There is only one thing more heartbreaking than the news that 49 mutilated corpses were discovered just outside Monterrey, Mexico yesterday: The speed with which these and many other recent victims have been written off as members of one cartel or another, battling for dominance in a brutal turf war.
When the victims were discovered this weekend, police found them decapitated, their hands were cut off—rendering it nearly impossible to identify them. Yet in almost the same sentence, government officials have insisted that the violence is taking place between organized crime members, not against civilians. But how, exactly, do we know that if we don't know who the victims are?
The reality is: We don't. And it has become an article of faith to believe that this spiral of violence really is all of criminals by criminals. Only a tiny fraction of murders and disappearances are investigated. Even fewer ever reach court. Circumstantial evidence—in this case the tattoos of victims or signals left at the crime scene—is all we have to identify the attacker and the attacked.
The only way to justify this situation—a complete lack of justice for just about everyone—is if you believe that everyone involved was a criminal or a gang member. And this is one of the primary reasons the government has been so adamant about placing the violence within the seemingly parallel world of the cartels. If the fighting is between organized crime organizations, one interpretation of the spiraling violence is that drug gangs are under pressure from the government's crackdown—and this is exactly what President Felipe Calderon's administration has argued. But if the victims are partly or even mostly civilians, we have to ask a lot more, harder questions about the ongoing drug war.
In this particular case, one official suggested that the victims could have been migrants—a group increasingly vulnerable to the cartels' wrath. Many trafficking organizations in the country have long facilitated migrants' crossing toward the United States, but it has only been in recent years that they have become more intimately involved, for example kidnapping the migrants for ransom or demanding bribes.
Whatever happened to those 49 people, their families—and Mexico more broadly—deserves to know before the label of drug-related victims is applied. To be killed—and then to be stigmatized—is truly a double crime.
Photo Credit: Zapata