Subtexts in the Narco News

Earlier this week, the head of the Zetas cartel was caught. Coverage of the event in both the U.S. and Mexican press seems to be guardedly optimistic. Miguel Angel Treviño, or “Z-40″, was responsible for unimaginable brutality, but his capture could unleash a turf war as the cartel splinters, or rivals move in.

As this news broke, I was sucked into the rabbit hole of horrifying information about Mexico’s Drug War. Whenever this happens, I wonder what I’m doing here, and it takes effort to pull myself back and regain perspective. This was made more difficult by the fact that a journalist working the crime beat for a local newspaper here in Oaxaca was found killed this week.

¿Adios, Zetas? Not so fast. Analysts claim in the Washington Post that there is potential resilience of this group in the strength of their brand, the chilling way in which they’ve modeled themselves on transnational corporations. There’s always capos in waiting when the kingpin is taken out, so it remains to be seen what will happen.

Still, it may be going too far to write this off as irrelevant or even not-so-good news, as this Vice article questions. As Adam Isacson, quoted in the article, points out, by targeting the Zetas, the Mexican Government “sends a message to the drug trafficking community that, if you can do this [drug trafficking] with a minimum of violence, we’re not going to use as many law enforcement resources to go after you.”

The most disturbing thing about the Zetas is that they diversified from drug trafficking, in which violence primarily affected people who were in the business themselves, to criminal enterprises that target civilians: extortion and wholesale kidnapping, primarily of defenseless Central American migrants headed for the U.S.


In trying to make sense of all this, I’m reading Ioan Grillo’s book, El Narco. In it, I found a line that popped out at me: “…the Mexican Drug War is inextricably linked to the democratic transition. Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an explosion of mafia capitalism, so did the demise of the PRI.”

With the centralized authority of the PRI back in place, or at least back in the Presidency, there’s much discussion of what the shift in their drug war policy means. It’s hard for me to object to what the Peña Nieto administration implies: that they are moving from an emphasis on stopping the drug trade or eradicating the cartels, to reducing violence in Mexico, period.

From reading the Mexican editorials with my Spanish dictionary handy, my impression is that despite the deep ambivalence and cynicism about the PRI, most people would prefer a return to the the old days in one respect: it’s better to have corrupt officials quietly managing the drug trade than fighting it, if the cost is the all-out brutality and conflict that have made some parts of Mexico unlivable.

Essentially, the Mexican Government’s approach is much like the harm reduction methods used for chronic drug users. Rather than setting up the expectation of completely reforming the addict, instead, create a structure that reduces harm – needle exchanges, methadone clinics, shelter housing that permits the addict to keep using instead of insisting on abstinence.

Critics of harm reduction say that it coddles the addict, and even encourages social problems. People to whom harm reduction makes sense, like me, argue that it takes a realistic view of human nature and attempts to minimize the destruction caused by conditions that can’t all be changed at once.


This morning I went and had breakfast nearby, watched my daughter play, had coffee with my wife. At the busy marketplace by the church, all was tranquil. Bells rang, and from the church, you could hear the liberal priest talking about the need for social justice. Oaxaca is celebrating the Guelaguetza right now, a huge annual festival of dance, music and traditional culture. Tonight I’ll hear music from up the hill, and most likely, fireworks will explode in the sky.

More from Ioan Grillo:

“Another bizarre element [of the drug war] is how the conflict can be everywhere and nowhere. Millions of tourists sun themselves happily on Cancún’s Caribbean beaches, oblivious that anything is amiss. The Mexican capital is less murderous than Chicago, Detroit, or New Orleans. And even in the hardest-hit areas, all can appear perfectly normal.”

Mexico is full of parallel realities. It’s no different from the United States in that way.

“Mexico is nothing like Somalia. Mexico is an advanced country with a trillion-dollar economy, several world-class companies, and eleven billionaires. It has an educated middle class with a quarter of young people going to university. It has some of the best beaches, resorts, and museums on the planet. But it also is experiencing an extraordinary criminal threat that we need to understand.”

In searching for the right response to the daily narco news in Mexico, this is where I settle. Try to understand, to hold these contradictory ideas about the country in my head at the same time. Everything’s fucked, and at the same time, everything’s fine. Or, to put it another way, massive problems don’t cancel out the fact that millions of people here go on living good lives.

And the more I learn, the more convinced I am that without drug policy change and immigration reform north of the border, any real possibility of a shared solution to our shared problems will be an illusion. More on that in another post.


Last edited: August 8, 2013

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