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Director’s Note: Don’t Forget About Redemption

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

At our Culiacán Seminar

Everard Meade, PhD is Director of the Trans-Border Institute

At our seminar in Culiacán, Sinaloa last weekend, a local graduate student related an encounter with a group of presumed sicarios [killers] that had changed his life.  He was travelling with two colleagues on a remote stretch of road in the northern part of Sinaloa, when they blew a tire.  He’d walked to a gas station to borrow a wrench, only to realize that it wasn’t the right size when he got back to his truck.  Just as it was starting to get dark, an SUV with three armed dudes inside rolled up behind him.  Petrified, the grad student explained to them what had happened, and they got the correct sized wrench out of their truck and helped him change the tire.  Afterwards, the grad student was sitting in the driver’s seat, when the boss of the armed band came up to his window – he thought “now they're going to rob us; I hope they just take the truck.”  Instead, the tough guy offered his hand and left the grad student with a request: “Listen morros [guys], bring some schools up here to the rancho [rural areas].  I know that we are fucked, but I want the kids around here to learn some other way to support themselves.” They shook hands and he left.

It reminded me of a story I heard in our very first seminar in Sinaloa. A sicario had been ordered to assassinate the girlfriend of a drug trafficker from a rival group.  She circled the same park every afternoon at the same time, in a white car.  He was to identify her as she approached and then cross the park and fire into her vehicle and kill her when she circled around the other side and came to the stop sign.  The day arrived.  As she made her initial approach the park, the sicario noticed that she had two children in the vehicle with her.  He knew the protocol – the presence of the kids changed nothing and his orders weren’t negotiable.  If he bailed out, he might pay with his own life.  He also knew that he couldn’t do it.  Something inside of him said “enough,” and he walked to police headquarters and turned himself in.

These stories get a lot less attention than the massive shootouts, spectacular jailbreaks, and gruesome acts of torture and mutilation carried out by organized crime in Mexico.  They’re important because they speak to the capacity for moral suffering and redemption among even the most fearsome criminals.

It’s very easy to criticize the militarization of the war on drugs in Mexico, or anywhere else.  It has fueled an increasingly lethal arms race and the normalization of torture. The presence of large groups of heavily armed and under-employed young men in areas where the rule of law has been suspended has also created surges in “opportunity crimes” like rape and kidnapping for ransom.

But at the more conceptual level, the biggest problem with the logic of war is that it doesn't create a space for redemption, or for reintegrating the foot soldiers in the drug war into society.  And they have to be re-integrated – tens of thousands of people have participated in the violence of the drug war in one way or another, and it’s not possible to kill or contain all of them.

When people talk about the drug war in abstract, rather than about people they actually know, there’s a tendency to view the narcos as if they were zombies on the Walking Dead – an indistinguishable mass of un-redeemable killers and thugs.  In reality, most of the gunmen, lookouts, traffickers, etc. have been victims themselves, their participation is motivated at least as much by coercion as by greed, and they retain the capacity to suffer morally for what they have done.

The stories that reveal this capacity are not part of some deep dark secret; they’re everywhere.  When people talk about their own experiences with the drug war – the gangster they went to school with, their cousin who became a lookout, the heavy dude who leaves huge tips at the family restaurant or buys up all of the girl scout cookies, or the cops and journalists they know who have looked the other way after receiving death threats – the portraits tend to be much more empathetic and human.  They exude moral complexity.

Capturing these stories and mobilizing them should play a central role in peacebuilding efforts in Mexico, and in other places besieged by kind of chronic violence that defines the drug war.  Ongoing violence will no doubt make this work more difficult than in a classic post-conflict situation, but it’s not just palliative care or human interest.  People are a critical factor in the conflict and thus they must play a critical role in the solution.  Any attempt to erase of abolish them in theory would simply duplicate the logic of war, and its myopia.   


Ev Meade
(619) 218-5946

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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