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

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.

Another problem 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.