Mexico: Local militias are training children

+ Arab women reporting the Arab world

Mexico: Local militias are training children

Dear friends,

The photos started to go viral in Mexico in late January: very young Nahua (indigenous) children and teenagers in the mountains of Guerrero state, marching in army file, rifles held against their shoulders. In particular, José Luis de la Cruz’s January 22 image of a 12 year-old boy, eyes and gun trained directly on the camera, has been shared thousands of times.

Hot on the tail of the Mexican national media, stories quickly appeared in internationally distributed US, UK, and European media about children in the state of Guerrero joining the ranks of the CRAC-PF, one of Mexico’s armed community self-defense organisations, following a massacre in the area in which ten musicians travelling between towns for a concert lost their lives.

The CRAC-PF was formed to defend indigenous territory from the incursion of powerful organized crime syndicate Los Ardillos (‘The Squirrels’). Townspeople told media that the massacre was the catalyst for deciding to arm and train their children. The threat of violence from Los Ardillos had become so great, they said, that they must teach children to defend themselves from being killed.

As the images reverberated throughout Mexico, the CRAC-PF drew criticism from human rights and child protection organisations, as well as President López Obrador, for recruiting innocent children to military activities. Guerrero state governor Hector Astudillo met with CRAC-PF leaders and the mayor of Chilapa on January 23. When foreign media arrived to the town in the mountains to find out more, CRAC-PF founder Bernardino Sánchez Luna told VICE, for example, that “Now that we show off the children, the governor is coming to our community and meeting with us. But if we hadn’t done that, the governor would never have come”.

On February 8th, members of the white, Mormon, Mexican-American LeBarón family, who in early November lost nine people to a massacre in Sonora in the north of Mexico, visited Chilapa as part of a national march for “Peace, Justice and Truth”; recognising the losses of these often forgotten communities in Guerrero. And by early last week, the children had been withdrawn from arms training under a deal between the CRAC-PF and the state government family services agency to bring more government resources to the area.

I’ve been wondering what all this rinds up* to. I report on the impacts of the ‘war on drugs’ in the mountain towns of Guerrero, and it’s not uncommon to see very young men carrying rifles and wearing the uniform of a community self-defense group, of which there are at least 20, controlling at least 50 per cent of the state’s territory. Many, many children are malnourished and miss out on school and their communities have been fighting, in one way or another, for a better life for their kids, for a long time.

Of course, child soldiers is a media trope — children bearing arms is powerful content that carries incitement to protect the innocent from exploitation. Once upon a time, postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak described this dynamic as reducible in impact to Freud’s “a child is being beaten”, or, in the case of the story she wanted her readers to consider, “white men are saving brown women from brown men.”

Clearly, there’s still plenty of interrogation needed into the mediated morality of international reporting, and lucky for us, we have Zahra Hankir, Lebanese-British journalist, editor and author of the celebrated recent anthology Our women on the ground to help us do it, in this case regarding international reporting on the Arab world.  I’m really pleased to finally present this interview that she gave me for The Troubled Region over email at the end of last year.

No filters: an interview with Zahra Hankir

I had been thinking of Our women on the ground, a moving and illuminating collection of essays by Arab women who report on the Arab world, as an alternative reference to current dominant narratives about Arab countries (e.g. those present in reporting about the war on terror, Islamic State, women and Islam, the conflict in Syria, the Arab Spring, and the famine in Yemen), and as a way of understanding the limits of Western-centric, US-dominated international journalism.

It is that, but more importantly, wrote Hankir in our email exchange, “when editing and curating this book, I was less preoccupied with the notion of international, western, US-based reporting being limiting in some ways and more concerned with what the women themselves have to offer in their own reporting. (The lines can be blurred, too, because some of these women do indeed work for Western media organizations).”

“The closeness, the intimacy, the access, the linguistic advantages, the ability to navigate the story with a profound understanding rooted in one’s own identity — these are all factors that make their coverage and insight unique. And those factors also come with a multitude of challenges. The women themselves are incredibly savvy when it comes to rising above and navigating those challenges. My goal here was to recognize the women’s bravery and the importance of their work and to celebrate them, rather than to look at their work through the prism of Western media.

Indeed, she continued, “at the very heart of this book was the notion of women reclaiming their own narratives and taking the mic with no filters at hand and no particular audience in mind. As a result, they take a step back from their day-to-day coverage to assess the coverage itself, and how it has impacted them. Many of the women had to sift through trauma to write. That level of intimacy -- where the stakes are incredibly high, and where one’s reporting is a part of the historical fabric of one’s own country -- is unparalleled. And as such, the narratives are unique, as they constitute reflections that go beyond mainstream journalism and beyond dominant discourses. They are authentic in every sense of the word.”

AD: Fellow foreign correspondent Alexis Okeowo has said that "There are few phrases I cringe at more than “giving voice” or “bearing witness”, as if journalists are Christopher Columbus on his ship heroically “discovering” America…”. How are the essays in Our women on the ground speaking back to the 'discovery' narrative?

ZH: The book reverses that narrative entirely, in that there is no such “discovery,” “giving voice,” or “bearing witness” here: the women, for the most part, are locals, reporting authentically and with nuance on what they observe around them (I would posit that even those with Western passports or those who work for Western media approach their stories differently, given their ancestry and dual identities).

They are not foreign correspondents or war reporters parachuting into and out of a conflict zone; they are journalists doing their jobs in their homelands. Their bearing witness is constant; they are not “giving voice” as they have their own voices, and understand that their subjects do as well -- they are sharing with us those voices, while amplifying the voices of others. And they are not “discovering,” they are relaying what they know to be true, based on their information gathering. There are no filters and there is no Western gaze in Our Women on the Ground.

AD: Could you name outlets and/or editors who are doing good work right now to amplify necessary voices in the news cycle/international discourse around the lives of Arab women and/or other historically disenfranchised voices?

ZH: In the Arab world in particular, there are some great independent outlets doing this work: Mada Masr in Egypt (Lina Attalah is featured in OWOTG); 7iber in Jordan; The Public Source in Lebanon (which has just launched); Jadaliyya; Raseef22; MegaPhone and AlJumhuriya. Beyond the Arab world, Africa is a Country and Gal-dem are fantastic. There are others that I am definitely missing, but these are the publications that come to mind as I frequently turn to them.

AD: A running theme in the book is the refusal by the authors, Arab women, to present subjects, especially when those subject are Arab women, as victims -- and especially considering that the trope of 'Arab women as victims' has been used to justify the war on terror. Why is it important that this discourse of victimage is resisted in international reporting, and what in your view has been the effect of such resistive reporting?

ZH: “Victimization” of “subjects” or “sources”, as often reflected in international reporting, is in my opinion an extension of (or in the same family as) infantilization -- it fuels the idea of the “West” and the “Other” and it strips people of their agency, their resourcefulness, and their ability to rise above challenges and to demand their rights. The approach often focuses on the subject as “oppressed” or “repressed” by dominant, unmovable forces. While I cringe when addressing tropes about Arab women, as the battle against those tropes is a tiresome one, it is important to address those tropes if we are to succeed at dismantling them, as they are indeed alive and well. Often women in fact wield a quiet yet substantial power in the region, particularly in conflict zones, as captured beautifully by reporter Hannah Allam in her essay, ‘The Woman Question’ [pp 3-13]: “Their experiences were woven into the stories I filed, but I never wrote the truth as plainly as this: Every time Iraq began to unravel, it was women who worked the hardest to stitch it back together.”

Till next time,


*Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes of how ‘nascent forms quicken, rinding up like the skin of an orange’.

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Jamie Larson