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.