Learning to Speak
The dead ride fast, wrote Gottfried Burger. But how do we cope with that speed?
During my childhood, in the late eighties and early nineties, drug trafficking was not a novelty or a mystery: it was around a century old and had taken on numerous forms of expression and internal management, various forms of relationship with political and economic power and multiple influences on culture. Those were the years when violence and its immediacy began to ride in the city streets, at daylight, without modesty or reins. One of the government’s responses, the most mediatic I remember, was a campaign against toy guns.
Gigantic advertisements, radio and television advertising, posters, stickers, T-shirts and huge displays on the pages of newspapers, showed the image of two children pointing each other with revolvers, their bodies crossed, black silhouettes of white flesh, by a red stripe that prohibited war toys.
They called them collection centers: they were tents in the squares, in the shopping centers, in the city hall and state government buildings, long tables that served as a border for exchange (as if it were a metaphor for arms and drug trafficking in the country borders): on the one hand, families brought their children to hand over their weapons: as defeated revolutionaries, as putting down a rebellion with meaning and trade, as hosts of a future militia; on the other hand, those who received the weapons and placed them in huge containers that seemed designed for exhibition (as a preview of the state’s strategy in later years, with the scandalous captures of “great drug lords”, exposing them in all mass media, trophies from a hunt that little by little became a public spectacle): metal frames covered by large transparent plastic bags to display the confiscated arsenal, the false weapons that the children gave in exchange for toys of another nature : balls, jump ropes, strollers, dolls.
Contrary to what that campaign fantasized about, my generation and those that followed became the first massive drug armies.
There were other campaigns that were devoted to the idea (very popular in the United States during those years of the Reagan presidency) that the responsibility for the problem rested solely with consumers (capitalism is like that, it bases its power on the existence of consumers and makes them responsible for the excesses that later destroy them): in these campaigns there were two recurring elements: first, it was essential to “say no”, to weapons, drugs, sex, to suspicious adults who probably approached the children with harmful intentions; and then the other recurring element of those “prevention campaigns”: in almost all of them those responsible for “saying no” were boys and girls, teenagers at most. Today, the echo of these campaigns can be seen in the way in which almost all cases of aggression of any kind against women are publicly treated: holding the victim responsible for the harm suffered, or the possibility of putting themselves in danger, by less.
The other, that faceless ogre, that abstraction that offered drugs, that kidnapped, that sexually abused, was defined as an intangible entity, something impossible to combat from any other instance that was not the childish responsibility, so simple, to say no.
It is not a discovery to suppose a step further in the evolutionary process of slavery that the last instance of the politico-economic marriage of neoliberalism is that of a self-guilty consumer. Not responsible, but guilty. (Guilty for not knowing, refusing the incessant encouragement and threat of being part of a society that defines its individuals by what they can or cannot consume). These prevention campaigns are the essence of a political and cultural system that imposes consumption, any form of consumption, and that condemns and abandons those whom consumption itself absorbs and destroys.
The actions of many states with regard to the so-called “war against drugs” have been of this nature. Once that swarm of alienated consumers find themselves at the impasse of poverty, disease and exclusion, the measure shifts and they become targets of persecution, imprisonment and annihilation.
The “war against drugs” led, a few years later, to the “war against organized crime.”
In Mexico, this process has taken twenty or twenty-five years. It may seem like a long period, but the voracity of change has actually been remarkably fast. What has been our reaction? A slow, growing astonishment, a fear that gradually modified the way of relating, of going out, of building spaces to live (it is the time of the beginning of the heyday of gated and guarded communities), that is, our reaction was adaptation.
And the adaptation, strictly speaking, is every man for himself.
Shortly after the campaigns in which we were taught to “say no,” came the strategy, or promise, that put the resolution of the “problem of addictions and violence” in education and culture. But education and culture understood within the same referential framework of the market: production and consumption. The slow effect, despite the media campaigns, could never be equated to the instantaneous burst in which the warlike powers of drug trafficking can upset the precarious daily order: on October 17th, 2019, after a failed military operation, the city of Culiacán was besieged by a powerful army that paralyzed, in the blink of an eye, the lives of just over a million inhabitants.
The fight against drugs is an abstraction. Or a kind of struggle against the other-self of the political and social system, not only that of Mexico, but that of any country. I mean that the other face, that other-me of the economic-political-social-cultural system, is the echo of consumption. The reverberation of consumption. The so-called war on drugs, or war against drug trafficking, or against organized crime, is nothing more than a war against the poor. Against what the consumer society considers as a residue.
It has never been a war against poverty, but against the individuals who, living in poverty, in the vision of a future canceled in advance, make up the bulk of the so-called drug cartels: the army, the cannon fodder, the pointers, hawks, hitmen, those who in those cheesy, Manichean and superficial representations of the narco in the books and on the screen, are just a handful of extras, filler interpreters who die in the first shooting. The narco would be a kind of guerrilla or paramilitary army of neoliberalism.
The legalization of consumption is nothing but the legitimation of a market that has long been a fundamental part of the country’s underground economy. It would be necessary, yes, but it is one of a long series of complementary instances that it is almost impossible to list, and that would go from the dream of the end of corruption and impunity to the disappearance of any social inequality.
Neither legalization is the only possible answer, nor is education the pillar that has been so much presumed.
From the initial shipments of opium harvested in the mountains and sent to the United States for the mutilated body of those who returned from wars, to the contemporary passage of designer drugs, the great mystery of consumption resides in the countries receivers of the commodities. Legalization is essential on both sides of the border, both where it is produced and where it is consumed. However, the process is not that simple. It would not be unreasonable to think about the social and legal dilemmas that legalization would bring, similar to the peace negotiation processes in contexts of civil war, such as those in El Salvador or Colombia, to name just a couple. If this is a similar warfare, would the members of the trafficking organizations be, after the legalization of sale and consumption, former war criminals?
Rhetoric, then, is also part of the problem. Wars, at least in the imaginary, in the surface, reassuring and almost cinematic story, in the comfortable history that defines and exalts a community, have a precise initial trigger (the assassination of the archduke as the only starting spark of the First World War) and a specific end that closes the period and offers peace (the arrival of the Allies, Hitler’s suicide, etc.). And that is why when that rhetoric is used in the context of drug trafficking, reductionism suggests that everything started with a single cause and, therefore, must have only one solution. A hoax. An equivocal rhetoric in every way.
Is it essential to change the rhetoric to approach the situation in a more disillusioned way? I think so. It is one of the great lessons of contemporary feminism, which has been given the task of renaming and combating the rhetoric that makes the victim responsible for its own death. The same moral rhetoric that makes the consumed consumer guilty of his own exclusion and annihilation. We have called the recent social processes in Mexico and many other countries “the war against drugs” and the “war against drug trafficking,” believing that these are limited processes that will come to an end at some point.
But, as Roberto Juarroz wrote, “We do not have a language for endings”, neither for the end itself nor for what would come after the end of a certain process. For this reason, the Argentine poet says that “Perhaps a language for the end / demands the total abolition of the other / languages, / the imperturbable synthesis / of the devastated lands.”
The media coverage of the “wars” against drugs and drug trafficking has turned all their manifestations into spectacle. In show language. A language that numbs and simplifies or directly distorts the complex relationships in which, for example, we would also have to consider as victims those young people, so many, who make up, for various reasons, the warlike fabric of drug trafficking.
It is still common, when a murder occurs, when a person is disappeared, that among those who hear the news the revictimizing question is present: “What is he up to?” Thus the dead are blamed for their own tragedy. And the living go on, to a certain extent, oblivious, believing that the danger will not reach them because they have not gotten into anything, they owe nothing to anyone, they are exemplary and respectable citizens, and those things do not happen to good people.
The speed of rhetoric has swept us away. Events are riding and only the reductionist zeal has been able to close the gap a bit, at the cost of simplifying, confusing and endorsing the responsibilities of those who have been overwhelmed, alienated, annihilated. The responses based on education and culture, although laudable, cannot reach the magnitudes of the events, and their capacity to react, many times, almost always, has been insufficient.
But, remembering Juarroz, is important to pay attention to the names.
In an interview between Sandra Luz Hernández and Javier Valdéz (today an impossible dialogue, both murdered in 2014 and 2017 respectively), when the project of searching for clandestine graves in the mountains and in the deserts was already beginning to take shape, the journalist listened to Sandra Luz explained to him the way in which they went to certain properties on the outskirts of some towns to unearth bodies, hoping to find the children, brothers, parents, the disappeared. When he heard the story, Javier insisted: How do you find the graves? We look for them, we trace them, was Sandra Luz’s answer. So, Javier said, you are trackers.
The name, valid until today, has become for me the beginning of a form of resistance not only against oblivion, but against that entrenched rhetoric: when one of the women is looking for, for example, her son, and after months or years she finds him, that is to say, she finds the remains, the fragments, the last scabs of the beloved life, she doesn’t renounce the group, but continues in search of the other disappeared with the zeal and despair such as if it were own. Giving back the place in the world to the disappeared, giving the names back to those bodies, not letting them be erased in the blow of violence, is an essential task of the various groups of trackers.
What I see here is the beginning of a community that tries to preserve the name of the absent. Deny simple rhetoric, superficial representations, and build a language that does not reduce the thousands of murdered, disappeared, displaced and affected by violence to sides in a war.
Sometimes, contradictorily, I think that Mexico is experiencing a civil war. Or something like a guerrilla war. It is easy to succumb to the onslaught of collective rhetoric. But then I remember that campaign against toy guns, that idiotic illusion of preventing children from a violent future by exchanging squirt guns for soccer balls. I make a list of friends and acquaintances who, over the years, entered the business of trafficking, or money laundering, or public or private armies. It is not a war, although we have to used to call it that. It is consumption.
It is the reflection of consumption, of a social bond based on the strategy of producing and consuming and on the constant, maddened acceleration that in the frenzied rampage of times has made us give up, no longer the toy weapons, but the words, the words to name pains, absences and violence, the language to make a community bond of encounter and cooperation, the language with which, slowly, we apprehend what affects us.
Language is always late, because the impression leaves us speechless. But I see in the effort of the trackers, as in many other groups, the attempt to recover the words we need. There I find the meaning, the direction of a first movement to rename and rediscover. Because we are not a society in the middle of a war. We are not the scorched lands. We are the place where silence fell. A silence from us and from others. Who is there who can speak like that, in the face of horror?
Now we are learning to speak.