Digging into the nota roja

When I am out and about during field research, I invariably have a roll of papers under my arm. If I don’t have a roll of papers, it is only because I’m en route to raid one of the local newsstands. The roll of papers is usually a mix of weekly or monthly political magazines, and daily newspapers and tabloids – the mags and the rags.

I started poring over the mags and the rags to get a feel for the media landscape and style of reporting in Mexico. Media archives were my main source, in putting together a database of narco-messages, so I wanted some context for the sources I was using. Over time, however, digging into the papers has become its own activity. In this I have been inspired by ethnographers like Lisa Wedeen, who talk about coming back from the field with boxes of material to continue picking through. I’ve never kept track of how much of this material I work through, but on this current trip, I am spending at least an hour a day in the mags and rags.

This time around, I arrived with a different priority for this print ethnography (or whatever we’re going to call it). On past trips, I dipped into the nota roja – the notorious tabloid papers that show graphic photos of crime scenes on their front covers. I quickly learned not to open these over lunch, and made a point of not picking up these rags more than once or twice per week. This time around, however, I decided I was missing something important by not digging deeper into the nota roja. So I have started picking up Extra, one of Cuernavaca’s local rags, every day (despite the protestations of the vendor at my local newsstand).

Why focus on these pages full of blood and violence (and football)? In previous interviews with journalists, I heard that Extra is less dependent on the government than most local papers. Extra has a huge circulation; it funds itself. A lot of the other papers depend on government funding through purchase of advertising space and similar, in order to stay in circulation. I already knew that the nota roja published material that other papers didn’t, but it was through the interviews that I realized Extra publishes material that others cannot, rather than just what they will not.

A second reason arose while I was reading Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat argues against the idea that if we could only see violence or injustice, we would turn against and reject it. He sees a more complex tension; our disgust or outrage are only sustained by distance from an objectionable thing. With proximity and familiarity, we lose our ability to be shocked. In the case of his work on slaughterhouses, Pachirat doesn’t think a more open or transparent meat industry will lead to mass conversion to vegetarianism. Or even to much complaint with industrialized killing. This got me thinking; the nota roja brings exposure to violence to anyone passing by a newsstand. Have I underestimated the desensitizing, normalizing effect of rags like Extra.

Finally, not long before I returned to Mexico, the arresting image of Óscar and Valeria Martínez, drowned on the U.S.-Mexico border, was reproduced again and again across media outlets and feeds. Outraged commentary claimed that such an image would force action, that finally people would see the truth about U.S. migration policy. Other commentary noted the limits to the galvanizing force of such images, and that the circulation of the image could be more dehumanizing than compassion-provoking.

So this is one of my current research missions. Read the nota roja every damn day (but never over lunch). Don’t try to exclude it from my study of the media as something grotesque but unimportant. Don’t pretend to understand violence without looking carefully at one of the primary ways that violence is mediated and circulated here.

Uuuurgh.

Swimming in the ruins

On my last couple of trips to Mexico, one of my first orders of business has been to find a swimming pool. In New York I am spoiled by the availability of free outdoor pools during the summer, and almost free indoor pools for the rest of the year. In Mexico, the best I have been able to do (without presenting three original birth certificates and fifteen certificates of health) is joining a gym with a pool.

In Cuernavaca, I found a pool inside a gym inside a mall. In the early afternoon, with the lanes virtually to myself, I turned laps in the cloudy water, gasping for breath in the humid, high-altitude air. The empty pool was refreshing, but the mostly empty gym and mall felt a little off. I thought perhaps that they were newly constructed and opened, but one of the trainers told me that the gym had been open for about five years – and the mall for longer than that. It wasn’t that the mall felt new, then, but rather that it felt not-quite-finished. Most of the indoor shop fronts were unused. Most of the outdoor cafes had only one table of customers at a time.

When I got out of the pool and on with my research, I kept hearing about the devastation of public space in Cuernavaca. The historic city center is choking on traffic. The shady ravines that divide up the town are filling with garbage. Time and again, people traced this devastation back to the demolition of the Casino de la Selva.

The casino was built in the 30s, but for most of its history was a casino in name only. It is mentioned in the novel that first drew me to Cuernavaca. The locals that spoke of the site remembered it as a sprawling complex of hotel facilities, murals, gardens, and swimming pools. Locals could pay for access to many of the facilities, and the swimming pools and other parts of the complex were central gathering and socializing spots, a kind of public space on private ground.

The facilities began to fall into disrepair, as they changed hands and were eventually seized by the government. Then in 2001, the complex was sold to Costco and a local supermarket chain. Protests against the planned demolition of the site were aggressively put down, with some protestors sent to prison. The site was leveled, although some of the murals were removed and preserved.

It didn’t take much investigation for me to realize that I had been swimming in the ruins of the Casino de la Selva. The demolition of the complex provided enough space for an oversized Costco, and an oversized Mega supermarket, and a never-quite-finished mall. The demolition also deprived the city of a place rich in history and memory, replacing these with utterly generic, utterly anonymous consumer space. A few rusted relics of the casino stand behind a gate on the side of the highway that plows between the supermarkets and the mall.

I came to Cuernavaca to investigate the impact of crime and insecurity on public life, but the sense of loss of public life – not just of loss, but of the life of the city being sold off by the government – predates the surge in violence associated with organized crime in the city.

And in my swimming trips, I found myself in a place that was completely at odds with getting to know the city and its people. Where once families had mingled and splashed in outdoor pools, now solitary figures turned laps, one swimmer to a lane, in a cloudy indoor pool in a gym in a mall.

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.

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 deaths behind the data

I had not thought death had undone so many.

T.S.Eliot

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.

Narco-messages in Mexico City

About two weeks before I moved to Mexico City to start my field research, a narco-message appeared over a major street in the city. This was a big deal; while thousands of these messages have appeared in cities and towns throughout the country, Mexico City is one of those places in which messages are regarded as a rarity. For me it was intriguing; I was moving to Mexico to study narco-messages, but I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the actual messages. I wanted to be in the city to be closer to academics and journalists. I have no interest in chasing down narco-messages, but I do want to speak to the people that do.

As I progress with my research, however, it becomes obvious that narco-messages in the capital aren’t so unusual. Indeed, the more remarkable point might be how short our memories are, when it comes to these messages. In the article linked above, Proceso – one of the more reliable reporters of messages – mentions only one prior case. So far, in the years between 2006 and 2013, I have found about 35 cases of messages left in the city – more than that, if you factor in that sometimes clusters of messages are displayed at the same time. Some of these messages should be difficult to forget.

In 2007, a narco-message and an unexploded grenade were left in the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo metro station, between the hip neighbourhoods of Coyoacán and San Ángel (the area around the station is a gold mine for book stores). Narco-messages were still a relatively uncommon occurrence in 2007, but already it was clear that few parts of the capital would be off-limits to such threats.

In 2011, and as part of larger campaign across the metropolitan area, a group known as the Hand with Eyes left five messages within the city proper. The group became something of a fascination in the media, owing to its mysterious, cult-like branding, and its distinctive pattern of decapitating victims, and then leaving a message in which the headless victim was named.

In 2013, a suitcase containing the corpse of a woman and a narco-message was found in the San Antonio metro station. This station is close to the centre of the city, and surveillance cameras revealed that the man carrying the suitcase had boarded a train in the outskirts of the city, carrying it all the way the centre, before leaving it to be found.

Given such cases, why do I and many others still act as if narco-messages within the city are somehow exceptional?

I suspect a part of this might be highly effective discourse promoted by Miguel Ángel Mancera, who was the mayor of Mexico City from 2012 until recently. Mancera took an aggressive stance of denial regarding crime in the capital. Not that there wasn’t any, but that it was among street gangs and petty delinquents. It was the “narco” part of narco-messages that Mancera denied, with the logic that there were no narcos in the city, so how could there be narco-messages, or narco-violence, or narco-anything. A discourse of exceptionalism:  the narcos might be elsewhere, but they aren’t here.

Francisco Goldman traces out an example of Mancera’s strategy, and this exceptional discourse, in his book The Interior Circuit. As Goldman points out, this strategy shares a lot with that of president Peña Nieto (also 2012-2018), even though president and mayor come from rival parties.

I assumed that basing myself in Mexico City would mean studying narco-messages at some distance, and while I am in no hurry to go looking for any message here, even this idea of distance plays into the discourse of the exceptional capital. This city is less removed from the rest of the country than we might want to believe.

Three billboards outside Cuernavaca

Soon after arriving in Mexico City to commence field research, I paid a trip to the rather magnificent Cineteca Nacional, a grand cultural complex that brews coffee, sells books, and screens recent films. I went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and was pretty surprised to find just how closely it connected with the research that I am doing (when I’m not at the movies).

At the beginning of the film, Mildred Hayes commissions three billboards along a quiet strip of country road. Seven months have passed since Hayes’s daughter was raped and murdered, and with no progress being made to bring the perpetrator to justice, Hayes uses the billboards to call out the local police chief (note: I haven’t spoiled anything yet, but it’s all spoilers from here).

My dissertation project looks at the appearance of public messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas) in Mexico over roughly the last ten years. Whether or not these messages appear at the scene of a crime, they almost always refer to crimes past, present or future. Often they call out specific state officials for not doing their job, or for doing it too well. With these rough similarities clear from the opening scene of the film, Three Billboards also got me thinking about some other shared themes with my project.

Going public will have a profound effect. Hayes doesn’t know exactly what, or how, but she recognises that the billboards will force attention, will force a response, and that at least something will happen. She is introducing a little uncertainty, a little chaos, to an otherwise quite rigid social setting. The billboards do indeed bring chaos, and the whole arc of the film is about just how much chaos ensues. Whether the billboards achieve much else is another question. The thousands of narcomensajes displayed in Mexico have had similarly chaotic, uncertain effects.

Hayes opts to shake things up, because of the perceived impunity at work in her community. The murderer of Hayes’s daughter is at large, somewhere. The police department – or at the very least, certain members of it – has a record of racist abuse and violence. In the former situation, it appears that the police cannot solve the case; in the latter, they have little interest in any resolution. Faced with these limits to the law, people find other ways to provoke action, and to pursue their version of justice. This includes the police. Vigilantism is one way that people take matters in their own hands. Displaying public messages is another.

Ebbing may be a small town – and the film draws laughs by lampooning close-minded small town life – but it is also a complex social world. In studies of violence and conflict, we often take the town as a unified, homogenous whole, with perfect access to local information. Ebbing is anything but this: it is a riot of open secrets and half truths. No one can make sense of the crime at the center of the story, but everyone knows all about the police brutality, and a bunch of other truths never officially divulged. Once the billboards go up, any pretense of local unity or perfect knowledge is lost. People act on hunches, are often (usually) proved wrong. There is no final resolution, to restoration of truth or justice.

P.S. Why Cuernavaca? It just happened that I was looking at early 2010 when I wrote this – a time when control of Cuernavaca was being hotly contested by rival groups, and messages were appearing throughout the city.

You have to be there

I am in Mexico City for the summer, doing some preliminary field work. Although I have visited the city a number of times, the last of these visits was some six years ago. So, along with attending a conference, meeting with various scholars down here, and actually getting on with some research, I was very excited to explore the city again – sufficiently so that a good part of my preliminary preliminary field research was spent dawdling among travel sites and blogs.

One location that stuck out, during these preliminary preliminary investigations, was Biblioteca Vasconcelos. I had never heard of this place, back when I first lived in Mexico – I didn’t move in quite such nerdy circles than – and so was determined to pay it a visit soon after my return. The Atlas Obscura write-up of the site, in particular, made it sound like some sort of surreal, Borgesian fantasy world, in which libraries existed within libraries, and in which musty old tomes could occupy the futuristic space shelves of tomorrow.

Wondering the cavernous hall of the Biblioteca, I waited and waited for space to collapse in upon itself, parallel universes of books coexisting in the same impossible singularity. Pillars of books did hang high over my head, the patterned skeleton of a whale suspended among the tomes. But it was all, in fact, rather consistent and uniform (even if the whale was a weird touch).

The reason that the Biblioteca of the write-up seemed to contain so many more multitudes was that the author had accidentally conflated two sites, describing them as if they were one.

A few metro stops away from the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is the Biblioteca de Mexico “José Vasconcelos.” The two share the name of one of the principal intellectuals of post-revolution Mexico, but in most respects they are very different. Biblioteca Vasconcelos is massive and open, full of layers of stark metal shelving. Biblioteca de Mexico, by contrast, occupies a colonial building, with a scattering of courtyards giving on to small libraries, laced with narrow staircases and passages between shelves stuffed with worn books. Rather than a jumble of impossibilities, each library has a distinctive and cohesive style.

A reminder, then, at the outset of this early stage of field work: you have to be there, in the field, getting a sense of how things really work and fit together. Don’t be like the travel writer that didn’t actually travel. Don’t try to be an expert from a distance. There is no substitute for seeing a place for yourself, for poking about, for wandering the streets, for getting a little lost and stumbling upon the unexpected.