A little background: over the last fifteen years, I've been going back and forth to Mexico, first in 1997 on a trip to Chiapas to do human rights observation work and then in 1998 to lead a student delegation of fifteen to the same state. In 2001, I went back again but this time to visit a guy I'd been seeing in Monterrey. That time, for Thanksgiving, I took the bus down and spent 10 days tooling around industrial Monterrey, a very different Mexico then I'd ever seen before. It wasn't exotic, it wasn't totally foreign, it felt as much like home as Houston did at the time. Even thought things with the guy didn't work out, I did love the North, especially because it was so close by and so easy to get to on the bus from Houston.
And the love grew. In 2004, I lived for a year in Tampico, the city where my partner was born. In 2006, I lived for a summer in Tijuana doing a writing workshop. In 2008, I went for six months to work at the International Book Fair in Monterrey. From 2009-2011, I lived in Tijuana, crossing several days a week into San Diego to work and study at the University of California. For all of these last eleven years, I've been going back and forth pretty constantly⎯to Monterrey, Tijuana, Tampico, Juárez, Chihuahua, Hermosillo, Mexico City, Querétaro, Reynosa, Matamoros and more. Usually I'm on the bus or driving so I'm passing through a lot of towns and ranchos along the way. And of course, Houston or San Diego is not so far from the border⎯Aztlán is alive and kicking in all kinds of new 2012 ways.
So how to talk about this violence in a place I love so much? A place⎯the North⎯that I think of as part of a larger region on both sides of the border. A region that, more than any place in the world, feels like home to me.
I don't want to be silent about the violence, but it can be hard to speak clearly about what's going on. In a recent book called To Die in Mexico, John Gibler points to the existence of a particular brand of silence, what he calls narco-silence: "For drug war silence is not the mere absence of talking, but rather the practice of not saying anything. You may talk as much as you like, as long as you avoid the facts. Newspaper headlines announce the daily death toll, but the articles will not tell you anything about who the dead were, who might have killed them or why. Not detailed descriptions based on witness testimony. No investigation."
This silence means that it is inordinately hard for anyone, Mexican or foreign, to fully explain what is going on, to get clarity or to provide a larger context. And many accounts from the U.S. (even in leading newspapers like the NY Times) are just horrible⎯written by journalists who parachute in and then attempt to sum up the situation while getting most everything wrong, oversimplifying, generalizing or writing scandal-based work that doesn't go deep.
Well, today I stumbled on an article in Harper's by Cecilia Balli about the violence in Mexico and specifically about the corruption, torture and human rights abuses being committed by the Mexican federal government and the Army under the cover of the "War on Drugs."
Over the years, I've talked to a lot of people in Mexico from all backgrounds about how they see the violence. This much is clear: the way many of my friends (and the ones whose instincts I trust the most) talk about this violence is totally different from most portrayals found in U.S. or Mexican or international media. There is a clear sense, a certainty, that Calderón is behind the spiraling numbers of dead. There is a lot of anger against him personally and a complete distrust of any governmental institutions. Some insist that the army and the government itself is behind much of the abuse. For them, the era of drug dealers killing drug dealers seems to have morphed into a different kind of war - one with a lot more complications and more guilty parties.
Balli's article does an amazing job breaking down the way the Mexican Army and the federal government have tortured and killed their own citizens under the cover of this campaign against drugs. Through diligent, long-term research into the issue, she's been able to piece together a very different story. A story about disappearances, torture and impunity. As she makes clear: Just one case of military abuse should be enough to submit Calderón to judgement, or even imprisonment. But it will take a lot of journalism like this and strong activism to change the story in the media from one about a "Drug War" to one about the state-orchestrated violence and impunity in Mexico. (There's been some amazing work on impunity in the last year as well. If you haven't seen Presunto Culpable, watch it soon please.)
To be clear: this is not just a war between cartels; it is also a campaign of fear and torture being waged by the Mexican government against its own citizens (with US government support and complicity, of course). But Balli points out a critical difference between this dirty war and previous dirty wars in Mexico or in other countries in Latin America (Chile and Argentina come to mind): its victims are largely not political activists or student protestors. While there is also intense violence directed against activists and journalists along the Northern border, the tens of thousands of dead are mainly working-class and lower-middle class Mexican citizens. As Balli writes:
Questioned about the violence during the campaign's first days, one general told the press: "I would like to see the journalists change their stories, and when they write that there's been 'one more death,' they'd instead say there's one less criminal."
This is the logic behind this state-orchestrated violence. Everyone is guilty until proven innocent (which is in fact the law in Mexico) and therefore any tactic (including extra-official murder, torture and disappearances) is acceptable. The violence has its roots in poverty and lack of opportunity and also in the lack of effective legal mechanisms or accountability in Mexico. As Balli writes about the tens of thousands of people tortured, killed and disappeared:
Because they were nameless citizens on the margins of the country and its conscience, few will rise to defend them or reconstruct their stories.
I'd like to thank Cecilia Balli for doing this hard work to reconstruct the stories of Jaime Alejandro Irigoyen, Benjamín Medina Sanchez and others. She's long been involved in and writing about this borderless & border-filled region between Mexico and the U.S. I have so much respect for her work, because I know personally how hard it is to sift through all the information. It's been fifteen years since I first started going to Mexico, and a lot of the issues of repression, violence and impunity remain the same. And the U.S. government and U.S. citizens are complicit in so many ways.
I hope you will take a few minutes to read the article. Let me know what you think.