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Sacrificial Victims

1 December 2010

Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to enforce loyalty to their crown. Tlacaélel’s purposes were slightly different. He couldn’t eliminate the other gods or other people, but he could eliminate their ability to revolt. Sujects without warriors were no threat to Aztec control. Huizilopochtli, the sun god, had been a hummingbird — nothing particularly scary about him — but Tlacaélel wanted to scare people into submission, so Huitzilopochtli beame a god who lived on human hearts. Every town in the empire had to have it’s own Huitzilopochtli “church”. There was a huge demand for human sacrifices. Captured enemies were the obvious sacrifices. When captured enemies started to run out, the Aztecs had to refine the practice and took warriors as tax payment. Sacrificing the warriors to Huitzilopochtli kept the subject peoples from rebelling — they simply lacked the soldiers.

(Gods, Gachupines and Gringos)

As it is, I’ve pretty much stopped writing about the ins and outs of the “drug war”, leaving that to others.  Frankly, too much of the writing is just plain sensationalist,self-absorbed, and ahistorical.  Although it dominates THIS administration’s policies, and foreign reporting, honesty, I think it’s just a temporal event, more meaningful as a symptom of a problem, than a problem in itself.    Patrick Corcoran’s review of Charles Bowden’s “Murder City” finds much wrong with the pop journalist’s Juarez book:   besides Bowden’s obvious factual errors and his “conscious attempt to build a comic-book dreamworld… the dystopian land of death and disorder”, Corcoran  disagrees that “The city’s descent into something like anarchy since 2008 isn’t the natural and inevitable byproduct of globalization writ large. ”  In short — sensationalist and self-absorbed, but perhaps not totally ahistorical, just — as Americans tend to be — seeing history in terms of a few years, rather than a few centuries.

It is natural, in writing of a people who traditionally conceived of time as circular and has always had an obsession with its own history, to see contemporary events as variations on a theme.  What has gone before exists now, although in an altered form, and — if are able to make the connection — will happen again.  Several times, I have compared Don Felipe to Don Porfirio.  Revolutionary propaganda often compared Don Porfirio to Huitzilopochtli.  I might not compare our present administration to the Sun God, but I might to Tlacaélel.

As nephew, step-brother, uncle or great-uncle to tlatoque (roughly “emperors”) and later as cihuacoatl (literally “snake woman”, more like Prime Minister and chief priest combined), Tlacaélel was the “power behind the throne” during the entire period of Aztec hegonomy in Mexico. At the time of his death (in 1492, a rather important year in the history of the Americas) he had normalized the social-political system the Mexica (Aztecs) imposed on their neighbors, a good part of which rested on his unusual method of arms control.

While there aren’t the records to say for certain, it’s unlikely that Huizilopochtli worship was universal, or that its imposition was without dissent. Of course, we only have the “official” story, and any alternative media from the time seems to be lost. We do know of rebellions against Flower Wars — the ritual war-games introduced by Tlacaélel, in which the Mexica (Aztecs) faced off against a subject people’s army, the object being that subject captives were then “honorable” sacrificial victims:  a form of indirect taxation through sports.  But, based on Cortés’ success in using taxpayer protests to find allies among the Aztec subjects — only that there was widespread resentment and that, with Tlacaélel out of the picture, the Aztecs would probably have lost power eventually, even without the shock of the Spanish Conquest.

Huitzilopochtli, of course, came from the north (like the Aztecs themselves) much as the god of our secular age, neo-liberalism is also largely of northern origin. The Huizilopochtli cult brought immense benefits to the ruling Aztecs, and provided some benefits to the populace, even if the means of imposing those benefits was… er… “heart-rending”.

While there is no single figure we can identify as the Talcaélel of neo-liberalism (unless, perhaps, it’s NAFTA’s father, Carlos Salinas — who López Obrador for one identifies as the evil genius behind everything that’s rotten with today’s economic and political leadership) we have come to accept (if grudgingly) a system that enriches the elites, benefits the masses, but at the same time demands violence — especially against young men.

The phony “drug war” is neo-liberalism’s “Flower War” — an exercise in blood-letting that both reduces the number of possible opponents to the status quo, but also pays homage to the imposed, and artificial, belief system.

Statistically, the overwhelming number of victims in the “drug war”  are young men. The “drug war” — something I really didn’t write about in my own Mexican history for the simple reason that I cut off at the start of the Calderón administration) —  only took on the guise of “war” since 2006 .  But that does not mean that the sacrificial victims to Huizilopochtli II weren’t already being sent to the altar of neo-liberalism before that.


As Esther (“From Xico”) put it back in March 2009:

… militarization — increasing militarization — solves nothing in a way we’d want things solved: it doesn’t solve underlying social problems, unequal distribution of wealth, increasing job losses due to the economic crisis, the terrible effects on local livelihoods of globalization, not just from NAFTA, but starting in the 1980s.  Militarization also kills and maims people and destroys families and jobs.  And creates anger among [the] civilians affected.  Militarization does nothing for  drug treatment.  For civilian law enforcement.  Militarization supports perhaps Calderón, but Calderón certainly isn’t Mexico.

Going back even further, to April 2006, was this overview of the effects on the devastation caused by NAFTA — NAFTA being, if I want to extend my metaphor a bit, the social framework imposed to enforce the new cult of neo-liberalism, much as the Aztecs imposed Talcaélel Huizipotchli cult on subject peoples.

While there has been some media coverage of NAFTA’s ruinous impact on US industrial communities, there has been even less media attention paid to its catastrophic effects in Mexico:


  • NAFTA, by permitting heavily-subsidized US corn and other agri-business products to compete with small Mexican farmers, has driven the Mexican farmer off the land due to low-priced imports of US corn and other agricultural products. Some 2 million Mexicans have been forced out of agriculture, and many of those that remain are living in desperate poverty. These people are among those that cross the border to feed their families. (Meanwhile, corn-based tortilla prices climbed by 50%. No wonder many so Mexican peasants have called NAFTA their ‘death warrant.’
  • NAFTA’s service-sector rules allowed big firms like Wal-Mart to enter the Mexican market and, selling low-priced goods made by ultra-cheap labor in China, to displace locally-based shoe, toy, and candy firms. An estimated 28,000 small and medium-sized Mexican businesses have been eliminated.
  • Wages along the Mexican border have actually been driven down by about 25% since NAFTA, reported a Carnegie Endowment study. An over-supply of workers, combined with the crushing of union organizing drives as government policy, has resulted in sweatshop pay running sweatshops along the border where wages typically run 60 cents to $1 an hour.

So rather than improving living standards, Mexican wages have actually fallen since NAFTA. The initial growth in the number of jobs has leveled off, with China’s even more repressive labor system luring US firms to locate there instead.

But Mexicans must still contend with the results of the American-owned ‘maquiladora’ sweatshops: subsistence-level wages, pollution, congestion, horrible living conditions (cardboard shacks and open sewers), and a lack of resources (for streetlights and police) to deal with a wave of violence against vulnerable young women working in the factories. The survival (or less) level wages coupled with harsh working conditions have not been the great answer to Mexican poverty, while they have temporarily been the answer to Corporate America’s demand for low wages.

With US firms unwilling to pay even minimal taxes, NAFTA has hardly produced the promised uplift in the lives of Mexicans. Ciudad Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo, whose city is crammed with US-owned low-wage plants, expressed it plainly: “We have no way to provide water, sewage, and sanitation workers. Every year, we get poorer and poorer even though we create more and more wealth.”

In other words, rural youth (and other young people) have been “sacrificed” to the neo-liberal economic system — creating wealth for the ruling classes, while destroying the future threat workers outside the system might represent. That the narcotics industry has taken on such an important role in the border communities, and in rural Mexico, seems almost natural. Narcotics production and smuggling stands outside the neo-liberal economic system. Certainly it is exploitative, but offers at least some of the young, a chance at economic survival. I suspect that the borderlands and the rural areas were already losing population, and collapsing as vibrant communities even before the “drug war”, and the stories we read of communities “overrun” by the narcos are more the result of being unable to resist (the best “warriors” — in our day, the educated, the skilled and the ambitious — have been drained off, sacrificed to neo-liberalism (either forced to migrate, or simply so beaten down that they’ve unable to fight for their own interests).

I don’t see the narcos as heroic in any sense, but they are symbolic of economic resistance. As with the Aztecs, resistance, even if only symbolic, would undermine the entire system. Thus, for the Aztecs, the “Flower Wars,” and — for neo-liberalism — the theatrical “drug war” with its slaughters done mostly out of sight of the masses, but the results displayed as evidence of the ruler’s power. Think about it. Most of the police/army/narco “battles” are secretive affairs, with after the fact major coverage of the carnage, or a parade of the prisoners about to be sacrificed.


Tlacaélel died in 1492 (a rather important date in the history of the Americas for other reasons as well) at the height of Aztec power. He couldn’t know that the Huitzoptchli cult he so assiduously fostered would be doomed by a new faith, accepted only grudgingly in many cases, but overwhelmingly having the advantage of being NOT Huitzapotchli,and not overtly sacrificing the young. IN 2012, Calderón’s term expires. Right now, the betting is on another neo-liberal administration, but who knows… perhaps 2012 is not our 1524, but our 1492. Whether neo-liberalism is doomed, and whether there are conquistadors bearing a new economic faith, who — like Cortés — will find their allies among those not benefiting from the status quo, I can’t say.

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