By Gema Santamaria
This article first appeared on openDemocracy
Mexico’s War is a civil war against and amongst citizens, regardless of where they stand on the drug business, of devastating consequences for the population and the state.
Mexico’s so-called war on drugs has not ended. While no longer part of the government’s official discourse, the logic of war continues to pervade the state’s militarized strategies against criminal organizations. Most importantly, this war continues to be felt amongst individuals, families, and local communities that endure its consequences in the form of extortions, kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and forced displacements. More than “collateral effects,” these various forms of violence and its victims are at the center of Mexico’s ongoing war.
To the extent that it has fundamentally impacted the life and wellbeing of thousands of citizens, this war cannot longer be understood- if it ever was- as one waged by the state against criminal organizations. The number of massacres committed by criminal organizations with the complicity or neglect of state actors against unarmed civilians –including immigrants- speaks to a reality with roots and ramifications that we are only beginning to understand. Violence’s geographical reach and its levels of brutality confirm Mexico is enduring a war, albeit of a different kind. Scholars like Andreas Schedler have suggested the term “economic civil war”; others have proposed “narcoviolencia” or “non-conventional war”. A civil war, I would say, against and amongst citizens, no matter where they stand on the “drug business.”
At the beginning of his term, president Enrique Peña Nieto promised to move away from the previous government’s security strategy. Focused on militarized operations, massive incarcerations, and the neutralization of DTO’s main leaders, this strategy was -then and now- seen as limited in its scope and detrimental in its consequences. Not only did this strategy failed to decrease levels of violence, but it also lead to the formation of more fragmented, dispersed, and predatory criminal organizations. Despite of this, Peña Nieto’s first impulse to revisit and transform the country’s security policies was quickly abandoned. The possibility of adopting more integral and people-centered approaches was replaced by a series of disparate initiatives aimed at providing immediate answers to what are clearly deep-seated institutional and structural challenges.
Mexico’s current disjointed security strategy has thus reproduced past mistakes but has also resulted in newer and deeper signs of democratic erosion. In particular, civil society and international organizations have documented human rights violations and crimes against humanity that have occurred with the negligence and criminal collusion of state actors at different levels of government. In addition to the Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and more recently, the Open Society Justice Initiative, have consistently documented cases of torture, abuse, and violence which presence is systemic and widespread, rather than isolated.
These and many more organizations working closely with victims and their families have turned to the government in search for answers. Mexican authorities’ response has oscillated between cautious openness and overt defensiveness, with the latter position becoming prevalent during the last months. This shifting position is expressed in the government’s first open and even welcoming response towards the GIEI and its subsequent defensive and dismissive attitude. Needles to say, this kind of incoherent response goes against the level of democratic maturity that Mexican society has reached. It hurts Mexico’s position as a global actor that has, over the past twenty years, embraced and promoted a human rights agenda at the international level. More so, Mexico’s reactions have severely curtailed the process to elucidate the truth and attain justice, to the detriment of thousands of citizens and of the government’s own legitimacy.
No doubt, the Mexican government faces a difficult task. Acknowledging the findings of civil society actors and international organizations would push authorities to recognize that the country’s current levels of violence and abuse reflect more than a few isolated cases. In other words, it would drive the government to abandon the “few bad apples” narrative and acknowledge that there is systematic neglect and state involvement at the local, but also at the state and federal levels. It would also push authorities to recognize that there are spaces that have fallen under the control of criminal organizations, with the acquaintance and complicity of state actors- including mayors, governors, police, and military personnel.
The fear of being labeled a “failed state” runs deep amongst Mexico’s political elites, as does the idea of loosing sovereignty in the face of international actors and organizations that may decide to intervene on matters considered of “national interest.” Surely the label “failed state” has proven to be an inadequate and often politically motivated tool that does little to help rebuild countries’ institutional and structural capacities. But the international community’s call for transparency, accountability, and adequate responses, cannot be ignored.
The notion of sovereignty as a matter of protecting national and state interests, paradigmatic of Mexico’s post-revolutionary state, no longer holds. To the extent that it can fulfill its mandate to protect citizens from harm and provide them with effective avenues for justice, a country remains sovereign. Nationalistic pride won’t do; Mexico’s responsibility to protect is indisputable and unyielding.
Mexican authorities would do well in addressing the challenges and recommendations that have been made by international organizations, in conjunction with civil society, investigative journalists, as well as victims and their families. It would be a sign of strength and democratic maturity and it would potentially open up a process of rebuilding Mexico’s security and justice systems. Rather than dismissing or silently ignoring the calls for justice from different national and international actors, Mexican government should take advantage of these diagnoses and ask the international community to suggest context-specific and feasible recommendations that can be put into practice in the next months. Some promising recommendations have already been made. These include the creation of an investigative and independent body similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. Once again, taking these suggestions seriously implies overcoming defensive and nationalistic attitudes. It entails looking at Guatemala and the countries of the northern triangle as nations that can offer important evidence of former failures and successes.
The roots of current levels of violence in Mexico are in the past as well as in the present. They have to do with a longstanding partial and politicized application of the law that allowed political elites to claim control over communities and territories through extra-legal means. They are also connected to the recent escalation of drug-related violence and a failed security strategy that has corroded both state institutions and local communities. The war will not just wither away. Unless serious and systematic measures are taken to reverse the damage done by reactive and militarized strategies, the consequences of this war will continue to be felt in a deeper and more pervasive manner.
Gema Santamaría is an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Department of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. She holds a PhD in History and Sociology from the New School for Social Research.
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