A recurrent theme in my interviews was the anger that participants felt against their fathers, most of whom were domestic abusers.
Twenty-eight out of the 33 men admitted that at some point in their lives their greatest aspiration had been to kill their fathers. All said their biggest frustration had been watching their fathers beat their mothers. They wanted revenge not for themselves, but for their mothers.
The men invoked the trauma of witnessing gender violence not only when we spoke about their childhood but also when we discussed their reasons for illegal acts like drug use, vandalism and drug trafficking.
To some participants, a fantasy of making their fathers suffer was their main motivation to work in the drug trade.
“My only thought was to kill my father when I grew up,” Rorro explained. “I wanted to cut him into little pieces.” Being a narco gave him that power.
A man named Ponciano told me that he thought of his father when he was torturing his victims.
“And I made them suffer even more, like he made us suffer.”
Not everyone who had the opportunity to kill their fathers could follow through. Facundo, wishing his father to suffer but unable to kill him, told his dad to leave town.
“If I see you again, I will kill you,” he said.
What can we learn in Latin America?
Poverty and toxic masculinity. These are, my research finds, two common themes driving the men who commit so much violence not only in Mexico but across Latin America, the world’s most violent region.
The everyday life of these narcos are a breeding ground for all sorts of violence, from domestic abuse to gang rivalry. When policymakers focus on “ending drug violence,” this is the view so often missing.
Even when poverty is acknowledged as the root of other major social problems in Mexico, as some researchers have done, there is insufficient knowledge of what living in poverty actually means for these people. While many experiences of poverty where shared by my interviewees, each person in each region and each neighborhood had their own problems and specific needs.
Understanding how that background leads to violence would mean listening – really listening – to men like those I interviewed. And it means asking questions that don’t fit within the “us versus them” mentality of presidents, policymakers and police chiefs. To design more effective policies for ending violence, one must understand the logic, the worldview, of its perpetrators.
Where does all this violence come from? Who justifies its use, and how? How is violence reproduced within Mexican families, and echoed within communities? When the government responds to this violence with more violence – by sending soldiers out to fight crime, as Mexico has done for 12 years – what message does that send?
As long as governments maintain their discourse about “good people” versus “bad men,” my research suggests, it will only feed “their” indifference to “us.”