Returning to Mexico this past May after the wonder years at Yale, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Initially, it didn’t seem too different from what I remembered. All my best friends from before were still around and still hung out together, mostly in the same places; some were even dating the same girls. Save for some turbulence when I came out to the rest of my friends, readjusting was smooth sailing.
I’ve come to realize, however, that Mexico is being transformed by violence. I now live in a country that lacks a clear sense of direction and purpose, a country largely paralyzed by fear, contaminated by cynicism and kept down by its pessimism for the future.
Targeted killings have become commonplace, and it is now easy to become largely desensitized to these displays of violence and bravado. Deaths are reported regularly on the evening news and often treated as mere statistics of the drug war.
But uncensored pictures and video remind us of the gruesomeness and cruelty with which such acts are perpetrated — loose limbs, beheaded bodies, evidence of severe torture. And these are the people we find. After all, many “levantados” (literally “picked up,” meaning kidnapped) are never seen again, they don’t even become a statistic.
Still, few Mexicans seem to believe that their country is a “failed state” on the brink of collapse, as more than one major U.S. publication touted earlier this year. Despite the uptick in violence — over 5,000 dead to violence related to the narcotics trade in 2008 according to El Universal and others — there is still a sense that the violence generally only affects those who are somehow involved in the narco war, that everyone else can continue their blissful existence as a fun-loving Mexican. Common upstanding citizens, however, have more than stray bullets to fear.
Drug cartels in Mexico have become diversified mafias. While their main business continues to be the drug trade, they have began kidnapping for ransom, extorting “security fees” from businesses and controlling the sale of pirated DVDs, inexpensive footwear illegally imported from China, casinos and favorite nightlife destinations, to name a few.
Their influence is pervasive. Nightclubs have chosen to shut down. Entrepreneurs think that the biggest risk of expanding a current business or starting a new one is not failure — but rather drawing unwanted attention. Displays of luxury have become rare and considered dangerous. Acura dealers joke that their cars are safer because they are less recognizable than the European brands. Friends joke that Hallmark should enter the market with a “Welcome back from your kidnapping” card.
The emergency number on many cell phones – mine included — will not get you the police, but the army. The other day, someone called my house pretending they were kidnapping my sister, Lissy Giacomán ’12. They hung up when I told them she was out of the country.
Why should this be of any interest to you? Chances are you’re part of the problem. According to some reports, 90 percent of weapons confiscated from the cartels were bought in the U.S and smuggled into Mexico. Drug cartels finance their operation through the black market drug trade. Their number one customer? Nosotros. People in the U.S.
If you believe the drug laws in the U.S. are unjust, try to change them. Write a letter to your congressman. Become president of the United States and write a book about it. But realize that there is a connection between the illegal consumption of drugs and violence in the poorer countries that supply them. Know that doing drugs can kill people and cripple societies.
My aim is not to suggest that Mexicans are without fault for the current situation. Arguably, President Felipe Calderón’s decision to push the military at the cartels was ill-timed, and his strategy was underdeveloped. As a result, Calderón lost his soft power and may have emboldened the cartels, who are now aware that they can hold their own against the “honorable ejército mexicano.” Illegal drug consumption is also on the rise in Mexico, and Mexicans are notoriously inconsistent in reporting crimes to the authorities. (Though, admittedly, the authorities are, not without reason, perceived to be corrupt.)
Still, it’s hard to argue that Mexico isn’t trying to deal with the cartel problem.
Two weeks ago, I attended the heavily safeguarded inauguration of Mayor Mauricio Fernandez in Nuevo Leon. In the middle of his speech, he mentioned that the leaders of a local mafia ring had been found dead that morning. A few hours later four blindfolded bodies were found and identified in Mexico City, in a van with Nuevo Leon state license plates and a sign that read “For being kidnappers” and referenced the biblical verse “The wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken.” Coincidental timing? If you say so.
Mayor Fernandez closed his speech with the following statement: “This is not a game to me, or I think for any of us here today; this is a war — and we are going to win it.”
I think we will, too. But we could sure use your help.