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 anthrolopological 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 realize 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.

Where to begin?

When I defended my dissertation proposal, I set a rather familiar and somewhat arbitrary start date for the database that I wanted to build. Violence in Mexico is generally understood to have spiked sharply with the start of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, and his declaration of war against organized crime in December 2006. During the proposal process I was more concerned with fixing an end date for the data base, than with questioning this start point.

As I began trawling media archives, however, it became apparent that the phenomenon that I am trying to understand has antecedents prior to 2006. The term narcomensaje first turns up in El Norte newspaper in 1999, and returns in 2001, and again in 2005. These, however, seemed isolated occurrences; as I worked through media source after media source, my database grew a little in 2006 and 2007, and a lot for the years after those. When I talked about my data, I hedged by saying that the base started in 2006, but but would incorporate the earliest examples of messages.

In fact, my approach to data collection prevented me from getting to grips with the beginning of the phenomenon of narcomensajes. My main search terms in online media archives were variations on narcomensaje and narcomanta (narco-mensaje, narco_mensaje, narcomensajes, etc. etc. etc…), and a few less-common terms like narcopropaganda. Such terms, however, only came into use once the phenomenon that they describe was relatively well-know to the readers and writers of media accounts. These terms have become so ubiquitous that they yield thousands of hits when searched for, but the terms couldn’t tell me how the pattern of messages first arose.

A note attached to one of the earliest points in my database mentioned that a guy known as Barbie (Edgar Valdez Villareal – stay tuned for the Hollywood biopic) had left other messages in northern Mexico before 2006. I thus took a pause from scouring new media sources to return to one of my tried and tested sources, and to change my search terms. Searching for “Barbie” brought me information on some messages from 2005, and a couple from 2004 (it also had me wading through pages and pages of results about the famous doll, and the many celebrities that have been likened to her). More importantly, this searched turned me on to the fact that Valdez’s main rivals, the Zetas, were more prolific message-displayers, and that they passed this tactic on to another group, the Familia Michoacana, who used it even more frequently. Perhaps more importantly still, this slow trawling of early records – and it was very slow work, between new data points – revealed that before narcomensaje stuck as the most common term for this phenomenon, newspapers tended to use a different term entirely: recado. This term can still be translated as message, but is less commonly used. This makes it a particularly handy way to search for early examples of this phenomenon.

Following these various clues, jumping from search term to search term, has given me a much clearer answer to the question of where my database begins. The pattern of public messages starts in 2005, and becomes significantly more frequent in mid-2006, with the rise of the Familia Michoacana. The term narcomensaje begins to appear with any regularity in 2006, becoming increasinglye common throughout 2007.

This discovery also furnishes me with a new facet to my dissertation. In the broadest terms, I want to understand why narcomensajes appear, and what they actually do. One way in which I can address this in my dissertation is by tracing out the historical (very recent historical) origins of the messages. Starting with this would allow me to better situate closer case studies of the emergence of messages in specific cities, municipalities, or states.

Finally, this discovery can speak back to my comparison of my database to the other main narcomensaje database. This other database covers December 2006 until the end of 2011,  but doesn’t record its first message until March 2007. This can give the impression that narcomensajes do indeed emerge after the uptick in violence after Calderón declared war on crime. The new, early points in my database, however, demonstrate that the phenomena we think of a characterizes Calderón’s Mexico is actually part of a longer continuity of practices.




Comparing databases (and discovering just how far I have to go)

Since arriving in Mexico I have been steadily building a database of narcomensajes.  Over the course of several months, and working with different media sources, that base has grown by the thousands. It was never very clear, however, just how many messages I could expect to find. By one very rough estimate, I thought I should be able to find at least 3,500 messages from between 2006 and 2013. When my database passed 4,000 messages, I figured it was time to pause, and to try to get some sense of the real size of the phenomenon I am studying.

To do so, I planned to cross-check my database with another. One of the few previous studies of narcomensajes uses government-compiled crime data for the period 2006-2011, which was leaked to CIDE (a local university). That base only includes messages left at the scene of a homicide, whereas my database includes other types of messages as well. Still, I figured the government would have unparalleled access to data, and thus that by comparing my collection of messages left at crime scenes to this other collection of messages, I would gain some sense of how well my data collection was going. Furthermore, this other database is the only one I know of that isn’t compiled from media sources – which means that it is the only way I can peer outside of whatever biases creep into my data, based on the source material. The overall results of the comparison are as follows.

Cross-check results
Points in my DB: 2,817
Points in CIDE DB: 2,642
Matches: 915
Unique to my DB: 237
Unique to my DB (ineligible for CIDE DB): 1,660
Unique to CIDE DB: 1,727

At first glance, these results are a little dispiriting. There’s a huge number of messages that my data collection approach isn’t capturing – far bigger than I expected. A fairly comprehensive database of messages for the time period that I am covering should probably contain more than 6,000 messages, which means growing my current base by another 50%. While I can do much of this by importing the data from the other base, the CIDE base contains only sparse information – no message transcriptions, and almost no contextual details. Importing the data will be a start, but I need to dig deeper into the media archives.

There are a couple of other unexpected and more interesting  stories within the comparison results. First, the CIDE database officially starts in December 2006, but the first narco-message doesn’t appear until March 2007. This is the year for which my database has the highest relative number of messages that ought to be in the CIDE base. This tells me that the people compiling the data took a while to pick up on the emerging phenomenon of messages – quite a while longer than journalists. The earliest use of the term narcomensaje that I have found in the media dates back to 1999, and the term became more common – became something of a phenomenon – throughout 2006.

Related to this, with every year the gap between points unique to the CIDE base, and points unique to my base (that would be eligible for the CIDE one) grows. This tells me that over time, government security officials not only get a better sense of the emerging phenomenon, but also increase their ability to control the public perception of it. There are all sorts of reasons why messages might not make it into the press, but the overall trend is that the government officials are capturing and recording a greater portion of the messages – and also preventing journalists from doing the same. This accords with the newspaper reports that I have been reading, which over time become more dependent on official government accounts of the contents of messages.

Looking more carefully at the points that should be but aren’t in the CIDE base, I suspect that what is left out is not just a matter of what government officials accidentally overlooked. Some states, such as Sinaloa and Guerrero, have very high levels of violence, with even higher spikes of violence. It is unsurprising to see that a good number of the points unique to my database come from these states. Something strange happens, however, in the state of Nuevo León. This state saw relatively few messages until a massive increase in 2011. At the same time, however, the number of data points from NL that are unique to my base also spikes. State officials weren’t capturing the increase, despite the fact that it was highly public, widely reported, and came at the time of the state’s greatest control over the dissemination of these messages. It almost looks like this surge in messages is being kept out of the government data, so anomalous is the discrepancy.

Overall, the comparison shows that I have a lot of work still to do. My database can stand to grow a lot, and to add much richer data – I want as many of those message transcriptions as possible. The comparison also shows, however, that the CIDE database is less perfect than expected. I had assumed that this base would capture pretty much every message displayed, but clearly there are limits to even this expansive collection.


“I had not thought death had undone so many”

For the first three months of my field research, I pored over online newspaper archives, adding data to a growing spreadsheet of narco-messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas). I developed a habit, and spent two hours almost every morning adding data points, before returning for at least another hour in the afternoon. Having located a few excellent sources of data, this routine saw the database grow and grow. This type of research isn’t exactly glamorous; there are no sudden revelations, just the slow and steady agglomeration of stories, trends and patterns.

The online archives of the magazine Proceso must have yielded close to one thousand entries for the database, and as I sorted these into the spreadsheet, it was encouraging to see a lot of concurrence across sources. Once I had finished with the swell of data from Proceso, I switched to Noroeste – a newspaper local to Sinaloa state, with a big reputation for courageous reporting. I wondered if there would be many new data points to find. The local focus of Noroeste, in fact, brought many more new data points. There has been a lot of violence, and accompanying messages, in Sinaloa – enough that other papers don’t bother to report on most of it. What had looked like a relatively complete database, with multiple confirming sources for many points, was suddenly studded with new events. The spreadsheet grew longer and longer, until it reached 4,000 messages.

Noroeste is by no means the biggest contributor to my database, but it was among the new data points from Sinaloa state that I began to feel daunted by the magnitude of the thing (whatever it is) that I am trying to study. Not just the messages themselves, but also and especially the violence, the dead to whom these messages often refer.

In the early days of charting out this project, a number of professors warned me about the confronting nature of the material that I would be dealing with. They were referring, by and large, to sites such as El Blog del Narco, which publish images of crime scenes, and violent videos filmed by gangs. It turns out, however, that these sites aren’t great sources for my database, largely because they don’t maintain readily searchable archives, and often don’t report contextual details of messages. Instead, I have been trawling newspaper archives that generally contain only the text (and not the gorey accompanying images) of reporting. Nevertheless, by the time I started working on the Noroeste archive, the feeling was strong: of the relentlessness of the violence that I am studying. Of how quickly the dead become anonymous, mere asides in newspaper articles, mere numbers in my spreadsheet. Of how fast those numbers multiply.

And lurking behind the tallies of the dead that do make it into my database, and the threats of more killing to come that are contained in some messages, is a more disturbing reality still: the vast majority of the victims of violence are not found with a message, if they are found at all.


Light reading turned heavy

I brought one book with me, on my semester of research in Mexico City. This was an act of severe self-discipline, and resulted in me leaving a couple of half-read volumes on my shelf in Brooklyn. The book that made the cut was Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. Goldman splits his time between New York and Mexico City (let me tell you, it’s a fine way to live); I figured that his book would still count as context for my research, but would also be an escape from the heavier topics of my dissertation.

The first chapters of the book were exactly this, and guided my wanderings through the city. My route to a local yoga studio had me tracing Goldman’s path through the opening pages of The Interior Circuit. As I wandered further afield I started seeking out locations that he describes, such as the bodgy David replica in Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Goldman’s fascination with the city is infectious, and his eye for detail brings a lot of curious corners of the place into sharper focus.

Goldman cut his teeth as a correspondent during the civil war in El Salvador, and it doesn’t take too long for his journalistic instincts to rise to the surface of what starts out as a charming memoir. He begins following the students protests, known as Yo Soy 132, in response to future president Peña Nieto’s proud defense of his actions as governor of Mexico State, when he deployed lethal police force against peaceful protestors. Later, Goldman becomes fascinated by a case in which a dozen young people were kidnapped from a local nightclub. This latter case occupies almost the entire second half of the book.

The Heavens nightclub case could almost be a standalone investigative work, except that there is no real resolution at the end of Goldman’s account. This is a curious feature of Interior Circuit; the author keeps digging into these cases of violence and corruption, but after a bout of investigation, moves on to another case. Towards the end of the book, Goldman shifts his attention to other instances of violence, such as the notorious disappearance of 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

This makes much of the book feel restless. Cases of violence cycle through the narrative, without ever being resolved. Eventually, there is just nothing new left to say. This is, however, no defect of Goldman’s writing. Rather, it demonstrates in action the approach of both president Peña Nieto, and the former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera, to any press reports that might tarnish their images. Both figures focus on denial and obfuscation. Both leave writers and investigators like Goldman to work with scraps of information and hunches. Both prevent any kind of denouement, any ending or closure.

What does that leave? Goldman alerts his reader to important cases, and recurring themes. He can’t do all that much with them, but he won’t let them rest. He pushes back against government efforts to silence and suppress. And that makes room for those of us that come along later to continue the work, prying and probing, recording and remembering.