Getting away with murder in Mexico

The more than 100,000 deaths in a decade cannot be blamed just on Mexico’s drug cartels.

Human skulls sit in a cabinet at the Jalisco Institute of Forensic Sciences in Guadalajara
Mexico's drug war has claimed so many lives over the past few years that most of the bodies are never identified [Reuters]

Every November 2, Mexicans mark the Day of the Dead by honouring deceased loved ones.

Given the disproportionate number of deaths produced by Mexico’s US-backed drug war, officially launched in 2006, it is starting to seem like an ever-more tragically appropriate tradition.

In a recent investigative piece for The Nation, Dawn Paley details the “spectacular violence” that has accompanied the drug war project.

In 2014, Mexico ranked as the country with the third-most civilians killed in internal conflict, after Syria and Iraq. Bodies have been buried, burned, displayed in public places, hung from bridges and overpasses or beheaded and left at city hall.”

Estimates vary as to the total number of deaths since the start of the war, but many observers put it at above 100,000.

And this isn’t even counting the more than 27,000 Mexicans currently missing or disappeared – by most objective accounts an underestimate – or the 70,000-120,000 Central American migrants estimated to have disappeared while travelling through Mexico since 2006.

According to the state-sanctioned narrative, the violence is the fault of Mexico’s drug cartels, period.

But this alibi is more than slightly defective. For one thing, as Paley notes, the cartels “are often indistinguishable from local and state police, and form networks dedicated to extortion, kidnapping, and killing, all of which increases social control and helps to suppress dissent.”

Isolated incidents?

In one of the better-publicised collaborative efforts between local Mexican police officers and drug gangs, 43 students from the rural town of Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared on the night of September 26, 2014.

The New York Times specifies that “the federal police and military stood by”.

And while Mexico’s government has endeavoured to write off the incident as an isolated one, it happened to come on the heels of a Mexican military massacre of 22 people in the town of Tlatlaya.

If you're looking to protect rather than kill people, the last thing you do is inject a bunch of money and weapons into a landscape of lethally corrupt impunity.


In 2015, Amnesty International reported that “more than 40 people were killed in May during a police operation in Tanhuato” in the state of Michoacan, and that journalists had also “alleged that 16 unarmed people were killed by federal police officers and other security forces in Apatzingan, Michoacan, in January.”

The list goes on.

And there aren’t many indicators that it will stop, particularly given the climate of institutionalised impunity and corruption.

A report at The Intercept last year noted that in Mexico “98.3 percent of crimes [went] unpunished in 2013, according to Mexican government statistics.”

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If the government’s wilful disregard for human rights, decency, and accountability weren’t apparent enough, it has also proved decidedly unhelpful in excavating mass graves and identifying the remains found in them. In some cases, citizens themselves are now taking to the fields to excavate.

An October Los Angeles Times article quotes Basilia Bonastre, mother of a nursing student working in Veracruz who disappeared in 2012, and a member of a collective that works to identify clandestine graves.

The drug war, Bonastre says, “wasn’t really against trafficking – it was against our children, against professionals, students, all the young men and women whom they took away and were never seen again.”

Killings in context

Of course, blame for the situation in Mexico extends far beyond the cartels and the government.

Zoom out to the big picture and you run smack into Mexico’s northern neighbour, the United States, the source of both the demand for drugs and the drug criminalisation policies that make the whole trafficking business so lucrative in the first place.

The US is also the force behind things like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which – having failed miserably in its promise to reduce poverty in Mexico – is responsible for destroying the livelihoods of millions of Mexican farmers and forcing many people into involvement in the drug business to survive.

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Then there is the essential criminalisation of incoming migrants, a result of the apparent US opinion that only American people, products, and armies should be able to penetrate global borders at will.

This arrangement ensures high returns on human-smuggling operations that also contribute to cartel coffers.

Finally, as The Intercept explained last year, billions of dollars in drug war assistance continue to flow “with few exceptions” to Mexico despite “US government documents … demonstrat[ing] that the United States is well aware that its support is going to Mexican authorities connected to abuses”.

The article went on to comment on the fact that Mexico had “recently surpassed Colombia to become the largest customer for US weapons in Latin America.”


Objectively, if you are looking to protect rather than kill people, the last thing you do is inject a bunch of money and weapons into a landscape of lethally corrupt impunity.

But hey, whatever is good for the arms industry is good for America, right?

In a September article, the Los Angeles Times quotes another mother participating in the excavation of clandestine graves around Veracruz: “We are in the government’s sights, but we have no fear … because of the disappearance of my son, I am already dead in life.”

This Day of the Dead, while much of the truth remains buried, one crucial fact emerges: a lot of people are getting away with murder in Mexico – the US included.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.