On the Drug War in Mexico: An Introduction

How to document fifty years later what is now happening in Tamaulipas if there is no record of anything the next day? —Diego Osorno

Over the past five years Mexicans have witnessed a horrifying spectacle of violence: on street corners, front pages, and television screens. The defining image of the time has become the public display of tortured and otherwise destroyed bodies. Discussing this descent into hell, one often begins with the numbers and even the numbers are violent.

In 2011, some 12,000 people were murdered in situations presumably related to the drug trafficking industry in Mexico. In 2010, the number was more than 15,000 killed. Between December 2006, when Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) took office and declared a “war on drug traffickers” and January 2012, some 47,000 to 60,000 people have been slain, and some 5,000 disappeared (depending on the source). This grim fact has become the centerpiece of Mexican politics and an inescapable force in daily life throughout much of the country.

The numbers do nothing to indicate the nature of the violence, which ranges from the “professional” tightly packed cluster of 9 mm bullets piercing a windshield to the theatrical brutality of beheadings, dismemberments, and the twisting of defaced and broken bodies into messages, acts of public relations signifying this can happen to you, it can happen to anyone.

But neither the number of people killed nor the cruelty of the killings can be understood without simultaneously taking into account another pair of figures. First, Calderón has repeatedly said that more than 90 percent of those killed were involved in “the struggle of some cartels against others.” Calderón does not cite a source for this estimate. The underlying logic, however, is clear: if you’re dead, you’re guilty. The perennial official refrain is, “En algo andaba,” or, they were up to something; they were in the game.

Second, according to information that the Mexican Federal Attorney General’s office submitted to the Mexican Senate in April 2010, the government investigates fewer than 5 percent of all the homicides presumed to be related to organized crime, and thus falling under their jurisdiction. How can Calderón claim that 90 percent of the dead were somehow involved “in the struggle of some cartels against others” if the government does not even investigate 95 percent of the killings?

The November 2011 Human Rights Watch Report, Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s “War on Drugs,” presents an even more dismal record of investigations: “The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which has constitutional authority to prosecute killings tied to organized crime, told Human Rights Watch it had only opened 997 investigations into homicides tied to organized crime from 2007 to August 2011.” That would mean that by August 2011 there were fewer than 1,000 investigations into some 40,000 murders. This represents a prodigious success rate, where the objective is not justice but impunity.

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Murder and impunity: these two facts set the coordinates for the nightmare that is tearing Mexico apart. Presumed guilt is the official logic of the government and exemption from punishment is the result of that logic. Thus, to understand the impact of all this murder on Mexican daily life, one must keep in mind not only the 47,000 to 60,000 dead, but the fact that their killers are on the loose, acting with terrifying freedom of movement.

And still the death tallies conceal so much. Some 50,000 people killed in utter impunity means there are hundreds of thousands of mothers and fathers, of siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles who lost their sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews and know that the killers roam free; there are millions of friends whose friends were killed; millions of people who know someone killed; entire neighborhoods and cities and regions steeped in trauma and fear.

And then there are the dreaded side industries. With the success of violence and impunity all manner of organized crime has exploded in Mexico during Calderón’s administration. Illegal drug businesses and their subsidiaries apparently like to diversify their investment portfolios. Kidnappings, human trafficking (forced labor and sex slavery), human smuggling (charging migrants fees to lead them across the border), extortion, auto theft, cattle rustling, and even mass oil theft (direct from the national oil company’s pipelines and then smuggled into the United States) are all on the rise. Kidnappings in Mexico increased 200 percent between 2006 and 2010. And that number does not include the kidnapping en masse of Central and South American migrants crossing Mexico on their way to the United States. The numbers here defy comprehension. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission, a quasi-autonomous federal institution, documented 9,758 such kidnappings between September 2008 and February 2009, and 11,333 between April and September 2010.

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Who is doing all this and why? Without investigation, we are left with piecemeal analysis and speculation. Certainly armed members of drug trafficking organizations engage in gun battles, execute their rivals, and have a hand in all the aforementioned side jobs. The army has also carried out extra-judicial executions (the Human Rights Watch report describes several of these). Police officers routinely work for drug trafficking organizations and freelance as gunmen, thieves, and thugs. And surely there are all manner of copycats who, in the new climate of impunity, often find it easier than not to kill someone whom they have just kidnapped, extorted, raped, robbed, or just bumped up against.

When Calderón donned his general’s cap and declared his war, Mexico’s homicide rate had been in steady decline for fifteen years. Within two years of his administration the homicide rate reversed this decline and reached the 1992 level of nineteen homicides per 100,000 people. And that was before things got really bad. How did this happen? Any useful answer to this question must be complex. The myth of evil, warring cartels facing a valiant government fighting against them is useless. So, too, is a vision of the U.S. government as the world’s largest drug dealer, calling all the shots from the bowels of the Pentagon while the Mexican government serves as its lackey. Some drug traffickers are—if anyone is—evil, some government officials may be valiant, the U.S. government has undoubtedly overseen major drug deals over the past few decades, and the Mexican government is involved in the drug trade at every level, in every state. The world of global drug production, shipping, distribution, sales, and consumption is too complex, however, to be understood in any single us-and-them story.

Instead of talking about good and evil, let’s talk about industry. Illegal narcotics are a major global industry. The United Nations estimates that the market for illegal drugs generates somewhere around $350 billion to $500 billion a year. The number, like all such estimates, is suspect. It is a guess. But the guess gives us an idea of the industry’s dimensions; it serves as an indication of scale. Global publishing, for example, is estimated at being worth about $100 billion. The global soft drink and bottled water industry is estimated at being worth around $186 billion. The world market in prescription drugs topped $600 billion in sales in 2006, with $252 billion in the United States. But with commodities like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines, illegality has become the defining feature of the industry. I fully agree with Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, El Paso, when he writes in his book Drug War Zone that drug-trafficking “is an illegal form of capitalist accumulation. In some cases it is an almost caricatured celebration of consumerism and wealth … facilitated by neoliberalism and collusion with the state … ultimately the drug trade is part of the U.S. and Mexican economic systems.” So is the prosecution of the so-called drug war. Billions of dollars are spent on policing, incarceration, and military deployment and aid. The war itself is an industry.

The United States government declared the so-called “war on drugs” in 1971. Since then the legacy has been catastrophic. Prohibition and interdiction have failed completely, colossally: as the recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report states, there has been a steady increase in the consumption of opiates, cocaine, and cannabis for many years. Drug criminalization has created the largest per capita prison population in the world in the United States. Disproportionately, people of color are incarcerated on minor drug possession and distribution charges, and then, as felons, denied many fundamental social and political rights, as Michelle Alexander documents in her excellent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Latin American countries have witnessed death, destruction, and the erosion of democratic struggles under the enormous cash influence of shipping illegal drugs and aiding the United States in combating those shipments. It is impossible to comprehend Mexico’s torment without looking hard at this sordid history of failed U.S. policy.

But one must also recall the particular Mexican context, beginning with, for example, the fact that for decades the Mexican government and the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) coordinated directly at all levels—municipal, state, federal, and the armed forces—with drug traffickers, while the Drug Enforcement Administration looked on. Secondly, the conflicts within the Mexican political elite—beginning with the transition between the Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo Administrations in 1994 and deepening with the PRI’s fall and the election of Vicente Fox from the Pan in 2000—disturbed these relationships, but did not eradicate them. And lastly, Felipe Calderón’s inauguration in December 2006 took place within the context of a deep political crisis: widespread allegations of electoral fraud, mass mobilizations throughout the country, and a low- intensity class war coming to a boil.

Under these conditions, Calderón came into office and declared his war in December 2006. What was he seeking to combat? Perhaps his illegitimacy? But whether he was cynical, belligerent or incompetent, or some combination, is perhaps of less importance. The results of his botched war are what need urgent redress, which will prove illusive without first escaping the vicious circle of drug-war logic.

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Submerged in a vortex of violence and impunity, Mexico has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission has documented sixty-six murders and twelve disappearances of journalists and received more than 600 complaints of abuses against journalists since 2000, with more than forty of the killings having taken place since 2006.

While the Mexican state refuses or fails to investigate the killings and crimes, Mexican journalists have not surrendered to silence. Mexican reporters continue to walk the streets, dig through public records, visit crime scenes, talk to witnesses, and build sources in an effort to report on and publish stories of the violence, the fear, the government complicity and incompetence, the horrors of organized crime killers, and the daily efforts to survive it all. Mexican writers, poets, filmmakers, and artists have also used their crafts to describe and denounce this reign of mayhem.

There is a long list of reporters who have done amazing work in near-impossible situations: the staffs of Ríodoce in Culiacán, Sinaloa, of El Diario in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, of La Trinchera in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, and of the online newspaper El Faro in El Salvador; individuals such as Daniela Rea at Reforma, Marcela Turati at Proceso, as well as independent writers like Diego Osorno, Alejandro Almazán, Emiliano Ruiz Parra, Froylán Enciso, publishing in the Mexico City-based magazine Gatopardo. Their work is excellent, vital, and almost never appears in translation in English-language publications. This issue of ZYZZYVA stands against that unfortunate and common oversight, and in doing so stands with the Mexican journalists and writers in their struggles against silence.

The two nonfiction pieces here are examples of both the high quality of Mexican journalism and that such quality can be achieved even in the most dangerous and unpredictable of regions: La Frontera Chica, as Mexicans call it—the Small Border separating Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. These reporters sought to break the silence surrounding the atrocities in La Frontera Chica, not by being gung-ho or gonzo journalists, but by traveling carefully and quietly and seeking out the survivors, witnesses, and relatives of victims and listening to their stories.

As described in Diego Osorno’s phenomenal piece, “The Battle of Ciudad Mier” (first published in Gatopardo), in early 2010 the towns along and near the Small Border witnessed a war within a war: in the midst of Calderón’s campaign, prior drug trafficking allies and colleagues, the Gulf Cartel, and their armed wing, the Zetas, split and went at each other’s throats, unleashing a wave of murder and dread. Osorno portrays the collision of forces that led to turning Ciudad Mier into a kind of drug- war ghost town, and the insidious benefit so much misery may have had for some.

Marcela Turati, first as a freelance reporter, later as a staff writer with Proceso magazine, and in her devastating book, Fuego Cruzado (Crossfire), has reported from the perspective of those who have most suffered the violence: the family members of the killed and disappeared and the survivors of massacres. Her piece, published here in English as “The National Decay,” was written under tight deadline and was published in Proceso. It illustrates Turati’s technique: when a series of mass graves were being dug up in Tamaulipas in early 2011, she traveled to the morgue in Matamoros, then one of the most dangerous cities in the country. She found a chilling scene and a series of stories in the line of family members from across the country who had arrived at the morgue seeking their loved ones among the disinterred bodies. Their stories, told together, form a devastating critique of the maelstrom of impunity.

The related fiction in this issue may seem outrageous and improbable, until you’ve read the nonfiction pieces. The stories, however, offer another dimension of life in a particular hell. Mauro Gallardo’s story, “Get in and Toss the Gun in the Back,” serves as a kind of alternate universe where, in the ultra-violent and unpredictable narco-society, somehow humor, logic, and cool-headedness can prevail. The amazing and sorely missed Daniel Sada’s intoxicating narrative “In a Way That Satiates” replicates in the reader’s mind the fractures and splinters encountered at every turn when confronted with the new narco-reality, while recounting the bewildering, absurd, and tortuous circumstances of people who lose their loved ones.

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La Frontera Chica is still mostly submerged in silence. Much of the war between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas (and their relative allies in the police and armed forces) has spread south to engulf Veracruz state. The daily onslaught of killings, impunity, and fear continues. The presidential elections coming up in July have almost been ceded in advance, via resignation and exhaustion, to the very party that dominated Mexico for seventy-one years and for decades oversaw the mostly smooth functioning of the drug trafficking networks.

And yet in the depths of such despair, in 2010 a massive social movement against the drug war, led by family members of the slain, grew and changed the debate in Mexico, dismantling the logic of “if you’re dead, you’re dirty.” The movement took its initial momentum from the words and actions of the writer, journalist and poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco was killed in a massacre of seven people in Morelos state. Local politicians initially speculated that the dead must have been involved with the cartels, but not a single one had any connection to organized crime. Sicilia’s despair and outrage took voice in a call for justice and a call to end the presumed guilt and imposed anonymity of victims. Other families soon joined him and the movement expanded, taking on national dimensions, traveling in caravans to both the northern and southern borders, acquiring such power that they compelled Calderón and a session of Congress to meet with them in open, televised talks.

How could anything like fiction or poetry be useful in a time like this? Cristina Rivera Garza, a brilliant novelist, scholar and poet from Matamoros, gives her answer and in so doing opens a small, urgent space of courage with her short manifesto in favor of using writing to confront the pain and the impunity, in favor of going on, the title of which I think of, in this context, like a talisman: seguir escribiendo, keep writing.

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