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“Drug-related violence” as an object of study: A paradigm in crisis

As Mexico’s society has suffered from an armed conflict problematically attributed to a “drug war,” we face a crucial methodological failure from most fields investigating - and interpreting - “drug-related violence”. Social scientists and certainly cultural critics tend to reduce Mexico's violence to the limits of the hegemonic narrative on national security. This hegemony is built in part through the legitimation of the official explanation of the violence in the work of most national and foreign media covering the drug war, as I have studied elsewhere.1 This manufacturing of consent, is later consolidated in the circulation of an expansive corpus of cultural products consumed by the general public and studied by multiple academic agendas, complacently reassured of the reasons for the “drug war.” Thus, “narcoculture” studies risk replicating the official justifications for the militarization, and as such, they have been unable to think past the “drug war” as the epistemic boundary of their research.

Two books from the social sciences can illustrate my point. The collective volume Mexico’s Security Failure, published in 2012 by Paul Kenny and Monica Serrano, argues for a careful analysis of the rise in violence correctly assessing that México, contrary to certain scholarship, is not a “failed state” and that conversely, the notion of failing states has long been a motif of neoliberal governance pushing for the militarization of the country. Nonetheless, contributors to this book assume that most causes lie in drug-related activities and that the federal government has revealed itself as “utterly unprepared” facing an emergency in which “the territory lost by the state to organized crime extends from the northern border and cities to its very own penitentiary system” (12-13). Most recently, the 2018 volume Beyond the Drug War in Mexico, edited by Will Pansters, Benjamin Smith, and Peter Watt, argues for a critique of the militarization resulting from US pressure for “unrestrained enforcement” of prohibitionist laws that ultimately “‘totalised’ the drug war and violence” across Mexico. But as with the previous investigation, this book leaves the epistemic assumption that “drug-related violence” is at the center of crisis in which “cartels” are capable of influencing the electoral system, national media, and the overall rule of law (2-3). In replicating baseless official justifications for the militarization, neither book is in factable to go beyond the “drug war” as the epistemic boundaiy of their research. As such, conventional scholarship falls trap of what Mexican intellectual Carlos Montemayor called the “covert discourse” of the Mexican police state, in which the strategy of naming domestic threats was already a constitutive aspect of the government’s war strategy. As the state manipulates the symptoms, Montemayor explains, it also profits from the promise of a solution: the concept of “social peace” promoted by the militarization is a key signifier erasing the systemic roots of the violence while masking the profoundly damaging effects of state violence (180-82).

Mexico’s “ding war” discourse has been symbolically structured to justify the deployment of the state’s security apparatus which has in turn facilitated official extractive projects precisely in those areas most afflicted with violence. Dawn Paley and Simon Granovsky-Larsen have proposed the term “organized violence” to reassess this form of violence as “organized not only due to the formal structure of armed groups but also organized in its relationship to capitalism” (8). Against the prevailing assumption that the state retreats under neoliberal governance, Paley and Granovsky-Larsen observe the government in charge of setting “local conditions for capital accumulation and hold on tightly to their role as economic arbiters.” They argue that megaprojects and local community rights become mutually exclusive, and this explains why “the dual processes of security and rule of law for capital on the one hand, and insecurity and injustice for people and communities on the other, are, in fact, attractive to investors” (10). As an alternate concept, organized violence effectively fissures the dominant notion of "organized crime”. The latter has been the symbolic instrument of political and judicial discourse to operate a nomic resignification of entire communities. It offers not the legal configuration of criminal activity but the spatialization of crime as a political construct, transforming the targeted community into a battleground, as I will discuss next.

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