Guerrero in three songs: inequalities, cartels and social mobilization in Mexico

Remember Acapulco, those nights, pretty Maria...1

I have in front of me three maps of Mexico, my country. In the first, the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy colored the 10 least poor entities in 2015 with pale pink; 19 with various tones of orange and the remaining 3 with bright red, to indicate that there the percentage of inhabitants in a position of poverty varies between 65 and 80 percent.

My seven year old granddaughter, whose favorite color is red and who recently vacationed in Acapulco asks me which entity Acapulco is in. I point out one of the red areas, and inform her that it is the state of Guerrero, and she says that surely it is red because in Acapulco the children have a lot of fun when they play with the sand on the beach.

Percentage of the population living in poverty in Mexico in 2014, by federal entity. Data: INEGI.

In the second map the red entities are the same three, and there the red is used to indicate that they are the three states with the greatest rate of illiteracy.

Maybe I could tell my granddaughter that in the very red Guerrero there are fabulous mansions in the Acapulco Diamond Zone, and places in which nine out of every ten children are hungry. Also I could tell her in that Diamond Zone of Acapulco there are health and beauty clinics for women who receive collagen therapy, relaxing massages and aromatic baths, and in the mountain region the people die due to a lack of clinics and doctors.

Or I could explain to her that in Guerrero there are communities in which there are no schools and six out of every ten adults cannot read, and tell her that as Acapulco is not a rural community, but a city, there are enough schools. What I could not tell her because she is not old enough, is that many schools in Acapulco close in December and in January, when the Acapulco teachers receive their Christmas tip, because criminal organizations threaten to have them disappear if they do not hand over half of their tips.

Prevalence of illiteracy in Mexico in 2010 by federal entity. Data: INEGI.

But my granddaughter does not think of illiteracy, nor of poverty, nor of the crimes which overlap the municipal, state and federal authorities, but in colors and songs. Because now she asks me if there are songs about Acapulco. I scratch around in my memory and remember fragments of one that Agustín Lara composed seventy years ago, for Maria Félix, the Mexican diva who, when she married him, started the fashion among celebrities to spend their honeymoon in Acapulco: Remember Acapulco, those nights, pretty Maria, Maria of my soul... I told you so many beautiful words with which hearts are being lulled... The moon which was already watching us for a little while became a little indifferent, and when I saw her hidden, I knelt to kiss you, and in that way, give you all my life.

A little after Lara wooed the heart of Maria Félix in that manner, Acapulco became the center of cosmopolitan Mexico par excellence. Rich Americans were vacationing on its beaches, and perhaps no one knew that the airport where they landed on the airplane that brought them to that Mexican port, had secret graves with the corpses of peasants who dared to raise their voices against the powerful.

I correct myself: I guess some tourists knew it. Because yesterday I read the list of American celebrities who chose to marry and spend their honeymoon in Acapulco, and two of them were presidents of that country which boasts of having intelligence services which know everything. One of those presidents, John F. Kennedy, governed the United States when in Guerrero and very close to Acapulco, a graduate teacher of Ayotzinaoa rural teachers' college, founded the Party of the Poor, a political organization of social struggle, which afterwards became radicalized and converted to guerrillas.

The teacher in question was called Lucio Cabañas, and courtesy of Wikileaks, we now know that the US ambassador in Mexico used to inform his government of the adventures of Cabañas. What I am not aware but I guess, is that subsequent ambassadors did not fail to report that in their attempt to wipe out the Party of the Poor, the federal army tortured and murdered supporters of Cabanas, disappearing them with the same techniques as those of South American military dictatorships of that era: taking them on a plane to be thrown into the sea2.

The aircraft in question was one of the Arava that Israel sold to the governments of various countries in Latin America in the early seventies, offering them as ideal for counterinsurgency actions. And now, it is also known3 that that aircraft used by the military to disappear peasants in Guerrero, accusing them of being communists, was also used to carry marijuana and opium gum from the poppy fields of Guerrero to Texas, as several military men of the time took advantage of their stay in Guerrero to associate with drug-traffickers.

Though what they actually took advantage of was that social inequality in Guerrero was so great that the peasants had only two options: join the guerrillas to fight the local chiefs who stripped them of their lands, or climb the mountains to grow marijuana and poppy.

But the poor of Guerrero have now a third option: to be the hired killers of the criminal organizations.

That is why, it does not surprise me that in the third map Guerrero is also red and this time to indicate that it is the most violent state of the national territory. While the rate of global homicides, expressed in number of homicides for each hundred thousand inhabitants, is 6, the report Mexico Peace Index 20154 indicates that it is 44 in the state of Guerrero, 57.45 in the city of Chilpancingo (capital of this state) and it is 41 in the city of Acapulco. But I did not say that to my granddaughter because she is just a kid. Neither will I tell her that the report clearly said that those calculations did not include the recent disappeared, whose bodies have still not been found (which in our country are tens of thousands), nor that Mexico would win a medal in an impunity championship, as the cited report also says that here only 5% of the homicides result in arrests and sentences by the judicial system.

Peace index by federal entity in Mexico in 2015. Lower is better. Data: Mexico Peace Index 2015, Institute for Economics & Peace.

Poppies, beautiful poppies...5

Atoyac de Alvarez is a Guerrero city of just over twenty thousand inhabitants, located an hour and a half from Acapulco. It is the seat of the municipality of the same name and where the obelisk is, under which lie the remains of Lucio Cabañas. Next to the obelisk, this guerrilla teacher became a bronze statue, watching the passers-by and listening to fragments of their conversations:

─ In La Cebada they kidnapped the commissioner and his son. They were taken by four hooded men who came in a van...

─ Hilario's wife was found dead in the Mariscal...

─ Lupe goes back crazy because they kidnapped his son. The kid, because the older one was the decapitated one they found in the street...

Hearing that, Lucio thinks the world is spinning around, for the kingdom of anxiety and terror has been reinstalled in Atoyac. But before, when he was alive, kidnappings, torture and disappearances of Atoyac peasants were perpetrated by military men obeying the explicit orders of the president of Mexico, as the United States would have taken a dim view of Mexico tolerating their farmers becoming Communists again. But now instead, those who kidnap, torture and murder in Guerrero usually are thugs and police officers affiliated to the various criminal groups in the area, and I guess they do not act on the explicit orders of our president, but simply because he does not want to combat the impunity which prevails in Mexico. But Lucio can no longer denounce that because now he is just a mute statue who listens to the words of the passers-by.

Statue of Lucio Cabañas. Public domain. Source.

Until recently, this statue of Lucio coexisted peacefully with a building that referred (I do not know if purposely) to the origin of the current violence in Atoyac: a poppy shaped fountain, located on the main square. That has some logic, as Lucio and the poppy represent the two alternatives that the peasants of the municipality had, in the early seventies.

In both cases, the choice involved going deep into the mountains. Walking for many days between pines, ayacahuite pines and sacred firs to find, in the case of those who wanted to follow Lucio, signs of a guerrilla camp. For the others, the objective was best described by Victor Cardona, Atoyac reporter: "To arrive at the base of some mountain, inaccessible to the common man, to sow fields of poppies, water them, fertilize them, and care for them, with a rifle in hand"6.

But of course, the act of going into the mountains to get to a place inaccessible to ordinary mortals to sow poppies is no longer required, because those who govern now in Guerrero are criminals and growing the forbidden flower is no longer hidden; currently, any journalist interested in Guerrero can find poppy crops with relative ease, because to do so just as Humberto Padgett says, "look where hunger bites with more rage, where the school is a rumor, where piped water is part of another world where the indigenous population is concentrated"7.

What precedes does not mean, of course, that the members of the indigenous population are the criminals who govern Guerrero. It just means that since the indigenous population lives in extreme poverty, it chooses to sow poppies in the family yard, make fine cuts in the bulb of each flower to let the opium gum out, keep the gum in cans and sell it for a very low price to the visitador, that is the person that some of the many criminal groups operating in Guerrero put in charge of collecting the gum.

Mexican poppy field. Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain. Source.

Before, the next step was to send the gum to the North of the country, where the Sinaloa cartel (the criminal organization that is credited with being a pioneer in planting poppy in the state of Guerrero) processed it within clandestine laboratories to convert it into heroin. But now, it suffices to take the gum to Iguala, the Guerrero city whose mayor is accused of ordering, in September 2014, the kidnapping of 43 young peasants who aspired to be teachers and were studying at Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College. Indeed, there are now more and more clandestine laboratories making heroin in Iguala, because Mexican drug traffickers are excellent entrepreneurs.

For many years, Guerrero took care basically of producing the marijuana which flooded the US market. But when Mexican drug traffickers sensed that in several states of that neighboring country, the recreational use of marijuana would soon be legalized, they concluded that marijuana would stop being a lucrative business and they decided to increase and improve the production of heroin in the state of Guerrero. And they managed to: the DEA stipulates in a recent report8 that most of the heroin which is consumed illegally in the United States is produced in Mexico, mainly in Guerrero.

To attain such a marvelous achievement, the Mexican cartels modernized. On the one hand, scientific specialists came to teach Guerrero scientists to produce highly refined white heroin, which was much stronger that the brown heroin that was produced before. On the other hand, they adopted neoliberal ideas and opted to subcontract. In the past the Sinaloa cartel and the large cartels that were derived from it were in charge of the process from beginning to end, that is from the delivery of poppy seeds to peasants who wanted to cultivate them up to the shipping abroad of the processed heroin; but according to the organization In SightCrime, now the custom in vogue is to delegate the total process to distinct smaller criminal groups that pay a toll to the larger cartel which they get the concession from9.

Consequences? Horrific. In part because the rivalry between the small groups that bought their franchise to produce and export heroin from the state of Guerrero is so great, that no one has qualms about torturing, assassinating, and making disappear the supposed members of any rival organization; and neither in torturing, assassinating, and making disappear any lost youth that without having the look of a wealthy tourist, dares arrive by bus in Acapulco, Iguala, or Chilpancingo and so is confused with a supposed reinforcement for a rival organization.

But also because some of the criminal groups that used to work for the large cartels of drug traffickers found it onerous having to pay franchise fees and taking advantage that our country is the kingdom of impunity, they favored businesses that are less complicated like kidnapping and extortion: in a lot of cities and towns of Guerrero and of the country, not only does it happen that some educational establishments close to avoid the teachers being extorted with the threat of them disappearing if they don't give their tip to the criminal organization that solicits it; the small shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the traveling vendors, and almost any person that is perceived to have some modest income in a regular form gets extorted, threatened with the taking of their family if the criminal organization is not paid the monthly toll that the criminals stipulate.

I will search for you until I find you...10

Iguala is in the Northern Region of Guerrero and not only is the city which 60% of the heroin that the Mexican drug traffickers introduce into the United States and the rest of the world comes from but also the city whose mayor allegedly ordered the disappearance of the 43 students of the school of Ayotzinapa; it is also the city in which is located the parish of San Gerardo Maria Mayela, whose dining room is horrific: an enormous room with a small sign on the wall that states "I will search for you until I find you", surrounded by long rows of photographs of people who disappeared in the area in the last 3 years. They are levantados, that is the term in Mexico to designate those who are kidnapped by some armed commando, usually to make them disappear. But they are not the 43 students of the school of Ayotzinapa.

Demonstration against Ayotzinapa's disappearences. Some portaits of the murdered students are shown. Isabel Sangines. CC BY. Source.

Their photographs are there because the tragedy of the students of this school, the inability of the Mexican government to hide it and the indignation and solidarity of many hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and in the world, who took to the streets shouting "Justice!", "You are not alone! " and to demand the resignation of the president of Mexico, brought some families of other levantados in Iguala, and the surrounding area, to raise and decide to overcome their fear, meet in that church, to report to the pastor who had raised families and form, in November 2014, the committee for relatives of victims of forced disappearance called The Other Disappeared of Iguala.

Since then, they are treasure hunters, a term coined by the members of that collective, to indicate what they look for in the hills that surround Iguala are the remains of a missing loved one. At first, there were not many names in the list of disappeared, but the list increased as parents, grandparents, siblings and spouses managed to put aside the fear produced by the threats of those who kidnapped their relatives; presently there are more than 400 names in the list of that committee.

For their families, Sundays are devoted to search. They meet at the church wearing black t-shirts, they receive the blessing of the parson and take their way to the foothills, searching for unmarked mass graves.

Not without humor, they sarcastically claim to use cutting-edge technology: dry sticks and metals rods, whose tip they bury in the ground, and smell when they take it out; if it smells bad, it is likely that there is a corpse buried. But this rudimentary system works. To prove it, the following paragraph is enough. It is part of the statement issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the 2nd of October, 2015, a few days after having met relatives of The Other Disappeared in Iguala, in the parish of San Gerardo.

"In its visit to the state of Guerrero, the Commission received information from relatives of the 43 students and also from family members of other missing persons in the municipality of Iguala, who refer to themselves as “The Other Disappeared” and who claim that 450 people have been disappeared in Guerrero since 2008. During the search for the 43 students, another 60 unmarked mass graves were discovered in that municipality, and so far 129 bodies have been found. The institutional inability to address the problem has meant that family members themselves are conducting their own searches for unmarked graves in Iguala, looking for their missing relatives, and since November 2014 they have found 104 bodies. So far only seven of the bodies have been officially identified."11.

I go back to looking at the three maps of my country. I think of my grandchildren and the other children and young Mexicans, and the only thing I can think of is to plagiarize Gramsci and tell them: Learn, because we will need all of your intelligence. Move, because we will need all of your enthusiasm. Organize, because we will need all of your strength.

Photograpy of a demonstration against the Ayotzinapa's events. Text: They wanted to bury us but they did not know that we are seeds. We are all Ayotzinapa. CC BY-SA. Source.


  1. Agustín Lara - María Bonita 

  2. Informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad del Estado de Guerrero. Last checked December 22nd, 2015. 

  3. Humberto Padgett. Guerrero, caminando por los campos de la goma. Investigaciones., February 16th, 2015. 

  4. Mexico Peace Index 2015. Institute for Economics & Peace. Last accessed December 22nd, 2015. 

  5. Sara Montiel - Amapola 

  6. Víctor Cardona Galindo. Esos jardines de la sierra. Páginas de Atoyac. El Sur de Acapulco, July 3rd, 2012. 

  7. Humberto Padgett. Nación Gomera: La Triste Economía en la Tierra de la Amapola. Investigaciones., February 18th, 2015. 

  8. Statement of Jack Riley / Acting Deputy Administrator / Drug Enforcement Administration / Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, United States House of Representatives / October 8, 2015. U.S. Department of Justice. 

  9. Kyra Gurney. Opium Paste Franchises. Section of the article Mexico Poppy Production Feeds Growing US Heroin Demand. In SightCrime. February 12th, 2015. 

  10. Jimmy Sossa - Te buscare 

  11. Preliminary Observations on the IACHR Visit to Mexico. Annex to the press release. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Organization of American States, October 2nd, 2015. Last consulted on January 24th, 2015.