This is Chapter 8 of our Opium Project.
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How Indigenous Communities Survive the War on Drugs in Mexico.
Today, for campesinos in many of the most mountainous, marginalised corners of the country, opium production is the only business that still pays. But what good is money if you’re not alive to spend it?
For growing poppies in Mexico is also a dangerous business. My fieldnotes from the Indigenous communities of El Nayar – the largest and poorest municipality in Nayarit, where between 2000 and 2020 more hectares of opium poppy were destroyed than any other part of the state [note]Built with MUCD Database, 2021.[/note] – are full of references to violence, murder, kidnappings and disappearances:
12/04/2014: “I arrived just as the cortege set out from the church to the cemetery to bury [X]… shot dead on Wednesday, in what was officially an accident – una bala perdida [stray bullet] – but which [Y] tells me was actually a run-in with the guys guarding a poppy field he and some mates were robbing goma from – lleno de plomazos [shot full of holes], [Y] described the body of his nephew.”
5/04/2019: “What else is new? Well, various people were killed here over the last year – think it got really heavy from the summer onwards. Guy called [Z] was killed, by his own cousin I think, in a beef over local sales of meth. As was [V], who I also knew, but whose face I can’t remember. Think he might have been killed at the same time as [M]’s son? Anyway, various others also apparently murdered, and lots of balaceras [shoot-outs] at night, but it’s all calmed down now.”
In fact, as I was writing this article, I found out that one of my best friends in the region – a Náayari poppy farmer who had been my guide, translator, and companion on many adventures in the Sierra – had been killed three months before. I still don’t know what happened exactly; all I’ve heard is that “He got with the maña (local word for mafia), and they killed him”.[note]“Se metió con la maña y lo mataron.”[/note]
Official statistics show that the connection between opium production and violence is more than just anecdotal. It is systemic. At the peak of eradication in 2018, 1162.9282 hectares of illicit poppy plantation were destroyed in El Nayar; equivalent to a third of a football pitch for every man, woman and child in the municipality. In the same year, El Nayar was the second riskiest municipality in the state in terms of the likelihood of being murdered, and had the third highest total number of murders,[note]México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), Atlas de Homicidios 2018.[/note] whose victims included the chief of the municipal police force.[note]‘Autoridades confirman asesinato de director de la Policía de El Nayar y revelan detalles del crimen,’ El Sol de Nayarit, 11 julio 2018.[/note]
Indeed, for much of the last two decades El Nayar has averaged an astounding yearly murder rate of around 100 per 100,000. And this is no coincidence, either. It is the direct result of the Mexican state’s literal ‘war’ on drug production and trafficking, and the simultaneous attempts of politicians, police officers and soldiers to control the drug trade in alliance with, or in opposition to, rival groups of traffickers. Small-scale poppy farmers end up bearing the brunt both of the militarised state repression and criminal violence that results from this contradictory situation. I observed this for myself in El Nayar in 2018:
“This time last year, following the arrest of Nayarit’s attorney general [for drug trafficking], there was still no plaza [in El Nayar], the price of [opium] was at an all-time high, everyone was in good spirits, and eating well (albeit inevitably drinking too much). But it seemed that everyone knew that, sooner or later, one cartel or another would come to claim the plaza [criminal territory], and they expected at least some level of violence to accompany that event. And, unfortunately, they weren’t wrong – last October some armed men arrived, looking for the local [opium] buyers… The buyers fled, but the sicarios [hitmen] threatened their families and shot up some houses and it seems they eventually turned themselves in. They haven’t been seen since. And now whoever it is that controls the local ‘market’ has got prices down to their lowest in years (around 8-9 pesos per gram), the army are tumbando [eradicating poppy plantations] left, right and centre (seemingly more efficiently now with the help of drones and in absence of deals with the state government), and most local people are poor as hell again. Although it’s calm here now, people are wary about further potential outbreaks of violence, and many families have fled.”[note]Author’s fieldnotes from El Nayar, May 2018.[/note]
This phenomenon is not limited to Nayarit. Indigenous communities across Mexico bear the brunt of both state repression of opium production, and rural cartel violence. In the opium-production territories of southern Durango, where I’ve also carried out fieldwork, Indigenous O’dam people are regularly attacked, abducted, and murdered by armed groups seeking ever-tighter control of the local drug trade. At the same time, O’dam scholar and filmmaker Selene Galindo reported in 2019, in a speech to the Cámara de Diputados, that state prosecutors have themselves acknowledged that “it’s become standard practice to go and grab a bunch of O’dam people, beat them up, arm them to the teeth, and then put out a press release accusing them of being “narcos” and then leave them to rot behind bars, in Jalisco as
well as in Durango”.[note]Selene Galindo, Public Speech in O’dam Language at the Mexican Congress, 3 October 2019.[/note]
The fact that some of Mexico’s most important centres of opium production – and of the violence that accompanies it – are Indigenous regions, is the product of a long and racist history: the history of Mexico itself. The legacies of colonialism, discriminatory economic and cultural development programmes, badly conceived urbanisation drives, and extractive neoliberal reforms have together left the Gran Nayar region of Nayarit, Durango and Jalisco, the sierras of southern Chihuahua, the coastal mountains of Michoacán, the Oaxacan Mixteca, and the Montaña de Guerrero as some of the most rural and least developed areas of Mexico.
Opium as an economic and cultural survival strategy
It is only by entering the ‘modern’ world of the drug trade that many of the inhabitants of these regions can earn enough to continue practicing some semblance of ‘traditional’ Indigenous lifeways, and avoid having to leave the same communities in search of paid work elsewhere. To remain Indigenous campesinos, they have found themselves harvesting and selling the opium gum that oozes from them, precious as drops of molten silver but sticky as half-dried blood.
The irony of the situation, then, is that for many Indigenous people opium production is an economic and cultural survival strategy, but one that brings with it its own, terrifying assortment of physical dangers.
But indigenous poppy farmers are not just passive victims of Mexico’s ‘Drug War.’ They also have agency; they can, and do, negotiate with both the state and with criminal groups to defend themselves against the threats that both pose to their livelihood, their lands, their political autonomy and the physical safety of themselves and their families. After all, Indigenous communities have survived five centuries of domination, state attempts to wipe them out culturally, ethnically, and in many cases physically, and the attacks of armed men ranging from renegade conquistadores, to bandits and paramilitaries, to revolutionaries and rebels of all stripes. It is no surprise, then, that the strategies Indigenous Mexicans use to resist the violent pressures of sicarios (hitmen) and guachos (soldiers) alike are as old as Mexico itself, if not older, and can be roughly divided between three traditional categories: legalistic negotiations, passive resistance, and the use, or threat, of outright violence.
Indigenous people in Mexico have used ‘legalistic’ forms of negotiation since the Conquest, often in the form of petitions and ‘official’ appeals for protection to superior authorities.[note]Romana Falcón, ‘El arte de la petición: Rituales de obediencia y negociación,’ HAHR, vol.86, no.3 (2006), 467.[/note] The success of petitions addressed to the state is far from guaranteed, as it depends on the existence of individuals within the state apparatus with whom negotiation is possible. But legal manoeuvres remain the least risky forms of negotiation available to opium producers, and they remain a key part of Indigenous poppy farmers’ negotiation tactics.[note]For more details see Le Cour Grandmaison, Morris, Smith, ‘No More Opium for the Masses’, Noria Research, 2019.[/note]
In one of my very first visits to the mountains of Nayarit, I sat in with the Náayari autoridades tradicionales (traditional authorities) of one community as they wrote a petition to the state governor denouncing the abuses perpetrated by soldiers during raids in search of hidden stashes of locally-grown opium. In the case I remember best, the soldiers found no drugs at all but still managed to ‘confiscate’ several items of women’s jewellery, a bundle of women’s clothes, an embroidered belt, some jeans, two large cheeses, and even, rather pathetically, a multi-pack of Maruchan instant noodles – and beat the family up for good measure.
Although local people knew very well that the poppies are illegal, they still sought protection for themselves by decrying the abuses that state forces commit against them in the name of the ‘War on Drugs,’ in the hope that these forces would be transferred elsewhere. In many of these petitions, they also tried to exploit the multi-layered structure of the Mexican state, by complaining to Nayarit’s state government that federal forces harass and steal from them; denouncing to the federal government the beatings carried out by municipal and state police officers; and excoriating all of these forces to the media, and anyone else who will listen, as being in cahoots with the region’s DTOs.[note]Patricia Dávila, ‘En Nayarit, cientos de desaparecidos ante la indolencia estatal,’ Proceso, 27 Jan. 2018.[/note]
Occasionally, such legalistic complaints and petitions – especially when amplified by the media – stimulate the intervention of higher authorities, and have won local people a reprieve from particularly abusive officials. In most cases, however, these appeals fall on deaf ears, or are acknowledged but never acted upon, and so have no greater positive effect than providing the communities that issue them with a comforting, but illusory, sense of having recourse to justice.
When legal manoeuvres prove useless as tools in negotiating away external pressures, Indigenous opium producers instead turn to classic ‘passive resistance’ tactics such as foot-dragging, noncompliance, evasiveness, and obfuscation.[note]These have famously been defined by James C. Scott as ‘weapons of the weak’; cf. Weapons, xvi, 29-35.[/note] In Nayarit, Indigenous poppy growers use their indigeneity as to make such defensive tactics more effective; for example, by communicating via walkie-talkie exclusively in the Náayari language so as to render their messages incomprehensible to any outsider, whether soldier or sicario, who might be listening in. Others claimed ignorance of Spanish in order to avoid interrogation by soldiers or police officers.
O’dam women in the opium-producing communities of southern Durango have similarly used both their Indigeneity, and their gender, to avoid problems with state forces, exploiting the convergence of older social codes and more modern concerns about violence against women which leave them (somewhat) less vulnerable to arbitrary murder than their male counterparts. Thus:
‘When members of the Army arrive to destroy [their plantations] they confronted them in their native language… [the soldiers] looked for interpreters to translate what the women were saying and explain to them their mission, in order to begin a dialogue with the women… who argued that the plantations were not theirs, despite being in the courtyards of their homes and only a metre’s distance from their houses… Curiously they could not find any men in the area.’[note]Saúl Maldonado, ‘En Durango mujeres indígenas plantan mariguana y amapola en sus patios,’ La Jornada, 23 Oct. 2016.[/note]
At other times, though, even this has seemed too much of a gamble, and O’dam women and men alike have simply fled their communities.[note]Yuri Alex Escalante Betancourt, ‘La aldea militar. Una etnografía del estado de sitio,’ Narrativas antropológicas Num. 2 Año 1 (2020) julio-diciembre, p.36.[/note]
Because violence is the most dangerous of all their negotiation strategies, Indigenous poppy farmers tend to use it defensively, as a last resort, and only against the most violent and/or ‘corrupt’ criminal groups or state officials who have proved unresponsive to legalistic appeals or passive resistance. But while it is relatively rare, such violence has long occurred throughout Mexico.
In the mountains of Nayarit, for example, a locally-composed ballad called ‘The Twelve Coras’ commemorates a battle between indigenous poppy farmers and the army in the 1980s, in which a military helicopter was downed:
‘Across the sierra, just a breath from Durango / The helicopter buzzed them – who could guess what would happen / In those bountiful gardens, in the fields of flowering poppies?
‘Twelve Coras were killed, in the gardens they tended / And six soldiers were buried, who fell in the fighting / With the shot-down “mosquito,” that first found the poppies.’
Since then, Indigenous poppy farmers’ use of violence against both state forces and criminal groups across Mexico has not only become more common, but also more organised, most notably through their joining communal militias known as policías comunitarias.
However, such examples are not limited to Guerrero alone. In 2015, for example, I observed during fieldwork in one Indigenous community in Nayarit:
“The situation has been rather tense in the last couple of years; lots of narco activity, and, worse, police and military abuses of local people, as well as the usual in-fighting between drunken young men… One village’s comisario is still in jail, after he was arrested on accusations of trying to set up a policía comunitaria. Some local people say he was trying to increase his own power; others say it was a genuine attempt to curb illegal logging and the abuses of the forces fighting out the drug war – especially the Nayarit state police. Either way, the government saw it as an attempt to launch an autodefensa movement in the Sierra [del Nayar], obviously a threat to its own and allied narco interests.’[note]24 Nov 2015, Author’s field notes.[/note]
Ultimately, then, this particular attempt to create a communal institution to legitimise the use of violent self-defence against abusive outside forces failed; it was incapable of resisting the paramilitary police forces sent by Nayarit’s attorney general Edgar Veytia, himself a drug trafficker, to dismantle it and arrest its leaders. This has only allowed disorganised violence to proliferate in the Sierra, however – violence that has since claimed the lives of two of Veytia’s paramilitary police commanders,[note]’Secuestran y asesinan a dos policías en Nayarit’, 2019, Excelsior.[/note] as well as the chief of the municipal police force.[note]“Autoridades confirman asesinato de director de la Policía de El Nayar y revelan detalles del crimen”, El Sol de Nayarit, 2018.[/note] And the longer that such violence continues to brutalise the region’s poppy-growing Náayari peasantry, the more likely it is that they will further experiment with armed self-defence against police, soldiers and sicarios alike.
Few Indigenous opium producers are members of ‘cartels,’ but nor are they always the eternal victims of either these groups or state forces. They have turned to opium production out of a refusal to let government indifference, widespread rural violence and the brutality of the global economy – in both its legal and illegal forms – destroy their rural lifeways and traditions of political and cultural autonomy. And it is as thereforeas Indigenous campesinos, rather than as ‘narcos,’ that they understand the pressures levelled upon them by state forces and criminal organisations alike; pressures that appear in many ways similar to those they have always faced from bandits, revolutionaries, rebels, and, most significantly of all, governments bent on ‘modernizing’ them out of existence.
It is no surprise that, in order to negotiate such challenges in the context of the ‘War on Drugs,’ Indigenous opium producers use historically tried-and-tested strategies. And often, they have to use all three strategies – legalistic appeals, passive resistance, and violence –simultaneously, due to the diffuse and fractured nature of the Mexican state and its institutions; the contradictions inherent in government officials’ attempts both to prohibit drugs and to control the drugs trade; and the sheer quantity of different criminal groups and their local ‘franchises’ active across the country. Nor are these expressions of Indigenous agency necessarily particularly successful; for as Selene Galindo has testified with regards to both the physical and cultural damage the ‘Drug War’ has done to the O’dam of Durango:
“Who will speak [our] languages when the speakers are being killed? We are being stripped of everything we name with those languages! And it seems that nobody does anything, because those who fight have already been killed before any local newspaper records it. Our languages are tied to a territory to which we can no longer access, to a house to which we can no longer return, to everything that is or was there that we can no longer go back to.”[note]Selene Galindo’s Speech, Ibidem.[/note]
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Nathaniel Morris holds a doctorate in history from Oxford University, and is currently a Research Fellow at University College London. He specializes in the history of modern Mexico and Central America.