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CROSS-BORDER MURDER AND SALVATION

OR WHY WINNERS KILL IN MEXICO AND LOSERS IN THE U.S.

by Lawrence Weiner

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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Gerardo R., Coca Cola Mexicana, (2011, oil and stucco on canvas, 48' by 78') at Start Gallery, Dallas

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Many Americans view Mexico as a nation of unrelenting bloodshed, where decapitated heads are rolled into nightclubs and mutilated corpses show up overnight on the roadside. Since 2006, when the government began its war on drug traffickers, more than 60,000 people have been killed.

But Mexicans see their northern neighbor as awash in violence, too.

The recent spate of killings in Colorado and Wisconsin caused many Mexicans to shake their heads once again in disbelief. Despite the nation's high murder rate, people here still took notice: not for the number of deaths but rather how and why they happened. 

As everyone could see, these atrocities stood out from the Mexican variety.

In a recent interview in the NYT, Gustavo de la Rosa, a human rights investigator in the state of Chihuahua, said that mass killings continued on both sides of the border because each society was split into winners and losers in which "there are a lot of ways to lose and very few ways to win."

But there was at least one big difference. American losers, he said, "are condemned to lose because. like in the Greek tragedies, they have no salvation and kill out of vengeance against the society that has beaten them."

In contrast, Mexican killers "complete an objective," murdering because it helps them rise from poverty, increase their income or satisfy a boss looking to scare rivals.

Mexican critique

At first glance, this comparison makes sense.

When James Holmes entered a movie theater in suburban Denver in mid-July and opened fire-killing at least 12 people and injuring 50 others-he did so without an economic or political agenda.

He was dressed in black, carrying a knife, rifle and a handgun, and wearing a bulletproof vest. And when he was arrested, "he did not resist," a police spokesman said. "He did not put up a fight."

Which to Mexicans, seems strange. What could possibly drive an angry, disturbed individual to lash out so violently against society? 

Back in the 1990's, when Mexican newspapers hadn't yet relegated domestic killings to the 17th page, commentators had a field day with these massacres. According to many Mexican journalists, academics and politicians, U.S. rage killings were "an expression of materialism gone amok", broken homes and the unfettered pursuit of profit.

To ordinary Mexicans, they were a reminder of their great neighbor's dark side. 

Given the nation's geography and history, they became nearly  redemptive; bad things like that didn't happen in Mexico.

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore, the director and writer of "Bowling for Columbine", recently said that America's gun problem is about "guns but, as we all know, it's not really the guns." 

"Why are Americans responsible for 80 percent of all gun deaths in the 23 richest nations combined?" he asked. "Considering that the people of those countries, as human beings, are no better or worse than any of us, well, then, why us?"

Mr. Moore tried to answer his own question. First, he said, Americans "believe in killing as a way of accomplishing goals" (e.g., 3/4 of U.S. states have the death penalty). Second, Americans are an "easily frightened people. easy to manipulate with fear." As an example, he cited the 300 million registered guns in American homes, most of which were acquired for self-defense.

"Maybe we should fix our race problem and our poverty problem; then maybe there would be fewer frustrated, frightened, angry people reaching for the gun in the drawer. Maybe we could take better care of each other."

Why not Mexico?

The only strange thing is that Mr. Moore's two explanations apply in equal measure to Mexico. 

Mexicans also believe in killing as a way of achieving goals. They may not be warmongers and they may prohibit capital punishment, but let's be honest: Mexicans have shown their killing mettle throughout empires, revolutions and now, the narco wars. 

Nearly every Mexican hero and prominent leader was murdered.

Mexicans are also easily frightened, and certainly subject to manipulation-by political parties, caciques and anyone with a big-enough grudge and deep-enough pockets.

Violence and fear has played as much if not more of a role in Mexican history as in the U.S. So why aren't there more "rage killings" in Mexico?

It's the gun laws

Juan Garcia, a Mexican gun owner, may have the answer. Mr. Garcia, a law-abiding gun lover, said that gun shops should discourage people from buying guns.

"If you want to stop someone who gets mad at their wife or the world from running out and buying a gun and killing everyone," he said "you have to make it hard". 

Mr. Garcia, who lives in Mexico City, had to wait two months for approval to buy a 38 caliber pistol. "It's the only way to make people think," he said.

In America, a nation with 49,762 licensed gun dealers  and 7,261 gun-selling pawn shops, a crazy person can easily acquire a weapon-a high-powered weapon-with a minimal background check.

In Mexico, there's only one legal gun store, a drab government-style office with guns hung in "display cases as if for decoration" and not a single sales clerk.

Or is it America?

Which leads us to the conclusion that if gun laws in Mexico were as lenient as they are in the U.S., Mexicans would vent their rage in the same violent way. Or not?

Stated differently, does this have anything to do with the American way?

An astute observer from the Midwest currently living in Mexico, had this to say:

Lee (not his real name) worked as CFO for a large construction company, making nearly $100,000 a year. Several years ago, his job disappeared. He now lives happily and quite well in a small rural city in China making about $500 USD a month. There are many people to talk to, he claims, including some who speak English-which they sometimes have learned from him, much faster then he learns Chinese.

About 18 months ago, he came back to the States for a visit. He had virtually no social contact while he was there. His family had a family Christmas. They spent around 5 minutes together in one room, then took their food and separated. One sister asked him to spend all day setting up an expensive stereo he gave her when he left, then ran off to do something else. No one met him at the airport nor took him back.

He went to Starbucks hoping to chat people up. Everyone was staring into the tablet thingies.

He returned to China, swearing never to return again except for his mother's eventual funeral. When he got back, his assistant (a respectable married woman) came running out, jumping up and down with glee. She thought maybe he wouldn't come back, as many don't. Others who spoke some English flocked around.

Something about this insight makes a lot of sense, not uncommon among expats: Americans are not engagingly social, not in the same way as in many other cultures.

Does empathy matter?

A Madison Avenue ad exec once said about his fellow Americans: "Our experience of the world is limited by consumption; in many ways, our aesthetic does not engage at the level of inspiration or empathy".

It stands to reason that if people relate to their neighbors, coworkers and family with less spirit - less interest - they probably have less empathy.

Michael Moore believes "there would be fewer frustrated, frightened, angry people reaching for the gun" if Americans " took better care of each other ".

But how is that possible in a place where so many people fail to connect with one another in deep and meaningful ways? Where self-ambition and self-realization are the measure of all things?

American exceptionalism

No one seems to have answers to these questions. 

It's clear that the usual culprits are not to blame: violent movies and video games sell pretty well all over the world. And in many places-Caracas, Manila, Jakarta, London, Paris and Rome-there are broken homes, gangs and violence. 

For this reason, "salvation" seems to be as good an answer as any. The fact that there are so many ways to lose and so few ways to win-this is true!

To quote Mr.De la Rosa again: "The losers in the United States are condemned to lose" because "like in the Greek tragedies, they have no salvation".

If salvation means "the state of being saved or protected from harm" then perhaps this salvation deficit causes some folks-especially the deranged-to lash out and  kill out of vengeance against a society that has beaten them .

In America, there is no virtuous cycle, no relief if one's own efforts have failed. It's a winner-take-all, you're-on-your-own society.

Mexican exceptionalism

In contrast, Mexicans are engagingly social. You feel it immediately, from the moment you deplane; people conscious at a human level that's quite different than in Milwaukee.

South of the border, people haven't discarded social nicities. Mexicans still openly value - in spirit, language and custom - interpersonal connection.

On a political level, every Mexican is guaranteed a home and health care. INFONAVIT, Mexico's Federal Housing Authority, is one of the largest and busiest housing agencies in the world, devoted to helping the poorest residents own homes.

Yet in this same nation, where few rage killings take place and leaders across-the-board pay lip service to protecting all citizens from harm, the winners-the politicos, property owners and narcos-have blood on their hands. 

As Mr. De la Rosa stated, Mexicans kill for an objective. 

And many pray to Jesus-for salvation-before they do.

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Lawrence Weiner is an attorney and educator with extensive experience working in the Mexican legal justice system. He is currently executive director of LexiForum (www.lexiforum.com) in Mexico City.

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