Deconstructing Mexico's "War on Drugs"

An unlikely independent website, Mexican Jihad, deconstructs the government and media representation of Mexico's "War on Drugs." Michelle Garcia reports from Mexico City.

Everywhere he looks, madness has taken hold. Bodies strung from bridges, bodies dissolved in acid. Men roam across cities and small towns carrying automatic weapons. The dead are his age. So are the killers. The enemy might have studied with him in high school back in Oaxaca. “Drug war” they say in English. “La guerra contra el narco” (war against the narco), they call it in Mexico; titles that explain the killers and the killings; titles repeated by the press, the president, and experts who claim to decode the meaning and motives in the work of criminals.

Alberto Bustamante was a skinny college freshman one month shy of his 21st birthday when, in 2006, Felipe Calderon rode into the presidency and declared a war against the narcos—the drug traffickers whose powdered and herbal merchandise is consumed by gringo lawyers, American college kids and empty nesters. But in Mexico, narco turf battles were causing massacres and beheadings, even in the president's home state of Michoacan. Saying he was going to free “young Mexicans from drugs,” Calderon sent in the military, eventually deploying tens of thousands across the country. Alternately wearing a suit and a military uniform, he invoked the U.S. “War on Terror,” referring to the narco enemy as “terrorists.”

Bustamante watched the war of his generation closely, and last year, a mash-up style Tumblr blog he created, called Mexican Jihad, became an unlikely and incisive commentary on both the government and the Mexican media, landing him on the front pages of the country’s newspapers. The images Bustamante posted on Mexican Jihad are taken from news sources, social media and blogs, and they were meant to shock his readers into reconsidering ubiquitous photographs of war, with their easily recognizable narrative of a force for good (the government) battling agents of evil (the narcos).

“I would show someone the images and they would say, where did that come from?” Bustamante says, hunched over his laptop in the Mexico City cafe he owns with some friends. He would reply, “The news!” The war on drugs “is a war,” Bustamante says, “But it’s also a war on a psychological level and that's what makes it very shocking.” He called the blog “a gift to the president.”

Bustamante’s project began with a music-based effort he called Mexican Moslem, his anthem for a generation branded with the name 'narco', It was a collection of phantasmagorical electronica tracks writhing and agitating and at times invoking mourning with touches of Lady Gaga and influenced by musicians who go by the name, 'Viva la violencia.' Long Live the Violence!

Because Bustamante was in with the club kids and artists, he played the mix at a dance party in Mexico City. From the dance floor, he lobbed his anthem onto the online media battlefield, he says, “to put in public view my personal vision of what was going on.” Then he moved the project online, creating a Tumblr blog, and pairing the Mexican Moslem soundtrack with images from the war.

For many of us in Mexico who closely followed the six years of bloodshed and unsolved murders, Mexican Jihad became one of the most poignant and critical commentaries of the “drug war.” Mexican Jihad reaches beyond simplistic, neatly drawn lines of “war” and clear-cut camps of good versus evil by training its focus on the visual “war” narrative; one in which very little is known about how people are killed and why. Bustamante, however, with his expansive collection of published images, online feeds and screen shots, extends his critique to include the press for reprinting the images with little or no scrutiny, and the public for buying into the entire package.

Mexican Jihad's kaleidoscopic trip through “war” begins with a replica of a painted mural inside a “narco museum,” housed in a military training center (above), that showcases the hardware and bling confiscated from narcos. The triptych depicts Mexican soldiers charging at fields of cannabis and opium across distinct regions of the country. What follows is an unbroken series of images and a conspicuous absence of words, to capitalize, as Bustamante says, on the public's predilection for scrolling through sites “like porn.”

From the leftist magazine Proceso, to more mainstream outlets, to narco blogs and the foreign press, all carried much of the same government orchestrated propaganda that communicated one idea: WAR. There were military caravans rolling down handsome boulevards and onto dirt roads, helicopter-borne troops raiding marijuana fields, burning bales of weed, images of handcuffed men with somber faces strategically positioned behind piles of weapons and cash. Bustamante, a budding architect with a sharp eye for the control and use of space, sifted through the constant stream of images that saturated his world guided by his personal and political taste.

In another image, President Calderon is seen with a green light radiating from his eyes. The photograph was taken during a presidential event in the enormous zocalo, or public square, when spectators locked green lasers on the face of the hugely unpopular president. “It's civic protest taking the place of the president, in public, on national TV. You are protesting on the face of the president,” he says with a smile. “That's beautiful.” Bustamante then points to a photo of the crime scene from the Villas de Salvarcar massacre in Ciudad Juarez when 16 teenagers celebrating a birthday inside a private home were gunned down. The president initially intimated that the victims had been involved in organized crime, but after a public excoriation by parents of the young athletes and promising students, Calderon later apologized.

Ripped from their context, Bustamante's collected images of nationalism, military parades, and Calderon with his military leaders take on a sinister look. A huge billboard that reads “no more weapons” seems mocking when weapons are in the hands of everyone. “This is as grotesque as a beheading,” says Bustamante. “This is the actual power, the actual decision.”

“The Mexican government and organized crime groups use images to vie for control over the public's perception of power,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a university professor and expert on organized crime on the Texas-Mexico border. Criminal groups scrawled messages in blood or tacked them to corpses. “Their purpose was to show, 'If I can do this there is no one to protect you. When I take this from you there is nothing you can do.'” And the government, she says, joined in its enemy's game. “It didn't improve institutions, it didn't improve justice. It wanted something spectacular.”

The stunning images of war, however, obliterated the complexities of the narco engine, corruption, impunity, and a dismal economy that produced thousands of unemployed, under-educated young men who made ideal candidates for look outs, drivers, smugglers, and hit men. Such nuance would emerge within the online battlefield, where the neat lines of war were blurred and Mexicans were bombarded with videos of brutality that had gone viral. In one, masked men bludgeoned to death a state attorney general's brother like a pinata. No one knows who wielded the weapons. In a taped interrogation, a woman clutching a rose confesses to having committed extortions. Was she questioned by police, the military, or someone else? A video of a “drug cartel” execution suggests a coziness between the military and “cartel members."

These images are not counted as part of the intense government publicity during the "drug war" that promoted everything from the country's security forces to its beaches as seen in ads inside New York City subways. (During Calderon's administration, it's worth noting, government spending on “publicity” quadrupled, reaching $4 billion in 2011 and exceeding the authorized budget by a factor of three, according to an analysis of public spending by the watchdog group Publicidad Oficial.) Indeed Mexican Jihad includes promotional images from El Equipo, the short-lived secretly government-financed television program beamed into every home in Mexico that glorified the Mexican federal police and its mission of good.

Just weeks before the Villas de Salvarcar massacre, Julian Cardona, a leading photographer who has chronicled the violence in Ciudad Juarez, told me that the story of Mexico's “drug war” consisted of a recycling of images that created an “echo or propagation in the national, local and foreign media.” Photographs and visuals revolved around the declared “drug war” narrative--security forces out “fighting the narco” followed by a parade of the accused, handcuffed, facedown, whose guilt was implicit, though in most cases, after the cameras disappeared, detainees were eventually released. In Juarez at least, Cardon said, young men—dead or alive—taken for the narco were often low level pushers or users. Likewise, beyond the camera lens are images capturing state security forces conducting arbitrary detentions, torturing or disappearing people. “It's rare that someone who has had any experience like that would open themselves up so that another image could be considered,” he said. “Very frequently, you have images of soldiers going through the streets but not of their victims.”

There were no photographs that could illustrate that of the 1,203 homicides cases between 2010 and 2011, according to an investigation by El Diario de Juarez, firearms were only found in 59 crime scenes, meaning in “drug war” battles only one side was shooting.

But visual criticism requires context, and that is where Mexican Jihad has its limits. “You'd have to know what you know for this to make sense,” John Mraz said. What makes Mexico's drug war unique is that its visual story fits within a long history of a government-created cultural identity through television, films and photography, says Mraz, author of “Mexico's Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity.” The images featured in Mexican Jihad are the very images of nationalism and identity promoted by Calderon to shore up support for his “drug war.”

Last year Mexican Jihad jumped from the page to real life when Bustamante and some friends mounted a series of dance parties within the newly unveiled monument to Mexican war history Over four weeks, they hosted deejays from some of Mexico's hardest hit cities at the Estela de Luz, a monument in honor of bicentenary of independence from Spain. While the music played inside, Bustamante and his collaborators beamed words from an oversized light fixture. They called the event, ESTADO (state), a co-opting of the government.

Bustamante hands me an event flyer, and one of the “sponsors” listed is NAAFI, which he tells me represents Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. But in reflecting the dismal legacy of the “war against the narco,” he added, “now it's the name of my party.”

A few weeks later, Enrique Pena Nieto assumed the presidential office and Mexican Jihad lay frozen in time, Bustamante left the online monument as a homage to the war president. The “war,” he says, isn't the same under the new president. Gone are the splashy photo-ops with detained men standing in front of weapons and drugs or of military operations storming into the countryside, and Pena Nieto has yet to appear with military brass. But the number of dead holds steady at a little over 1,000 per month, and extortions and kidnappings are rampant. General impunity continues unabated. Ninety-eight percent of homicides committed in 2012 remain unsolved. The only indication that the “war” is over is the absence of its images.