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Debunking the Wars: A Call for Local Understanding of Violence in Mexico & Central America

Mexico & Central America

This text presents the analytical framework for the Noria Mexico & Central America Program.

Para leer este texto en Español, haga clic aquí.

Our Work & Focus

This piece does not pretend to be exhaustive, or to provide answers. Rather, it is the first collective paper in a long-term project that brings together 32 women and men, academics, journalists and photographers, working from and on six countries.

Therefore, each of the themes that are briefly introduced in this text will be treated further in future projects and initiatives, and will be complemented by an open-access bibliography.

Our program will produce knowledge based on independent, original, and field-based research.

In order to disseminate this knowledge to the broadest audience, our program gathers researchers, journalists, cartographers and photographers who run launch long-term research projects on:

  • Social Dynamics of Violence, Political Orders, and Criminal Organizations
  • Migration, Displacement, and Forced Disappearances
  • Public Security Policies, Drugs Policy, and State Governance

Our Research Manifesto

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

This famous quote by photographer Robert Capa could apply just as well to the way in which violence in Mexico and Central America is currently analyzed.

Over the past fifteen years, homicide rates in the region have increased dramatically and reached shocking levels. As violence, in its many forms, has grown, so has the body of analytical work trying to account for it, both in academic and journalistic idioms. Although we do acknowledge the value of such works, many of them stem from distant perspectives, both physically and analytically. This prevents from adequately explaining the phenomena they aim to understand. In this respect, they are often plagued with the same flaws as national and regional security policies.

This distance, compounded by postures about so-called “criminal violence” or “armed conflict”, has hindered analytical understanding and influenced popular representations of the dynamics of local security, governance, and (dis)order in Mexico and Central America. As a consequence, increasingly general, self-reinforcing narratives are adopted, in which violence is presented as an ahistorical, asocial phenomenon belonging to a dark world, existing on the margins of healthy, functional society.

The political premise is familiar: the state shall maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. However, that doesn’t reflect the social reality in the region– and in most parts of the world. It doesn’t now, and maybe it never did. As a matter of fact, the historical processes of state building and democracy in the region unfolded over decades of public and private violence, legitimate or illegitimate, including countless concrete, and well-documented examples of torture, illegal detentions, executions, disappearances, and forced displacements in order to consolidate power. 

“Self-reinforcing narratives present violence as an ahistorical, asocial phenomenon belonging to a dark world, existing on the margins of healthy, functional society.”

In that long process, which is still ongoing, the state never claimed, in practice, such a monopoly on legitimate violence. It has always shared it with and/ or actively delegated it to legitimate or illegitimate private actors, who participate in building social order alongside public authorities. Then, to understand the social dynamics of violence that affect the region, we need to distance ourselves from the classic theory of state. If we mean to grasp and describe what happens in reality, we need to observe it as it is, not as we would like it to be in theory

Moreover, most of the analyses assume that homicide rates – amongst other quantitative measurements – are the only way to understand the causes and patterns of violence. Here the premise is as follows: what can’t be measured can’t be analyzed. Although, in some cases, the data are supplemented with a discussion acknowledging the – well-documented – limitations of such measures, in the end the evidence that is produced reflects a narrow notion of violence usually involving three distinctive elements: 1) a clearly identified perpetrator 2) a straightforward motive (territorial control, “drug route” conflicts, payment collection, illegal resource extraction, revenge and discipline, amongst others) and 3) a victim whose role oscillates between victimization and criminalization.  

Besides, the three elements are almost always based on what the official source says about the event, without any attempt of discussion or criticism whatsoever. Now, when the crime is attributed to a “war” between cartels or gangs, victim and perpetrator are almost impossible to differentiate. They both fall into the category of “violent people” who kill or die for no other reason than their lifestyle, the pursuit of a perfectly rational criminal project, and their belonging to the “world of crime”, be it el narco or las maras.

These analyses fail to address the structural factors that fuel violent practices. They place a moral distance between the readers and the victims or the perpetrators of such violence, and they invisibilize all the social dynamics they cannot, or do not wish to “measure.”  

Similarly, when it comes to field research, we are concerned by the growing number of journalistic pieces that seem to be brandished as trophies for their authors. In those cases, “fieldwork” becomes an extractive tool, choosing its protagonists and themes based only on their dangerousness, so as to then offer the most graphic, sensationalist descriptions possible. This grants them notoriety through the voyeuristic indulgence in the exaltation and exoticization of violence.

Our objective

The conclusions of such stories revolve around the most basic manifestation of violence, namely homicide, fostering knee-jerk reactions that are of little interest from the point of view of research. Noria’s Mexico and Central America program seeks to break away from those paradigms through the production and dissemination of knowledge acquired from original and independent research. We aim to design, support and conduct studies relying on work in the field and in the archive, while respecting high standards of rigor and ethics. We want to describe and analyze dynamics of violence in all their complexity, departing from overarching narratives.

The idea is to step back from the “interpretative feast” (festín interpretativo) of violence – to quote Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis – however seductive it might be. Therefore, we believe that the detailed analysis of local context must be the starting point of this collective effort. That doesn’t mean denying or ignoring the magnitude of the crises, or forgetting to articulate local, national, and international scales of analysis, but rather appreciating more fully their multiple components.

Based on those comments, our analysis is oriented by the following axes:

– 1- It is absolutely necessary to acknowledge that dynamics of violence are localized. There is no single unifying reality applying to all of Mexico or Central American countries. Rather, there are complex local configurations, evolving with political constraints and opportunities, fluctuations of legal and illegal markets, and the set of political dynamics and processes that constitute what we call the state, amongst many other factors. Accounting for this complexity is key: there is no simple, mechanical explanation to current regional political crises.

-2- We reject zero-sum game interpretations that reduce everything to the opposition between “the state and criminals”, assuming that there’s a clear winner and a loser in political-criminal relations. They can only fail in their attempt to understand the social and political dimensions of violence, because they ignore the complexity, and the co-construction processes that define them. Violence must be understood as a social and political phenomenon, not as spontaneous reaction or an individual, isolated issue.

-3- In the region, groups dubbed “violent” or “criminal” are never autonomous from political power. What’s at stake is precisely the formal and informal links connecting them to public authorities and institutions. Those links are constantly built and negotiated, violently or not. Most analyses assume, depending on the situation, that there are such things as stable pacts or all-out conflicts. Yet, reality offers a myriad of local collusions, arrangements, and disputes, which lie at the root of political-criminal relations.

-4- We call into question and challenge narratives that are grounded in labels repeated so often that they solidify and are invoked reflexively. For instance, “narcos,” “gangs,” “cartels,” “criminal violence” are general terms that have been used endlessly, until they became deprived of any analytical power. Hundreds of groups and organizations have been classified (and have also self-identified) as such, without doing justice to the inherent specificities of each phenomenon.

-5- The categories mentioned above aim to turn heterogeneous dynamics into uniform entities that should act in a predictable way. They present said collective actors as unified, pyramidal, and perfectly rational organizations. Yet, violent groups, whatever they are, rarely follow carefully elaborated plans, designed by an omniscient leader. Nor are they made up of perfectly obedient followers. Moreover, their structures, activities and practices are constantly negotiated, and develop inside a given society, from which they are not cut off: they are part of society, and they react to the opportunities and constraints that other actors – for instance, public authorities –provide for, or impose on them.

-6- The “war” or “conflict” dogma lends itself to reductionist narratives about “narcos” or “maras,” but it also feeds off those narratives. Equally, some analyses try to account for regional social dynamics through the sole prism of violence. They usually resort to a martial and threatening vocabulary (insurgency, armed groups, lethal conflict and other more or less refined branding) and to concepts like “failed,” or “weak state”. As a consequence, even when they mean to criticize the “war on drugs,” they end up paving the way for punitive and repressive security policies. By arguing that violence is the result of some weakness, they induce that the solution should be more strength, which ultimately leads to more mano dura policies and militarization.

-7- In practice, the state is no monolithic entity, and the line between what is public or private is rarely clear-cut. What we call “the state” is the sum of a multiplicity of institutions (starting with armed forces and police) whose interests converge or diverge depending on opportunities and access to various resources, which means that we need to take into account internal tensions and ruptures. There are always internal conflicts within state institutions, and to a large extent, they fuel the dynamics of violence.

-8- Violence is never the product of a simple equation. It is the manifestation of multiple historical and social processes, involving both public and private actors. That’s why we can’t understand political-criminal relations if we assume a priori that violence is an obstacle to social order, and that the state role is to ensure stability by maintaining low levels of violence. For instance, it is well-documented that state formation, or capitalistic economic development produce and feed into multiple forms of violence, physical and symbolic, whose consequences (migration, displacement, dispossession, labor exploitation, to name only a few) trigger further cycles of violence. In many circumstances, public authorities actively use or delegate violence, even extreme forms of it. Again, this has been widely documented in Mexico and Central America.

-9- Hence the idea that local governance and social control are the products of collaborations, collusions and confrontations between public institutions and private actors; and therefore violence – legitimate or not – is an essential political tool to obtain and maintain power, particularly at the local level. Such scenarios are not new to the region, but over the past decades they have proliferated to make the context even more complex.

-10- To understand the crises we are witnessing, and then to conceive of possible responses, we must specify and study the various faces of government and de facto sovereignties – a classical concept of anthropology – that are constantly being re-negotiated. Security in Mexico and Central America is not synonymous with the absence of violence. Many times, what’s at stake is not the monopoly on violence but its regulation through collaborations, delegations and confrontations between public and private actors.

-11- Finally, it is absolutely necessary to emphasize victims’ experiences. All over the region, citizens – this concept being a largely forgotten one – are subject to structural violence (dispossession, etc…). Such structural violence precedes and underlies more visible manifestations of violence, forming what has been called the “continuity” of violence. We must acknowledge the diverse manifestations of human suffering, and steer clear of any standardization of pain, and therefore of justice. Violence and the suffering it causes cannot be equated with its physical, or statistical manifestations.

The challenge

There is no doubt that over the past two decades, violent practices have soared and transformed in Mexico and Central America. Multiple crises are ongoing; some are highly apparent, most are almost invisible or invisibilized, to be accurate. That’s the main challenge: we still don’t know what is happening in many areas, mostly because available analyses lack a solid, empirical basis, gained from frequent, sustained immersions in the field, extensive archive consultation or more rigorous quantitative databases.

Myths about narcos and maras will continue to lend themselves to popular representations, inspire television shows, or even justify political platforms. However, they will not account for how people in the region live and die.  

We founded Noria’s Mexico and Central America Program to analyze these phenomena, based on a common methodological commitment: empirical knowledge, mainly relying on long-term field research, and detailed archival study. This information must be verified, minutely analyzed, discussed and enriched collectively. A long timeframe is essential to grasp such complex dynamics. Letting go of simplistic narratives also means questioning the haste to draw conclusions before understanding.  

This work requires significant investments of time and resources. But the legacy of the many researchers, journalists, activists, and photographers whose work informs our own shows us that the challenge is worthwhile, if we want to get as close as we can to the phenomena. Only then can we take better “pictures.”

Para leer este texto en español,
haga clic aquí.

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