Nieto’s Challenge

Many readers will remember Hillary Clinton‘s off-the-cuff claim last fall that “We face an increasing threat from a well-organised network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico.”  In “The everywhere war” (DOWNLOADS tab) I used her comment – together with a host of other sources inside and outside the state – to suggest some of the ways in which conceptions of war were being transformed in the borderlands; so too the military/policing distinction.

But a new report from the International Crisis Group, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal cartels and rule of law in Mexico, suggests that – in the midst of calls to increase the militarization of the US southern border – at least some State Department officials are having second thoughts.  Indeed, the report claims that Clinton’s remark was seen at the time ‘as a misstatement by many in the State Department, aimed more at linking the kinds of violence and weapons used and the seriousness of the danger they posed rather than describing the nature of the cartels or their objectives.’  And now, in an interview with the Group, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, insisted:

‘The violence associated with the criminal activities of the transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) in Mexico is not a national security problem or an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the Mexican government. Clearly, the violence … is a very serious public security problem that has important social and economic repercussions.’ 

For all that, it’s surely more than a ‘public security problem’ and it also has the most acute political repercussions too:


The report spells out many of those repercussions for the democratic constitution of Mexico – though whether Nieto (Mexico’s new President) will pay any attention to it is another question.  But its fundamental argument is captured in these paragraphs:

The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self- defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law. 

There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisa- tions, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.

Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.

Naming names

Mexican-poet-Javier-SiciliaIn March 2011 members of a Mexican drug cartel tortured and murdered a young student, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, along with six of his friends in the city of Cuernavaca in Morelos.  His father, Javier Sicilia (right), poet, professor and journalist, later told Time:

‘When I got to Cuernavaca… I was in a lot of emotional pain. But when I arrived at the crematorium I had to deal with the media. I asked the reporters to have some respect; I told them I’d meet them the next day in the city plaza. When I got there I found they’d put a table [for a press conference] out for me, and I realized this was going to be bigger than I’d anticipated.

‘I had never thought of starting a movement or being a spokesman for anything. I’m a poet, and poets are better known for working with more obscure intuitions. But in those moments I was reminded that the life of the soul can be powerful too. My chief intuition then was that we had to give name and form to this tragedy and somehow put that into action with real citizens as a way to tell the government, “We need something new, especially new institutions to fight our lawlessness and corruption and impunity, not just that of the drug cartels but the state.”‘

Sicilia's call

Sicilia’s demand (above) started the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (“Haste la Madre!”), but the call to abjure the aggregations and anonymizations of mass violence – by state and non-state actors – has been taken up in other political arenas too.

It’s in this spirit that I read the Open Society‘s detailed listing of 136 people who were subjected to secret detention or extraordinary rendition by the CIA.

Sth-Wana-letter-Jan-20091And now – to turn to a program that is in many respects the flip side of extraordinary rendition (assuming a dark side can have another dark side) – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has announced an ambitious campaign to identify and name all the victims of US-directed air strikes in Pakistan.

The Bureau’s Chris Woods explains:

‘Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.  Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna,  a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30? By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed…’

And, yes, we also need to recover the names of those killed by other actors too.  None of  them are ‘just “collateral damage” or abstractions’.

The principle is developed more generally by the Every Casualty project of the Oxford Research Group.

The purpose of the Every Casualty (EC) programme is to enhance the technical, legal and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, to record details of every single casualty of armed conflict throughout the world, civilian as well as combatant. Civilian deaths are particularly poorly documented, and often not recorded at all. Where death tolls are limited to purely numerical assessments, exaggerated, politicised claims and counter-claims frequently abound. By contrast, where Western nations are engaged in conflicts, they meticulously record their military dead not as numbers but by name.

Such detailed, verifiable and comprehensive recording when extended to all victims provides both a memorial for posterity and public recognition of our common humanity. Careful and respectful records ensure that the human cost of conflict is better understood and can become an immediately applicable resource for conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.

Every casualty

But I think it’s probably a mistake to privilege names over numbers: numbers matter too, and  – whatever the legal-humanitarian reasons for recovering the names – they also help us to imagine what the raw numbers mean.  There are other ways of achieving the same end, and they don’t necessarily involve abandoning anonymity.  I’ve never forgotten the final scene in Richard Attenborough‘s film of “Oh, what a lovely war!”; the shot begins with a single white cross and then pans back and back and back, seemingly without end, until the screen is filled with a sea of 100, 000 crosses [start at 2:21].