Don’t Look Away: “Drug War” Violence and Extraction in Mexico

by Dawn Paley


Government flyer announcing the second state of the “Strategic Security Plan” for the small town of Valle de Bravo, in Mexico State.

When Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán tunneled out of prison in July, the story made international headlines. The ensuing search for El Chapo dominated media coverage of Mexico for weeks. Pundits and journalists claimed his escape had set back US-Mexico relations by a decade.

Seven prison officials have been arrested in connection with El Chapo’s escape (or perhaps we could better understand it as a kind of unofficial release). This is the second time El Chapo has found his way out of jail. The first time he escaped from Puente Grande, a maximum-security prison, he did so with complicity from prison officials. The official story was that he escaped in a laundry cart, but his first escape, like the second, wouldn’t have been possible without the complicity and participation of prison officials themselves.

Coverage of El Chapo’s escape eclipsed discussion of attacks against people in Michoacán and Guerrero, new military purchases and the first oil block auctions in 75 years, providing one example of how dominant narratives on the drug war serve to obscure important events taking place simultaneously. The mainstream media’s take on the war on drugs includes a focus on the telling of certain stories, like the escape of El Chapo, or inter-cartel rivalries, while ignoring killings, displacements and disappearances as well as economic events that are transforming Mexican society.

The notion that one individual could broker war or peace was prominent in media reports about Chapo’s escape. Ongoing violence in Mexico was largely ignored, especially in international coverage. In the two weeks following El Chapo’s escape, we heard comparatively little about the displacement of 200 residents of San Miguel Totolapan in Guerrero, about the army attack on the Nahua community of Santa María Ostula, in Michoacán, or about the disappearances of 12 people in Chilapa, Guerrero. San Miguel Totolapan is part of a mining district rich in gold, silver, lead and zinc: multiple exploration concessions have been granted in the municipality. Conflicts in Chilapa have been ongoing as armed civilians took over the city’s security in the midst of a conflict involving two criminal groups and Federal Police. In Ostula, residents are clear that the army attack on their community stems from a refusal to allow locals to exercise autonomy and control over their territories.

As the hunt for El Chapo carried on, bidding results for the first round of oil exploration contracts were announced by the Mexican government. Two offshore concessions were granted, to a consortium of companies from Mexico, the US and the UK. This marked the first time in 75 years that oil exploration contracts were granted to private oil companies in Mexico. It was the first and smallest of five oil block auctions to take place in Mexico as part of the first round of concessions granted in Mexico’s newly-privatized oil sector.

It is worth noting that Pemex, Mexico’s state oil company, did not participate in the bidding. “The absence of Pemex in this bidding sets a bad precedent, which will have consequences for public finances since, in recent years, [Pemex has] represented around 35 per cent of state income,” according to Aroa de la Fuente, a researcher with FUNDAR, a Mexico City research organization.

In my book Drug War Capitalism, I suggest that it is important that we break with the mainstream narrative on the drug war, and that we begin to connect the violence in the country to extractive industries. That, however, is not a straightforward thing to do. A recent study by María Fernanda Paz, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico, shows that in considering environmental conflicts in Mexico, few are listed as taking place in states experiencing high levels of violence because of the drug war [1]. There are essentially two reasons for this: first, where militarization and paramilitarization linked to the drug war are at their most intense, public mobilization is dampened; and second, in these areas, news coverage suffers.

The lack of news coverage, and the difficulty residents face in organizing in regions where drug war violence is part of daily life, leads to the creation of a distorted image of environmental struggles, one that makes invisible the role of natural resources in violent areas. This is not to blame researchers: without news coverage, and with smaller public acts of resistance, it is understandable why environmental struggles lack the documentation needed to include them in a national inventory of conflicts.

But if, for example, we were to examine the remaining Round 1 auctions of conventional and non-conventional oil fields, which are slated to take place in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, along the Mexico-US border, as well as in the state of Veracruz, we would note that these are some of the most conflictive regions of the country. Beyond the high-profile gun battles which sometimes make the news, little is known outside the region about the nature of violence and repression faced by residents in cities and rural areas in Tamaulipas, which has long been known as a state that is a no-go for journalists. Fourteen journalists covering Veracruz have been assassinated since 2011, the most recent being Rubén Espinosa, who was killed in Mexico City, together with four women, on August 1, 2015. Three others have been disappeared in Veracruz state over the same time period.

Much of this oil-rich region is said to be under the control of the Zetas, a drug cartel which has been known to disappear on-duty oil workers employed by the state-owned oil company Pemex. It remains to be seen how the Zetas will interact with the private oil companies who sign on to explore the blocks that will be auctioned off by Mexico’s National Hydrocarbons Agency.

Similarly, many of the regions in Michoacán and Guerrero that have been experiencing state-directed terror and paramilitarized violence are rich in minerals or areas with profitable agricultural production.

In order to grasp what is taking place in Mexico, it is imperative that we move beyond mainstream and official discourse. For those who read Spanish, alternative media sites like Subversiones, Desinformémonos, Sin Embargo, and the daily newspaper La Jornada provide readers with a different view of what’s going on in Mexico. Combining these sources with a view to ongoing structural economic transformations can help provide a more complete panorama of what is really going on south of the US-Mexico border.

Dawn Paley is the author of Drug War Capitalism (AK Press, 2014) and a graduate student at the Autonomous University of Puebla. She, along with Walker Grooms from the Witness for Peace National Office, among others, will be speaking on a panel at an upcoming day-long conference at American University in Washington, DC on Aug. 30th, entitled “The Drug War, the Ethics of Prohibition and the Prison Industrial Complex.”

[1] Paz, María Fernanda, “Conflictos socioambientales en México: ¿qué está en disputa?” en Paz, María Fernanda, Nicholas Risdell (Coordinadores), 2014, Conflictos, conflictividades y movilizaciones socioambientales en México: Problemas comunes, lecturas diversas. Cuernavaca, CRIM,UNAM, Miguel Angel Porrúa, Eds



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