Dying is a Relief is a new book by Dr. Karina García Reyes based on interviews conducted with men who previously worked in various roles for criminal groups in Mexico (original title in Spanish: Morir es un Alivio, Planeta, 2021). If violence in Mexico is a topic you want to understand more about, then this book is for you. Some may wonder why it is worth reading the stories these men tell, but as Dr. García Reyes argues, and I agree, we have accepted an official narrative that speaks of “narcos” as the enemy without pausing to understand who the individuals behind the label are and why all sorts of violence are justified under the guise of ridding the country of “their kind”.
The book is rich in examples and arguments but in this space, I would like to focus on three reasons why I highly recommend this work:
• Cycles of violence. In the book Dr. García Reyes focuses on 12 cases out of the 33 she used for her academic research. What becomes apparent through the 12 life stories, complemented with evidence from the other 21 cases, is that perpetrating violence and being a victim of violence does not begin with their employment in drug trafficking organizations. In fact, most of these men grew up in contexts of significant domestic violence. As one of her participants put it “violence was learned at home, on the streets [….] with daily punches”. More importantly, they often reproduce the violence they suffered with their partners and children, and 27 out of 33 reported thinking about killing their fathers at one point during their lives. Therefore, for most of them violence is passed on generation after generation.
These stories are particularly relevant when explanations of violence are attributed to the “loss of family values” and a misplaced nostalgia for a utopic past where communities allegedly lived in a happier Mexico. What Dr. García Reyes convincingly shows is that we ought to think more carefully about the contexts that are more prone for recruitment into criminal groups and what interventions can be effective. After all, most of these men were not taught how to be violent once recruited into criminal groups but were hired precisely because they had already shown very violent behavior as members of street gangs.
• Prisons as schools of crime. Consistent with other research, Dr. García Reyes also finds that prisons are excellent places for individuals to develop their criminal skills. While most of the men she interviewed were already violent, those who served time in prison reported acquiring more sophisticated skills and contacts for advancing their criminal careers. To be sure, prisons were difficult and complex environments these men had to navigate given their own governing systems, however, for those who were in prisons where their criminal group also reigned supreme, their time became a graduate school of sorts where the degrees conferred were PhDs. in criminality.
In a country where punitive punishments are still (unfortunately) the preferred path, the stories of how prisons refine criminal skills should encourage us to reconsider, as a society, what do we expect and should demand of our criminal justice system. After reading this book I am persuaded that the debate should put front and center how prisons can prepare individuals for social reintegration rather than ending up blacklisted under the Kingpin Designation Act.
• Self-reflection by the author. One of the elements I appreciated most in the book is how candid Dr. García Reyes is as she walks us through the stories of these men. She shares how she felt interviewing each one of them and more importantly how through her conversations she had to question her own preconceptions which I suspect most of us can identify with. For example, Dr. García Reyes had to confront that for most of these men killing was not about perpetrating an evil act but rather being good employees in their respective criminal groups.
This is not an easy book to read—interviewees share in detail their use of violence and heartbreaking family histories—but it is a necessary one. The war on drugs is a failure, but this statement is not enough. A better Mexico requires us to challenge ourselves on what we think we know of the men and women who have been classified as the enemy.