Violence in Mexico is often discussed in the context of a given city or state, but the exception is the region known as La Laguna which includes territories of the northern states of Durango and Coahuila. How did a sudden wave of violence change life in La Laguna? How did investigative journalism adapt? What is the legacy of that trauma? As part of our ongoing interview series, the Mexico Violence Resource Project spoke with Coahuila-based journalist and commentator Javier Garza.
Prior to 2006, La Laguna had been one of the most peaceful regions of the country. This was not, Garza observes, due to a lack of crime or the strong rule of law. Rather, it was because the region, which was a highly profitable route for drug cartels exporting to the U.S, was dominated by a single cartel that had the incentive to keep the civilian population unbothered by its activities. He suggests there was a peaceful transition of control from the Juárez Cartel to the Sinaloa Cartel in the early 2000s, but the entrance of the Zetas in 2006 sparked a conflict that led to a decade of terror.
“The Zetas in Coahuila presented the first displays of violence in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the violence exploded. The violence involved spectacular and highly visible crimes such as the abduction of political figures, shootings and confrontations in public spaces like restaurants and bars, and, as one would expect, violent threats against the press. The Zetas attacked the portion of La Laguna in Durango, where the Sinaloa Cartel was dominant. As retaliation, the Sinaloa Cartel attacked the part of La Laguna in Coahuila, which was dominated by the Zetas.
One of the keys events was the 2007 assault on Carlos Herrera, the former mayor of the Gómez Palacio municipality and a prominent political leader in Durango. This was followed by a series of shootings in bars frequented by member of the Zetas Cartel. Even though the shootings targeted members of the Zetas, they also resulted in civilian casualties. The event that consolidated the reign of violence was a shooting started by cartel members outside a soccer stadium during a match. The terror of the crowd was broadcast over national television.
Journalists struggled to cover these battles. Garza describes how traditional crime journalism was unprepared for the new dynamics of cartel violence, and explains that for many, this transition was a dangerous one.
“Prior to all of this there was the traditional nota roja, the crime tabloids, that operated under the strategy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ This was a tradition that had no respect for the presumption of innocence, and would put a photo with the complete name of someone who had been arrested – it played to the public’s worst instincts. On the other hand, there was a grand tradition of narrative and investigative journalism, which had done some specialized coverage of organized crime, but never really had to cover extreme violence.
All of that was broken when the violence of organized crime arrived. The nota roja had covered bar fights, gangs, accidents, rapes, that sort of thing, but not criminals who had the capacity to threaten journalists with violence. Organized crime had never really been at play for the nota roja, but all of a sudden it was causing violence that everyone had to cover.
For example, prior to the arrival of the Zetas, journalists in Torreón would have covered the arrest of a cartel boss, but that was about it. So at first there was an attempt to just use the old techniques for coverage—publishing pictures of bloody bodies, for example. But when the victims were members of organized crime, you couldn’t just print those gory photos because there were consequences… when the group could attack you because it didn’t want to have its weakness revealed that way, or some other reason that you might not have known.
Because you couldn’t just apply the old techniques, it was necessary to find new strategies. And this is where you started to get new forms of journalism – some outlets ended up being effectively taken over by organized crime and just kept publishing what that group wanted, others basically adopted total self-censorship, and still others tried to moderate their coverage, to use a more restrained language and visual style.
The challenge of telling the story of the violence was one that society as a whole also confronted. When asked about the most important myths surrounding this experience with violence, Garza describes how the predominant narrative in Coahuila still seeks to avoid hard truths.
“We close our eyes to it, the fact that it was members of our community who were involved, who were doing this. We put the blame on those from outside, we say it was people from other states who came here. But that’s just not true. They recruited people here, and they used the economic structures that were here, they worked with businesspeople here to start companies to launder money, and so on. That is the myth we keep telling.
As the myth persists in La Laguna, so does the collective trauma caused by these years of extreme violence.
The trauma was intense. On the one hand, there were direct victims of crime—people who witnessed shootings while having a meal at a restaurant and perhaps were injured, or the friends or family of those who were abducted or murdered. And they suffered individual trauma. On the other hand, the entire region experienced a collective trauma caused by the realization that La Laguna was no longer the peaceful place that we thought we knew. And this trauma still affects us: first, in the reluctance to participate in public conversations surrounding violence. And second, as a new lack of trust, manifested in new fences being built around neighborhoods and parks, the abandonment of public spaces, and a sudden unwillingness to participate in recreational activities such as going to the theatre or restaurants.
When I talk to people on the anniversaries of violent events from that period, they rarely want to talk about it. They say ‘why are you bringing it up, get over it, turn the page’ but when we turn the page we don’t learn the lessons of what happened.
When asked about the government’s security strategies, Garza affirms that at first, there wasn’t one. He attributes the lack of progress during Calderón’s administration to the failure of the federal government under the PAN to effectively coordinate and cooperate with the state administrations of Coahuila and Durango, which were both ruled by the PRI.
The region’s recovery during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto was a result of multiple conditions, according to Garza. First, Los Zetas were a far more aggressive group toward civilians than their predecessors, and thus caused more vigorous demands from citizens for a security strategy. Second, there was better coordination between the federal and state levels of government, since both were held by the PRI. Third, since La Laguna was one of the most violent regions when Peña Nieto took office, the crisis was at the center of the policy agenda. Finally, military efforts against the Zetas significantly weakened the group, allowing the Sinaloa Cartel to consolidate its control.
But the return of a relative peace did not erase the memory of what had happened, and for Garza, the legacy of the violence has been profound.
We haven’t regained the trust we used to have, our trust in each other and our trust of the authorities. And that loss has been the principle effect of the trauma.
Javier Garza is a frequent commentator and analyst on issues related to La Laguna and the challenges of journalism in 21st-century Mexico. He is the former editorial director of El Siglo de Torreón. Follow him on twitter @jagarzaramos
Interview edited by Regina Saavedra