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Narco Politics: The Paradox of Mexico’s Drug War and Peace – Ioan Grillo (video)

  • Brutal violence mixes with “normal life” and growth. How does this function?
Narco Politics by Ioan Grillo is a reader-supported publication.
Narco Politics by Ioan Grillo is a reader-supported publication.

By Ioan Grillo

Back in 2008, I was filming a documentary in the Mexican city of Culiacán when we accidentally drove into a murder scene. It’s not that we didn’t want to be there; we’d spent the week running after bullet-ridden corpses. But we’d normally get info from a scanner or police contact and race to the location. This time, we stumbled across it by chance.

A police commander had been murdered eating breakfast; the gunman got him in a packed restaurant and opened up with an AK. We arrived ten minutes after the shooting and the scene was chaotic with the bloody corpse sprawled on the floor and residents gathering for a peek. We filmed it all and stuck around to get shots of the forensics guys examining the body before it went to the morgue.

The restaurant staff cleaned up after them. Then they went back to business. And opened for lunch. You could eat a steak and not know there had been an early morning murder at the next table.

The incident struck me as a telling example of how regular life in Mexico, even in the most violent areas, carries on despite the bloodshed. As the “drug war” has raged over the last decade and a half, people have learned to convivir, or live alongside it. There is a paradox of extreme violence with massacres and mass graves and convoys of gunmen while there is seeming normality and even growth and progress.

This paradox has confused people’s perceptions of Mexico – including in the U.S. political discourse. But understanding it is key to making sense of the atypical form of armed violence that has raged south of the Rio Grande. This is not only important because of the human cost but Mexico could be experiencing a new form of conflict that will play out in other countries in the twenty-first century.

There are painful examples of people living with the carnage. A viral video showed a kindergarten teacher singing to infants as they lay on the floor and gunfire rattled in the background. The biggest mass grave with almost three hundred skulls was dug up in a cow field behind a housing estate and families complained of the stench of the decaying bodies.

Yet there is another angle. Many people, perhaps most people, in Mexico live their lives largely removed from the bloodshed. The scale of death is immense with over 390,000 murders since 2007. Innocent victims have been killed in horrific atrocities and thousands of mothers and fathers search relentlessly for their disappeared loved ones. Yet for good or bad much of society has been resilient and marches on.

The striking contrast between reports of narco warfare and news of growth can be seen in a clash of recent headlines. Mexico has recorded its most murderous period since modern records began, yet the peso is the third strongest currency in the world and JP Morgan has announced a “Mexican Moment.” Gangsters unleash car bombs, land mines and armored drones, yet tourism has broken a new record. There are 110,000 people disappeared yet the “Expat Insider” found Mexico was the top destination worldwide to live in.

You can see the mismatch with your own eyes. Videos of masked men with grenade launchers haunt the news yet you walk into a Starbucks in the Condesa of Mexico City and find hipsters with smartphones sipping lattes. Young “gringos” call back to their concerned parents and tell them it’s not as bad as they see on TV.

Some may retort that Mexico has just been made cozy for wealthy foreigners while most Mexicans suffer from poverty and violence and this is the drug war plan. Yet that would ignore half the story. Yucatan, the state with the second highest percentage of indigenous people, is the least murderous. Mexican “national tourism” or trips by Mexicans to beach resorts, is also booming. The number of students in higher education shot up from 2.8 million in 2010 to over four million by 2021. And foreigners are among the murder victims.

There is a genuine anomaly. So how do we explain it?

A Mexico Of Three Parts

I will get deeper into the mechanics of the conflict in another piece. But in short the “Mexican Drug War” can be understood as a long period of violence since President Felipe Calderón ordered a mass mobilization of the military in December 2006. What we know as cartels are evolving criminal networks that traffic copious amounts of dope as well as managing a portfolio of rackets from human smuggling to wildcat mining. They command thousands of gunmen, who are often organized like paramilitary units. Elements of the security forces work with cartels while fighting others and have carried out plenty of their own massacres. Community self-defense squads clutching Kalashnikovs add a third force to the conflict, although they can be the hidden arms of narcos.

When Calderón launched the crackdown, he was actually reacting to already rising mob violence such as when La Familia dumped five heads on a disco dance floor in his home state of Michoacán in September 2006. And the murder count didn’t escalate sharply until 2008. Following that, the Calderón government created a unit to estimate the number of killings by cartels or the security forces fighting them. It surmised that in 2009 and 2010, about two thirds of all homicides stemmed from this conflict. After Calderón left office in 2012, murders kept increasing, reaching more than 34,000 a year by 2020.

The most obvious point that explains the contrast is that violence is not spread evenly round the country but is concentrated in certain places. Tijuana, Acapulco, Ciudad Victoria and Ciudad Juárez are among the most murderous cities on the planet. Meanwhile, Mexico City, for reasons I go into here, has a homicide rate lower than much of the United States. The safest state, Yucatan, has a murder rate comparable to Finland.

You can roughly divide Mexico into three parts in this respect. About a third of the thirty-two states, including those along the border and down the Sierra Madre mountains suffer severe cartel warfare and some of the worst murder rates in the world. The next third have significant mob problems with high but not catastrophic homicide counts. And about a third are relatively safe with murder rates comparable to mid-level U.S. cities.

Yet there is another layer of complexity. It’s not like a traditional war zone where fighting is confined to certain areas. There are no clear front lines. Even the most violent cities can appear normal much of the time. And the safer cities can suddenly suffer a shocking massacre. The drug war can be everywhere and nowhere.

The most clearly bellicose images are of squadrons of cartel gunmen in khaki with Mad Max trucks like in this infamous video from the Jalisco cartel below. The gangsters exhibit such blatant displays of strength in certain rural areas like the mountains of Sinaloa or the Michoacan-Jalisco border.

Watch video: The most clearly bellicose images are of squadrons of cartel gunmen in khaki with Mad Max trucks like in this infamous video from the Jalisco cartel above.

In cities, however, the cartels operate more like urban guerillas, blending in and carrying out “execution-style” hits. For fleeting moments, they have taken over, such as when they fought the Mexican army to liberate Ovidio Guzmán in the so-called Culiacanazo of 2019. Yet this is the exception which is why it was such a big story.

The total body count is comparable to overt war zones but the mechanics of the violence make it so different. There aren’t regular aerial bombings and rocket attacks. The electricity works most the time and businesses keep making money (while suffering shakedowns).

Violence has spilled into elections with gunmen shooting candidates and intimidating voters. But ballots have gone ahead throughout the drug war so democracy is battered but still working. And the peso keeps gaining.

At times, resilience to the violence can border on denial. I went to the town of Cadereyta when forty-nine bodies with no heads, hands or feet were dumped on a road. Residents I talked to that night brushed it off as a problem of people from out of town and nothing to do with them. They were more excited by the football semifinal.

When people suffer, they often prefer not to talk about it. The same can be true of communities. And of collective pain. And to fail to confront violence can allow it keep happening.

Yet there is also a tough spirit that I witness again and again in the most difficult places. In that Culiacán restaurant, the staff saw a traumatic shooting at breakfast and didn’t run but cleaned up and kept working. People take so much and keep on going. And that I can only admire.


crashoutmedia.com 08 14 2023

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