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The cartels do not exist… or so he says.

10 June 2018

I have not heard of Oswaldo Zavala before I read this article in yesterday’s El País.  Obviously, I haven’t read his book either, but there is something to be said for his basic contention, that the “cartels” are largely a fictional construction.  It is not that narcotics traffickers don’t exist (of course they do), nor that people aren’t killed (a lot of people in this country are), but that in creating a myth of some super-organized criminal enterprise, we suspend our critical thinking facilities in favor of simple, clean narratives… where the truth may be messier, and more disturbing than what we are told.

When US based writers about this part of the world started using the acronym TCO (Transnational Criminal Organization) a few years back (a fad that thankfully has passed), it seemed obvious to me that “drug war” apparatchiks were trying to conflate what is either a public health problem or a police matter, into a national security issue that would justify not only their existence, but the allocation of more and more resources.  Also, having lived for several years in Sinaloa, and seeing the abject poverty in the “golden triangle”, the idea that a bunch of backwoods hard-scrabble farmers were somehow the masterminds of a world-wide conspiracy always seemed far-fetched. That a dirt-farmer like Chapo Guzman was repackaged in the United States media (and to a large extent, here as well) as the new Osama bin Ladin was amazing, when I didn’t find it ludicrous.

The gangsters we have to deal with do include people who traffic in narcotics… meeting the consumer demand of the country north of us that consumes a quarter of the world supply every year.  No doubt.  But, perhaps those gangsters are merely the foot soldiers in a war not so much to control that export, but to control resources and to maintain a crumbling status quo.

“El Chapo Guzmán es la mayor ficción de la supuesta guerra del narco”

Pablo Ferri, El País Internaciónal, 9 June 2018.

(my imperfect translation)

What do we talk about when we talk about Mexican narcos? What does it mean when we say a cartel controls a state, that there is a raging war in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Jalisco or Michoacán? What is a sicario, a plaza, a halcón? What is this slaughter, that has bled the country for years?

They are the words that appear in official reports, in the press, magazines, novels, and on television series … And yet, what do they mean? Do we do mean anything when we talk about a “drug war”, ans speak of El Chapo, Los Zetas or Jalisco Nueva Generación “controlling a plaza”? Oswaldo Zavala (Ciudad Juárez, 1975) says no. A resounding no.

Los Cárteles No Existen (Malpaso, 2018), his latest essay, questions the official narrative built around violence in the country. There is no war among the cartels, Zavala argues, because a cartel war is simply a n understandable, digestible explanation for the tens of thousands of deaths and disappearances left by the conflict. That is why he writes “so-called”: A so-called war, a so-called cartel, so-called criminal leaders. They are simply assumptions: “My interest is to show a discourse that builds an enemy that is everywhere and that is the main actor of violence, and then to understand what lies behind it: “a political system that uses language to advance otherwise unacceptable strategies.”

Question: If the cartels do not exist then, what is there?

Answer: The cartels do not exist but the state violence does. We have to understand that these violent times are related to the history of the political system. To understand that, we need to look at the history of drug trafficking. The idea of “cartels” received idea, created by the United States in the 1980s as a way to talk about Colombian traffickers.In Mexico it became useful as a narrative which allows very quickly, very simply, to give us a concise idea about violence. And that justifies state strategies.

Q: You distinguish between three phases in the relationships between the criminal groups and the state. First, a “primitive” one, corresponding to Mexico prior to the powerful deployment of the Federal Security Directorate – the fearsome counter-insurgency body of the PRI state. The second that was born with Operation Condor in the 1970s and the organization of the Sinaloa traffickers in Guadalajara and lastly, that which followed the dismantling of the DFS and the loss of power of the PRI. Now what?

A: I would start with Operation Condor. 1975 saw the first concerted militarized action between the US and Mexico to attack the golden triangle – the poppy and marijuana growing region on the borders of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. 10,000 troops arrived in the golden triangle, burning crops and depopulating the area . There is a massive exodus of peasants to Culiacán, Sinaloa … something not repeated until the Calderón government. At least with the same force. That led the political system to develop a national drug trafficking management — marginalizing the political power of the traffickers and producrs, using the DFS and the Army as enforcers.

A second stage began when the global communist threat evaporated, leaving the United States without a security threat. The Soviet Union fell and President Reagan reprogrammed the security objectives to think now of drug trafficking as the new national security threat. And so it has been ever since. Up to then, narcos were a police matter. Although [narcotics trafficking was considered as a security matter as early as 1989] by CISEN — the secret service, which replaced the DFS —it is with Calderón that Mexico becomes Colombian. That is to say, the true Colombianization is not because of Chapo, or due to narcos attacking civil society, but to the state’s response.

Q: How then do you explain situations like the recent disappearance and murder of film students in Jalisco, or the assault on a former prosecutor in the heart of Guadalajara ? If the cartels do not exist, then how to account for events like these?

A: Part of the problem is this. We want quick answers if journalists are to do their job. We are used a reassuring explanation that will give us a logical rationale for the violence. And that is one way the official story is implanted in the public arena with so much power. There is a shooting, people are dead and immediately we are told through an official spokesperson: ‘It is the Jalisco Cartel, which also knocked down a helicopter and there is an operation to stop them’. And all the journalists write “it was the cartel” and the story is done. In a country with an extraordinary rate of impunity, I am surprised at the ease with which we accept the official account.

Q: Am I the to suppose that you see El Chapo’s story as a great work of fiction?

A: Completely. When he was arrested in a Sinaloa apartment (in February 2014), he was alone with his wife. As a The New York Times reporter embarrassingly said, “This is crazy: no tunnels, no army [of hitmen and bodyguards] and they catch him as it it was nothing. Incredible!” … No, possibly this was the reality! The amazing thing is that you think he has 300 soldiers. Who ever saw them? No one.

Q: Yes. El Chapo is the main actor in this comedy that you call the narco war, I suppose that the escape from a maximum jail prison through a tunnel. in July 2015 is your favorite story.

A: Not only is the story implausible, but it presents a journalistic challenge. Who built that tunnel? I was fascinated by the fact that everyone took pains to describe the tunnel, how it was ventilated, but nobody questioned whether Chapo’s built it or not. Yes, he said that people inside the prison helped him, that he paid bribes, but that it was his idea, and thanks to those bribes it worked. . That is to say, there is never anything outside the official narrative. It is still believed that he orchestrated the event. It seems incredible to me that it is obvious that there political interests in permitting his escape.

Q: So, is [your thesis] a theoretical construction that serves to denounce corruption? Or what is the intention? Is there one, several?

A: There is a huge disconnect in how narco narratives are used. Sometimes there are natural resources issues mixed in, sometimes a dispute between power groups. Take the case of Chihuahua. There powerful groups are allied with even more powerful business interests stripping resources from the mountains, as reported by Miroslava Breach (killed a little over a year ago). What we call the “narco powers” are actually these rapacious groups logging the forests and fucking up the environoment, allied with businessmen and politicians, PRI in the case of Chihuahua. There was a transition to a PAN governor before Miroslavas’ murder. They felt threatened, but what better way to destabilize the state that to create a new war to divert attention?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Peter Melvoin permalink
    10 June 2018 2:54 pm

    The Soviet Union did not fall (formally) until Yeltsin was in power, i.e., 1991. Zevala has somewhat confused their history–USSR>CIS– here. This raises questions about other assertions

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