“The Troop. Why do soldiers kill?” A Conversation with Daniela Rea.
J.P.: Hello, good day everyone I’m Jayson Maurice Porter and I’m here today with Noria Mexico and Central America, Violence takes place series Land, Power and Markets in rural Mexico. We’re here again in this series of conversations to focus on gender, geography and gender-based violence, particularly violence against women in Mexico. It’s our distinct pleasure to have with us today Daniela Rea Gómez, author, journalist and film director, to tell us about her book The Troop, why a soldier kills? Javier Valdez Cárdenas award winner, she is also author of No one asked them for forgiveness, in 2015, coeditor of Amongst the ashes, stories of life in times of death in 2012 and Breaking the silence, 22 calls against censorship in 2018. She currently collaborates in the website Pie de página. I could go on praising her but I won’t, so let’s welcome the great author of a book with such a broad vision on violence. Hello Daniela, how are things in Mexico City?
D.R.: Hello Jayson, all is good here, I am very happy that we are having this conversation because of all the work that you have done in Noria regarding territory as being concrete and regional, we believe that is the thing to do in order to understand these years of violence and horror in Mexico.
J.P.: Thank you, that’s very kind, so let’s get started, why did you write The Troop and how did you write it?
D.R.: Well, I had many years, almost 10 years writing stories of people that have suffered state violence, specifically from the army and the police, on disappearance, torture, abuse of authority, imprisonment, extrajudicial execution, and despite having listened to the accounts of the families of the victims, of having gone through the records, besides being familiar with the utmost important work of collectives and human rights organizations, we still had doubts that wouldn’t allow us to understand the reason why this happened, for example: Why does a soldier shoot six times on the chest and the face of a wounded person within one meter distance? What drives, what motivates these incidents that have no explanation and cannot be justified, and so I shared these questions with Pablo Ferri, a fellow journalist, and we realized that although we had not worked together before, we did share these concerns, so we thought that perhaps the information we lacked as to make more sense out of this, had to come from the fellows of the troop, from the soldiers, the folks that are actually patrolling the streets, so, it seemed important to us that, despite having constantly heard the discourse on the army, it is a discourse that comes mainly from those in power, from generals, from presidents, and so that is a discourse with a different motive, thus, we decided to ask the army, not the army as an institution, but the troop, the soldiers, the guys that are patrolling the streets. We already had very important works approaching the troop, for example the documentary Oath of Enlistment by the collective Two steps below directed by Sara Escobar which we found very useful in outlining this work, there was also the work of Juan Veledíaz with his long trajectory in army coverage, also Benito Jiménez, well, so we decided to approach the troop, the soldiers, the folks who are in the streets, because even though they are the institution, they speak from a different place than that of the secretaries. How did we do it? I think it was really interesting, what we did along the research was to perfect a methodology, I would say that our methodology was intuition, which in time acquired more meaning and more intention. First we realized that, in order to know why a soldier kills, we had to ask soldiers that had killed, and how are we going to know who has killed, well, those who are in prison accused of doing this. So the first groundwork in this research was to be able to enter a prison facility as interview soldiers who had, who were at least charged with execution or homicide. At first we would visit the prison facilities very often, to talk to the guys, to the soldiers detained for these crimes, and so, along with some other research we had done on transparency, on the number of clashes and also going through some records, rather than to find out if someone is innocent or guilty, with the intention of understanding the dynamics of power within the barracks. In 2017 we were able to outline the first part of this project which we called Chain of command, and when we did Chain of command we saw that institutions like CIDE (Center for Economics Research and Teaching) had a work with the same plan of research, rather the same interest, so we got in touch with them and offered to make a collaborative work. The groundwork we were doing could lean on the academic work they were doing, and that was how we did the second part of our research. We had a collaboration in CIDE’s program on drug policy, they would do parts of the analysis and would also do the follow up and support for many of the information requests and we would do the groundwork, then, after a time in the process of working in prison, we realized that the accounts and explanations had a limit to them, since what the imprisoned soldiers wanted was precisely to demonstrate their innocence. It was as if our intention stalled when asking them why they had killed, because what they wanted to say was “we are innocent”. That was when we realized the importance of surveying not inside prison anymore, but to survey outside prison, with soldiers on the ground, who felt a bit freer to reflect on certain issues, since they didn´t have to prove their innocence to anyone, not to us nor to the judicial system, so that was it, more or less. One part of our research which I found particularly interesting had to do with the revision of records, with CIDE we were able to get our hands on all violation to human rights sentences against soldiers and so what we did, with the help of a lawyer who knew all the judicial terminology, who in this case was my father, and we asked him to help us examine the sentence records. What we did there was kind of to interview the records, and again, to try and see when any judicial or ministerial actions were taken, for example, there is no way we can prove if any corruption took place in the liberation of a soldier as to give him a shorter sentence, but we could certainly make an analysis to show that the judge or prosecution authority made very basic mistakes, almost law school student mistakes, that allowed for lesser sentences. Up to where I read in the statements of the soldiers contained in the records, we were able to analyze that dynamic, to the point where we were able to understand the dynamic of the order to kill or the resistance to kill or the schemes that made these possible, and that was most interesting because, and I insist, beyond focusing on their innocence or their guilt, it allowed us to understand the dynamics within the barracks.
J.P.: There are many levels there, many levels of collaboration and research as well, it´s impressive, in you book you say that the troop is “the people in uniform”. What is the troop, who is the troop, where is, geographically speaking, the most dangerous troop, and also how do isolation and reality affect the actions of the troop?
D.R.: Lets’ see, when we say “the troop is the people in uniform” we have to look back into the history of the army in Mexico, which is something we explain or at least try to explain in the book. Unlike other European countries or the United States… some regions in the United States, but we mainly think of Spain, where, let´s say, the army is a space of privilege, in Mexico the origins of the army were always popular, actually, when we speak about the army during the revolution or the following years, oftentimes the army was made up of people who had been detained and instead of going to prison they were recruited to fight in the name of the Mexican State and so the army always had a popular and a rural origin; in recent years, I mean the past three decades, more or less, the army became a space where income, food and housing were guaranteed, so, as well as migration, for many people of rural zones, it was an alternative to escape poverty, it was the possibility to have an income, and that partially explains that currently a great number of soldiers who comprise the troop come from southeastern states which for many, many years have been marginalized and precarious and that is always of interest, you know, I recall once we interviewed a couple of students of Ayotzinapa who survived the attack and we asked them why had they wanted to become a normal school student. There is a clear political consciousness in these students and to the question: Why did you want to become a normal school student? A couple of them answered that the reason was that they had tried to enter the army and since they failed to do so and because they needed to stop being an economical burden to their families, and because the Ayotzinapa Normal School, the same as the army, provides food, housing and study or income, when it comes to the army, so it is important to understand this origin. We made several information requests and asked to revise the database of the soldiers as to learn percentages on town of origin, schooling, municipalities, and again and again we were denied that information, so what we had to do was visit some places in Oaxaca where there is a long time tradition of entering the army and there we made first hand questions. With all of these, it is important to insist in something, at the beginning…, and it was our mistake, it was pointed out to us by our reader Rafael Mondragon who we appreciate a lot, which is to avoid the risk of criminalizing the troop or rather criminalizing poverty. Now the second part of your question. Can you remind me what it was Jayson?
J.P.: The most important question, well we have a lot of questions, the most important question in your book. Why a soldier kills? Can you tell us more about it, particularly because while women are victims of violence by the army, in your book most of the violence is against men, right?
D.R.: In that sense, the book doesn´t have a gender approach in terms of considering aggressions of the army against women, as does research made by, I believe it was Amnesty International who some time ago published a report on sexual torture against women exerted by the Army and the Marine, and recently, a couple of months ago, The Intercept published a report titled The two wars which was also about gender violence in the context of militarization. So we have these two reports that focus specifically on violence against women by the armed forces, although I had worked on stories of women who had been tortured and raped by the army, there is a particularly terrible case in Tijuana where a woman was tortured and raped by the army but, oddly enough, two military women participated in the torture process, which is something I had not recorded and had not seen before because, actually, on the one hand the work of the book is focused more on violence in general and within the crimes that we revised, there are some women victims but there is not a gender approach or profile; now on the other hand something that seemed important to us regarding this question and which we found along the process, was realizing that even though this research does not have a gender approach, the feminist research allowed us to go a step beyond the possible explanations on why a soldier kills. In trying to explain why a soldier kills we referred to the traditional bibliography in this area that basically has to do with Hannah Arendt in all the work she did and registered in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem and also on the work by Stanley Milgram I believe is the name of the scientist who researched on obedience and made experiments on obedience, there was even a film made on this. Although these two theoretical precedents gave us the foundation to understand part of the structure, it was very important to us to go back to the works of Pilar Calveiro and Rita Segato in order to understand how these pedagogies of cruelty are generated, how there is an intention of exacerbating masculinizing values that are related to power, to submission, to controlling the other, which is something that they have analyzed in depth in our countries, in the region of Latin America. So I believe that approach and that way of looking has to do with a reality closer to us than the other two theories we had worked with, it allowed us to come close to a very important point in the generation of violence exerted by armed forces which has to do with this constant construction of a pedagogy of cruelty in our societies, and with this I don´t mean to say that these pedagogies do not exist in Europe or in the United States but our references are women that have studied the phenomena in our countries in Latin America.
J.P.: Could you give us, in terms of your method, an example of impunity or maybe gender theory, which is important in your book in terms of pedagogy of cruelty.
D.R.: Yes, sorry what is the question?
J.P.: Yes, can you give us example on pedagogy of cruelty?
D.R.: Let´s see, for example, a very disturbing case we got to detect was that of a soldier who recalls his experience in his survival training, which consisted of being sent to the mountains for several days, maybe a week or ten days, with no food, nor water, with nothing but a dog and some live chickens, so a group of soldiers is up in the mountains, with no food and the order was that on the last day they must eat the animals they had taken along with them, a dog who had just given birth and some chickens; animals with whom, somehow, by caring for them to keep them alive for around ten days, they had established a relationship and on the last day they had the order to kill and eat them, having no tools, no knife or razor so this is a very disturbing expression on how they killed the dog, how they cooked and ate her and how the soldier tells there had to be an annulment of his emotions in order to be able to do this, and I think that the issue here is to oppress emotions, it becomes a constant, a constant in the formation and in everyday life and I believe it is one of several things that can explain the part of becoming insensitive and so then being able to kill. Another important issue is one of the first army regulations issued by Lazaro Cárdenas which establishes that inasmuch as you learn to obey, you will then learn to command; so obedience as a possibility or as a promise of later commanding, appears to be another element of the pedagogy of cruelty, because the treatment was oftentimes in terms of submission, in terms of here you are nobody. There is a very interesting chapter in the novel Old troop by a writer, novelist and general and it is interesting to see that his texts are considered to be fiction because they are novels, but in fact they are nurtured by all of his experiences as a general, he was one of the founders of the Military Academy. In his novel Old troop he describes the story of a young man who enters the army because of a street fight and his punishment was precisely not to put him in prison but to put him in the army and the first thing they did to him when entering the army was to take away his clothes and his most valuable possession which was a satchel left to him by his father, and they tell him: here you are not the person you used to be anymore, and I believe that annulment of the personality has to do with this.
J.P.: Yes, great examples, thank you Daniela. I like you examples very much and your use of history and also of literature, for example Old troop and the use of Marta Lojo for the story of Joaquin Amado. What is the importance of history in your analysis? The pedagogy of cruelty has also been very important in how the army creates soldiers and soldiers become enemies, right?
D.R.: Right, the part on pedagogy of cruelty was important to finish building an explanation to that violence added to obedience, which is something we had previously used, that in terms of de topic of pedagogy of cruelty, now, in terms of the importance of history, Give me a second, will you? In terms of history it was important in understanding the origin of the Mexican Army and to understand what is an army here in relation to other armies and in that sense history was important. You know, we would´ve liked to have more capacity of archive and historical research, but I actually think it came down to understanding the origin of the Mexican Army, what is within its genesis, in its intention to become, to be an army, where all of its people come from. In having this conversation with you, we could think of several other interesting angles on the role of the army in its formation but also in its construction as an entity of power which was very, very strong in the first years, the first decades of the past century in Mexico.
J.P.: No doubt about that. Now before your final reflection, I have two more questions on your posture as a woman and as a journalist, because you did gain the soldiers´ trust and that must be very difficult in Mexico. Did your posture as a woman and as a journalist help in your research for this book?
D.R.: Jeez! This is really interesting, you know Jayson, when I read your question, I thought of two opposite spaces, on one side I feel the possibility of trust, above all there was a strange closeness with some soldiers with whom I spoke on their fatherhood, but on the other side, it did imply harassment which I believe Pablo didn´t face, he told me that when I wasn´t in the interviews the soldiers exacerbated in their account, they swelled their account of violence, that is what he felt when he carried out the interviews on his own, unlike when we did the interviews together. In my case there arose a situation with one of the soldiers we contacted for an interview inside prison and then he started sending me kind of harassing messages and so, clearly, I had to put an end to it and tell him that was not the intention and that if we could not speak to me without that intention, we could just end the conversation there, and that was it. I also believe that the issue of gender, and I don´t know if in that case it was an issue of gender or one of personality, but, for example, Pablo and I made some questions…, we had long conversations after the interviews, we talked a lot and I was convinced that my questions would take them to a space favoring reflection and Pablo told me that these questions were probably conditioning them to answer what we wanted them to answer, and so I think it may be a little bit of both, of trying to take them to places they had not been before, thinking, because I believe that after so such experiences they need a safe and comfortable place to inhabit, not asking themselves if what they did was right or wrong. Now to finish up with the topic of gender, in part it did facilitate some spaces of trust but at the same time, there were spaces of harassment because of me being a woman.
J.P.: You spoke to us about collaboration with Pablo Ferri, with CIDE and its program, also with Monica Gonzalez Islas so before concluding with your reflection on violence, could you tell us more about the work you are doing jointly with other women writers on the subject of violence against women in particular.
D.R.: Something we learned with The Troop, which is very obvious when one practices journalism, is that if you change your source, you change your perspective; but it was really illuminating, when we changed the place from which looked or questioned, and did these from the place of the troop, we detected that, with respect to what we had previously detected when we based our questions only on those who had suffered that state violence. So in that same logic, it also means to make a turn from where it is you narrate today´s violence, even to your own self. It was very important to think about it, now from the own body of women. Inspired by the work of Svetlana Alexievich and also by the work of a Colombian commission on one hundred stories of women who suffered the conflict, and reading some anthropologists we realized that the history of war is told differently by the voices of men or from a sort of heroic and masculinizing discourse than when told from the voices of women that tell us stories about everyday life and how this everyday life has to be cared for or how this everyday life is damaged. So with all of these and also because of the experience of the work we had done as journalists, we realized that all violence against whomever it is exerted, always sinks in and reaches the body of women. If a man is murdered, that violence also reaches the body of a woman because she has to take responsibility of the children, in case there are any, and also of the family community; if a man is detained and imprisoned, it is the woman who will keep him alive besides having to maintain some other spaces; then those historical and social conditions of women have made it possible and that is why we found it important to tell these years of violence, more or less since 2006 starting with the six year term of Felipe Calderon, although it didn´t necessarily start then since it has a vague origin, so we set our mind on rather than counting death persons, rather than counting disappeared persons, rather than counting cartels, we meant to tell how this war impacted on the lives from…, you see, we imagined violence as when you throw a stone on the still water of a lake, the stone makes a loud sound and that sound is notorious, it can be heard, right? Little by little ripples are formed and they tend to spread out and they also tend to become weaker, but they are still there, so this is how we imagined violence, and we imagined the effects of violence being like these ripples expanding and then becoming dimmer but still present, and so we thought on how there are many persons that have suffered…, that have been touched by these ripples and they are not necessarily being recognized or identified as someone who has suffered the effects of violence; but we had to go and ask them, for example: What does it mean to be a teacher in places with high levels of violence like Culiacán or Iztapalapa? How do you teach trust to a child when you, yourself are fearful? or What does it mean to be the daughter of a journalist or an activist whose life has been disrupted by that which she has witnessed? And what does it mean to grow up seeing the person that should make you feel safe, probably seeing her fearful or running away or being displaced? What does it mean to rebuild a home beginning from zero when you are displaced along with all of your community? In Mexico it has been really difficult for displaced people to be recognized as victims and to be officially counted, for example: What does it mean to be a secondary school girl whose best friend was disappeared o murdered and so you lost the only person in this life in who you trusted this happening in a stage of life of utmost vulnerability. So we wanted to kind of turn on the high beam lights to make visible all these consequences in which we are not being aware of the violence, at the same time we felt that in telling these accounts of the experiences of women we were going to find many things that were being done as a way of responding to this violence, that have a strong political content, this is the reason why our book is told from the verbs which are verbs taken from the stories the women narrated to us and which are precisely that, political actions: to love, to embrace, to care, to listen, to accompany, to heal, all these must be understood as political actions in response to violence.
J.P.: Very very heavy, without doubt. I just love the way you said that, thank you. Any idea to conclude, expectations, hopes on the current state of violence in Mexico, maybe some advice for new journalists and academics?
D.R.: Ok, let´s see, expectations, advice, so many come to mind, but for people that are just getting starting in research, I believe it is truly important to value intuition, when one feels there is something in there, even if we cannot explain it, even if we cannot name it, it is truly important to pay attention to that intuition because there probably is a story in there or a potent look that may help us understand these years, besides, I believe that being aware that this story is not going to be told only from one look or from one sole experience and that the work we do, you as academics, we as reporters, artists, poets, lawyers, all nourish this effort of providing a little sense and that we may use those tools to found our work on. In The Troop the work with academics proved to be very useful and in We are not the same anymore it has been very important to us to listen to fellow essay writers, academics, poets that help us find the words to name what journalistic language cannot. So I believe that inasmuch we broaden our use of tools, our research will be a bit richer, and besides, I believe we have to embrace the meaning we find in our work along the way, being exposed to so many painful stories, to so much impunity for so many years, sometimes makes us feel discouraged, it gives us chronic sadness, it makes us depressed, but I believe it is important that we make some sense out of it, by this I mean that we embrace the meaning of our work, sometimes we don’t realize the impact it may have but probably, when someone reads this story she or he will feel it as a hug or will feel accompanied or it will help make some sense, so I believe that it is important to embrace meaning in order to continue in this resistance and relay race.
J.P.: Thank you so much for the advice, Daniela. A year after your book was published I moved to Mexico City and The Troop was still one of Mexico’s bestsellers. My colleagues in political science, in history, anthropology, forensic architecture, in every field, everyone told me “you need to read Daniela Rea and Pablo Ferri” so I will and it also improved my research. Again thank you for being with us in our series Violence takes place of Noria to discuss your unforgettable book in the context of gender, geography and violence against women. Your final reflection was a beautiful conclusion but would you like to have a last word, Daniela?
D.R.: I believe the way each one of us understands our crafts, journalists and academics, the way we understand our craft is so diverse, I think that some people in journalism understand or conceive his or her work as denouncing actions of impunity, as telling stories that have not been told, in my case I understand my work, I understand my craft as a journalist as a kind of contribution in building spaces to meet and converse and it that way sometimes you have to take a hold of doubt, of stammering and of not knowing, and that is something we certainly intended The Troop to do as well as the book We are not the same anymore was precisely that, we wanted it to be a book that could summon us to listen to each other, just as if we were sitting on a bench in a park, I believe that this listening to each other and this meeting each other is fundamental in order to escape the horror in which we have been living for too many years, hopefully the book, the books, this conversation will inspire, will achieve this. And I believe that we cannot think about this story in terms of winners and losers, because, who could believe to be a winner over two hundred thousand death people, three hundred thousand displaced people and seventy thousand disappeared people. I mean, really, who can be so stupid as to raise his hand on such a toll of death and hopefully we can contribute to eliminate that discourse of winners and losers, for that is not the way to go.