Teun Voeten is a war photographer and an author. As a cultural anthropologist, he is currently doing PhD research on the drug war in Mexico. He focuses on modern warfare, predatory capitalism, extreme violence and the motivation and tactics of perpetrators, where he compares Latin American sicarios, African child soldiers and ISIS-terrorists.
'The Mexican Drug Violence: Hybrid Warfare, Predatory Capitalism and the Logic of Cruelty'
For decades, Mexico has been plagued by drug related violence. In 2006, the situation escalated when president Calderón declared war to the drug cartels. An estimated 180.000 people died over the last ten years, while cruelty and savagery have reached unprecedented levels. Currently, it has become the bloodiest conflicts in a modern, industrialized, democratic society and there is no sign that it is abating.
At the height of the violence, during the years 2009 - 2012, I took ten trips to Mexico’s most active regions, resulting in my photo book ‘Narco Estado. Drug Violence in Mexico’ (2012). Even after 25 years as an international war reporter, I found the situation in Mexico extremely alarming. It aroused an intellectual curiosity which could not be satisfied by journalistic reporting and photography. That is why I decided to pursue in depth, academic research.
My PhD dissertation will revolve around three perspectives. I will explore in what terms the ongoing conflict can be analyzed. Is it an example of a so-called ‘new war’, a post-modern conflict in which armed groups merge with organized crime and deliberately create a situation of chaos and lawlessness? Or has it moved beyond that into a newer form of war? Secondly, I look at an economic angle. Is the drug violence a logical consequence of the neoliberal agenda implemented in Mexico in the 1980s exacerbating inequality and resulting in increasing crime rates? Can we analyze the cartels as extreme examples of predatory capitalist corporations that thrive in such a neoliberal environment? Lastly, I take an anthropological point of view. What is the rationale and what are the motivations of the actors who engage in criminal activities that might certainly end with their own death? And does the term ‘senseless violence’ make sense when we discuss extreme, horrific violence?
My research is built on theoretical research, field work, journalistic observations over the years, media analysis (both regular as well cartel propaganda disseminated through the social media) and interviews with civilians caught up in conflicts, academic experts, law enforcement personnel and criminal perpetrators.
From a political point of view, the conflict follows partially the model of a so-called ‘new war’, post-modern conflicts fought out between gangster warlords and their followers. Actually, it has actually moved beyond that into a form of hybrid warfare: multidimensional, elusive, unpredictable. It incorporates elements of multiple strategies with different intensities on multiple fronts, combined use of sophisticated and primitive weapons, fragmentation of violence, a cyber-dimension, propaganda by social media, and public display of excessive, spectacular violence.
The war being waged by radical Islam is another example of hybrid warfare. These ultra-modern wars make simultaneously use of very modern weapons and tactics but resort as well to low tech, primitive techniques. These conflicts are fought by actors that constantly switch roles and allegiances, and are not hierarchical organized, but perform in flat, network structures. In Mexico, there is not one drug war going on, but at least seven different wars, with cartels, authorities, police forces, civilians, paramilitaries, and petty criminals involved. These sub-wars interact and transform continuously and it is impossible to analyze them at separate levels. Organized crime and official authorities have completely merged and blended. Thus, the official governmental discourse of Los Buenos contra los Malos, ‘The Good Ones versus the Bad Ones’, is a cynical one and represents a pure myth. Violence used by cartels is often extreme and beyond the instrumental. However, the symbolic and communicative aspects of ultra-violence are a form of narco-propaganda used to intimidate opponents into submission. It is also a recruitment tool.
From an economic perspective, first I argue that the adaptation of a neoliberal economic policy in Mexico has increased inequality and crated a large excluded class from which the foot soldiers of the drug war are recruited. The cartels are extreme examples of predatory capitalist corporations that thrive in a neoliberal, globalized economy. In case of business disputes, criminal organizations can not resort to legal arbitration but have to find other ways to resolve these. Contrary to what most people think, violence is used selectively. Just as legal business, cartels face issues such as human resources, publicity and branding, corporate social responsibility, diversification and innovation. Different cartels have different business models. Drug cartels are a not monolithic, homogenous organizations, but have an executive board, a middle management and the lower echelons, the foot soldiers. All participants have different background and motivations. The illicit underground of the drugs economy can only exist thanks to the complicity of actors in mainstream society. These are not only corrupt politicians and financial institutions, but consumers as well.
From an anthropological point of view, I investigate the motivations of the actors who engage in criminal activities and extreme cruelty. Poverty and social-economic exclusion are important reasons for people to join an armed group or choose for a criminal career, but are not the exclusive factors. Psycho-social factors such as peer pressure, a missing sense of belonging and need for respect play an important role as well. Humans have an inhibition against killing that is nearly universal. This inhibition however, is easily side tracked with mechanisms that are cross culturally similar: by creating distance (spatial, moral and emotional), by sanctions (negative or positive) and by altering one’s state of mind (with drugs or brainwashing). I compare Mexican professional assassins with West-African child soldiers and Western Jihadists, and argue that there are cluster of motivations that are similar in these groups. In the same way, suicidal tendencies of perpetrators are based on rational calculations and expectations. Extreme acts of violence beyond the instrumental are often called ‘senseless’. However, this closes the door for investigation. There is a logic and meaning behind ‘inhumane’ violence that is in fact part of the repertoire of human behavior.
Static theoretical models fail to grasp the multidimensionality, flexibility, ultra-dynamic kinetics, and the continuous transformation and evolution of these conflicts where, crime, insurgency and terrorism merge in a new matrix.
Teun Voeten received his masters in Cultural Anthropology - minor Philosophy - at Leiden University in 1991. A photojournalist and reporter, he started to cover the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Honduras, DR Congo, North Korea, Mexico, Libya and Syria. He published in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The New Yorker and National Geographic. Voeten also works for the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR.
In 1996, he published 'Tunnel People', an anthropological-journalistic account of living five months with an underground homeless community in New York. 'A Ticket To', 1999, is a photo book with sober black and white war photos. In 2000, he wrote 'How de Body? Hope and Horror in Sierra Leone', a book about a trip to this West African country which nearly ended in disaster when Voeten was hunted down by child soldiers intent on killing him.
Over the years, Voeten initiated fundraising campaigns to help the independent media in Sarajevo, a High School in Sierra Leone and a homeless shelter in New York. Voeten also organizes photography exhibitions, such as "War Photography 10 years after 9/11" for GEMAK, in The Hague Netherlands. Between 2009 and 2012, Voeten covered the conflict in Mexico, resulting in his photo book ‘Narco Estado. Drug Violence in Mexico.’ Voeten lectures often at cultural and educational institutions worldwide, such as Cambridge, Columbia, UTEP and has won numerous awards for his work. In 2013, Voeten started to work on his PhD dissertation on the Drug Violence. His promotor is Prof. Dr. Patricio Silva. September 20th 2018, he will defend his thesis at Leiden University.
Personal website: www.teunvoeten.com