“You can’t really wipe out the dreaded drug business for three simple reasons. People need the jobs. The government needs the money. And in the end the police and soldiers all join the business.”
—Charles Bowden, June, 2011 talk at the Commonwealth Club
Picture, for a moment, the image of a drug trafficker:
His bristling mustache, his shadow-darkened eyes, his demure-looking harem of scantily-clad lovers. Imagine, for a moment, his studded leather boots, and the sharp glint of sunlight off his immaculate gold rings. His expression lies hidden. He contemplates the world from within a blue halo of cigar smoke. If the myths are true, he lives in a sprawling, walled-off mansion, replete with animals and ringed with armed guards. His gunmen can square off with the toughest of militaries, and anyone can be killed when he so desires. No politician lays beyond the temptation of his bribes. The immiseration of entire societies in Latin America is attributable to him, and him alone. He looms above them like a specter: an evil narco-squid whose vast tentacular reach leaves nothing—no person, place, nor institution—uncorrupted.
The above narrative, fanciful, flamboyant, almost cartoonish in nature, can be found on ample display in decades-old cultural industry of drug-themed books, movies, and TV-shows. But that same narrative is reflected with mirror-like precision in sober government discourses justifying drug wars. Despite yielding little asides from increased drug usage and bloodshed of unprecedented scale, Oswaldo Zavala notes with suspicion, governments continue advocating for those wars with that same narrative. With the narrative of the Cartels, the Drug Wars—and vast cultural industry sustained by mythologizing them—continue amassing profits with no end in sight.
The fetishized image of the all-powerful Cartel, separate from and stronger than the State, bleeds through US and Mexican cultural imaginations. But this image is a distraction, writes Zavala, a cultural trompe l’oeil whose allure obscures a far darker, more complex reality. Fixating on the idea of the Cartel does little to help us understand what we are told is “drug” violence. That bloodshed is in large part driven by state militarization, with government’s pushed by economic impulses seeking to wage permanent, low-intensity war. For Zavala, these misleading narrative isn’t accidental. Because what they do achieve—with exceeding success—is making a fascinated public passive in its acceptance of failed unending Drug Wars.
Through invoking the specter of the Cartel as the sole culprit driving violence, both the US government and its Latin American allies have distracted the public from the fact that such violence often grows out of the themselves. These governments are just as, if not more culpable for producing bloodshed, and the history they’d rather ignore is that they’re deeply intertwined with the very organizations against whom they claim to be fighting. These organizations couldn’t exist without the State, after all, to whom they owe their creation, and for many, such as the Sinaloa Cartel from 2000 until at least 2012, their tacit protection. Both State and Cartels, supposed sworn enemies, benefit in equal measure from the policies enacted through “Drug Wars.” They fill private jails; they fatten the arms industry; and, because of the heightened difficulty of transportation under militarized prohibition regimes, they ratchet up the price of the product. In Latin America, the mass-militarization of drug wars neutralize threats to capitalist expansion. Activists are killed, by either cartels or government hitmen, both of whom are embodiments of transnational capital, and with soldiers on the street social protest is stymied. Because both the state and the cartels are invested in the expansion of transnational capitalism, the arrival of a drug war to a rural area rich in natural resources, or to a slum ripe with social discontent, often means activists will be killed and protest shut down. Sometimes, more often than we’d want to think, they work in outright tandem often on behalf of the capitalist class they share in common: fighting guerrillas, disappearing students. In some places, it can be difficult to discern where the politicians, policemen, and soldiers end and where the narcos begin.
For Zavala, that difference is so negligible it may as well be irrelevant: “Cartels,” as we’ve been taught to understand them, simply don’t exist.
Zavala isn’t saying that drug violence, drug overdoses, or even violent criminal networks that traffic narcotics don’t exist. “Cartels Don’t Exist” was written, above all, as a provocation. The point is not to deny the problem of violence exists but jolt our numb, self-assured, Netflix-fueled understanding of it. As long as we subscribe to a state-sponsored narrative of Cartels fighting against governments—and “corrupting them from within”—we’ll be unable to understand, and therefore stop that violence
Through on-the-ground reportage, journalists such as Charles Bowden, Steve Cohen, and Dawn Paley have blown apart government myths about drug wars by showing they have less to do with stemming narcotics flows than with creating a pretext to militarize poor societies and obtain resources for transnational capital. As a journalist-turned-literary historian, Zavala chips away at those myths from the other end of the spectrum, dissecting the hegemonic cultural narratives embedded in popular movies, books, and TV shows which legitimate the premises on which drug wars are based. And there is no shortage of works to see this at play.
The worst offenders are perhaps the most obvious: series’ like Narcos; telenovelas like La Reina del Sur or Los Ricos también Lloran; airport novels like Don Winslow’s The Cartel; and Narcocorridos, the songs whose syrupy cadences and glorification of drug traffickers can be heard wailing throughout almost any rural Mexican or Central American town.
Asides from their mistaken fixation on the absurd minutiae of drug traffickers personal lives as the cause of violence, rather than Drug War initiatives such as the Mérida Initiative, they’re more dangerous because of the insidious presumptions they’re premised on: the idea that the state and drug trafficking organizations are or have ever been separate from one another, that drugs constitute a national security threat the same way that terrorism or foreign armies do.
The state-sponsored Cartel narrative has sunk such a deep chokehold on our imagination that its impossible to think beyond what Zavala refers to as the “epistemological limits set by the state.” The limits, though they allow variance, consist of a few precepts that are rarely questioned: those who die in Drug Wars are always involved in the drug trade, and therefore deserving of their fate; that the state is fighting drug traffickers from an a priori standpoint of wanting to stop drug flows.
Within the context of limits, the revelations of “corruption” which seem to emerge with greater frequency by the month—the discoveries, to name only a few, that Mexican Presidents Calderón and Peña Nieto, the President of Colombia and Honduras and the former head of the Mexican military were all complicit in cocaine traffic—are framed as a manipulation of the state by drug traffickers rather than an indication that the two worked hand in glove all along.
Most people, after all, don’t understand history by reading thickly annotated, academic texts. They instead acquire their understanding through mass culture, absorbing it over time through a form of mental osmosis by which accumulated references—plot lines and characters, memorable quotes and scenes—thread themselves together into an approximate historical narrative.
The idea of the Cartel itself—though traffickers, narcotics and concomitant violence exist—is itself a configuration, deployed strategically by the state as a pretext to militarize their country after the formerly useful bugbear, Communism, began fading from the frame in the late 1980s. Referencing journalist Ioan Grillo, Zavala points out that the word itself didn’t even come from Colombia or Mexico. The notion of the Cartel was first created in in DEA circles, only later being adopted by traffickers once the term gained traction. “What we commonly call ‘narco,’” he writes, “is the invention of a state policy that responds to specific geopolitical interests.” The violent mechanisms of the state almost always requires the invocation of an enemy to justify its continued existence. The invocation of the Cartel was only one in a long line of such ogres.
Even shows which concede the reality of corruption do so from the a priori perspective of the DEA and the United States—whose inherent limits cripples ones ability to comprehend the fuller truth of drug violence.
Take Sicario. In one crucial element, Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic 2015 thriller of Juarez violence comes closer to conveying the truth of drug trafficking than most movies will. Towards the finale, a shocked Emily Blunt, an FBI agent, is subjected to a harsh lecture by Josh Brolin after she discovers the CIA has been executing armed operations on domestic soil, and that she was brought along for the ride only so such actions could be considered legal. The reality of the US government, he tells her impatiently, has been less interested in stopping the drug trade than subjecting it to strict controls and regimentation. (“Unless you can stop people from snorting that white shit,” Brolin says…”We’re going to have to make sure it’s our guys trafficking it”).
Yet even this recognition remains rooted the overarching misperception that drug trafficking constitutes a national security threat. Imagery conveying this message bleeds through the movies cinematography. Black hawks fly in ominous formation above the border fence. State department officials, with their sleeves rolled up and arms crossed, give briefings on the harrowing power of Mexican cartels in the sobering light of empty offices. Looking through binoculars from an El Paso military base one evening, they see tracer rounds illuminating distant Juarez under a darkening pall of dusk. Watching in silence, they seem to be looking not at a Mexican city but at the front lines of the Somme in 1916: the apocalyptic embodiment of Third World violence at the cusp of spilling into the US.
Mexican sociologist Luis Astorga has demonstrated drug shipments, in fact, have been tolerated and in many cases facilitated by US and Mexican government for over a hundred years, even after those drugs were subjected to a strict and militarized prohibition regime. And as violent as trafficking organizations may be, they have expressed no interest in executing a literal overthrow of any given government. In many cases, they are embodied by the specific branches of government, whether it be local police or the federal military, that protect and work with them. Drugs can be deadly. But there is little evidence to suggest that drug trafficking constitutes a national security threat.
Corruption is on full display in Narcos: Mexico, but the specific roots of it are in large part erased, sanitized from the historical picture. Corrupt DEA agents and Mexican officials are depicted. People are unjustly killed. But in the words of historian Vanessa Freije, these injustices are then “flattened into a moralistic condemnation of illiberal politics”—treated as a vague and generalized malaise of the human condition rather than the contingent result of specific government policies.
Beyond historical omissions, anecdotal conversations and statements scattered throughout the series present hegemonic ideology as given facts. When Cartel leader Felix Gallardo meets the shows fictional DEA protagonist in one of the series’ penultimate scenes, he says Mexico will descend into anarchy should he be removed from power, falling in line with hegemonic thinking about drug violence in Mexico.
But it runs contrary to almost all on-the-ground evidence, which has shown that its not the power vacuum but state militarization and drug war initiatives, such as Plan Colombia or the Merida Initiative, which deepen violence. Even though political structures organized by the PRI, and drug organizations dependent on them, had been fracturing following the party’s 2000 defeat, nationwide murder rates had in fact been declining in Mexico. But it did little to stop President Felipe Calderón, egged on by George W. Bush, from declaring his catastrophic Drug War in 2006. Fourteen years later, with no less than 300,000 dead people, the repetition of the false narrative on which the war was started is no less excusable that creating a show which repeats WMD lies. The state instigated the endless cycles of violence: cartels are only one actor within that larger drama. For one of the most popular contemporary shows on Latin America—which in all likelihood makes it the not only source through which millions of Americans understand the subject—to omit such context or perpetuate such myths isn’t just irresponsible, but dangerous.
One can only wonder why there haven’t been more books, movies, and TV shows rooted in the actual trajectory of the drug trade. The story of how the state mediated the modern birth of the illegal narcotics industry is so strange that, as García Márquez once said of Latin American history, it makes magical realism look normal. When compared to the suppressed subaltern history, most common understanding of the drug trade—that it rose from a surge in US narcotics demand, and that the violence grew out of the government’s a priori stance of wanting to fight that trade, even if parts of it became corrupted in the process—can look like a boring and overwrought cliche.
Transnational drug traffic had long been a reality at the US border, ever since the era of the of Porfirio Diaz’s turn of the century dictatorship. The cross-border movement of narcotics, in those sepia-tinted, pre-Revolutionary days, was overlooked or in some cases even accepted by American and Mexican political elites. With a well-greased system of mutual understandings between political bosses, generals, and police, many sections of the Mexican government oversaw a tacit facilitation of the northbound drug trade by assuring that authorities wouldn’t interfere in the shipments. By the 1970s—amid nationwide anti-government discontent and dozens of metastasizing guerrilla cells—that loose preexisting network was brought together and streamlined into an efficient, nationwide monopoly administered by the PRI, the authoritarian single party which ruled from 1941 to 2000. The PRI deepened its collaboration with drug traffickers in order to crush dissent, keeping runners in a functioning but subordinate state in which they could still cultivate, produce, and ship their product.
The drug industry, in moments of crisis, became a covert mechanism of state power, one which the government would keep in its arsenal and recourse to for years to come. Nowhere was this more visible than in a place now notorious for state and paramilitary violence: the mountainous southern state of Guerrero.
As historians such as Alexander Aviña have documented, Mexican officials, waging a counterinsurgency during the 1960s and 70s against the left-wing peasant rebels of Lucio Cabañas, coopted local drug producers to flush out the subversives, looping in small-scale producers with the large-scale bosses who’d set up shop in Guerrero after fleeing fumigation campaigns in the north. Not long after they began fighting, the military decided to cash in on Guerrero’s abundance of poppies by using its own equipment, officers, and ex-officers—who were freed from institutional constraints but remained in close contact and coordination with the army—to undertake massive northbound shipments of heroin.
Though they deployed a public discourse of counter-narcotics to justify their presence in Guerrero—the idea of fighting criminals seemed more palatable than torturing emaciated guerrilla Robin Hoods—the military was already engaging in the very drug trade it was their stated raison d’être to fight against. (This, it should be noted, was far the last such lapse in principle on the part of Mexican security forces). Police-affiliated death squads began trafficking drugs as they hunted dissidents in Acapulco. In several known cases, the same “death flights” on which military planes dumped tortured guerrillas and activists into the Pacific would then continue north to offload heroin in the US. As Aviña showed, both the federal government’s crushing of rural dissent and its simultaneous regimentation of the drug trade into a pax narcotica ended up morphing into the singular project of dominating the countryside, and all the poor campesinos within, at the barrel of a gun. The “War on Drugs” was, in essence, a war on the poor. That war, under the aegis of the PRI, consolidated through the federal government’s drug-trade monopoly.
The monopoly of the federales over drug traffickers ran smoothly for the next twenty years. But the crumbling and the fall of the PRI during the implementation of neoliberalism, in the 1990s, caused many drug traffickers to strike out, making deals with local or state governments in the hope they could procure more lenient rules of operation. Alongside the fracturing of the PRI’s narcotics monopoly and its slipping grip on political power, social discontent reached a fever pitch in Mexico around the turn of the millennium. The Zapatista uprising drew worldwide attention to the plight of indigenous peoples under the Mexican government, and inspired a slew of other toothless but troublesome guerrilla groups. Along came the Otra Campaña, violence in San Salvador Atenco, the uprising and repression of the Oaxacan teachers. Mass social mobilizations came to their apotheosis with the protests over the 2006 Presidential elections—a contest, evidence now shows, was stolen in broad daylight.
Upon coming into office, then President-elect Felipe Calderón, beneficiary of electoral fraud, was inheriting a heaping mound of political headaches. He faced a loss of the federal government’s drug-trade monopoly. He was bereft of a pretext under which he could deploy the military to bolster security for transnational capital investments, under siege, literally and ideologically, by social movements.
One afternoon in September, 2006, three months before his inauguration, Calderón met with the US ambassador for lunch to talk politics. The future chief executive mentioned his desire to “improve security” in the country, irrespective of the fact that the nationwide murder rate had been declining since 2000. The ambassador chimed in, saying that if the economy were to be supercharged “foreigners and Mexicans alike would have to be assured the rule of law would prevail,” by which we can reasonably deduce he meant to that foreign investors need to know the government will protect their investments.
Three months later, as soon as he was inaugurated, Calderón declared the War on Drugs.
“The military strategy of Calderón,” Zavala writes, “then tried to impose the same dynamic of subordination that was expressed through the hegemony of the PRI, now against the new enemies of the state: the state powers that challenged the reduced federal government under the PAN leadership.”
Tens of thousands of soldiers would be deployed around the country in the coming years, and it didn’t take long to see the results this would yield.
By 2012, over 10,000 people would be murdered in Juárez—just short of the death toll of the Siege of Sarajevo. By the end of Calderón’s 6-year term, almost 150,000 people had reportedly died nationwide. In 2014, the national subconscious was jolted awake after the forced disappearance of 44 students, an act many believed the Mexican government to be complicit in. But massacres and mass disappearances have become so common that in many cases they almost don’t pass as news. 29,000 were killed in 2017 alone. 35,000 in 2019. The government, notorious for underplaying casualties, declared that at least 61,000 people had been forcibly disappeared—more than the Cold War-era dictatorships of South America combined.
To date, fourteen years since the Drug War was commenced, at least a quarter million have died.
Even stranger than the government’s historical intertwinement with drugs—perhaps more crucial for us to pay attention to—is how its drug war discourse evolved over time to provide new, actionable pretexts through which it could execute darker political needs.
The political movements peaking in 2006 provided an obstacle to ongoing efforts at implementing broader neoliberal policies that began in the 1990s. They provided an ideological challenge to the divided, discredited Mexican political elite, which had no the interest in yielding to their demands. But when drugs were pushed to the front of the national agenda—transforming a question of politics into national security—the government had a far less difficult talking point on its hands than land rights, indigenous autonomy, and environmental sanity. Like the drug war in 1970s Guerrero—when the army crushed peasant rebels under the public pretext of fighting drugs, even as it ended up trafficking them itself—it was considered more palatable to dispatch the Marines to fight Los Zetas or the Gulf Cartel than to repress yet another unarmed movement of ragged, shoeless activists.
The depoliticized anti-drug national security discourse soon adopted by the government of Calderón was, in essence, an effort by the Mexican state to circumvent those political pressures and movements. By invoking the specter of an enemy whose main activity wasn’t achieving political change, like the Zapatistas or the Oaxacan teachers, but committing mindless acts of indiscriminate violence, the Mexican government gave itself a green light to militarize the country under the pretext that it was fighting off an emergency threatening everyone, not just corporate elites.
“In that way,” Zavala writes, “the State conveniently ceased to recognize the political specificity of opposition and resistance movements to, in turn, construct and disseminate discourses of national security about organized crime that supposedly threaten civil society and not only the governmental elite. Said more bluntly: to stop considering political claims as relevant, the State articulated a strategy without political content around the subject of national security.”
One could say that there were three layers to the Mexican Drug War. The first, the story sold to the public, was that it was an offensive to stop drugs by dismantling Cartels. The second, perhaps whispered only among generals and politicians, was that deploying federal troops throughout the country would “return things to normal” by reinstating the pax narcotica under which the national government quietly administered, and kept the drug trade in check, in the 80s and 90s. The third, in all probability expressed as an understanding between diplomats, policymakers, and CEOs responsible for administering Mexico’s role in the global economy, was that deploying the military could “increase the security and law and order.” The need to dispatch the military was as much a counteroffensive against recalcitrant campesinos, whose social movements threatened the security of investments the same, if not more than drug violence—a factoid that hardly penetrated the public understanding of the Drug War. Capital, in short, would be liberated from constraints because the deployment of the military would put Mexico on lockdown.
There are, of course, the counter-hegemonic texts—artful books with strong narratives that illuminate the reality of state militarization, what many call “drug violence,” with journalistic incisiveness and accuracy.
State violence is omniscient in these stories. But what distinguishes them from more popular, hegemonic texts is that violence at the hands of the government is portrayed as a phenomenon in and of itself rather than the result of “infiltration” or “corruption” by external bodies.
In Contrabando, Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda’s 1980s novel of violence in Chihuahua’s sierras, we’re challenged to rethink our mental image of drug trafficking by “visualizing the power of the narco as something that exists within the echelons of state power,” in the words of Zavala.
In one of the novel’s opening scenes, federal police at the Chihuahua airport shoot two unarmed youths dead for having acted suspicious in their presence. They strip the young bodies of cigarettes, money, and IDs, doing so with the tranquility of men unperturbed by the act of killing. When a group of elderly women swarm around and begin to scream at the officers, their only justification for the killing was that “they were narcos.” They walk away from the crime scene at ease, leaving no further explanation for having committed a double murder in broad daylight.
“State violence,” Zavala writes, “…is reproduced during Rascón Banda’s entire story. But it doesn’t deal with ‘Cartels’ who attack the sierra, but federal agents and soldiers in the army who maintain their control over all activity associated with drugs.”
“In one of the most revealing episodes,” he writes, “an entire family is massacred by a contingent of the Federal Police who justify the crime and their occupation of the family’s hacienda, the Yepachi ranch, by denouncing their victims as a clan of narco-traffickers.”
The only survivor summons the few State Police they know to come investigate. But upon arrival at the crime scene, they, too, are murdered by the federales. The survivor is then forced by the officers to take a humiliating photo for journalists while holding a high-caliber rifle. The headline the next day: “Strike against narco-trafficking: 24 dead and 9 wounded. Confrontation between narcos and the Federal Police. Massacre in the Yepachi ranch, a nest of Narcos. The federals won. They captured Damiana Caraveo, the ringleader of a band of narcos.”
Because so many factions of government oversee the drug gangs—or are themselves the groups trafficking the drugs—violence in Mexico is often expressed through myriad conflicts between local and federal police, between municipal authorities and the military. Many believe this sort of governmental infighting is what turned Juarez into an abattoir between 2008 and 2012, when over 10,000 people died after the federal army occupied the city. Almost all evidence suggests the federales had been sent to bolster the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel, whom reports indicated to be favored by the Calderón administration at the time, by killing and incarcerating members of both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel—as well as the local cops who did their bidding (this would later seem further confirmed when, in December 2019, the former head of the Mexican military from that era, Genaro García Luna, was outed as having been on the payroll of the Sinaloa Cartel).
This synergy between the state and drug trafficking is on clear display in 2666, Roberto Bolaños sprawling magnum opus of Santa Teresa, a fictionalized version of Juarez during the early 2000s. The city was to soon become notorious: because it previewed the hemorrhaging violence and poverty produced by globalization, with neoliberalism’s lethal concoction of free trade and militarization, Charles Bowden once called it “the laboratory for our future.”
The book interweaves five stories which each bear tangential relation to to the unsolved murders of women, a phenomenon for which the city became notorious but which, as Zavala argues—echoing Bowden and others—serve as a distraction from the more widespread monstrosity of mass murder. Images and anecdotes of drug trafficking, nonetheless, bleed through it all. The picture of drug trafficking they paint challenges the prevailing idea that there’s one, singular “Narco,” running the show from behind the veil.
“2666 creates an alternative critique of the notion of the narco,” Zavala writes, “because, instead of investing its literary capital in stylistic pyrotechnics, Bolaño illuminates the phenomenon of drug traffic itself: he relocates the State and its logics of power in the center of his analysis, which is to say, he repositions the State as the central force behind narco-trafficking.”
One of the the book’s central themes is the impossibility of seeing the “actual,” the “real,” or the “true” face of the narco. In a telling scene, a protagonist sees what he believes is a drug trafficker at the far end of the bar. He’s reclining in the corner, hat downturned, flanked by musicians playing on either side of him. His face remains in shadow, the identity withheld. Everything about him lay veiled in mystery. But Zavala points out that this is a deliberate distraction—overfetishizing the identity of the shadowed man is in the end irrelevant. Doing so misses the broader textual point of the book: the reality of drug trafficking can be seen not in a singular mysterious face but all around in Santa Teresa, in broad daylight: in cops who approve of and then overlook drug deals, in the authorities who refuse to investigate crimes where they’ve granted blanket immunity to their favored criminals. The problem of asking what the real “narco” is lies less in the answer than the question itself: the mere act of looking for the imagined face of a cartel leader, we forget to look at the legal system tacitly sanctioning drug traffic before our very eyes.
In the summer of 2018, I was reporting in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas when, walking through the town of San Cristóbal, I happened on an encampment of internally displaced people. I was at the beginning of my still virgin career as a journalist, so I couldn't quite make sense of what had happened to them, and more importantly, why. After interviewing a few villagers, a rough outline of their story fell into focus: one day the previous April, a group of at least several hundred armed men, many with assault rifles, ejected them from Nicolas Ruíz, the rural village where they’d lived for several decades, firing their weapons skyward and setting the surrounding fields and several houses ablaze. From all I could gather, they seemed to have been displaced by some form of armed or paramilitary group. But the villagers seemed almost as mystified as to why this happened as I did.
I visited them several times in my last week and a half in Chiapas. I ate with them in their tent, talked and took photos. The last time I saw them was on a frigid mountain night, when San Cristóbal was veiled in a fine misty rain. They were despairing by this point. Many had fallen sick. The government had done nothing to recompense them for the violent theft of their land, which had driven them here to set up camp in a last sad act of unrequited protest. I left the following day, sadder than I’d been in a long time yet saddled with a vague and uneasy dissatisfaction over my inability to understand why this happened to them.
I knew that in the past, during the Cold War, violence in Latin America was driven by social, political, and economic inequities. But the violence of today was supposed to be different. I was supposed to believe it was a random phenomenon: the three-way collision of cartel infighting and the beneficent military intervention of concerned, if perhaps corruptible governments. But this framework left me bereft of a way to understand why these people had their homes stolen, fields burned, their lives upended and destroyed. Over a year later, while reading Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism, I was struck by descriptions of the well-documented presence of paramilitaries displacing people in southern Mexico to hand their land over to extractive industries such as mining, logging, or oil. That could’ve provided answer to what happened to the villagers of Nicolas Ruiz. But at the time I was stuck with the narrative of Big-Bad-Cartels, which reduces all acts of violence, suffering, and injustices to the stupid depoliticizations on offer in any number of sensationalized Netflix series. Was I supposed to believe these poor villagers offended a Cartel Leader? Did one of them steal his lover? Did they end up closing off the drug routes, or interfere with the flow of the money or the plaza?
“It’s such a simple story,” writes sociologist Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo, “so attractive from a narrative point of view, that it ends up being irresistible: they killed a mayor? It was organized crime, fighting for the plaza. They killed a gubernatorial candidate? It was organized crime, fighting for the plaza. An attack against the army, against the federal police? Organized crime, fighting for the plaza. It was in a fiesta, in a rehab center, in a gap in the sierra of Durango, in the mountains of Guerrero? Organized crime, the plaza. Cuidad Juárez, Apatzingan, Teloloapan, Tantoyuca, Huejutla, Zacualpan de Amilpas? Organized crime, the plaza. A hundred, a thousand—ten, twenty, forty thousand deaths? Organized crime, the route, the plaza.”
A battle had gone down in Culiacán. At first, there was only confusion, with the outside world blinking in astonishment as the first reports flooded in via social media. On October 17, 2019, harrowing videos began circulating on Twitter showing scenes of urban warfare that looked less like Mexico and more like Aleppo. Surreptitious videos, taken by terrified residents hiding within their homes, painted a nightmarish mêlée unfolding that afternoon: a masked man with a Kalashnikov slung over his back handling a truck-mounted machine-gun; a man popping rounds down a street with a.50-caliber sniper rifle; a pickup veering off the road in an ambush. In a panning shot, trucks full of rifle-toting gunmen flew past the raging fires of incinerated buses, the city roaring with the crackle of gunfire and veiled in columns of smoke.
By later that night, the story fell into focus: the police had staged a raid—their initial story, soon debunked, was that the encounter was accidental—to capture one of El Chapo’s sons. State forces found themselves temporarily surrounded. But few of the facts registered in the public imagination the way the battle’s final result would: El Chapo’s son, to the world’s astonishment, was released.
The clash grew out of a long process of militarization: the armament of Cartels, if we can refer to them as such on a provisional basis, for arguments sake, into paramilitary forces in response to state-initiated drug wars, the endless splintering of those groups as they undergo byzantine cycles of violent reorganization. The battle in Culiacán wasn’t even the first time such a battle had taken place: similar clashes, as well as subsequent liberations of drug traffickers, have taken place dozens of times in the preceding ten years. The clash was incredibly complex, not the result of a single government failure. Nothing about it was "new."
Not that this made any difference. The clash, for the mainstream media, was a resounding reaffirmation of the Cartel Myth if there ever was one. The media, yet again, flatironed the incredible complexity of the drug war into the same false narrative upon which it was all started in the first place: that the government is weak, and needs to arm itself better.
A month later, Trump threatened to deploy the US military to Mexico to fight the Cartels, sentiment expressed by numerous politicians from both sides of the aisle. Not long after, he threatened further to categorize Cartels as terrorist groups, giving US personnel the green light to operate and carry out armed operations on Mexican soil, as well as the powers of extraordinary rendition—state speak for kidnapping—and, if need be, torture. It would be an extreme measure, for sure. Perhaps it’s only the logical conclusion of a decades-long, bloody progression of deepening militarization. But perhaps that sort of cinematic opportunity is the one the Drug War hawks, and their Cartel-fetishizing cultural allies, have been waiting for all along.