Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

[Part 1] La Terreur to El Terror: The Mexican Drug War’s place in the history of the expression of social power

By Jeremy Sideris—from Coffin Bell [republished by permission of the author]

"Execution videos are, however, produced with performance contexts in mind, whether the American viewership picks up on them, or not...."

Part One

In Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, Foucault (1977) suggests the public torture and execution of criminals by the State were vulgar, and sometimes provocative, rhetorical performances. Public torture and execution were explicit, theatrical displays of institutional power, demonstrating to the onlookers that they, like the condemned people standing before them, lacked primary ownership of their outward person (the flesh) and inward person (the blood). The more severe the crime, the more blood was let; the State reestablishing power visually in relation to the levels of transgressions committed by the condemned.

In this way, an executioner, the physical embodiment of the State, was reviled socially, but held in awe publicly. The executioner was made an outcast and held in esteem for the same reason: He maintained an inflexible social order. It is well known many such public gatherings had a festive, carnival atmosphere; however, if the condemned was a popular or sympathetic person, or if the executioner handled his work unskillfully, the State could be perceived by the masses as unjust or inept, and questioning of the State might begin (Moore, 2017).

Nevertheless, the “fact remains that a few decades [after Damiens’ 1757 execution, France], saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on the face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared” (Foucault, 1977, p. 8). The end of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794) substantiated the general change in European punitive norms that Foucault describes. Put simply, many of the Revolution’s leaders fell prey to the same physical terror they had inspired; the Reign of Terror concluded with Revolution leader Robespierre’s own beheading. A riled public cowed no longer by the State’s instrument, in this case the guillotine, known colloquially as the ‘National Razor,’ now made the object of public execution the executioner.

The State chose then to express its power more implicitly, moving punishment out of the town square and into prisons closed to the public. In other words, “punishment of an immediately less physical kind, a certain discretion in the inflicting of pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display” became the new accepted norm (p. 8). In Europe and The United States, and with the exceptions of capital offenses and the treatment of American slaves, the threat of long social isolation through imprisonment replaced the immediate threat of bodily destruction. So instilled has this adjusted penal norm become in the Western world that summary, or immediate, execution by representatives of the State may now be prosecuted as murder, and during war, as a war crime.

Capital punishment is legal in 31 of America’s 50 states. Though application of the death penalty is increasingly rare in America, its continuation is based on reaching didactic and cathartic ends. Death penalty supporters tend to believe the implied threat of this punishment deters capital-level crimes. The punishment is thought also to provide explicit justice to the families of the felons’ victims. Note, too, that use of the death penalty in America today is not a rhetorical performance meant to keep a regime in power.

So few people, in America, can witness executions, save for State officials, representative members of the families of victims and offenders, and a few journalists, that for most Americans, capital punishment is at most an abstract idea. We fear the State less because we are forbidden from seeing the State carrying out its most fearsome task, the ending of human life. Moreover, American social norms in the main forbid the public from seeing real death in traditional media. Mainstream American news outlets, for instance, will publish pictures of a lake where a child drowned, but not of the drowned child, the scene of a mass shooting, but not of the shooting’s victims, and an execution chamber, but not of the executed individual.

On the other hand, while televised news media will show body camera or observer video footage of police shootings of suspects, but not the moment of bullet impact, this latter reporting has had, perhaps, an unintended effect. Each police shooting reminds the public that the State, in fact, has power over life and death, and at least for the duration of a news cycle, State power is seen by many people again as explicit, and not implicit.

This is not to say many Americans today are not fond of witnessing violence. Cinematic violence is historically far more palatable to the American audience than cinematic sex is (Bowden, 2016), and violence-charged films and video games are less likely to receive industry ratings that would make them adult only (Dill-Shackleford, 2011). Thus, because cinematic violence may have desensitized the American public to actual violence generally (Archer, 2013), the growing number and popularity of real-life execution videos filmed outside of the United States and now found readily in nontraditional media online may be explained.

Public interest in decapitation was renewed in 2004 with the filmed murder of Nicholas Berg, an American electrician kidnapped in Iraq by jihadists. Prior, most attention to the subject was accorded to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, though increased attention given to Japanese war crimes committed during the Second World War is noted. Hitler’s use of decapitation as a chief punishment for political prisoners is, however, almost unknown to the public.

One can perhaps trace this renewed interest in decapitation by examining the traditional American televised news medias’ handling of the subject. Most news programming played a brief clip of Berg’s screams over a picture of him seated in front of his captors. More importantly, each newscast said it would not show the video that Berg’s screams were drawn from to maintain good taste and sensitivity for his family.

This decision to keep decorum had a twofold effect. First, the decision would suggest to the very curious that they could find the video for themselves online as it was said to have been posted by terrorist organization Muntada al-Ansar (Filkins, 2004). Second, nontraditional rightwing news outlets began to post the video on their websites in the rhetorical vein of ‘Why We Fight,’ but also to accuse mainstream media of effete left-wing censorship during a time of national crisis stemming from the 9/11 attacks of a few years before.

 Berg’s experience was re-positioned in the United States from that of an unlucky American civilian murdered to an American executed illegally by a hostile foreign power. To the jihadis under Musab al-Zarqawi, Berg’s killing was a performance of revenge and political theater from the start. One of his masked executioners exclaimed, “So we tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls. You will receive nothing from us but coffin after coffin slaughtered in this way” (As cited in Filkins, 2004, para. 18). Decapitation is, then, seen as a deliberate persuasive maneuver.

Decapitation has held different social contexts throughout Western history. For most of Early Modern Europe, decapitation was reserved generally for the nobility as it did not involve commoners laying hands on the royal person, while hanging was reserved for the poor as it was thought to be ignominious. Moreover, the use of a sword was believed to render decapitation quick and painless, as would an axe, but only if the latter was handled by a master executioner. Conversely, Early Modern hanging did not involve breaking of the neck; rather, a short rope was used to ensure slow strangulation. Punishment for the ultimate offense, high treason, disregarded social class inasmuch the convicted was to be hanged, eviscerated, delimbed, and decapitated (Moore, 2017). However, the French Revolution’s radical elimination of all social class and associated privilege put forth that all citizen-enemies of the State would share the same equal fate: the quickest decapitation made possible with use of the guillotine, considered then the most humane execution method. Absent in today’s filmed decapitations is the idea of the humane. Axes, knives, and machetes are more-often-than-not the weapons used.

David Grossman’s On killing: The psychological cost of killing in war and society (2009) tells us the act of cutting another person is among the most physically intimate of violent actions because, unlike shooting, there is little spatial distance between the actor and the acted upon; only eye gouging is said to be more intimate. Thus, while fear was certainly a part of the French Revolution—in 1793, the public began to refer to it as la Terreur, after all—there was little physical intimacy between executioner and the executed. An executioner pulled a lever, which caused the guillotine’s blade to fall. The executioner did not take an edged weapon to his prisoner’s neck personally. In fact, executioners and their assistants could be imprisoned if they were suspected of breaking etiquette by mishandling a corpse (Mignet, 1824). Robespierre, then, imposed revolutionary fervor among France’s citizens through a bloody, but dispassionate public performance. He attempted to justify the new State terror, saying:

If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the homeland. (Robespierre, 1794, as cited in Linton, 2006, p.26)

We see the French public were made to witness executions meant to enforce a rigid social order and a social order without class distinction in the same generation. A seemingly idiosyncratic historical nuance, what unifies these public performances of violence, passionate or dispassionate, is the use of terror to promote pragmatic goals.

Despite normative social values in the United States that frown upon the showing of actual death publicly, today’s Americans may be more comfortable with viewing the growing number of filmed decapitations online because they can watch them from a safe intellectual, if not emotional, distance. For one, Americans choose for themselves to watch these videos; the State does not command the public to view executions as it did in the Early Modern Western world. Next, citizens of the United States are not watching Americans being executed by the American government; they are not subjecting themselves to witnessing the abuses of a Terror-based regime governing their homeland. Rather, Americans may take the violence they are viewing as not belonging to their own people because the videos are produced primarily in Brazil, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The sense of the video participants’ ethnic otherness is emphasized first as the English language is not used very often, except in video titles, which erases almost all performance contexts other than one foreigner is being killed by other foreigners.

Ethnic otherness is emphasized also by the Pre-Modern killing methods one may observe. Nigerian execution videos, for example, record the burning of people alive, stonings, and decapitations. An idea of Western exceptionalism may spring then from the consumption of these videos, the American audience believing themselves perhaps more civilized or falling otherwise into a race-centered confirmation bias. Further still, the American public, like other people, may have a human interest in death that borders on the morbid (Zuckerman & Litle, 1986), and execution videos could have replaced the lethal accident and morgue photographs found commonly online during the Internet’s early years. People, in other words, may turn to viewing the grotesque to understand the arbitrary workings of a cruel world.

Execution videos are, however, produced with performance contexts in mind, whether the American viewership picks up on them, or not. Online, these short films present two rhetorical contexts: one explicit, for the local audiences the videos are meant for, and the other implicit, for world audiences who happen upon them. Implicitly, the videos suggest a general introduction with the aim to shock, as in, ‘We are the Zetas, and we do not have a problem killing these four women.’ Explicitly, the videos send a specific message to a targeted enemy, as in, ‘Your aunties are about to suffer because you have worked against the Zetas.’ Here, exploring a further Mexican context is most conducive for analysis.

Almost half of Mexico exists as a narco-state (Grillo, 2011). Various drug cartels vie for control of lucrative plazas, or distribution points along the Mexico-United States border, as well as growing and production areas farther south. The United States’ government believes the drug cartels make between $19-to-$26 billion from narcotic sales in the United States (Morton & Williams, 2010), though former Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna places that number closer to $64 billion (Latin American herald tribune, 2017). Gaining access to these monies provokes, finances, and perpetuates a bipartite war that places the Mexican State against the cartels and the cartels against each other. Almost one-third of cartel income is said to have gone toward the purchase of arms and body armor (Grillo, 2011), and there are more than 6,600 gun shops along the American side of the 1,954-mile border.

There is only one gun shop in all of Mexico (McKinley, 2009). Since 2006, the warring has led to the deaths of almost 200,000 people and an overall sense of lawlessness (Breslaw, 2015; Fisher & Taub, 2017; Tucker, 2018). Cartel-directed assassinations of mid-to-low-level political candidates and municipal workers, for instance, took the lives of more than 90 people in recent months (Valencia, 2018), and over 80 journalists have been murdered or disappeared for reporting cartel activities from 2006 on (Dearman, 2016; Kahn, 2017). Journalists have been intimidated to the point where a news blackout of organized crime activities in cartel-controlled areas exists (Emmott, 2010; Priest, 2015), and infamously, a front-page editorial in newspaper El diario de Juárez (2010)asked the cartels what is permissible to publish, stating, “Tell us therefore what is expected of us” (As cited in Carroll, 2010, para. 4).

Citizen-journalists, who attempted to carry on the work of news media on Twitter and Facebook accounts, such as Valor por Tamaulipas and Responsabilidad por Tamaulipas mended their nascent work largely, too, after the 2014 murder of Responsabilidad por Tamaulipas site administrator Maŕia del Rosario Fuentes Rubio and they and their families received death threats, some on printed flyers; only blog Borderland beat retains a strong online presence, likely because of the extreme Web security measures undertaken by its citizen staff. Moreover, in regions controlled by the cartels, just 20-percent of murder cases end in arrest, (Linthicum, 2017), and only 1-3-percent of murder cases end in conviction (Grillo, 2011; Alcántara 2008).

It is well known Mexican police serving in proximity to the cartels are given often the impossible choice of working for the cartels or being made to see their families murdered; consequently, while some police officers have quit out of protest or have fled their posts from fear (Associated Press, 2008; Quinones, Rudman, & Patrick, 2011), many are now on the cartels’ payrolls and are, thus, new targets for rival cartels, themselves. To combat the effects of police officer defection, the Mexican military has assumed a far-ranging posse comitatus role, and the private personal security industry is flourishing. Since 2006, 494 Mexican soldiers have been killed while fighting the cartels (Gagne, 2017). Additionally, in Southern Mexico, villagers formed armed militias, known as autodefensas, to drive cartels away, but the Mexican government disbanded most of them because private gun ownership is all but forbidden in Mexico.Autodefensas have not appeared in Northern  Mexico as much as cartel hegemony there is more complete.

Looking at the Mexican context, we see the cartels have almost complete control over the presentation of their images. Mexican traditional and nontraditional news media, for the most part, and in an act of autocensura, or self-censorship, repudiate the cartels no longer, and most of the images of organized crime the public receives are now cartel-produced propaganda; the Zetas cartel, for example, is said to have a media director (Priest, 2015). This propaganda takes many forms: group photos of men holding rifles, wearing black face masks with or without the white image of a skeletal jaw, and dressed in usually dark military uniforms and combat helmets, though camouflage uniforms are seen, too; filmed ‘news conferences’ held by men dressed similarly as those in the aforementioned group photos; filmed convoys of late-model pickup trucks carrying armed men; films of gun battles and kidnappings; commissioned narcocorridos, or folks songs of praise; news releases of parties for children and gifts for neighborhood residents; public advertisements for career opportunities within the cartels; the hanging of victims from highway overpasses; the parking of vehicles filled with dismembered corpses in public areas, such as in front of townhalls, police stations, at road intersections, and on freeways; human heads left in the same places mentioned above, but thrown also into dance clubs; and the execution videos we have discussed thus far.

Most all victims’ corpses are accompanied by a narcomensaje or narcomanta, narco-messages, written on a placard or a bedsheet, respectively. These messages, which tend to use poor grammar, carry out two tasks: first, to rationalize the action taken, and second, to warn opponents and rivals away from causing future trouble. A unifying feature of these messages is each will bear the name of the cartel responsible for the murder and will likely provide the nickname of the leader who ordered it, as well. Mexican execution videos share this naming tendency, but with some unintentional irony. Masked men will declare their cartel association and leader often.

One may surmise the self-identification results from little material fear of criminal prosecution (Linthicum, 2017; Alcántara 2008), but then again, the point of public execution is to be seen (Foucault, 1977). However, the cartels’ presentation of corpses is almost always symbolic. Consider Primera hora editor-in-chief Marisol Maćias Castañeda’s severed head was placed on her computer’s keyboard in a popular park with the accompanying message signed by the Zetas Cartel (2011):

O.K. Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites, I’m the Laredo girl, and I’m here because of my reports, and yours…For those who don’t want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for believing in the ARMY and the NAVY. Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo “Girl”…ZZZZ (As cited in Borderland beat, September 24, 2011, para. 8)

Thus, while Maćias’ death was literal, the deliberate placement of her head on her computer’s keyboard symbolized the ongoing criminal threat to professional and citizen-journalists. Six-weeks later, the decapitated remains of a person, said by the Zetas to be a blogger affiliated with Maćias, were placed in the same location as Maćias’ corpse; his narcomensaje said, in part,

 “Hello! I’m Rascatripas and this happened to me for failing to understand that I should not report things on social media websites” (Zetas, 2011, as cited in Borderland beat, November 9, 2011, para. 6).

Nevertheless, corpses have become abstractions. It is assumed no longer that the dead the public happens upon on the streets or sees in execution videos are always rival cartel members or citizens, who will not bend to organized crime will. As the level of violence in Mexico increases, greater demonstrations of vulgar power are required to sustain all-important shock value, and one finds “innocents used as props [….] chosen randomly to create a macabre display” (Martinez, 2012, paras. 1; 12). The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), Cártel del Golfo (CDG), Cártel de Sinaloa, Zetas Cartel, and Millenio Cartel are known to kidnap random passersby for use in proportional revenge killings. Put simply, if one cartel was to kidnap and murder 35 civilians to cite them falsely as  belonging to an opposing cartel, the named opposing cartel would do the same with a similar number of civilians to preserve its honor (Martinez, 2012).

How the cartels dress for the camera is symbolic, also. Yes, while it is not uncommon to find members dressed for the ranch in jeans, long-sleeve button-down shirts or plain tee shirts, and boots, official presentations are decidedly rhetorical performances. In official organized crime media, it is easy to confuse cartel members with the Mexican federal police and military. The latter wear ski masks as a means of identity protection; the cartels wear ski and motorcycle face masks. Black body armor is worn by all groups, and what separates one uniform from another are insignia, such as embroidered patches. The helmets and black caps worn are the same, too, as are the high-caliber weapons carried. Even the poses taken in photographs are similar: members of the Mexican federal police and military will stand behind captured weapons, drugs, and suspects; members of the cartels will stand behind the people they have kidnapped.

One difference in the posing is the cartels will almost always have their prisoners kneeling and often in various stages of undress. Another difference is cartels will tend to pose a second time after their prisoners have been murdered, holding severed heads, limbs, or organs, which reminds one of Pre-Modern woodcuts of public executions. Though the Mexican federal police and military are known to limit themselves to taking routine crime scene photographs after shootouts with the cartels, one instance of posing a body for mass publication, the laid-out corpse of drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva that the authorities had disrobed partially and littered with cash, backfired terrifically. The night after the funeral of a commando killed during the siege of Beltrán Leyva’s condominium, the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) had the commando’s mother, sister, brother, and aunt shot-to-death in their sleep (Wilkinson, 2009). Yet, confusing the cartel members with the Mexican federal police and military results not only from similar appearance, but also from similar intent.

It has been established that organized crime directs the greater part of local police forces in regions under its control. The corruption associated with municipal law enforcement, as a representative of the State, has inured the Mexican public to distrust of the State, especially asreporting a cartel-related crime at the local precinct office can lead to the citizen being delivered by police officers to the cartel he or she sought to accuse. In what appears to be the Mexican federal government’s attempt at restoring hegemony, municipal law enforcement in major cities, such as Nuevo Laredo and Veracruz has been replaced largely by the military. However, the United States’ government believes the only section of the Mexican military to be uncorrupted is the naval special forces (Wikileaks, 2009; Grillo, 2011).

It is thought further that the Mexican Army has battled the cartels only selectively; that before Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s second-of-two federal guard-assisted escapes from prison, the Mexican government fought Sinaloa’s enemies while, to maintain the appearance of objectivity, Guzmán Loera would arrange for the State the occasional capture of Sinaloa associates, who had fallen out of his favor (Roston, 2012; Payan, Kruszewski, & Staudt 2013). Appearances matter. While it had efficient paramilitary hit squads like any other cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel was believed to possess a different ethos than its rivals, preferring first to bribe its way into control. If the Mexican government could not eradicate the cartels, it preferred to support the branch of organized crime that did not depend wholly on publicized terror to impose its will, like the Zetas. Supporting Sinaloa clandestinely would hurry-up Guzmán Loera’s bids for the key plazas of Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Tijuana, it was supposed, and Mexico’s veneer of a stable and proud land friendly to tourists would return. Guzmán Loera’s incursions, however, failed in the main. Despite the collaboration of Ciudad Juárez’s authorities and the Mexican Army (Burnett & Peñalosa, & Benincasa 2010), the Juárez Cartel fought Sinaloa more-or-less to a draw, and Ciudad Juárez became more dangerous than Baghdad, Iraq (El universal, 2010).

In Mexico’s northeast, the Zetas shattered Sinaloa’s invasion, and the region became known for its execution and narco combat-related videos. Guzmán Loera, though, found success in Tijuana against the Arellano-Félix Organization, known also as the Tijuana Cartel. It bears noting La Línea, the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel, consists of former and current police officers (Langton, 2011), and the Zetas Cartel was formed from members of the Mexican Army’s United States-trained elite Special-Forces Airmobile Group (GAFE), who deserted at the behest of the Cártel del Golfo (Grayson & Logan, 2012). Therefore, the cartels use elements of the Mexican government to fight the Mexican government and each other. This impossible situation is exacerbated by the Mexican government’s preference for targeting high-level cartel leaders. While this strategy guarantees good publicity for the State in the form of spectacular arrests, it has had the sum effect of creating multiple power vacuums and increased violence associated with factional fighting and the renewed testing of territorial borders by rival cartels (Wikileaks, 2009). Organized crime has splintered, the Mexican government faces now almost four-times the number of criminal organizations, and 2017 has been recorded as the country’s deadliest year (BBC Monitoring, 2018).

The Mexican Drug War that began in 2006 shows no sign of ending soon. No one cartel is strong enough to dominate the others completely. The Mexican government has yet to commit itself to total war against the cartels. There is too much money to be made, and the lure of gaining even the smallest part of the billions of American dollars fought for will continue to draw Mexico’s poor into a life within organized crime; one remembers the price of a contract killing in Ciudad Juárez is about $75 (Grillo, 2011), when a week of the best legitimate factory work pays more-or-less the same amount (Blake, 2010). The general American belief that marijuana legalization in the United States will cause the cartels to wither and die is outdated at best and naïve at worst.

Marijuana sales account for only a fraction of cartel profits now as Mexican organized crime has diversified into car theft, cocaine sales, counterfeit CD and DVD sales, extortion, gasoline theft/pipeline tapping, heroin sales, human organ harvesting, human trafficking, kidnapping, methamphetamine sales, minerals racketeering, produce racketeering (chiefly within the avocado and lime markets), sex trafficking, and territory/franchise leasing (Fry, 2014; Kahn, 2018). This anti-Prohibition argument depends too much on the limited, historical American context, that the 1933 removal of alcohol’s illegality removed the gangster selling it. More importantly, though, the argument ignores the idea that American drug users, especially hard drug users, tend to care much more about the quality of narcotics than where the narcotics come from.

For example, “[…] some people who are so careful about making sure they buy fair-trade coffee and farm-to-table beef think nothing of buying marijuana which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths, and harvested by slave labor” (Gross, 2015, para. 89). And “[the United States is] the largest drug market in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population. We consume 25 percent of the world’s illegal drugs (Winslow, 2015, as cited in Gross, 2015, para. 67) [….] [W]e ought to know the provenance of the drugs we’re taking” (para. 92). The popularity of Mexican narcotics in American society may be another reason, beyond the cartel-inspired news blackout, why the public hears frequently about other crises, such as Syria’s Civil War or the missing girls of Nigeria. News media tend to give their consumers what is sensational, but ultimately palatable.

The American public can, for instance, learn about the 2014 Chibok Schoolgirls’ Kidnapping, where terrorist group Boko Haram abducted 276 young women, without feeling any complicity, but to hear of the 300 dead of the 2011 Allende Massacre, which occurred 39.7-miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas, that is to know “there’s a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you’re having” (para. 92). Nevertheless, the United States government continues to give Mexico $280-million annually for anti-cartel actions, legal reorganization, and military assistance (Slack, 2017). If there has been any winner in the Mexican Drug War thus far, it is the idea of power, itself.

It is interesting how popular American entertainment presents Mexican organized crime often as homogenous, devoid of meaningful group or regional nuances, referring to it merely as ‘the Cartel.’ Or films that give us the common storyline of a ragtag group of plucky agents on the outs with their DEA superiors, who will nonetheless ‘take the Cartel down.’ Most of the time Hollywood seems to depend on the unified, but long-defunct Guadalajara Cartel or the faded Arellano-Félix Organization as its boilerplate templates. Films, such as Traffic (2000), Savages (2012), and Sicario (2015) and television programs, such as Kingpin (2003), Breaking bad (2008-2013) and The bridge (2013-2014) purport to give their American audiences an inside look into the Drug War, but their presentation is at most glancing. Traffic, for instance,outlines nascent cartel rivalry, yet its scope is limited to just two groups associated with only two plazas, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez; even before 2006 the situation in Mexico was not that tidy. Savages and Breaking bad present decapitation, but hardly at the rate that this type of violence was occurring at the time of their filming, and decapitation becomes, thus, only a sensationalistic plot device.

Also, if it is the Juárez Cartel that Walter White opposed, one wonders why the group was so relaxed in the program; the Juárez Cartel was fighting the Cártel de Sinaloa for its existence. The information Sicario provided was simply outdated, and The bridge bordered on the unintentionally absurd with its protagonist, a female agent with Asperger syndrome, able to navigate Ciudad Juárez in the throes of war with ease. The producers of Kingpin, like many Americans, confused the Mexican cartels for the American Mafia, drawing notably from The godfather (1972) andThe Sopranos (1999-2007). While the Mafia is no stranger to violence historically, the most egregious violence is usually hidden from the public intentionally. In the main, the Mafia sees publicized violence now as bad for business. The cartels, on the other hand, see publicized violence as good for business, if this violence does not move into the United States. It is still not considered efficacious to draw that level of direct attention from the American authorities in.

Hollywood has ignored the fact that Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera had long-cultivated a Robin Hood ethos for his cartel, though this ethos suffered in the east of Mexico when it was discovered Guzmán had the bodies of kidnapped Nuevo Laredo civilians presented as members of the Zetas. Guzmán’s action was a calculated strategic deviation, however, because “‘the Sinaloans are more negotiators’ who rely on bribery and coercion to maintain influence” (Benitez, 2016, as cited in Kryt, 2016, para. 25).  The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), known alternately as theMata Zetas (Zeta Killers), and formerly an armed wing of the Cártel de Sinaloa, pursues a social justice ethos. CJNG (2011) told the world on a narcomanta placed at the site of the September 20, 2011 Veracruz Massacre:

No more extortions, no more killings of innocent people! Zetas in the state of Veracruz and politicians helping them: This is going to happen to you, or we can shoot you as we did to you guys before too. People of Veracruz, do not allow yourselves to be extorted; do not pay forprotection; if you do is because you want to. This is the only thing these people can do. This is going to happen to all the [expletive] who continue to operate in Veracruz. This territory has a new proprietor. (As cited in Blog del narco, 2011, para.6)

And in a communique filmed as a news conference four days later, CJNG (2011) refined the message of the earlier narcomanta, saying:

Good afternoon, on this Saturday, 24th of September at 4:00pm we deliver the following communique:
To the federal, state and municipal authorities and society in general. As it is apparent to all of you the plight of insecurity that the country is experiencing is reflected within the nation’s politics, economics, society and military.

In accordance with the above; we, the most vulnerable because of the circumstances of our way of life, want you to understand what is our role in this problem.
As an ethical principle we do not extort, kidnap, rob or oppress or in any other way disturb the national, familial, mental or moral well-being.

Motivated by our personal experiences, we the members of this force that is the paramilitary arm of the people and for the people state that our only objective is the Zetas cartel, with all due respect to the armed forces that we understand cannot act outside the law, which we encourage.

We condemn the evil public servants whose support allows this scourge to continue against society, particularly in the communities of the port of Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Cardel, Xalapa, Poza Rica, Tuxpan, Panuco, Cordova, Orizaba, Perote, San Andres Tuxtla, Martinez de la Torre, Minatitlan, Acayucan, Alvarado, Coatzacoalcos and other municipalities in the state of Veracruz.

We do not avoid our responsibilities, but only fighting under equal terms will we succeed in eradicating the Zeta cartel from the roots up. To accomplish this we ask that that the functionaries and authorities who support the Zetas stop doing so.

That the armed forces be confident that our only objective is to finish off the Zetas and that all of society be confident that we, the Mata Zetas, do not extort, do not kidnap, or in any way damage your personal or the national well-being.

We respect the federal, state and municipal executive powers in their fight against organized crime, and we understand their position of not negotiating which obligates us to act covertly but always to the benefit of the Mexican nation.

We are anonymous warriors, faceless, but proudly Mexican.

We must not fall into the trap of external enemies that wield maliciousness, discredit and wickedness for truly predatory ends.

Shielded by the respect for God and democracy, we reiterate to the federal and local authorities that our fight is against Los Zetas. And if our actions have offended society, the Mexican nation and the federal authorities, we, as representatives of the force that we are part of, ask your forgiveness.

Our intention was to show the people of Veracruz that this scourge against society is not invincible, and that you stop letting yourselves be extorted.

To each his battles and his fears, to us a single heart.

Thank You. (As cited in Borderland beat, 2011, paras. 8-22)

Despite the CJNG having positioned itself as the grim defender of the Mexican people’s dignity, within days the Mexican government admitted the CJNG were, at that time, operatives for the Zetas’ rival, the Cártel de Sinaloa, and that the 35 Veracruz Massacre victims had no ties to organized crime; rather, “most of the victims [were] males between the ages 15 and 30, but there were women too, and two girls ages 15 and 16, as well as a popular transvestite well-known in celebrity circles” (Los Angeles times, 2011, para. 9). Today, the CJNG is a chief rival of the Cártel de Sinaloa, and it battles the Mexican federal police and military, too, having shot down a military helicopter (Tuckman, 2015). The CJNG “is known for its hyper-aggressive, paramilitary tactics,” and extortion, kidnapping, and far-reaching drug trafficking, but that is to say its work resembles that of the older Zetas Cartel (Kryt, 2016, para.1). The Zetas’ ethos is centered almost squarely on unapologetic terror. If the Cártel de Sinaloa’s principle was ‘plata o plomo’(‘silver or lead,’ as in, you may have wealth or a bullet), the Zetas’ credo is ‘plomo.’ The Zetas “‘are seen as the natural enemies of the population’” (Chabat, 2013, as cited in Wills, 2013, para. 9) [….] “‘Los Zetas are not known as a cartel looking for a social base’” (para. 6). Even so, the Zetas are not without nuance.

They hold parties for children. Notice the ease with which they hold their ethos on a narcomanta following 2013 Día del Niño celebrations:

Thank you to all of the children of Victoria and of the neighboring towns for having attended the events held in the different municipalities on the occasion of Children’s Day.

May God bless you all and guide you on the good path to righteousness that you must follow to be men and women of good.

P.S. To everyone that talks about us, that says that we are killers or kidnappers, I just ask you to stop and think before you speak out. We are who we are, but how many of you politicians, businessmen, and rich men looked into your hearts to make these kids happy.

Before speaking think of what I say and then criticize.

God bless our little ones.

Attn. Los Z (As cited in Proceso, 2013, para. 1).

The declaration, “We are who we are,” resonates. Likely, more than a few of these celebrated children had lost relatives at the hands of the Zetas, yet the Zetas make no effort to distance themselves from their horrid reputation. However, when the Zetas poke the social elite, asking what they have done to help the region’s poor children, the Zetas attempt to gain something of a moral high ground. The lasting importance of this public relations’ maneuver remains unclear. Wills (2013) suggests the Día del Niño celebrations may be part of a nascent and overdue campaign to secure local goodwill, but since the Zetas have chosen not to follow through with other altruistic schemes, choosing instead to do little more than continue to sow terror, it appears such strategies remain of little rhetorical interest to them.

The single-minded attention the Zetas have given to securing and holding lucrative drug plazas has been matched by the constancy of their enemies. Throughout its history, the Zetas have warred with most all other cartels, though as part of Mexican organized crime, their alliances have shifted whenever an advantage was thought to be gained. This group, with its history in the Mexican Special Forces, prefers sustained combat over reactive fighting, the latter a characteristic of the Sinaloans (Archibold & Cave, 2012). The Zetas are thought commonly to fear only the Marinas, Mexico’s marines, who have yet to collude with organized crime, but may have committed mass extrajudicial killings of suspects (Sherman, 2018; Diaz, 2018). All the Zetas’ founding members are dead or incarcerated, and like the other cartels now, are subject to factionalism.-------end part one

To access part II use this hyperlink

To view sources use this hyperlink


  1. “Axes, knives, and machetes are more-often-than-not the weapons used.“

    DULL axes, knives, and machetes, on top of that.

    El Cabrón De Tamaulipas

  2. Great read, really well written and interesting.

  3. Chivis this article could have been made into 20 chapters, and you could have relaxed for 2 weeks, a great informative read.

    El Perin de Tamp.

  4. Chivis (Borderland Beat): Thank you very much for posting this article. I found it very useful in that it identified a number of important multi-faceted issues operative in Mexico's "narco-Infection" (my term). The article seems a cobbled together, but useful, smorgasbord of factors and issues linked to so-called Mexican narco-cartels.

    The writer goes from expansive global generalizations on videos of executions (beheading, dismemberment) to the minutiae of Q&A between executioner(s) and victim(s). These generalizations at times seemed well grounded but at other times seemed based on skewed assumptions and blind spots about the topics at hand. I duly recognize that the whole Mexican "Narco" world (crime, violence, corruption, economy, etc) is extremely complex and difficult to comprehend holistically by even the actors caught up in the middle of it.

    IMHO: Using the "infection" metaphor, Mexico has a "systemic" disease (like diabetes,syphilis, or parasite infection) which produce curious varieties of symptoms. Mexico is systemically sick and the doctors are only applying treatments, palliatives and anodynes to "symptoms" of this intractable systemic illness. Is it any surprise, I ask, to see many unintended consequences from these efforts? It is like some narco-corridos and narco-movies are marketed as warnings to youth, but in fact actually induce antisocial values. Or, take religion promoting christian values and prayer to "good" saints, and then some desperate people adopting Santa Muerte for relief with their problems. Or, politician and cops starting out on the civilized side and ending up on the "plata o plomo" dark side of corruption.

    Who can see the big "narco" picture, holistically, all at once? IMO, not enough people.... and sadly, too many people in Mexico may NOT want to see it, because to do so will bring in whole new sets of new problems. Maybe, it is better to just stumble along like in the past
    .... flailing at things that don't really matter in the long run.

    Despite "my" issues with the article, I applaud the author's efforts to cover so much ground in such little space. I plan on re-reading the article to better understand its varied content.

    BTW, the more I study modern Mexico and its problems the more discouraged and abysmally ignorant I feel.


    1. I found it very interesting and well researched. I should have broken it into two parts. thank you!

    2. i think i will make it two parts...i want it to attract more people that will actually read the entire article!

    3. I agree, this is a top-notch read for real.

      El Cabrón De Tamaulipas

  5. fascinating read! Thank you

  6. Fairly interesting but seems overblown and somewhat states the obvious

  7. Excellent report, sure it takes facts widely known on this site, but rarely known in the U.S. populous- good read

  8. 446 Mr overblowned, instead of offering one sentence,where is it not right.

  9. Chi is. Well done. yes, the begining seems a little complex and perhaps a bit too focused on world history, but never the less, that section makes it’s point. As a person who spent many years “dealing” with the issues taking place in Mexico, I found this first part of your series a great read for those who will be tasked to “work” issues in Mexico. In your second part, I would like to see your breakdown of the phenomenon of the Autodefensias. That is a “symptom” I began to warn people I worked with the moment they started. The combination of a future allinece between the common farming communities and the youth of Mexico’s Unversities can be exploited by other nations that wish to use Mexico as a battlefield against the US. Keep your passion and keep writing.


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