By Cecilia Farfán-Méndez and Michael Lettieri *
The images were striking. Plumes of thick black smoke rose from the city’s skyline and gunmen patrolled the streets. The city of Culiacán had been taken hostage. It was October 17, 2019, and a small military operation had detained Ovidio Guzmán, one of the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and a presumptive heir to his father’s narcotrafficking operations. In response, gunmen working for Guzmán blocked bridges and roads, seized checkpoints, threatened a military housing complex, and ultimately forced the government to release the captive. For many observers, who watched the events unfold practically in real time on social media, it was impossible not to opine about the government’s decisions and the significance of the criminal response.
The problem was that much of that early analysis missed the mark, creating narratives about Culiacán and the criminal group that obscured our ability to understand what had really happened, and what it meant. Left by the wayside were the complicated factors that allowed criminals to mobilize, what the violence meant for residents of the city, and how the day’s events became a trauma that has not healed. On the one-year anniversary of the events, a collaborative team from USMEX, Revista Espejo, and the Noria research network sought to bring those perspectives to the forefront of a reexamination of October 17 in the hopes of better understanding what had really happened.
This collection, The Battles After the Battle, Interpreting Violence and Memory in Culiacán, tells us five key things about October 17.
- The glut of images and videos fed an interpretive frenzy that created both a spectacle and a set of deceptions about the day. In this, the violence became a caricature, drawn to fit preexisting narratives of Mexico.
- The events nevertheless had deep historical and social context, rooted in Culiacán. It was not the first time residents had experienced such terror, nor was inexplicable that some chose to celebrate Guzmán’s release.
- Contrary to popular belief, residents of Sinaloa have not normalized violence. They have developed strategies that help them co-exist in contexts where the threat of lethal violence is very real.
- Even as the state government, and even the criminal organization, sought to suppress the memory of the violence, the trauma of the day continues to affect residents. This trauma, however, remains hidden unless we have a process of memory that reflects on the events not from the “showmanship” of violence but the lived experiences of victims.
- There is still no clear consensus on the significance of the events. By highlighting their supposed “unprecedented” nature, we missed the opportunity to understand the complicated continuities and ruptures they actually represented.
This sort of effort is essential. To develop new strategies for addressing violence in Mexico, we must have conversations that are both deeper and broader. This means listening to local voices, examining the experience of crime and victimization, and examining the social and historical context of events. It also means considering how our narratives around violence shape policy. These ideas are the foundation of what we do at the Mexico Violence Resource Project (MVRP).
Launched this September, MVRP seeks to encourage new discussions, incorporating the perspectives of experts—not only from academia and think-tanks but from local news outlets in Mexico and grassroots peacebuilding organizations—in a way that promotes a nuanced analysis of violence and its causes. This matters because the way we talk about problems and challenges in a given context will certainly impact the policies implemented to solve them. If we keep talking of violence in Mexico as only the result of cinematic conflicts between “cartels”, we will continue to have “the highest level of violence” every year with no change in sight. If anything, the anniversary of October 17 is a reminder that this cannot wait.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc & Michael Lettieri is Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UC San Diego (UCSD) Twitter: @mike_lettieri