While there is such a thing as ‘narcocultura,’ this article is not about that. This is going deeper, and farther back in history. Our own Coriolanus has already touched on this before.
There’s a lot more to the narco-insurgency in Mexico than just drugs and crime. While greed certainly plays a large role (Hint: it plays a large role in any conflict, whether ethnic, religious, or ideological), it doesn’t cover everything.
Many of the cartels are regional in nature. It would be perhaps a step too far to call them strictly ‘tribal,’ though family does tend to play a large role. Most of the leadership of the major cartels have been related by blood. But the ties are more to particular states or regions, the most notable being Sinaloa.
Sinaloa State is largely mountainous, being centered on the Sierra Madre. Historically, mountain people have been difficult at best to conquer; see the Afghans and Scottish Highlanders for only two examples. The native tribes of Sinaloa were no different. From the 1500s to the 1700s, there were multiple rebellions and wars between the Spanish and the native Yaquis, Pimas, Mayos, and Acaxees.
Folk legend in Sinaloa suggests the 300 Spanish conquistadores that first entered what is now Sinaloa (along with a 10,000-man allied force of Tlaxcalans, Aztecs, and Tarascans) were “devoured.” In fact, the initial clash with the 30,000-man local army was a smashing victory for the conquistadores, but the area was never entirely pacified until the Jesuit missionaries successfully converted the natives to Catholicism.
Regardless of historical fact, the folk tradition on the ground is largely one of defiance toward the Spanish conquerors. Considering the fact that much of the ethnic and social breakdown in Mexico has long been between the poor, rural Indios and more affluent, urban Spanish, that narrative is only enforced—especially as formerly poor rural farmers of mostly native background have risen to become obscenely wealthy narco-warlords, challenging the often-corrupt central authority in Mexico City. In some areas of Sinaloa, in fact, the narcos are known as Los Valientes, “The Valiant Ones”—romanticized bandits in the same vein as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
Mexico has been shaped by the urban rich/rural poor dichotomy, and the revolution intended to rectify it, far more than the United States, and that cultural imprint has shaped the narco-insurgency and the government’s response more than anything. In this case, both sides (speaking generally; none of the cartels are on the same side except as alliances of convenience and then only rarely) tap into the revolutionary tradition to frame their narrative. In the case of the government, however, that fact is actually hamstringing their efforts more than anything else.
The Mexican Revolution lasted close to 10 years, generally agreed to have occurred between 1910 and 1920. Its end resulted in the formation of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, later renamed to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, usually abbreviated as PRI. The PRI dominated Mexico for 80 years, only losing the presidency in 2000 when Vicente Fox was elected. With Enrique Pena-Nieto’s election in 2012, the PRI is now back in power.
The cultural impact of that 10-year war and the ascension of the revolutionary party has painted a narrative of the revolutionaries being the good guys. It is one the PRI (or either the Fox or Calderon administrations, for that matter) cannot step away from. That is why the Mexican government has consistently refused to characterize the drug war as an insurgency.
The insurgents are the good guys in the Mexican psyche. The narcos can’t be the good guys, especially not when they’re cutting heads off à la al-Qaeda in Iraq (where the narcos actually got the idea from) and stitching skinned faces on soccer balls. So, they can’t be insurgents. They’re only criminals. It can be argued that this attitude has not only hindered the military response to narco violence (though the Mexican Marines appear to be the most successful force in the country, and the recent reaction to the CJNG attacks in Jalisco has been decidedly military in character), but has perhaps aided in the corruption and infiltration of government officials and agencies by the cartels.
As with any conflict, there is no one cause. Drugs are a means, not an end.
Note: Peter Nealen’s latest American Praetorians thriller, “The Devil You Don’t Know,” is now available for pre-order here.
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