A hornet's nest for Obama

Mexico

Miguel doesn't sleep well these days. It's not his conscience - in his view, it was quite reasonable to kill the man who shot him in the head.

"I was taught to return a favour," he says. "It was a small sin."

Miguel is not his real name, but the one he has chosen for the purposes of interview. He wants to be filmed in shadow, which is a shame because it means we cannot show how his brow is distorted by an acute dent in the left temple where the bullet entered, and a wider, shallow one where it exited on the right. He says he was shot by a member of a rival drug cartel, who was owed US$250,000 by Miguel's boss. After 32 days in a coma, Miguel emerged to take his revenge.

His restless nights are the product of a more general anxiety. Now might be a good time to retire, he thinks, but it's hard to change career at this stage because if your enemies don't get you, then your friends will.

"You can change your phone number but your friends know how to find you," he says. "I can't let them down, because we're the same, we're family and you have to respect your family."

Miguel lives in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the state at the centre of Mexico's spiralling drug wars. In early December, the bodies of 13 men turned up at the side of a country road, their hands tied with rope, gunshots in the head and the back. They are believed to have worked for one of the drug cartels whose turf war is tearing Mexico apart. Such killings are an everyday occurrence all over the country, most commonly along the drug routes leading to the US border.

In the past year, nearly 5,400 people have been killed in drug-related murders, more than doubling the previous year's total. Many were de capitated. Others had their tongues cut out. The cartels, which have been weakened by war, are now turning to kidnap, extortion and other forms of organised crime.

"The spiral of violence is a sign of ungovernability which may lead to anarchy," admitted President Felipe Calderón in early December. American pundits have warned that Mexico may become a failed state.

For 70 years, Mexico was governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, which accommodated the drug business. Politicians were paid, drug traffickers plied their trade and violence remained under control. But when Calderón came to power in 2006, he decided to take on the cartels, which were growing more powerful as they were squeezed out of Colombia and pushed north.

"Calderón poked a hornet's nest with a big stick, but he made no preparations for the consequences," says Mario ópez Valdez, a PRI senator for Sinaloa. "Now the angry hornets are out, but no one's wearing protective clothing."

José - again, a pseudonym - drives around Tierra Blanca, the middle-class residential area of Culiacán where the drug traffickers used to live. He likes to show off his huge 4x4 Chevrolet Avalanche, which he drives while drinking beer and talking on the mobile phone to a string of girlfriends. Apparently high on cocaine, he talks at machine-gun pace in narco-slang, somewhat alarmingly taking his hands off the wheel to point out the sights to visitors.

"That's where El Mochomo was betrayed," he says, indicating a house where one of the most famous drug traffickers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in January. Graffiti on the garage door reads: "I love you, Mochomo, I miss you, your girl loves you."

José and Miguel work for the Sinaloa cartel, members of which are believed to have turned Beltrán Leyva over to the authorities as they battled to gain new and more profitable trafficking routes. In response, the Beltrán Leyva cartel murdered the son of the Sinaloa cartel's fugitive leader, Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, which translates as "Shorty".

"That was when the war began," says José. He is sorry to see the streets so quiet, after years in which they pulsated with luxury vehicles and extravagant parties. Many houses are empty, their drug-trafficker owners having quietly removed themselves to the countryside, where they are less likely to be killed.

At the shrine to Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, a trio of guitar, harmonica and singer are playing a narcocorrido, a praise-song to the drug cartels. As drugs are the foundation of Culiacán's wealth, and the present war is bad for business, it is a lament:

Tierra Blanca, you seem so sad now.

Your streets are deserted,

No longer humming with the latest cars,

Nor with the roar of the machine-gun.

Jesús Malverde is a Robin Hood-type figure, a bandit who was hanged by the Mexican authorities in 1909. Once a simple folk hero, he is now worshipped by those who have become rich on narco-profits. At his shrine, plaques in the name of the Beltrán Leyva family, among others, bear legends such as: "Thank you for safeguarding our journey from Sinaloa to California."

Drugs are now deeply embedded in Mexican culture, while corruption runs through the bureaucracy and the security forces. As the violence increases, President-elect Barack Obama may find that he has to deal with war not just far away in Iraq and Afghanistan, but right on his border.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain