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The Dead Have a Story: An Interview with Vania Pigeonutt

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

What makes violence in Guerrero distinct, and what lessons can we learn from covering it? The Mexico Violence Resource Project spoke to Vania Pigeonutt for a wide-ranging interview about how the way the stigmas about the state have shaped the challenge of explaining violence there.

To understand Guerrero, Pigeonutt observes, it is necessary to place the state in the context of forces that have shaped violence across Mexico. In many ways, it is a microcosm of the country as a whole, but it also has specific, and extremely localized conflicts with deep histories.

"You could say that, from a certain standpoint, Guerrero is a state that exemplifies many things about Mexico more generally, and that has shaped the dynamics of crime and violence in the state. It is a complicated picture. There are regions of extreme poverty (principally the indigenous areas of la Montaña), there is an economically important zone (the port of Acapulco), and there are also regions with major resource extraction projects—especially mining. Guerrero also borders Mexico State and Michoacán—states with distinct criminal factors—and that geography has created a mix of different problems.

Guerrero has the highest number of armed groups in the country—18 different groups—and there is absolutely no control over them and very little clarity even about who they are. There are gangs and criminal groups, but for others, it is unclear if they are self-defense groups or something else, because there is, effectively, also a sort of paramilitarism present here. The classification of groups is complicated and difficult, but what is certain is that the de facto power in the state is very decentralized.

This has meant that it is very challenging to diagnose the causes of violence in the state, because there are dynamics that are extremely localized. There are, in effect, layers of conflict—in a given place it is possible there’s a long-running agrarian conflict, as well as a conflict between criminal groups, and so on.

But it’s also easy to fall into the trap of the numbers and statistics and to simply talk about the violence through that sort of data. But it doesn’t explain a lot of things—we have to ask the question “What are we saying when we talk about death in Guerrero?”

Pigeonutt’s answer to that question comes in the form of her reporting at the Guerrero-based news outlet she helped found: Amapola Periodismo. But the work of changing the way violence in the state is covered through critical, independent journalism has faced a number of challenges, perhaps none greater that the persistence of official narratives surrounding it.

"Amapola emerged from an effort by several of us who worked with other news outlets, with the goal of decentralizing journalistic projects, because in Mexico there is a real concentration of media in the capital, and we wanted to do journalism for Guerrero. It has been difficult, the challenge of financing it is enormous, and we have had to keep freelancing, which makes it hard to focus since you are trying to juggle so many tasks. And in Guerrero, as is true elsewhere, there is a deep tradition of opacity in how the media is financed, in terms of official advertising and practices of censorship and control. So we have not sought out any funding from the government.

As a woman, it is also difficult because Guerrero tends to be pretty machista, and you have to fight for people to take you seriously. It’s less about the experience of reporting, though, and more about the experience in the newsroom or in forums—that is where it is really difficult.

With Amapola, we have tried to change the way violence is discussed, we have tried to use narratives to explain the why of violence, starting with structural causes, and in doing so to challenge the official narrative. Our style guide has the rule of not using the term ‘cartel’, and when we talk about those who are growing poppies, we do not call them ‘narcos,’ which is how they are described in government rhetoric. The idea is to topple the simple and limited explanations of violence, to avoid falling into the trap of the numbers, and to give explanations based on deeper, larger analyses. We want to describe the phenomena, not the deaths.

In doing that, we try to emphasize that the dead have, and had, a story. That there is a context, a phenomenon that explains a murder, and that the victim also had a personal story, and that both things are important. At Amapola what we try to do is use the stories to give a face to a phenomenon. I started with nota roja crime coverage when I was 21, they gave me a camera and told me to take close-ups of the bodies, of the crime scenes, but that sort of coverage is all about scandal, about spectacle, it doesn’t explain anything.

To tell the sort of story we want to, you have to develop a relationship with people, you need to have empathy. You need to sit with families. But to tell that sort of story you really need to have contacts, because some places you won’t be able to go without them. As a reporter, I have to trust my sources and my contacts to let me know about the security situation in a given region, so that I can do my job.

Lastly, there’s another challenge, which is that most of the coverage of Guerrero, whether it is in the national or international press, lacks depth. It took us years to get rid of the narrative of ‘cartel versus cartel,’ and with a single story they revive it.

Telling such nuanced stories requires acknowledging that Guerrero is often portrayed as a stereotypically lawless state. Its long-standing reputation as a rebellious and untamed place shaped both practices of heavy-handed political control during the 20th century, and the brutal counter-insurgency response to guerrilla movements in the 1960s and 70s. For Pigeonutt, that legacy continues to shape both our understanding of violence there, and official responses to it.

"The biggest myth about Guerrero is that it is a state still experiencing guerrilla movements. There are still elements of that, but it serves more to provide a distinction between certain armed groups—those that have a connection to a guerrilla movement and those that have a connection to paramilitaries, self-defense groups, extortion rings, narcotraffickers, etc. The state has that stigma of rebelliousness, but it’s more about socioeconomic issues—the guerrilla legacy doesn’t mean there aren’t many other sources for the problems.

It is also true that the state has a dark legacy of persecuting social movements. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s with the dirty war, there is a tradition of militarized rule, it is one of the most profoundly militarized states, and that’s true today, with the National Guard working hand-in-hand with the Army and the Navy. And that militarized strategy has not worked to control drugs, it has only resulted in the persecution of the peasants who grow opium poppies and marijuana, but it hasn’t resulted in the arrests of those who are truly criminals.

Where the legacy really comes through, I think, is in the case of Ayotzinapa—that was the last event that really had the tinge of counterinsurgency, mostly due to the profile of the students who were disappeared.

Where Ayotzinapa was a singular event representing the ongoing presence of militarized counterinsurgency, for Pigeonutt the history of the drug war in the state is much more about collective experiences, and the way that violence has grown ever more disperse and affected ever more people. That story, she says, began in 2006.

"The most important moment, I think, was the shootout in Acapulco on January 27, 2006, when the preventative police clashed with gunmen. That shootout, which was extremely brutal, started a chain of events starting with the dismantling of the Beltran Leyva organization. That ultimately resulted in criminal fragmentation that, in a second moment—2011 to 2012—produced a wave of violence that was much more public, it was violence that really affected people. There were a lot of femicides, there were mass kidnappings—above all in the Tierra Caliente region. Those kidnappings were to demonstrate control over the territory of Tierra Caliente, and also to obtain forced labor for work on farms where poppies and marijuana were being grown.

Since 2015, there has been another increase in violence, but this wave is much broader, the violence isn’t as concentrated in particular regions, its much more disperse and geographically extensive. The femicides have been brutal, and that is a phenomenon that really underscores the failure of security policy. It’s not a new problem, it was here before, but particularly in terms of impunity, it’s extremely symbolic of the issues surrounding violence generally.

There have also been changes in terms of what is going on in urban areas, and in the cities relative to the sierra. In Acapulco now, what you see is mostly extortion in the peripheral neighborhoods and violence from small groups. There’s drug dealing, distribution, shipment, but the effect of the fragmentation from 2012 to 2015 was to give groups in the sierra more power relative to those in Acapulco, because of activities that happened there like poppy cultivation and methamphetamine production. In those sierra regions, there is a lot of forced displacement.

Now there is also the issue of political violence, and it is very likely that violence is going to increase during the upcoming elections. That is horrible because Guerrero was already the state with the most murders of social leaders, political figures, and public servants. It has affected all the political parties, because effectively what happens is that the armed groups have veto power over the candidates.


Vania Pigeonutt is a founder and editor of Amapola Periodismo. Her reporting primarily covers social and political issues in Guerrero.

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