Recent news on violence in Mexico have focused on events in Aguililla, Michoacán, massacres in Zacatecas, and the confrontation among alleged members of the criminal groups Jalisco Nueva Generación and Sinaloa that reportedly left 30 dead. This gunfight occurred in San Juan Capistrano, a community located at the border of the states of Zacatecas and Jalisco. Zacatecas’ Secretary of Public Safety denied finding dead bodies and even that the confrontation happened. The governor of Zacatecas, however, admitted the gunfight took place but also denied any homicides. According to reports from news sources, social media accounts linked to criminal groups shared images of burnt vehicles as well as bodies of men who had been murdered.
Other than the blatant contradiction among local authorities, the report falls within the familiar stories we have (disappointingly) come to expect about lethal violence in Mexico. It was written in 2021 for events in north-central Mexico, but it could have been 2010 in Ciudad Juárez. And this is precisely the problem: the language and imagery we use for covering violence has become formulaic, expecting usual suspects such as “powerful cartels” who “fight” in purportedly “inaccessible” locations. Because, apparently, in a country where 300,000 killings have occurred since 2006, “cartel infighting” is the only explanation.
Enter Los Plebes a documentary co-directed by Emmanuel Massu and Eduardo Giralt Brun who follows the daily lives of a group of low-level hitmen in Sinaloa. The documentary offers a much-needed respite from the footage that dominates English-speaking platforms. In Los Plebes you will not find gunfights dreamt by Hollywood screenwriters, but you will find reality.
Recently, some colleagues and I had an opportunity to discuss with Eduardo what we thought of the documentary. All of us agreed that one of the central contributions is showing the quotidian, the long periods of wait they face while orders are received. These are not men with gold plated or diamond encrusted pistols living a glamorous life in a heavily guarded compound or ordering expensive bottles at nightclubs. No. These are men who wait for a MXN $500 (US $25) payment who are stuck in what my colleague Romain Le Cour categorized as a delayed adolescence: in-between duties they smoke weed, game using their PlayStation consoles, and talk about (either real or imaginary) girlfriends.
As someone who is devoting her professional career to nuance explanations of violence in Mexico, one of my favorite narrative arcs of the documentary is showing they do not actually work with a group. It is not that they are not criminal associates of sorts but rather their links to a criminal life come through text or voice messages in WhatsApp. That is to say, there is no council à la godfather but plenty of introspection and imagining what a crime-free life could offer. One of them won a national high school contest in mathematics.
So, if you like to watch TV series about kingpins and drug lords, do yourself a favor and add Los Plebes to your must-watch list once it is released. Similarly, please consider donating to civil society organizations, either in Sinaloa, or other parts of Mexico that are working to reduce violence and help victims and their families.
* 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