Monday, December 19, 2011

John Gibler: To Die in Mexico

It is very hard to legally obtain a gun in Mexico. For one thing, there is only one gun store in the country, and it is run by the military.  But according to at least one source (and they're hard to find), 80,000 firearms were seized in Mexico in the four years between 2006 and 2010. Those years are significant, because 2006 was the year that Felipe Calderon took over the office of President of Mexico and launched his war on drugs with the support of the United States. The war, it turned out, was actually a militarization or para-militarization of Mexico that has basically involved supporting one drug cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, while targeting the other, smaller cartels, perhaps in the hope that if this cartel controls everything, Mexico's problems will go away.  Or perhaps, more likey, Calderon understands what is really happening: without drug money and gun money, the Mexican, US, and world economy will be in even worse shape. John Gibler writes
High-level federal officials in United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics, because, among other reasons, the US economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money.  The defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset orfeitrue laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases; and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of color in prison in a country still shackled by racism.
The US needs the drug war, no matter how bloody and deathly it is for Mexico, and "To Die in Mexico" is a reminder of just how bloody and dealthy the drug war is for Mexico: really bloody and really deathly.

I read and write about Mexico and la frontera a lot.  Maybe I can't get over Mexico in some Freudian way that Laura Kipnis talked about in "How to Become a Scandal": Just as societies need scandals to have clear examples and deliniations (borders) of the edges of proprietery, maybe I (and the US) need Mexico to denote the Other, the not-us, the "see what could happen but won't happen here?" Even in Oakland, there are no statistics like in Mexico: Gibler calls the unsolved and uninvestigated murder rate of 95% a "95 percent impunity" rate, and we're talking about more than 38,000 homicides in the years since Calderon launched the drug war redux: 2006 to May 2011. That's approximately 20 murders per day in Mexico; Oakland's rate of over 100 per year, while extraordinarily awful, becomes somehow tolerable in the face of this violence. Further, Oakland's murder victims have names and their killers usually (often?) face some kind of justice.  In Mexico people are killed twice, according to Gibler: "First the obliterate your world;... then, once you are gone, they will turn your body from that of a person into that of a message." The message (or the scandal) is that of impunity: the murder becomes a photograph in one of the "Nota Roja" papers that specialize in bloody depictions of murder scenes, and a sin of omission in journalism, crime reports, and policing. "Those who look on you will see only death."

Gibler has written a wonderful little book for those interested in Mexico, journalism and violence. He gives some, but not enough, look at the bigger picture both in Mexico and at how the US has created and extended the problems. The book is a fast read, if you can stomach the violence which is interspersed with moments of hope, if hope can be found in mothers fighting for investigations that will never be investigated or journalists maintaining integrity in the face of murder attempts.  It's a glimpse into territory that is hard to glimpse, for the reasons that Gibler writes about: the government and cartels have created a culture of silence that makes exposure impossible, and death is a pretty high price to pay for investigating the truth. Further, the US has a lot at stake in preserving the story that Mexico is telling about itself, so Americans also have little incentive to put out any real information. Gibler has opened a dialogue in the face of lots of obstacles.