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.

The deaths behind the data

I had not thought death had undone so many.


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.

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.

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.

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 Gúzman – 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.