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A Report from Hell

The so-called "war on drugs" began five years ago. According to official sources, the victims—children, teens, adults, women, men—number roughly 50,000; other sources claim over 60,000 have died. Neither figure includes the tortured, the maimed, the kidnapped, the disappeared.

This war did not emerge out of nowhere.  It developed over the course of two decades, perhaps more, of government and police corruption, terrible social inequality, and the growth of illegal businesses, ever-stronger and better organized, which trafficked in humans (exporting workers to the north), arms (imported guns from the north) and, of course, drugs (those passed through from other countries and those “Made in Mexico”).  

On the other hand, the war’s genesis was tied to a very specific event in Mexican politics. When president Calderon declared war on drug dealers he had just been sworn into office. But he had won the election by only a tiny margin and a good part of the Mexican population did not believe the vote count was accurate. Mr. Lopez Obrador, the contender, had lost by a negligible number of ballots; he alleged fraud and declared himself the "legitimate president."

It was in this context that the "other" legitimate president, President Calderon, launched his war. In part he hoped it would win the support of a clear majority of the country, and give him the legitimacy he lacked. He gave law enforcement agencies carte blanche and sent the army into the streets to purge the country of drug traffickers. 

The consequences of this decision have been staggering, and not just because of the mountain of corpses. The level of cruelty has been unimaginable. The vicious treatment of victims defies comprehension. Human rights activists are in danger, journalists are in danger, anyone who has the bad luck to get caught in the crossfire is in danger.  

The life of the entire society has changed drastically.

I never dreamed that Mexico would be like this when I entered my sixties. My generation was raised on stories of the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. Around dinner tables our grandparents—eyewitnesses—had talked of the cost of those eruptions, when the “bola”—the people—had risen and violence had spread like a raging sea. But we believed such violence was a thing of the past.

Mexico was stable. Free textbooks and official rhetoric touted the country’s richness. We needed only strong leadership to become a strong nation, it was said. The State was making the right choices, we were assured. Progress was inevitable (at least for those of my social class). We were confident, we were hope incarnate. 

We understood that Mexico had a lot of problems to deal with. Social inequality was a fact of life, but according to the campaign slogan of one president in the seventies: united, we would move “onward and upward.” Illiteracy and the marginalization of indigenous peoples were also issues—but these too could be tackled. 

There was also the problematic relationship between the sexes. A young woman in a miniskirt (such as myself) could not walk the streets without being harassed—whistled at, insulted, threatened. We embraced feminism and tolerance for other ways of life. 

Some people fought for these social causes.  My best friend, Alejandra Bravo Mancera, died in Central America, where she had volunteered to fight—a guerrillera—in Nicaragua and El Salvador, shortly after graduating from medical school. She was tortured and mutilated with blood-curdling “techniques” similar to those used in Mexico today, perhaps trained by the same military “technicians.”

During those decades, in corners of the country beyond reach of the public eye, the PRI (the party in power for the past seventy-five years) carried on a Dirty War, repressing rural and urban resistance. Their campaign was rendered invisible; the PRI controlled the press, screen and radio. It was only when the PRI was voted out of office that we learned that hundreds had been murdered or disappeared. 

We were convinced we would be able to fight such impunity of law enforcement agencies and that crimes against the population would become a thing of the past. We believed transparent elections and the creation of new parties could extract the scepter of power from the PRI. When we succeeded in evicting them, in 2000, the future seemed bright. 

But the prosperity that we thought the arrival of democracy would deliver didn’t appear. Crime flourished. Insecurity spread (especially in Mexico City). Kidnappings became daily occurrences. “Law enforcement agencies,” corrupted by money from drugs and other illegal businesses, offered no protection, indeed became part of the problem. 

Our dreams began imploding. 

Even so, we weren’t Colombia, a country devastated by guerrilla warfare, the drug trade and the war against it. That was where the real horrors took place; we Mexicans were far, far away from all that. In fact, as Fernando Escalante explains, the national murder rate consistently fell, year after year, from its 1992 peak of 19 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, until it reached 8 murders per 100,000 in 2007.

Then came the call to combat from President Calderon. In 2008, Escalante notes, “the trend of the previous twenty years reversed, and the murder rate soared.” In two years it went from 8 to 18 murders per 100,000—throughout the country, but particularly wherever army and police operations were most active.

From there, it was all downhill, straight to hell.

Because today Mexico is submerged in a hell. Newspapers report daily on bullets flying in bars, rehab centers, schools, churches, city streets. They report on severed heads and mass graves, too.

This is not a fight in the political arena; it is unlike anything we ever imagined.  The fighting among cartels, with fortunes lost and fortunes gained, has no civic agenda. Gangsters issue no proposals, have no ideals or ideology. What the torturers and murderers do to the massacred—mutilating them, raping them, dismembering them—drug trafficking and the war against it have done to our social agenda. They’ve smashed it.

The effects of this war have curdled Mexico. The work in this month’s issue of Words without Borders provides some insight into this horrible reality. The pieces I’ve selected are by poets, novelists, journalists who have approached the topic fearlessly. They have not made a spectacle or a circus of the violence, they are not trying to be trendy. This is not narco-literature.  It is literature pure and simple.  I hope it will bring you closer to a Mexico we never thought we’d witness, the one that exists today.