Repressive Memories: Terror, Insurgency, and the Drug War in Mexico

What is happening today with regards to the drug war in Mexico has important precedent elsewhere in the hemisphere, namely, in Colombia. There is a legitimate focus on how events in Colombia preceded what is taking place in the “drug war” in Mexico. Key to the importance of Colombia from 2000 onwards in understanding Mexico today is Plan Colombia and the multi-billion-dollar investment the US government made in the war on drugs there.

Source: Occupied London

In 2010 and 2011, grenades exploded at city hall buildings in Reynosa, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria, four cities in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.

Organized crime was blamed for the explosions, particularly members of the Zetas or of the Gulf Cartel. I visited the region in early 2011, at a loss for what could be driving criminal groups to fight against local governments that are, for all intents and purposes, under their control.

It wasn’t until I met Francisco Chavira Martínez in early 2011 that things began to become clear. The first time we met, he suggested we eat together at the back of a Reynosa restaurant that caters to well-heeled locals. Waiters dressed like penguins bowed in and out, while other tables were occupied mostly by older men. Chavira spoke loudly, unafraid. He was the only person out of over a dozen I interviewed in the city who agreed to let me use his real name.

Local governments “use car thieves to steal the cars of anyone who opposes them; house thieves who will rob your house to frighten you; narcotraffickers, who they use as a way to create fear in the people, so that you don’t participate, so that you don’t raise your voice or go against the government; they even send their own to throw grenades at city halls,” Chavira explained.1

Maybe he noticed the quizzical look on my face. I didn’t yet grasp how terror works, and the purposes it serves. “Why?” he asked himself, pausing for a moment. “So that the people are scared and don’t go to City Hall to make demands; they won’t go and demand that public accounts be transparent, or [ask] what the money is being spent on.” Months after our interview, Chavira, a candidate for the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), was arrested on trumped up charges and held in jail until after the elections, in what he referred to as a “legalised kidnapping” by the state.

The second time I met with Chavira was two years later, in early 2013. We ran into each other in front of the US embassy in Mexico City at a demonstration organized by families and friends of people who are working without papers in the US. I took him to a nearby café where we did a short interview. While we walked he marveled at how wonderful it felt to be able to walk down the street without fear, something no longer possible in his hometown.

Chavira’s comments to me that afternoon need some introduction.The official line on the drug war, which is parroted by governments and the media, claims that the war in Mexico is between bad guys (drug traffickers) and good guys (police and the army, assisted by the US, Canada, and EU countries). According to this version of events the “bad guys” are organized into the following hierarchy: at the top are the Capos, or drug lords, then come their Generals or security chiefs, who look after the boss and his regions, then the jefes de plaza, local bosses in charge of a particular border or drug distribution area.

I call this frame (which is the dominant frame) the cartel wars discourse. Cartel wars discourse includes a few salient features: an almost exclusive reliance on state/government sources for information, a guilty-until-proven-innocent/victims-were-involved-in-drug-trade bias, and a foundational belief that cops involved in criminal activity are the exception, not the rule, and that more policing improves security.2

It’s been a little more than two years since I started reporting on and researching different facets of the transformation taking place in Mexico, which I consider to be a kind of counter-revolution and a deepening of the North American Free Trade Agreement through intense militarization. Once one begins to consider the wide ranging social and economic consequences of the “war on drugs,” official versions of what is taking place stop making sense, almost completely. They do more to obscure the real dynamics of the war than they reveal. It is what I learn from people like Chavira that teach me what’s really going on in Mexico-at-War.

Tucked away on the back balcony of a bookstore-café in Mexico City’s nightclub district (right across from the US Embassy), post-jail Chavira was a lot like he was before he was put away. He said he actually managed to enjoy his eight months inside, working with prisoners to better their living situations, and organizing so that children imprisoned with their parents could be afforded the semblance of a normal childhood. I asked Chavira if he could explain how the narco-war interacts with the state in Mexico. “In my point of view, I think the true criminal, the true capo in Mexico is the president of the republic, the governors are the same in each of their state, and the jefes de plaza are the mayors,” Chavira told me. “They all got where they are with financing from illicit sources. They protect each other; they are the same thing.”

We talked a little longer, about everything—about migration, about the dead (he speculates that the official number of dead because of the drug war since 2006, which is now around 60-70,000, represents a fraction of the victims), and about our own lives. Just like the time before, I left the conversation with even more questions about the war, but also with the conviction that seeking space to develop other understandings and narratives of the war in Mexico is an urgent and important task.

Terror and the Hemisphere Plan

What is happening today with regards to the drug war in Mexico has important precedent elsewhere in the hemisphere, namely, in Colombia. There is a legitimate focus on how events in Colombia preceded what is taking place in the “drug war” in Mexico. Key to the importance of Colombia from 2000 onwards in understanding Mexico today is Plan Colombia and the multi-billion-dollar investment the US government made in the war on drugs there. Plan Colombia officially ended in 2006; the next year, the Mérida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, started. In 2008, the US introduced the Central America Regional Security Initiative (Plan Central America), and in 2010, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (Plan Caribbean).Central to all of these initiatives is the militarization of local, state, and federal police, and an increased domestic deployment of police and army (supposedly) against drug producers, traffickers, and sellers.

History teaches us that the amount of drugs being trafficked to the United States did not decrease significantly because of Plan Colombia.

I argued in my 2012 essay “Drug War Capitalism” that the application of the Plan Colombia model in Mexico and elsewhere has more to do with improving the conditions for foreign direct investment and encouraging the expansion of capitalism than it does with stemming the flow of drugs.3

But when it comes to the application of repression and terror in Mexico, the tactics employed by the state repressive apparatus go far beyond the Colombia experience, and are nourished by generations of US and other imperial warfare around the world.4 In this context, I believe the experiences of US-backed counterinsurgency war in Central America, and in Guatemala in particular, are of great importance in understanding events in Mexico and the region today. Though rarely considered as linked to events in Mexico today, these conflicts must be considered part of the repressive memory that has been activated in order to carry out the ongoing “war on drugs” in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere.

As Laleh Khalili argues in her work on Palestine and counterinsurgency, “officials and foot soldiers, technologies of control, and resources travel not only between colonies and metropoles but also between different colonies of the same colonial power and between different colonial metropoles, whereby bureaucrats and military elites actively study and borrow each other’s techniques and advise one another on effective ruling practices.”5

There are certain lines of continuity among the wars (including genocide) in Central America in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s that are clearly traceable to Mexico today. For example, grenades used by the Zetas in attacks in Mexico have been traced back to the 1980s, when they were sold by the US to the military of El Salvador.6 Another thread connecting the 36-year war in Guatemala to today is the Kaibiles, the country’s elite special forces, whose members were responsible for horrific massacres then, and who today are active both as an elite government force and as members of criminal groups.7

In addition to these concrete examples, many of the practices of terror used by armies such as Guatemala’s have resurfaced in Mexico and Central America at the hands of criminal groups. In today’s war, the “war on drugs,” violence deployed against civilians—especially migrants and the poor—comes from official, uniformed troops, as well as from irregular forces including “drug cartels” or paramilitary groups.

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s primary definition of terror is “extreme fear: the use of such fear to intimidate people, esp. for political reasons; terrorism.” Mass killings and the public display of bodies is one example of a terror technique, practiced over centuries, by government and irregular forces, often in tandem with the imposition of political and economic regimes. Terror plays a specific role in ensuring control over the population.

“In all its forms, terror was designed to shatter the human spirit. Whether in London at the birth of capitalism or in Haiti today, terror infects the collective imagination, generating an assortment of demons and monsters.”8 Whether it is bodies hung up on public display or cut into pieces and dumped one on top of another on a highway, or explosions and massacres leaving dozens of civilians dead and injured, Mexico has seen an unprecedented array of bone-chilling episodes since former President Felipe Calderon launched the drug war in December of 2006.9

Disappearance is another technique used against civilians and activists in Mexico, where at least 26,000 people (as of March 2013, this figure is consistently revised upwards) have been disappeared since 2006.10 It is also routinely practised in Central America (the use of disappearances against political activists is said to have been invented in Guatemala), Colombia, and elsewhere. Disappearance is a selective terror tactic perfected by Central American armies, who kidnap and torture their victims before summarily executing them and burying the bodies in clandestine graves.

The horrific actions carried out against civilians by criminal groups in the context of the drug war are regularly featured on TV, shared on social media, and printed in newspapers. Few media reports explain and contextualize the use of terror; instead, they portray it as random, wanton, out-of-control violence. The police and army are often presented as the only institutions capable of responding to such acts, which are soon forgotten, and whose perpetrators are often absolved through impunity, which is created by the state repressive apparatus and institutionalized by the state. The reproduction of these media narratives on screens, iPhones, and tabloids across the region terrorizes the entire society.

Part of this transformation is the transformation of life ways and socialization as part of a general shift towards a more repressive society. Mobility—understood as peoples’ ability to move freely on their own will—is restricted by increasing border surveillance and police and military checkpoints, as well as by the fear generated through mass murders of bus passengers, shootouts on major roadways, and disappearances that occur while the victim is traveling. Reduced mobility is one of the first impacts that terror has on the affected population. Meanwhile, forced migration and involuntary displacement increase as the transition to a more repressive society claims victims and threatens survivors.

As described by Guatemalan writers Gomis, Romillo, and Rodríguez in the early 1980s, “With domination through terror, in addition to the physical elimination of those who oppose the interests of the regime, there is also the pursuit of ‘the control of a social universe made possible through the intimidation induced by acts of destruction… (and with) acts of terror there is an overall impact on the social universe, —at a social and generalized level—, of a whole series of psychosociological pressures which impose an obstacle to possible political action.’”11

The notions of opposition and political action described in the quotation above need not call to mind guerrilla organizations or even a highly organized public. The end goal of terror can be as simple as preventing residents from requesting even the most basic level of openness from state institutions, as described by Chavira at the beginning of this article.

Who are the Insurgents?

Insurgent, in noun form, is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as follows: “a rebel or revolutionary.” In 2010, Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, compared the situation in Mexico to an insurgency. “It’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago,” she told delegates at a Council on Foreign Relations event. Drug cartels “are showing more and more indices of insurgencies,” she said.12 In 2009, the head of the US military stated that he backed the use of counter insurgency in Mexico.13

Reading information from the US government and the status quo media, one finds a careful reiteration that the war in Mexico is non-political. “The Mexican gangs are motivated by profit, and have no visible ideological agenda. Their only political goal is weaker law enforcement,” reads a 2011 report by the Soros-funded research group Insight Crime.14 As I outlined in “Drug War Capitalism,” crime/drug trafficking groups (and particularly Los Zetas) play a role closer to that of paramilitary groups than of an insurgent group.

“The Zetas are a paramilitary force,” Dr. William Robinson, author of A Theory of Global Capitalism, told me when I interviewed him in 2011. “Basically it’s the creation of paramilitarism alongside formal militarization, which is a Colombian model.”15

Paramilitarization took place in two waves in Colombia, the first as state-created and elite-supported groups formed in the 1960s and ’70s, and later as elite-created, state-supported groups through the 1980s and ’90s.16 The second wave of paramilitarization in Colombia took place as the cocaine industry began to reap previously unforeseen profits for local drug runners, with the drug runners representing a new elite group whose irregular forces were backed by the state. The latter wave is when the parallel militarization-paramilitarization process mentioned by Robinson took place. Those impacted by these processes are, of course, poor people in urban and rural areas across Colombia, where there are over four million internally displaced people. According to a paper published in World Development, “Paramilitary groups not only bear the bulk of the responsibility, they are also more effective in instigating displacement.”17

One example of how Zetas are more like a paramilitary group than an insurgent group is evidenced by events like the murder of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in the summer of 2010. This kind of act directly serves the US foreign policy goal of discouraging migration from Central America. Massacres and mass kidnappings and extortion are always political acts linked to the establishment of control over or elimination of a given community and, by extension, its territory.

If we understand the role of groups like Los Zetas as being closer to a paramilitary group than an insurgent group, and we are told that the US is backing a counterinsurgent strategy in Mexico, we must then ask ourselves: Who are the insurgents in this war? At this juncture, it is particularly useful to reflect upon recent history in Guatemala.

Through the 36-year conflict there, 200,000 people were killed, mostly by the state, and another 50,000 disappeared. The war in Guatemala had three basic phases. The first, from 1960 to 1980, consisted of selective and clandestine strategies, mostly against leftists and political opponents. The second, a transitional phase practised over a single year, 1981, included selective and clandestine as well as massive and open acts of state terror. From 1982 on, the country lived through the generalization of terror and psychological operations designed to control the entire population, especially Mayan communities, some of which were politically organized. The victims of the conflict were principally men but also women and children; many of the dead were executed merely for belonging to a social or ethnic group, not because they held any particular ideology. While there were guerilla movements in Guatemala at this time, entire rural and Indigenous populations were essentially considered insurgent groups in the war.

In Guatemala, “the development of terror and the politics of terror have their origin in the incapacity of the state to confront social conflict through consensual methods; its objective was to inhibit any attempt at opposition emerging from civil society as a whole or from specific groups within it.”18 This sentiment is echoed in a forthcoming essay by Kristian Williams, who writes that “from the perspective of counterinsurgency, resistance is not simply a matter of the population (or portions of it) refusing to cooperate with the state’s agenda; resistance comes as a consequence of the state failing to meet the needs of the population.”19

Today in Mexico, insurgents could be considered members of social worlds outside of the dictates of the hegemonic, transnational marketplace. Communal landowners and street vendors (people in the informal economy) could thus be labeled insurgents along with migrants and Indigenous peoples. Already, these groups find common cause as those who fill mass graves, and as those upon whom the brunt of terror tactics are deployed.

One of the crucial differences between today’s wars and those of Central America in the 1980s is that the perpetrators of many (but not all) of the most gruesome massacres and acts in the drug war are so called “drug cartels.” This demonstrates how in addition to the experiences in Central America through armed conflicts there, repressive techniques employed in the war in Colombia through the 1990s and 2000s are influencing the war-making process in Mexico. In taking a broader view of the drug war in Mexico and looking at who the victims of violence are, it is essential to consider how state forces in Guatemala were using the specific language of insurgency when in fact the entire population was being targeted. This was taking place with open, and later tacit, US support. It follows that such language and barbarity may be transposed onto the drug war in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere today, and that we should not lose sight of the region’s history, often ignored in the context of the drug war.

How we understand the so-called non-political insurgency in Mexico and the state response to it helps inform our understanding of the entire drug war project, as well as possible future repressive strategies in other parts of the world. Take, for example, a recent US State Department push to promote the ideological framework for bringing the drug war to West Africa, claiming that “Transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, is a major threat to security and governance throughout West Africa.”20 Seeding these ideas in Africa and elsewhere opens new possibilities for US agencies to justify the need to intervene, as they have in Mexico. .

One of the most glaring misconceptions about the war in Mexico, and the drug war more generally, is that it is somehow post-political or non-political. It is foolish to only ascribe “political” status to a war when there is a national liberation movement or a guerrilla struggle. The war in Mexico is political: it is a counter-revolution, 100 years late. It is decimating communities and destroying some of the few gains from the Mexican Revolution that remained after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994.

For people like Francisco Chavira, speaking out against the political class and their entanglement with criminal groups will continue to be a dangerous activity. For hundreds of thousands of others who have lost loved ones, there will be no end to the suffering generated by this war, which is about so much more than drugs. In Mexico, according to Robinson, authorities are struggling to manage the contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism. The savagery, panic, and terror of the drug war embody the 21st-century state response to these conditions.


1 Paley, Dawn. “Off the Map in Mexico.” May 4, 2011. The Nation. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from:

2 Paley, Dawn. “Insight Crime & the Mexicanization of Cartel War Discourse.” March 11, 2013. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from:

3 Paley, Dawn. “Drug War Capitalism.” July/August, 2012. Solidarity. Retrieved February 12, 2013 from:

4 “State Repressive Apparatus” after Jasmin Hristov, Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. Between the Lines, 2009: Toronto.

5 Khalili, L. “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies.” Int. J. Middle East Stud. 42 (2010), 413–414.

6 Consulate Monterrey. “Mexico: Tracking Narco-grenades.” March 3, 2009. Retrieved December 20, 2012 from:

7 “It was a former Kaibil (member of Guatemala’s elite Special Forces) who was accused of directing the single most violent act in Guatemala yet linked to drug trafficking. Hugo Gómez Vásquez was accused of supervising the massacre in Finca Los Cocos, Péten in May 2011, where 27 farmworkers were killed, allegedly as part of a land dispute between Otto Salguero, a local landowner, and the Zetas.” See: Paley, Dawn. “Strategies of a New Cold War.” Towards Freedom. Retrieved February 14, 2013 from:

8 Linebaugh, P., Rediker, M. The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Beacon Press, Boston, 2000. Pp. 53.

9 The LA Times provides a good summary of some of the most gruesome events of Calderón’s six years in office. Hernández, D. “Calderon’s war on drug cartels: A legacy of blood and tragedy.” December 1, 2012. LA Times. Retrieved December 20, 2012 from:,0,1538375,full.story

10 Editors. “Mexico’s disappeared.” March 5, 2013. LA Times. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from:

11 Gomis, R. Romillo, M., Rodríguez, I. “Reflexiones sobre la political del terror: El caso de Guatemala.” Cuadernos de Nuestra América. Vol 1. 1983. La Habana. Cited in: Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico sde las massacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichipate y Rio Negro, 1997. 2nd Edition. 1997. Guatemala. P. 154.

12 BBC News. “Clinton says Mexico drug crime like an insurgency.” September 9, 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2012 from:

13 Morgan, David. “US military chief backs counter-insurgency for Mexico.” March 6, 2009. Retrieved February 14, 2013 fromL

14 Corcoran, P. “Counterinsurgency is not the Answer for Mexico.” September 26, 2011. Retrieved February 14, 2013 from:

15 Paley, Dawn. “Drug War Capitalism.” July/August, 2012. Solidarity. Retrieved February 12, 2013 from:

16 Hristov, J. Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. Between the Lines, 2009: Toronto.

17 Ibánez, A., Vélez, C. “Civil Conflict and Forced Migration: The Micro Determinants and Welfare Losses of Displacement in Colombia.” World Development, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2008. pp. 661.

18 Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico sde las massacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichipate y Rio Negro, 1997. 2nd Edition. 1997. Guatemala. P. 335.

19 Williams, K. “Introduction: Insurgency, Counterinsurgency,
and Whatever Comes Next.” In Williams, K., Munger, W., Messersmith-Glavin, L. Eds. Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. p. 12. AK Press. Forthcoming, 2013.

20 Office of the Spokesperson. “The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and the Woodrow Wilson Center Host a Panel Discussion on “Combating Narcotics Trafficking in West Africa.” October 25, 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2013 from: