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The narcos: saving them from us, or us from them?

11 January 2020

Not often a doctoral research project is the subject of broad media coverage, but Karina Garcia Reyes, having been forced to continue her academic career in England because of the “narco war” in northern Mexico, has focused on what makes a “narco”.  A rather uncomfortable question when the answer is likely to be “we do”.  While the entire article (here, here, and here, just for starters) on her basic research and findings is too long for a quick and dirty translation, here is a partial translation of the more salient points,

The study itself involved in-depth interviews with 33 “narcos”… the largest cohort ever interviewed.  While the majority (61%) of the interviewees are distributors, hitmen (27%), people smugglers (6%) transporters, and body guards were also interviewed.  All reported being abused, or witnessing abuse, as children, with 85% of them mentioning having had thoughts of murdering their parents.

That violence begets violence is a cliché, and something not unexpected.  What is unexpected is that these narcos do not claim to have entered the trade for lack of other opportunities, but rather because, being sent the message that they were worthless, and seen culturally as “disposable” people:

The narco’s discourse gives meaning to abject poverty. It is assumed that poor people have no future and therefore have nothing to lose. As one of my interviewees … said: “I knew that I would grow and die in poverty and just ask God: Why me?”. Poverty is naturalized, it is understood as an inevitable condition for which no one is responsible.  There is an assumption that “someone has to be poor” … and that “you cannot do anything to avoid it”.

This vision of poverty implies an individualistic vision of the world: individuals are responsible for their economic and social development. “I knew I was alone, if I wanted something I had to get it for myself”.

The logic of the narco’s discourse in terms of poverty is that individuals are alone and therefore “the law of the strongest” …

The narcotics trade is a violent, lawless one where the only law is the “law of the jungle”. Toss in our increasing acceptance of the maxim “he with the most toys wins” (not a phrase used in the original publication), and you can understand that the “toxic masculinity” of the narco is more a survival mechanism than it is a predictor of who will, and who won’t, become a gangster.

It was Machiavelli, not Dr. García, who wrote “It is better to be feared than to be loved”:

Participants referred to the slums as “the jungle” referring to the law of the strongest. Physical violence is essential to survive, literally.

The narco’s speech highlights a key aspect of violence: it is learned. Men are not born, they become violent. As Jorge explains: “When I was a child, the older children beat me, they took advantage of me because I was alone. I was not violent … but I had to become violent, more violent than they. You have to do it if you want to survive on the streets. ”

In “the jungle” men also survive by having a certain reputation. It is assumed that the “real man” is heterosexual, womanizer, “good for the party, drugs and alcohol” (Dávila).

This discourse also recognizes that, unlike women, the real man cannot show his fears, his emotions and weaknesses, and the best way to do so is to show strength and dominance in all territories: in the gang, in fights with rival gangs and in their homes, with their families.

And, so.. García discovers that narcos are poor, unwanted, and turn to violence. So far, our response has been to turn to state violence. Again, violence begets violence. nothing we didn’t think we knew already.

Although poverty is recognized as the mother of all evils, we do not know what it means to live in poverty. The problem of violence can only be minimized and avoided if it is understood and attacked locally. Each region, each neighborhood, has specific problems and needs. Mass designed public policies will not work. And perhaps this is the big problem, solving the problem at its root does not offer huge political rewards.

Similarly, the dominant views of masculinty in Latin America not only justifies, but encourages violence. The solution to the problems in the region invariably is aggression and militarized security policies. Non-violent policies are not an option so far given our institionalized machismo and violence.

García Reyes mentions that her study was in reaction to the frustration she had with the Calderón era “war on drugs” that spun out of control and forced her to work abroad. Her study, financed by the Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONAYCT, for its acronym in Spanish) and the Mexican Secretariat of Education (SEP), is — one hopes — being read with policy making circle:

The key to attacking violence is to understand it: where does it come from? Who and how is it justified? How does it reproduce? How have you dealt with it? To answer them, we need an interdisciplinary approach and the willingness of our governments to listen.

What is most urgent is a paradigm shift: the military return to the barracks, we must begin to solve complex problem locally (even though that doesn’t bring rewards to politicians), and leave behind the binary discourse that justifies simply killing “them”, which only feeds their indifference towards “us”.

One hopes, the simplistic military solution to the “narco problem” is a thing of the past, despite criticism (especially in English-language media) of the new “abrazos no balazo” approach favored by AMLO’s government. Although mistranslated as “hugs not bullet” an abrazo is not just a hug, but a sign of welcome and acceptance. Of tolerance for the other. Of erasing the difference between “us” and “them”.

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