Political Violence in Mexico: The Meanings of Murder – by Michael Lettieri, TBI Staff

Any attempt to understand the spectacular and gruesome violence of Mexico’s drug war must begin with a recognition of the complexity of contemporary violence. While the perception that most violence is the result of criminal activity related to narcotrafficking may be correct, both this perception and the criminal violence itself obscure other forms of violence that are also common and significant. In order to develop effective solutions it is necessary to acknowledge the coexistence and intermingling of different criminal, personal, and political forms of violence and begin to disentangle them. Political violence is particularly difficult to identify amid the criminal violence, both owing to the frequent connections between politicians and drug traffickers, the clandestine nature of much political violence, and the complicated definition of sovereignty in regions where the central state is weak. Despite—and perhaps because of—these challenges, distinguishing political violence is vital, because of its singularly corrosive impact on civil society.

The following points are important to consider when examining political violence in Mexico:

There is a long history of political violence in Mexico, though the determinants and nature of the violence have changed.

  • During the 1960s and 1970s, the Mexican state undertook a largely clandestine dirty war against political dissidents, particularly in Guerrero. This violence was selective, secretive and targeted those who were outside the political system. Like dirty wars elsewhere in Latin America, the violence was ideological and directed at those whose ideas challenged the status quo but who did not materially threaten the state
  • During the 1980s and 1990s, the single-party regime that ruled the country began a process of democratization and political liberalization that culminated in the election of an opposition president in 2000. During this period, members of the left-wing opposition party were routinely targeted for harassment, intimidation, and assassination. This violence was semi-secretive and directed at those seeking to gain entry to the political structure; it was a fundamental effort to shape the democratic transition by crippling the leftist opposition.
  • Since 2000 and the supposed conclusion of the democratic transition, political violence has not disappeared but has rather taken new forms. This violence is increasingly broad, occasionally spectacular, and has frequently been more public than secretive. Moreover, rather than targeting those who are outside the political structure or on its margins, this violence has been exercised against those who are within the political system.

It is perhaps possible to discern two varieties of political violence in contemporary Mexico:

  • In regions where criminal groups are extensively involved in spheres of activity beyond drug trafficking such as extortion, piracy, and kidnapping, the authority of the traditional state is frequently usurped by these groups. Political violence in these regions often appears as a perverse sort of narco-sovereignty, exercised against those that challenge the de facto power of those groups.
  • In regions where traditional authorities retain sovereignty (though frequently this exists in collusion with criminal groups) political violence is often the result of a vestigial authoritarian political culture, the inheritance of the regime’s violent democratization process. Rather than targeting those who could be considered traditional political opponents, this violence has been aimed at representatives of civil society—journalists, human rights activists—with little regard to ideology or affiliation.

Crucially, it is no longer possible to easily identify political violence through its perpetrators. The “democratization of violence” has meant that traditional state actors are involved in non-political violence and that non-traditional, non-state actors are frequently involved in political violence.

Despite difficulties with categorization, understanding the dimensions of contemporary political violence is important for two reasons:

  • First, the dual failures of institutional political structures to provide avenues for political participation and of institutional political actors to articulate a compelling national project has meant that civil society represents the only viable alternative. Though current political violence is more localized and less centrally-directed than in previous eras, the frequent targeting of civil society leaders has a corrosive impact that affects the country as a whole.
  • Second, correctly diagnosing political violence in Mexico allows for a better understanding of potential solutions. Policies addressing criminality will not necessarily reduce all violence, and more support for transparency and civic engagement is essential to addressing the lingering authoritarian political culture that creates conditions for political violence.

Michael Lettieri is a Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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