Rules of the underworld

Katherine Hirschfeld writes: In March 2013, a drug cartel staged a grisly tableau near a central plaza in Uruapan, Mexico. Seven dead and mutilated bodies were left sitting upright in plastic chairs. Two had crudely lettered signs pinned to their chests with ice picks that read, “Warning, this is going to happen to all muggers, pickpockets, thieves of cars, homes, and walkers — as well as kidnappers, rapists, and extortionists.” Photos found their way to CNN and other media outlets in the United States and Europe. (You may view them here if you are brave.)

Those who inhabit the upper world — law-abiding citizens who enjoy the rights and protections of government — instinctively turn away from such images of horrific violence. Not only are the photos disturbing to look at, they don’t make sense. Why would a drug cartel go to such lengths to issue a proclamation against thievery? Drug cartels are not law-abiding organizations, so why arrange a display of dead bodies with ice picks and cardboard signs in order to declare rules?

The scene at Uruapan contains a message from the underworld — the subterranean organized crime groups that control much of the world’s traffic in illicit commodities. Criminal organizations often communicate through the bodies of the dead, and we should not look away just yet, because their message contains a warning for all of us.

What the bodies in Uruapan tell us is that underworld groups are law-and-order organizations, but their laws and their order are not the same as those of the upper world. We know this because the intrepid journalists, human rights activists, and forensic anthropologists who have crossed over to explore specific examples of the global underworld have brought back stories that reveal common themes. Criminal groups may be culturally or geographically distinct, but they operate with similar rules.

The primary rule of the underworld is that the cartel (or the mafia or the warlord) makes the rules, and disobedience is a capital crime. Public displays of death convey the cartel’s power to impose the kind of lethal punishment typically reserved for the state. The public setting in Uruapan symbolizes that the Mexican government no longer has jurisdiction over matters of criminal justice in this municipality. Through these practices, the cartel reanimates the dead and compels them to speak to the living one last time: “Obey, or you will end up like us.” [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “Rules of the underworld

  1. Óscar Palacios

    Here in Mexico it seems that the principal form of organized crime sits in public office. With very few exceptions, Mexican governors are tremendously corrupt. This is because they enjoy a level of impunity not seen in any other developed society.

    The current president has a mansion that was gifted to him by a powerful construction mogul (Juan Hinojosa Cantú, who turned up in the Panama Papers). This was discovered after the first lady frivolously boasted her ultra luxurious dwellings to a socialites magazine; one of Mexico’s best journalists (Carmen Aristegui) and her team promptly began an investigation on the property, which turned out to belong to one of Hinojosa’s companies. He had won a lucrative contract to build a high-speed railway between Mexico City and Querétaro (he’s been called the government’s favorite contractor). The contract was cancelled shortly before the publication of the story. I believe it was cancelled because intelligence services were on to the journalists’ efforts. Carmen Aristegui was fired along with her entire team; their employer alleged breach of contract, but everyone knew it was a disguised case of censorship. The president then hired one of his trusted friends to lead an investigation to determine if there was a conflict of interest. The president was cleared of any wrong doing, of course.

    We are ruled by these politicians, and the electorate is naive enough to vote for these guys every time. It makes one agree with the saying that peoples have the governments they deserve.

    And once again, this kind of blatant hypocrisy is what later on gives populists like Trump an enormous pool of discontent to tap on.

    And cartels know that they can always strike a deal with these politicians. I believe it will be next-to-impossible to eradicate them unless all drugs are legalized.

  2. Paul Woodward

    I understand the sentiment — people get the governments they deserve — but for democracy to really work would require a situation that has arguably never pertained: that elections become exercises in informed consent.

    The mechanisms for seeking the people’s consent are well-established, but the informed part of the equation is either missing or in obvious ways mangled.

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