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Tacos, narcos and history with a capital H

14 June 2011

Like any self-taught historians (and maybe those who went to Famous Historians School too), one is always conscious of the danger in saying event X was the proximate cause of event Y. One reason it took me a longer than expected time to write “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” (besides annoying interferences like… life itself, and the need to earn a paycheck) was that I ended up writing the chapters on the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 at least four different ways, based only on the most “mainstream” of interpretations of why the Revolution happened.  Even by focusing on what X factors were seen as having Y result, I discovered that how “X” was experienced, or interpreted at the time it happened may have absolutely no bearing on its ultimate significance.  Sometimes alternative histories simply provided a better guidepost:  almost none of the “mainstream” histories, for example, say anything about the 1901 roundup of gay men in Parque Alameda, but alternative historians like Carlos Monsivais recognize it, in retrospect, as a major cultural landmark.  If nothing else, the rumors that Porfirio’s son-in-law was among those picked up (but released) was an early sign of a growing resentment of “impunidad” for the ruling clique, and a reminder that resistance to the regime was not purely based on political or economic beliefs.

Very few, if any single events, can be said to “make history,” and even those events that are said to be watershed, are the results of events A, B,C… in some combination or another. The best I can do, or even the FHS grads can do, is say “something happened, which probably had a lot to do with these other things, which happened because of these other things” and hope there is some semblance of a pattern to the whole that lets us think creatively about the events (important and otherwise) that happen to us today.

What I tried to do in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos — and what seems most sensible to me — was pick among those singular events those which, whether their significance was recognized at the time or not — best fit the framework I chose.  That Benito Juárez would order in tacos at cabinet meetings probably doesn’t affect history with a Capital H, the way tortilla-lovin’ Porfirio Diaz’ victory over Juárez’s successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, at the Battle of Tecoac did.  But I included these non-significant events to provide a glimpse into the cultural sensibilities of the Mexican elites of the 1870s, and the tension between the “European” and traditional ways of life that I selected as the framework to understand this particular country’s recent (since 1521) history.

Had I been writing in the 1870s, I don’t know if I’d write about the eating habits of Don Benito and Don Sebastian and Don Porfirio. I doubt it would have even been newsworthy, and suspect had there been foreign bloggers in 1870s Mexico they would have been as dismissive of those Mexicans who mentioned such matters as 2011 bloggers were dismissive of those who wrote about Don Felipe’s supposed fondness for “adult beverages”.

Not that the choice of food or drink is at all an event of historic signficiance (not Capital H, Historic, anyway), but the hoo-haw over rumors of heavy drinking by Felipe Calderón — or the commentary and effect of commentary — about it, said quite a bit about Mexican sensibilities and the perceptions of the sitting President.  Will it affect “history with a Capital H?”

Who knows, maybe will be considered worth mentioning in some Mexican history written about 2145.  I am not in 1875 Mexico City, nor in 2145 Ciudad Carlos Slim, but in 2011 Sinaloa. Like anyone else, my perceptions of what is, and isn’t significant, and what will be seen as significant in the future, are biased and based on an incomplete understanding of what went before and what will come after. I choose not to write much about the “drug war,” not because I don’t notice it (there’s no way NOT to notice it), but at least in part because I have my doubts that any particular bit of criminality in itself it is anything more significance than Don Benito’s tacos, or Don Felipe’s alleged boozing.

I don’t mean that the mayhem and murder only shines a light on key individuals, of course, but only that I am not sure any shooting, or head-chopping or armored truck discovery isn’t just another example (out of any number of examples) of periodic banditry that crops up during social crises, or just another problem caused by agricultural exports, or just a by-product of the late 20th-early 21st century economic dominance of the United States.

I DO think the “Drug War” is coming to an end, and perhaps sooner than I realize.  Rumors of alcoholism in Los Pinos wasn’t so much about the truth or non-truth of the story, but one of a number of signs of growing distrust of the visible leader of the   “Europeanized” economic/social system which includes acceptance of “Plan Merida”.

Perhaps the “X event” is Javier Sicilia’s call for a complete rejection of “Plan Merida.”  Although Ganchoblog, which sees Sicilia’s movement as more or less a meaningless sideshow, dismisses the importance of Plan Merida as “a tangential issue for Mexico,” it’s tangential only in the sense that the whole “drug war” has been tangential to history with a capital H”.  hard to dismiss the impact the ill-conceived program had on this country.

We need to go to the root causes of the issue: the young people without opportunities, who are being killed or live in terror, who have a limited chance to make a living because salaries are so low, or the others who, without opportunities, join the ranks of organized crime–or unorganized crime, because we don’t even know what it is anymore, then the future of our country is dead; the future for our youth, our children, and our grandchildren is practically broken, undone.

If we don’t approach the problem holistically, if we just keep spending money on violent responses to it, then we’re on our way to a military/police state–a disaster worse than what we’re experiencing now.

Javier Sicilia, interviewed by Laura Carlsen

It hasn’t only been the intellectuals (which have HISTORICALLY been of prime importance in setting the national agenda) who see the “war” as a U.S. financed operation, but Sicilia’s movement seems to be growing, and it’s not so much a question of whether the state responds directly to this or that specific demand, but whether such a movement represents a genuine trend in Mexican culture, and that the state is forced to respond to the trend in some way.

I believe we are seeing genuine change.  Some are troubling, like the attacks on drug rehabs — which could be the gangsters response to fears of narcotics sales in Mexico, or extrajudicial action (i.e. death squads) with the same goal as the gangsters, or, as some of the ¡No mas sangre! people suspect, a desperate attempt to deter what is a growing social movement.  Others, less noticed, are state actions.

Lorena Martínez, Aguascaliente’s Presidenta Municipal, in announcing new investments in cultural activities highlighted that the budget for new programs is coming, in large part, from her public security budget:

We are perhaps the only municipality in the country which has allocated more than 10 percent of its crime prevention budget to the Institute of Culture.  Instead of spending money to buy guys and cars, we are investing in this area.

Can we say this was not a direct result of the ¡No mas sangre! movement or Javier Sicilia’s peace march, or that it isn’t part of the same anti-militarization trend?

While there is recognition that changing cultural attitudes towards the police  — something supposedly financed by Plan Merida — will likely require generations of change, is the decision to fire 400 Juarez police officers (ahead of the Sicilia’s peace caravan) related, as the Latin American News-Dispatch suggested?

[Chihuahua Governor Cesar]Duarte also announced last month a call for young professionals and college graduates to join the police forces of Ciudad Juárez and other cities in Chihuahua that have been riddled with corruption and drug cartel influence. The new strategy, which raises the pay for recruits with higher education, hopes to draw in 2,100 college students into Juárez’s police force alone.

Both of yesterday’s announcements came as hundreds of protestors are crossing the country in what has been dubbed the “Caravan of Peace.” The week long, 12-state tour that ends in Juárez was started by poet-turned-activist Javier Sicilia after his 24-year old son was killed by cartel members in March.

And, is it only coincidence that in the United States there are question being raised in the United States is about how Plan Merida and other “anti-narcotics project” funding is being used?

“We are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we are getting in return,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chair of the Senate subcommittee that authored the report, said in a statement Wednesday.

In total, the U.S. government paid contractors more than $3 billion for work in the war on drugs in Latin America between 2005 and 2009. Counternarcotics contract spending increased 32% over the five-year period, from $482 million in 2005 to $635 million in 2009.

When Felipe Calderón gave the commencement address at Stanford University last week, an airplane flew over the stadium pulling a banner.

That the meaning was lost on most of the the Californians, but that  is to be expected, given the lack of coverage of this country’s social movements in the United States.  After all, no one expected the North African and Arab Spring either, which didn’t mean political and social change wasn’t in the air, and floating around in cyber-space and the marketplace.

I don’t know how much the foreign media is paying attention to Mexican cyber-communications, aside from that related to the narcotics story.  Or to the frustrated middle class, the “ni-nis”, the “alternative politics” of MORENA and the Zapatistas and the ¡No mas sangre! and other peace movements.

Don Porfirio is said to have quipped, “nothing happens in Mexico… until it happens.”  Those who report can only say “nothing happens” and those who look at our history — which ends in some surprising change that turns out to be a compromise (like those that ended the Cristero War, the Reform War, the War of Independence, the Revolution, the reign of the PRI, etc.) — can only hope that what we believe to be signs are signs of a change for the better.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. kwallek permalink
    15 June 2011 7:10 am

    On little things changing big things: There was a German boy who flew a small plane to Red Square in Moscow, landed said plane and was detained. No big deal. But heads rolled in the Russian military and government over the breach, new blood was installed. A crack in the wall because it was clear to all that Moscow was toast if war was started with the west.

  2. 20 June 2011 10:14 am

    Interesting that you(or someone) made the statement : the drug war is coming to an end” added: “and perhaps sooner than I realize.”.
    While the term “prohibition” as a label is cropping up in the current lexicon.
    Yes, prohibition did come to an end in the 1930’s and it was a stupid idea, in retrospect. But, people fear that cocaine and meth-amphetamines are in a different league, far more dangerous. The fact that marijuana is illegal can be chucked onto the “stupid” pile.
    So, should we separate drugs ? Alcohol is sold in Mexico at 39%, obviously to save us from ourselves.
    Proposition 19 in California, to legalize marijuana was voted down. People that grow and sell marijuana would have been severely hurt economically.
    I am glad that someone can optimistically see and end to the drug war, because, I can not.

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