Citizen mobilization in drug-violent democracies: The case of Mexico
All civic mobilizations are hard to sustain.
bu tpeople living under dictatorships face hard choices
every day between moral imperatives and personal risks,
similar to the dilemmas citizens face during civil wars.
In democracies where criminal networks are embedded
in state structures and extended throughout society,
such as in Mexico,
citizens’ grievances have no clear recipients,
and drug violence tends to paralyze them.
Let’s imagine that for the last 15 years Mexico had been ruled by a dictatorship that killed 140,000 people; a regime that systematically tortured, kidnapped and extorted; exhibiting its victims in public places, hanging them from bridges, or leaving them naked, gagged and mutilated in pick-up trucks; kept about 16,000 unidentified bodies in its morgues; and forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of its citizens, burying them in mass graves or dissolving them in barrels of acid.
Needless to say, it would be horrendous, an intolerable situation, a worldwide scandal. Fortunately, it isn’t the case. Mexico is a democracy and has been since 2000; a deficient and disappointing one to be sure, but when all’s said and done, a democracy. But unfortunately, the facts and figures about violence are real. They aren’t those of a dictatorial regime but of an economic—not political—civil war that we usually describe as “the war on drugs” or “drug violence.”
Organized violence paralyzes
After 70 years of hegemony by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico slowly and peacefully moved towards democracy in the last two decades of the 20th century. In the first decade of this century Mexico slid rapidly into civil war. This isn’t a war for the State or over ideology. This is one of the “new” civil wars, waged for material gain not political motives.
It’s an opaque war that contains several wars within it. The criminal violence of illicit private companies reinforces and both coexists and intermixes with that of state agents. There is also violence between and within criminal organizations and against those organizations and even against the civilian population.
Most Mexican citizens have reacted with a mixture of horror and indifference to the spiraling escalation of organized atrocities. Their reaction has been similar to the usual one we have when we see terrible international news: we’re perhaps frightened or saddened or infuriated for a moment, but nothing more. Except in exceptional cases, we aren’t induced to turn off the TV and go out into the streets to engage in political action.
Enrique Desmond Arias, a researcher-lecturer on the region’s security and politics, and Daniel M. Goldstein, a political and legal anthropologist focusing on the global meanings and practices of security, democracy and human rights, call Latin America’s “violent democracies.” In them we have seen citizens respond in many ways to the violence and injustice surrounding them, from the Central American exodus to the “vote for order” by electing Bolsonaro in the 2018 Brazilian elections.
The Mexican population’s paralysis in the face of criminal violence doesn’t seem a unique phenomenon but rather a prevalent attitude expressing a profound contradiction in democracies torn apart by criminal violence. On the one hand, citizens are fundamental and wessential to any solution to endemic violence. They matter in a democracy, perhaps even more in one plagued by organized violence. On the other hand, the structural conditions of a civil war make it very hard for them to mobilize. The opacity of violence, its moral ambiguity and the brutal asymmetry of power between armed groups and the civilian population create severe obstacles to civic involvement. While the construction of the rule of law requires citizens to mobilize, organized violence tends to paralyze them.
The escalation of drug violence
is a failure of democracy
In a context of violent competition between illegal armed groups—in which tens of thousands of people are tortured, killed and forcibly disappeared—why should we think run-of-the-mill citizens could somehow affect the course of events? What difference can they make? What do their attitudes and actions affect? Why should we think public opinion matters? Why is it worth studying?
There’s an African saying that in a war the civilian population is like the grass under the feet of fighting elephants. But that’s not entirely true. The elephants aren’t everywhere and even where they are, whether grazing or fighting, civilians can resort to mobilizations and civil resistance, which they can’t do in a dictatorship. They have political rights and civil liberties. They can access public arenas, vote, actively participate in parties and civil associations, take to the streets and raise their voices. All under restrictions, it’s true, but also with certain margins for action. Even under the shadow of organized criminal violence, ordinary citizens have three main ways to influence events by making their opinions public.
1. Public opinion can influence public debate and policies. In Mexico, before the escalation in drug violence, we spoke a lot about the failures of the State and government, but much less about the failures of democracy. The simple fact, however, is that in the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, before “the war on organized crime” was officially initiated, it wasn’t a prominent issue, but after 60,000 deaths it has to be considered a major failure of democracy.
When democracy fails, many actors are failing: the government and the opposition, the political parties, the mass media and civil society. In a democracy, it’s expected that all these actors should respond to the citizens’ priorities and grievances. Ultimately it’s therefore the citizens who can sanction and correct democratic failures.
2. Public opinion can affect organized crime. The conventional idea that armed groups depend on the civilian population to provide the resources needed to build an organization doesn’t apply to the drug cartels. They don’t need the civilian population to give them food and shelter. They buy their groceries in the supermarkets and their houses from a real estate agency.
They do need two things from the populace, however: personnel and silence. They need to recruit people to fill all the positions required in the division of criminal labor and they need civilians not to report them to the authorities and newspapers after becoming aware of their criminal acts. Almost inevitably, civilians’ opinions about criminal actors affect both the latter’s ability to hire personnel and the probability of denunciations.
3. Public opinion can affect organized civil society. Given the State’s massive failure to protect its citizens (and itself) in many parts of the country, relatives of the victims of violence have formed numerous protest movements in recent years. Public opinion will very likely have a significant impact on these associations’ mobilization efforts and capabilities as well as on the responsiveness to their grievances by politicians and officials.
All this is a rosary of beautiful possibilities, but it isn’t easy to convert the civic intervention potential into reality. In recent years, the prevailing trends of endemic violence in Mexico have been for it to become normalized and citizens to become passive to it. The incidents of civic mobilization in favor of the victims, although impressive and moving, have been fleeting. We need to appreciate that citizen solidarity’s moral and political imperatives face very powerful obstacles that are inhibiting in practice.
What the governments of
Calderón and Peña Nieto did
The escalation of organized violence in the last ten years has taken the country by surprise as Mexico had seemed to be moving towards democratic normality.
The slide into criminal normality has been dizzying. Given the terrifying spread of extreme violence, we can confirm that the prevailing response has been to normalize it. Both the government and society have very rapidly ceased to be surprised. When the Felipe Calderón government (2006-2012) saw the country erupt, it declared a kind of state of national emergency, at the same time trying to calm the citizens.
Calderón described the violence as a conflict between rival criminal gangs that were killing each other and assured the population that heroic security forces were in charge of saving the homeland from these criminals. Decent people had nothing to do and nothing to fear.
The Enrique Peña Nieto government (2012-2018) replaced the denial discourse with straight denial. Instead of saying “we have a major problem but don’t worry, it’s something between the bad guys that we, the good guys, will resolve,” he said: “We have a problem but it’s not that bad, there are more important things to attend to.” Instead of externalizing the violence as an issue between criminals symbolically expelled from the country, he tried to minimize it with various formulas: violence is worse in other countries; it has always existed; it only affects some areas the country; it’s already in decline.... The message to citizens was the same as the previous government: we’re dealing with it, you stay calm.
In those years, while the violence was escalating, many signs suggested it was being normalized at a personal level. With osmotic speed and an agility that sometimes seemed to celebrate the transgression of all civilized boundaries, the violence has been especially normalized in everyday speech..
Individual and symbolic normalization of violence
Many linguistic devices have been used to convert Mexico’s extraordinary horror into a trivial act. The criminal world’s own argot has been adopted to describe the criminals themselves (cartel, capo or drug lord, hit man, falcon or “eyes and ears,” mule, pozolero [stew-maker, denoting the one who dissolves victims’ bodies in acid]); their acts (execution, recruitment, protection or racketeering); their accoutrements (safe house, goat’s horn or AK 47); and the victims of their violence (beheaded; lynched; stuffed in blankets, bags and boxes, taped up…).
Absorbing this universe of euphemisms and false technicalities, a world is being created where violence becomes a defined, understandable, expected phenomenon.
The broad classification of “drug-related” and the extensive use of the corresponding prefix (narco-violence, narco-grave, narco-manta [a cloth with threatening messages left by criminal groups belonging to some drug cartel], narco-police, narco-politician, narco-party, and narco-house) serve the same purpose: they create a symbolic distance between the civilized world and the barbaric world where violence is normal.
Multiple individual adaptation strategies have bolstered the symbolic normalization. Perhaps the most important has been self-confinement. With public areas becoming violent terrain, citizens have taken refuge in private areas. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography’s survey data, more than 50% of Mexicans no longer go out at night “for fear of becoming the victim of some crime” and two out of every three children have been banned from going out on the street.
2011: Javier Sicilia’s mobilization
Thinking that Mexican civil society is relatively weak is a cliché. Moreover, it has been frequently observed that civil society as a whole hasn’t shown itself to be particularly active about public security either.
Those who have mobilized have been victims of violence. Initially, only certain individuals stormed national public arenas, such as the businessman Alejandro Martí, who became a prominent anti-insecurity activist after his son Fernando was kidnapped and killed in 2008 [together with his driver and bodyguard, after a US$6 million ransom had been paid]. Subsequently, however, we have seen two large outbreaks of collective mobilization for the victims of criminal violence.
Right from the start of the so-called war on drugs, a wide range of local victims’ movements began to emerge in many corners of Mexico. For several years, however, this rich and varied kaleidoscope of movements remained virtually invisible to the country’s capital. It only became visible and audible nationwide with the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, initiated in early 2011 by the poet Javier Sicilia following his son’s murder by local police. This mobilization held the mass media’s attention at least for some months.
Sicilia’s movement didn’t achieve structural changes in the Mexican State or society: that would be asking too much. Its great historical achievement was symbolic: public recognition of the victims as victims and human beings, not as numbers, collateral damage, cold cases, or criminals who got what they deserved. For at least a few brief months in 2011, the victims had public visibility and those who wanted to could see their faces, hear their stories and grieve together. The 2013 documentary “Javier Sicilia: En la soledad del otro,” (in the loneliness of the other) by Luisa Riley narrates the movement’s cathartic beginnings.
2012: The strategy of silence
Even before Javier Sicilia decided that his boots could take no more and he had to stop marching, the subject of the victims had once again come off the public agenda. In the next year’s presidential elections, the voters left the National Action Party (PAN), the party of President Calderón, who had worn a military uniform, in third place.
Throughout the election campaign, the parties and candidates avoided talking about violence and, since silence had been a winning strategy, President Peña Nieto (PRI) imposed it as governmental policy on taking office in December 2012. He tried to veer public debate towards purported structural reforms in education, the economy, and telecommunications. That eloquent strategy of silence worked until the beginning of 2014, when the so-called self-defense crisis of the state of Michoacán led the federal executive branch to supplant Michoacán’s political system with a kind of plenipotentiary presidential emissary.
Governmental management of the silence finally broke down completely with the Iguala massacre: when 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher training school were forcibly disappeared by state criminals (municipal police) and their presumed subsequent murder by private criminals (enforcement agents from the dominant local cartel).
Thanks to the other students’ proficiency in collective action joined by the parents of the student victims, the transparent innocence of the victims and the direct participation of state agents, the Iguala crime awakened Mexican civil society. The upsurge of solidarity was widespread and massive, reaching almost all the states of Mexico and even transcending national borders.
The Ayotzinapa solidarity movement generated great expectations. A dramatic crisis and the imperative need for radical change were perceptible in both public debate and private conversations. There were those who talked about re-founding the State, the republic, Mexican society. The rhetoric of revolution floated in the air; we seemed to be at the threshold of a profound rupture in attitudes, discourses and policies towards organized violence.
The Ayotzinapa mobilization
lasted just three months
The season of civic outrage over Ayotzinapa was short-lived, however. Built-in structural limits to the movement were imposed after just three months of mobilization. These limits included an agenda limited to the missing students, the absence of a broader transformation program, the relative narrowness of its social base, the lack of nationwide organizational structures, its refusal to coordinate with other victim movements, its antagonism towards political parties and its easy disparagement by the media, based on the disruptive tactics used by its radical fringes.
Civic mobilizations are always difficult to sustain, and it’s particularly hard to translate the force of large numbers into substantive political and institutional changes. What happened in this case is what often happens: the mobilization upsurge became exhausted, people’s energies dissipated, and active indignation turned into passive resignation. Citizen enthusiasm gave way to frustration and the changes demanded left barely a mark in the memory.
Half a year after the Iguala crime, we were once again back at the previous status quo and, while the case of the Ayotzinapa students remains wrapped in a dense web of suspicion far from public opinion, the daily organization of murders and disappearances also continues. Both the government and the general public have gone back to attending to other matters.
solidarity have limits?
We know that under dictatorships citizens they have neither voice nor vote; they don’t elect it or approve its policies; they have no direct responsibility in state repression; they are the recipients of violence, not its agents. But even in dictatorships, individuals aren’t just passive victims of the regime: there are many ways in which they collaborate in its propagation or undermine its functioning. Every day they face difficult choices between moral imperatives and personal risks.
In civil wars, with all the distance between the worlds of violence from above and from below, citizens face similar moral dilemmas to those they face under dictatorships. What do they know about acts or campaigns of criminal violence? What do they want to know? What position do they take? What do they do to prevent criminal violence? Do they do all they can? There are no easy answers under dictatorships or in civil wars.
Just how difficult, demanding and precarious citizen solidarity is can be clearly appreciated when we analyze its failure in easy contexts. It bothers us when citizens refuse to intervene in the face of large-scale atrocities such as genocides or dictatorial campaigns of political repression. But it also irritates us when they refuse to intervene in response to ordinary affronts to their fellow citizens. Sociology and social psychology have spent decades analyzing the role of bystanders, passive spectators facing everyday injustices taking place before their very eyes without intervening to stop them.
The case of Kitty Genovese
The archetypal case that has inspired hundreds of studies was the violent death of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York.
On a winter night in 1964, this young woman was brutally assaulted and stabbed at the entrance to her building. During the 40 minutes she tried to defend herself against her murderer, at least three dozen neighbors—38, according to the reconstruction journalist—could hear her screams, but nobody except one picked up a telephone to call the police, and did so too late. The case became a powerful vignette of modern city dwellers’ coldness and indifference to the suffering of their fellow citizens.
The refusal of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors to heed her cries for help caused profound public exasperation given how easy it would have been to do something. The case met virtually all the structural conditions that allow people to safely and effectively protect their fellow citizens in situations of danger or injustice.
There was information: as it was a cold winter’s night, the neighbors were possibly sleeping with their windows closed but they were close enough for Kitty’s cries to have awakened them. It was also hard for the desperate cries for help to have been interpreted as part of a normal disagreement between a husband and wife. It was clear that someone was in serious danger. There was little room for ambiguity.
There was injustice: the division of roles and responsibilities between perpetrator and victim was unequivocal. There was absolutely no doubt about the personal and moral responsibility of the attacker who stabbed the young woman multiple times and attacked her sexually. Nor was there any doubt about the innocence of the defenseless victim. The moral status of the murder was clear: it wasn’t an act of self-defense or a crime with political connotations. It was a straightforward criminal act, aggravated by its fortuitous character and lack of motive.
There were options: those hearing the attack had several intervention options. Some opened their windows and shouted something, although this did little to deter the murderer. They could also have put on their slippers to go down the stairs. Above all, they could have done something as simple as alerting the police by phone. A telephone call might have saved Kitty’s life. It would have been an effective intervention that didn’t involve any risk for the neighbors and practically no cost.
Keys to active solidarity
These three aspects are crucial to citizens’ active solidarity. In order for citizens to help others, they need some minimal information about the facts; they need to see that the facts involve palpable injustices that merit their intervention; and they need to have reasonable expectations that they can intervene in a way that’s minimally safe and effective. When they don’t really know what’s happening, aren’t sure about who are the bad guys and the good guys, and can’t see that they can do something that will help the victim without putting themselves at serious risk, it’s very unlikely they will stop being passive spectators.
The great moral offensiveness of the Kitty Genovese case results from the fact that all the conditions favored civic intervention: it was a clear case of a criminal emergency, with enough information and easy intervention options. In contexts of organized criminal violence, in contrast, none of the above can be taken for granted. Structural conditions conspire against active civic intervention.
Three kinds of passive
spectators to violence
Schematically, there are three different kinds of passive spectators to violence: eyewitnesses to an act of everyday injustice, subjects living under a repressive dictatorship and citizens immersed in an economic civil war, as in Mexico’s case.
To begin with, being an active participant is very different in the three situations. The classic eyewitness to everyday injustices faces a well-defined set of actors, with clear demarcations and responsibilities. The numbers of perpetrators and victims are few and there’s no confusion about each one’s respective role. In a democratic context, the State appears to be the victims’ potential ally. Very often the citizen spectator is not expected to intervene personally, but to ask for help from a state official.
In a dictatorship, the number of actors is already very large. The State is the main perpetrator that operates in a specialized, highly demarcated way, although the ultimate responsibility still centers on the regime’s political leadership.
In civil wars, responsibilities are more diffuse, dispersed, opaque. There isn’t a central dictator or repressive bureaucracy responsible for criminal violence. Citizens aren’t subject to a national repressive regime, but to local dictatorial networks. There’s a great deal of territorial and social variation in the private violence exercised by illegal armed groups.
The perpetrators of violence are also numerous, but are usually hidden. Furthermore, demarcation lines between them tend to be blurred.
Criminal networks are embedded in the State and extend into society, so that citizens’ demands for peace and justice have no clear recipients. They are directed at the State, given its failure to give protection, but also at the social actors whose set themselves up as private potentates over life and death.
Spectators to violence
These three different archetypal contexts also contrast in their information structures.
The eyewitness to a social injustice sees everything with his/her own eyes, with no need for intermediaries or interpreters. The situation is transparent and access to information is direct. The citizen is literally a spectator to a crime being committed live, and cannot evade responsibility by alleging ignorance.
In contrast, both dictatorships and civil wars form opaque worlds. Almost all information is indirect, mediated by the government, mass media and rumor. Between what is revealed, distorted and hidden by the perpetrators of violence, it’s frequently very hard to know who did what to whom and for what reason.
For a witness who observes physical aggression on a public street, the moral evaluation of the deed is generally clear. There’s a distinct separation of roles between the guilty attacker and the innocent victim.
The casual spectator would have no great difficulty discerning aggression as a flagrant violation of the norms of civic coexistence. On the other hand, dictatorial campaigns of political repression are generally subject to controversy. Every democrat will condemn them while the authoritarian regime’s supporters will justify them.
Spectators to drug violence
In economic civil wars—such as those promoted by drug traffickers—the clarity of moral judgments tends to be even further diluted.
Observers tend to distinguish between innocent and guilty victims. The innocent are civilians without criminal involvement who, through bad luck, become the “collateral victims” of violence. The guilty are drug traffickers who got into this “economic war” of their own accord—with no political justification they could use as a mitigating factor—and they paid the corresponding price.
In economic civil wars, observers probably also tend to distinguish between bad and good perpetrators. The former get involved solely to get rich, while the latter share their criminal wealth with their family or community. Insofar as we can draw these moral distinctions between victims and perpetrators and even between degrees of criminality, criminal violence appears morally ambiguous and is only weakly condoned or condemned.
Effective individual actions
and risky collective ones
Passive spectators of violence have very different margins of intervention in these three prototypical situations.
When a simple call to an emergency telephone line solves the problem, classic eyewitnesses of everyday crimes have
an intervention option that is effective for the victims and safe for themselves. Furthermore, it’s enough for them to intervene individually without even having to face problems of collective action.
Ironically, when the number of witnesses increases it can end up blocking the facility for individual intervention. This is the most plausible explanation for the collective failure of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors. As it wasn’t necessary to coordinate positively, they ended up coordinating negatively. Since it seemed so simple, nobody did anything because they could all expect others to act. When the weight of responsibility is spread between many spectators, each one can argue “Why me? Any one of the others could do it with no problem.”
In contrast, both under dictatorships and in economic civil wars, citizens have very little capacity for individual advocacy and much of what they can do entails existential personal risks. Collective actions are more promising but are always costly and even more so in contexts of criminal violence, whether it emanates from the State or from private organizations.
Invitation to indifference
Organized violence makes it structurally difficult for citizens, as passive spectators, to show solidarity with the victims. It systematically damages the cognitive requirements for civic solidarity (knowledge of the events), affects their normative bases (the perception of injustice) and their practical foundations (clear responsibilities and effective and safe intervention options).
The diffusion of responsibilities, opacity, moral ambiguity and impotence do not make it easy for civic intervention; if anything they are an invitation to indifference, passivity and denial. They invite citizens to wash their hands and delegate a resolution of the problem to professional politicians, whether under the mantle of criminal populism that promises to eliminate all criminals (Bolsonaro), or charitable populism that promises to eliminate violence by eliminating poverty (López Obrador).
Andreas Schedler is a professor-researcher at Mexico City’s Center of Research and Economic Teaching. This article was first published in the journal Nueva Sociedad #282, July-August 2019 under the title “Citizen Solidarity in Violent Democracies.”