So Many Bones in the Desert

Josh Kun interviews Sergio González Rodríguez

So Many Bones in the Desert

May 4th, 2012 reset - +

On April 16th, the skeletons of 12 teenage girls were found in a desert field east of Ciudad Juárez. The discovery was only the latest addition to the city's now notorious body count. The U.S.-Mexico drug war, formally waged since 2006, has turned this border city into the so-called "murder capital of the world." But, as early as 1993, Juárez had already become known as the place where girls and women ended up dead. Official estimates put the number of "femicides" around 400, and not a single one of them has resulted in a conclusive investigation or conviction.

Mexico City journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, a former arts critic, began writing about the murders in 1996, resulting in two landmark books — 2000's Hombre sin cabeza and 2006's Huesos en el desierto — that earned him death threats, a government ban by the State of Chihuahua, and cameos in novels by Roberto Bolaño and Javier Marias. His first book to be published in English, The Femicide Machine (reviewed here for the Los Angeles Review of Books by Mary Cuddehe) connects the serial killings of women in Juárez not only to drug traffickers and criminal gangs but also to what he describes as the "machines" of global capitalism that make these killings possible: war machines, police machines, economic machines, manufacturing machines, security machines, among others.

I invited Sergio to have an email conversation with me about these issues. The following is a transcript of our correspondence, which I've translated from the Spanish.


JOSH KUN: Why don't we start with the most important question: are you in Mexico? Are you OK? Did the earthquake affect you at all? 

SERGIO GONZÁLEZ RODRIGUEZ: Yes, all is well, yesterday's earthquake gave me a scare, but thankfully nothing more.

JK: Before the earthquake, on the very same day, news broke of a car bomb in Tamaulipas outside the offices of a local newspaper, another act of violence in a week full of violence (deaths in Saltillo, deaths in Guerrero, the narco-blockades in Guadalajara). Is there a moment when you find yourself saying, this is just one more — just another act of violence, just one more example? Is violence now so common, so part of the fabric of daily life in Mexico, that it has stopped affecting people? Or does each death, each murder, each kidnapping, still stand as an assault, a tragedy, a motivation to take action? 

SGR: In the background of this issue — the possible indifference of Mexicans to acts of violence — there are at least two things to consider: 

1) Mass media, especially radio and TV, play a determining role in contributing to misinformation, and to the indifference and apathy of people. We can't forget that the majority of these media previously signed an agreement on how to "cover" violence that has become its own form of censorship and, above all, a form of uncritical consensus that supports the government version of what's happening: the government is winning the drug war, everything is under control, violence is only happening in certain places, it's a battle between good cops and bad criminals, blah blah blah.

2) Citizens lack possibilities for influencing the public sphere beyond certain formal practices (like voting), so there is a continuous rupture between the political class (for example, political parties) and society. The citizenry remain outside of the decisions that effect them: they are just required to be consumers, political clientele (but only during the electoral season and nothing more), uninformed spectators, etc. It's the result of a society drowning in inequality, a society with a rapacious oligarchy whose wealth is concentrated in 39 families. Mexican society is enslaved to a (dis)order where the ruling classes are the direct beneficiaries. Therefore, it's false to say (as the stereotypes have it) that "the Mexicans" are apathetic, lazy, have violent proclivities, et cetera. Rather, Mexicans live in a state of political and economic submission with few alternatives for pursuing a better life — this is a profoundly political issue that has nothing to do with either ontology or psychology. 

JK: One of the most impressive things that has emerged during the past couple years has been just that: proof of the existence of an activist citizenry, a Mexican populace that is anything but apathetic. From Javier Sicilia to all of the marches and protests to the more recent web-launched manifesto of the Revolution Without Violence movement, there have been great ruptures in the idea of Mexico as a country desensitized to violence.

But at the same time, there is such a strong spin in the other direction, from the top down. When the Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota came to Los Angeles recently to give a pre-campaign talk, she said that she prefers not to speak of violence and focused instead on tourism and promoting what's good about Mexico. It gave me painful flashbacks to Felipe Calderón's recent Royal Tour "documentary," which tried to use tourist cliches to put a happy face on his administration for prime-time TV audiences in the U.S. We don't need to see him, or any other politician, walking barefoot along the beaches of the Maya Riviera or climbing pyramids while people are vanishing, being decapitated or dumped in mass graves, when (to borrow a title from one of your earlier books) there are still so many bones in the desert.

SGR: That's right: an increasingly participatory citizenry. We've seen it in the marches, demonstrations, protests, the plantónes, but also in the constant outrage and denouncement on social media platforms. We still lack the necessary articulation between outcry and positive action, but that's a worldwide problem, and one that implies an upsurge in an innovative attitude toward creating the conditions for revolutionary acts without violence: which is to say, a change in mentality that will take some years to be constructed.

I think that, in a move against globalization, a new communitarian regionalism will be imposed, a cosmopolitan communitarian regionalism that will allow people to leave behind the systems of exploitation and abuse that have until now been known by the ultra-liberal creed. Disgracefully, Mexican politicians persist in their inertia, which is worn-out, manipulative, authoritative, dishonest. Their idea of well-being is the typical economic simplification:  as long as people continue to function as a simple army of labor (for the U.S. economy), everything is OK; or if not: as long as there's foreign tourism in Mexico, we are saved; as long as there's foreign investment and the macro-economy looks pretty, we've already succeeded, etc. The old discourse of subordination, "integration," "cooperation," where Mexico is viewed as asymmetrical with respect to the U.S. and Canada and is condemned to be so under actual everyday conditions: this is something that that the ruling classes of Mexico will never want to change.

JK: And that's why it's so frustrating when, here in the U.S., the media talks about the Mexican drug war as if it's a singular, isolated, solely contemporary issue, and not about how the war is really a war born of trade that's not free, a war born of the abuses of neoliberalism and the violence of economic globalization. This stage of violence and inequality wouldn't be possible without NAFTA in 1994, which in turn wouldn't have been possible without the Border Industrialization Program of 1965. What I like so much about this most recent book of yours is that you speak so clearly about the border as part of a larger network of machines that must be understood as historical. In the U.S., politicians and media pundits fail to grasp the intimate relationship between fantasies of free trade, neoliberal religions of privatization and globalization, and the profound poverty that's at the core of phenomena like immigration, drug trafficking, and organized crime.

The brutal violence of the asymmetrical capitalism you mention is the violence behind the violence of the drug war, which means that movements for change (movements that, as you say, still need to be converted from speech into action) also must see through this larger frame of vision. There are changes to be made that are local, regional, and immediate, and then there are the changes that are long-term, structural. Do you think that making these sorts of connections, in order to re-position contemporary violence within larger histories of violence and economic control, helps their inevitable dismantling? Or does it distract from an unfolding localized situation that is already perilous and endangered?

SGR: You're right, Josh: the understanding in the U.S. of the so-called drug war is completely incorrect. There is a historical trajectory of degradation of Mexican society that begins with NAFTA and very few want to deal with that. What you call the fantasy of U.S. politicians is as real as it is overwhelming: they have fetishized the concepts and practices of neoliberalism, globalization, industrialization, economic growth, et cetera, and they present it all as if it's a product of pure chance, something purely contingent, as if it were something "outside" that suddenly just happens in reality with "unexpected" effects. Which is why it is so important to recover the central readings of various situations within the actual world we are living in, discover and denounce what the sociologist Ulrich Beck calls the immanent rules of the meta-game of the global economy, and consequently achieve immediate local changes, precisely as you note, to establish interconnections with the possibility of larger structural changes.

So we need better manifestations of the dynamic between diagnosis and prognosis: causes and predictions. The word "urgent" that you use should mean leaving behind the principles of parsimony that dominate economic, political, and social decisions, as well as our amnesia about useful concepts such as "asymmetrical capitalism." It all necessitates a change in political focus that puts in doubt the world of cultural spectacle and entertainment that covers up reality, the beautiful veil (in the sense of sublime aestheticization: art, publicity, sports, spectacle, entertainment, videos) that is draped over a world ruined by strategies of exploitation, greed, pillaging, all of which is led by the machine of war.

JK: In the new book you write about the war machine in the context of what you seem to advocate as a "transfrontera" or "cross-border" framework, the reality of cross-border spaces that exist in the face of arbitrarily militarized political divisions like the border wall. While I of course agree in the abstract, the idea itself can take on many forms, right? Not all of them progressive or radical? On the one hand, the culture and identity of those who live in the borderlands are transnational, but the traffic in drugs and people is also transnational, and the global economy itself relies on this same transnationality. I guess I am wondering if we can imagine a "new border order" that is transnational in terms of culture, identity, community, and family, but without the transnationality that greases the wheels of neoliberalism and the current war? When I read —with total support and in total agreement — my academic colleagues theorizing the transnational, the transfrontera, or the trans- or inter-american, I also have a lurking fear that, in the wrong hands, this very discourse can be immediately recuperated by a discourse of economic neoliberalism and cross-border trade that is used by multinationals and free trade zealots. One of neoliberalism's great tricks is to wholly absorb the cultural into the private sector, which is also the political sector, to swallow cross-border community into a discourse of top-down cross-border economic life. I don't know if I am explaining myself, but I wanted to at least throw this idea on the table.... 

SGR: The dizzying transformations of recent years have made it harder and harder to understand the connections between the real and the virtual. On the one hand, traditional borders exist that still carry profound weight (in the form of immigration control by police, customs, the military, etc), but at on the other these borders are porous, flexible, something that is re-shaped by culture, labor, and economics, or by criminality or other anti-institutional uses. The collision between both of these dimensions duplicates the tensions and the forms of violence. I think that more than transnational or trans-American we should be talking, as Beck does, of a new cosmopolitanism (based in the union of the local, the global, the national, in the cultural sense of the term). A new personality that is open and connectable that is at the same time conscious of its origins (it has an ethics) and its history. It seems to me that what you are asking is the great question of our times: what to do in order to shape the future?

JK: I'm very curious to learn how your work is received abroad compared to how it is received within Mexico. Is there a big difference that you've been witnessing? The differences in how the drug war and how violence in Juárez and in other places in Northern Mexico is perceived in Mexico and the U.S. is something that I am actually studying right now with some Communications scholars at the Universidad Iberoamericana. As a journalist and a critic, can you talk a little about why you think the question of representation and coverage is so important, the different ways that different news outlets on both sides of the border are covering the war, trafficking stories, deaths?

Or maybe it's better to put it another way: does the discourse around violence, the representations of violence, affect the realities of how violence is experienced? And, if yes, what role does the journalist have in making interventions in both these discourses and these realities?

SGR: New York (where I've been visiting in the course of this exchange) has been really generous toward me. The two presentations I did were full of people and both really lively. We'll see what happens in Mexico, where one of two points of view tend to be imposed on these topics: the official version (censorship and manipulation) and the reduction of the theme of violence to la nota roja, to media sensationalism (Manicheism, stereotypes). Disgracefully, these are the two tendencies that shape the perception of violence in Mexico. Very few media outlets look for alternative explanations, look to criticize or to explain causes and contexts through a narrative that is complex and full of diverse, interdisciplinary dimensions.

At the Universidad Iberoamericana, for example, some have imposed a new "code" to talk about the subject. This proposal originates with ex-government officials who, in the name of supposed ethics, have tried to create an information barrier around the issue so that only positive portrayals of Mexican society end up in the press. They created a Communications Agreement led by none other than the two Mexican media companies whose tradition of media misinformation is savage: Televisa y TV Azteca. 700 outlets and organizations came together for this initiative, which both media giants violate whenever they feel like it. The Jesuits from Ibero and ITESO (the Jesuit University of Guadalajara) have towed a political line: sadly they support the idea of media producing a "positive perception" of reality above and beyond the imperative of informing the public with the most quality and most varied viewpoints possible.

It's said that the reporting of violence in the media can lead to public indifference (not to mention the idea that reporting on violence becomes a possible "collaboration" with criminals, in the diffusion of their messages). I believe you have to take these risks and continue reporting on violence, always, when the communicative demand is comparable to the gravity of its violent contents. Susan Sontag said, and I agree with her: "Let the atrocious images haunt us" — because it is the best way to counter barbarism, to live with the knowledge of what the human race is capable of.

The journalist is obligated to make sure that his or her work is increasingly refined, in the sense of exactness, imagination, diversity, and criticism, and that it offers analysis that goes beyond a simple narrative of horror or emotional pathos that just feeds a general morbidity. As journalists, we have to insert short circuits within the official versions, the versions of the Presidential press secretaries that ultimately just defend positions of power that, whether meaning to or not, only prolong an unacceptable state of things into the future. 

JK: I want to return specifically to this idea of censuring violent images in the name of a "positive perception." I agree with the Sontag line and your use of it the Mexican context: facing and understanding barbarism is necessary for its dismantling. But in The Femicide Machine you do something very interesting with these debates: you include captions for photos that do not actually appear in the book. The pages are left blank. Instead of confronting images, the reader is left to imagine them. I remember some years ago now when Julián Cardona's photos of dead women in Juarez started to circulate in the US media, often alongside the writings of Charles Bowden. They spurred considerable debate about whether or not Cardona's images and Bowden's texts were participating in a kind of journalistic necrophilia, fetishizing the corpses of Mexican women left to rot in the desert sand, fetishizing the border as a killing field. If we agree that censorship is not the answer, what alternative methods exist for representing violence as a means of criticizing barbarism, dismantling the machines of power you write about, without fetishizing the violence, or, worse, normalizing it?

SGR: I think your suggestion that the written word can be employed as its own kind of illustration is great. Writing can create contexts and explanations that photographs (above all, the on-the-spot photographs of photojournalism) can't — or, generally speaking, don't — provide. The media space (press, radio, TV) and the trans-media space (internet, social networks, new platforms) tend to conform to visual and audio flash, and there are fewer and fewer attempts to contextualize and explain violence so that it isn't normalized. If I had to synthesize the problem, I would say that we need more and better words, and fewer images that produce amnesia and anesthesia.

As far as the Bowden-Cardona narrative, the worst part is that Bowden has taken the opposite road that we propose: he reduces the U.S.-Mexico border to a universe of assassins, blood, killings, war between narcos and politicians, all with heavy metal playing in the background. Unfortunately, many in Mexico have done the same. He's tended to negate the specific problem of violence against women and instead talk more generally about violence at the border, and violence against men. It's unacceptable to deny or minimize the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, which have been amply documented by U.S. and Mexican experts and international organizations. To deny the killings is to be part of the killings.

JK: So the machine is also a feedback loop, a vicious circuit. How do you break it, this assemblage that various systems keep producing on both sides of the border? We have to speak about and criticize and represent what is happening, but at the same time it cannot be fetishized or glamorized. To end this electronic conversation, I wanted to know if you thought any of the Mexican presidential candidates were doing anything to break this loop, or doing anything to disrupt the machines you write about? Do you think that with any of them there is more hope, more possibility, that the machines that now govern so much life in Mexico will have an end?

SGR: In my opinion, the machine reproduces itself precisely through this feedback loop. The attention to known facts and to the high discursive, analytic, and narrative standards needed to disseminate them is as necessary as the avoidance of simplification and/or falsification that can be converted into this communicative fetish. Which means that the work ahead needs to be critical and self-critical, as well as interdisciplinary, multi-dimensional, and open to the most diversity possible.

As far as the presidential candidates, all three of them have declared, in different ways, a devotion to the status quo of the violence machine. Not one of them, as of this moment, has proposed a significant transformation, by which I mean any ideas or concrete practices against the current state of things. Until now, they have only spoken of continuity or good intentions for change. They seem to have a partial vision of what should be an integral frame for strategic planning and specific actions. For now, unfortunately, the machines have a vast horizon. We need to denounce their inertia and their reproduction: there must be a sabotage of their "normalcy." There must be short-circuits and interruptions that shut them down.