The Fog of the Drug War

It is almost impossible to know exactly what happens when a crime is committed in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. The basic questions often cannot be answered: Who is the victim? Who ...

It is almost impossible to know exactly what happens when a crime is committed in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. The basic questions often cannot be answered: Who is the victim? Who killed her or him? Why? Drug trafficking, violence, and militarization have turned murder into a problem that few could solve, even as everybody knows its undermining effect on the rule of law. The only forensic investigator in El Salvador, Israel Ticas, works under impossible conditions, unable to examine and identify the remains of victims in mass graves. The corpses are there—he can see them after he rappels down deep wells—but cannot retrieve or even count them. The government elicits the information about these sites from turncoats, but does not give Ticas the equipment he needs to drain the wells. All he can do, Salvadorian journalist Oscar Martínez tells us in A History of Violence, is to wait and hope he can eventually give prosecutors enough information to start a homicide investigation. Even in Mexico, where the police and judiciary have more resources, the percentage of murders that result in a prosecution is in the single digits; while human-rights abuses by the armed forces have increased rapidly since the government decided to deploy them in the fight against drug-trafficking organizations. In fact, more than 100,000 people have been killed and 20,000 disappeared since the beginning of Felipe Calderón’s presidential period in 2006, overwhelming police, courts, and human rights organizations.1

This means that a basic epistemological uncertainty about the facts lies at the heart of any discussion of the wave of violence that has engulfed Mexico and Central America in the last decade. Like the investigator Ticas, we know that something is there but we cannot fully describe it. The images of violence inundate social and journalistic media; books, movies, and television transform these images into fascinating narratives that also try to offer explanations. In many cases—including even some academic studies—the explanations are tentative, seeming to exist only to justify the gruesome reproduction of images and stories.

Journalists have produced many volumes chronicling the human and economic toll of violence on society, politics, and culture. They attempt to make sense of the fights between criminal groups, of those groups’ predatory relations with citizens, and of the casualties produced by police and military forces that stray beyond their duty. This journalistic genre, including the books reviewed here, often traffics in shocking evidence and in the speculation and conspiracy theories fostered by uncertainty.

Even statistics of homicides can be no more than suggestive, since they are based on newspaper reports or unreliable judicial sources. Carmen Boullosa, a Mexican novelist, and Mike Wallace, a historian of New York City, point in A Narco History to “a criminal justice system that all but guarantees criminals impunity from prosecution.” Impunity, in turn, opens the door for narcos to offer their own version of justice: executing criminals, sometimes in front of a camera, while arguing that the state does not have the mettle to do the right thing.

Prosecutions often rely on protected witnesses who are themselves criminals but, Martínez reminds us, “criminals we depend on.” Ioan Grillo, an English television and print reporter who has spent years covering drug violence, agrees that informants are dirty but necessary. He starts El Narco by interviewing a drug-gang enforcer in jail. The man claims to have found the truth in Jesus, which now paradoxically allows him to describe how he used to enjoy torturing and decapitating people. Despite the moral infamy of murderers’ voices, their ability to tell the truth is seldom questioned, as they are the only ones able to say exactly what happened when crimes were committed.

Aware of this, criminal groups act as communicators, sending messages—to each other, the state, and civil society—using video, graffiti, banners, and corpses thrown in the streets. For Grillo, such signals come from guerilla-inspired structures that value both secrecy and publicity, highlighting the difficulty of interpretation: “The fight against drugs is famously a game of smoke and mirrors; Mexico is a modern classic in the conspiracy-theory genre; and war always emits fog.”

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

El Narco has moments of clarity that cut through the fog, as when an FBI officer tells Grillo that understanding the drug business as a diagram of routes on a map or kingpins in a neat hierarchy is futile: “Stripped down its basics, El Narco … is just an industry.” The commodity chain at the heart of the business is impossible to survey; no one knows who is involved from the beginning to the end of the production-to-consumption sequence. The same applies to the flow of dollars back from the United States, “a confusing web, which confounds both journalists and drug agents.” Focusing on specific places and times does not make things any easier. Boullosa and Wallace describe the generalized violence of Ciudad Juárez by the end of the first decade of this century, but recognize that much of it is “beyond rational explanation.”

Conspiracy theories are more than a theme in the coverage of politics and crime: they have become a genre capable of bringing together all sorts of information (verifiable or not) into intricate explanations. Informants exaggerate the power of criminal organizations in order to make their own knowledge more attractive. Boullosa and Wallace are skeptical about some conspiracy theories, as with the alleged participation of the army in the recent disappearance of dozens of students from Iguala. In other cases, like the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, they present “contending explanations”—whether linked to drug trafficking or to internecine political disputes—but do not (cannot, given the flaws of the official investigation) resolve the contradictions. They take more seriously the greatest of all conspiracies: that narcos meet periodically (in Cuernavaca in 2001, for example) to parcel out the national territory. Boullosa and Wallace describe the routes and places at stake with precision, but their account becomes more speculative when explaining the consequences of the rupture of those territorial pacts, and the back and forth of assassinations whose “cause and nature … remain murky.”

The disorienting gaze of conspiracy theory is explained in part by the dangers that journalists face. For Grillo and Martínez, who try to keep close to the ground, it is easy to be paranoid. In the route of migration and human trafficking from Central America to the United States, writes the latter, murder can be a way to instill fear and obedience among victims, or can be a message to coyotes, or can have any number of meanings. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, particularly for those who cover the police beat.2 There have been murders, disappearances, and innumerable threats. Central America is no better.

Personal risks are inevitable in any effort to understand the present. Martínez gets in dangerous situations in order to interview narcos against the advice of well-meaning policemen. Grillo acknowledges the influence of Jesús Blancornelas, who suffered threats, attacks, and personal losses because of his reporting on crime and corruption in Tijuana. Soon after starting his work in Mexico, Grillo realized that most of the news was superficial, just like the theories produced by so-called “experts.” He had to put himself on the line: “I had to talk to narcos themselves.” For Boullosa and Wallace such courage is essential for democratic transparency. They adopt a perspective that is both “high-altitude,” in trying to establish the history and territories of the war, and detailed, “drawing on the host of accounts eyewitnessed at ground level that were written by brave and resourceful reporters.”

Journalists are not the only ones endangered by the pursuit of the truth. Grillo names five sources who were killed or disappeared after he interviewed them—“although these killings almost certainly had nothing to do with my work.” Martínez recognizes his own ethical dilemmas: after he and his brother first interviewed a gangster turned informant named El Niño Hollywood for El Faro, they were told the leaders of the gang Mara Salvatrucha did not like the article. This put El Niño in additional risk. But, Martínez concludes, nothing could be done to protect him, as he was part of those “strange and impenetrable worlds filled with code words and carnage” in which deadly violence is a routine with multiple meanings.

Corruption and human-rights abuse by state agents are part of the terrain on which Grillo and Martínez move. The state is unable to verify, through the means of science and legal procedure, journalists’ findings—because sentences and investigations from judicial and police institutions have little value in front of the public. Thus, reporters, however courageous, can never expect the eventual official validation of their work. On the contrary, they can assume that much of what they write will eventually be absorbed by the vast well of conspiracy theories in which all explanations, good or bad, end up.

Despite the ambivalence between attraction and fright, the three titles reviewed here are admirable attempts to couple narrative and explanation. They illustrate the possibilities and limitations of books addressed to general readers, but try to go beyond the scintillating attraction of violence or the blanket moral rejection of criminals and corrupt officials.

Flowers arranged for the Prayer Day for the #43Living, a protest commemorating the disappearance of 43 students from the city of Iguala in 2014. Photograph by Isabel Sanginés ( / Flickr

A History of Violence, by Oscar Martínez, stays close to the lives of gang members, victims of violence, and the quixotic public officials who try to offer some answers in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Part of the material was published in an electronic magazine, El Faro, and has been assembled in a careful and effective way for this book. Martínez interviews El Niño Hollywood, the gang member turned informant, who has committed his share of atrocities and—due to the neglect of the authorities that are supposed to protect him—is condemned to inevitable retaliations from his former fellow mareros. Three photographs in the original essay published in El Faro sum up his trajectory: the first one is a frontal image of El Niño looking directly at the camera, his tattooed torso uncovered, holding two makeshift weapons, at the same time threatening and vulnerable; the second image is a detail of his bloodied arm in the morgue; and the third shows his relatives and wife lamenting around his casket.3 Throughout the book, Martínez avoids the literature’s usual magnification of criminals’ power and pays attention to the fluid alliances and personal relations that determine, as one Honduran intelligence office puts it, “who’s in charge now.” “In the heart of every gang,” Martínez shows, “is a mangrove tangle of intrigue and conspiracy.” Martínez argues that no story is irrelevant when it comes to understanding violence, since “every murder story … has a backstory.” Martínez recognizes that it is hard to make sense of “animal violence” yet hints at its deep logic, and the reason why stories are necessary: killing is easy and unlikely to be punished, but it will be seen “by fellow gang members as courageous.”

In El Narco, Ioan Grillo does not mince words when pointing to the dimensions of the phenomenon: “Mexico today has thousands of serial murderers,” he writes, elsewhere declaring that “there is an orgy of butchery in Mexico. The country is so deep in blood, it is hard to shock anymore.” Grillo uses the word “surreal” frequently to describe everything from narcocultura to free trade. In Mexico, killing is even cheaper than in Colombia: one needs to pay only “enough [for the killer] to eat some tacos and buy a few beers over the week.” These are signs of a “terrifying degradation in society.” While such statements hint at an exotic vision of Mexico, they belie Grillo’s own effort to make sense of the situation. His thesis is that gangsters have become a “criminal insurgency that poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution.” Democracy is a key factor in the explosion of violence related to the drug war: the old regime (in which one party controlled the presidency between 1929 and 2000) was able to tax the big drug traffickers while pretending to enforce the law. Electoral competition and government alternation disrupted these arrangements, and criminal organizations are now the ones taxing citizens and the state. Spurred by the possibility of great profits, gangs now branch out beyond drug trafficking to other activities that involve violence. Calling narcos a form of insurgency is not a persuasive characterization, however, especially since Grillo recognizes that the so-called cartels are “fragmented and post ideological”—meaning probably that they have no ideology—and that they are fundamentally “commercial insurgencies” reluctant to take power. Yet the thesis allows him to add another layer of alarm to the unsettling picture that opens the book: a civil war and direct US intervention are possible.

The main argument in A Narco History, by Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace, is that the Mexican drug war was a creation of the governments of the United States and Mexico. Working sometimes at odds, sometimes in concert, both governments—beset by corruption—are united in the belief that prohibition requires punitive responses, regardless of unintended consequences. The book is based on the abundant journalism on the topic, which the authors combine with clear and often insightful political contextualization. The authors start with the disappearance of 43 students from the city of Iguala in 2014. The episode is “only the latest in a lengthy sequence of horrors” but advances an implicit premise of the book: the authors can only offer a version of the events—despite all the voices and evidence of the crime committed against the students—because there is still no satisfactory account of what happened, nor a clear official resolution regarding culpability. There are “many remaining mysteries,” as well as the possibility of a “horrible” “counter narrative” in which the army, rather than organized crime and corrupt municipal officials, is responsible. This sense of doubt is projected back onto the historical section at the center of the volume: there is much we don’t know about the past of the drug business and the war against it—just enough to weave a narrative that sidesteps the inevitable gaps and treats evidence of different kinds with a similar degree of confidence.

Faced with so much uncertainty, the notion that the current troubles have a history offers some reassurance. In El Narco and A Narco History the complicated web of actors, alliances, and enmities that constituted the drug trade in Mexico during the 20th century suggests a causal explanation for the contemporary landscape. Grillo combines data about the origins of the Mexican illegal drug industry with his own observations about places still at the heart of the industry, particularly the state of Sinaloa. The effect is not smooth and can easily be misinterpreted as a fledging mythology, but it is highly engaging, perhaps because it reminds us that the past is very much present.

A basic epistemological uncertainty about the facts lies at the heart of any discussion of the wave of violence that has engulfed Mexico and Central America in the last decade.

Boullosa and Wallace follow a strict chronological structure, titling chapters by years or decades. The authors place the emergence of drug trafficking as an illegal business in the context of a postrevolutionary regime, in which presidential power appeared to be absolute yet could not abolish the de facto local autonomies where politics and illegality combined profitably. By the 1950s, the federal government and its agents realized that there was much money to be made taxing narcotraffickers. Federal agencies expanded their role as US pressure forced successive Mexican governments to step up enforcement against capos. Since the mid-1990s, economic crisis caused a “surge in crime” that preceded the expansion and eventual disorganization of the drug business after the PRI lost the presidency. Economic and political disruption “demoralized civil society” and allowed crime to flourish, while thousands of peasants impoverished by NAFTA fell into the arms of the narcos and their neoliberal “glorification of wealth.” In the new century, as an inevitable consequence, violence multiplied after the radical militarization of enforcement by president Felipe Calderón in 2006.

Despite its title, A History of Violence makes only modest claims about historical causality. The legacy of civil wars and military repression is still part of the Central American present, but the characters in Martínez’s book are too young and busy with their own obsessions, fear, or anger to care too much about what happened four decades ago. Yet I would argue that Martínez offers a valuable lesson on the need to account for contingency as part of any historical explanation. The states in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are too weak to tame the rapid growth of the drug economy. Gang members are poor but they are not reduced to a socioeconomic equation. Victims can try to leave north, stretching the space of the story beyond national borders. Even some state agents, like investigator Israel Ticas, stubbornly reject the idea that the truth can never be established.

In terms of policy, the three books agree with the international consensus about the need to jettison the prohibitionist paradigm, and little else. Boullosa and Wallace offer an ambitious solution to the ills of Mexico centered on civil society’s participation in the struggle against corruption, but they themselves undermine that promise by documenting the pettiness and conspiratorial ways of Mexican politicians. For Grillo, legalization and victims’ movements can no longer stop the militarization that began under Calderón because it now has public support. Grillo believes that smarter, tough law enforcement is the way to stop the insurgency, even if that requires cultivating informants, bleeding clues out of detainees, threatening capos with extradition, and sending more money and advisors from the United States to Mexico. Martínez is probably more realistic: the effort against drug traffickers is futile, he argues, because they operate “like a tag team”: when one is killed or extradited another follows. “The war against drugs, seen from this perspective, is infinite.”

The stories that these books convey might seem difficult to synthesize beyond the outlines of a chronological narrative or the fog of conspiracy theories. There is no easy way to solve the tension between the distance required to understand things objectively and the proximity to events that confers authority to reporters’ accounts. Personal courage cannot solve this problem because it is not a criterion of truth. It can work either way, actually. A claim to bravery can give law-enforcement sources an advantage over civilians. Murderers make an analogous claim, and they do it legally when they become protected witnesses. They are even harder to contradict than the police, because they have participated in the crimes that need to be solved. Discussing today’s violence in the form of history is a comforting narrative device, but it cannot answer the many questions raised by such impunity. More than history, these books leave us with a form of collective memory that includes diverse voices and is still strongly attached to places and personal experiences. For people living in the places where violence takes place, such stories are useful: not only to understand the patterns of danger, but also to make sense of it in the absence of justice. icon

  1. See, for example, Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Situación de Los Derechos Humanos en México (Organización de los Estados Americanos, December 31, 2015).
  2. See: Alfredo Corchado, “Telling Stories in Uncertain Times,” NiemanReports, November 21, 2016; Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press 2010: Mexico, February 15, 2011.
  3. Oscar Martínez, “Asesinaron al Niño de Hollywood (y todos sabíamos que eso ocurriría)”, El Faro, November 30, 2014.
Featured image: Mourners hold photographs of the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College, at a Mexico City tribute called "Memory, Truth, and Justice for Ayotzinapa." Photograph by Isabel Sanginés ( / Flickr