Tan lejos de la patria

An exhibition displays the struggles and successes of Mexicans living in the UK

Part of the ‘Being Human’ festival, ‘Mexicans UK’ illustrates a mixed community of backgrounds both similar and distinct, of futures aimed and obscured. It explores concepts of blurred humanity and personal imagination among those Mexicans who came to the UK for work or study, for love or family.

It is a collaboration between the brother-sister act of Mexican-British photographers Roxana and Pablo Allison. It consists of 32 portraits: one person from all 31 Mexican states and also the federal district of Mexico City.

Here are some of the images that stood out for me:

Mariacarmen Cárdenas - (Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Mariacarmen Cárdenas (Mexico City) – Credit for this image and all photos below: Pablo and Roxana Allison

Mariacarmen Cárdenas told a sad tale. After coming to the UK with her British husband, the marriage broke down and she went through family and workplace battles. She painted a sorrowful picture of life in the UK but was adamant she would not be returning to Mexico. She seemed to be facing her situation defiantly; a position of quiet strength emphasised in the picture above by her gaze and the political memorabilia of indigenous struggle.

 

Karla Mancilla - (Credit: Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Karla Mancilla (State: Baja California Sur)

Originating from Baja California Sur, Karla Mancilla’s story struck me as the narrative of water: migration and movement. Waves swell with force and becalm with stillness; they could carry Karla back home, or bar her way. She is from a Pacific state back home and is sitting in the picture here next to a British watercourse. She talks in detail about the oceanic fauna of her state, the whale sharks, dolphins and sea lions. Ms Mancilla lists shredded manta ray as her favourite dish.

 

Willams Santis - (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Willams Santis   (Chiapas)

Williams Santis came to the UK for family. He met an Irish girl in Mexico and had a baby with her, then moved from Mexico to be with them in the UK. He now works in a car park and as an artist. Here, leaning against an open caravan door, is he pondering the racism that he says he suffers in the UK? Or his proud indigenous roots? Maybe he is thinking about the Irish woman and his child. For Mr Santis, love knew no bounds.

 

Michelle Dominguez (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Michelle Dominguez   (Chihuahua)

Troubling security and political instability are the main concerns for Michelle Dominguez, as she looks back to the land of her birth. I liked her pose here, caught between two rooms – two countries – casually hovering under one sky, one roof. She is leaning on the threshold against a pane of mottled glass, blurring the views back to where she has come from and blurring the future for those left behind.

 

Efrain Carpintero (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Efrain Carpintero   (Querétaro)

The quietness, religiosity and burgeoning economic activity of Querétaro state are called to mind by Efrain Carpintero, who is in the UK researching for a PhD. I felt a positivity coming through this portrait, an academic ambition from a softly beautiful state.

 

Natalia Cervantes (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Natalia Cervantes   (Sinaloa)

Layered in Nature, staring straight ahead, perhaps Natalia Cervantes is combining her thoughts: a wooded mix of the dusty plants from her home state of Sinaloa and the wet verdancy of her adopted country. This image caught my eye for its natural setting and the fact the woman is Sinaloan, from an edgy corner of the country, and here is painting a picture of the people and the food, tinged with bloody streets of drugs violence, set against the mountains, plains and coastline.

Border-crossing

The US Secretary of Homeland Security hints at a Bin Laden-style killing of leading Mexican mobster

Janet Napolitano recently completed a short tour of five Central American countries. She kicked off in Mexico, where she and the Mexican Interior Minister, Alejandro Poiré, signed security agreements and, it seems, had some heart-to-hearts about the continued search for Forbes Rich-Listed Joaquín ‘Shorty’ Guzmán. In the press conference that followed the meetings Napolitano admitted:

“Well, let me just say it took us 10 years to find Osama Bin Laden and we found him and you know what happened there. I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen with Guzmán, but I am suggesting that we are persistent when it comes to wrongdoers and those who do harm in both of our countries. So that issue continues.”

Joaquín Guzmán is certainly the prize target. He is the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He was jailed in 1993 but has been on the run since escaping in 2001 in a laundry basket. Sightings have been made every now and again of ‘Shorty’ in and around his gang’s state capital, Culiacán. His latest wedding to an 18-year-old bride was well attended. But he is an elusive character and the photograph the press use to illustrate their stories is a grainy picture taken nearly 20 years ago when he was still behind bars.

The Mexican government’s wanted list of mobsters has been growing gradually smaller but killing or capturing Guzmán would be a major coup for the president. After lower house losses in 2009 Felipe Calderón is a lame duck at present and his National Action Party (PAN) seems set to be kicked out of the presidency and the Senate in July’s elections. It would be a boost for the PAN candidate for the top job, Josefina Vázquez Mota, if the wealthy gangster were taken off the beat.

His gang is arguably the most ‘successful’ of the major groups and forms the most important part of the ‘old’ foundation alliance with the Gulf organisation and the Knights Templar. Taking out its mysterious leader would also help stop the comments from across the country that the government has been favouring the Sinaloa gang by cracking down harder on its rivals, the ‘new’ foundation of Los Zetas, La Familia and organisations from Juarez and Tijuana. Analysts of the violence believe that the Sinaloa criminals may have finally wrested control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez from the local gangs; critics of the government say that this was achieved with an ‘understanding’ from the security forces. The president has categorically denied any such plots.

The US has already been given permission from Mexico City to fly unmanned drones over the Sinaloa mountains and Chihuahua deserts of its neighbour to see what it can see. Will the next step be boots on the ground? The American government would want to avoid the kind of backlash seen in Pakistan after the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden there. The Mexican constitution outlaws foreign intervention on its soil. But, as we saw in that villa near the Afghan border in May last year, sometimes the small issue of national sovereignty can be gently pushed aside when its comes to the elimination of the Washington’s ‘high value targets’.

The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.

A human side to Mexico’s gangs?

Protecting communities, building schools and now offering to avenge the death of a campaigning pacifist – is the seemingly human side of Mexico’s drug gangs hampering the government’s ‘war on drugs’?

In June 2009, Rubi Marisol Escobedo’s mutilated body was found in a bin in Ciudad Juarez. Her boyfriend, Sergio Arranza, was arrested but later released from custody, prompting Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, to begin a campaign to ensure her daughter’s killers were brought to justice. On 19 December this year, Marisela was shot dead. On 21 December, Marisela’s brother-in-law was also killed and his timber business burnt down.

Mexico is reeling from this triple attack on a family. But help has arrived from an unexpected source: the Sinaloa gang. Arguably the country’s most powerful gang, led by Joaquin ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzman, they have called on the public to denounce the killers. They have also offered to carry out justice themselves and punish the murderers in their own way.

It may seem incongruous but many of the gangs see themselves as upholders of public order. Many Mexicans agree. On 9 December, Mexican police shot dead Nazario Moreno, the leader of notorious gang La Familia Michoacana. Three days later, some 300 people held a peaceful rally in the Michoacan state capital Morelia in support of La Familia.

La Familia gang is seen as a way of life in the state and funds from the gang have been directed to road and school-building programmes. They are the most overtly religious of the cartels, promoting family and Catholic values. Mr Moreno wrote a book, The Family Bible, which contained the moral code used to train new recruits.

In Sinaloa state, locals can see the community developments which the Sinaloa gang have brought about. Generations of families are connected to the gangs in some way, through an uncle or a brother. When that relative is sending back huge sums of money to improve the family lot and the community, why would one say anything to the authorities?

Many recognise the inextricable links between gang and community up and down the country. Calderon is fighting more than the gangsters and will have to change the culture of villages and towns across his country to turn the tide in the war.