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Land dispossession and forced displacement as neoliberal policy

As the “drug trade” becomes the metaphor of the neoliberal extractive industry, scholar Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera has argued that the “Los Zetas cartel” operates as an extension of transnational interests, but far from being the main actors, the criminals act as a paramilitary force under the close direction of political and business elites of Tamaulipas and neighboring states. This model, according to Correa-Cabrera, is active in those regions under sieged by so-called “cartels” such as the “Caballeros Templarios” in the state of Michoacán, “Guerreros Unidos” in the state of Guerrero, and more recently the “Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación” in the state of Jalisco. Correa-Cabrera explains:

Zones of potential resource extraction after energy reform have shown the highest levels of violence, experiencing first the arrival of criminal groups (following the Zeta model) and the militarization and paramilitarization of security, allegedly implemented as a response to “drug-related violence” and the so-called cartel wars.


It is important here to understand that “cartels” operate precisely in the logic of paramilitarism, a phenomenon that most scholars incorrectly link only to military juntas of outright authoritarian regimes of past decades, in particular during the Cold War era and the fight against global communism. As the governments of Calderón and Peña Nieto received the explicit financial and political backing of the United States, the question of paramilitarism is often erased, while the official narrative of “drug cartels” remains as the key factor to explain the violence. It is in this sense that “drug cartels” are usually seen as extra-state agents forming alternative criminal sovereignties in their territories. But if we follow the links between their activities and the extractive industries, "cartels” appear to be operating more like paramilitary forces, a “parallel state” conducting extra-legal actions to advance domestic and transnational interests of the political class and foreign conglomerates. Scholar J. Patrice McSherry defines the concept of the parallel state and its utility:

The parallel state was an instrument to accomplish secretly what could not be accomplished legally or politically. It was created to carry out policies that violated all laws and norms and to circumvent any limits on the coercive power of the state, allowing the state to use extreme violence against "internal enemies” beyond all civilized boundaries, with no lawful constraints and with total impunity. Parallel state structures were "state owned,” but they were a deformation of a legitimate state.


Historically, as McSherry argues, paramilitary forces recur to terror as a mechanism of social control, acting with loyalty to state structures but with varying degrees of autonomy, depending on political allegiances to the governing groups. Likewise, groups such as "Los Zetas” perform enforcement duties that directly benefit energy projects led by the federal government, but that may run counter to the interests of local municipalities and communal landowners. In fact, those duties are usually aimed at undoing local organizing in order to “open up” territories for the extractive industry. It is in this point where the phenomenon of the “false positives” denounced in Colombia seems to be operating as well within official Mexican armed forces as a tool to consolidate extractive projects.

Land dispossession, as the result of massive forced displacements, is not just the effect of neoliberal policy ignoring labor law, eco-criticism, or land reform. It is driven by a militarized state that, in the name of “national security”, depopulates and appropriates territories ripe for extraction. Drawing from the work of Rosa Luxemburg, David Harvey contends that Marx’s principle of primitive accumulation, which “entailed taking land, say, enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation” (149) in the original - and violent - configuration of class difference, is still an ongoing process in the current late capitalist era. It allows for the relief of overaccumulation, that is, the condition in which stagnant capital surplus finds a way of fluidity and expansion in the outskirts of the capitalist system, in the external margins of the globalized economy. There, primitive accumulation is reenacted in a process that is better understood, according to Harvey, as “accumulation by dispossession.” In México, this process has been continuous since the adoption of neoliberal policy in the 1980s, the political and institutional transformation that put an end to the nationalist and protectionist state project which claimed sovereignty of natural resources with the 1938 expropriation of oil. Harvey explains:

Mexico, for example, abandoned its already weakening protections of peasant and indigenous populations in the 1980s, in part under pressure from its neighbour to the north to adopt privatization and neo-liberal practices in return for financial assistance and the opening of the US market for trade through the NAFTA agreement. And even when the motivation appears predominantly internal, the external conditions matter.


In 2006, when US pressure turned into the active encouragement to militarize the country in order to declare a “war against drugs” - replaying the US-backed militarization of Colombia with the same stated objective in the 1990s - México commenced a violent form of dispossession perpetrated by its own armed forces. Harvey’s concept may be reframed here as “dispossession by militarization,” highlighting state violence as a component often disguised as normalized capitalist expansion.

As México remains subjugated to its neighbor’s national security agenda, the United States actively manufactured the conditions of possibility for this new stage of dispossession. Harvey notes how for the principle of primitive accumulation to operate, “capitalism necessarily and always creates its own ‘other’” (141), that its, the outer limits of the system where dispossession ventilates capital surplus into new territories previously inaccessible for exploitation. Drug trafficking was indeed crafted as a global threat to “national security” in the 1980s during the Ronald Reagan administration, the pivotal mechanism that shifted all hostility away from the fading menace of international communism to the ubiquitous transitional presence of “cartels.” This reconfiguration took place along with the dawn of neoliberal reform in Latin America and it became another vehicle for the United States to secure its hegemony in the region.3 During the governments of Calderón and Peña Nieto, the last legal provisions impeding foreign investment in energy resources were dramatically eroded by the fog of the “drug war.”

The most recent manifestation of this process took place on November 4,2019, when three women and six children of the LeBaron family - a Mormon colony established in the northern state of Chihuahua since the 1920s - were brutally murdered, their bodies incinerated on a dirt road on the bordering state of Sonora. As the LeBaron clan keeps US citizenship, the story ran in mainstream media as the aggravated killing of an “American family,” decontextualizing the fact that the victims were in fact born in Mexico after several generations of a branches of the Mormon family established in the region primordially as Mexican citizens holding dual citizenship. The massacre was quickly explained in the media, without any forensic evidence or police investigation, as a “drug cartel ambush” (Chuck). President Donald Trump provided the full “national security” narrative from his twitter account a day after the incident, offering the Mexican government the “help” of a US military incursion in Mexico to fight “drug cartels”:

Weeks later, the geopolitical implications of the case emerged: precisely at the border between the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, in the same region where the massacre took place, is located what may be the world’s largest reserve of lithium, the precious mineral dubbed as “the oil of the future” for its use for battery power for electronics, cars, airplanes, and even spacecrafts, the object of constant dispute between energy conglomerates across the planet. According to initial estimates yet to be verified, México’s lithium may reach 243 million tons that is already being explored by the Canadian firm Bacanora Lithium and the Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium. A telling comparison, México’s lithium may be 11 times larger than the Bolivian reserve, which according to numerous analysts may be one of the reasons behind the coup d’etat against President Evo Morales in

• Donald J. Trump O


A wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels, who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed, including young children, and some missing. If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these.....

  • 8:25 AM ■ Nov 5, 2019 • Twitter for iPhone
  • 22.5K Retweets 80.6K Likes

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  • • Donald J. Trump O @realDonaldTrump • Nov 5, 2019 v
  • 1 Replying to @realDonaldTrump

....monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively. The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!

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Figure 17.4 Message by President Donald Trump from his personal Twitter account in response to the November 4,2019, massacre of nine members of the LeBaron family - a Mormon colony established in the state of Chihuahua - blamed on “drug cartels”. The LeBaron family has been involved in local political conflicts, including a dispute over water resources affecting the entire region.

November of 2019 (Carbajal). A few days after the massacre, over 100 members of the LeBaron family decided to abandon México, relocating temporarily in the United States. (Casanova). If the 19th-century dictum was “to govern is to populate”, 21st-century neoliberalism commands that “to extract is to depopulate.” As scholars, we tend to consider forced displacements as by-products of the illegal diug trade, when they be in fact the primary strategy and the daily mechanism of neoliberal governance. We do not think of them as interrelated processes because energy, security, and migration remain as separate objects of dominant binational public policy and consequently, and often with little resistance from our part, in academic research.

The history of our current understanding of “drug trafficking,” the “war on drugs” and “narcoculture” is inscribed in the history of neoliberalism in México. But this history is not dependent on the rise of “cartels,” but on the deep transformation of México from a welfare to a neoliberal militarized state. It is within this transformation that the forced displacement of entire communities must be located, examined, and understood. It is also at this level that we must study the recent radical turn of President López Obrador’s security policy, even as he insists on the end of antidrug military operations. On May 11, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AMLO issued a presidential decree authorizing the armed forces to “supplement” the national “national security” strategy under an ambiguous cooperation agreement between the civilian government and military command that will remain in force under a constitutional amendment until March 27, 2024, a period that covers practically the entirety of López Obrador's rule.4 His government has also designated the army and the navy to seize all operations of Mexico City's new airport, 49 customs checkpoints on the mainland, and 116 maritime customs stations. Because the country remains under the threat of “drug-related violence”, it must now be in the hands of military power controlling who and what enters and leaves the countiy by land, sea, and air (Medellin).

Most journalism and academic scholarship still focus on the casualties of the “drug war” either as the result of just another trafficker disputing the territory or as random victims of extortion, kidnapping, and murder as “cartels” supposedly diversify their activities, echoing recurrent claims by military intelligence reports. With scant pressure from civil society, the Mexican government to date does not keep a rigorous methodology to account for internally displaced people, doubly victimized by state violence and later by general indifference. Migrants and refugees, displaced by the militarization, are merely invisible residues of neoliberal governance life. In the most liquid way, they are forced into a continuous liminal state where they are never recognized and where their citizenship has simply dissolved. Scholars today face two urgent pending tasks: first, to discern the hidden geopolitical conditions of possibility of violence in México beyond the official “drug war” narrative, and second, to overcome our own inertia for understanding migration past conventional assumptions seeking to validate old and insufficient models observing the movement of people as the by-product of dysfunctional economies of developing countries. Forced displacement, a phenomenon barely studied in Mexico, is the direct result of a calculated strategy of paramilitary terror promoted by neoliberal governance advancing transnational interests. The links between energy, drug trafficking, and paramilitarism form together the urgent object for scholars in the social sciences and cultural studies as we experience an era of crude exploitation with complete disregard to human rights, international law, and national sovereignty. This is more than ever the time for a radical multidisciplinary effort engaged in a critical examination of security, hegemonic discourses criminalizing entire sectors of society, and the prevailing neoliberal rationale, all as a single field of study reconsidering the value of human life against the impersonal and degrading force of global capital.


  • 1 See Zavala for a study on the link between the official narrative od the “drug war” and its mediation in recent journalism and cultural productions.
  • 2 See Escalante Gonzalbo (“Homicidios 2008-2009”), Rodríguez Rejas, Espinosa, and Rubin. In their separate interventions, there is an established correlation between the militarization effort and the surge in Mexico’s national murder rate, but also separately in the homicides recorded in each state and municipality militarized.
  • 3 For more on the general question of the US security agenda in México and the rest of Latin America, see Rodríguez Rejas and José.
  • 4 See the full text of the decree published in the Official Journal of the Federation on May 11, 2020: /05/2020.

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