Several commentators have been wondering recently whether the people of Mexico support the narcos or the authorities. In a recent piece on COIN strategy, (a good read, by the way) Patrick Corcoran of ganchoblog argues that "in the battle between the drug gangs and the government, the loyalty of the people is plainly not at stake."
Patrick argues that "poll after poll demonstrates this. The polling group BGC published a survey in the Mexico City daily Excélsior in September of 2010 showing 88 percent support for anti-drug policies. A few months previous, Pew’s Global Opinions Project polled 80 percent support for the use of the army to combat organized crime. Seeking an answer to basically the same question, the Mexican firm Mitofsky found 74 percent support of using the army in April of 2010."
Unfortunately, the odds of the people being polled actually telling the pollsters the truth are minimal.
I agree with Patrick on a lot of things in the piece, except for this part. I've interviewed countless residents of Ciudad Juarez, Sinaloa, Tijuana, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan over the past four years. I've asked them about the narcos. I've asked them about the army. I've asked them about the police. The only common denominator in their answers was their apparent schizophrenia.
ME: Do you support the narcos?
THEM: Yes, well, no, because we don't like the violence between them, but they leave us alone. So, yes.
ME: Do you support the army?
THEM: Oh yes... but no, because the soldiers bring more violence. But yes, perhaps.
ME: Do you trust the police?
THEM: Hell no.
ME: Who do you support in the war against organized crime?
THEM: Well the narcos, obviously – I mean, the authorities, the army, the police, the government.
ME: What is the best solution you can think of for the future?
THEM: Let Chapo take control.
The sad reality of these apparently funny answers (which, incidentally, are pretty close to the real answers, I'm not taking many liberties here) is that very few people I have interviewed really seemed to know whose side they were on, or were willing to admit it. They are stuck in the middle of a bloody conflict, and are not quite sure whether they can actually trust the authorities to look after them. They know that when the old-school narcos are in charge – the Chapos – things are quieter. When the army comes to town, things settle down a bit, but then violence heats up, there's a human rights abuse or two, and suddenly the army is Public Enemy No. 1 again. The only thing they're sure of is that the police can't be trusted.
Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a cop in the police station in Culiacan back in 2008.
ME: It must be hard to know who to trust around here.
COP: Yeah, sure. I don't even trust myself.
He was joking. I think. I dunno. Maybe not.