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

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.

For this summer research trip, I arrived with a different priority for my 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 each 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 did not, 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.

After almost two years, an introduction

I started this site and this blog almost two years ago, while conducting preliminary research in Mexico City. The site started out with the briefest of intros, and a “coming soon” research section, and a short post about the importance of on-the-ground research (which was also an expression of how good it felt to finally be on the ground). I slipped a link into my Twitter bio, and that was it. Site launched.

That summer in Mexico was my first return to the country since I had left Guadalajara to move to New York five years earlier. I had passed my comprehensive exams, and had the bones of a dissertation project. Creating a site was my way of telling myself that it was time to be a serious academic: to have a research agenda and a long CV, and to feel comfortable talking about and sharing these. But why the blog?

It took me a while to realize this, but the main point of this blog to capture the processes that won’t show up among the static products on the other pages of this site, or the lines of a CV. Starting my field research in 2017, I knew it would take years (at best) to have any finished, published products to show for all my work. Blogging is a very small way to document my research processes, and also to remind myself that there is far more to writing than just polished, academic pieces.

Documenting my research processes is an important step towards transparency. Researchers do this through codebooks and similar anyway, but I wanted another record of my research, one that can stretch further back and think about why I research the topics that I do (as opposed to just recording how I research them). Conventional political science writing strips away any sense of narrative or discovery to the research process; the results are announced at the beginning of the paper, and then presented as the quite inevitable outcome of theory + data + methods. Research results can be surprising with respect to existing theory, but never with respect to research design. Blogging gives me a way of capturing the constant surprise of discovery, and of narrating all of the messy work that gets left out of more formal academic writing.

This blog is also a way to remind myself to write regularly and imperfectly. Perhaps to think imperfectly too; to work through and reflect on the nagging ideas for which I have no clear answers, but which seem too important to leave completely alone. As students we receive plenty of encouragement to write, but also plenty of pressure to produce those final, polished products. As though such products can be downloaded directly from some genius repository in our brains. This blog is my space to muddle through ideas, and to ramble on through paragraphs. And controversially, it is a place from which the passive voice is not necessarily banished.

So after two years, welcome. Among these blog posts you will find anticipations of and reflections on teaching; updates on my progress delving into data; thinkings-through of some of the big theories and conventions in the topics I study; and the occasional reminder of how ludicrously wrong things can go. Thanks for making it through at least one of my posts, and stay tuned for a steady trickle of further ramblings.