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…]