Forced internal displacement: The unaccounted collateral damage
While homicides attributed to the “drug war” have logically received abundant media attention, the figures of internally displaced people remain scarcely understood in national debates. The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights estimates a total of 338,405 people displaced by force in Mexico from 2006 to 2018 (Comisión, 15). Mexican-French anthropologist Séverine Durin is one of the few scholars who has approached the phenomena drawing from the concept of “forced migration,” coined by sociologist Stephen Castles. Updating the total figure of forced displacements, Durin counts approximately 345,000 people, mainly from the states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, who have been forced to leave their homes (Cedillo). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has criticized the fact the Mexican government to date does not keep a rigorous methodology for accounting forced displacements. The most reliable global source is still the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), based in Geneva, whose figures closely followed those of the human rights organizations and scholars in Mexico and Latin America.
In all of this research, however, there is one common denominator: the unchallenged, widely accepted cause of forced displacement in Mexico, which is the violence attributed to “drug cartels.” It is summarized in a 2012 report by the IDMC:
Drug cartel violence in Mexico has increased dramatically since 2007, when the new government of President Felipe Calderón identified insecurity as a key problem and began deploying the military to fight the cartels in key locations. According to various analysts the strategy has backfired, stirring up a hornet’s nest by disturbing existing arrangements between the cartels, and sparking wars both within and between them.
This report, as much of the scholarly on the topic, is entirely conditioned by the official logic of the “drug war” set forth since the militarization effort began. It records the surge in violence precisely the same year that the first "joint strategies” were launched, and yet it blames “cartels” for all the violence. And when it appears to be criticizing the federal government by pointing out that the militarization “backfired,” it ultimately confirms that “drug cartels” were the central agents responsible for the turmoil, uneducated brown men uncontrollably stinging civil society after their “hornet's nest” was disturbed, as drug organizations are often illustrated in official and popular discourse. The ethnographic work of culturalstudies specialists such as Ryan Rashotte and Shaylih Muelhmann, among others, is built upon this same imaginary of the Mexican “narco.” It reifies the ciassist and racialized narrative of “cartels” and their contradictory folkloric attributes, such as their sense of family and religious superstition, naïve consumerist aspirations, all with a hyper masculinity and psychotic tendencies that ultimately render them a wild, animalistic, threat.
My analysis follows an important current of journalistic and scholarly work challenging the core claims of such official discourse by arguing that Mexico’s “drug war” must be understood as the public name of the military occupation instrumentalized, among other objectives, to open up vast regions of the country for transnational extractive practices of exploitation. Italian investigative reporter Federico Mastrogiovanni was among the first to denounce the preferred government practice of forced disappearances and displacement as a tool for energy extraction in northern Mexico. Among other findings, Mastrogiovanni examined the contradiction of the official discourse claiming that the “Los Zetas” cartel - a former military unit gone rogue - controlled Tamaulipas while transnational companies and the state’s political and business elites advanced megaprojects to tap into the Burgos Basin, the world’s fourth largest reserve of shale gas. Interviewing CEOs and engineers of energy conglomerates, Mastrogiovanni reported that transnational companies support friendly authoritarian governments deliberately instigating social unrest to depopulate entire regions and thus preempting any possibility of communal opposition. As “governments must compromise to allow high levels of violence, terror murder and disappearances,” Mastrogiovanni argued, “social tissue is dismembered along with the organization of the resistance” (36).
Separate independent journalistic work points in the same direction. In the state of Coahuila, Mexican reporter Ignacio Alvarado linked the disappearance of nearly 2,000 people to an official “strategy to strip landowners and ranchers of large tracts of land in areas rich in gas, coal and water” (Alvarado). Following the money all the way to the California border, Proceso reporters Mathieu Tourliere and Arturo Rodríguez documented how San Diego-based transnational Sempra Energy, through political pressure and the systematic disregard of binational regulations and environmentalist laws, secured investments for the construction of the Los Ramones pipeline, one of the key infrastructure developments to extract shale gas from the Burgos Basin (Tourliere and Rodríguez). Part of the project was laid out in communal lands across Tamaulipas deep into the territory commonly presumed under “Los Zetas” control. But if we transpose the sites of extraction with the military occupation fighting the “drug war,” we will find that they decisively converge in the same northeastern regions of Mexico with the epicenter in the state of Tamaulipas.
A map of alleged "influence” of the "Los Zetas” drug cartel, as described by El Universal newspaper in 2013. The shaded area covers the entire Yucatán peninsula, all the states at the Gulf of Mexico (Tabasco, Veracruz, and Tamaulipas) and the Northern border states of Nuevo León and Coahuila. This region coincides with the area of intense gas extraction conducted by multi-national energy
Figure 17.2 Map of alleged “influence” of “Los Zetas”. Source: El Universal Newspaper:
conglomerates with the approval of the Energy Secretariat of the Mexican federal government. Source:
A map of natural gas infrastructure and its corresponding multi-national extractive projects elaborated in 2016 by the Energy Secretariat of the Mexican federal government. The shaded areas indicate the 11 gas basins, including the Burgos basin, the world’s fourth largest gas extraction zone. Major private gas pipelines extend across Mexico’s northern border states (where "drug-related” violence has been consistently reported) reaching all the way to the rich city of Cancún in the Yucatán Peninsula. The gas basins and the pipelines combined cover almost identically the region allegedly under the control of the "Los Zetas” drug cartel. Source:
It is crucial to understand that México’s militarization and energy reform have been converging processes, both with the key financial and political support of the US government. Tourliere and Rodríguez reported that the negotiations on behalf of Sempra energy took place in 2011 at the US Embassy in México City, led by John D. Feeley, then undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Feeley is the same official who in December of 2008 headed the creation of the “Mérida Initiative,” a 1.6 billion aid package in equipment and training to help México “disrupt” the capacity of “organized crime” to
Figure 17.3 Official 2016 map of government extractive infrastructure of natural gas. Source: Mexico’s Energy Secretariat:
operate. Let us recall that in 2009, a year after President Barack Obama took office, Hillary Clinton's State Department also created the Bureau of Energy Resources, a special office charged with the diplomatic strategy to accomplish energy reform in México, as documented in diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks (Horn). In 2010, as violence reached record highs in Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, Clinton compared Mexico’s “drug cartels” to Colombian insurgencies, claiming without any evidence, that in México “narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country” (Carroll). She then revealed that President Obama had considered a direct military intervention in México similar to President Bill Clinton's "Plan Colombia”, including the deployment of US military personnel.