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‘Learning to Live with the Narco in Mexico’, Stories from Survivors of the War on Organized Crime

"Por las víctimas de la guerra contra los narcos, México". Foto del usuario Flickr Martín García. Usada bajo licencia CC 2.0

“For the victims of the war on drug traffickers”. Photo by Flickr user Martín García. Used under the CC 2.0 license.

Throughout the infamous “war on drug trafficking” in Mexico, both international and local media have regularly referred to the missing and the dead in statistical terms that fail to capture the enormity of human tragedy the war left in its wake. Moreover, coverage of drug barons like El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, has seriously overshadowed the stories of the conflict's victims.

Little attention is paid to the bereaved the day after a violent event, or communities that have learned to live with daily pain. Every corpse, every bone found in each of the hundreds of clandestine graves, is the testimony of countless parents, sons and daughters, friends and spouses, who harbour wounds that may never heal.

Animal Político's digital project Aprender a Vivir Con El Narco” (“Learning to Live with the Narco”) aims to provide a voice to these victims by telling the stories of people who have been overwhelmed by the fighting between law enforcement and the cartels.

Below is their description of the project:

El crimen organizado no sólo nos hace temer por nuestra vida. Su impacto se siente más allá. Por ejemplo, en el cierre de tiendas de abasto popular por el acoso del narco, lo que obliga a comunidades enteras a viajar kilómetros para algo tan simple como comprar leche.

Organized crime not only makes us fear for our lives. Its impact is felt beyond that. Like when popular supply stores close because of harassment from drug traffickers, forcing entire communities to travel kilometers to buy something as simple as milk.

Pain, as told by the victims

A video entitled “Lives Changed by Fear” provides an insight into these stories. One protagonist is Guadalupe, a father who dedicates his weekends to seeking out his son in clandestine graves. Another is Emma Veleta Rodríguez, who lost her father, her four siblings, her husband, and two of her nephews on the same day.

Sacerdote: “Nuevamente, como cada domingo, nos disponemos a realizar esta actividad que nos hemos propuesto de ir a buscar fosas, a buscar a nuestros seres queridos.”

Guadalupe Contreras: “Mi hijo se llama Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata. Cuando desapareció tenía 28 años. Es padre de tres niños. Trabajaba en un taller eléctrico en El Naranjo. El 13 de octubre salió de la casa, tenía que regresar el 15 y ya no regresó.”

Emma Veleta: “Es muy difícil para mí que me quedé con mis tres hijas para seguirles dando el estudio. Pues aparte tengo a mi mamá, que ella también está aquí conmigo. Ahorita ella no tiene ni una entrada de dinero. Mi papá le dejó sus seguros y todo pero ahorita nada puede cobrar porque le exigen el acta de defunción, ¿y de dónde la agarramos?”

Priest: “Once again, just like we do every Sunday, we prepare ourselves to carry out this task that we have set of going to look for graves, to look for our loved ones.”

Guadalupe Contreras: “My son's name is Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata. He was 28 years old when he disappeared. He's a father to three children. He worked in an electrical shop in El Naranjo. On October 13th, he left home and was to return on the 15th, but he never did.”

Emma Veleta: “It is extremely difficult for me because I have been left with my three daughters and need to provide them with an education. Aside from this, I have my mother, who is also here with me. Right now she does not have an income. My father left her his insurance and everything, but she cannot receive any of it because they are demanding a death certificate. And where are we supposed to get one?

The makers of “Learning to Live with the Narco” explain the pressing nature of the project from the outset:

No sólo porque es urgente retratar los rostros de quienes le plantan cara al miedo, sino porque los conflictos de los países, la fragilidad y la gobernanza están en la mira de la comunidad internacional.

Not just because we must urgently portray the faces of those who face fear, but because the conflicts, fragility, and governance of these countries are in the eyes of the international community.

The project relies both on stories told by readers and reports by journalists in high risk areas. Below are some excerpts from these stories.

KYHB, an Animal Político reader, wrote this tract from Taxco, in the state of Guerrero, located in the center of the country.

Her testimony reminds us that violence should never be normalised, however it manifests itself:

Desde hace algunos años que conozco el morbo y el amarillismo. Todos los días paso por puestos de periódicos, donde veo páginas exhibiendo imágenes qué sólo podrían estar en contexto en un libro de criminología o un expediente de un peritaje. Veo en esos cuerpos sin vida reflejada mi propia mortandad. Me desagrada y a veces siento que soy la única a la que le provoca disgusto o tristeza, que le parece una falta de respeto para la persona que alguna vez ocupó ese cuerpo. Yo no puedo entregarme a la indiferencia o normalizarlo.

For several years now, I have come to know morbidity and atrocious sensationalism. Every day, I pass newsstands where I see pages with images that could only otherwise be found in a criminology book or an expert's records. I see these lifeless bodies reflecting my own mortality. It puts me off and sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who feels disgusted or saddened, that it seems like a lack of respect for the person who once occupied this body. I cannot remain indifferent or normalize it.

She continues:

No, no es normal que mi primo de 10 años piense que de grande quiere ser narco, tampoco lo es que la gente vaya por la calle escuchando corridos que relatan las “hazañas” de la delincuencia. Esos corridos me parecen una burla para todos aquellos que perdieron a alguien y para los que tememos nos pase lo mismo. Veo nuestra fragilidad cuando las historias pasan a ser cifras en un conteo. Es increíble la apatía de algunas personas que justifican la muerte de seis personas y la desaparición forzada de 43 estudiantes en la ciudad vecina por “andar de revoltosos”. Creo que intentan convencerse de que la tragedia no los alcanzará mientras no se muevan y callen.

No, it is not normal that my 10-year-old cousin thinks that he wants to be a narco when he grows up, nor is it normal for people to walk the streets listening to ballads that tell the “feats” of crime. To me, they mock all of those who lost someone and those of us who fear that the same will happen to us. I see our fragility when stories turn into numbers in a tally. People's apathy is incredible to me, when they justify the death of six people and the forced disappearance of 43 students in a neighboring city because they were “being unruly”. I think they try to convince themselves that the tragedy will not reach them so long as they stay put and remain silent.

Maribel L., from Mexico City, wrote a passage “Four Months of Extortion in the DF: a Family Plundered by Threats“, where she talks about how the money that armed criminals took from her business month after month ultimately ended up destroying it and separating her family.

Piensas en todo lo que perdiste, en cómo unas personas te cambian la vida en días. El dolor nunca sana, el trauma se queda, el miedo persistirá a estar solos. Los hábitos cambiaron, los números telefónicos también, nos contactamos solo lo necesario. Entre más lejos estamos mejor.

You think about everything you lost, about how some people change your life in a matter of days. The pain never heals, the trauma remains, the fear will linger when you're alone. Habits change, as do telephone numbers. We only contact one another when necessary. The further we are from each other, the better.

And she concluded:

Deseamos que sean detenidas las demás personas, porque no sabes en qué momento te van a secuestrar o matar. Me he preguntado si llorar solucionaría los sentimientos arraigados durante esos horribles días, pero la respuesta es que no, porque se me ha olvidado como llorar, porque tengo que aprender a vivir con el dolor.

We want the other people to be arrested because you don't know when they're going to kidnap or kill you. I've asked myself if crying will resolve my deeply-rooted feelings during those horrible days, but the answer is no, because I have forgotten how to cry, because I have to learn to live with the pain.

Reporter Mario Gutiérrez Vega published “The Forgotten Children of the City of Juárez: a Generation Marked by Violence“. In his introduction, he raises questions such as: Who takes care of the child of a missing woman and a man murdered by organized crime? What is it like growing up in a marginal colony of the most dangerous city in Mexico?

No es como cualquier niño de su edad al que atienden sus padres. Bryan es huérfano y él mismo dice que ha tenido que aprender a cocinar un huevo, freír papas, calentar tortillas y “hacer la chichi” para los bebés que viven con él, como le llama a preparar el biberón con agua, azúcar y leche en polvo.

Cuenta que tiene nueve cicatrices en su pierna izquierda, las mismas que años de vida. Insignificantes en comparación con las heridas grabadas en sus ojos, inenarrables en un niño para quien la violencia ha sido la vida misma y tiene que aprender a vivir con ella.

A los cinco años le dijeron que su mamá había desaparecido. Pero la infancia de Bryan no se esfumó ese día. Ya había acabado dos años antes, cuando a unas cuadras de su casa, observó el cuerpo ensangrentado de su papá, recién asesinado por hombres armados que dispararon desde su vehículo.

He is not like other boys his age whose parents take care of them. Bryan is an orphan and says he has had to teach himself to cook an egg, fry potatoes, heat up tortillas, and make “chichi” for the babies who live with him, which is how he describes making them bottles with water, sugar, and powdered milk.

He talks about the nine scars on his left leg, equal to the number of years of his life. Insignificant compared to the wounds engraved in his eyes, unspeakable for a boy for whom violence has been life itself and who has had to learn to live with it.

At the age of five, they told him his mother had disappeared. But Bryan's childhood did not vanish that day. It had ended two years before, when, a few blocks from his house, he saw his father's bloodied body, murdered by armed men in a drive-by.

This was the situation in Juárez when Bryan was born:

Bryan nació en 2006, cuando la violencia por el crimen organizado y su combate se fue incrustando en los problemas sociales que ya existían en Ciudad Juárez. En 2008, 2009 y 2010 se convirtió en el lugar más peligroso del mundo por la cantidad de asesinatos, de acuerdo con informes del Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y del gobierno de Estados Unidos. Sólo en 2010, la fiscalía estatal contabilizó 3 mil 103, un promedio de 8.5 diarios.

Bryan was born in 2006, when violence from organized crime and its combat became embedded in the social issues that already existed in Juarez. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, it became the most dangerous place in the world due to the sheer quantity of murders, according to reports from the Citizen's Council for Public Safety and the U.S. government. In 2010 alone, state prosecutors counted 3,103 murders, an average of 8.5 per day.

These are just some of the hundreds of thousands of stories that organized crime is leaving behind in Mexico, permeating the country's soul. Few stories survive the latest news headlines, but this project reminds us of those who we mustn't forget.

In addition to “Living with the narco”, Animal Político launched a data journalism project in 2015 called Narcodata with the goal of simplifying the complex information behind the failed war on drugs that has plagued the country during the past four decades.

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