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What it offers trumped by what it lacks
on March 8, 2011
Picking up Amexica: War Along the Borderline by journalist Ed Vulliamy, I was initially excited, thinking here might be an accessible book by a veteran journalist capable of explaining to the English-speaking public just what is going on in Mexico and why. Naïve, I know. My suspicions were raised as early as the second paragraph when the author mistranslated the extremely common Spanish-language sign-off Atte: as Look out. Atte: is actually an abbreviation of Atentamente, simply meaning Sincerely. Get something that basic that wrong that early in the book, and I knew I was in for a ride - downhill.
In short, Amexica is part travelogue, part sympathetic recounting of the devastation of the militarization of the war on drugs, and part "look at what daring stuff this white guy did." Vulliamy gets some things right - pointing out the fact that the drug trade is just another form of transnational capitalism; examining the U.S. role in arming the cartels and laundering their money; describing the toll neoliberalism has taken on Mexico in terms of migration and maquiladoras; and putting names and faces on some the 35,000+ dead in Felipe Calderón's disastrous so-called fight against organized crime. The main problem is that all of this is carried out superficially and with a lack of historical context and political analysis, along with omissions and errors. As such, if you want to know how things are right now in the borderlands, reading this book might be somewhat useful. If you want to know why things are they way they are right now, this book will not help you.
In glossing over the past to get to the juicy, bloody present, Vulliamy does his readers a disservice. There is no discussion of how the war on drugs as a concept emerged in the Nixon-era and developed as a strategy of population containment and oppression, a politically expedient and enormously profitable endeavor that since 2001 has coalesced well with the rhetoric of the war on terror and Bush and Obama's war on migrants. The end of 70 years of PRI rule in Mexico on the federal level, dismantling the pre-existing arrangements with the drug cartels just as they were getting more powerful due to the collapse of the Colombian cartels, goes nearly unexamined. Similarly ignored is the role that Calderón's legitimacy played in the launching of a military offensive inside of Mexico. As he fraudulently arrived at the presidency, the drug war was a means of instilling his regime with legitimacy. Scant attention is paid to the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.'s billion dollar military aid package to Mexico, nor to how the same police and military forces receiving the aid and executing the "drug war" are also involved in large scale human rights violations, massive corruption, and the severe repression of Mexico's social movements - all with impunity. Linking these factors to the current events that this book covers is essential for any understanding of the situation.
Adding to the contextual shortcomings of the book are the various errors and poor translations. It's stunning his editors either in the U.K. or U.S. did not hire a translator to verify his Spanish - or at least open a Spanish-English dictionary. Some of the more humorous examples: He translates gabacho as someone from Europe and gringo as someone from the U.S. (Both mean someone from the U.S., Vulliamy would simply be a güero); and translating fresa - in reference to someone who dresses or acts bourgeois - literally as strawberry. Regarding the facts, some examples of errors: The claim that Carlos Salinas privatized communally-held land in the 1980s. (He only arrived at the presidency in December of 1988, privatization did not begin until after the 1992 reform of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution in preparation for NAFTA.) Vulliamy's statement that the Arrellano Félix Organization intentionally killed Cardinal Posadas Ocampo in 1993 in order to target the Catholic Church. (Initial investigations showed they confused Posadas' convoy with that of a rival cartel leader. More recent investigations indicate the assassination was likely state-sponsored.) Or also his writing that "the only investigation of its kind" into Los Zetas penetration into Monterrey was carried out by a Los Angeles Times reporter, ignoring those done by Mexican journalists or Kristin Bricker for Narco News.
In sum, Vulliamy's book leaves much to be desired and that which is present should be cautiously digested. Even if it took a bit longer to put out, a more thoroughly-considered and better edited version of this book would have made a much more useful contribution to this politically-manufactured crisis facing Mexico and increasingly the U.S.