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.

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.

Violence as a message / Violence plus a message

I study a phenomenon that, according to the prevailing paradigm in scholarship on violence, really shouldn’t exist. The huge volume of work that seeks to identify logics underpinning seemingly random or inexplicably brutal acts of violence very often explain these excesses in terms of their communicative value. Perpetrating violence is a costly signal; perpetrating grotesquely brutal violence is a costlier signal; perpetrating self-destructive violence is the costliest signal of all. Underlying all of this is the idea that the more extreme the violence, the clearer the message that it sends.

Reading De Leon’s fantastic book, The Land of Open Graves, I stumbled upon a particularly striking formulation of this paradigm…

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the message intended when someone rolls a bag of severed heads onto the dance floor in a Michoacán nightclub: “Do not test us, because our violence knows no bounds.”

There is a common formula within this passage: violence speaks louder than words. You don’t need to speak Spanish, because the meaning of brutal violence is common sense. Violence is unambiguous, it speaks for itself.

The striking thing about this quote is that, in the event that De Leon mentions, the violence was accompanied by a written message (one that you would have to speak at least some Spanish to understand). The message carries a similarly threatening tone to the one that De Leon assumes, but the content of the written message is very different…

The family doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocents. Only those that deserve to die will. All the people should know: this is divine justice.

Contrary to De Leon’s interpretation, the people that rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor wanted to send a message that their violence actually does know some clearly-specified bounds.

This phenomenon – displaying written messages in addition to violence, sometimes displaying written messages instead of violence – suggests that there is a limit to the prevailing scholarly paradigm. If violence usually speaks for itself, under some conditions it ceases to do so. These conditions began to obtain in Mexico in 2004, as narco-messages first appeared in the northeast of the country.

It could also be that violence just doesn’t speak for itself. Arendt thought violence was a sort of antithesis to language and meaning. Thinking along this line, perhaps scholars of violence have mistaken the fact that violence almost always has an effect, for the assumption that violence sends a clear message. The former possibility emphasises that people almost inevitably react to and try to understand violence. The latter possibility assumes that violence accurately transmits some intention on the part of the perpetrator.

Whether violence has a fundamental meaning and sometimes loses it, or whether violence always degrades meaning, as scholars we need to be careful not to speak on behalf of perpetrators or victims, when we claim that violence speaks for itself. We should probably always be suspicious of claims that anything is self-evident, even if that makes it harder for us to find the logic or instrumentality in brutal violence. In the case of narco-messages in Mexico, the authors of these messages seem to be reminding us that violence is no easy thing to comprehend.

Puzzling over a massacre

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Kurt Vonnegut

For about three years now, I have been trying to find something intelligent to say about a massacre. I am not sure that I have made much progress, but I have just submitted my most recent attempt to a journal, so I guess we will find out soon (i.e. months from now).

The particular massacre that has been my preoccupation happened in San Fernando, Tamaulipas – in the northeast corner of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border. In 2010, the bodies of 72 undocumented migrants, most from Central America, were found in an abandoned building in San Fernando. The migrants had been abducted en masse and executed by the Zetas, apparently after being offered the chance to work for the criminal group.

I lived on the other side of Mexico at the time of this massacre, but even back then, I was trying to find some sense, some logic to the violence. I could find absolutely nothing intelligent to say; the killing boggled all of our notions of what was happening in Mexico, and what one could do to stay safe. The Zetas didn’t ask for ransoms from/for the victims. The migrants couldn’t offer much intel, and were not choice recruits for a group famed for its militaristic culture. Furthermore, when the massacre was discovered, it called down heat on the region, and on the group. There was simply no sense to the violence.

I left Mexico, moved to New York, and wrangled a place in a doctoral program. Some four years after the massacre, I started turning it over in my head again. The first draft of an analysis came out of a course on civil war – one of the best graduate courses I have taken. That draft looked almost exclusively at this one massacre. Almost all of that paper has since been revised out of existence, but there was an important kernel to it: if the killing made no sense from an external perspective, then I would have to look at internal group dynamics. The Zetas started out as members of elite military units in Mexico and Guatemala. The scale and brutality of the violence looked, more than anything, like some of the worst violence of counter-insurgency campaigns in the region.

My first attempts to see this work published brought one desk reject, and one rejection after peer review. I am still surprised that one of the three reviewers saw enough in that early attempt to believe that the paper was worth developing.

For the better part of two years I rethought and revised the paper. I probably workshopped it too many times. One incarnation saw me go too broad, trying to cobble together a very generalized theory of violence. Subsequent versions saw me re-narrowing the focus, until I had a paper that looked at the trend for the Zetas to use massacres and other indiscriminate violence. San Fernando still featured prominently, but with the intervening years I had learned of more massacres, more baffling violence attributed to the same group.

I changed my target journal twice more as I revised. Figuring out the right place to submit felt much harder than it probably should have. I guess there are no short cuts to familiarity with journals. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t quite pass for a conventional political scientist writing conventional political science. Once I found the right target journal fit, it seemed that it should have been obvious all along.

And now it is submitted, again. And I am in that weird moment when the thing that I have been turning over for so long is suddenly out of my hands. It is time to take up a new project, to fashion it into something, starting the work of years.

Reflecting on Guadalajara

Before I started doctoral (or even graduate) studies, and before I moved to New York, I lived in Guadalajara. I spent those years as a third grade teacher in a bilingual school (still can’t believe how few contact hours college teaching involves, in comparison), and travelled throughout Mexico.

Returning to the country for presearch last summer, and for proper research (prosearch?) this year has made me acutely aware of just how formative those Guadalajara years were. The research questions that I am pursuing today are the questions that swarmed through my head while living in Guadalajara – they’re just formulated into more methodical, methodological terms now.

I arrived in Guadalajara in 2009, when the main outside concern about Mexico was the so-called swine flu. For an entire school year, face masks and torrents of hand sanitizer were the norm, but beneath this, the deeper preoccupation of my friends and colleagues was the worsening violence in parts of the country. Exchanging news and headlines as we supervised recess and lunch breaks, my colleagues wondered just how bad – and just how close – the violence was going to get. The high walls surrounding the school were supposed to create a safe (if isolated) space within, but these conversations carried intimations of something massive and relentless, that could easily swamp the walls.

I remember the morning commute during which colleagues told me about the massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The conversation quickly turned aside to more positive, we-have-eight-hours-with-a-room-of-children-ahead topics, but I couldn’t follow along. My mind was racing, trying to process the meaning of such violence. There was little clear sense to be made of it.

At night I would sometimes lie awake. After San Fernando, I no longer believed what many of us told ourselves; that we were safe because we were expats, or teachers, or not involved in crime, or not hanging out in the wrong areas. We certainly weren’t as vulnerable as undocumented migrants, but there was little apparent logic to preying upon them either. After locking the door and turning out the lights, I would lie there and think about just how sturdy those three locks were, and just how flimsy the door.

Over time, our behaviour changed. We stopped visiting a favoured after-school drinks location, because the trucks in the parking lot and the norteña music inside made it feel too much like a “narco place.” With each new instance of violence in or near the city, we reassured ourselves that we were still safe, that the violence couldn’t happen here, or couldn’t happen to us. One of the most intoned notions was that the narcos would never bring violence to Guadalajara, because their kids went to school there. But with each new outbreak, and each new reassurance, the supposed circle of security in which we lived contracted a little further. When a Burger King was shot up, it was hard to find much reassurance that it was a narco place.

We told ourselves that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ but with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that it was already happening there. What we tried to treat as isolated incidents turned out to be connected, and part of a bigger process – a powerful group asserting control over the city and the region, and doing so with a great deal of violence and intimidation. A recent shooting in the hip heart of my old neighbourhood highlights just how fictive those supposed safe spaces and protocols were. It might also help explain why my research interests and topics have changed so little since I left Guadalajara. I am still trying to peer through the fear and uncertainty and naivete, to understand how so much violence could be hidden in plain sight.