Hugs, Not Bullets
Mexico’s Drug War, The Failure of Non-Violence, and a Possible Alternative
In the waning months of 2019, two violent incidents shook Mexico — and the world with it.
On November 4th, gunmen opened fire on a convoy of SUVs, killing nine members of an American Mormon family that were traveling to a wedding. This incident occurred three weeks after the now infamous release of notorious cartel leader, Ovidio Guzman. After Guzman — son of former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” — was successfully apprehended in the state capital of Culiacan, hordes of cartel gunmen rampaged through the city’s streets until authorities capitulated and released Guzman later that day.
Following each incident, sitting Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was quick to defend his controversial “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets) initiative in combating the country’s devastating drug war. Since assuming office in December 2018, AMLO has sought to curb the violence by redirecting efforts to tackling corruption and transferring money to more impoverished areas.
Unfortunately, with the drug war claiming the lives of 20,000 towards the end of his first full year in office, it comes as no surprise that AMLO’s true loyalties are now being called into question. As AMLO’s approach comes under fire, it begs the question as to when “non-violence” is genuinely effective and when it is not — and, in Mexico’s case, what may be done to remedy the crisis.
Where Non-Violence Succeeds — and Fails
The 20th century saw the rise of several figures who utilized civil disobedience to pave the way for some of the greatest reforms of human history, from Mohandas Gandhi to Nelson Mandela.
When it comes to measuring success and failure for non-violence, it would be best to look to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
As the most “segregated city in America” — in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the capital of Alabama became the main battleground for the Civil Rights Movement. As early as the 1940s, the city garnered a reputation for its violence against black churches and homes. After years of broken promises and failed negotiations, the Movement came to the streets of Birmingham.
In the spring of 1963, the nation watched as police dogs and water cannons savaged African-American marchers and demonstrators — many of whom were teenagers. Images of the violence rattled the conscience of the nation, just as Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference intended.
After being incarcerated in April, King penned his eloquently-written Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he writes:
Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.
In this light, there is nothing “passive” about Dr. King’s approach whatsoever. The main goal for “non-violent direct action” is recognition through which awareness spreads, along with the incentive for change.
It must also be noted that King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was primarily written in response to another document calling for moderation at the height of the violence.
This letter, now known as A Call for Unity, was penned by eight “moderate” Christian and Jewish leaders who derided the protests in Birmingham as the work of “outsiders.” In their one-page letter, they summarized their grievances as such:
We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed…We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely…Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political tradition.” We also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems.
As King sought to bring the sins of Birmingham to the national light, these religious leaders — fearing reprisals — called for a “wait and see” approach to the crisis. King’s wrote his letter as a direct response to this approach, where he vehemently wrote:
As in so many experiences in the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.
The violence in Birmingham had the ripple effect Dr. King sought, and within a year, President John F. Kennedy introduced legislation to Congress barring racial segregation in businesses and restaurants. This act would pass in 1964 and pave the way for more equal rights for racial minorities in the United States.
The actions in Birmingham, both by Dr. King and the “moderates,” demonstrate where non-violence succeeds and where it fails — and the implications can be seen in Mexico today, especially when it comes to the failure of non-violence.
Mexico faces an unprecedented crisis, the likes of which not even Dr. King or his enemies could have imagined.
Unlike the political establishment of Birmingham, there is no concerted effort to exert force over a racial minority, nor is there a government to pressure for more rights.
In Mexico’s case, the aggressor consists of several competing enterprises driven by profit. Alliances change, opposing turf becomes an open market every night, and anyone in the way becomes a target — women and children included. Their influence is widespread enough to corrupt not only police officers but key institutions all the way to the presidency itself.
Much to the shame of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has chosen a “wait and see” approach with the drug war. Instead of direct action — whether violent or non-violent — AMLO continues to press a non-confrontational strategy against a form of sadism that no amount of civil disobedience can combat.
As the central figure of the critically acclaimed book, El Sicario: Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, brutally describes in Chapter 5, pages 126–128:
I remember one time when we heated up two-hundred-liter tubs of water. The people were tied up at the shoulders, their bodies suspended over the tub using a winch, and they were lowered little by little into the boiling water. When they fainted, they were taken out of the water and there was a doctor there who revived them. And then parts of their bodies were cut off — parts that were completely burned, cooked. And they would revive and react once again, and they were lowered again into the water little by little until they finally died. These deaths are not the work of a sicario (hitman). This is the work of sick people. Sick people. People who enjoy seeing the suffering of another.
In reading said passage, it becomes clear that it will take more than even Dr King’s philosophy to combat such evil.
Since President Felipe Calderon “declared war on the cartels” in 2006, approximately 120,000 have been killed in drug war-related murders. Where the body count initially sat at 2,447 in 2007, it has now increased to a staggering 10,000 dead per year (at least) with no signs of slowing down. The military is spent after a decade of warfare, and AMLO’s “hugs, not bullets” strategy is clearly a failure.
The question remains — as always — what can be done?
A Peruvian Alternative
One possible strategy — if anything — may lie in Peru’s conflict with the “Sendero Luminoso” (Shining Path) movement.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Peru was plagued by a Maoist organization seeking to overthrow the government in Lima and establish a Leftist regime. Peru’s position in South America places it near regions famous for the prized coca plant, and the Shining Path quickly took advantage of the drug industry to fund its revolution. Along the way, they implemented methods of terror as an instrument of control.
In a unique twist, Peru has a known history of implementing self-defense committees among the population. Even today, “rondas campesinas” conduct armed patrols and provide lookouts against criminals in the Peruvian countryside. As the situation spiraled out of control in the 1980s, the Peruvian government turned to these “rondas campesinas” to combat the Shining Path. The result was a network of armed strong-points that frustrated the insurgency’s efforts until the arrest of its leader, Abimael Guzman, in 1992. Over the course of a decade, the Shining Path’s numbers dwindled to nearly 300 — and the “rondas campesinas” continue to play a vital role in day-to-day matters in Peru.
Regarding Mexico’s drug war, there have been known episodes of Mexican vigilantes taking matters into their own hands and re-asserting control over neighborhoods. This has led even to the emergence of folk heroes, such as Don Alejo Garza Tamez and Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, who’ve risked both their freedom and their lives to push back against the cartels.
As with Peru, a similar strategy — where government-sponsored vigilantes provide security in specific sectors — may create an opportunity for AMLO to divert funds to the impoverished while arming segments of the population to fend for themselves. It will not defeat the cartels, but it might reduce the number of people killed by establishing buffers in the right places.
Unfortunately, as long as AMLO chooses to draw from the wrong lessons of history, more innocents will be lost.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail serves as a warning against the dangers of moderation in times of moral crisis. Until AMLO creates an effective strategy to combat the cartels, the pain of his moderation will be felt in the decade to come.