The hybrid war on drugs

What do Mexican cartels, IS and child soldiers have in common?

Foto: Teun Voeten

Door Vincent Bongers

The brutality of violence transcends all cultural differences, claims anthropologist and war photo­grapher Teun Voeten, who was awarded his doctorate for his research into Mexican drug cartels today.

A man lies in a puddle of blood in a deserted part of the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. Police officers take pictures and collect bullet casings. It’s just another murder, it’s routine. They joke around – one even takes a selfie. Then they climb into their pick-up truck: the next corpse is waiting.

Photographer, journalist and anthropologist Teun Voeten (1961) has joined them in the vehicle. “In 2009 and 2010, the entire city was deserted every evening”, he recalls. “There were ten murders a day.”
The fighting in Mexico isn’t over yet. Last week, Voeten received his doctorate for research into the wars between the drugs cartels in Mexico, which continue without losing any intensity. “It’s just getting worse: 2017 was the most violent year ever, with 29,000 dead.”

He was never scared on those drives. A war photographer in Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda, he’s seen a few things. In Sierra Leone, he only just escaped being executed by child soldiers. “I actually felt reasonably safe in Juárez, as the murders were practically always hit and runs. In Sarajevo, if someone was shot by a sniper and you took a picture, you might be the next target. In Juárez, I was actually only afraid of an accident – the police drove quite fast.”

Voeten says that it’s difficult to get to the bottom of the cartel wars. “You need to open a can of worms to understand it. There’s an awful lot of corruption in Mexico; the criminal gangs and authorities are very much entwined. Moreover, economic inequality is rife. Besides, the border with the United States, where the demand for drugs is huge, has lots of holes.”

There are different sorts of cartels. “The Sinaloa cartel just wants to smuggle coke to the US with the least possible fuss; they are not interested in violence at all. For Los Zetas, smuggling migrants, blackmail and kidnapping are the core business activities, rather than drugs. They control real territories.”
It’s weird, but they were commandos in the Mexican army’s elite units. “They are very heavily armed and will fight with both other cartels and the police.”

This has created a “hybrid war”, according to Voeten, “a national and international conflict, in which people use both primitive and advanced weapons. The conflict with IS and the wars between the cartels are both examples of this new type. IS has a territory, but more than that, it’s a concept. Terrorists can operate easily under the IS flag for their attacks.”

Both these groups use extreme violence.

“Sometimes, it’s completely deranged. A lot has to do with boredom, but it’s becoming more and more perverse.” For instance, in Sinaloa in 2010, someone stapled the skinned face of a victim to a football with a note saying: “Happy New Year, because it’s the last one.”

Los Zetas once held up a bus, he continues. “The women were raped, then murdered, as were the children. The men were given sledgehammers and ordered to attack each other. The winners were recruited as sicario, the cartel’s assassins. There’s a logic to support the cruelty: the survivors are strong and now share a terrible secret. It’s a horrendous kind of ragging.”

The cartels’ despicable tortures have a similar aim. “They do it to create a distance between the victim and the attacker: it dehumanises your opponent, so you don’t see a person any more, only pile of quaking meat. After that, shooting someone is almost merciful.”

Voeten does not believe that the violence is only down to the influences of their environment.
“It’s partly biological. People can behave either with empathy or as egoists. The natural abhorrence of killing a person is not equally present in everyone. However, the sicarios often do feel that abhorrence. The first time they kill someone is often accidental, but after the first murder, the second one is easy.”

You can also get rid of that abhorrence, Voeten explains. “By regarding opponents as rats who should be exterminated, for instance, or by holding a pistol to someone’s head and forcing him to execute someone. Another option is the use of drugs and brainwashing to influence someone’s mood so he will kill for you. That method is used for IS’ jihadists, the child soldiers of Sierra Leone and Mexican assassins. It may seem a bit inappropriate for an anthropologist to say, but there are common traits that transcend the cultural differences.”

The government is attempting to “decapitate” the cartels by arresting the leaders. But, according to Voeten, this kingpin strategy is counter-productive. “It’s very sexy to arrest the big boss on television, but a cartel is a complete network – it doesn’t die when you cut off its head. It just divides into smaller cartels, cartelitos, which then have to prove themselves and that leads to bloody wars among rival factions.

In addition, that policy creates martyrs. “El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, was – still is – a hero in those parts. He’s been caught a few times already, only to escape again. A commonly held theory claims that he’s had help from the government. It’s possible. In one small town, the entire police force was controlled by the cartel: bad to the bone.”

"I just need to murder people"

Teun Voeten and film-maker Maaike Engels interviewed six Mexican assassins. “An active sicario from the Sinaloa cartel wore a mask and used an alias: ‘El Gordo’ - the fat one. He told us that he’d had us watched: ‘You might have been agents from the Drugs Enforcement Administration.’” Often, we assume that social exclusion is a major reason for choosing this life, but El Gordo was a good student who grew up in a prosperous neighbourhood. “He got involved when he met sons of cartel members at a school for rich kids.”

Another sicario, Jaime, told Voeten: “I’m not a victim of society, like everyone says. Everyone makes their own choices and I’ve evidently chosen to be like this. Selling drugs is easier than a job: more money and fewer hours.”
But when he’s in bed, El Gordo admits to seeing his victims again sometimes: “They sit in a chair and stare at me. They look normal: I can’t see any blood. They don’t scare me. Sometimes I light a candle or turn on the light. Then they leave and I turn over and fall asleep.”

Sicario Edgar confessed he could not live without murdering people. “It gives me a feeling of power, but it doesn’t last long, so I have to murder someone else. I just need to.”

In the prison where he is currently doing time, there is an Adictos Anonymous group that tackles all sorts of addiction, including the craving to kill. Nonetheless, Edgar has a code of honour: “No bumping off women or children.”

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The hybrid war on drugs

The brutality of violence transcends all cultural differences, claims anthropologist and …