The Funambulist Correspondents 11 /// Fifteen Years of War in Mexico

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This December will mark 15 years of war in Mexico. Over that time, thousands of families have experienced profound tragedies: a recent count of homicides and disappearances in Mexico since 2006 stands at 412,557.

Thinking back it is easy to believe that President Felipe Calderón launched the war on drugs and organized crime in response to a rising criminal threat in Mexico.

In fact, as the candidate for the right wing National Action Party (PAN) in the 2006 elections, Calderón didn’t campaign on fighting crime. The PAN’s 60 page platform that year contained a measly six paragraphs about public security, didn’t mention the army, and included four promises about organized crime at the tail end of a list of 412 policy proposals. 

In 2006, Andrés Manuel López Obrador made his first run for president at the head of a coalition of left parties. His platform mentioned the army once (in the context of disaster response), and included a single proposal on seeking multilateral solutions to narcotrafficking, global pandemics and terrorism. 

And the internally divided and electorally battered Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)/Green Party’s 2006 platform was an inventory of 944 points, nine of which were about fighting organized crime. 

Organized crime was hardly an issue during the 2006 campaigns, and the war was not launched in response to social clamour demanding a crackdown on drugs. Rather, it was initiated in the context of heightened social struggle, from the insurrection in Oaxaca, to the Zapatistas’ Otra Campaña, to the uprising in Atenco, Mexico State.

Calderón’s turn towards the drug war was abrupt: on December 1, 2006, his first day in office, he told the nation that security was among the top three priorities of his administration. Less than two weeks later, his security cabinet announced Joint Operation Michoacán. 

Thousands of soldiers, marines and federal police were deployed to the coastal state famous for carnitas, monarch butterflies and avocados. So it was that the war on drugs burst onto the national stage, where it has since remained, arguably as the top political and social issue in the country.

The war that Calderón started today continues unabated after nearly 15 years. Like many protracted conflicts, it is difficult to comprehend, in part because of the severity, prevalence, and frequency of the violence; and in part because of the production of confusion regarding the perpetrators and victims of violence, which has depoliticized the war. 

As it turns out, 2007 went down as the year in which homicides in Mexico hit a historic low, at 8,867. Beginning the following year, as militarization intensified, homicides began to climb dramatically, more than tripling by 2011. By 2009 Ciudad Juárez boasted the highest per capita homicide rate on the planet (191 per 100,000); and the city was ranked as the most violent in the world by Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, a Mexican research institute. 

After a slight drop in the years following the PRI’s return to power in 2012, homicides in Mexico again surged to new highs after 2016. There were more than 36,000 homicides a year in Mexico in 2018 and 2019. 

By 2020, seven of the ten most violent cities in the world according to Seguridad, Justicia y Paz’s ranking were Mexican: Celaya (Guanajuato), Tijuana (Baja California), Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua), Ciudad Obregón (Sonora), Irapuato (Guanajuato), Ensenada (Baja California), and Uruapan (Michoacán). 

But ten years after Ciudad Juárez’s scandalous debut as the world’s murder capital, the 2020 homicide ranking barely made the news in Mexico, much less internationally. Too many violent cities, their names too hard to pronounce, most of them too far away from the US border to matter much to international media.

To this day, official discourse, propagated by the federal and state governments and churned through the corporate media, tells of powerful cartels battling state forces for the control of drug trafficking routes. Civilian casualties, in this version, are people who were caught in the crossfire, innocent bystanders. It is then either explicit or implied that the rest of the dead and disappeared were involved in criminal activity, in this way they are criminalized, deemed deserving of their fate.

The cinematic versions of this war, which center ostrich-boot wearing drug bosses with huge belt buckles fucking over their enemies, are available on demand around the world, translated into half a dozen languages. These tellings are part of the problem, adding to the confusion and stigma that have prevented clear analysis and slowed widespread resistance to the war. 

Then there are the pundits and casual observers who suggest the spread of killings and disappearances is random and chaotic –as if the violence had its own momentum. In doing so, they downplay the role of the most powerful armed actors (Mexico’s state security forces).

But there is another perspective that can help to understand violence in Mexico, which focuses on how state policies, crafted in the halls of power in Mexico City and Washington, moved violence from a negligible issue in 2006 to the most pressing problem in a crowded field. 

This line of interpretation, which I have described in detail in my book Drug War Capitalism, links increased violence in Mexico to the expansion of transnational capitalism and to US foreign policy writ large. It requires us to think critically about the violence and how it functions within neoliberalism, to question official discourse and US involvement in the war, and to center the experiences of victims, their families and the communities and activists fighting for change.

Looking back over the last nearly 15 years of war, the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Guerrero stands out as a watershed moment in breaking through official discourse and Hollywood narratives about the war in Mexico. “Fue el estado” [“It was the state”] became a rallying cry following the mass disappearance, which was perpetrated by local police, in concert with paramilitaries and other branches of the state repressive apparatus. 

Following the example set by Iguala residents and community police, who combed hills and riverbeds searching for the 43, groups of family members of the disappeared around the country began to organize and carry out land searches for their missing loved ones. Over 82,000 people have been disappeared since December of 2006, and it is their families who the most active in investigating and searching for them.

By the time the 2018 elections got underway, much of Mexico had been transformed by massacres and mass disappearances, by horror stories of surviving torture in safe houses, hours long shootouts in city centers, and summary executions of poor and young people by soldiers. 

During the 2018 campaign, López Obrador’s Morena Party proposed a “return to peace,” blaming the previous two administrations’ crime fighting strategies for the destruction of the tranquility of Mexican families. “Abrazos no balazos,” or “Hugs not bullets,” became a key refrain. During the campaign, López Obrador (who is known as AMLO) promised amnesty for low level drug offenses and an end to the violence. He won by a landslide.

Paley Graffiti
Graffiti wall in Puebla features stencils of AMLO. / Photo by Dawn Marie Paley

We are now two and a half years into AMLO’s term, and it has become abundantly clear that his administration is staying the course of the war on drugs. Though the federal government’s discourse has technically changed (the “war on drugs” was declared formally over in a 2019 policy document) soldiers, marines, federal police and the national guard continue to be at the center of public security. Prohibited substances including marijuana are routinely intercepted, those who carry even the smallest amounts are jailed, and plantations continue to be sprayed and burned. 

Calderón controversially expanded the domain of the army into public security by decree, bypassing congress and the judiciary. During his six-year term, Peña Nieto of the PRI kept the army in the streets and passed an interior security law later deemed unconstitutional. In May of last year, AMLO passed a decree allowing the military to participate in policing activities until the end of this term in 2024. The president promised that the newly stood-up National Guard would be a civilian force, but it has taken on an undeniably military character: most of its recruits are former soldiers, and its top boss is a former general.

Beyond formalizing the army’s role in public security, AMLO’s government is taking the unprecedented step of opening major state contracts to the army. Soldiers and military engineers are building Latin America’s largest airport in Mexico State as well as a significant part of the Tren Maya in the Yucatán peninsula, among other projects. The army will operate the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, which will connect Mexico City to the world; and will be the long-term beneficiaries of the controversial train in Mexico’s south. 

Beyond major construction projects, former generals and other members of the Marines and the Army have been tapped for an increasing number of posts in the civil service. Not only is the Mexican Army active in physically preventing migrants from traveling north through Mexico, today over half of the state-level delegations of the National Migration Institute are run by former army officers.

Among the largest demonstrations since AMLO took office have been ongoing protests against state and machista violence led by women, which reach their peak every year on March 8th, International Womens Day. Indigenous people continue to resist privatization and megaprojects, organizing from diverse territories in defense of land, language and collective autonomy. A growing movement to legalize cannabis and other narcotics maintains a permanent occupation at a symbolic marijuana plantation in front of the Senate, and has local groups organizing across the country. And there are at least 120 search groups, led by mothers of the disappeared, scouring the outskirts of cities and remote areas for a trace of their loved ones. 

Though far from united, these movements constitute some of the most crucial facets of popular organizing in Mexico today. There have been moments of raprochment and attempts to coopt these movements into the government of the “Fourth Transformation,” as AMLO calls his administration. But hostility reigns, the president regularly refers to protestors as conservatives, pawns of the right, or wealthy “fífís” opposed to his agenda.

But even as these and other civil society groups and popular organizations regularly protest war and impunity and campaign against militarization, establishment political forces insist AMLO is soft on crime. 

In a recent interview, Calderón blamed the current government for ongoing violence in the state of Michoacán, where he first launched the war almost 15 years ago. Calderón criticized AMLO for seeking dialogue and “hugs” instead of using state forces to impose security. “I would absolutely use public forces to defend citizens in Aguililla [Michoacán], and anywhere else in the country, because today they have no one to defend them,” he told talk show host Adela Micha. 

So it is that the political elite most responsible for the terrible events of the last 15 years have positioned themselves as the opposition, pushing a President who promised peace and now steadfastly supports the army to take an even more militaristic approach to public safety.