A month of farfetching

During the winter break, while New York was shivering through a polar vortex, I slipped away to the City of Eternal Spring for a month of research. With Cuernavaca as much as one hundred degrees (Fahrenheit, calm down) warmer than New York, it was a rather good choice.

I equipped myself with fiction and non-fiction for this trip to Mexico. On the way there I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and The Spectacular City by Daniel Goldstein. I read the former for pleasure, without marking up the pages, and yet within the novel I found (and hardly for the first time with Le Guin’s fiction) an unexpected resonance – both with Goldstein’s study, and my own attempts at field research.

My priority for Cuernavaca was to conduct interviews, building up a richer understanding of what happened in the city between 2009 and 2011. During that time a military operation killed the most powerful crime boss in the region, leading to a very public power struggle among formerly aligned criminal factions. At times public life in the city came to a complete standstill, but in response to this insecurity a social movement emerged, that eventually marched to the doors of the national palace in Mexico City.

Beyond semi-structured interviews, however, I wanted to get a better sense of the city. Cuernavaca doesn’t get much attention in studies of insecurity in Mexico – these tend to go for the superlative cases, the “murder capitals” – and I wanted to better understand how a less remarkable city could produce the country’s biggest social mobilization against such insecurity.

Le Guin’s novel provided a rather nice encapsulation of this rather vague research agenda.

What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor.

Goldstein’s ethnographic study of a town in Bolivia is an excellent example of farfetching research. The study centers on two events: a religious procession, and an attempted lynching. Goldstein posits a connection between these seemingly very different events, through the idea of the spectacle. Residents of the community, which is often rendered invisible to state recognition and support, use spectacles to make themselves visible and to demand recognition from the state.

I kept the idea of farfetching before me in Cuernavaca, as an example of open, exploratory, and intuitive research. I pursued interviews, but tried not to presume to know what I needed to take from those interviews. I read through piles of local newspapers, and kept daily field notes. I refused no invitation, and thus ended up in a first aid course for local journalists, sponsored by the Red Cross. I became a dummy for demonstrating the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Through this approach, I did indeed meet and interview a number of journalists. I learned new things and rethought aspects of my project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the connections between the media and narco-messages came to feel more and more important. The most immediate yield of all the farfetching, however, does not tie directly into my dissertation at all. Throughout the month, the constant focus in newspapers and online was on oil theft, and recently-inaugurated President López Obrador’s aggressive stance against such theft. The discourse around oil theft was so rich and interesting that I ended up pitching and writing a short piece about it for NACLA.

Not directly related, but not completely unrelated either. This is Le Guin’s “moral entirety,” as I understand it: that my project is only as important or interesting as the bigger picture, of which the project is a tiny part. The ultimate idea is not to perfectly encapsulate a topic, reducing it to “rational symbols,” but rather to speak to something so big and so compelling that it cannot be neatly encapsulated. Work that resonates, but doesn’t reduce.

 

 

 

 

 

Violence as a message / Violence plus a message

I study a phenomenon that, according to the prevailing paradigm in scholarship on violence, really shouldn’t exist. The huge volume of work that seeks to identify logics underpinning seemingly random or inexplicably brutal acts of violence very often explain these excesses in terms of their communicative value. Perpetrating violence is a costly signal; perpetrating grotesquely brutal violence is a costlier signal; perpetrating self-destructive violence is the costliest signal of all. Underlying all of this is the idea that the more extreme the violence, the clearer the message that it sends.

Reading De Leon’s fantastic book, The Land of Open Graves, I stumbled upon a particularly striking formulation of this paradigm…

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the message intended when someone rolls a bag of severed heads onto the dance floor in a Michoacán nightclub: “Do not test us, because our violence knows no bounds.”

There is a common formula within this passage: violence speaks louder than words. You don’t need to speak Spanish, because the meaning of brutal violence is common sense. Violence is unambiguous, it speaks for itself.

The striking thing about this quote is that, in the event that De Leon mentions, the violence was accompanied by a written message (one that you would have to speak at least some Spanish to understand). The message carries a similarly threatening tone to the one that De Leon assumes, but the content of the written message is very different…

The family doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocents. Only those that deserve to die will. All the people should know: this is divine justice.

Contrary to De Leon’s interpretation, the people that rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor wanted to send a message that their violence actually does know some clearly-specified bounds.

This phenomenon – displaying written messages in addition to violence, sometimes displaying written messages instead of violence – suggests that there is a limit to the prevailing scholarly paradigm. If violence usually speaks for itself, under some conditions it ceases to do so. These conditions began to obtain in Mexico in 2004, as narco-messages first appeared in the northeast of the country.

It could also be that violence just doesn’t speak for itself. Arendt thought violence was a sort of antithesis to language and meaning. Thinking along this line, perhaps scholars of violence have mistaken the fact that violence almost always has an effect, for the assumption that violence sends a clear message. The former possibility emphasises that people almost inevitably react to and try to understand violence. The latter possibility assumes that violence accurately transmits some intention on the part of the perpetrator.

Whether violence has some basic meaning and sometimes loses it, or whether violence always degrades meaning, as scholars we need to be careful not to speak on behalf of perpetrators or victims, when we claim that violence speaks for itself. We should probably always be suspicious of claims that anything is self-evident, even if that makes it harder for us to find the logic or instrumentality in brutal violence. In the case of narco-messages in Mexico, the authors of these messages seem to be reminding us that violence is no easy thing to comprehend.

 

Reflections on teaching Politics of Central America

I considered myself pretty luck to have the chance to teach an entire course on Central America this semester. The course did not disappoint; every space on the roster filled, and twice a week I shared a classroom with a great group of students. Their questions and perspectives on the course material kept me on my toes, and I learned a ton over the course of the semester (I think the students might even have done the same).

There are probably semesters in which Central America never makes the news in the U.S., but this was certainly not one of those semesters. As the course commenced, the Ortega government in Nicaragua was cracking down on protests, and looking more and more like the regime that Ortega had once overthrown. The trial for the alleged assassins of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres started and then stopped and then resumed in the weeks surrounding our class on activism by indigenous women, including Cáceres. Right after our class on corruption and impunity in Guatemala, the Guatemalan president announced that the country’s commission on impunity would shut down next year. The migrant caravan that started in Honduras made headlines throughout the second half of the semester, covering the weeks in which the course explored security, crime, and migration. We had quite a bit to talk about.

Having said all of this, I think I would revise the course in a few ways, if given the chance to teach it again.

First, the students wanted to know a great deal more about U.S. intervention in Central America. I certainly expected that we wouldn’t be able to talk about the region without addressing U.S. involvement, but I think I fell into the political science trap of too often taking each country as a discrete little unit. I was also self-conscious about not being American, and thus not wanting to appear to be trashing the U.S. too often. As it turns out, the students had plenty of criticisms of their own, and an endless supply of questions.

Second, I wanted to give due attention to Central America, and so deliberately did not focus much on broader Latin American context. I think I missed a trick here; although it was great to dive deep into the seven countries of the region, there are too many important connections to ignore. Talking about revolutionary movements in Guatemala or Nicaragua is almost impossible without addressing the influence and inspiration of the Cuban Revolution. And poor Belize often ended up isolated or an afterthought, where attention to the Caribbean would have situated the country as very much a part of the constellation of ex-British colonies.

Third, the lightning talks. What to make of the lightning talks? As a minor (but mandatory) course assignment, I had students give a very short talk: 3 minutes with one slide on the projector, then one question from the class. On one hand, students seemed very reluctant to sign up for these. On the other hand, they did a great job with the talks. Much better than my first attempts to model a lightning talk. So would I use these again? I prefer assignments that give students some latitude in how they participate within the classroom. Then again, I think lightning talks involve mastering really difficult skills (that more professors should try to learn). I am inclined towards making lightning talks one of several options that students can choose for assignments, in future courses.

One final thought: this course allowed me to draw upon a lot of fantastic recent reporting and scholarship on Central America. One particularly powerful example of this work was the very last reading for the course: Alice Driver’s The Road to Asylum. This article got students speaking that had barely ventured a word all semester, and brought some students to tears (it even brought students to tell me that it brought them to tears). I wanted this to be our final reading precisely because it is such an affecting read, and because it captures an essential thread of the course: the bravery and beauty of the people of Central America, in the face of almost impossible hardship.

 

Wrapping up field work (for now)

The months of field work passed in a flash, and before I knew it I was back in the immigration line at JFK, crumpled documents in hand. After half a year in the endless spring of Mexico City, arriving back in New York during the swampiest month of the year was something of a shock. And of course, I felt that I was really just getting started in Mexico.

Perhaps I was just getting started, but I did return with a full database. Maybe even a complete one (how do you know when a database is complete enough?). Whether or not the base grows further, it swelled out to 6,180 messages over the course of my field work. Those many messages came from one national newspaper and nine regional ones, along with data from a leaked government dataset. There are a lot of holes in the data – I would like to track down more complete message transcriptions – but even as things are, I have plenty to analyse. The database is bigger, and was easier to assemble, than I had expected. I gave it three hours a day, every day while I was in Mexico.

Those three hours per day were an effective routine for building a database, but they do raise the question of what else I was doing with my time in Mexico. I certainly wasn’t conducting many interviews, although not for lack of wanting to. I arrived in Mexico City expecting at any moment an email stating that I had IRB approval to conduct interviews. While I waited, I got on with building the database. Six weeks later, and in response to a very belated and very timid email on my part, I learned that my IRB application had been lost in the bureaucratic interstices of my university the whole time. No on had read it. No one even knew that it had been submitted (or rather, the one person that knew left their job and didn’t pass the work on to anyone else). It took a further six weeks to finally get that long overdue approval email. Three months in the field had already passed.

This left me scrambling to recruit interviewees as Mexico was building up to a general election. Most of the journalists that I reached out to were busy, and none of the state officials were in the mood to talk. The activists I reached out to were, by contrast, ever ready for a chat. Still, most of my interviews were crammed into the weeks after the election and before my departure (Mexico’s elimination from the World Cup might have helped too).

That still leaves unanswered the question of what else I was doing, with all those hours not spent interviewing or databasing. I read a lot of newspapers – although I quickly learned not to read the nota roja over lunch – but these didn’t occupy that much of my time.

I did visit Mercado Medellín almost every day, buying up plants for my dinky patio and pots for my dinky kitchen. I hovered around the quesadilla stand on the corner outside the market, working my way through the entire unprinted menu. I sat in cafes without a Macbook in sight, sipping steaming glasses of cafe con leche, or tiny cappuccinos (at least compared to their voluminous cousins in the U.S.). I met old friends and made news ones over bulky caguamas of beer and clinking glasses of mescal. I lost all those hours in the ephemera, the daily life that doesn’t appear in research write-ups. The little gestures and routines that come to define a place, and through which you stop merely observing, and start living and loving.

 

 

The Conflict Research Society Conference, 2019

After my experience last year at the Conflict Research Society’s annual conference in Oxford, I was eager to cross the pond again, and plug back into the vibrant CRS community this year. I sweated on my acceptance to the conference through the spring, worried that the conference conveners would decide that they were being entirely too lenient in admitting my rambling Mexico papers. The conveners certainly are too lenient, but they still haven’t realised.

This year’s conference was at the University of Birmingham, and having learned my lesson in Oxford, I booked a room as close to the university as possible. This closest option also happened to be a particularly lovely one, in a cosy home on a tree-lined road. The house even came with bonus colleagues; I was one of three conference attendees lodging there.

Like any good campus, that of the University of Birmingham is an absolute mash of styles. Bells gurgled in the red brick clock tower on the hour, while a brutalist beehive squatted silently nearby. This far norff, yellow leaves were already skittering across the lawns in the chill morning breeze.

Within the conference venue, the atmosphere was very much as I remembered. To the clink of coffee cups on saucers, attendees exchanged warm greetings and new introductions. There is very little self-sorting into the usual academic hierarchies at this conference; new students, doctoral candidates, postdocs, junior faculty and established professors mingle and share ideas openly. Maybe this is a trick of the name tags, which don’t list rank. Maybe – and to the eternal chagrin of the American academy – this is characteristic of academia in the UK. Used as I am to more rigid distinctions of rank, I found myself stumbling over introductions – and also that it didn’t matter.

Beyond this welcoming vibe, there were a few conference highlights for me. Marsha Henry’s opening plenary included a fantastic overview of critical perspectives on peacekeeping. I am going to be picking over the reading suggestions in her slides for a long time to come. Henry was also a very generous invited speaker, who was present and available throughout the conference (even though, as she proudly declared, she is a relative local). Ana Arjona’s presentation of her (CRS award-winning) book Rebelocracy was also great, and thrust the book even higher up my reading list (what self-respecting Latin America scholar would even admit that the book is not on their already-read list?).

I was also impressed and humbled by the quality of the work of my fellow graduate students and doctoral candidates. Among the many examples of great research eloquently presented, was Robert Nagel’s talk on sexual violence and civil war. Having recently returned from field research, and with a very rough presentation on what I had found, I was challenged and inspired by my peers to lift my work way up to their level.

One final highlight was the conference dinner, at which scholars of all ranks shared tables and bottles of wine. Perhaps most memorable of all, however, was the near insurrection on the part of my fellow vegetarians, over the size of meat-free main dishes. We are, apparently, a force to be reckoned with (especially after a full day of conferencing, and with empty bellies).

Puzzling over a massacre

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

For about three years now, I have been trying to find something intelligent to say about a massacre. I am not sure that I have made much progress, but I have just submitted my most recent attempt to a journal, so I guess we will find out soon (i.e. months from now).

The particular massacre that has been my preoccupation happened in San Fernando, Tamaulipas – in the northeast corner of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border. In 2010, the bodies of 72 undocumented migrants, most from Central America, were found in an abandoned building in San Fernando. The migrants had been abducted en masse and executed by the Zetas, apparently after being offered the chance to work for the criminal group.

I lived on the other side of Mexico at the time of this massacre, but even back then, I was trying to find some sense, some logic to the violence. I could find absolutely nothing intelligent to say; the killing boggled all of our notions of what was happening in Mexico, and what one could do to stay safe. The Zetas didn’t ask for ransoms from/for the victims. The migrants couldn’t offer much intel, and were not choice recruits for a group famed for its militaristic culture. Furthermore, when the massacre was discovered, it called down heat on the region, and on the group. There was simply no sense to the violence.

I left Mexico, moved to New York, and wrangled a place in a doctoral program. Some four years after the massacre, I started turning it over in my head again. The first draft of an analysis came out of a course on civil war – one of the best graduate courses I have taken. That draft looked almost exclusively at this one massacre. Almost all of that paper has since been revised out of existence, but there was an important kernel to it: if the killing made no sense from an external perspective, then I would have to look at internal group dynamics. The Zetas started out as members of elite military units in Mexico and Guatemala. The scale and brutality of the violence looked, more than anything, like some of the worst violence of counter-insurgency campaigns in the region.

My first attempts to see this work published brought one desk reject, and one rejection after peer review. I am still surprised that one of the three reviewers saw enough in that early attempt to believe that the paper was worth developing.

For the better part of two years I rethought and revised the paper. I probably workshopped it too many times. One incarnation saw me go too broad, trying to cobble together a very generalized theory of violence. Subsequent versions saw me re-narrowing the focus, until I had a paper that looked at the trend for the Zetas to use massacres and other indiscriminate violence. San Fernando still featured prominently, but with the intervening years I had learned of more massacres, more baffling violence attributed to the same group.

I changed my target journal twice more as I revised. Figuring out the right place to submit felt much harder than it probably should have. I guess there are no short cuts to familiarity with journals. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t quite pass for a conventional political scientist writing conventional political science. Once I found the right target journal fit, it seemed that it should have been obvious all along.

And now it is submitted, again. And I am in that weird moment when the thing that I have been turning over for so long is suddenly out of my hands. It is time to take up a new project, to fashion it into something, starting the work of years.

 

Teaching Politics of Central America

At the start of the year, before I left New York to conduct field work, I bagged a rather excellent teaching assignment for the fall semester. A long-forgotten course listing, entitled ‘Politics and Government of Central America,’ was collecting cobwebs in the Hunter College catalogue. I would have the chance to dust it off – if any students actually signed up.

I can’t imagine that many universities offer a course just on Central America, and specifically on the politics of the region. This is certainly one of the benefits of teaching at a big public university; the diversity of the staff and students translates into a call for diversity of curricula.

Having said all of this, almost as soon as I received the course assignment, I started to wonder how I could possibly put together a whole syllabus on the tiny region. My impulse was to take a looser definition of Central America, and to sneak some Mexico, Cuba, and other corners of the Caribbean into the course. The more I thought about it, however, the more this felt like cheating. Central America itself – that twisted isthmus linking north to south – gets only patchy academic attention as it is. If I truly considered myself lucky to be teaching the course, I could at least honour that by giving all due attention to the region itself.

This proved easier said than done. Of the scant academic attention that Central America does receive, most of that – especially in political science – is hogged by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua (with Honduras often thrown in, but rarely the focus). Costa Rica and Panama get shunted to the side as relative regional outliers. Belize is often forgotten completely.

Most of the scholarly work on Central America that I already knew focuses on conflict and war in the 80s, or on organized crime in recent years, so these became the bookends to the syllabus. The course covers the period from the Nicaraguan Revolution (1979) to today. The focus is going to be on processes of transition away from authoritarianism and towards democracy, and the many, many difficulties of such transition.

In my course on Terrorism, I dedicate a week to the place of women in armed groups. That feels appropriate there, given the glaring absence of attention to gender in so much scholarship (perhaps the worst offender is Gurr’s book ‘Why Men Rebel,’ which just takes it as a given that the men do the rebelling). For the Central America course, however, it would have felt rather tokenistic to have a single week on women and/or gender. I have endeavoured instead to make sure women authors and voices are included throughout, and that there will be regular chances to discuss gender.

I have also tried to include a lot of perspectives from on the ground in Central America, rather than just from that often aloof political scientist vantage point. In some cases this means that we read the accounts of participants, and it means I have another pretext for talking about Rigoberta Menchu. I wonder, however, if my proclivity to read up-close anthropological and journalistic accounts may have skewed the syllabus a little too far towards the perspective of international visitors, and away from local voices. Some of the first names that I wanted to include were Jon Lee Anderson and Salman Rushdie. I resisted the urge to include Joan Didion on Salvador, but a Martha Gellhorn essay appears in a case study of Panama. Excellent and illuminating authors, but all with the great privilege of some distance. At least Anderson can make a strong claim to being genuinely embedded in the region; I don’t think Rushdie, Didion or Gellhorn could claim any such thing.

As always, the finished syllabus feels a little too provisional. I have to tamp down the feeling that some crucial texts are missing. What I plan ahead of time is only something of a frame for the actual content of the course anyway. I don’t get to determine the real content ahead of time; that only comes out when me and 34 students are in a room together (yep, students signed up).

Returning to Cuernavaca

Since moving back to Mexico to conduct research, I realise again and again just how much my dissertation research is grounded in earlier, pre-academia memories of this place. My years living in Guadalajara first put the questions in my head that years later I finally have the tools and means to examine.

I have spent most of this return trip in Mexico City. The capital provides access to government (very limited access as it turns out), journalists and the media, activists and NGOS, academics, and endless events (I finally met Oswaldo Zavala, a professor at my home institution in NY, at his book launch here). As is regularly affirmed by the people that I talk to here, however, Mexico City is very different to the rest of the country. To get a full picture of the phenomenon that I am studying, I need to get out of the capital.

As I dig into my data, and cast about for cases beyond the capital, I find the city of Cuernavaca often catching my attention. There is good reason for me to notice that name: I visited the city, during my years in Guadalajara, and have friends there. The more I find Cuernavaca in the data, the more I realise how formative that prior visit was.

That first visit to Cuernavaca took place in mid-April, 2011. It was a stop on my spring vacation trip. The driving motivation behind the stopover was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a novel set in Cuernavaca during the Day of the Dead. If I had been reading the news instead of novels about the city, I wonder if I would have visited at all.

Quite by chance, I arrived in Cuernavaca at an important moment. A few weeks earlier, the son of a well-known local poet, Javier Sicilia, had been killed. The son’s body was found in an abandoned car, along with six other bodies, and a message from a criminal group. While such murders were increasingly common (especially in Cuernavaca at that time), Sicilia’s social standing meant that the case could not be ignored or dismissed by the government. Sicilia’s public grief became a rallying point for many others that had known personal tragedy, or were tired of living in fear. When I arrived in Cuernavaca, I found the state government building festooned with banners and placards bearing the phrase Estamos hasta la madre (which politely translates as “we’ve had it up to here”).

In the following weeks, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity was be born. At the beginning of May, Sicilia led a caravan of marchers on foot from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. The protest spread, and the caravan would later visit other parts of the country, linking up with grieving families and victims’ rights movements. Sicilia met with President Calderón, and remains an authoritative, critical voice in the call for more humane security policy.

The coincidence and experience of that first trip to Cuernavaca still informs my understanding of Mexico. I have made three return trips to Cuernavaca, as part of my field research, and plan to make more. I link together the snapshots of memory from that initial trip, get to know the city as a living place with deep memories of that terrible period in 2011. In a small city in a small state, everyone I meet seems to have some connection to the Movement for Peace. Everyone recalls what they were thinking and feeling around the time of my first visit.

If years spent living in Mexico gave me my current research questions, those few days in Cuernavaca gave me a way to start addressing these questions.

 

Reflecting on Guadalajara

Before I started doctoral (or even graduate) studies, and before I moved to New York, I lived in Guadalajara. I spent those years as a third grade teacher in a bilingual school (still can’t believe how few contact hours college teaching involves, in comparison), and travelled throughout Mexico.

Returning to the country for presearch last summer, and for proper research (prosearch?) this year has made me acutely aware of just how formative those Guadalajara years were. The research questions that I am pursuing today are the questions that swarmed through my head while living in Guadalajara – they’re just formulated into more methodical, methodological terms now.

I arrived in Guadalajara in 2009, when the main outside concern about Mexico was the so-called swine flu. For an entire school year, face masks and torrents of hand sanitizer were the norm, but beneath this, the deeper preoccupation of my friends and colleagues was the worsening violence in parts of the country. Exchanging news and headlines as we supervised recess and lunch breaks, my colleagues wondered just how bad – and just how close – the violence was going to get. The high walls surrounding the school were supposed to create a safe (if isolated) space within, but these conversations carried intimations of something massive and relentless, that could easily swamp the walls.

I remember the morning commute during which colleagues told me about the massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The conversation quickly turned aside to more positive, we-have-eight-hours-with-a-room-of-children-ahead topics, but I couldn’t follow along. My mind was racing, trying to process the meaning of such violence, but there was little clear sense to be made of it.

At night I would sometimes lie awake. After San Fernando, I no longer believed what many of us told ourselves; that we were safe because we were expats, or teachers, or not involved in crime, or not hanging out in the wrong areas. We certainly weren’t as vulnerable as undocumented migrants, but there was little apparent logic to preying upon them either. After locking the door and turning out the lights, I would lie there and think about just how sturdy those three locks were, and just how flimsy the door.

Over time, our behaviour changed. We stopped visiting a favoured after-school drinks location, because the trucks in the parking lot and the norteña music inside made it feel too much like a “narco place.” With each new instance of violence in or near the city, we reassured ourselves that we were still safe, that the violence couldn’t happen here, or couldn’t happen to us. One of the most intoned notions was that the narcos would never bring violence to Guadalajara, because their kids went to school there. But with each new outbreak, and each new reassurance, the supposed circle of security in which we lived contracted a little further. When a Burger King was shot up, it was hard to find much reassurance that it was a narco place.

We told ourselves that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ but with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that it was already happening there. What we tried to treat as isolated incidents turned out to be connected, and part of a bigger process – one very powerful group asserting control over the city and the region, and doing so with a great deal of violence and intimidation. A recent shooting in the hip heart of my old neighbourhood highlights just how fictive those supposed safe spaces and protocols were. It might also help explain why my research interests and topics have changed so little since I left Guadalajara. I am still trying to peer through the fear and uncertainty and naivete, to understand how so much violence could be hidden in plain sight.

 

 

Sicario 2: this time there are no rules (or redeeming features)

Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to toddle off to the movies when I should be deep in the data, but there have been a number of seemingly research-relevant films screening in the cinemas of Mexico City lately. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not long after arriving here, which left me thinking all the thoughtsLa Libertad del Diablo came along soon afterwards, and it wasn’t even a stretch to call that a research-relevant documentary. Somewhat more of stretch, however, was this week’s trip to see Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I’ll put it out there right now: the film was terrible. This wasn’t really a surprise, given the entire film is pretty much there in the trailer, but there are a couple of considerations (beyond the flimsy plot and the shallow characters) that make the film particularly odious.

The first Sicario movie provided an awfully simplified account of Mexico, and of Ciudad Juárez. According to the movie, you only have to cross the border into Mexico – or even just look across the border really – to see machine gun fire and bodies swinging from overpasses and psychotic hitmen and corrupt cops. Violence, in this telling, starts right where Mexico begins.

The strength of the first movie, however, is its critique of US  instigation and exploitation of that violence. The movie follows a by-the-book FBI agent as she is recruited for a special task force created to engage in extralegal, extralethal operations on behalf of (but not too on behalf of – wink wink) the US government. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is critical of the actions of the task force, while also largely helpless to do anything about them. If anything, she is complicit in their activities; no one comes out completely clean. While Mexico is full of brutal violence in the film, the real vicious, villainous antagonists are Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro’s US agents. In the tensest scenes of the film, when it seems like anything could happen, the results are always the same: a trail of blood and (mostly Mexican) bodies, and these US agents emerging unscathed.

In the second Sicario film, however, these villains have become the heroes. Blunt’s character has disappeared, and with her any moral compass or critical perspective on the extreme violence of Brolin and del Toro’s agents. Instead, it’s these two guys up against a Mexican kingpin and Mexican police and Mexican people smugglers and Middle Eastern terrorists and US bureaucracy.

For a minute, it seems as though the film might try to generate some complexity by pitting these two guys against each other. The narrative shies away from this, however, and instead cleaves to the idea that they are somehow on a noble path (it’s never clear quite what this path is, besides killing people and blowing things up). If anyone is to blame, it is an unnamed US president that isn’t sufficiently committed to using a whole lot of violence.

Worse still, the film digs up pernicious, baseless rumours about Mexican gangs smuggling terrorists from the Middle East into the US. One of the opening scenes of the film is jarringly racist, conflating prayer mats with terrorist threats. Furthermore, this whole myth about terrorists from other parts of the world working with Mexican gangs has no credible base, but is regularly dusted off by conservative politicians and scholars, eager to promote tougher border security. The use of this same old bogeyman as the pretext for all of the violence in the film is a familiar, Rumsfeldian logic. The movie even throws in a scene about waterboarding and drone strikes, to hammer this connection home.

Overall, then, this second Sicario installment (and there are going to be more…) forgets whatever attempts at critique of US policy were raised by the first film. In place of these, the sequel goes all-in on justifying a harder, less-accountable, and more cynically racist security policy, celebrating the worst excesses of US extralegal operations over the past 15 years.