Editor's note: This story contains violent images.
The horror gets more spectacular all the time.
Seven dead men were tied to seven plastic chairs in a central plaza in Uruapan, Michoacan. They’d been shot through the head, their faces wrapped in what looked like white gauze. Some had threatening messages nailed to their chests with ice picks.
Such striking imagery has become a calling card for Mexican cartels, who are widely held responsible for the country’s ever-climbing death toll: according to Human Rights Watch, over 60,000 people lost their lives to drug violence between 2006 and 2012. 30 have been killed so far this year.
The cartels' activities are often so shrouded in silence that it’s difficult to know their precise motives with certainty. But what we do know is their knack for spectacle, and with that comes an illuminating degree of historical significance.
To clarify, consider these examples:
In his 2008 book Murder City, Charles Bowden describes how cartels attached lists of names to a prominent police memorial in Ciudad Juarez. The names were understood as belonging to doomed members of the public: reporters, politicians, police officers, et cetera. All had somehow displeased the cartels, and most would end up killed.
In October 2010 (also in Juarez), gunmen entered a teenage boy’s birthday party and opened fire, killing 14 people and injuring twenty more. The youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl.
And in a notorious incident last May, forty-nine decapitated and mutilated bodies were dumped on a highway between the northern city of Monterrey and the U.S. border. The Associated Press dubbed it part of “an escalating war of intimidation among drug gangs.”
In all three cases, emphasis is placed on highly visible and spectacular punishment. Gone are the shadowy Mafia hits we’re accustomed to from the movies: in the Mexican drug war, you don’t just disappear. Your death is an example for everyone, presented in all its photo-ready glory.
Photo Credit: CNN
Considering current fixations on image and viral web content, this is a viable strategy. Mass slaughter is now Facebook shareable: There exist few better ways of effectively sending a message than a striking image. And despite their horror, there’s something undeniably artistic in the way these mass killings are structured, so clearly executed with a distinct aesthetic in mind.
A similar philosophy seems to have informed past methods of retribution, like the crucifixions of the Roman Empire: part of why the figure of Christ on the cross became such an iconic religious symbol is its visceral power as an image.
The September 11 hijackers knew this, too (or at least benefited from it). The two planes crashing into the World Trade Center have emerged as a defining symbol of our era, and what better way to solidify its indelibility than ensuring its visual effectiveness? A clear September morning, blue skies, sunshine, two targets towering above all others: these are the ideal ingredients of an unforgettable photo.
Without presuming motive, it certainly seems the Mexican cartels are inserting themselves into this long narrative of spectacular punishment. And as evidenced by the rise of Christianity and, more recently, the expansion of the "war on terror," a powerful image can go a long way toward influencing the course of history.
But if nothing else, the cartels have our undivided attention. We’d do well to keep our eyes open.