Home / Mexico & Central America / Positive Silence. Between State and Cartels in Mexico : a Village in the Western Sierra Madre

Positive Silence. Between State and Cartels in Mexico : a Village in the Western Sierra Madre

Mexico & Central America

At a time where the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is noting the high number of violence refugees in Mexico1, it remains paradoxically common to hear wishful thinking against a certain apathy of the civilian population towards narco-trafficking and the crises that stem from it2. According to this discourse, visibly disconnected from the experience of the population, the supposed indifference would form one of the obstacles to the establishment of a « Mexico at peace »3. However, this accusation, that allows the political actors to be cleared of their part of responsibility, hides the daily ingenuity of individuals. In an uncertain environment, characterised by contradictory injunctions supported by reprisal threats from multiple actors, the population must navigate smartly without ever aligning themselves with either the law and security forces, or an armed group.

For the government, the very limited success of the campaign to promote denunciation would be the expression of the Mexican citizens’ passivity. Since the last six-year mandate (2006-2012), this political will was made particularly obvious through the colossal reward offers4 for any information leading to the capture of drug-trafficking capos and lieutenants. More generally, the « Denuncialo ! » injunction (« Denounce him! ») in the streets, in public transport or on television, is one of the most visible governmental messages in the everyday Mexican landscape. The program concerns a priori all offences, including the minor ones, which the population could witness or suffer. But in the current context, where the government wishes to be seen as working « for a Mexico in peace », thus suggesting that it is at the head of a country at war, the intelligence relating to drug-trafficking is particularly targeted.

However, often, in the regions where the narco is the most present, it is the opposite standpoint that is privileged: silence. At first sight, this choice could be seen as the confirmation of the popular apathy that is so criticised, explained by the fear, or even the terror, in which these populations live. Yet, it also seems relevant to go beyond this undeniable element, or at least to seek to refine it. Indeed, interpreting this silence as a symptom of the so-called paralysis of society, as an immediate, or even instinctive, reaction when facing fear, would not make it less legitimate. Nevertheless, conceiving this choice in itself, as the result of a strategy constructed and thought of between fear and preference, that of the secret, offers a much more sensible and refined analysis. By choosing the expression used by the population « better not to say anything », rather than the expression « omerta » – used so commonly that it has frozen the object that it is supposed to describe –, this article is an invitation to perceive the multiple considerations contained in this precaution and their analytical interest. It seeks to describe the choice of silence not only as the result of violent and binding practices, but as the fruit and the space for the development of a particular relationship between the tenants of an activity and their social and historical environment. This relationship, complex and by definition varied according to the places and the moments, cannot remain a dead angle in the spaces for reflection and public initiatives to resolve the conflict.

It is within an ethnographic study carried out in a village of the Western Sierra Madre5 (North-West of the country), through the repetition and the variety of situations, that it became important to take seriously the sentence « better not to say anything », and this even though it could be used to end a conversation. Yet, it seems relevant, at least temporarily, to set aside the context of its enunciation. Indeed, the implicit threat to a situation of violence overshadows two simple questions here: What should be « silenced »? And to whom? The endeavour to describe precisely the ingenuity with which the population navigates between armed groups and security forces renders clear that such a formula, impersonal and vague, carries more than just the fear of reprisal.

What should be “silenced”?

First, the difficulties implied by the moral qualification of daily facts have to be taken into consideration. At the macro level, and especially in reaction to the state injunction to denunciation, this question relates to the offences or crimes that are linked to drug trafficking, assimilated to « organised crime ». In a place where these information are abundant – Western Sierra Madre is considered to be an emblematic region of narco-trafficking –, the  immediate link established at the national level between the current violence and narco-trafficking is very tangible at the local level (although interpretations can vary depending on the cases). On the other hand, the understanding of narco-trafficking as the authorities spread it – an undifferentiated and frozen ensemble of abominable practices – and that would need to be shared to encourage denunciation, is confronted, at the local scale, to tangible limitations: first, the ancientness and the longevity of the activity in the local landscape; second, the daily experience of it by the populations.

In the Western Sierra Madre, the exploitation of poppy and marijuana dates back to the early 20th century. The people living and working today in the Sierra have grown up in a space where these activities were already taking place. Moreover, they have witnessed the transformation of this economy, and thus can make the link between the activity, and the much-commented violence. Indeed, the types of governmental repression, radicalised in the 1970s, the diversification of the traffic in the 1980s, the diversification of production in the past decade, and finally the (increasingly more abundant and sensationalist then really exhaustive) media coverage since 2006 form those visible elements for the observer. Nevertheless, the persistence of elderly people to note that « We use to call then gomeros6 and now they call them narcos »leads to the conclusion that although there is a link between trafficking and violence, the « criminalisation » process and its effectiveness cannot be traced in the pages of national or regional newspapers. The clear opposition made between the two terms « gomeros » and « narco-traffickers » by « them » and « us » respectively denotes the distancing with the « narco-trafficker » category, considered as imposed from the outside. The social condemnation of the activity and its participants stems more, if it is the case, from the events and transformations that are indeed visible and noted. Even if this condemnation was to spread at the local level, it could not be as dated, frozen and inclusive as a juridical label such as « criminal activity ». Coming from this gap, it is on the basis of locally relevant criteria that a single act will be condemned.

It is also the temporal experience peculiar to daily life that renders this identification less obvious. There exists a considerable distance between a relatively abstract entity such as « organised crime », and the singularity of situations which can be witnessed locally. Except for the case of narcomantas7, the people living there do not qualify the activities linked to narco-trafficking in the same way: they are not presented a priori as such, they are above all activities and situations for which the categorisation process is open. Yet, an event « linked to organised crime » can also come from other social dimensions. For example, even if the author of a crime or an offence, or its victim, are known as members of an armed group, or the weapons used come from a criminal organisation, it is possible that the crime will be largely commented on as a showdown between neighbours because it is this aspect of the incident that will bear the most importance locally. Thus, even if a person would be inclined to « speak of the narco-trafficking » as pushed by the government, the eminently complex and fragmented character of violence in its daily perception generates an uncertainty around the violent event. With this uncertainty, and while it is difficult to estimate if the event is condemned or not socially, it is better to « say nothing ».

“Keep silent” with whom?

This second question is key to shed light on the difficulties to avoid in a context of social imbrication stemming from the identification of the speaker. The historical roots of the activities linked to the production and commerce of drugs in the region implies already that the people living from narco-trafficking and their neighbours have been alongside one another for a long time. But understanding these ties as a simple relationship of proximity between distinct juxtaposed groups would be a mistake: since the recent processes of segmentation and multiplication of armed groups8, it is impossible to see the latter as actors exogenous to the local population. In the context of state incentives to denunciation, the rivalries between the different groups render complex the landscape and the strategies built there: it is no longer about knowing who to denounce, the question is also to whom.

The multiple facets born today by the character of the « telltale » or the “snitch” (soplón) are symptomatic of the complexity of local stakes. The sentence « To be a telltale is like wearing a target around your neck » is a common saying in Sierra Madre. Although denunciation is rarely considered as a socially valued practice, it is also revealed to be particularly dangerous. Neither the denunciation message, nor its receiver can be perceived as obvious. Is the soplón only the one who denounces (or « points the finger to ») someone to the state authorities? Isn’t he also the one who denounces to an armed group? Do all the armed groups react the same way when someone is denounced? The uncertainty surrounding this type of questions mirrors the complexity of a situation radically different to one where a conflict would ideally oppose the state, through its entire security forces (municipal, state, federal and military), to a one and only group locally identifiable by the exercise of an illegal activity.

This diversification of armed groups has a direct influence on social relations. The creation of new groups is locally translated by the search for new recruits. The question « do you want to join? » is asked several times to certain people living and working in the region. As the offer comes with benefits – notably economic ones –, the reaction depends on diverse personal equations and trajectories. Very recently, when the opportunity has come up again, the selection criteria were less stringent than before, notably because of the diversification in the activities of the new groups. This renders clear the fragility of the distinction between civilian population and criminal groups. From a more practical point of view, if someone declines the offer, it remains probable that a parent, a colleague, a neighbour, a friend, or a simple acquaintance will answer affirmatively.

Thus the demarcation line between the « implicated » people and the « non-implicated » ones is particularly blurry. It is indeed fluctuating with the evolutions – formations, dissolutions – that the concerned groups and the stakes of the traffic go through. As these transformations go, it becomes primordial to take into account the pre-existing networks of sociability to understand that, in the context of daily and neighbouring life, identifying the people to denounce is particularly difficult, if indeed, one is disposed to in these conditions.

Without apathy, nor bias

By over-viewing the two very simple facets of the same recommendation, it becomes clear that the reasons to prefer « keeping silence » are numerous. It is not about denying the impact of the violent means of constraint that can be used to incite people to remain silent. But, by affirming that « one should not surrender to fear », ordinary people suggest the existence and the importance of the activity that is implied by daily life in the shadow of the cartels. The performative aspect of fear, even before the refusal to surrender to it, lies also in a very active attitude. The fears are indeed linked to the punitive precedents for which the levels of efficiency depend on the accounts given of them, the proposed interpretation and the strategic thinking of the people potentially concerned by the attitude being sanctioned.

The importance of these fears renders the mundane activities particularly delicate. It is neither about a war going through rhythmic and constant armed confrontations, nor about a pacified daily life. To explicitly claim a side is not an option to consider here. Consequently, the people have to juggle between the two rules of conduct offered: the state injunction to denounce and the silence discipline of the armed groups. It is thus about filling a gap, about investing an in-between, creating landmarks in a world of uncertainty. Behind the « complacency » of the population, indeed potentially identifiable by a superficial analysis, is hiding in fact, for these populations, a constant composition with the daily reality of violence, even in the most common practices.

When one talks, one then has to find a compromise between the safe silence and the necessity to talk to keep oneself informed. The precautions that surround the act of talking thus constitute strategies to avoid the rule imposed by the cartels. In this sense, they express the refusal to surrender to fear, and become the product of this permanent composition. By repetition, these precautions create a frame in which information can circulate. Thus the relatively recent notice given to the coexistence, at the local level, of different non-state armed groups has transformed the character of the soplón: the possibility to « point the finger » to benefit one group or another, or the state authorities, broadens the list of potential denouncers, but also the list of attitudes that betray them. New elements awaken distrust. Depending on one’s « affiliation », the « telltale » is not looking for the same information and does not have the same intentions. Thus, the classic compromise of a silence that cannot be kept – whispering – comes now hand in hand with a more stringent control of the people present during the exchange, with the calculation of its content (a recent information that has not received much comment or a past anecdote) and of the intentions of the interlocutor (the will to measure the breadth of knowledge of the interlocutor or the search for information crucial to one’s own security). By maintaining this level of alert during the interaction, by building in common landmarks that are viable and can evolve, it thus becomes possible to keep social relations going without being locked in frozen and hermetical networks of exchange. The multiple facets of the new « telltale » are thus threatening, but without becoming paralysing, as these populations, far from any form of « passivity », are constantly adapting.

This example reveals a fundamental aspect of daily life in a context of uncertainty: the vital necessity to keep informed about, and to adapt to, a movement on which one has only little control. In a constant situation of alert, the daily practices have to evolve closely with the transformations of the violent configuration. This sustained attention paid to change demands a great ingenuity and denotes a reflexive attitude towards the possible repertoires of action and their transformations through time. The choices and the types of protection demonstrate a refined and measured knowledge, and signify a bias that is reasoned and adapted to the possible solutions.

Although it is specific to a particular time and place, the sentence « better not to say anything », as blurry and impersonal as it may seem, is one of these choices. Even if the injunction is thus avoided, it is clear that, « fear » set aside, neither the secret nor the interlocutor to avoid are easy to identify. By exclusively positioning the analysis from the point of view of the « civilian population », an important social imbrication with the « non-state armed actors » can be perceived. Thus, without even suggesting the existence of such an intention on behalf of the latter, the influence that they can have on the behaviour of the former can be guessed.

As irreversible and brutal as the decision to leave the place one lives in can be, it is closely linked to a more diffuse temporal dimension, that of daily life. By witnessing the ICHR shed light on the importance of the refugees of violence stemming from narco-trafficking, one could expect that the focus would also be on those who still can, or have to stay. It is understood that in the current state of things it is already difficult to identify the number of actors at stake, but taking into consideration a mass that is everything but silent is paramount to political action today. It is thus urgent to understand this in-between that cannot be reduced to the categories of victims and refugees of indifference and apathy. This is all the more crucial since this in-between is certainly adequate for a new description of a conflict that has still to be qualified.


  1. ICHR audience in Washington on 1 November 2013. See : http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2013/11/02/politica/013n1pol ↩︎
  2. This discourse, common in the Mexican society, is also heard in the reflection spheres of civilian organisations. (See for example the INSYDE communication -Instituto nacional para la seguridad y la democracia-,, 27 November 2013, IIS-UN1M colloquium).) In parallel, the recent creation of auto-defence groups in Michoacan constitutes a new phenomenon of armed opposition to criminal organisation, and is spreading rapidly. ↩︎
  3. « Por un México en paz » web page of the Secretaria de Seguridad Publica ↩︎
  4. In 2009, a total of 300 million Mexican pesos were offered as a reward for any information that would « help to the localisation or capture of capos » named on a list of 37 people: in 2013, 563 millions for 6 capos, see: http://diario.mx/Nacional/2013-08-08_a7943151/ofrecen-por-seis-narcos-mexicanos-$563-millones-/ ; http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2009/03/23/actualidad/1237762815_850215.html ↩︎
  5. This article is the result of an ethnographic study carried out in 2012. Although it is not possible to name the village at stake here, this absence of designation should not, in any case, be interpreted as an invitation to read this text as a general diagnostic of the current situation in the region. ↩︎
  6. Term designating those who manufacture the poppy gum. ↩︎
  7. The narcomantas are messages sent by the Mexican criminal organisations to the government, the population or rival organisations, generally written on bedsheets or big posters and placed in strategic places that enable their diffusion. ↩︎
  8. In the region, it is notably since 2007 that is mentioned the creation of new armed groups that are not directly linked to the production of drugs but to the « regulation of traffic » and whose origins of formation are not clearly identified. ↩︎