Tombs of the Unknown: Mexico's Mysterious Deaths

Short of official evidence, an increasing number of victims' families are beginning to question the good guy-bad guy narrative themselves, arguing that a much larger proportion of the casualties are made up of ordinary people somehow caught up in the fighting. Human rights advocates say anecdotal evidence supports the claim. Countless families and communities who have come to those groups looking for help, suggesting more of the victims are innocent civilians than the official narrative claims. One of the refuges for victims is the Mexican Center for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, where researcher Silvano Cantú works to offer victims legal assistance and other guidance. Like everyone, he says he doesn't know how many of the victims are civilians, "but the perception is that the proportion of civilian casualties is very high." Cantú also points to bits of the casualty toll that are almost certainly civilian: a U.N. report that documents the deaths of roughly 1,000 children as a result of the violence, for example. Hundreds of migrants are also falling victim, many found later in mass graves.

Who is killing them? Deaths are as likely to be attributed to security forces as to criminals, he believes. "The means of responding to organized crime is also a source of violence," Cantú told me. One survey, put together by a group of independent researchers calling themselves Equipo Bourbaki, supports this claim. The report found that only about half of the casualties (including deaths, illegal detentions, robberies, and other crimes) were committed by criminal organizations. Often, the culprit was a member of the security forces. A mere 6 percent of the victims of organized crime were themselves members of the criminal organizations.

Even if the security forces aren't directly implicated in the violence, the government's military strategy still might be aggravating this conflict, Guerrero, the political consultant, argues. Writing in Nexos in June, he argued that the government's strategy, "with focuses on detaining and fighting the members of organized crime groups," has actually just dispersed the violence, fracturing coherent, disciplined organizations into hundreds of undisciplined and violent smaller ones. Every time the government has cut the head off of a big cartel, he wrote, the organization has reacted like a hydra, replacing the lost branch with three or five new ones. The number of major cartels in Mexico has doubled since 2006, he noted, from six to 12. The number of local delinquent groups, an indicator of organized criminal behavior as well as a symptom of general lawlessness, has increased tenfold, from 11 to 114. Violence, he reported, has risen every time one of the cartels has been fragmented. "The government is focusing on the big guys," he said in an interview. "But these groups are not one guy -- they're 400."

Another popular theory for why the war is worsening, first articulated by Shannon O'Neil in Foreign Affairs in 2009, states that Mexico's democratization opened the door to carnage. Peace broke down, the theory goes, when Calderon's current ruling party took power in 2000, after seven decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had developed complicit arrangements with the cartels over a matter of decades. "As the PRI's political monopoly ended, so did its control over the drug trade," O'Neil told the U.S. Senate in 2010. "This allowed existing organizations to assert their independence from the government."

As elections approach, this latter argument is gaining currency on the ground -- and winning popularity for the PRI, which is keen to portray itself as able to deal with the cartels. The PRI's presidential candidate for next year's elections, Enrique Peña Nieto, currently leads the polls. In January, he called for a new security strategy, arguing that peace couldn't be achieved by relying on the army. Edgar Cortez, a researcher at the Mexican Institute for Human Rights and Democracy, summarized the PRI's resurgence with a question. "How much can the government really do with organized crime -- eliminate it or manage it?" Maybe the PRI won't end the cartels, but it might, the argument goes, make them bearable.

An increasing number of people here in Mexico just want the violence to end -- even if that means some sort of compromise. Yet despite the wide debate over the death toll, for the moment, all the solutions to lowering it remain speculation alone. Barring investigations into the deaths, it's one man's word against another about who has died, why, and how. It's a matter of ideology as much as fact whether this drug war is a mess made by the government or a necessary struggle to save Mexico from descent into a mafia republic.

For years, Guerrero lamented, the government has not been interested in that debate. "It's all about a political rationale, which contaminates the debate. You can't debate, actually." And while that has worked for some time, he said, "the problem is that with the dispersion of the violence and crime, the people already understand this problem. They're already victims of the crime."

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East.

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