Faces and masks

A recurring concern in most of my research is the relationship between legitimacy and violence. How do armed groups justify their violence? If every armed group – including state agencies – depends upon a degree of local support, why do so many groups engage in risky, potentially costly behaviour, by targeting or preying on civilians?

Reading Feldman’s Formations of Violence, about counter/insurgency in Northern Ireland, I was struck by his characterization of two figures: the hard man, and the gunman. Both are associated with violence, but the hard man is a well-known individual, with a local reputation, who upholds local codes of honour. The gunman, by contrast, is anonymous, masked, and willing to kill in spite of local norms and taboos.

Echoes of this distinction can be found in other contexts. In Mexico, a paradigm shift among criminal organizations means that the venerable figure of the mafia don – think Chapo Guzman – is challenged by paramilitary-style organizations, such as the Zetas or the Cártel de Jalisco Nuevo Generación. The newer groups are less embedded in society, more anonymous, and more willing to use terror against civilians. Even the state gets in on the act, with masked federal police and soldiers patrolling many areas, including the capital.

The obvious explanation for why members of an armed group would wear masks is protection. A mask offers anonymity, so that perpetrators of violence (as well as their families, and other relations) cannot be identified and targeted for revenge or reprisals. Feldman’s characterization of the hard man demonstrates, however, that going unmasked can also be a form of protection. The hard man’s reputation and his identity are his security. He goes unmasked because, within his community, he is known and accepted. A type of social bandit, he recognises the codes of society, and in turn, society recognises his virtuosity within these codes.

Rather than a matter of protection, then, the mask’s role may be to facilitate greater violence. The anonymity of the mask allows for violation of local norms, and for the use of violence that is not justified or justifiable to the local community. The mask protects the individual wearing it, specifically because that individual is perpetrating indiscriminate or terroristic violence. Anonymity is a tactic that allows groups to use horrifying violence, while mitigating the likely repercussions of this violence.

In the final chapter of Precarious Life, Butler talks about the importance of the face for building empathy. It is much harder to commit violence when face to face with another human. We recognise too much of the other’s humanity in ourselves, and vice versa.

If the victim is anonymous, they can more easily be subjected to horrifying violence. The use of masks by perpetrators, however, suggests a kind of inversion of this logic. Even when face to face with the victim, the masked person is capable of great brutality. Empathy is blocked not by hiding the face of the victim, but the face of the perpetrator. This is implied in Feldman’s characterisation of the hard man as an agent of violence, whereas the masked gunman becomes an instrument of violence.

Some counterinsurgency theory posits that to defeat an insurgency, it must be uprooted from its social context. If, however, the goal is to reduce civilian suffering, then a more socially embedded armed group may be less of a threat.

Is Mexico facing a criminal insurgency?

The high levels of violence in Mexico defy the usual scholarly explanations. Organized crime is supposed to fly under the radar, and not let violence interfere with profit. Insurgents are more likely to go public with violence, but do so in pursuit of a clear political agenda. Neither of these paradigms reflect the realities of violence in Mexico, so some scholars use hybrid terms, probably the most common of which is the idea of a “criminal insurgency.”

I first became aware of this term through Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, published in 2011. At the time it made sense to me: Grillo was writing for an international audience, raising the alarm about the escalating violence.

At about the same time Bunker was offering testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, arguing that criminal insurgency threatened to overthrow not just the state, but also society in Mexico. Judging by the comments of the students in my Terrorism course, Bunker’s testimony does indeed raise awareness about the gravity of the situation in Mexico. I worry, however, that Bunker’s conception of criminal insurgency takes policy in the wrong direction.

In this I am not alone. Lessing’s 2015 article offers a detailed critique of the notion of criminal insurgency. My research can offer some support for Lessing’s argument: among the narcomantas, or public messages related to organized crime, that have appeared in Mexico over the past decade, there is barely a reference to challenging the state. Lower-level state agents are frequently threatened or implicated in corruption, but the narcomanta authors almost never position themselves as antagonists to the state, or to federal government. On occasional, they declare their patriotism.

The idea of a single, grand criminal insurgency doesn’t find much empirical support, but beyond that, I think it can actually make matters worse in Mexico.

One problem with this model is that it treats all non-state armed groups as one big, undifferentiated army. There are obvious differences – of identity, organization, strategy – among armed groups in Mexico, but this is lost in the criminal insurgency model, leading analysts to assume that if one group uses a particular form of violence, then all other groups must or will use the same violence. Thus, Bunker takes rumours of cannibalism within one criminal group as evidence of widespread cannibalism among armed groups. Recently an article about the discovery of a (single) drone-mounted improvised explosive device took this as a sign that every group in Mexico would soon be dropping bombs from above.

Instead of viewing violence in Mexico as one grand conflict, we need to see it as a series of localized clashes between criminal groups looking to contest and control territory and trafficking routes.

The biggest problem, however, is that the idea of a criminal insurgency characterizes the violence in Mexico as primarily a struggle between crime and the state. At a relatively abstract level, that might hold. Zooming in, however, we can see that every criminal faction fighting it out for control of turf has some state allies. The state isn’t on one side of a grand conflict; its agents are on different (sometimes opposing) sides of the many local conflicts throughout the country.

This has important implications: rather than seeing the state as the target of criminal violence, we need to see the state, and state agents, as perpetrators. The front lines of conflict in Mexico are not between crime and the state, but are within society, among these crime/state factions. Civilians bear the brunt of the violence.

Meanwhile, the Mérida Initiative continues to provide support to the Mexican government, on the assumption that arming the state is the best defense against crime. If state agents can be found on all sides of these conflicts, then this support for the state is also arming and training crime/state factions. Strategies intended to reduce violence might actually be fuelling it.