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The politics of mourning

Last April more than 35,000 people marched in Cuernavaca, Mexico, following the murder of a teenager. Four years into president Felipe Calderón’s diastrous ‘drug war’, the line between remembrance and protest has started to blur. Should the thousands of dead be stigmatised or martyred? Silenced or given meaning?

“Acapulco, September 18 [2010]. Two unidentified men, decapitated in the town of Coyuca de Catalán. Heads thrown into a soft-drink bottling plant from two moving vehicles. One has its eyes masked with gray industrial adhesive tape. The bodies have not been identified.” “Juárez, Chihuahua, December 27 [2010]. On Jarudo and Sierra Candelaria streets, in the community of Jarudo, two young students were riddled with holes and charred by Molotov cocktails in the red Silverado pickup in which they were travelling. The first, aged 18, was a student at the Colegio de Bachilleres, and the second a student on the Physical Education course at Chihuahua University; their names as yet unknown.” “Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes.  February 19 [2011]. A man was found dead, his throat slit, on the state’s Highway 77 East.” “Acapulco, Guerrero, March 7 [2011]. Police discover three heads in plastic bags in the tunnel connecting the port with the outskirts of the city. A message was found bearing the announcement that the acts had been perpetrated in reprisal for a murder carried out during an attempted kidnapping.” “Chihuahua, April 26 [2011]. Two young women were shot dead in the Barrio Azul community.  The victims’ names have not been released.” [1]

1. To begin like that, by laying out a few crimes, recalling a few deaths, might be seen as suspect: an overly sensationalist start, an early bit of emotional blackmail. But this is precisely our subject, men and women murdered in Mexico from December 2006 to date, and what is to be done about it: there’s just no way we can talk about this subject and simultaneously dodge the eschatological and affective aspects that go along with it.  How many deaths are we talking about, exactly? According to official figures released by President Felipe Calderón on January 12, 2011 it’s 34,612—that is, 34,612 homicides related to illegal drug trafficking and the federal government’s fight against organized crime. By today, at the start of June 2011, this figure has already been exceeded and must have surpassed forty thousand homicides—and counting. What do we know about these crimes? What we do know, or at least have known for five months, thanks to the extraordinary investigation carried out by Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo (in his report “Homicides 2008–2009: Death Is Granted Permission,” Nexos, January 2011), is that violence in Mexico has increased dramatically over the last three and a half years. What we do know is that after two decades of a systematic downward trend, the national homicide rate shot up by fifty percent in 2008 and a further fifty percent in 2009. What we do know is that in 2008 there were 5,207 executions, another 6,587 in 2009, and that in the last year alone there were 15,237 homicides recorded that were linked to organized crime. It is also quite clear that violence rose in every state in the republic (excepting only one: Yucatán), and that the greatest increases took place precisely in those zones where the famous “military operations” were implemented. The most brutal example of all this is, of course, Ciudad Juárez: in 2007—the year that saw the start of the military operation in the area—there was a rate of 14.4 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants; three years later this had already reached 108.5 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants, the highest rate of any city in the world. What do we know about those killed? Considerably less, and not all of it reliable. According to the Secretariat of Public Security, 2,076 municipal, federal, and state police were assassinated in Mexico between December 2006 and August of last year [2]. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, between January 2006 and March 2011, 8,898 unidentified bodies were buried in the country and 5,397 people were reported missing [3]. According to one news report, which has by now been superseded, during the Calderón administration 647 dead bodies were discovered in 156 secret graves [4]. According to other figures, sprinkled here and there in newspapers and on Web sites, something like fifty percent of people who are riddled by hails of gunfire, in face-to-face confrontations and settlings of scores, are never identified, and at least twelve thousand bodies that were never identified have been buried in mass graves up and down the country over a period of four and a half years. Though to call them bodies suggests there’s more to them than there often is; rather: heads, trunks, arms, legs, feet, decomposed or charred, bullet-ridden or mutilated, from which is hung a little tag with the initials NN—no name. No name. This is the most visible product of these four and a half years of fighting against organized crime: a vast, shapeless heap of dead bodies in which the corpses of drug barons and soldiers and hit men and policemen lie side by side, all jumbled up together, with mayors and kidnappees and kidnappers and dealers and migrants and coyotes (smugglers of migrants) and peasants and workers and journalists and civilians, thousands of them nameless and buried in mass graves, without any ceremony or any mourning. This is the image that for some time has been occupying and saturating public debate in Mexico: an undefined, unspeakable heap of corpses, so large and heavy that it distorts space and pulls every conversation toward it. It’s at this point that the eyes and the voices of countless public figures have ended up coming together: with all the reasons that provided support to the federal campaign against drug-trafficking now left behind, a growing number of writers and academics and journalists and bloggers and tweeters have ended up focusing their attention on the effects of that campaign—that is, on the dead. How many are there? Who are they? How can they be explained? It is, indeed, no exaggeration to say that today, at the heart of Mexico’s public arena, there’s a heated dispute underway: a dispute over these dead—whether to deny them or to name them, to stigmatize or martyr them, to silence them or give them meaning. The dead are there, in their thousands, mute and powerless, relatively anonymous, and there is no shortage of social actors who are fighting to appropriate them and to integrate them somehow or other into their different ideological discourses.

2. It is often said that the federal government does not have a strategy—a clear, robust, sustainable strategy—for fighting organized crime. Only very occasionally does anyone add that they do make use of a handful of very obvious communications tactics in order to try and minimize the consequences of this fight. At first, when the facts about the increase in violence had not yet managed to sneak their way into public opinion, the maneuver consisted simply in denying the increase, attributing it to an alleged media illusion. Calderón himself, along with the heads of the different government ministries and those in charge of the security services, insisted that the number of crimes had not increased, that the only thing that had increased was the amount of attention the media were paying them, and they even reprimanded the press and television for publicizing crimes that were not more regular but merely more spectacular than they had previously been. Later on, when evidence had begun to demonstrate that homicides were indeed increasing, and even now, when we have confirmation that they have skyrocketed, the government insisted, and insists, on localizing the problem: they accept that violence has flared up, but—they add—only in certain places. For example, Alejandro Poiré, the sinister technical secretary of the Council of National Security, stated: “70 percent of homicides took place in 85 of the country’s municipalities.”[5] He gives itemized detail: 36 percent of them occurred in only four municipalities—figures with which he wants to demonstrate that “the violence that embodies this conflict is not widespread across the whole country,” and that it would appear to be a little local issue: something to do with local councils and municipal representatives and unions. Since it’s also not all that easy to hide violence, the government chooses less and less to deny it or localize it, and more and more to ascribe it almost exclusively to the drug cartels. In the official rhetoric, violence does exist: it’s a violence perpetrated by gangs of drug traffickers on other gangs of drug traffickers. A cause exists, too: the realigning of power between these gangs. The confrontations and executions have multiplied, so the argument goes, because the government campaign has been effective, and that with the capture or elimination of certain drug barons, power vacuums have been created within the cartels which the hit men are using bullets to fill. That is to say, the increase in crime is a demonstration that the government is winning the war against criminal gangs. That is not the only absurdity: logic is also twisted to indicate the culpability of drug traffickers without any recognition of the culpability of the State itself. Or to put it another way: they hide the fact that the number of homicides—which are doubtless committed, unjustifiably and inexcusably, by the criminal gangs—only soared when the State undertook a disorganized, improvised crusade against them, and most of all in those places where it was most in operation. At this point it hardly even matters any more whether or not the crusade was necessary. Four and a half years after the start of this campaign it’s obvious that the government is directly responsible for the escalation in violence, and that it is also their responsibility to put a stop to it and return things to the way they used to be. The federal government’s policy concerning the approximately forty thousand dead is no less irresponsible. They state, almost mechanically: the victims are not victims but murderers, the dead were members of criminal gangs and they have been executed by other criminal gangs. The National Security Council specifies: eighty-nine of every hundred deaths were linked to drug trafficking. Only very occasionally do they specify what sort of drug traffickers they were: whether they were drug barons and hit men or peasants growing marijuana or migrants who were “picked up” and forced to carry a package from one place to another. Only very occasionally do they offer proof to demonstrate the murder victim’s links to drug trafficking: apparently the mere fact of the crime having taken place within an “execution context” is proof enough that the victim “was a member of organized crime” (the sinister Poiré, again). There are thousands of occasions when the dead are not altogether convincingly identified—sometimes because the bodies are so decomposed and dismembered that there is no way to identify them, sometimes because it’s easier to brand as a narco a dead man who doesn’t have so much as a name with which to defend himself.  One by one, the government’s strategies have been losing credibility and effectiveness.  The theory of media illusion? Nowadays there’s a lot of information to hand that demonstrates that the increase in homicides is no fiction, it’s no sham. The argument that violence is contained within a small number of places? It’s unsustainable, now that the conflict has spilled beyond the north of the country and infected zones which had previously been so peaceful, such as Colima and cities that, in spite of everything, had managed to retain something of the standing of a holiday oasis—Cuernavaca and Acapulco. The idea that practically all the violence is a product of the rivalry between criminal gangs?  Though this is partly correct, it is inadequate to explain the complexity of violence in Mexico (there is more than just narco-violence—social violence, economic violence, racial violence, gender violence), nor to understand the brutal collective massacres carried out against civilians. May 2010, Taxco, Guerrero: 55 bodies in the ventilation shaft of a mine. August 2010, San Fernando, Tamaulipas: 72 corpses in a hidden burial pit, all of them Latin American migrants, all of them executed with “kill shots.” November 2010, Acapulco, Guerrero: 20 tourists from Michoacán state, previously reported missing, all of them with signs of having been tortured. March 2011, San Fernando, Tamaulipas: another hidden burial pit, 183 bodies, almost all of them badly beaten, passengers on commercial buses kidnapped on their way from one city to another. April 2011, Durango, Durango: dozens of hidden burial pits, bodies found almost daily, 228 bodies to date. How is it possible to explain this, all this, by means of the propositions that the government is offering? These crimes and many others, perhaps less grotesque but nonetheless perpetrated against men and women on the very fringes of the drugs trade, have ended up delegitimizing the final official argument: that almost ninety percent of the victims were members of criminal gangs.

One case in particular, which was decisive in public debate, put a dent in this argument forever: the episode in which Calderón hurried to classify as pandilleros—gang members—fifteen adolescents murdered on January 31, 2010, in Villas de Salvárcar, Juárez. When it was discovered that the young people were students and had absolutely no connection to any gang, it became clear that the category of pandillero—just like those ideas of narco, complicity, execution and settling of scores — are just that: categories that the federal government assigns to actions and bodies, sometimes rigorously and sometimes irresponsibly. In other words, it showed that government practice consists less of identifying the dead than attributing a certain category to them, and that this attribution is, it can be, doubtful or simply erroneous. Which brings us, then, back to the beginning: to this shapeless, muddled heap of forty thousand barely identified dead bodies.

This is an extract of a longer article first published in Words without Borders, March 2012. "Políticas del duelo" © Rafael Lemus. Translation © 2012 Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.

[1] All these have been taken from the website:

[2] “Five presumed members of ‘La Linea’ held" - El Economista, 13 August 2010 .

[3] “Missing, more than 5000 people since 2006: CNDH” - El Economista, 2 April, 2011.

[4] “156 Graves Found in Five Years” - Reforma, 19 April, 2011.

[5] "Homicides and the violence of the organized crime" Nexos, February 2011

About the author

Rafael Lemus was born in Mexico City in 1977. He is a literary critic, and a contributor to Letras LibresLa Tempestad and Día Siete among other publications. 

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