The key to attacking violence is to understand it: where does it come from? How does it reproduce? How to deal with it? And a new approach to achieve this is to ask those who star in it
I am from northern Mexico, one of the regions most affected by drug violence during the war on drug trafficking. Between 2008-2012 my city lived one of the most uncertain and violent times in its history. Shooting, clashes between cartels and military, which began as sporadic events, ended up being frequent events. They happened in broad daylight and anywhere in the city. It was my turn to witness a gunfight right next to the university where I taught. We had to close the doors and apply the security protocol designed to address these events. My friends and family lived similar experiences. Some witnessed the shooting from their cars and others from their homes.
Along with the increasing violence, the Los Zetas cartel began to extort local business. If they did not pay their “floor right,” they attacked their business or kidnapped a relative.
Gradually, the businesses were closing and the paranoia increased due to the messages that the narcos sent through social networks: “Tonight do not go out because there will be shots.” Sometimes these threats were true
In this context, I decided to study postgraduate abroad. I did not want to continue my studies in the midst of so much insecurity, so I traveled to England. It is here that my academic interest in drug trafficking violence arises. Thanks to the advice of one of my teachers, I channeled my frustration against the security policies of Felipe Calderón, president of the country between 2006 and 2012, through my master’s thesis. I’ve been studying the subject for seven years.
33 biographies of drug traffickers
My doctoral thesis focuses on studying the violence of drug trafficking through the analysis of life stories.
Between October 2014 and January 2015 I interviewed 33 men who worked in the narco. We address issues such as childhood and adolescence, alcoholism, drugs, vandalism, his foray and role in the narco. In order to understand the impact of these personal experiences on the incursion of drug trafficking participants, I studied their narratives from a discursive point of view.
Due to the characteristics of my study, its contribution is of two types. First, methodologically, interviewing narcos from the first source is something unprecedented in the academic world. To date, there is no other study that has compiled more than 30 interviews with former drug dealers. In academic terms, the study puts on the table a perspective that has been ignored by researchers, public officials, and politicians: that of the perpetrators. In this sense, the analysis of the narration of their lives sheds light on the possible causes of their entry into the narco and explains the logic with which they understand the world. Understanding this is key not only to address a complex phenomenon but to design public and security policies. Until now, these policies are designed under the logic of those who design them. No surprise, then,
Narcos: neither monsters nor victims
To begin, we must recognize that drug traffickers are part of our society. They are exposed to the same discourses, values and traditions as all of us. One of the main problems in Mexico is that the Government systematically discriminates against them by reproducing the US binary discourse “they” and “we,” “good” and “bad.” This discourse, besides being absurd in its extreme simplicity, obscures the many nuances that reveal the causes of this violence.
The analysis of life stories of exnarcos sheds light on these nuances. The participants do not see themselves as victims or as monsters. They do not justify their incorporation into the narco as their “only option” to survive, as many academic studies assure. They recognize that they entered the narco because, even though the informal economy allowed them to survive well and support their families, they wanted “more.”
The interviewees are also not seen as bloodthirsty criminals, as they are represented in the movies. Participants define themselves as free agents who decided to work in an illegal industry, but also define themselves as “disposable” people.
This feeling of marginalization, added to their problem of drug addiction and the lack of a general-purpose of life, makes them value their lives little and that death, on the other hand, is seen as a relief.
This is a key issue to consider in the design of public policies. A central task is to prevent more children and young people from feeling disposable.
My research reveals how the participants reproduce the Government’s binary discourse. They define themselves as “they”, the marginalized of society. They are not considered “we”, part of civil society. They also reproduce the individualistic ethics that permeates Mexico since the entry of neoliberalism in the late 1980s. This ethic is a double-edged sword: they do not blame the State or society for their poverty status, but neither do they feel remorse for their crimes. They consider that they had “the bad luck” of being born poor and marginalized and their victims had “the bad luck” of falling into their hands. His logic is simple: “Everyone who scratches their own nails.”
Poverty, fixed and inevitable condition
When analyzing the interviews of my participants, I identified a set of regularities and ideas assumed as truths, which I call narco discourse.
Narco’s discourse produces a meaning of sharp poverty. It is assumed that poor people have no future and therefore have nothing to lose. As one of my interviewees (Wilson) said: “I knew that I was going to grow and die in poverty and just ask God: Why me?” Poverty is naturalized, it is understood as an inevitable condition without pointing responsible. It is assumed that “someone has to be poor” (Lambert) and that “you cannot do anything to avoid it” (Tabo).
This vision of poverty implies an individualistic vision of the world: individuals are responsible for their economic and social development. “I knew I was alone if I wanted something I had to get it for myself” (Rigoleto).
The logic of narco discourse from the point of view of poverty is that individuals are alone and therefore “the law of the strongest” (Yuca) prevails. This is also explained by Cristian: “In my neighborhood, we all knew the rules: he who falls asleep loses. That was the law. You have to be rude, violent, you have to take care of yourself because nobody is going to do it for you. ”
The narco’s speech assumes that children and young people will inevitably be drug addicts and gang members: “When you grow up in a poor neighborhood you already know that at some point you will become a drug addict” (Palomo). Similarly, gangs, which involve vandalism and daily violence, are built as “the only way to survive violence in the streets” (Piochas). Therefore, it is taken for granted that these young people have no future and that is why they are disposable: “When you are a drug addict, you see yourself as nothing, worse than garbage… who is going to care about the life of a poor drug addict? “(Palomo).
The early death of these young people is also perceived as inevitable: “When you see so many of your classmates die in fights, from an overdose, shot by the police, you think that this is also your future” (Tiger). In this way, it is assumed that the fate of poor youth is fatal: “I always thought that my destiny was to die, either from an overdose or by a bullet” (Pancho).
Under this logic, one of the few ways to enjoy life is through the consumption of luxury products and the only way to access them is through the “easy money” provided by “the easy life.” The easy life is to work in drug trafficking. The happiness given by easy money is understood as ephemeral but worthwhile, because it is assumed that “in this world, without money, you are nobody” (Baskets). The dangers are recognized: “One day you can be in a luxurious restaurant surrounded by beautiful women, but the next day you can wake up in a dungeon” (Ponciano). Thus, the easy life must be lived quickly and to the fullest: “My goal was to enjoy every day as if it were the last. He spared nothing. I bought the best trocas (trucks), the best wines and had the best women ”(Jaime).
Violence, machismo and the fantasy of parricide
The narco’s discourse also produces the idea that “a real man” has to be aggressive, violent and womanizing.
Participants referred to the slums as “the jungle” referring to the law of the strongest. Physical violence is essential to survive, literally.
Narco’s speech highlights a key aspect of violence: it is learned. Men are not born, they become violent. As Jorge explains: “When I was a child, the older children beat me, they took advantage of me because I was alone. I was not violent … but I had to become violent, more violent than they. You have to do it if you want to survive on the streets. ”
In “the jungle” men also survive by having a certain reputation. It is assumed that the “real man” is heterosexual, womanizer, “good for the party, drugs and alcohol” (Dávila).
This discourse also recognizes that, unlike women, the real man cannot show his fears, his emotions, and weaknesses, and the best way to do so is to show strength and dominance in all territories: in the gang, in fights with rival gangs and in their homes, with their families.
In the interviews, a recurring theme was the resentment that the participants felt against their parents. In fact, 28 of the 33 respondents admitted that at some point in their lives their greatest illusion was to kill their parents. Domestic and gender violence is the first life experiences of these participants. Everyone agrees that his greatest frustration was to see his parents beating and abusing their mothers constantly. This theme is a constant in the narratives, not only when his childhood was approached but also when drug addiction, violence and his incursion into crime were discussed.
For some participants, the fantasy of killing and making their parents suffer was their greatest motivation to work in the narco. For example, Rorro explained that “when I was a child I had no illusions, or plans for the future, my only thought was to kill my father when I was older … I wanted to cut him into small pieces” and being part of the narco granted him this opportunity. Ponciano also points out that when he had to torture people, he imagined that the person was his father “and made them suffer with more desire, as he made us suffer.”
Participants’ fantasies about killing their parents are similar, they all agree that they wanted to make them suffer, they wanted to take revenge not for their suffering, but for that of their mothers. Notably, everyone also agrees that when the opportunity arrived they could not fulfill their fantasy. Facundo explains it like this: “If I had wanted, I would have killed him. I had dozens of hitmen working for me. If I had wanted … I could have seen him suffer under torture. But I couldn’t … so I told him: go away from here, not to see you. If I see you again I kill you. ”
What can we learn in Latin America?
The causes of crime and violence in Latin America are similar. Regardless of the type of violence, drug trafficking, military, guerrillas or gangs, in my opinion there are two transversal axes: poverty and toxic masculinities (machismo). The daily life experiences of those living in poverty are the breeding ground for all types of violence (domestic, gender, gang). All this framed by a type of invisible violence and rarely recognized, the structural violence of the State.
We academics, politicians and civil society have to understand and learn from these experiences. Although poverty is recognized as the mother of all evils, we do not know what it means to live in poverty. The problem of violence can only be minimized and avoided if it is understood and attacked locally. Each region, each neighborhood, has specific problems and needs. Mass designed public policies will not work. And perhaps this is the big problem, the root solution to the problem of violence does not offer great rewards to politicians.
Similarly, the dominant masculinities in our countries not only justify but also encourage violence. The solution to the problems in the region invariably is aggression and militarized security policies. Non-violent policies are not an option so far in our countries because machismo and violence are institutionalized.
The key to attacking violence is to understand it: where does it come from? Who justifies it and how? How does it reproduce? How have you dealt with it? To answer these questions, we need an interdisciplinary approach and the willingness of our governments to listen.
What is most urgent is a paradigm shift: that the military return to the barracks, that complex problems begin to be solved locally (although that does not grant medallions to politicians) and set aside the binary discourse that justifies death of “them”, which only feeds their indifference towards “we”.
Karina García Reyes is a professor at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations and the Department of Latin American Studies, University of Bristol.
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