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How to Tell the Story of the Drug War

Updated: Nov 10, 2020


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Michael Lettieri


The story of the drug war begins with a line. Slicing upward, it interrupts a long downward slope, a steep, steady rise that is as visually striking as its significance is horrifying. It marks an almost impassable break in Mexican history, dividing the before from the after.

For four years, from 2007 to 2010, Mexico’s homicide rate soared from an historic low of 7 per 100,000 to more than 21, increasing by more than 5,000 murders per year. This shocking explosion of violence terrified the Mexican public, confounded policymakers, and captured the attention of international observers. The question was as obvious as the answer was elusive: What had happened, and why?

The history of the drug war, in many ways, thus began with an attempt to understand the bloodshed of those years. More than a decade later, however, we are still struggling to find answers.

In the most basic telling, the violence had begun in 2007 when newly elected president Felipe Calderón decided to deploy the military and launch an all-out struggle against the cartels he claimed threatened the country’s stability. By consciously launching a war, the story went, Calderón had changed the basic dynamics of drug trafficking in Mexico. Because narcotraffickers had long enjoyed a corrupt coexistence with the government, Calderón’s frontal assault inevitably led to violence. Various deeper explanations were quick to emerge, ranging from cartel infighting that was a byproduct of the strategy of targeting cartel leadership to the unchecked flow of weapons and military aid from the United States.

If none of those accounts were inaccurate, neither did they paint a complete picture. As violence spread across the country in the years following 2010, it became clear that not only were we not necessarily asking the right questions, we were not doing a good job of telling the story.

So how can we do better? How do we examine a phenomenon that defies comprehension? How do we tell the story of the drug war? And why does the way we frame these stories matter?

Rather than a narrative of “narco violence,” what I would like to offer is a discussion of the narrative approaches to the drug war. There are, I believe, four major ways we can tell the history of the drug war—numerical, historical, popular, testimonial—and that understanding those approaches is essential to addressing the violence.

I.

I began this essay with the first of the four approaches. In many ways, the contemporary history of the drug war is shaped by the numbers we have used to understand it.

In many ways, it was the numbers—that 5,000-per-year increase in murders—that made the drug war real. Because in many ways, it wasn’t at first. In Mexico City, or Veracruz, or Puebla, violence of that magnitude was not a part of life. Some areas had experienced panics over crime—kidnapping, carjacking, etc.—but the drug war was remote. It was remote for most outsiders too, academics and observers, who from cosmopolitan vantage points found it easier to see crime in Sinaloa or Guerrero or Tamaulipas as isolated episodes—part of a violent and troubling trend, but one that very much could be analyzed as an object.

And so the first history of the drug war was written with numbers—largely through the homicide data collected by Mexico’s central statistical agency. We watched the violence grow, and we started collecting new numbers—counts of murders associated with organized crime compiled from news accounts, new counts of murders from the federal security agency, independent tallies kept by academics. Data became the lens through which to see and understand the violence. We mapped it, charted it, looked at where and when violence increased, and when it decreased we found feel-good success stories of civic partnerships and community engagement. Numbers made the drug war legible.

Except the numbers could be misleading, in insidious ways.

While a homicide rate of 21 per 100,000—where Mexico peaked in 2011—was alarming, it was also disturbingly easy for many to conclude that “it won’t happen to me, I’m not involved, I’m not a criminal.” This attitude was relentlessly reinforced by the official government narrative that the war was between the cartels and the government, and those being killed were entirely narco gangsters.

But the lie was apparent, and painfully clear to those caught in the supposed crossfire, such as residents of Ciudad Juárez, where in 2010 the homicide rate hit 229 per 100,000—nearly 10 murders a day—and gunmen stormed a high school party and killed 15 teenagers for no apparent reason.

The problem was that the numbers made it easy to lose sight of the victims. We could capture the magnitude of the tragedy, but we couldn’t understand it.

II.

The explosion of the drug war changed things for scholars who were now confronted with body counts that seemed unfathomable. In this second, more qualitative, approach, academics thus sought to find the origins of the violence and explain why Mexico had been unable to prevent catastrophe.

Some wrote histories of the drugs themselves, using the lens of commodities and export economies. Others, focusing on corruption, told the story of the smugglers and trafficking organizations, and revealed the complicity of the Mexican state in protecting and permitting illicit activities. Those concerned with human rights highlighted the role of the United States, emphasizin