The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

Theroux’s theory is that in a completely corrupt society, people with integrity have to recognize each other and help each other out because they can’t turn to institutions for help.

Probably there’s something to that, but I think there’s something distinctive and good about the Mexican culture and Latin American culture generally.

In the USA, there is an exceedingly death rate by suicide and other “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease.  But these only affect non-Hispanic whites and blacks.  Although deaths of despair are increasing among the U.S. population as a whole, they are declining among Hispanics.

International surveys of happiness shows that happiness is correlated with material well-being—longevity, income per person, literacy rate and so on.  The Latin American peoples are an exception.  They are happier than their circumstances would lead you to believe.

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux wrote about Mexico City and conversations with Mexican writers there, but he found that Mexican traditions were strongest in small towns off the beaten path.

He quoted V.S. Pritchett that a nation’s culture is most enduring among its poorest people.  Among other things, almost every town, no matter how poor, had an excellent restaurant specializing in local and regional dishes, which Theroux described with relish.

For me, the high point of his journey is described in the final pages.  This was his visit to Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, which borders Guatemala, and his meeting with Subcommandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The area is home to Zapotec Indians and other indigenous peoples who speak Spanish only as a second language or not at all.  They were ruthlessly subjugated and exploited, under Spanish rule and Mexican rule.

Marcos was a young radical college professor named Rafael Guillén who entered the jungle in 1984 and emerged 10 years later, on horseback, wearing a ski mask, and leading an army of thousands.

 He called himself a “sub”-commandate in honor of the indigenous “commandantes” who founded the movement.

The Zapatistas have founded self-governing communities, independent of the Mexican government, all through Chiapas.  They spent years winning the confidence of the local people and proving their sincerity before they attempted to lead.

Theroux contrasted them favorably with Che Guevara, who took guerrilla bands into African countries he knew nothing about and started fighting, without troubling to learn what the local people were like and what he wanted.

He pointed out that Marcos, unlike almost all leaders of self-described liberation movements, has renounced violence against civilians.  He said that if there is any hope for countries like Mexico, it will come from leaders like him and not from meddling, ignorant foreign aid organizations.

On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey  is a detailed mosaic of observations and anecdotes.  Theroux is a keen observer and skilled prose stylist.  There is much more in the book than I have been able to describe.

My great fault as a reader is that I am so greedy for information and to know what comes next that I do not slow down to appreciate good writing.  There is much good writing in this book that’s worth slowing down to appreciate.


Paul Theroux Wants You to Know That You Don’t Know Mexico by Lewis Beale for The Daily Beast.

Minors edits made and new link added 11/22/2019

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One Response to “The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico”

  1. Jeremy Bassetti Says:

    Hi, I enjoyed your write-up. I just wanted to say that if you’d like to listen to an interview with Paul Theroux on this book, check out the following podcast episode:

    Liked by 1 person

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