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.






Returning to Cuernavaca

Since moving back to Mexico to conduct research, I realise again and again just how much my dissertation research is grounded in earlier, pre-academia memories of this place. My years living in Guadalajara first put the questions in my head that years later I finally have the tools and means to examine.

I have spent most of this return trip in Mexico City. The capital provides access to government (very limited access as it turns out), journalists and the media, activists and NGOS, academics, and endless events (I finally met Oswaldo Zavala, a professor at my home institution in NY, at his book launch here). As is regularly affirmed by the people that I talk to here, however, Mexico City is very different to the rest of the country. To get a full picture of the phenomenon that I am studying, I need to get out of the capital.

As I dig into my data, and cast about for cases beyond the capital, I find the city of Cuernavaca often catching my attention. There is good reason for me to notice that name: I visited the city, during my years in Guadalajara, and have friends there. The more I find Cuernavaca in the data, the more I realise how formative that prior visit was.

That first visit to Cuernavaca took place in mid-April, 2011. It was a stop on my spring vacation trip. The driving motivation behind the stopover was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a novel set in Cuernavaca during the Day of the Dead. If I had been reading the news instead of novels about the city, I wonder if I would have visited at all.

Quite by chance, I arrived in Cuernavaca at an important moment. A few weeks earlier, the son of a well-known local poet, Javier Sicilia, had been killed. The son’s body was found in an abandoned car, along with six other bodies, and a message from a criminal group. While such murders were increasingly common (especially in Cuernavaca at that time), Sicilia’s social standing meant that the case could not be ignored or dismissed by the government. Sicilia’s public grief became a rallying point for many others that had known personal tragedy, or were tired of living in fear. When I arrived in Cuernavaca, I found the state government building festooned with banners and placards bearing the phrase Estamos hasta la madre (which politely translates as “we’ve had it up to here”).

In the following weeks, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity was be born. At the beginning of May, Sicilia led a caravan of marchers on foot from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. The protest spread, and the caravan would later visit other parts of the country, linking up with grieving families and victims’ rights movements. Sicilia met with President Calderón, and remains an authoritative, critical voice in the call for more humane security policy.

The coincidence and experience of that first trip to Cuernavaca still informs my understanding of Mexico. I have made three return trips to Cuernavaca, as part of my field research, and plan to make more. I link together the snapshots of memory from that initial trip, get to know the city as a living place with deep memories of that terrible period in 2011. In a small city in a small state, everyone I meet seems to have some connection to the Movement for Peace. Everyone recalls what they were thinking and feeling around the time of my first visit.

If years spent living in Mexico gave me my current research questions, those few days in Cuernavaca gave me a way to start addressing these questions.


Sicario 2: this time there are no rules (or redeeming features)

Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to toddle off to the movies when I should be deep in the data, but there have been a number of seemingly research-relevant films screening in the cinemas of Mexico City lately. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not long after arriving here, which left me thinking all the thoughtsLa Libertad del Diablo came along soon afterwards, and it wasn’t even a stretch to call that a research-relevant documentary. Somewhat more of stretch, however, was this week’s trip to see Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I’ll put it out there right now: the film was terrible. This wasn’t really a surprise, given the entire film is pretty much there in the trailer, but there are a couple of considerations (beyond the flimsy plot and the shallow characters) that make the film particularly odious.

The first Sicario movie provided an awfully simplified account of Mexico, and of Ciudad Juárez. According to the movie, you only have to cross the border into Mexico – or even just look across the border really – to see machine gun fire and bodies swinging from overpasses and psychotic hitmen and corrupt cops. Violence, in this telling, starts right where Mexico begins.

The strength of the first movie, however, is its critique of US  instigation and exploitation of that violence. The movie follows a by-the-book FBI agent as she is recruited for a special task force created to engage in extralegal, extralethal operations on behalf of (but not too on behalf of – wink wink) the US government. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is critical of the actions of the task force, while also largely helpless to do anything about them. If anything, she is complicit in their activities; no one comes out completely clean. While Mexico is full of brutal violence in the film, the real vicious, villainous antagonists are Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro’s US agents. In the tensest scenes of the film, when it seems like anything could happen, the results are always the same: a trail of blood and (mostly Mexican) bodies, and these US agents emerging unscathed.

In the second Sicario film, however, these villains have become the heroes. Blunt’s character has disappeared, and with her any moral compass or critical perspective on the extreme violence of Brolin and del Toro’s agents. Instead, it’s these two guys up against a Mexican kingpin and Mexican police and Mexican people smugglers and Middle Eastern terrorists and US bureaucracy.

For a minute, it seems as though the film might try to generate some complexity by pitting these two guys against each other. The narrative shies away from this, however, and instead cleaves to the idea that they are somehow on a noble path (it’s never clear quite what this path is, besides killing people and blowing things up). If anyone is to blame, it is an unnamed US president that isn’t sufficiently committed to using a whole lot of violence.

Worse still, the film digs up pernicious, baseless rumours about Mexican gangs smuggling terrorists from the Middle East into the US. One of the opening scenes of the film is jarringly racist, conflating prayer mats with terrorist threats. Furthermore, this whole myth about terrorists from other parts of the world working with Mexican gangs has no credible base, but is regularly dusted off by conservative politicians and scholars, eager to promote tougher border security. The use of this same old bogeyman as the pretext for all of the violence in the film is a familiar, Rumsfeldian logic. The movie even throws in a scene about waterboarding and drone strikes, to hammer this connection home.

Overall, then, this second Sicario installment (and there are going to be more…) forgets whatever attempts at critique of US policy were raised by the first film. In place of these, the sequel goes all-in on justifying a harder, less-accountable, and more cynically racist security policy, celebrating the worst excesses of US extralegal operations over the past 15 years.

Where to begin?

When I defended my dissertation proposal, I set a rather familiar and somewhat arbitrary start date for the database that I wanted to build. Violence in Mexico is generally understood to have spiked sharply with the start of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, and his declaration of war against organized crime in December 2006. During the proposal process I was more concerned with fixing an end date for the data base, than with questioning this start point.

As I began trawling media archives, however, it became apparent that the phenomenon that I am trying to understand has antecedents prior to 2006. The term narcomensaje first turns up in El Norte newspaper in 1999, and returns in 2001, and again in 2005. These, however, seemed isolated occurrences; as I worked through media source after media source, my database grew a little in 2006 and 2007, and a lot for the years after those. When I talked about my data, I hedged by saying that the base started in 2006, but but would incorporate the earliest examples of messages.

In fact, my approach to data collection prevented me from getting to grips with the beginning of the phenomenon of narcomensajes. My main search terms in online media archives were variations on narcomensaje and narcomanta (narco-mensaje, narco_mensaje, narcomensajes, etc. etc. etc…), and a few less-common terms like narcopropaganda. Such terms, however, only came into use once the phenomenon that they describe was relatively well-know to the readers and writers of media accounts. These terms have become so ubiquitous that they yield thousands of hits when searched for, but the terms couldn’t tell me how the pattern of messages first arose.

A note attached to one of the earliest points in my database mentioned that a guy known as Barbie (Edgar Valdez Villareal – stay tuned for the Hollywood biopic) had left other messages in northern Mexico before 2006. I thus took a pause from scouring new media sources to return to one of my tried and tested sources, and to change my search terms. Searching for “Barbie” brought me information on some messages from 2005, and a couple from 2004 (it also had me wading through pages and pages of results about the famous doll, and the many celebrities that have been likened to her). More importantly, this searched turned me on to the fact that Valdez’s main rivals, the Zetas, were more prolific message-displayers, and that they passed this tactic on to another group, the Familia Michoacana, who used it even more frequently. Perhaps more importantly still, this slow trawling of early records – and it was very slow work, between new data points – revealed that before narcomensaje stuck as the most common term for this phenomenon, newspapers tended to use a different term entirely: recado. This term can still be translated as message, but is less commonly used. This makes it a particularly handy way to search for early examples of this phenomenon.

Following these various clues, jumping from search term to search term, has given me a much clearer answer to the question of where my database begins. The pattern of public messages starts in 2005, and becomes significantly more frequent in mid-2006, with the rise of the Familia Michoacana. The term narcomensaje begins to appear with any regularity in 2006, becoming increasinglye common throughout 2007.

This discovery also furnishes me with a new facet to my dissertation. In the broadest terms, I want to understand why narcomensajes appear, and what they actually do. One way in which I can address this in my dissertation is by tracing out the historical (very recent historical) origins of the messages. Starting with this would allow me to better situate closer case studies of the emergence of messages in specific cities, municipalities, or states.

Finally, this discovery can speak back to my comparison of my database to the other main narcomensaje database. This other database covers December 2006 until the end of 2011,  but doesn’t record its first message until March 2007. This can give the impression that narcomensajes do indeed emerge after the uptick in violence after Calderón declared war on crime. The new, early points in my database, however, demonstrate that the phenomena we think of a characterizes Calderón’s Mexico is actually part of a longer continuity of practices.




Light reading turned heavy

I brought one book with me, on my semester of research in Mexico City. This was an act of severe self-discipline, and resulted in me leaving a couple of half-read volumes on my shelf in Brooklyn. The book that made the cut was Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. Goldman splits his time between New York and Mexico City (let me tell you, it’s a fine way to live); I figured that his book would still count as context for my research, but would also be an escape from the heavier topics of my dissertation.

The first chapters of the book were exactly this, and guided my wanderings through the city. My route to a local yoga studio had me tracing Goldman’s path through the opening pages of The Interior Circuit. As I wandered further afield I started seeking out locations that he describes, such as the bodgy David replica in Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Goldman’s fascination with the city is infectious, and his eye for detail brings a lot of curious corners of the place into sharper focus.

Goldman cut his teeth as a correspondent during the civil war in El Salvador, and it doesn’t take too long for his journalistic instincts to rise to the surface of what starts out as a charming memoir. He begins following the students protests, known as Yo Soy 132, in response to future president Peña Nieto’s proud defense of his actions as governor of Mexico State, when he deployed lethal police force against peaceful protestors. Later, Goldman becomes fascinated by a case in which a dozen young people were kidnapped from a local nightclub. This latter case occupies almost the entire second half of the book.

The Heavens nightclub case could almost be a standalone investigative work, except that there is no real resolution at the end of Goldman’s account. This is a curious feature of Interior Circuit; the author keeps digging into these cases of violence and corruption, but after a bout of investigation, moves on to another case. Towards the end of the book, Goldman shifts his attention to other instances of violence, such as the notorious disappearance of 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

This makes much of the book feel restless. Cases of violence cycle through the narrative, without ever being resolved. Eventually, there is just nothing new left to say. This is, however, no defect of Goldman’s writing. Rather, it demonstrates in action the approach of both president Peña Nieto, and the former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera, to any press reports that might tarnish their images. Both figures focus on denial and obfuscation. Both leave writers and investigators like Goldman to work with scraps of information and hunches. Both prevent any kind of denouement, any ending or closure.

What does that leave? Goldman alerts his reader to important cases, and recurring themes. He can’t do all that much with them, but he won’t let them rest. He pushes back against government efforts to silence and suppress. And that makes room for those of us that come along later to continue the work, prying and probing, recording and remembering.

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.

The perfect source, and its difficulties

A core part of my research involves the collection of data on the narcomensajes that have been appearing in Mexico since about 2006. Ideally, that data includes information about where and when the messages appear, contextual information such as whether the messages appear at a crime scene, and a full transcription of each message. There are numerous sources from which I can draw for the data collection, from national magazines, to local papers, to social media sites and narco blogs. The difficulty of data collection is not with the volume of sources, but with finding sources that can do what I need them to do: that are reliably searchable, have comprehensive archives, and that report the level of detail that I am looking for.

When I first started this project, conducting a preliminary investigation and working with the sources that I knew best, it would take me at least an hour to collect data on ten messages.

Before returning to my research this semester, I conducted a more comprehensive survey of media sources. This is how I found El Norte, a paper based in Monterrey, and part of the Reforma group of publications. El Norte had it all: an archive that dates back to 2006, a reliable search function, stories that cover all of Mexico, and reporting that includes all of the details that I am searching for (plus a lot more), presented in a succinct style. I had found close to my perfect source. When I started searching, I added about 30 data points in an hour.

Narcomensajes began appearing in Mexico in 2006, but at the time were a rare occurrence. With each passing year, however, the messages became more frequent. Searching the El Norte database, I could see certain patterns appear and disappear within the larger trend of messages, and I could watch certain cities or municipalities – Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Acapulco, Cuernavaca – being festooned with messages.

But then, searching the archives for the year 2011, that began to change. The violence that had mostly occurred in other parts of the country came to Monterrey and its surrounding municipalities.

El Norte was now reporting on violence taking place in the streets and neighbourhoods – sometimes literally on the doorsteps – of its core readership. The content of the newspaper articles began to change. Less transcriptions of messages were printed, and in their place vague allusions and paraphrasing were offered. Usually this amounted to generic lines such as “the message spoke of rivalry between criminal groups.” Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the paper was facing state pressure not to transmit the message of purported criminal groups. Very likely, the paper also faced pressure from rival criminal groups.

The reporting in El Norte also becomes much less outward looking at this time. Instead of setting the scene with the state and municipality within which a message appeared, stories start with a cross street or local landmark in greater Monterrey. For local readers, such detail provide a crucial sense of certainty, a better grasp of exactly what is happening around them. For the very distance researcher, unfortunately it means more searching for less results.

Even with this shift, El Norte has proven an invaluable source for my research. Thanks to the paper, and the efforts of its staff, I am going to have a halfway decent database. The difficulties encountered by the paper are also a reminder of just how dynamic of a research topic violence is. Violence can’t be reduced to an input or output. It changes everything it touches. That includes academics; we may be more removed than our sources, but we need to reflect on what we’re doing, and what our research is doing to us.

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.


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.