The War on Drugs Victimized a Generation. Now We Have to Give Them a Future.
Pedro Carrizales — “El Mijis” — came to Mexican politics by an unconventional route: a former gang member from the barrios of San Luis Potosí, he is now a left-wing state legislator, dedicated to the plight of Mexico’s poor young people, collateral damage of the war on drugs.
- Interview by
- Kurt Hackbarth
The “War on Drugs” has been devastating to Mexico’s social fabric. It has waged a war on young people who, already suffering the absence of any real opportunities in education or employment, have increasingly turned to the expanding network of drug cartels or, thanks to kidnappings or induced addictions, have been forced into their ranks.
At the same time, these chavos banda, or gang members, suffer the stigma of the poor and marginalized in a society rigidly stratified by race and class. Thousands have been killed; thousands more have flooded the nation’s overburdened penitentiary system, from which they are cycled back out onto the streets.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidency in 2018, he promised to end the violence and attend to the needs of these left-behind youths. Pedro Carrizales, who won a seat in the legislature of his home state of San Luis Potosí for the Morena/Workers’ Party Coalition — Carrizales is currently sitting as an independent — dedicated himself to the same work.
Known by his nickname El Mijis, Carrizales is intimately familiar with the situation of the chavos banda because he himself was a gang member in his youth and fought addiction before becoming an activist and getting involved in politics. Active in a number of local organizations, Carrizales led a group of chavos banda on a bike tour of state legislatures in 2015 to deliver petitions urging an end to the criminalization of youth.
Carrizales’s own election to the legislature in San Luis Potosí provoked national attention – and outcry: his appearance, his tattoos, his informal dress, and his supposed prison history all came under criticism. Nonetheless, Carrizales — through a plain-speaking style and an agile use of social media — has become a national sensation, and a spokesperson for many who feel unrepresented by a political system where patronage, pedigree, and personal contacts continue to rule.
Kurt Hackbarth sat down with Carrizales to discuss discrimination, violence, and the abandoned young people on the frontlines of international drug policy.
Thirteen years ago, Felipe Calderón launched a war on drugs that has caused the death of over 200,000 people and devastated Mexico’s social fabric. What are some of the consequences of this war on the young people from the barrios, those who have had to suffer this firsthand?
The public policies that were implemented were not the correct ones. The strategies to address insecurity have not been focused on prevention, on rescuing young people, on asking them: What do you want? What do you need? Young people have not been taken into account; there’s no real research, everything is done from behind a desk. That’s why these strategies have failed.
It’s almost as if they were saying: “Well, there’s no work, we’re not going to provide any work for them, so it’s better that they just kill each other off.”
A reporter asked me once: “What did you aspire to when you were living in the barrio?” To live, to survive! You go out and the first thing you face is violence. So many people see us as a political quota. They justify their inability to provide public safety because of the social rancor that exists towards those in the barrio, with their tattoos or their long hair or the way they dress. They label them as delinquents.
The only thing the war against drugs did was to close the borders, which meant that the cartels could expand into the cities. The chavos banda were the motor of that. “Come work with us,” they said, and they began to recruit. And if there weren’t any other opportunities from the government, they went with what was on offer.
On one hand, there is the pressure from the cartels, but on the other there is the repression from the state in the form of the police or armed forces. And the chavos banda are stuck in the middle.
The police operations are obviously discriminatory because they’re based on how you look. They don’t go to Lomas [a high-income district in Mexico City], they don’t go to middle-class areas. And this is what harms us as a society. We’re getting used to executions, we’re getting used to seeing lynchings, to seeing two people fighting in the subway and, instead of separating them, we take a video. We are losing our sensibility, our empathy. It’s not just a question of placing all the responsibility on the president. Obviously the state has its responsibility, but we as a society, what are we doing? From a very young age, we’re taught that men are womanizers, men are machistas, so we create a false ideology and say: “Ah, I go out and fight, I’m so clever, I’m this and that.”
And I think it’s the exact opposite: we have to change our social conscience, how we educate ourselves and how we raise our kids. How great would it be if the police didn’t show up like robocops to pin down the guy who’s getting high? How great would it be if instead they said, “Where do you live? We’re going to take you home because you’re going a little crazy.” But no: the ideology is that he’s the bad guy and I’m the good guy, so he has to be taken down.
Since police operations always take place in the barrios, and not the middle- and upper-class areas, there are whole sections of the population who have no real idea what it’s like to be the object of this assault. How can you communicate this reality to people who are separated from it across the divides of both class and skin color?
Unfortunately, Mexico is a country of discrimination, even among Mexicans themselves. I was at the Congress when they were discussing the Amnesty Bill. [The Amnesty Bill, passed by the House of Deputies in December 2019, would provide an amnesty to nonviolent offenders, including woman who had abortions or the doctors who performed them, political prisoners, indigenous people who did not receive due process in their language, and in cases of minor theft without battery. Its passage is pending in the Senate.] I tried to explain that someone who has lived comfortably, who had his parents, who had money, and then one day goes out and kills someone is a different case to someone whose environment is violent, and who has to survive. You can’t judge them the same.
And that’s where the amnesty comes in. What are we going to leave to the younger generations? I decided to get out of the gang world because I didn’t want my children to inherit my problems. We need to get rid of the stigma that a person with tattoos or a shaved head is bad, that the dark-skinned person doesn’t deserve to sit next to me because I’m white.
Look: there is a crisis of power. I have the power to kill someone because I want to, and I do it. There is a crisis of impunity. You see my cell phone; it’s worth $25,000 pesos and you decide to steal it because you know it won’t cost you that much. Why?
Because even if the police catch me, they won’t respect the chain of custody. Then they’ll take me to the public prosecutor who won’t do their job right, and then the judge will see that they didn’t follow due process and let me go, even though I’m guilty. But what if the police do their job, the prosecutor does theirs, the judge does theirs, and what you thought was going to be cheap winds up costing you a lot.
You were elected to the state legislature of San Luis Potosí in 2018. During the campaign, there was an attempt to kidnap you; your car has also been shot at and you’ve been attacked with a rock. We talk in the abstract about barriers to entering into politics, but you’ve encountered those barriers physically. Tell us about your journey from the streets to the capitol building?
It’s been difficult, a learning process. Mexico’s legislative spaces are dedicated to those in suits, with green eyes; the fact that you came from a barrio and have tattoos breaks the entire paradigm. It’s obvious that the media and economic powers don’t want the people to understand that they do have power, and that the day they decide to participate and get elected to do things out of love for their community, the old politics will end. The difference is that in the barrio your enemies are right in front of you and in politics they stab you in the back.
When you open politics out, you begin to see an influx of people coming from backgrounds in activism and social struggle, who won’t allow themselves to be corrupted because they have to go out and look their people in the eye. Now, if someone wants to go to Congress, or wants to become a politician, there’s a precedent. “Remember El Mijis, a gang member and drug addict who went and did things right.”
You’ve taken on some difficult issues in your first two years, among them abortion rights (which goes against centuries of Catholic indoctrination) and your push to prohibit animal fights, including cockfighting, dogfighting, and bullfighting — activities that have deep roots in certain sectors of Mexican society. How have you performed this work of persuasion?
I think Mexican society has gotten used to having a boot on its neck that doesn’t let us breathe. We have Stockholm Syndrome and these issues are obviously tough ones. They weren’t my issues, but I took them up because when I was younger, I would have liked there to have been a legislator who represented my voice.
There were those who said: “What’s El Mijis going to do in Congress? It’s different being a leader out there than creating consensus inside.” And I showed that I could do it. We rescued the same-sex marriage bill when everyone had left it for dead. We began pushing in the media, applying pressure, and we won something historic for such an unequal class society.
Then came the abortion issue. The fact that I fight for freedoms doesn’t mean that I go around promoting abortions; I simply know that it’s a right a woman must have. But conservative and Catholic groups have put up a bunch of giant banners, narco-style, taking advantage of the Fátima case and all of the social psychosis in order to terrify me and the Morena lawmakers. [On February 11, 2020, seven-year-old Fátima was kidnapped outside of her elementary school in Mexico City, raped, and murdered. The case led to a growing cry in Mexico against mistreatment and killings of women of all ages.] “Look at them: the baby-killers, the child-killers.” It’s political violence, and all because we wanted to be responsible. Clandestine abortions are the fourth cause of death nationally and in my opinion it constitutes a feminicide when an adolescent girl dies from a backstreet abortion.
More than a year after AMLO has taken office, the levels of violence are as high as before. His National Guard replicates many of Mexico’s past problems of having a militarized police force. On the other hand, there are his new social programs targeted at young people such as stay-in-school scholarships and work apprenticeships. Is it a question of giving things time? Or is a change of strategy necessary?
You can’t fight violence with violence. In this, I’ve always believed we have to try unorthodox things. We can end violence by other means.
Here in Arbolitos [a working-class barrio in the city of San Luis Potosí], there’s a housing complex controlled by two gangs. So every time there’s a fight, it means death, sometimes even of third parties. To address the problem, the first thing you have to do is get people out of a violent environment. I took fifteen young guys to the beach, something they’d never seen in their lives. And in the bus, we brought along psychologists and experts in drug addiction. We had them there for two weeks and then we went back and took the other gang. So then you’ve had a month of peace and you can start connecting them with different programs, because sometimes they don’t believe you and say, “They’re just coming here to sweeten the pill.”
It would seem virtually impossible to defeat a cartel like Sinaloa, which has a presence in over eighty countries and billions of dollars a year in sales, with this kind of incremental work. Do you think it can be done?
I’ve gotten hired killers off the streets. I have a program called Pintando tu cantón [paint your neighborhood] where the chavos earn $7,000 pesos a week. An assassin makes $8,000–$12,000 pesos every two weeks — if he’s still alive. Here, you’re your own boss. I give them the paint and they paint the facades of houses. The neighbors kick in $300–$350 pesos and they do it in two hours and move on to the next. Everyone wants their house looking good and this way you’re teaching them to work and you’re doing a community service.