From cuaz to cuate: Training camps for organized crime

For years now – more or less the entire duration of my doctoral studies – I have been intrigued by the fact that some organized crime groups in Mexico operate training camps. In one form or another, I worked this in to most of my course papers. Once I was done with coursework and working on turning these papers into a journal article, the camps became a recurrent feature of the various articulations of my argument.

My intuition was that the camps represent a very different paradigm of organized crime, and that they are vital to understanding otherwise baffling displays of violence, such as the mass killing of unarmed migrants. The camps were first associated with the Zetas, a group that started out as a group of elite military defectors, and became notorious for using horrific violence. The camps suggested that these founding members of the Zetas didn’t only bring their counterinsurgency training with them, but they passed it on to further recruits. The tactics of war and state terror were being repurposed for crime in Mexico.

In reading up for the latest version of this argument, I found an interesting link between counterinsurgency during the Guatemalan civil war, and crime on the US-Mexico border. Reports have long circulated that the Zetas recruited soldiers from the Guatemala’s Kaibiles counterinsurgency force – which perpetrated some of the worst violence of the civil war and genocide – to fight and train in Mexico. Here was an odd little piece of evidence.

In Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys, a young Zeta recruit describes a training camp. He recalls that the boys in the camp were paired up with a cuas, which he takes to be a version of cuate, common slang in Mexico for mate or bro. The pair of cuates were responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

Then, in Jean Franco’s Cruel Modernity, I found a description of counterinsurgency training in Guatemala. Trainees for the Kaibiles were paired up with a cuaz, which is an indigenous Mayan term for brother. The pair of brothers was responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

The words kaibil and cuaz are examples of the appropriation of indigenous language and culture by the forces that repressed and exterminated Mayan people in Guatemala. The young Zeta recruit was unaware that the training procedures of his camp – down to the very names and terms used – were part of a long legacy of violent training that extends back to the counterinsurgency campaigns of the late twentieth century.

This discovery became a brief illustration in a manuscript that is now, finally, scheduled for publication before the end of the year. The argument made in the article is simple: that the elite counterinsurgency training provided to Latin American militaries by the U.S. facilitated state terror, and has now been repurposed by criminal groups that again terrorize vulnerable groups. Violence has long legacies, and people shaped into killers by these training programs cannot unlearn this vocation.

A narco-list of narco-fied narco-words

Last year, I assembled a database of narco-messages. Towards the end of this process, while I was poring over articles from a Guadalajara-based newspaper, I decided to keep track of the narco-fied terms that I came across. These articles were from the early years of the war on narco-trafficking (which started in December 2006), when it seemed like everything was being narco-fied.

Most of these narco-fications didn’t recur with any regularity; they were tested out, but didn’t become regular parlance. I kept track of the terms more for the range of terms than for their repetition. Narcomensaje or narco-message did, however, become a standard term, along with the closely related narcomanta (narco-blanket or narco-banner). There are a lot of forms that a message can take, but a narco-message has a characteristic form: mainly black text with some red letters or words for accent; orthographic errors and/or colloquial expressions; text printed on a portable, removable surface. This form helped settle the name, but the name also helped fix the form.

I kept this list out of sense of the absurdity of this trend of narco-fying the world, but this process also does work in the world. It changes perceptions and shapes understanding. Adding narco- to the front of words like this creates the idea of a totally separate narco-world; an underworld in which everything in the non-criminal world has its glamorous, dangerous, narco double. It inflates the threat of the “narco,” while at the same time setting it elsewhere.

In part, this list is absurd to me because there is no separate world; crime and all things narco are very much a part of this world. Crime is not the product of some different or distant underworld, it is the result of processes and practices taking place here and now, in the society that is our society, in the world that is our world.

  • Narco-agent
  • Narco-assassination
  • Narco-associate
  • Narco-band
  • Narco-bandit
  • Narco-blockade
  • Narco-bride
  • Narco-broker
  • Narco-campaign
  • Narco-canvas
  • Narco-cell
  • Narco-charge (as in toll or fee)
  • Narco-commando
  • Narco-connection
  • Narco-convoy
  • Narco-covering
  • Narco-crime
  • Narco-dialogue
  • Narco-dispatch
  • Narco-dispute
  • Narco-dollar
  • Narco-emissary
  • Narco-execution
  • Narco-government
  • Narco-grave
  • Narco-gunman
  • Narco-house
  • Narco-judge
  • Narco-junior
  • Narco-laboratory
  • Narco-message (another way of saying this; one way is not enough)
  • Narco-minstrel
  • Narco-official
  • Narco-pact
  • Narco-paramilitary
  • Narco-party
  • Narco-pilgrimmage
  • Narco-police
  • Narco-politics
  • Narco-postmodernity (because one prefix is never enough)
  • Narco-ranch
  • Narco-refuge
  • Narco-relative (as in familial relations)
  • Narco-shootout
  • Narco-shrapnel
  • Narco-star (like the star shape, yep)
  • Narco-summit
  • Narco-tailoring
  • Narco-text
  • Narco-video
  • Narco-war
  • Narco-warning
  • Narco-zone

Poverty, inevitability, and synthetic clothing

When I arrived back in Mexico City in January, everyone was talking about the lines for gas. Recently-inaugurated president López Obrador shut down parts of the national oil and gas distribution network to combat oil theft. I enjoyed the memes doing the rounds, but didn’t think too much more about gas. In the days after I moved on to Cuernavaca, however, I found myself returning to the images and language of oil theft – locally known as huachicoleo. In between chasing interviews for my dissertation, I started taking notes on media coverage of oil theft. These notes led to a pitch to NACLA, and eventually to a short essay on López Obrador’s discourse on oil theft.

At the center of the essay is a terrible event that occurred in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan in mid-January. An oil duct in Tlahuelilpan was perforated, so that high-octane gas transported through the duct could be siphoned off. This particular perforation led to a geyser of gas spraying into the air, and a crowd of hundreds gathering around to collect free fuel. The gas vapour caught fire, igniting an inferno that burned for hours. At least sixty died at the site, while seventy more died later from their injuries.

There was one aspect of media coverage of the explosion that I could not find a place for in the NACLA essay. A lot of reporting and commentary on the event made the tragedy seem inevitable. It was inevitable because oil thieves have no regard for human life, and recklessly tap oil ducts. It was inevitable because Tlahuelilpan is a relatively poor area and free gas is a boon (even when there isn’t talk of a nationwide shortage). It was inevitable because in such a crowd of people massing around a geyser of gas, there was bound to be some spark, something to ignite the conflagration.

Article after article also characterized the explosion as inevitable because of synthetic clothing. The thinking was that poor people wear clothing made from synthetic fibers, and these fibers are more likely to produce static electricity, so that many people milling together and wearing synthetic clothing would inevitably produce a spark to trigger the explosion. In the days after the explosion, the popularity of this explanation spread – although always as a possibility, and without any particular evidence to prove that this was the cause of the inferno.

This idea contains a powerful image of the precariousness of poverty. Poverty is not just a demand for cheap or free gas; poverty plays out way down at the level of the fibre in your clothing, and the hidden dangers among these fibres. According to this explanation of the explosion, a crowd of people in more expensive organic cotton t-shirts are a low risk; their threads do not contain the inevitable spark of catastrophe.

There is something more in this discourse of inevitability and synthetic clothing. Commentators and reporters invariably explained that synthetic clothing is what those people wear over there in poor Tlahuelilpan. This casts the tragedy as something that happens in that other, distant Mexico – the same one in which most of the state and gang violence takes place. And it makes clothing the cause of suffering among the marginalized, instead of treating it as an outward expression of that marginalization.

This inevitability of tragedy also feeds back into something that I did mention in the NACLA article. With the threat of catastrophe carried against the very skin of people in poor and marginalized areas, comes easy justifications of intervention to protect the people from themselves. A familiar and patronizing argument where soldiers in uniform are needed to protect people in synthetic shirts. The differentness of the people of Tlahuelilpan, and the fact that they wear the possibility of their own ruin, makes intervention seem so simple, so necessary – despite what these people might themselves say about such a policy.

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 a fundamental 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.

Puzzling over a massacre

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

Kurt Vonnegut

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.