The Psychological Violence of Mexico’s War on Drugs

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A Mexico City protest during President Felipe Calderon's era. The sign says Calderon is "responsible for more than 65,000 deaths of children under 6 years old." Photo by Eneas De Troya via Flickr.

The violence committed by Mexican police and military forces during that country’s prolonged drug war has wreaked a psychological toll at least as debilitating as the deadly acts of the drug cartels themselves, according to a study from the Mexican Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE)

The study, published in the International Journal on Drug Policy, entitled “Mourning our dead: The impact of Mexico’s war on drugs on citizens’ depressive symptoms,” found that the emotional distress produced by the war extended to all its citizens, not just to direct victims of violence.

The authors said they built on earlier U.S. research showing that mental health is influenced by “vicarious exposure to violence (witnessing and hearing about it), fear, and the victimization of individuals’ close acquaintances” to challenge the notion that the population-level effect of drug violence on non-victims is of limited importance.

The study argued it was important for policymakers to understand “that it is not only organized crime that terrorizes the population, but also violence caused by the government’s war on drugs.”

“Specifically,” it added, “the population is afflicted when government forces act without the appropriate safeguards and regulations that guarantee the security of civilians, and when the government systematically violates human rights.

“Consequently, resorting to less confrontational strategies to fight criminals should have benefits for mental health and wellbeing at the population level.”

According to the study, the gruesome killing methods of the drug gangs, along with the “advertising” of their murderous acts by criminal organizations—through so-called “narcomessaging”—and the victimization of friends and acquaintances, worked as “stress transmission channels” for individuals who had not directly experienced violence.

The authors noted that the country’s high homicide rates and well-publicized clashes between criminal groups by themselves did not appear to produce emotional distress in Mexican society at large.

Nevertheless, they wrote, “the war on drugs is a strategy that is causing damage to citizens who are not directly involved in the conflict,” adding that “these non-direct victims should be identified, and mental health services should be provided in the most affected communities.”

Authors Iván Flores Martínez and Laura Helena Atuesta performed a combined analysis of municipal-level data from the Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS) and statistics collected by CIDE’s Drug Policy Program, focusing on the violent years of the Felipe Calderón administration.

Between December 2006 and November 2011, CIDE recorded a total of 36,378 violent events. That included 30,982 executions and 3,835 confrontations between criminal groups, or between criminal organizations and state forces. To measure the effect of different types of violence on citizens who were not directly touched by the violence as survivors, family members or bystanders, Martínez and Atuesta constructed a “depression index” from the Emotional Wellbeing section of the Mexican Family Life Survey interviews in the month following violent incidents.

These “non-direct victims” were found to be deeply affected by grisly incidents perpetrated by the crime groups, particularly their sadistic methods, such as extended torture, beheadings, burning, and dismemberment. The narcomessages left behind by perpetrators were also psychologically destabilizing.

But the study also found that depression increased significantly when government forces participated in violence; and the more local the security or police force, the worse the symptoms, according to the report.

“One additional confrontation with the participation of local [security] forces in the municipality increases depression symptoms by 5.5 percent. Similarly, one additional confrontation with the participation of the police in the municipality increases depression symptoms by 2.9 percent.”

Flores and Atuesta said these results reflect the lack of confidence citizens have in police, underlined by reports that organized crime has infiltrated local institutions.

Their findings could also be evidence that “in some parts of Mexico, people are more afraid of the way in which the government fights crime than of the criminals themselves,” they wrote, noting reports from the National Human Rights Commission (CMDPDH) that have documented the use of “torture and degrading treatment by the police, armed forces, and prosecutors to obtain confessions and testimonies through coercion.”

After pressure from the CMDPDH earlier this year, Mexican authorities released the findings of a 2016 visit from the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, which found that members of local, municipal and state police as well as military and immigration officials were involved in these abusive practices. Meanwhile, the lack of independence between forensic labs and government prosecutors often means that torture by state actors remains concealed, according to the UN report.

Policy Implications

According to Flores and Atuesta, “Mexico requires police reform, not only to avoid the involvement of the military in public security operations, but also to avoid social and psychological damage produced by weak police forces fighting organized crime.”

The authors concede the difficulty in designing policy interventions to reduce the psychological damage of violence, since it is multi-causal and affects different sectors of the population more than others (including women, the elderly, and victims of forced displacement).

But they suggest that officials could implement “fear-reduction” strategies in municipalities most affected by violence, such as placing security cameras in public spaces, and improving neighborhood infrastructure. It’s unclear how the government can reduce the fear spread by narcomessages, which have proliferated since 2007 as drug trade organizations began to splinter and diversify their activities.

However, the authors argue that using “less confrontational strategies” to fight criminals would increase the mental health and wellbeing of the population at large.

An abstract of the report can be downloaded here. A full copy is available for purchase only.

Victoria Mckenzie, Deputy Editor-Investigations of The Crime Report, has frequently reported on Latin American issues. She welcomes comments from readers.

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