A Report from Hell
by Carmen Boullosa
Words Without Borders
The so-called "war on drugs" began five years ago. According to official sources, the victims—children, teens, adults, women, men—number roughly 50,000; other sources claim over 60,000 have died. Neither figure includes the tortured, the maimed, the kidnapped, the disappeared.
This war did not emerge out of nowhere. It developed over the course of two decades, perhaps more, of government and police corruption, terrible social inequality, and the growth of illegal businesses, ever-stronger and better organized, which trafficked in humans (exporting workers to the north), arms (imported guns from the north) and, of course, drugs (those passed through from other countries and those “Made in Mexico”).
On the other hand, the war’s genesis was tied to a very specific event in Mexican politics. When president Calderon declared war on drug dealers he had just been sworn into office. But he had won the election by only a tiny margin and a good part of the Mexican population did not believe the vote count was accurate. Mr. Lopez Obrador, the contender, had lost by a negligible number of ballots; he alleged fraud and declared himself the "legitimate president."
It was in this context that the "other" legitimate president, President Calderon, launched his war. In part he hoped it would win the support of a clear majority of the country, and give him the legitimacy he lacked. He gave law enforcement agencies carte blanche and sent the army into the streets to purge the country of drug traffickers.
The consequences of this decision have been staggering, and not just because of the mountain of corpses. The level of cruelty has been unimaginable. The vicious treatment of victims defies comprehension. Human rights activists are in danger, journalists are in danger, anyone who has the bad luck to get caught in the crossfire is in danger.
The life of the entire society has changed drastically.
I never dreamed that Mexico would be like this when I entered my sixties. My generation was raised on stories of the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. Around dinner tables our grandparents—eyewitnesses—had talked of the cost of those eruptions, when the “bola”—the people—had risen and violence had spread like a raging sea. But we believed such violence was a thing of the past.
Mexico was stable. Free textbooks and official rhetoric touted the country’s richness. We needed only strong leadership to become a strong nation, it was said. The State was making the right choices, we were assured. Progress was inevitable (at least for those of my social class). We were confident, we were hope incarnate.
We understood that Mexico had a lot of problems to deal with. Social inequality was a fact of life, but according to the campaign slogan of one president in the seventies: united, we would move “onward and upward.” Illiteracy and the marginalization of indigenous peoples were also issues—but these too could be tackled.
There was also the problematic relationship between the sexes. A young woman in a miniskirt (such as myself) could not walk the streets without being harassed—whistled at, insulted, threatened. We embraced feminism and tolerance for other ways of life.
Some people fought for these social causes. My best friend, Alejandra Bravo Mancera, died in Central America, where she had volunteered to fight—a guerrillera—in Nicaragua and El Salvador, shortly after graduating from medical school. She was tortured and mutilated with blood-curdling “techniques” similar to those used in Mexico today, perhaps trained by the same military “technicians.”
During those decades, in corners of the country beyond reach of the public eye, the PRI (the party in power for the past seventy-five years) carried on a Dirty War, repressing rural and urban resistance. Their campaign was rendered invisible; the PRI controlled the press, screen and radio. It was only when the PRI was voted out of office that we learned that hundreds had been murdered or disappeared.
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