Mexican drug cartels kill in some of the most heinous ways I’ve ever seen. I won’t link to them here, but a simple Google search will show you the brutal, heinous ways in which they kill rivals and snitches. Why do they kill like this? I have a simple just-so story to explain it: Mexican drug cartels—and similar groups—kill the way they do because they are descended from Aztecs, Maya, and other similar groups who enacted ritual sacrifices to appease their gods.
For example, Munson et al (2014) write:
Among the most noted examples, Aztec human sacrifice stands out for its ritual violence and bloodshed. Performed in the religious precincts of Tenochitlan, ritual sacrifice was a primary instrument for social integration and political legitimacy that intersected with militaristic and marketplace practices, as well as with beliefs about the cosmological order . Although human sacrifice was arguably less common in ancient Maya society, physical evidence indicates that offerings of infant sacrifices and other rituals involving decapitation were important religious practices during the Classic period , .
The Aztecs believed that sacrificial blood-letting appeased their gods who fed on the human blood. They also committed the sacrifices “so that the sun could continue to follow its course” (Garraud and Lefrere, 2014). Their sun god—Uitzilopochtli—was given strength by sacrificial bloodletting, which benfitted the Aztec population “by postponing the end of the world” (Trewby, 2013). The Aztecs also sacrificed children to their rain god Tlaloc (Froese, Gershenson, and Manzanilla, 2014). Further, the Aztec ritual of cutting out still-beating hearts arose from the Maya-Toltec traditions (Ceruti, 2015).
Regarding Aztec sacrifices, Winkelman (2014: 50) writes:
Anthropological efforts to provide a scientific explanation for human sacrifice and cannibalism were initiated by Harner (1970, 1977a, 1977b). Harner pointed out that the emic normalcy of human sacrifice—that it is required by one’s gods and religion—does not alone explain why such beliefs and behaviours were adopted in specific societies. Instead, Harner proposed explanations based upon causal factors found in population pressure. Harner suggested that the magnitude of Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism was caused by a range of demographic-ecological conditions—protein shortages, population pressure, unfavourable agricultural conditions, seasonal crop failures, the lack of domesticated herbivores, wild game depletion, food scarcity and famine, and environmental circumscription limiting agricultural expansion.
So, along with appeasing and “feeding” their gods, there were sociological reasons for why they committed human sacrifices, and even cannibalism.
When it comes to the Maya (a civilization that independently discovered numerous things while being completely isolated from other civilizations), they had a game called pok-ta-tok—due to the sound the ball made when the players hit it or it fell on the ground. Described in the Popul Vuh (the Ki’iche Maya book that lays out their creation myth), humans and the lords of the Underworld played this game. The Maya Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque went to the Underworld to do battle against the lords of the Underworld—called Xibalba (see Zaccagnini, 2003: 16-20 for a description of the myth Maya Hero Twins and how it relates to pok-ta-tok and also Myers (2002: 6-13)). See Tokovinine (2002) for more information on pok-ta-tok.
This game was created by the Olmec, a pre-cursor people to the Maya, and later played by the Aztecs. The court was seen as the portal to Xibalba. The Aztec then started playing the game and continued the tradition of murdering the losing team. The rubber ball  weighed around ten pounds, and so it must have caused a lot of bruising and head injuries to players who got hit in the head and body with the ball—as they used their forearms and thighs to pass the ball. (See The Brutal and Bloody History of the Mesoamerican Ball Game, Where Sometimes Loss Was Death.)
According to Zaccagnini (2003: 6) “The ballgame was executed for many reasons, which include social functions, for recreation or the mediation of conflict for instance, the basis for ritualized ceremony, and for political purposes, such as acting as a forum for the opposing groups to compete for political status (Scarborough 1991:141).” Zaccagnini (2003: 7-8) states that the most vied-for participants in the game were captured Maya kings and that they were considered “trophies” of the kings’ people who captured them. Those who were captured had to play the game and they were—essentially—fighting (playing) for their lives. The Maya used the game for a stand-in for war, which is seen in the fact that they played with invading Toltecs in their region (Zaccagnini, 2003: 8).
Death by decapitation occurred to the losers of the game, and, sometimes, skulls of the losing players were used inside of the rubber balls they used to play the game. The Maya word for ball—quiq—literally means “sap” or “blood” which refers to how the rubber ball itself was constructed. Zaccagnini (2003: 11) notes that “The sap can be seen as a metaphoric blood which flows from the tree to give rise to the execution of the ballgame and in this respect, can imply further meaning. The significance of blood in the ballgame, which implies death, is tremendous and this interpretation of the connection of blood and the ball correlated with the notion that the ball is synonymous with the human head is important.” (See both Zaccagnini, (2003) and Tokovinine (2002) for pictures of Maya hieroglyphs which depict winning and losing teams, decapitations, among other things.)
So, the game was won when the ball passed through the hoop which was 20-30 feet in the air, hanging from a wall. These courts, too, were linked to celestial events that occurred (Zaccagnini, 2003). It has been claimed that the ball passing through the hoop was a depiction of the earth passing through the center of the Milky Way.
Avi Loeb notes that “The Mayan culture collected exquisite astronomical data for over a millennium with the false motivation that such data would help predict its societal future. This notion of astrology prevented the advanced Mayan civilization from developing a correct scientific interpretation of the data and led to primitive rituals such as the sacrifice of humans and acts of war in relation to the motions of the Sun and the planets, particulary Venus, on the sky.” The planets and constellations, of course, were also of importance in the Maya society. Šprajc (2018) notes that “Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies”, while also stating:
Human sacrifices were believed necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned, and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, fostered by rulers who exploited them to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific socio-political context.
The relationship between the ballgame, Venus, and the fertility of the land in regard to the agricultural cycle and Venus is also noted by Šprajc (2018). The Maya were expert astronomers and constantly watched the skies and interpreted certain things that occurred in the cosmos in the context of their beliefs.
I have just described the ritualistic sacrifices of the Maya. This, then, is linked to my just-so story, which I first espoused on Twitter back in July of 2018:
Then in January of this year, white nationalist Angelo John Gage unironically used my just-so story!:
Needless to say, I found it hilarious that it was used unironically. Of course, since Mexicans and other Mesoamericans are descendants of the Aztec, Maya and other Indian groups native to the area, one can make this story “fit with” what we observe today. Going back to the analysis above of the Maya ballgame pok-ta-tok, the Maya were quite obviously brutal in their decapitations of the losing teams of the game. Since they decapitated the losing players, this could be seen as a sort of cultural transmission of certain actions (though I strongly doubt that that is why cartels and similar groups kill in the way they do—the exposition of the just-so story is just a funny joke to me).
In sum, my just-so story for why Mexican drug cartels and similar groups kill in the way they do is, as Smith (2016: 279) notes “always consistent with the [observation] because [it is] selected to be so.” The reasons why the Aztecs, Maya, and other Mesoamerican groups participated in these ritualistic sacrifices are numerous: appeasing gods, for agricultural fertility, to cannibalism and related things. There were various ecological reasons why the Aztecs may have committed human sacrifice, and it was—of course—linked back to the gods they were trying to appease.
The ballgame they played attests to the layout of their societies and how it made their societies function in the context of their beliefs regarding appeasing their numerous gods. When the Spanish landed at Mesoamerica and made first contact with the Maya, it took them nearly two centuries to defeat them—though the Maya population was already withering away due to climate change and other related factors (I will cover this in a future article). Although the Spanish destroyed many—if not most—Maya codices, we can glean important information of their lifestyle and how and why they played their ballgame which ended in the ritualistic sacrifice of the losing team.