Poverty, inevitability, and synthetic clothing

When I arrived back in Mexico City in January, everyone was talking about the lines for gas. Recently-inaugurated president López Obrador shut down parts of the national oil and gas distribution network to combat oil theft. I enjoyed the memes doing the rounds, but didn’t think too much more about gas. In the days after I moved on to Cuernavaca, however, I found myself returning to the images and language of oil theft – locally known as huachicoleo. In between chasing interviews for my dissertation, I started taking notes on media coverage of oil theft. These notes led to a pitch to NACLA, and eventually to a short essay on López Obrador’s discourse on oil theft.

At the center of the essay is a terrible event that occurred in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan in mid-January. An oil duct in Tlahuelilpan was perforated, so that high-octane gas transported through the duct could be siphoned off. This particular perforation led to a geyser of gas spraying into the air, and a crowd of hundreds gathering around to collect free fuel. The gas vapour caught fire, igniting an inferno that burned for hours. At least sixty died at the site, while seventy more died later from their injuries.

There was one aspect of media coverage of the explosion that I could not find a place for in the NACLA essay. A lot of reporting and commentary on the event made the tragedy seem inevitable. It was inevitable because oil thieves have no regard for human life, and recklessly tap oil ducts. It was inevitable because Tlahuelilpan is a relatively poor area and free gas is a boon (even when there isn’t talk of a nationwide shortage). It was inevitable because in such a crowd of people massing around a geyser of gas, there was bound to be some spark, something to ignite the conflagration.

Article after article also characterized the explosion as inevitable because of synthetic clothing. The thinking was that poor people wear clothing made from synthetic fibers, and these fibers are more likely to produce static electricity, so that many people milling together and wearing synthetic clothing would inevitably produce a spark to trigger the explosion. In the days after the explosion, the popularity of this explanation spread – although always as a possibility, and without any particular evidence to prove that this was the cause of the inferno.

This idea contains a powerful image of the precariousness of poverty. Poverty is not just a demand for cheap or free gas; poverty plays out way down at the level of the fibre in your clothing, and the hidden dangers among these fibres. According to this explanation of the explosion, a crowd of people in more expensive organic cotton t-shirts are a low risk; their threads do not contain the inevitable spark of catastrophe.

There is something more in this discourse of inevitability and synthetic clothing. Commentators and reporters invariably explained that synthetic clothing is what those people wear over there in poor Tlahuelilpan. This casts the tragedy as something that happens in that other, distant Mexico – the same one in which most of the state and gang violence takes place. And it makes clothing the cause of suffering among the marginalized, instead of treating it as an outward expression of that marginalization.

This inevitability of tragedy also feeds back into something that I did mention in the NACLA article. With the threat of catastrophe carried against the very skin of people in poor and marginalized areas, comes easy justifications of intervention to protect the people from themselves. A familiar and patronizing argument where soldiers in uniform are needed to protect people in synthetic shirts. The differentness of the people of Tlahuelilpan, and the fact that they wear the possibility of their own ruin, makes intervention seem so simple, so necessary – despite what these people might themselves say about such a policy.

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 research 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.