A simplified diagnosis of Mexico’s internal affairs would be to examine the historical balance sheet pinpointing its harvest of terror. The international world predominantly used this lens to conjure up radical portrayals of a chaotic, murky, drug and violence-ridden everyday Mexico.
Falling into the pitfall of extreme characterisations of violence tends to forge a critical approach hinged on a faulty, binary conception of a world of state and a world of non-states, an underworld and an upper one. Insofar as there has been an apparent convergence between the licit and the illicit, legitimacy and criminality in Mexico’s internal affairs: violence originating from the narcotics trade is undeniably a function of state involvement. Transnational flows of any nature cannot be separated from the key role the state bears in legislating and bordering. Geography matters in a context where the tectonics of shadow warfares have created a highly-politicised theatre of violence.
Violent geographies are indeed fraught with political implications. Living in the same environment, governmental actors and drug lords have continually interacted creating “zones of contact” where violent activities overlap and render the battle against everyday violence harder to quell. The concentration and spiralling of violent disputes highlights the inadequacy of Mexico’s political framework to accommodate and contain security threats. Profit-seeking intersects with political motivations in modus operandi of organised crime. Patterns of organised crime are evidently polymorphous. Encompassing the activities of militias, such as vigilantes groups which respond to cartel violence by openly combatting them at the local level, reveals a society animated by generalised violence.
Unmistakably, much like El Salvador or Colombia for instance, Mexico harbours a social fabric and collective memoir chiselled from the sufferings generated by organised crime and an inefficient, egregious law enforcement. Indeed, the dirty wars that swept the Americas in the 80s saw sovereignty emerge as a licence to kill. Disposing of civilian lives with impunity by resorting to torture, abductions, kidnappings and assassinations: the state was a mongerer of terror.
Mexico has been enmeshed in an ante of violence stitched together by crime, war, and the unequal distribution of national resources. The blurring of distinctions between state actors and criminal agents which originally serves to delineate the Manichean “right” and “wrong”, rule of law and criminality, has further precipitated Mexico’s “security failure”. Scholars such as Kenny and Serrano spare Mexico’s case from toppling into the “failed state” category but rather conceive its internal failings as a manifestation of “security failure”.
The security environment is indeed challenged by factions that reside at the intersection between crime and war. This harks back to the splintering of the Weberian state’s monopoly of legitimate violence. Normatively speaking, “violence” is analogous to the use of illegitimate force, whereas “force” resides under the auspices of the law, thus of legitimacy. Yet, the yoking of the illicit and the licit, of force and violence in Mexico is persistent. State-sponsored violence is rife with governmental figures colluding with organised crime as seen with the Iguala mayor’s alleged links with the Warriors United cartel.
Therein, violence is conversely instrumental to the everyday praxis of rule exercised by a network of contending, influential parties bargaining for power. Scholars like Panster’s have investigated the causal links between coercion, violence and state-making within the Mexican landscape. Panster’s works highlight how Mexico has historically been torn between oxymoronic forces: “democratic consolidation and rule of law opposite militarisation, and growing consolidation of obscure forms of violence”.
I believe Malcom X’s renown injection “let it be the ballot or the bullet” is salient in Mexico’s case. The option at hand is neither the bullet, nor the ballot, as both are commensurate to one another and seemed to have been reified in the Mexican state. Whether it be under the trappings of liberal “peace” promoted by Calderon and Peña Nieto’s political and economic strides or the fetters of Cold War despotism, war and peace have been bed partners. Amassed data has shown that homicides were still being relentlessly perpetrated under Calderon’s office as waves of drug killings and disappearances in Mexico doubled between 2008 and 2010 among males aged 15 to 24. Invariably, the twinning of war and peace has constituted the state-making mechanisms pertaining to the uniqueness of Mexico.
A question begs to be answered: who is the victim, who is the victimiser? Were it be the structural violence of Mexico’s capitalist dynamics entrenching social and economic cleavages, the political violence used to coerce, oppress and launch crackdowns on civil society, or the everyday violence sustained by drug gangs: the rules of the games are bloody and the civilians are bearing the brunt. The ubiquitous presence of violence in the immediate present of Mexicans has buttressed inbred grievances and inequalities in all fields.
What seems like a sheer normalisation of violence in public and private spheres alike has favoured continued brutality, excess and breakdowns in the Mexico’s social fabric. Tragically, there is a sustained expectation of violent manifestations to sprout. Mexican violence branches out and infuses consciously, or not, the everyday lives of Mexicans locally, nationally and in distant lands. As witnessed during the conference held in York on 14th November, there is not a single Mexican family untouched by the atrocities- past, present and future- perpetrated within the country. The ramifications of violence transcend space and time, scared in collective memories.
The slaughter of the 43 students harrowingly undergirds Hannah Arendt’s claim that “Violence is a failure of power”. Violence is no more that the clear manifestation of Calderon’s, or Pina-Nieto’s failure to achieve and safeguard a modicum of stability. The international outrage and national wrath in face of the butchering of students is an outright humiliation for the fledgling presidency. It casts lights on its failure in negotiations, in diplomacy, in dialogue with the people of Mexico. Despite growing resilience in its neo-liberal economy and flowering democratisation, Mexico’s standards of human rights, and democratic peace are abysmal.
Turning to the regional scope, Mexico entertains a unique yet ambivalent stature within the Americas. Straddled between its Northern US friend/foe and its Southern Latin counterparts, it is a zone of contending forces tugging in unison towards the north and the south. It is fundamental to consider and bear in mind the violent cartographies which map the routes bonding the tripartite USA, South America and Mexico. Illicit flows of drugs, flesh and arms alongside trending concerns of terrorism are issues which pertain to the entirety of the region and it would be foolishly inadequate to solely circumscribe them to Mexican origins. Thus, the popularised term “war on drugs” compels one to put the United States back into the frame as key actor in the socio-economic and political developments unravelling in Mexico.
Having embarked on the so-called “war on drugs” officially verbalised by Nixon in 1971, Mexico has exploited the lexicon of war, further militarising and accentuating an already violent-prone state of affairs. Furthermore, scholars have bemoaned the term conventionally exploited to cloak in legitimacy severe crackdowns on civil society, and criminalise social protest. The result over the years has been the hybridisation of military and security agendas on the part of the United States and the onus it puts on countering insurgencies in its “back yard”. The military-security nexus which sprawls along the territorial divide demarcating Mexico and the United States is a symbol of new configurations of contemporary warfare. This war zone indexes the morphing of security strategies, as the United States bundles up narco – trafficking, immigration, terrorism, and counterinsurgency in the same basket of risks.
I would like to thank Carlos Solar-Research Student in Comparative Politics & Public Policy at the University of York- for his engaged and insightful review on “State, Violence and Security in Mexico: Developments and Consequences for Democracy”, which provided me with food for thought and solid material to engage with Mexican politics.