2009 Competition Winner

“When I Wear My Alligator Boots”:
Narcotrafficking in the US-Mexico Borderlands

by Shaylih Muehlmann

(Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

 

The traces of the drug trade are everywhere in the US-Mexico borderlands: from the gang violence in the border cities and drug addiction in rural enclaves to the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music and the icons of Jesus Malverde (the patron saint of narcos) tucked beneath the shirts of local people. While the specter of drug-related violence in northern Mexico has had a powerful media presence in the last few years, the story of those who are most vulnerable to the horrors of drug trafficking, and most susceptible to the promise of its rewards, is seldom told. This book tells the story of the poor, often indigenous workers living in the borderlands who are recruited to work in the lowest echelons of the drug trade, as burreros (mules) and narcotraficantes (traffickers).

When I first began research in a small indigenous settlement in northern Mexico, the narco-economy was not a subject I intended to pursue. While I was living there in 2005-2006, nine journalists who were reporting stories on the drug trade and related violence in the region were killed. The new dominance of Mexican cartels has caused a spike in violence along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, where rival cartels have come into increasing conflict with each other as well as Mexican and US authorities. It was clear that the drug trade was a topic that was dangerous to explore, but in thinking I could avoid the subject I was underestimating how deeply the narco-economy affects people’s lives in this region. In the end, I scarcely had to ask: people came to me with their stories. This book aims to bring their stories to a wider public.

The book narrates the experiences of a group of indigenous fishermen in northern Mexico who have become involved in the drug trade. I explore how the narco-economy has provided a reprieve for men and women attempting to survive while their primary form of livelihood, fishing, has been criminalized by the state because of its alleged negative environmental impact. Since the construction of the major dams on the Colorado River in the United States and the rapid growth of the American West and industrial border towns, the Mexican Colorado River Delta has suffered increasingly devastating effects from reduced water flows. Residents of this region have relied on fishing as one of their primary means of subsistence for generations, but since 1993 residents have been legally denied fishing rights in the delta under the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s fishing ban. In this book, I examine the rise of narco-trafficking as one of the economic alternatives sought by local people and how this work is seen by many as a way of resisting forms of domination imposed on them by both the Mexican and US governments.

My narrative explores a tension at the heart of the so-called “war on drugs.” For many men and women living in poverty, the narco-economy represents an alternative to the exploitation and alienation they experience trying to work in the borderland’s legal economy which has been increasingly dominated by the presence of US-owned maquiladoras (assembly plants) and ravaged by environmental degradation. Despite the lawlessness and violence brought on by the cartels and the ruinous consequences this process has had for some of the most vulnerable people involved, narco-rafficking represents one of the few promises of upward mobility for the indigenous poor in Mexico’s north.

The most powerful individuals in the drug economy vertically manage risk in such a waythat the wave of violence resulting from the current “war on drugs” hits those at the bottom of the industry. Through the stories of the people whose lives weave together in this book, the reader will learn of the experience of a young man trying to survive his prison sentence; another man’s accounts of being exploited by his bosses; a young female narcotrafficker’s terror at receiving threats from her suppliers and a mother’s agony at knowing her son was being beaten by his guards in jail. In short, my narrative will focus on the stories of those who fill the most vulnerable roles in the narco-economy and the suffering they endure.

For many local people, however, the turn to narcotrafficking is also a response to being denied the right to work as fishermen. One man whose nets were confiscated by officials on the river explained: “What else can I do with a boat and no nets?” implying he could use his boat to traffic drugs. In this sense, many local people see narcotrafficking as a way of further confronting and critiquing their imposed criminalization since the tightening of environmental restrictions on the river. It is also a way of defiantly rejecting the factory work which has become the prevalent mode of neoliberal development in the region and is also considered a particularly demoralizing form of work. Therefore, those who have taken this alternative have retained a sense of pride and defiance drawn from the cultural salience of the northern Mexican persona of the narcotraficante.

The current social salience of this persona is better understood when traced to the history of revolutionary heroes in the borderlands such as Pancho Villa, a popular lower class military leader of the Mexican revolution, as well as legendary outlaws such as Joaquín Murrieta, who was an infamous bandit in Baja California and Sonora. The cultural appeal of this figure has in part been re-popularized by the recent surge of the “narco corrido,” a genre of folk song extremely popular in northern Mexico which tells the history of men and women working in the drug business on the border. The narcotraficante, like the historical figures it invokes, is culturally positioned vis-à-vis the economic conditions of the border where long-term structural configurations of power are organized around key tensions: especially between the United States and Mexico and elite and subaltern actors. In recent years, as border restrictions have tightened and immigration laws have been limited, the antagonism on the border has intensified with increased protests and the proliferation of illegal crossings.

The sheer pervasiveness of the narco-economy’s effects on the lives of people in the borderlands is apparent at multiple levels. Thalia, the 15-year-old girl who lived next door to the house where I stayed during my fieldwork, for instance, would often imitate her relatives, neighbors and friends smoking crystal, a methamphetamine extremely popular in the region. On one occasion, she tried to explain how the drug worked: “It’s a high that hits you fast so you can see it take its effect almost immediately. It doesn’t affect them all in the same way.” She mimicked the sharp inhalation with fingers poised in the downward pinch of the light. Then she enacted the concentrated hold of smoke in her lungs and its euphoric release. She followed this demonstration by describing the various after-effects. “Rosalina just sits staring into the space around her, she laughs too late, talks too slow. Chicho talks too fast, too much. When Cruz gets high, he goes all night in a frenzy of activity; he’ll take the broom and sweep the sand in the front of the house until dawn.” She stood up and imitated his frenzied hypnotic movements and the vacant expression on his face.

The expertise with which Thalia performed her inventory of effects, to the nervous laughter of her mother and myself, is only one of the everyday marks of the narco-economy. Substance abuse is a symptom of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation. It is a response to poverty and segregation that is experienced by major sectors of any vulnerable population going through rapid socio-economic change in the context of political oppression. Drug addiction and use, however, are not the principal focus of this book. I am more concerned with telling the story of how the narco-economy itself has emerged as an alternative to factory work and other income earning strategies in the formal economy.

For those who become mules or traffickers, this work is often viewed as a way of taking charge of their lives. Alvaro, a 33 year-old man who had been fishing since he was six was particularly explicit in this regard. He explained that he began trafficking the year that officials confiscated the equivalent of $1,000 worth of his fishing nets. Alvaro recounted what he said to the officials that day in the mouth of the river: “Who is going to support my family if you take away my nets? Are you going to support my family?” In this case, the turn to narco-trafficking was a response to the outrage of being denied the right to work and the capacity to feed one’s family. The suggestion that he would get a job in a factory or as a farm worker was equally infuriating for him, especially since these are the industries to which the water of the Colorado has been redirected. He explained that the wages from this work would barely support his family. But there was more to it than that. These were the legal options that the government had been encouraging as alternatives to fishing for years. A job on a farm or in a factory would be,for people like Alvaro, the ultimate surrender.

As this example illustrates, the characters in this book reveal the extent to which the “war on drugs” is ultimately a war on the poor. It is the poor who run the risks of the business, experience the brunt of the violence and serve out the prison sentences that the wealthy cartel bosses will rarely experience. Alvaro and the other people whose lives I chronicle in this book are already positioned within the “war on drugs” regardless of whether or not they work as narcos. What the people in this book articulate through their actions, and often their words, is that they have actively chosen to become involved in precisely what both the Mexican and US government have declared “war” against: drugs. But as their stories show, for a long time this war was already being waged against them.

Overview of the Chapters

Introduction: The Colombianization of the US-Mexico Border
In recent years, the escalation of drug-related violence and corruption in Mexico has frequently featured in local and international news hailing the “Colombianization” of this country. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 65 percent of all narcotics smuggled into the United States now enter from Mexico. In the introduction I examine the transformations that have taken place in the Colorado Delta, both as the result of lure of the narco-economy and the extreme environmental changes on the Colorado River and subsequent government restrictions on fishing. Locals have become a target labor force for the Mexican mafia because they are poor enough to take risks trafficking and are strategically located in trafficking corridors. They also know the land that comprises the narco-corridor with a familiarity forged through generations of navigating this territory. The introduction explores the reasons why economic alternatives routinely suggested by the government and NGOs are often considered unacceptable to local
people.

Chapter One. From the Factories to the Narco-Corridor
Local people often expressed how demoralizing working conditions in tourist camps, farms and factories were. This chapter focuses on the stories of Manuela and Ana, who had both worked in the maquila factories along the border in the 1980s and 1990s, in order to llustrate the ways that people have responded to this labor experience. Manuela, for example, explained that working there made her feel like “the most humiliated dog in the world.” Many people had similar stories about rejecting intolerable working conditions in the factories not so much because of poor wages or unsafe working conditions but largely because of notions of dignity and humiliation. This chapter explores how work in factories and tourist camps belies a powerful trope of selfsufficiency that has carried over from the recent organization of labor around the nuclear family in the context of fishing. This organizational arrangement lends itself, rather, to more illicit economic activities such as the drug trafficking and smuggling work offered by the narcoeconomy.

Chapter Two. Victims, Huevones and Revolutionaries
The ways that local people view involvement in narco-trafficking is extremely contested. This chapter analyzes the sometimes conflicting narratives through which people understand their position in the narco-economy. Some people I talked to took on a series of racialized responses to explain local people’s refusal to integrate into the legal economy, describing the failure to “adapt” and get jobs in the border industries as an effect of ingrained poverty, deprivation, and inherent “laziness.” This is also the dominant interpretation offered by local media and government officials to account for the rise of narco activity in the community. The competing narrative shared by many others is that compounding forces of ethnic, economic and environmental marginalization severely limit their options for work. Those most involved in the narco-economy highlighted the ways their illegal activities are a form of resistance to the power asymmetries in the borderland that marginalize them in the first place. This chapter examines the tensions in local views of smugglers and traffickers and the way people argue with each other over the character of their agency: that is, whether they were victims, huevones (lazy asses), or revolutionaries.

Chapter Three. “I Still Wear My Alligator Boots”: The Dignity of Banditry
It was 20 year-old Andrés’s experience adjusting to life, as a former narcotraficante, that first drew my attention to the prestige and cultural salience associated with this role, and to the reasons why some are drawn into the narco-economy in the first place. When Andrés got out of jail he vowed he would not get involved with the mafia again. After a traumatizing sentence in prison, he realized this job was far too dangerous to be worthwhile and decided to extricate himself from the business. Andrés began working low-paid odd jobs. For a few weeks, he hauled rocks for different municipal projects extracting gravel to rebuild roads, later he worked cleaning fish for local fishing crews. Several months after this transition back to legal work, his girlfriend left him. This was the first of many hardships that Andrés would interpret as the result of his fallen prestige and that would eventually lure him back to the life of a narcotraficante. This chapter explores the larger cultural context through which the local glorification of the narcotraficante is more easily understood. For example, despite all that Andrés felt he had lost, he often emphasized that he still had his alligator-skin boots. On several occasions, he reiterated the importance of these boots for legitimating his past working with the mafia. He said that while you may see people dressed as cheros (from “ranchero,” with cowboy hats and wide metal belt buckles) the alligator-skin boots are how you know if they are really narcotraficantes. The dress, which references the classic rancher look, is one of the ways this persona indexes a rural past. Through Andrés’s story, this chapter analyzes the ways that the figure of the narcotraficante forms a symbolic resource for those whose lives have intertwined with the world of the narcos.

Chapter Four. “The Moment Arrived When I Had to Put Myself to Work”: The Women of the Narcos
The figure of the narcotraficante often represents a form of specifically gendered power because of the machismo inherent in representations of violence in the region. Yet this chapter introduces Isabella, a young woman and smuggler, in order to analyze how women have also been drawn into the economy. Isabella explains that it was hard enough for the men to find work – for women it was almost impossible. As she put it, “Here, women can only work in the factories.” This chapter narrates Isabella’s reasoning for accepting the risks and incentives of working as a burrera. She understands her choice as a direct response to economic necessity and family obligations. Isabella felt that there were very few other work opportunities, and after her experiences with gender and ethnic discrimination working in a maquila which eventually resulted in her dismissal, “the moment arrived” when becoming a smuggler was her only option. This chapter analyzes how narcotrafficking became a way for Isabella to feel that she was taking charge of her own life despite the fact that she eventually ended up at the mercy of her corrupt mafia suppliers.

Chapter Five. Ana Maria’s Tortas
Everyday Paz makes tamales in the simple kitchen of her ramshackle house. She sells them to raise money so that she can bribe her son’s prison guards not to beat him. Her son is in jail serving out a sentence for transporting large amounts of marijuana in the mouth of the river. Paz claims her son’s bosses abandoned him with the load when they saw the coastguard’s planes descending on them. Everyday when she returns from the prison, she takes the rest of the tamales to the mafia en who guard a trade-off post in the desert. She tries to remind them as often as she can, with her kindness and her sandwiches, that her son is still in jail taking the heat for their mistakes and hopes that one day they can find a way to free him. Sometimes, the members of the cartel give her money to help with the bribes, but most of the time she raises the money herself. This chapter follows Paz in her daily struggle to protect her son, in order to analyze the particular forms of vulnerability that are produced locally by the affects of the narco-economy.

Chapter Six. “America is the Boss of Mexico in Everything … Except for Drugs”
Despite the fact that the repressive forces that people experience on a daily basis in the borderlands are linked to the Mexican state (fishing regulations, military outposts and blockades), the most ubiquitous signs of state power in the region are the US border patrol and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Furthermore, for local people the most obvious symbols of labor exploitation and worker displacement are the US-owned maquiladoras. It is in this coupling of multiple state powers that the view of drug-trafficking as a form of resistance to US domination blends with the view that this practice also challenges attempts by the Mexican government to regulate their lives. Cruz, the father in the house where I first lived, was particularly articulate about what he viewed as the American hypocrisy in regards to the drug trade. As he emphasized: “All the drugs that come from these places, from Colombia and Mexico, where are they going? Who is the biggest consumer of drugs? America. The drugs that these countries are producing aren’t for their personal use. They’re for the biggest consumer in the world: the United States.” This chapter analyzes the ways that the narco-economy is sometimes portrayed as an explicit, even nationalistic response to US power over Mexico by placing the experiences of people like Cruz in the context of the history of US-Mexican relations and the marked antipathy toward the United States that this experience has produced among local people.

*****

Beyond the village where this book takes place, the Mexican Colorado Delta stretches out in desert and salt flats where, some days, the only people to be seen for miles are military patrols on guard for drug traffickers. Armored vehicles full of soldiers and armed lookouts are both a persistent aspect of the landscape and a constant reminder of the narco presence and the resulting militarization of the region. Sometimes I would accompany Esperanza, a 74-year-old woman I was particularly close to, on walks out into the desert to visit different sacred sites. Her familiarity with the landscape was a powerful reminder of why residents’ knowledge of the area is so useful for those wishing to navigate the region. Esperanza scoured the desert floor with remarkable intensity, immediately recognizing every stone that was rare or out of place. As we walked the desert floor would crunch under our feet as we broke the salty crust of the surface. Esperanza would keep talking the whole way. “It’s so much uglier now than it was,” she would often remark, “All the salt, so little water.” One day as we were walking, Esperanza suddenly stopped still in her stride and pointed to fresh footprints in the sand that wound out into the desert. Then, she showed me the tracks where the soldiers had also gone. She explained that the soldiers wait in the mountains because of the shipments that pass through there. We stood for a
moment looking out beyond the tracks to the mountains Esperanza was referring to. Then we turned around and headed home.