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Photography by Fernando Brito

Reporting from the Badlands of Mexico

With the bloody rise of Mexico's drug cartels, we find out what it's like south of the border

In September 2006, five severed heads were deposited on a dance floor at a nightclub in Michoacán. A grim message from Mexican drug cartel La Familia, it was another horror story in the country’s escalating drug war. The death toll to date has been conservatively estimated at 60,000 with more than 230,000 people displaced, and journalists haven’t been spared the terror. With some editors silenced after suffering kidnappings and assassinations, an increasing number of anonymous bloggers have stepped into the breach, using social media to warn their communities about road-blocks, shoot-outs and turf wars as they happen. But anonymity doesn’t guarantee their safety – the anonymous blogger behind Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas) has a MX$600,000 bounty on his head, offered in fliers distributed by an unidentified cartel. Two Twitter users were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo in 2011, with a message warning against social media sites that criticized drug cartels. Writer Ioan Grillo has reported from Mexico City since 2001, covering mafia killings, cocaine seizures and military operations. His book El Narco traces the bloody rise of Mexican drug cartels.

Dazed spoke to him prior to his talk this Sunday 14th July at London’s Centre for Investigative Journalism. He was keen to point out that while his work brings him into contact with the most extreme incidents, most people in Mexico are not suffering from the violence we discussed here.

Dazed Digital: How did you end up covering the drug wars in Mexico?

Ioan Grillo: Growing up around the Brighton area in the 80s and early 90s there were a lot of drugs around. So it was making that link between a place where I knew people with terrible drug problems and people who had died from heroin overdoses, to a country that traffics and produces those drugs. When I first came to Mexico I started doing stories about these mythical drug traffickers with names like “El Chapo” Guzman, people who have made millions selling drugs, and are nowhere to be seen.

Around 2004, when more extreme drug violence beginning to happen near the border in Nuevo Laredo, I got very deep into on-the-ground reporting of this extreme violence with gangs. In around 2008 it really went off the scale. You had major massacres, crazy gun battles – the head of the federal police was killed in his own house. It was a big, complicated situation and you could feel at the time that a really historical thing had happened: it was no longer a story about drug traffickers and police but the serious upheaval of a country and a major armed conflict.

There’s a psychology behind this violence. They video murders, similar to the way Al Qaeda timed their car bomb attacks with the news to have maximum impact

DD: What changed in 2004 in Nuevo Laredo that made it such a turning point?

Ioan Grillo: The major drug kingpin in that area, Cardenas, was arrested. He controlled that part of the US/Mexican border and was the guy who created the Zetas, groups made up of ex-military people who he had turned into a hit squad. The Sinaloa cartel intended to take over this part of the border from the Zetas, and it became a turf war. There’s been turf wars periodically in Mexico, but this was different because of the Zetas. Rather than gang members with shaved heads and tattoos fighting with hand-guns or knives, the Zetas hit back with paramilitary-style violence. They actually trained hit squads and unleashed massacres on rival cartels. In 2004 the ban on assault rifles in the US was lifted, so these people could buy AR 15s and AK 47s from the States. It was a change that unleashed a new type of violence.

DD: If drug trafficking is such a lucrative business, why the extremity of violence?

Ioan Grillo: You have a lot of people competing for an incredibly profitable business, which breeds enormous violence. You can make cocaine pretty cheap. If you just take the leaves, the plant is about $80, you make a brick of cocaine and it becomes $2,000 and then by the time it’s sold in the US it’s $100,000 plus. In Mexico City, whoever is the most aggressive is going to control the business. So you get an escalation – one group will say I’m not only going to kidnap and kill people, I’m going to chop their heads off and make a videotape of it. And another will say OK, I’m going take 20 of your people and chop their heads off. The next will say OK, I’m going to have a mass grave of 300 corpses.

There’s some violence so horrific I haven’t written about it, but at the same time we don’t want to censor things.

DD: The cartels will time an incident to happen right before the news goes out, they’re obviously aware of the media’s role in this. As a journalist do you face ethical questions in covering the violence?

Ioan Grillo: Yes, there’s a psychology behind this violence. They video murders, similar to the way Al Qaeda timed their car bomb attacks with the news to have maximum impact. They’re writing messages by these bodies, sometimes arranging bodies. They’ve killed a policeman and put him in a sombrero with a message, sewn a face onto a football, leaving heads in ice boxes... They’re talking to the public saying, this should make you scared to report drug cartels. But it also speaks to young people that look up to drug cartels, saying join us, we’re the winning team. So there’s a lot of discussions in news rooms among journalists about how to cover this. There’s some violence so horrific I haven’t written about it, but at the same time we don’t want to censor things. So when you’re covering 49 people who have been decapitated, arms and legs chopped off and dumped on the road, you can’t just pretend it’s not happening, which I find sometimes the Mexican government are doing. Mexico is a beautiful country, most people here are not suffering from violence. Parts like Yucatan have the same murder rate as Belgium.

DD: Do you think the anonymous bloggers using social media to get information out are performing a useful service?

Ioan Grillo: When people tweet about violence that has happened, sometimes it’s because media outlets have been so cowed with violence against them, they’ve actually stopped reporting on drug violence completely. So anonymous people can provide a useful service. Websites like Blog del Narco, where they allow videos and messages by drug cartels, from a journalistic point of view are useful to look at to understand this conflict. But you have to understand that it’s a video by guys in balaclavas. You’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt and understand you don’t know who these people really are.

DD: There have been some cases where anonymous bloggers have been unmasked and executed, are the cartels becoming more savvy with technology?

Ioan Grillo: Certainly tapping cell phones, but in terms of when they’ve killed alleged bloggers and said, 'this is for writing blogs on this website', my suspicion is they haven’t found them by using software to track them. It’s probably been an informant.

DD: Are Mexico’s problems inextricably linked to US drug policy?

Ioan Grillo: There’s many levels to this problem. First the issue of drugs themselves: we have to accept that drug policy has been a failure. We haven’t stopped the use of drugs and we’ve created massive illegal organisations funded by the drug trade. There’s other examples of violent people funded by drugs, from the UK, to Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, Russia, to Afghanistan. We have to rethink polices on drugs, especially in consumer countries such as the UK and US where people spend a lot of money on drugs and that money goes toward violent occupations. We can change that, look at rehab programmes relating to heroin and crack consumption, put money into that. It’s very hard to accept the responsibility and make the link between your buying drugs in the US to the violence in Mexico. It’s more realistic to accept if we can’t stop people from taking drugs, we need to regulate it and not give that money to extremely violent organisations. The violence we see in Mexico is worse than the effects of people taking cocaine, and many people’s addictions have more to do with the individual problems of those people that need to be resolved, not just banning the substance but trying to help these people.

Mexico is a beautiful country, most people here are not suffering from violence. Parts like Yucatan have the same murder rate as Belgium.

DD: How is the new-ish president Enrique Peña Nieto tackling the drug kingpins?

Ioan Grillo: Enrique Peña Nieto wanted to change the priority from bringing down drug kingpins to reducing the levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping – I think that’s a valid objective. Calderon measured how many major king pins he could take down, he wrote a list of 37, brought down 25 of them by the end, but I don’t give him credit. It became a cycle of violence. Nieto is putting resources into social workers, helping the people that could become assassins. I think that’s a very good thing because, in my experience talking to drug traffickers and assassins, they’re not evil people, or born murderers. You talk to them and they are not psychotic even though they talk about decapitating people. They’ve grown up in certain areas, been recruited very young by a drug cartel, and through these machines of murder, carried out these killings. Social workers aren’t going to have an effect in a month’s time, it’s going to take years. There’s still a very high level of drug violence right now, but the escalation seems to have stopped at something like 900-1000 drug raid killings a month.

DD: Some people have described the conflict as an insurgency…

Ioan Grillo: In 2010 Mexico’s conflict was the most violent in the world, until 2011 when Syria overtook. But it’s not ideological. So it’s caused confusion between academics, policy makers – the US don’t really know how to handle it. Their agents have been attacked here, they’re funding the Mexican military, but they’re not really sure how to handle this violence.

DD: Will it spread across the border?

Ioan Grillo: That’s the big concern among American citizens in border states, but i hasn't really happened yet. If you go to El Paso, or San Diego, they’re pretty safe cities, and one major reason is, the cartels don’t want to mess things up on the US side. They know from experience if they start killing people on the US side that the authorities start to come down on them very hard. On the Mexican side they have kind of overwhelmed the state. There is a tipping point where gangsters no longer fear the state at all – they’ve kidnapped and killed 15 police at a time, they go to bases and spray them with bullets. There was a case where they picked up five police, disarmed them and walked them up the street, just to show how little fear they have for the authorities. Once the state loses authority, only the military or marines going in have any effect – and they are very poor at respecting human rights.

DD: There’s been an attempt to crack down on the ‘narco culture’ surrounding the cartels, but that’s more of a symptom, isn’t it?

Ioan Grillo: Yeah. There’s narco ballads, drug ballads, they sing about the drug traffickers as heroes and some drug balladeers are actually paid by drug barons to write songs about them – $10,000 to write a ballad. But it’s more of a symptom. Having people expressing the issues may be glorifying it, but it’s also trying to communicate and talk about it, expressing what people see and feel on the streets.

DD: How do you deal personally with the extreme violence you’ve seen?

Ioan Grillo: Anybody covering a story with a lot of death and violence is obviously going to see some quite disturbing things. At the same time if you have a clear motives, and you can help communicate a story, it’s still a rewarding job. You have to learn how to take the bets and minimise risks, be responsible with security and try to be fair to the victims and families.

El Narco is published by Bloomsbury. Ioan Grillo will be speaking at the Centre for Investigative Journalism on Sunday 14th July. He will be discussing how he eventually found a way to get close to and interview serial assassins and traffickers, often with huge personal risk.