The Ethnography of Deep Suffering: On Angela Garcia’s “The Way That Leads Among the Lost”

Ieva Jusionyte reviews Angela Garcia’s “The Way That Leads Among the Lost: Life, Death, and Hope in Mexico City’s Anexos.”

By Ieva JusionyteJune 27, 2024

The Ethnography of Deep Suffering: On Angela Garcia’s “The Way That Leads Among the Lost”

The Way That Leads Among the Lost: Life, Death, and Hope in Mexico City’s Anexos by Angela Garcia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages.

WE SAT IN a circle, in a courtyard enclosed by the walls of a juvenile prison, and listened to Gabo repeat the same story he must have told many times before: about how he, too, used to do drugs, how he, too, was locked up, and how he decided to change his life in order to never return behind bars. And so could they, he said to about two dozen boys and a few girls slumped in their chairs, their eyes cast down. It was 2019, and I was in Monterrey, Mexico’s second largest metropolitan area, doing research for a book about illegal firearms trafficked from the United States to Mexico, trying to understand their role in criminal violence south of the border. I met young people who were forcefully recruited into gangs, who sold drugs and engaged in extortion, and who survived some of the most violent prisons in the country. One of them—a teenage girl who was involved with organized crime and arrested for illegal possession of military-grade firearms, and who was abused during arrest and while incarcerated—said something about her time in the juvenile prison that surprised me back then: “It served me to be there. Otherwise, I would have continued with my pendejadas.”

I was thinking about that conversation, about the idea that carceral violence could forge hope for a new life, when reading Angela Garcia’s new book, The Way That Leads Among the Lost: Life, Death, and Hope in Mexico City’s Anexos. Garcia, too, is an anthropologist who has spent years working with people affected by violence and drug addiction in Mexico. Rather than turn to the government, which is just as likely to criminalize poor youth who use drugs as it is to help them, families protect their loved ones by having them abducted, locked up, and held in small rooms with boarded windows and bolted doors known as “anexos.” Garcia’s book takes readers on a gripping and disturbing journey into this secret world, exploring informal and illegal—but socially legitimate and often necessary—practices of captivity. A consequence of our failed policies to address drug addiction on both sides of the border, anexos have become ubiquitous in Mexico and have been spreading in the United States.

Anexos are everywhere, woven into the urban and social fabric. Early in the book, Garcia tells a local driver she hires in Mexico City about her previous research on the heroin epidemic in New Mexico, and he takes her to see a small building behind a metal gate, where he sent his daughter, Lili, when she began using drugs. Gradually Garcia learns that there are anexos all around the city. Usually, an anexo is just a room in an apartment, in a residential neighborhood. Families in the building go about their daily business as if unaware that a room next door is holding captives. It turns out that neighbors know very well what is happening. Sometimes it is the neighbors who come together and decide to establish an anexo in their community. Anexos mostly serve as nonmedical detox facilities, but they also provide asylum for the mentally ill and a safe space to hide someone at risk of being kidnapped or killed. Anexos are where families, usually mothers, put their children (sometimes husbands) when they have no other options to keep them from harm or from harming others.

Bobby’s mother, like Lili’s father, committed him to an anexo because he used drugs and “there were thugs out to get him.” Ceci was using meth and cutting herself, but what prompted her parents to send her to an anexo was an assault they thought was related to a missed extortion payment on their stationery shop. Magi ended up in one after her cousin and friends were among 13 young people kidnapped from a Mexico City bar who were later found dead, most of them decapitated. Catorce was dropped off by his mother, who left town and never returned. Luis was there because he had schizophrenia, as did Delia. Barred from leaving, the anexados spend their days sitting on the ground, sharing their stories and listening to the testimonies of others. In some anexos, these sessions involve prolonged humiliation of the person giving a “confession,” which is also called a “desagüe” (drain). There is moaning and weeping and yelling and singing. Then they all gather to watch Spanish-dubbed Friends on TV. “What is this place?” Garcia wrote in her notebook after she began spending time in the first anexo she was allowed to enter. “A prison? A shelter? A church?” For many people who end up there, “landing in the anexo meant not being disappeared and killed,” she notes later. But does the end justify the means?

Care in anexos is infused with violence. Garcia likens them to a “gray zone,” borrowing the concept from Primo Levi, who used it to understand the compromises Jewish prisoners made in concentration camps and the impossibility of applying our categories of right and wrong to judge them. Abductions are often forceful and even brutal. Once, Garcia saw two men carrying a rug into an anexo, and when they laid it on the floor and unfurled it, there was a young woman inside. Another time, a mother recounted to Garcia how the men who came to take away her son, Daniel, kicked him, and she regretted having called them. Inside anexos, the discipline borders on abuse. Anexados are shouted at and sometimes hit. They must recount their most traumatic experiences over and over again. But Garcia suggests we should consider “the restorative potential of violence” on which anexos are built. “Their shared suffering gave way to a kind of collective healing—expressive, communicative, resonant,” she writes.

The intimate stories of people we meet in the book unfold against the backdrop of intensifying violence in Mexico. In the months leading up to Mexico’s general election in early June 2024, more than 30 candidates were killed. Almost two-thirds of Mexicans say they feel insecure in the city where they live. The situation has been getting worse since the end of the “pax mafiosa” at the turn of the century, when the one-party regime that held organized crime under control was replaced by competing political groups and new criminal organizations, fighting over territory and resources. Although this criminal violence has its origins in the drug economy, the groups have since diversified their predatory activities to include extortion and kidnapping. The government’s militarized approach to organized crime has only made matters worse. More than 100,000 people have been officially listed as disappeared and that’s likely an undercount. Most crimes, even murders, are never investigated. Many are not even reported. Violence touches the poor most profoundly. Young men from marginalized communities caught in the wrong place at the wrong time are presumed to be criminals, justifying in the eyes of the state their torture, forced confessions, and incarceration.

The United States has played an important role in making life in Mexico so precarious and perilous. Americans’ demand for drugs—cocaine, marijuana, meth, and now fentanyl—has spurred brutal competition between organized crime groups supplying these illicit substances to consumers on this side of the border. Guns, on the other hand, move in the opposite direction—from stores in Texas and Arizona, where they are easy to buy, to the hands of criminals in Mexico who use them to threaten and kill with impunity. Threads of connection between the United States and Mexico weave through the book. When Garcia began spending time in anexos, still hesitant to talk to the people held captive there, she already understood “that anexos were an effect and an expression of a deeper binational history.” Take Toño’s story. His father immigrated to the United States for work when Toño was eight and his mother moved in with a man who drank excessively, with her joining him on binges. Toño began using crack cocaine and robbing tourists to fund his addiction. His aunt saw no other alternative than locking him up in an anexo—to keep him off the street, to keep him safe.

What makes this book different from an ethnographic study of illicit drug treatment facilities is the significance of Garcia’s own story, which also crisscrosses the border. Garcia writes about her childhood and teenage years in New Mexico, about her experiences with a broken family, about being abandoned by her father and later her mother, and about the time she lived on her own as a teenager cleaning motels and hanging out in an old railyard everybody called “the Cathedral.” There, she met other young people who had nowhere else to go. Many of them used drugs:

The kids had been exposed to acts of violence and neglect that disrupted the fantasy of a protected childhood. They were each other’s keepers, attending to the precariousness of life together. I was welcome among them, sitting at the periphery of their bodies, careful to not come too close, but drawn in nonetheless. Was I not one of them?

While in graduate school at Harvard training to become a medical anthropologist, Garcia studied a drug recovery clinic in New Mexico, where she worked the graveyard shift helping detoxing patients struggling with addiction to heroin. In the book she wrote based on her dissertation, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande (2010), Garcia reflected on “the existential murk that accompanies the thinking and writing of ethnography of deep suffering.” Studying addiction—getting high, going through withdrawal—presents an epistemological problem for a researcher: how to describe an experience that is fundamentally foreclosed to the ethnographer, and even to language itself. But anexos are different. By the time she began observing them, Garcia was ready to reckon with her own life, and resonances between her experiences and what she was witnessing abound. More than once, she recognizes herself in the young people she meets in anexos. And so she moves between California, where she is professor at Stanford, and Mexico City, with her children in tow, reconsidering her obligations as a daughter and mother, re-examining her scars. When she is invited to go on a retreat called an “experiencia,” organized by a fourth-and-fifth-step group (an unofficial “sect” of Alcoholics Anonymous), she agrees and spends three days in the woods, deprived of sleep and food, practicing moral reflection and confession, “pushed to an absolute limit.” Garcia doesn’t tell us how this experience affected her; perhaps, with an experience this profound, it may be a while until she knows.

Considering how tightly Mexico and the United States are connected, it should not be surprising—but it still is—to learn that there are anexos in Texas and California and other states on this side of the border. “Donde hay mexicanos, hay anexos,” a man who runs one of the anexos in Mexico City tells Garcia. These informal facilities became more popular in California with rising anti-immigrant sentiment. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the movement of fourth-and-fifth-step groups grew considerably. Here too, as in Mexico, the self-help movement is the most appealing and accessible form of care for Mexicans suffering from addiction and mental health problems. This is how undocumented migrants, who are reluctant to seek public healthcare out of fear of deportation in this hostile political climate, care for each other. “The war in Mexico reaches deep into the United States,” Garcia writes, “where it is characterized by drug seizures, overdose statistics, and refugees fleeing unremitting violence. The spread of anexos in the United States keeps pace with the worsening conditions in Mexico. Anexos dot a perilous landscape that spans both sides of the Rio Grande.”

Questions about the power and limits of a mother’s care simmer throughout the book, but one chapter in particular focuses on women and their exposure to violence. Titled “Mother of Sorrows,” it comes later in the book, when Garcia visits Casa Dolorosa, a women-only anexo located in Ecatepec, a municipality that borders the northeastern part of Mexico City. Over 1,000 women were disappeared in the state of Mexico between 2011 and 2012, and 448 were reported murdered, the majority of them in Ecatepec. Míriam founded Casa Dolorosa after her daughter’s body was discovered on the banks of a shallow canal that cuts through the suburb. The area is crowded with factories (Jumex, Procter & Gamble, General Electric), which may make this story sound familiar, similar to the one about the murders of women working for the maquiladoras in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. This familiarity reveals how pervasive femicide in Mexico has become. In Ecatepec, women who leave for work early in the morning, taking microbuses to Mexico City, “where they care for babies, clean houses and hotels, and staff restaurants,” walk in groups and carry knives and screwdrivers. The women Garcia met in Casa Dolorosa were “in various states of pain. There were swollen black eyes and bruised arms, scarred and nervous faces, expressions of exhaustion and grief, as well as distrust.” Míriam addresses the anexadas while Garcia is there: “This is a safe space for you, but it’s temporary.” She tells them they have to make plans to leave so that others can hide there. She turns away three women because there is no more space. After years of protests and organizing by women’s rights groups, Mexico classified femicide as a crime distinct from homicide—a murder of women because of their gender. But this legal reframing hasn’t done much to change the situation. Mexicans have just voted to elect the first woman president, yet 10 women are murdered in the country every day.

Anexos are not outside of the criminal economy. Their managers, padrinos and sometimes madrinas, pay extortion fees to criminal groups controlling the neighborhood. Some anexos are not that different from “safe houses”—places where organized crime groups keep people they kidnap until their families pay a ransom. The language is similar: “levanter” (to lift) applies both to a victim of criminal kidnapping and to the arranged abduction of an anexado. The methods—violent seizure, forced confessions, physical discipline, verbal abuse—are the same in both. In some anexos Garcia visited, the lines got even blurrier. There are rumors that anexados whose families cannot pay for their stay are told to engage in telephone extortions. Garcia doesn’t ask those kinds of questions. She doesn’t provoke the people who open the doors of anexos to her and allow her to find space in those crowded rooms. She doesn’t advocate or object; she is a patient observer who spends long hours listening to testimonies of horrific violence, absorbing it all. Over time, she starts hearing in these testimonies something more than expressions of personal trauma. They become a collective political commentary, pointing to poverty and inequality and marginality. Attentive to these stories and drawing on her own experiences, Garcia offers a nuanced social critique of some of the most vexing problems we are grappling with but remain unable to solve.

“Do anexos work?” physicians ask Garcia when she shares her research at Harvard’s psychiatry department. “Yes, sometimes anexos help,” she tells them. They give mothers a break from worrying about the whereabouts of their children, relief from the daily burden of caring for an addict or an alcoholic, respite from domestic abuse. They give the anexados temporary shelter from danger. For many, the fusion of violence and care in the anexos that keeps people like Daniel and Ceci alive is better than the alternative—untreated addiction and the uncertainty of whether one will live or die.

Violence in Mexico has been the subject of much excellent writing, both fiction and nonfiction, but a lot of that literature focuses on the spectacular violence of organized crime groups or the intimate suffering of its victims and survivors. Garcia delves into moral ambiguity, where the boundary between victim and perpetrator is not clear-cut. The title of the book is a line from Dante’s Inferno, from the opening of Canto III, which is set on the threshold between the entrance to hell and its first circle. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter,” it says next. Garcia’s book takes readers to that threshold, and yet it is not devoid of hope. It is a journey that wades through despair but is not overcome by it.

LARB Contributor

Ieva Jusionyte is an associate professor at Brown University and author of Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border (University of California Press, 2024).


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