Alexander the Kingpin

While sitting at John’s Donut Shop on Myrtle Avenue, eating scrambled eggs and drinking coffee, Future Use read two articles.

The Kingpins,” by William Finnegan, in this month’s New Yorker, details the current drug war in Mexico.

A 2009 piece by Mary Beard in the The New York Review of Books is about Alexander the Great, the legendary Macedonian conqueror, called “Alexander: How Great.”

Both articles recount episodes of brutal violence in the gaining of a power over cities.  Alexander, a military leader, used the psychotic tactics of gangsters, while Mexican mobsters support a political agenda.  They both kill innocent people.

Tracking the record of each story is also cited as a highly problematic pursuit.

“The Kingpins” describes the vicious conflict between the Zetas, “the most feared organized-crime group in Mexico,” and the Sinaloa cartel, “the country’s biggest crime group.” Extreme acts of violence are committed in a battle for control of the city of Guadalajara:

“The Zetas traffic drugs, but their specialties are kidnapping, extortion, murder, robbery, human smuggling, and product piracy. Their punishments for failure to pay protection money are extravagant and meant to be cautionary. Last August, they firebombed a casino in Monterrey whose owner had not paid, killing at least fifty-two customers. They kidnap migrant workers, mainly from Central America, and demand ransom from their impoverished families. Some of their massacres make no obvious sense. In 2010, seventy-two migrants were found dead at a ranch near the U.S. border. In 2011, a mass grave with the remains of a hundred and ninety-three people, presumably migrants, was discovered in the desert in Tamaulipas. Migrants are now crossing further west, in Sonora, hoping to avoid the Zetas. Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, says that the Zetas have begun tapping its pipelines, stealing millions of barrels of crude oil a year.”

In the late 300s B.C.E., Alexander the Great stormed across Asia, from Macedonia to Pakistan, conquering peoples and founding cities. Like the Zetas, Alexander committed:

“… plenty of acts of terror… the total massacres of the male population after the sieges at Tyre and Gaza; the mass killing of the local population in the Punjab; the razing of the royal palace at Persepolis, after (so it was said) one of Alexander’s inebriated dinner parties.”

Alexander the Great, coin.

Sources of information on both the Zetas and Alexander are not forthright. As William Finnegan says in “The Kingpins:”

“In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something—a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a “discovery” of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events… You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not so much what happened as what people think or imagine or say happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalists. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.”

Tuco Salamancas, Breaking Bad, AMC.

Mary Beard notes repeatedly that the historical record on Alexander is murky, relying on a small canon of extant primary sources, and the culture of misapprehension in the writing of history in the classical world:

“Specialists in this tiny period of ancient history… were still committed to reconstructing “what really happened,” on the basis of the vivid but deeply unreliable literary sources that have survived… All the narrative accounts of Alexander’s conquests that we have were written hundreds of years after his death, and the historian’s project has usually been to identify the passages within them that might derive from some reliable, but lost, contemporary account—whether the Journals of Alexander’s secretary, which were supposed to have given an account of his final “illness,” or the history of the period written by Ptolemy, the man who was responsible for hijacking Alexander’s corpse and installing it in the capital of his own realm, Alexandria.

“… Some of the writing was almost certainly forgery (the Journals are a good candidate for being at least a pastiche); some of it, so far as we can tell from critics in the ancient world itself, was simply very bad history… The result is that the historical edifice we know as “Alexander’s career” is extremely flimsy and modern scholars have been attempting to squeeze it for answers to questions that it could never deliver—not only what motivated him, but did he really love his wife Roxane, or believe that he was the son of the god Amun? This is not a game of history, but of smoke and mirrors.”

William Finnegan mentions a similar problem of “smoke and mirrors:” 

“When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantallas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts. Peña Nieto is depicted, in cartoons, as a carnival mask behind which laughs Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a former President, who is still regarded as enormously powerful. I can’t count the number of times I have asked someone about a news story and been told, ‘Pantalla.’”

In 2009, the city of Skopje, in the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, asserted the birthplace of Alexander within their ethnic boundaries, and planned to rename an airport after the warrior.  This incited “several hundred academics, mostly classicists,” to write a letter to President Obama contending that Alexander was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek,” and not a Slav.  Apparently the President has not responded.

This past July 20 is said to be Alexander’s birthday, b. 356 BCE.

“The Kingpins,” William Finnegan, July 2, 2012.
“Alexander: How Great?” Mary Beard, NYRB.

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