Precedent, Rupture, and Memory Amid Mexico's Violence
On October 18, Culiacán’s residents hesitantly emerged from their shelters in homes and businesses. As they did, they confronted not just the memory of violence, but the question of what the events had meant. Nine days later, a peace march streamed down one of the city’s main roads to a protest in a central park. It was a display of resistance to frequent characterizations of the city as a place of ineradicable criminality, but the march, like the violence, left much unresolved. What did it meant to be a survivor, not just of Jueves Negro, but of the city’s constant atmosphere of fear?
Much of this dossier has been concerned with the question of whether October 17 did, as so many analysts affirmed in the moment, represent a precedent? And if so, what was that precedent? The question is essential, from an interpretive standpoint: so many of the “precedent-setting” events in Mexico’s drug war had implications that were rarely predictable, and often imperceptible. In revisiting the events of October 17, our goal was not to fix that Jueves Negro as an indicator of a worsening security situation, but rather to suggest that we must look below the surface, and past faint ripple effects, if we are to understand what happened. And in many ways, the events defy understanding. It is still uncertain what the day meant, both for those who experienced it, and those attempting to analyze it from afar. Two conclusions are clear, however. First, it did not represent the national watershed for security that so many predicted in the immediate aftermath. Second, for those who experienced it, the significance of the events remains a complicated trauma.
For well over a decade, our narrative of the crisis has been driven forward by sensational headlines that at every turn sought to find a new dynamic, each scarier and more threatening than the last. How else to punctuate the numbing drone of insecurity and bloodshed but with the first severed heads, the biggest mass grave, the largest drug seizure, the government’s worst mistake? Yet often the anniversaries of these events are quickly forgotten; the notion of precedent useful only in the moment and rarely in retrospection.
Few events register as significant one year later. The annual commemoration of the Ayotzinapa disappearance is exception rather than norm, the rare event that reverberates across years of violence. And yet neither was Ayotzinapa itself truly unprecedented: the events of September 26 had been preceded by largely unremembered mass disappearances in San Fernando—the singular massacre of 72 migrants in 2010 and the slow-motion brutality of 2011 in which more than 300 were disappeared. Smaller waves of disappearance had also previously swept Guerrero, Baja California, and elsewhere.
Perhaps what confers the status of near historical importance is not any momentous or lasting change in security dynamics, but rage: rage at corruption and official malevolence, rage at impunity and callousness. In this sense, October 17 may lack the necessary characteristics. While the initial operation was undoubtedly ill-conceived, and quite possibly illegal, the government also chose not to double down on its errors and provoke a bloodbath, a decision for which many residents of the city were openly grateful.
This is not to say that we should ignore major developments or incidents that may not ultimately rate as significant, but that we might moderate a tendency toward analytical overreach by paying more attention to the on-the-ground experience. That perspective has major implications for how we narrate the drug war and how we understand the impact of violence.
Such an approach yields insights that are not necessarily surprising, but which reveal an underlying truth. When talking with people across Mexico, you quickly discover that the events that have lasting meaning are not always those outsiders deemed to have the most significance. In Culiacán, for example, one reference point emerges again and again when discussing the city’s contemporary violence: cuando mataron a Javier.
The murder of journalist Javier Valdéz in May 2017, was, at least within a certain circle, a moment of rupture more profound than any possible clash between criminals and security forces. For many, it represented not just the killing of an internationally recognized journalist but the loss of a friend, mentor, and confidant. The point is not that Javier’s murder represented a watershed in a way that October 17 did not, but rather that the violence of the drug war has inscribed thousands of different calendars of grief. These calendars are both individual and collective, and their ritual cycles revolve around events that often escape the headlines.
For the families of the disappeared, their moment of unprecedented violence was not a hail of bullets, but the day their loved one vanished. Their marker of time is not an arrest or seizure or explosion, it is something more personal and painful.
In this sense, all calculations, all descriptions of violence in Mexico fail. In quantifying the dead and disappeared we give a cruel finality to the events; we cannot count the missed birthdays, the empty chairs at meals, the anniversaries uncelebrated.
To reexamine the events, to truly understand their impact, we should listen to the stories of the victims. Three were killed in the crossfire that day, another eleven allegedly died while fighting. For friends and family of those fourteen, that day in October represented a moment of when life stories changed irreversibly. For many more, the terror and the memories of the day lingered. The city of Culiacán itself became a victim.
The testimonials collected by Revista Espejo for this project speak of that trauma. They tell of children afraid to reenter supermarkets, of sudden anxiety at stoplights, of driving a car that still has a bullet hole. The city’s wounds were both visible and invisible, and there was a similar duality to its healing. Physical reminders of the day were quickly erased, as officials seized on a narrative of resilience that sought to forget the violence. But residents cannot forget the terror they felt.
These collective narratives tell us a great deal about why even the most astute security strategy analyses struggle to predict, explain, or resolve Mexico’s violence. Integrating this perspective into our understandings will help illuminate how communities respond to trauma, fear, and victimization, both independent of policy interventions and as a reaction to them. For most events, however, this reflection never occurs.
Precedent without memory loses its meaning, and without revisiting violence we cannot learn from it. We must do this because the “drug war” does not have direction, its headlines cannot be assembled into a plot, because the story is not linear: it is cyclical. It is not the growing tally of deaths, but the innumerable memorials, the countless returns to traumas that mark the passage of time for individuals and communities. It is singing las mañanitas to ghosts.
Michael Lettieri is a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, and a co-founder and Managing Editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project
This project is a joint effort between the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the Noria Mexico-Central America program, and Revista Espejo.
La versión en español se encuentra aquí
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