An introduction to Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s book A Narco History.

‘To our fallen comrades, who were not buried, but seeded, to make freedom flourish’, reads the poignant inscription on the entryway of the teacher training school in Ayotzinapa. The kidnapping and disappearance of the 43 student-teachers has become a cause célèbre like few others in Mexico’s recent history, sparking horror and mass protests across the world.

Yet the disappearances of the Ayotzinapa students is just one of a litany of egregious abuses in Mexico’s human rights catastrophe of recent years. According to figures from Amnesty International, 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012, while 26,500 have ‘disappeared’ since 2007. So what made ordinary Mexicans finally declare ¡Ya basta!? ‘In part it was precisely because of the long train of abuses that had preceded it – the patently metastasizing cancers of corruption and criminality – of which people had finally had enough’, argue Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace in A Narco History.

Sprawling in narrative scope but succinct in its explanation, the book offers a torrid reminder of the pervasive violence which clamps Mexico in a vice. Boullosa and Wallace sketch the historical contours of the social, political and ideological transformations against which the Ayotzinapa atrocity occurred. Opting for chronological narrative rather than academic analysis, Boullosa and Wallace write in prose which is concise, informal and occasionally sardonic in tone. In broad, linear strokes they detail how a century’s worth of US cross-border intrigues have fuelled narco-activity under the pretence of curbing it.

But though the ‘drug war’ is named as Mexican, the authors remind us that it is sustained at its core by US foreign policy operating in tandem with Mexican elites. Resistance against this power nexus of politics, government, security services and drug cartels ends in abrupt retribution for those who try.

While Mexican history has long been tainted by state repression, going back to the Revolution (1910-1920) and beyond, it is in the neoliberal (‘counter-revolution’) era that violence and criminality have become institutionalised on an unprecedented scale. The contentious North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is identified by Boullosa and Wallace as a crucial juncture in the historical trajectory establishing Mexico’s economic inter-dependence on the US, as well as sharpening socio-economic inequalities at home. It represents the apogee of an economic arc dominated by a neoliberal ideology which privileges the few at the expense of the many. In 1987 there was one Mexican on the Forbes billionaire list; by 1994 there were 24. NAFTA also nullified the agrarian reforms that constituted a major legacy of the Revolution, a hard-fought victory by the (original) Zapatistas in the revolutionary period.

From 2008, the War of Drugs in Mexico, waged by the US and Mexican elites, intensified. In graphic language we are told ‘the lines between combatants and civilians blurred, disappeared. At times it seemed a war of all against all. It also grew steadily more monstrous. The mound of corpses and body parts rose to epochal proportions. The roughly seventy thousand who died – more often than not in grotesque and grisly ways – put the carnage level on a par with that of the Cristero War and the Mexican Revolution itself.’

Yet the established tools of civil society – the judiciary, the state – are powerless to combat these forces of criminality, for they form the foundations of the rancid and morally bankrupt system in the first place. So how then to resist? To many readers, the apparent vastness and totality of this violence could seem overwhelming. The authors do tentatively propose solutions, however; for example, drug legalisation and an empowered citizenry, of the kind that has emerged since Ayotzinapa.

In A Narco History Boullosa and Wallace provide an eminently readable overview of the economic and political shifts which have bound the US and Mexico together in a brutal and futile war on narcotics. It is a war which has brought misery and violence to the lives of most Mexicans, but extreme wealth and power to privileged elites in both legal and criminal worlds (if indeed, as Boullosa and Wallace hint, there is meaningful difference between the two). Though their analysis at times lacks precision and acuity, it is a fierce and powerful depiction of two regimes drawn together by one rotten ideology.

A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War

Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace (OR Books, 2015)

Read an exclusive extract of A Narco History

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015)