‘Learning to Live with the Narco in Mexico’, Stories from Survivors of the War on Organized Crime

Mexico (GV) – Throughout the infamous “war on drug trafficking” in Mexico, both international and local media have regularly referred to the missing and the dead in statistical terms that fail to capture the enormity of human tragedy the war left in its wake. Moreover, coverage of drug barons like El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, has seriously overshadowed the stories of the conflict’s victims.

Little attention is paid to the bereaved the day after a violent event, or communities that have learned to live with daily pain. Every corpse, every bone found in each of the hundreds of clandestine graves, is the testimony of countless parents, sons and daughters, friends and spouses, who harbour wounds that may never heal.

Animal Político’s digital project Aprender a Vivir Con El Narco” (“Learning to Live with the Narco”) aims to provide a voice to these victims by telling the stories of people who have been overwhelmed by the fighting between law enforcement and the cartels.

Below is their description of the project:

Organized crime not only makes us fear for our lives. Its impact is felt beyond that. Like when popular supply stores close because of harassment from drug traffickers, forcing entire communities to travel kilometers to buy something as simple as milk.

Pain, as told by the victims

A video entitled “Lives Changed by Fear” provides an insight into these stories. One protagonist is Guadalupe, a father who dedicates his weekends to seeking out his son in clandestine graves. Another is Emma Veleta Rodríguez, who lost her father, her four siblings, her husband, and two of her nephews on the same day.

Priest: “Once again, just like we do every Sunday, we prepare ourselves to carry out this task that we have set of going to look for graves, to look for our loved ones.”

Guadalupe Contreras: “My son’s name is Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata. He was 28 years old when he disappeared. He’s a father to three children. He worked in an electrical shop in El Naranjo. On October 13th, he left home and was to return on the 15th, but he never did.”

Emma Veleta: “It is extremely difficult for me because I have been left with my three daughters and need to provide them with an education. Aside from this, I have my mother, who is also here with me. Right now she does not have an income. My father left her his insurance and everything, but she cannot receive any of it because they are demanding a death certificate. And where are we supposed to get one?

The makers of “Learning to Live with the Narco” explain the pressing nature of the project from the outset:

Not just because we must urgently portray the faces of those who face fear, but because the conflicts, fragility, and governance of these countries are in the eyes of the international community.

The project relies both on stories told by readers and reports by journalists in high risk areas. Below are some excerpts from these stories.

KYHB, an Animal Político reader, wrote this tract from Taxco, in the state of Guerrero, located in the center of the country.

Her testimony reminds us that violence should never be normalised, however it manifests itself:

For several years now, I have come to know morbidity and atrocious sensationalism. Every day, I pass newsstands where I see pages with images that could only otherwise be found in a criminology book or an expert’s records. I see these lifeless bodies reflecting my own mortality. It puts me off and sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who feels disgusted or saddened, that it seems like a lack of respect for the person who once occupied this body. I cannot remain indifferent or normalize it.

She continues:

No, it is not normal that my 10-year-old cousin thinks that he wants to be a narco when he grows up, nor is it normal for people to walk the streets listening to ballads that tell the “feats” of crime. To me, they mock all of those who lost someone and those of us who fear that the same will happen to us. I see our fragility when stories turn into numbers in a tally. People’s apathy is incredible to me, when they justify the death of six people and the forced disappearance of 43 students in a neighboring city because they were “being unruly”. I think they try to convince themselves that the tragedy will not reach them so long as they stay put and remain silent.

Maribel L., from Mexico City, wrote a passage “Four Months of Extortion in the DF: a Family Plundered by Threats“, where she talks about how the money that armed criminals took from her business month after month ultimately ended up destroying it and separating her family.

You think about everything you lost, about how some people change your life in a matter of days. The pain never heals, the trauma remains, the fear will linger when you’re alone. Habits change, as do telephone numbers. We only contact one another when necessary. The further we are from each other, the better.

And she concluded:

We want the other people to be arrested because you don’t know when they’re going to kidnap or kill you. I’ve asked myself if crying will resolve my deeply-rooted feelings during those horrible days, but the answer is no, because I have forgotten how to cry, because I have to learn to live with the pain.


No More Blood, By Democraciacolombia – Own work, GFDL, Wikimedia Commons

Reporter Mario Gutiérrez Vega published “The Forgotten Children of the City of Juárez: a Generation Marked by Violence“. In his introduction, he raises questions such as: Who takes care of the child of a missing woman and a man murdered by organized crime? What is it like growing up in a marginal colony of the most dangerous city in Mexico?

He is not like other boys his age whose parents take care of them. Bryan is an orphan and says he has had to teach himself to cook an egg, fry potatoes, heat up tortillas, and make “chichi” for the babies who live with him, which is how he describes making them bottles with water, sugar, and powdered milk.

He talks about the nine scars on his left leg, equal to the number of years of his life. Insignificant compared to the wounds engraved in his eyes, unspeakable for a boy for whom violence has been life itself and who has had to learn to live with it.

At the age of five, they told him his mother had disappeared. But Bryan’s childhood did not vanish that day. It had ended two years before, when, a few blocks from his house, he saw his father’s bloodied body, murdered by armed men in a drive-by.

This was the situation in Juárez when Bryan was born:

Bryan was born in 2006, when violence from organized crime and its combat became embedded in the social issues that already existed in Juarez. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, it became the most dangerous place in the world due to the sheer quantity of murders, according to reports from the Citizen’s Council for Public Safety and the U.S. government. In 2010 alone, state prosecutors counted 3,103 murders, an average of 8.5 per day.

These are just some of the hundreds of thousands of stories that organized crime is leaving behind in Mexico, permeating the country’s soul. Few stories survive the latest news headlines, but this project reminds us of those who we mustn’t forget.


This report prepared by Elizabeth Rivera and translated by Marianna Breytman for Global Voices