Teun Voeten | Narco Estado

Country of origin: Netherlands
Project location: Mexico
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

From 2009 till 2011, Voeten focused on the drug related violence that is destabilizing Mexico. He visited the epicenter of the violence, Ciudad Juarez, as well as other hot spots such as Culiacan and Michoacan. With introductary essays by El Paso based anthropologist Howard Campbell as well as Culiacan based writer Javier Valdez Cardenas, this hard hitting photobook tries to explains why the drug violence in Mexico can no longer be ignored as a fringe criminal problem, since it is eroding the very fundaments of our human civilization. The bookdesign, sober yet strong, is the work of renowned Dutch designer Jan Kleingeld who also designed 'A Ticket To', Voeten's first photo book.


Dr. Howard Campbell is a professor of anthropology at University of Texas in El Paso. He has contributed a numerous articles to publications including Latin American Research Review, International Journal of Drug Policy, and Anthropological Quarterly. He is also the author of Drug War Zone, Mexican Memoir, and Zapotec Renaissance.

Ciudad Juarez is a Mexican city on the U.S. Border, just south of El Paso, Texas, with a population estimated at 1.3 million people. In 2008, Ciudad Juarez was declared the murder capital of the world and the most dangerous city on the earth, excluding recognized war-zones. In 2010 the homicide count exceeded 3,000 deaths for the year. Photographer Teun Voeten and anthropologist Dr Howard Campbell discuss the history that roots the violence, the current political movements in Mexico, and the uncertain future of Ciudad Juarez.

VOETEN: Dr. Campbell, would you say that the drug violence is completely spiraling out of control? Mexico has suffered thirty-five thousand deaths in the last four years. Some people blame the drug cartels, other people blame the Mexican government, and others blame the army and police for the killings. What is your opinion? Who do you think is responsible for most of this violence?

CAMPBELL: This is a complex problem. Mexico has had important drug trafficking organizations for about forty years, but the violence was relatively contained until 2006, when the new president Felipe Calderón started a war against the drug cartels in Mexico. Since he had won the election by a very small amount, he decided that he needed to do something very dramatic to legitimize his election victory; Calderón sent the military out to the main regions controlled by the cartels. This policy actually provoked more violence, because the cartels basically outgunned the military so, in many respects, our current situation began when President Calderón's war on the cartels backfired.

Furthermore, the global financial crisis hit Mexico harder than it did most other Latin American countries, resulting in a very depressed economic situation for the nation. There is also the emergence of what I call a "counterculture of crime." It is a whole lifestyle, especially popular among youth involving narcocorridos: musical anthems celebrating drug trafficking and crime, clothing style, movies, consumer ways of living. It's a whole sector of Mexican society, decoupled from mainstream society, that glorifies crime. I think this has emerged because of the weakness of the Mexican government and the institutions of the mainstream society.

VOETEN: When the army was sent en masse to Juárez, violence decreased, but after a few months it was even worse. What's the rationale for that?

CAMPBELL: Drug cartels are in business to make money and it's not always in their best interest to kill people; violence may get in the way of doing business. It was actually Calderón and his government that sent the military to take over Ciudad Juárez. In January 2008, the police chief of Juárez was arrested , which led to a whole lot of fighting within the Juárez cartel. The Sinaloa cartel, led by 'El Chapo' Guzmán, took advantage of this and tried to take over the plaza of Ciudad Juárez, which dramatically increased the violence in the city.

President Calderón then sent about ten thousand soldiers and several thousand federal police up to Ciudad Juárez to try to control the violence. Unfortunately this led to even greater levels of violence because in Mexico, from top to bottom, from Mexico City to all the little villages, the police are extremely corrupt, especially city police, but also state and federalpolice.

When the federal police and military came, they had some conflicts with the drug cartels, so they put more pressure on the cartels and this provoked a lot of fighting. The various police organizations are corrupt and linked to separate cartels and organized crime, which leads to direct fights between the federal police and the municipal police in Juárez: the conflict and the violence is very multi-leveled.

You also have other kinds of organized crime that are not strictly connected to drug trafficking: groups devoted to kidnapping and extortion, selling counterfeit movies and trafficking undocumented people into the United States. There is also what could be called "unorganized crime," or opportunity crime: people taking advantage of the chaos and anarchy in Juárez to commit all manner of crimes. It's a very complicated matrix but I think it's a fair statement that the extreme violence was actually provoked by the Mexican government's war on drugs, supported and promoted to a large extent by the US Government.

VOETEN: Yes, I understand that the cartels were provoked to attack because of the waging war of aggression started by the government. But, on the other hand, you cannot just allow drug trafficking organizations to do business as usual, as it has been going on for the preceding ten years.

CAMPBELL: Well, why not? Corruption is rampant in Mexico There are studies that show as much as thirty or forty-percent of the entire economy is the "informal economy." It's not just drug trafficking but street sales of goods and people working off the books and creating their own businesses. Mexico's economy has operated like this for a long time, why is change necessary?

VOETEN: Okay, so why do you think corruption is so endemic in Mexican society?

CAMPBELL: There's a new book written by Jorge Castañeda, who used to be Mexico's foreign minister, and he argues this corruption goes back to the Spanish conquest. The Spanish introduced a system of control from Spain with local viceroys in places like Mexico and Peru. These viceroys considered their position as one that they controlled personally, and so it wasn't a matter of them doing their duty. It was a matter of extracting as much money as they could from the people. The services they provided for the people were considered favors. According to Castañeda, this is why corruption is that deep in Mexico.

The mentality that government is fundamentally corrupt goes back five-hundred years, and it has permeated the entire society such that most people in Mexico do not obey the law. This is not necessarily an external viewpoint, but in fact a very Mexican one. In Castañeda's book, Mañana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans, the main argument is that Mexicans don't obey the law; they don't believe in the law; they believe that the law is corrupt; and therefore they break the law whenever it is convenient for them.

So it's a very deeply-rooted problem and of course drug cartels take advantage of that. When Calderón tried to change the balance of this, he didn't realize how systematic the corruption was between cartels and the federal police and the military. It wasn't a well thought-out strategy. All cartels are connected into the Mexican political system, law enforcement, and the military; so when he sent out the military and the police to fight these cartels, it wasn't an even playing field. People in the military and the federal police were cooperating and in collusion with cartels, informing them about what's going on and the result was a kind of chaotic violence.

VOETEN: I never heard about this book, but this absolutely makes sense. For instance, if you look at the situation in Colombia in the 1990s the drug cartels, especially the Medellín cartel and the Cali cartel, were very powerful and strong. Medellín, at the time, was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I don't want to say they solved the problem, but the violence has been significantly reduced. It looks like the country is no longer ruled by organized crime, or maybe this is an incorrect assessment?

CAMPBELL: I don't think Colombia is a good model for what Mexico should do.

Now, bear in mind, there aren't that many options and there's no perfect option here, but in Colombia there was an alliance between the Colombian elite, the U.S. government, and paramilitary organizations, which essentially exterminated Pablo Escobar, his organization, and the Cali cartel. In some respects that was a good thing because those cartels become so large and so violent, they had made huge inroads into taking over the Colombian state.

But once that had been accomplished, you had these paramilitary organizations also engaged in drug trafficking who abused human rights terribly throughout Colombia. Anybody in areas thought to be controlled by drug cartels would be massacred.

So you have these violators of human rights--who are paramilitary and out of control--and then you have the breakdown of the two big cartels--the Cali and the Medellín cartels--but you do not exterminate drug trafficking. What you have is the emergence of hundreds of mini-cartels, and high levels of violence in Colombia.

In addition, Colombia has another problem: a left-wing revolutionary group controls one-third to one-forth of the country.

So I don't think that Colombia is a good model for what Mexico can do to try to limit the violence. The Mexican government will not cooperate with the U.S. government in the same way that the Colombian government did. Colombia is a much weaker country so it is more willing to cede a certain amount of sovereignty and power in order to attack their internal problems. Mexico is not going to do that; it's a very proud country, obsessed with nationalism and sovereignty.

I think one of thing that could be done - a lot of Latin-American intellectuals are calling for this and of course millions of people in the United States- is the legalization of marijuana. This would take sixty percent of the profits out of the cartels' hands. But Mexico is going to have to make compromises with organized crime because they can't wipe out all the cartels. I think the main problem is to decrease the violence, not to lessen criminality per se; and it has to be a joint effort between the U.S. and Mexico.

VOETEN: We have discussed some possible solutions and both acknowledge the complexity of the problem, but do you think this wave of violence in Juárez has any end in sight?

CAMPBELL: I think it will take several years, in fact, I just wrote an article, it will be coming up soon in the NACLA Report on the Americas, an important journal concerned with Latin America, and the article is called "No End in Sight: Violence in Juárez.".

So I don't see any immediate lessening of the violence because you have the 2012 presidential elections coming up in Mexico. Every six years in Mexico a new president is elected, new heads of police and military are appointed, and all these shake-ups produce tremendous amounts of conflict.

Of course cartels and organized crime have their own politicians with their backing and so you'll have fighting between these different groups of cartel/organized-crime people in different sectors of the government; and then you'll have fighting within those groups.

We have a new police chief in Ciudad Juárez, Mr. Julián Leyzaola, who is a very famous -

VOETEN: Yes, the man from Tijuana?

CAMPBELL: Yes, very famous police-chief, retired military officer. He's famous for taking a hard line, "La Mano Dura" [the firm hand], and he says that all of these cartel people are just criminals, and they should be crushed, and so on and so forth. But a lot of that is just machismo, it's not necessarily a strategy.

Today in Ciudad Juárez, Estación Delicias, the chief of police was attacked and seriously injured in one of the main downtown police stations. In 2010, 149 policemen were killed. Many of the cops in Juárez, are actually killed by other cops, because essentially the entire city police force in Juárez is criminal. You have the military, which is totally ineffective and has been accused of human rights abuses; and the federal police is notoriously corrupt; so who can stop this violence?

There is a movement led by Javier Sicilia, who has a caravan for peace that marched from Mexico City up to Ciudad Juárez. They had their last big demonstration in Mexico in Juárez, which was about a thousand people or so. They came to El Paso on Saturday and he concluded his caravan for peace, in which he's having all the people that support peace sign an agreement, a pact, as he calls it; he then wants to go to the government and get government officials to sign this pact to agree to take various measures to stop crime, to punish people for murders, to systematically weed out crime and corruption in Mexican society. But this is a voluntary movement without a lot of power; and that's the strongest movement pushing for peace and for law and order in Mexico.

The rest is just politics as usual, run by corrupt politicians and ineffective leaders like Felipe Calderón. I honestly don't see any short-term end of the violence in Juárez. The current mayor [of Ciudad Juárez], Teto Murguía, was accused of being in a close working relationship with the Juárez cartel. Maybe that's changed; maybe it wasn't true; we don't know exactly. But he hasn't done much to reduce this crime problem, so who could stop it? I don't think people would voluntarily quit committing crimes, so it's a very chaotic, violent situation and unfortunately there's not a lot of hope in the short-term for reducing violence.

VOETEN: I was at several marches in Juárez, and one of the first things I noticed was how many people were actually involved in these because, it seems to me that most people perceive it as being more like a ritual activity instead of an activity of effective campaigning.

CAMPBELL: I think that's true. I think that the Mexican people are extremely apathetic and discouraged by the political situation and don't feel that politicians can fix the problems of the economy or of the political system or the criminal problem. Castañeda says that Mexicans notoriously do not engage in civil society in vigorous ways; everyone just goes their own way. He says it's such a highly individualistic country, in which people don't believe in government or in large social organizations. Especially now, with a bad economy and in times of globalization a border city like Ciudad Juárez is very disarticulated. Many of the people in Juárez are migrants or only stay for a short period of residence, so they do not have a lot of commitment to Ciudad Juárez as a city. So when Sicilia came to Juárez, the most violent city in the world, only about 1,000 people came out to protest. A lot of people stayed home because they were scared; others because they feel that protesting is useless and it makes no difference. It would be nice to be optimistic, but I think it's more important to be realistic.

VOETEN: Yeah, I've been down there two years and I totally understand the complexity and the enormity of these problems. One last question, I read a lot from Charles Bowden, I heard a lot of conspiracy theories. There's one theory that government actually favors one of the cartels, the Chapo Guzmán organization - the Sinaloa cartel. Do you think that's just another nutty conspiracy theory or could there be some truth in that?

CAMPBELL: Well, I basically think that's true, there's a major book published by a Mexican journalist, named Anabel Hernández, called Los Señores del Narco. Here, she systematically documents how the federal government has supported the Chapo Guzmán cartel. I helped National Public Radio in the United States report on this issue as well; They collected data about the extent the federal government and local governments have arrested members of the Chapo Guzmán cartel versus other cartels. They found that very few members of the Sinaloa cartel had been caught but many members of other cartels had been. So I think that it's clear, unfortunately, that federal government has decided to side with the Sinaloa cartel because they are the most powerful. It's very hard for us to take the Calderón administration drug war seriously because it appears to be directed at some groups and not at others.

Is that also a reason why Chapo Guzmán has never been caught so far? I mean in the end, they [the American government] managed to catch Bin Laden, even though it took ten years. But Chapo Guzmán is still around, for the same amount of time. When did he escape from prison?

He escaped in 2001, roughly the same time as Bin Laden. There is no question that he is protected by segments of the military and segments of the federal police as well as his own people; plus he's probably in the mountains of Durango or Sinaloa in a very remote region that would be very hard to get to. But if the Mexican government and Mexican law enforcement had the will to capture Chapo Guzmán with the help of the United States, I'm sure they could do it. Hopefully they have the will to do that, but I don't believe they do.

Teun Voeten was originally born in the Netherlands. After a year as an exchange student in New Jersey, he traveled for a while all over Europe. After having studied biology for a year, he switched to cultural anthropology and philosophy at Leiden University, Netherlands. While studying, he grew interested in photography and learned the profession by working as a photo-assistant, both in Holland and in New York, where he studied at the School of Visual Arts in 1989.

In 2009, Voeten started to focus on the drug violence in Mexico and made numerous trips to the flash points of the drug war such as Ciudad Juárez, Culiacán and Michoacán. In 2012, he published his photo book ‘Narco Estado. Drug Violence in Mexico’.