Adam and Eve figures who might have walked directly out of Masaccio’s Expulsion scene (an Italian Renaissance fresco from the year 1425), cringe with the shame of our shared horror. In the culture of kill or be killed, who wouldn’t be afraid? The only question that remains meaningful is “When?” Many of these residency-made drawings are to be published in the book Dreamland, an illuminated manuscript created in collaboration with wordsmith Charles Bowden, by the University of Texas Press in 2010.