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State of violence

Is there any way of resolving the seemingly intractable wave of violence and criminality in Mexico? Many solutions have been proposed, but in truth no one has an answer. Español.

“Of course, here (in Mexico) if you lose you die and if you win sometimes you also die, so it’s hard to stay cheerful, the general reflected, but still….some of us keep at it.”

- Roberto Bolaño, 2666[1]

Flickr/Marcos Guevara Rivera. Some rights reserved. 

Chapter four of 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s huge masterpiece, contains descriptions of seemingly countless murders of women in a city in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa. Anyone familiar with the country will know that Santa Teresa is a fictional version of Ciudad Juárez, which lies on the border with the United States. Bolaño’s accounts of each murder are spine-chilling not least because each victim is treated individually: their age, appearance, clothes, the position of the body, and the garbage dumps, backstreets, landscapes in which they are found. Their sheer number and rhythmic accumulation of detail has the hallucinatory effect of an epic poem. And Mexican readers will know that but for the names and descriptions of the victims and the imaginary but pinpoint depiction of officialdom, they are being confronted with unadorned reality.

So it is that they can open any newspaper, watch or listen to any news channel on any day and be unsurprised to learn of fresh murders. News of the disappearance and death of 43 students on 27 September, 2014 from the Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa, a small town on the edge of Chilpancingo in the state of Guerrero, has traveled round the world. Arrested by police while attending a demonstration in the adjacent town of Iguala, the students were never seen again.  Less widely known is that one week later investigators unearthed a pit on the outskirts of town containing 28 corpses. On 27 November, another 11 decapitated bodies were discovered close by. Subsequent analysis revealed that none of these were of the vanished students who are now presumed dead.

At the beginning of March 2015, fourteen more people were murdered in the same town-Iguala-including a pregnant woman and her twenty-one-year-old son. And just last week, news came of another five murders, including four members from the same family shot in the front room of their modest home. By the time this piece is published more apparently motiveless killings, if not in Iguala then elsewhere, will have made national headlines.

Interspersed with Mexico’s unending litany of multiple murders are countless individual acts of violence that pass under the radar of the international community, from the recent shooting of a folk singer during a performance, to the gunning down of the brother of a congresswoman in Morelia, Michoacán. These two victims are among those to whom a name can be attached and who attract, however briefly, the attention of the media. Most victims register with the public conscience simply as an item in a statistic.

At first sight, the recent killings in Iguala seem inexplicable. Several forces are probably at play here. Despite its famous resort of Acapulco, the state of Guerrero has long been known as one of the most violent and rebellious in the country. Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vásquez, both graduates coincidentally of the same Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa, were the most famous left-wing guerrilla leaders of the 1960s and1970s and are revered locally as defenders of the poor–inheritors of a semi-mythical tradition epitomised by the likes of Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and sub-Comandante Marcos of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation).

In the first decade of the 21st century a new guerrilla group, the Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR)–likewise based in Guerrero–has been intermittently active, blocking highways and assaulting government offices and selected corporations. Coca-Cola’s local bottler has reportedly ceased distribution in much of the region as a result of attacks on its premises and personnel, allegedly by EPR. There seems little doubt that the Ayotzinapa students who disappeared on 26/27 September traveled to Iguala to demonstrate their left-wing credentials and that they clashed with the local police. So much for the left.

On the right stand the government and the forces of law and order which–despite much revolutionary rhetoric–rarely if ever take kindly to student unrest. Memories of the slaughter of students in Mexico City in 1968 and 1971 are kept fresh by the generation that lived through those events, and by their children. Both massacres took place under the eye and command of the government, police and military. It would not be surprising if some sections of the police and the military continue to feel that Mexico’s history affords a licence to repress and, if necessary, to kill.

Three nascent cartels, the Rojos (Reds), the Guerreros Unidos (The United Warriors) and more recently the Sierra Unida (United Mountain) have added a savage turf war to Guerrero''s already volatile mix. These gangs emerged after the death in December 2009 of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, head of the Beltrán-Leyva cartel–one of the most powerful criminal organisations in Mexico.  The subsequent collapse of the cartel, which controlled a narcotics “empire” stretching across large areas of the Pacific Coast and Central Mexico, left a vacuum that these new players have been fighting each other to fill. Many innocent people have been caught in the crossfire; and the students of Ayotzinapa may be among the victims not because they stumbled into a fire fight but because, according to reports, the police handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos for disposal.

Public outrage over the fate of the students of Ayotzinapa has forced the federal government to take action. At least 80 suspects have been arrested, including over 40 state police plus the former mayor of Iguala and his wife who had fled incognito to Mexico City. But the problem of violence runs deep. Guerrero is not even the most violent state in Mexico. That honour goes to the Estado de Mexico, with Guerrero, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Sinaloa following closely behind. 

Wikimedia Commons/Alex Covarrubias. Public Domain. 

According to the government’s own figures, between December 2012 and June 2014 (the first 19 months of the current presidential term) 55,325 people were murdered–an increase of roughly a third over the equivalent term of the previous president. Many more probable victims of murder are among the  “disappeared”. And while Mexico’s murder rate is not as high as that of Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela, the country is the Latin American champion of kidnapping and extortion.

Is there any way of resolving this seemingly intractable wave of violence and criminality? Many solutions have been proposed, from training the forces of law and order to using the military as a front-line police force, from legalising drugs to sanitising politics, from making peace with the drug lords to capturing and, if necessary, killing them. But in truth no one has an answer. Some of the obstacles to a more peaceful future are nevertheless clear. First is the enormous market north of the border for illicit narcotics. So long as this exists, the cartels will probably find a way supply it. Second, the flow of arms both from the United States and from elsewhere, together with ready money to buy them, means that the cartels remain well armed. Third, the stark social and economic inequalities in Mexico guarantee an almost endless supply of new recruits to the criminal world, where even low-ranking operatives can earn more - much more - than they could in a legitimate occupation. Fourth, the low pay and poor conditions experienced by state police, sections of the army, and even municipal authorities make many of their members easily corruptible and as likely to protect the criminals as to arrest them.

Los Zetas–one of the most violent cartels–is reportedly led and manned by former members of the Mexican military. Local officials, often poorly resourced and with limited powers, may be impelled as much by fear as by venality to collaborate with drug gangs or to turn a blind eye to their activities. And finally, the rewards of criminality are so great that even when leaders are captured or killed, as has happened to the Beltrán Leyva brothers, to Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, to Servando Gómez Martínez “La Tuta”, and to the feared head of the Zetas, Omar Treviño - "Z-42", replacement candidates quickly emerge to carry on the business. Fear of imprisonment and death holds no sway over the prospect of fabulous wealth and the power to defend it at gunpoint.

Other indirect obstacles to peace also exist, one of which is the country’s deep-rooted record of corruption. Stories are currently rife with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s conflicts of interest and possible misuse of presidential authority, and he has been forced to disassociate himself publicly from real estate deals that have benefited his own family. That presidential activities aimed at personal enrichment are now the subject of public outrage might be considered something of an advance, given the Teflon coating traditionally applied to leading politicians. As the president himself admitted, corruption has long been an embedded feature of Mexican culture. 

A more comprehensive sense of the problem might be gauged from a recent Bank of Mexico report showing that in the first two years of Peña Nieto’s term of office some $31 billion “of unknown origin” left the country covertly. Again this is a continuation of a familiar pattern. Confronted by such evidence, the Mexican public can hardly be blamed for distrusting both the body politic and its attendant apparatus–police, army, bureaucracy, the state itself. Lawlessness in its various guises may seem to many Mexicans to be an indelible feature of national life, though frequent public demonstrations show that the situation is not one they are willing to accept without protest–and perhaps less so now than in the past. International awareness of this very challenging period of Mexican history, and solidarity with the Mexican people can only help. That is the underlying motive for penning this brief account.

I end with another quotation from Bolaño’s great novel because its macabre humour captures something of the spirit and wit of a people for whom violence and injustice are part of the daily round. And I can confirm personally that its message about taxi drivers and their passengers is by no means far-fetched.

“Where are you from, asked the cab driver. Mexico City, said Sergio. That’s a crazy place, said the cab driver. Once they assaulted me seven times in a single day. Did everything but rape me. He laughed into the rear mirror. Things have changed, said Sergio. Nowadays it’s the cab drivers who assault the passengers. I’ve heard about that, said the cab driver. About time too if you ask me.”[2]


[1] Bolaño, Roberto. 2666. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2004. Print. 

[2] Ibid

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