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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 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.


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, emphasizing not only prohibitionism, but the legacies of imperialism and the Cold War in anti-drug policies.

Others looked for the social and political roots of the violence. They traced the bloody resistance to land reform in Sinaloa in the 1930s, showing how wealthy landowners successfully blocked government attempts to reduce poverty in the very region where a lack of opportunity later gave rise to heroin production. Others uncovered the torture and abuses of 1970s dirty war military operations in the heartland of the narco. We found continuities in state violence across the 1980s and 1990s, violence that created lasting distrust and conditions ripe for unrest.

Analyzing the structural changes, other scholars examined how political changes had disrupted criminal arrangements and sparked violence. Mexico’s democratization process was revealed not to have been a success story, but a chronicle of missed opportunities—of reforms that perpetuated impunity, of weak institutions that failed to protect human rights.

These approaches illuminated the road to the crisis, but often fall short in helping us understand the current situation. Worse still, while there is a growing body of contemporary anthropology on the drug war, the sources we have relied on to write these narratives are changing, and becoming more ephemeral. It is increasingly challenging to explain the violence through traditional academic means, while simultaneously centering the experiences of those affected by it.


As scholars attempted to craft explanations, a popular history of the drug war emerged, told in a different way and offering a challenging, complicated truth.

It is complicated in part because two of Latin America’s oldest narrative forms tend, problematically, to celebrate the drug war. From the classic genre of corridos, songs that long conveyed popular legends about the bravery of folk heroes, a new musical movement emerged as the older form was deftly converted into narcocorridos in the 1990s. These songs, celebrating the ruthlessness, creativity, ingenuity, and violence of narcotraffickers became massively popular across Mexico. Often commissioned by narcos themselves, and sometimes accompanied by glossy music videos, narcocorridos are popular not because Mexicans are enamored of death, but because, as one anthropologist was told, ‘because they tell what is real.

Fiction, rather than truth, is the predominant feature of the other popular narrative form, the telenovela. As the drug war became a feature of daily life in Mexico, narcotraffickers became popular subjects for these serialized television shows (such as 2011’s Reina del Sur and 2013’s El Señor de los Cielos). These romantic portrayals of those responsible for the country’s bloodshed may have seemed confusing to outsiders, but the shows were wildly popular and spawned successful English-language spinoffs, including some that sought to more closely hew to reality.

Yet even as Netflix pretended to tell us the story of El Chapo, very different cameras were telling a very different truth. Mounted on walls, security cameras captured silent films of abductions, of murders, of stunned bystanders. Cellphones documented robberies, shootouts, military raids. Shared on social media, these images began to forge a community of those struggling to live with the violence.

That community produced its own language as well. Words like levantón or encobijado, describing abductions or murdered bodies. Words like halcón or sicario to describe those involved in la maña, words to describe los malandros who cannot be named.

If we looked and listened, there was a different story being told.


Many are, in fact, working to preserve these experiences and memories. As violence spiked around the country, journalists and human rights activists began to collect the stories of victims. This testimonial approach began to paint a picture that was very different from that of the numbers or narcocorridos.

Some of the journalism was classic, hard-nosed reporting, some of it was traditional “if it bleeds, it leads,” nota roja crime tabloid, but much of it was profoundly testimonial—an effort to recount the lived experiences of those caught up in a maelstrom of violence.

For Marcela Turati, it was in 2008 when she realized that the story was not the bloody bodies that continued to be front page news. Rather, she saw, her task as a journalist was to create from individual tragedy an understanding of the social phenomenon, to make sense of the violence, restore dignity to the victims and power to citizens. She wanted her work to show that change was possible.

So she spent years following victims organizations, women and men searching for missing loved ones, searching for justice. Citizens who resisted the power of drug traffickers, of corrupt officials, of fear and apathy.

Her work, like that of many others, gave us a story of the drug war that moved us past the numbers—we saw the countless victims who were not criminals, the tens of thousands of disappeared and missing who did not appear in any official record, the callousness and complicity of the government and police officers who tortured and kidnapped.

Others, such as Javier Valdez, added even more nuance to the narrative by giving us the story of those who worked within the drug trade. We heard the stories, in Javier’s inimitable style, of those who smuggled drugs, of those who kidnapped, of those who killed. We were able to see their humanity, understand how they came to be caught in the drug war.

This work was not without risk. Many journalists became victims themselves, whether they covered crime or investigated corruption. Mexico is more dangerous for journalists than most war zones.


These four approaches—numeric, academic, popular, and testimonial—matter because they change our understanding of what has happened and what is happening. If we are to tell the story of the drug war, these perspectives are essential.

The most important change, perhaps, is to shift us away from a binary interpretation of victims—one that saw body counts as a horrifying phenomenon but one isolated to the criminal underworld. Moving beyond bad victims and good victims, we can see the way in which the violence permeated society, and how victimization was far more extensive than the numbers suggested.

Careful analysis of patterns of violence shows that the drug war is now be less about drugs than we thought—our narrative needs to evolve as criminal activity has adapted and mutated. We must tell a story that moves beyond cocaine and cartels and develops a new framework for understanding the impact of extortion, kidnapping, and intimidation on society. Similarly, we must better understand violence—we must continue to trace its origins in state policy, as well as its connection to militarization.

There are three key points I hope to have made here:

First, preserving the historical memory of the drug war matters, because historical justice is essential. We know, from experiences elsewhere in Latin America, that this preservation is vital to future efforts toward truth and justice. History matters for human rights, and we must protect our ability to tell it.

Second, we must acknowledge the limitations of the body count in thinking about the drug war. We must move beyond a fixation on drugs, cartels, and narconovelas. Journalists have shown us the way.

Lastly, how we tell the history of the drug war matters, because it changes how we can think about ending it. We need policy that understands the causes of violence, recognizes the complex patterns of victimization, and that acknowledges the difficulties of justice and reconciliation. How we tell the history might let us finally move beyond the framework of an unwinnable war.


Michael Lettieri is a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. He is a co-founder and managing editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.