Chilapa, Mexico, was a world apart. Located in the state of Guerrero, halfway between Mexico City and Acapulco, the small commercial and service center in an otherwise agrarian region was—like many of its kind—isolated by a simple lack of paved roads.
This changed in the 1960s and ’70s as the Mexican economy grew through protectionist policies and state-subsidized industry, funded largely by foreign investments and petroleum revenues in a time of inflated fuel prices. Finally, the pavement—poorly maintained though it was—reached communities like Chilapa, bringing the country’s problems with it.
“My original work centered on what happens when an unconnected area becomes connected,” says UAB anthropology professor Chris Kyle, Ph.D. Trained as an ethnographer, Kyle has been studying the economic and political environment of Chilapa and the surrounding river valley for nearly 20 years, including three years of living and working in the town itself that resulted in his 2008 book, Feeding Chilapa: The Birth, Life, and Death of a Mexican Region. His research offers some insights into the growth of the drug wars between the Mexican government and regional drug cartels. In fall 2012, Kyle will teach a course on politics and drug violence in Latin America.
More Money, More Problems
“The patch of territory beyond where I worked is one of the most indigenous and poorest regions in Mexico today,” Kyle says. “Within Mexico, the state of Guerrero had received very little scholarly attention and had a reputation for being violent and inhospitable to outsiders. When I first visited it seemed charming and inviting, and the disconnect between my experience and that state’s reputation further intrigued me.”
Though there had long been small amounts of marijuana and opium production, the area never saw much trafficking—until recently. “The city needed food and supplies,” he says. “That was economically more profitable for farmers and villagers than drug production.”
The turning point in the Mexican economy came in the early 1980s, as falling gas prices and rising global interest rates left the Mexican government unable to make payments on its amassed foreign debt, Kyle explains. Forced into negotiations with lenders, the government “had no choice but to open up and to allow local industries that had previously been protected and allowed to be inefficient to experience a competitive global economy,” he says. The federal government imposed stricter oversight of funds distributed to state and municipal governments. Domestic products, both agricultural and industrial, couldn’t compete with less expensive imports, while smaller-scale domestic enterprises shrank in the face of international competitors, such as the foreign auto industry.
At the same time, the shifting economy led to the development of a middle class, which by the late 2000s had grown to comprise more than 50 percent of society. But with it came middle-class problems. “Just as in the United States, poor people, peasants, and farmers are not the consumer market for drug consumption—middle-class people are,” Kyle says. “As that group expands in Mexico, there is a lot more drug trafficking.”
Before industrialization, drug trafficking in rural Guerrero concentrated mainly on production in remote rural areas controlled by organizations outside of the region. Newsworthy encounters were rare, often related to disputes between competing police agencies. “The state and federal police and military agencies had exclusive trade rights to patches of territory,” Kyle says. “When one of those agencies would buy opium from a town that was not within its turf, it would set off the other organizations in the area. But it really didn’t affect life in the town I worked in.”
By the late 2000s, however, violence was growing rapidly. Acapulco and the strip of resort towns stretching northwest to Ixtapa were emerging as a hot zone, fed largely by the flow of cocaine coming from South America through the coastal ports. “The opium and marijuana I was seeing in rural areas would feed into this, but cocaine was feeding the violence,” Kyle notes. “That was where all the money was.”
An event in December 2008 highlighted the surge of drug-related violence. Twelve soldiers in Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital, disappeared and were later found dead in the middle of the city. It marked the beginning of a sharp escalation in violence locally and nationally as traffickers sought increasingly gruesome ways to eliminate current competitors and warn off potential ones.
As trafficking activity increased, kidnapping and extortion also proliferated. For some politicians, corruption and bribery emerged as a survival strategy as cartels sought to filter nearly $40 billion in drug revenues through local economies. “Traffickers will show up with a pile of money and say, ‘Here, take that.’ ‘What do you want in return?’ ‘We’ll get to that later,’” Kyle says. “And what they eventually want in return is advance warning of any kind of military action—and you can’t say no to these people. If you do, you’re dead.”
Bridging the Gap
The Mexican government struggles to create structures to address the rise in drug crime, Kyle says. In 2006, President Felipe de Jesús Calderón declared war on and “quite successfully decapitated many of these organizations,” Kyle says. “We really are down to about two that are intact, out of about six to start with.” However, violence has increased as lower-level players attempt to re-create the structures that have been destroyed, he explains. “Most of the violence involves efforts to consolidate control among themselves, but there’s a lot of collateral damage.”
As the country’s economic structure shifts—and along with it, the demands placed upon the judicial system—the Mexican government is hurrying to keep up. “Mexico is attempting to rebuild a judiciary from the ground up that is modeled after ours, with open court cases, attorneys, the presumption of innocence, and a lot of things that are not present in Mexican law,” Kyle says. The revamp, begun in 2008, includes a 10-year phase-in period, during which representatives from the United States and other countries are helping to retrain judges, lawyers, and peace officers in the new system, even as the drug war rages in the background.
“We’re in this window where the country is making the transition from pre-industrial to industrial,” Kyle says. “The institutions that would support an industrialized country are not quite strong enough to control the place, but the pre-industrial, agrarian society has broken down also. The political and judicial institutions required to sustain industrialization will develop as the country continues to develop. But it is a bloody process.”
—Written by Caperton Gillett