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Drug War Zone

Drug War Zone
Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez

Gripping firsthand accounts of the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border from drug traffickers and law enforcement officials.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment, The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

October 2009
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336 pages | 6 x 9 | 30 b&w photos |

Thousands of people die in drug-related violence every year in Mexico. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, adjacent to El Paso, Texas, has become the most violent city in the Mexican drug war. Much of the cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine consumed in the United States is imported across the Mexican border, making El Paso/Juárez one of the major drug-trafficking venues in the world.

In this anthropological study of drug trafficking and anti-drug law enforcement efforts on the U.S.-Mexico border, Howard Campbell uses an ethnographic perspective to chronicle the recent Mexican drug war, focusing especially on people and events in the El Paso/Juárez area. It is the first social science study of the violent drug war that is tearing Mexico apart.

Based on deep access to the drug-smuggling world, this study presents the drug war through the eyes and lives of direct participants. Half of the book consists of oral histories from drug traffickers, and the other half from law enforcement officials. There is much journalistic coverage of the drug war, but very seldom are the lived experiences of traffickers and "narcs" presented in such vivid detail. In addition to providing an up-close, personal view of the drug-trafficking world, Campbell explains and analyzes the functioning of drug cartels, the corruption that facilitates drug trafficking, the strategies of smugglers and anti-narcotics officials, and the perilous culture of drug trafficking that Campbell refers to as the "Drug War Zone."


Southwest Book Award
Border Regional Library Association

  • Introduction
  • Part I. Smuggling in the Drug War Zone
    • Introduction
    • La Nacha: The Heroin Queen of Juárez
    • The Roots of Contraband Smuggling in El Paso
    • Female Drug Lord
    • Community-Based Drug Use, Smuggling, and Dealing in the 1970s and 1980s
    • Selling Drugs in Downtown Juárez: Juan and Jorge
    • A Young Smuggler and His Family
    • Blaxicans: The Life of a Chicano Smuggler and Musician on the Borderlines of African American and Mexican American Culture
    • Drug Addiction and Drug Trafficking in the Life of an Anarchist
    • Drug Smuggling through Tunnels: The Tale of a Scuba-Diving Instructor
    • Witness to a Juárez Drug Killing
  • Part II. Law Enforcement in the Drug War Zone
    • Introduction
    • Undercover Agent on the Border: Cultural Disguises
    • The Death of Francisco
    • A Juárez Policeman Fighting Drug Traffickers
    • Journalism and Drug Trafficking: Covering the Narco Beat on the Border
    • Patrolling the Drug War Zone: A Border Patrol Agent in the War on Drugs
    • Intelligence and the Drug War: Commander of an Antidrug Task Force on the Border
    • Excerpt from Weed: Adventures of a Dope Smuggler, by Jerry Kamstra
    • Agent against Prohibition
  • Epilogue and Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Howard Campbell is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the co-editor of the University of Texas Press Inter-America Series.


On July 2, 2007, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, a drug lord and the most wanted man in Mexico, married a woman from La Angostura, Durango, in a public ceremony. Though already married twice, Guzmán fell in love with eighteen-year-old Emma Coronel—described by a reporter as being white skinned and having a well-formed body—who had recently been named queen of the 2007 Coffee and Guava Fair (Dávila 2007b, 7). Emma had met Chapo at a village dance. Before he arrived at the wedding, a small army of heavily armed, masked, and black-clad bodyguards on 200 two-seater all-terrain motorcycles took over the town in what must have appeared like a scene out of a James Bond movie.


While the bodyguards protected all ten entrances to the village, a narcocorrido band, Los Canelos de Durango, armed with gold-handled pistols, arrived in a small plane. Six more planes touched down, from one of which El Chapo emerged, dressed in his customary jeans, vest, and baseball cap, an AK-47 cuerno de chivo (goat horn) rifle strapped across his chest and a pistol that matched his clothes attached to his belt. Helicopters circled overhead as other planes landed and unloaded innumerable cases of whiskey, crates of weapons (grenades, machine guns, more AK-47s, etc.), and more security guards dressed in green military fatigues and sporting bullet-proof vests with police-style radios clipped to their chests. According to the reporter who described the event, Chapo's entourage was more ostentatious than that of a Mexican president (Dávila 2007b, 6-11).


By now, such flamboyant events, as well as stories about jetliners stuffed to the gills with cocaine, narco-manifestos attacking the government, pop singers slaughtered for offending drug bosses, and safe houses packed with millions of dollars in small bills or numerous beheaded bodies, have become a regular feature of the Mexican news. Cross-border drug trafficking and the "war on drugs" are also critical U.S. foreign-policy and domestic-police issues. Yet the inside stories of the people involved in the drug world remain opaque, seldom explored by journalists or social scientists. There is much word-of-mouth folklore but little reliable data about the lives of drug traffickers and their governmental adversaries on the U.S.-Mexico border.


This book attempts to break the academic silence and apply an anthropological lens to a much-neglected topic. Modeled on Studs Terkel's classic portrayal of working Americans, Working (1974), my study explores in detail the personal histories and careers of various people involved on both sides of the drug war. Based on deep access to the drug-trafficking world, this ethnography examines border narco-trafficking through the eyes, and in the words, of firsthand participants. In-depth interviews and oral histories form the corpus of the text. These portraits put a human face on issues that are often handled sensationally by news media or shrouded in gossip, myth, and stereotype.


Ethnographic Encounters


Customs and Border Protection officers made 10 marijuana seizures at El Paso's international bridges Wednesday, or one every two to four hours, agency officials said.

El Paso Times, July 12, 2007


I first learned about drug trafficking while living in Mexico City in the early 1980s. At that time, I read about the Alberto Sicilia Falcón and Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo drug organizations—the first big cartels. The public suddenly became aware of the heroic adventures of the flamboyant narcotics cop Florentino Ventura and the brutality and drug-related corruption of Mexico City police chief Arturo Durazo. In 1984, turncoat secret police, allied with organized crime, gunned down the highly respected journalist Manuel Buendía in broad daylight near the touristy Zona Rosa section of the city. The following year, Mexican drug traffickers sadistically tortured and murdered revered U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Kiki Camarena (Shannon 1988). The intricate webs of criminals, police, and corrupt government officials seriously unraveled during the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), when the Gulf, Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Juárez cartels boomed (Bowden 2002).


Before I moved to El Paso from the Midwest in 1990, I devoured Drug Lord (1998) by Terrence Poppa, a shocking account of the heroin- and cocaine-smuggling empire built by Pablo Acosta in the Ojinaga-Presidio area close to El Paso. Fearing for his life, Poppa left the area after the book's publication. When I got to the Mexican border, I casually met a resident of Ojinaga who knew Acosta and his partner, a then-unknown Amado Carrillo Fuentes. In El Paso, I immediately heard about and met members of the Chagra family of El Paso, some of whom the government linked to a major international drug business and the killing of federal judge John Wood of San Antonio (Cartwright 1998). At that time in Ciudad Juárez, the megacartel of Carrillo Fuentes began to supplant the large narcotics organization founded by Rafael Muñoz Talavera, owner of a trendy El Paso shopping center and a lavish rural mansion, and Rafael Aguilar, a federal police commandant in Ciudad Juárez. Before he was murdered by the Carrillo Fuentes family, Muñoz Talavera had smuggled at least seventy-seven tons of cocaine through El Paso-Juárez to California (Lupsha 1991, 58).


In my first class as a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), I had a student who, as a U.S. immigration officer, had facilitated the passage of a large quantity of the twenty-one tons of Muñoz Talavera's cocaine that was seized in the Los Angeles area in the largest drug confiscation in American history (Bowden 2002); the student was later convicted of the crime. Subsequently, I encountered close friends of both founding families of the Juárez cartel. Each day, faster than I could fully assimilate, I became immersed in a border environment that was an ideal setting for research on drug trafficking.


I did not intend to write a book about drug trafficking, the study of which was just a hobby. The topic seemed too dangerous, strictly off-limits. Yet the longer I lived in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border area, the more I realized I could not avoid the issue. Regardless of where I resided—in wealthy, upper-middle-class or working-class neighborhoods—major trafficking families or stash houses were located nearby. At one point I lived so close to the border that my neighbors could hear gunshots from shootouts between narcotraficantes and Mexican cops. Everyday the local television channels recounted a litany of drug busts and accounts of dead bodies found in stew pots or severed heads tossed onto a dance-hall floor by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. I lectured about the drug trade in my classes, and students later came forward and privately confided in me their stories of being involved in the business, of relatives who were imprisoned, or of their parents' jobs as immigration, customs, or Border Patrol agents on the frontlines of antidrug initiatives.


The vendor on the corner regaled me with tales about marijuana selling while he made me burritos. He also used and sold heroin and cocaine, as did many close and casual acquaintances. DEA agents, or narcs, lived nearby, as did gang members associated with the Cártel de Juárez. Many of my friends and even my in-laws were well connected on both sides of the drug-war divide. On the streets, in bars, or at birthday parties, cocaine and marijuana abounded, and the fancy trucks, gaudy norteño or chero clothing, and other symbols and paraphernalia of the drug business were also on display. Juárez radio stations heard all over El Paso trumpeted narcocorridos, melodramatic anthems celebrating drug smuggling (Campbell 2004). While walking along the avenues of Juárez, I passed enormous narco-mansions and numerous bars, restaurants, and other businesses owned by drug capos. During lunch at a Mexican restaurant near my university office (from which I can see Ciudad Juárez), I could overhear conversations of DEA and FBI agents. In the parking lot, the sharp desert sunlight reflected off the shiny hoods of Border Patrol trucks.


I finally decided that I had to take advantage of this opportunity to study ethnographically an important social issue unfolding all around me. The result is this volume of oral histories of drug traffickers, antidrug officials, and others whose lives have been deeply marked by the drug trade. Lengthy, in-depth interviews with direct participants focused on two issues: their personal histories before their involvement with the drug world, and their lives in what I call the "drug war zone." I corroborated these accounts and details with other sources of information: different informants, newspaper stories, agency reports, expert opinion from knowledgeable journalists and analysts, and my own knowledge of the border drug trade, gleaned from seventeen years spent in El Paso.


The short introductions to each account contextualize the life stories within larger social, cultural, political, and economic processes. Because of the dangerous and secretive nature of the subject matter, my interview pool resulted from a snowball sampling technique rather than a random sample. To put it simply, I exploited every available opportunity to interview key players in the drug world. The issue of drug trafficking, because of the illegality and taboos associated with it, is inherently ambiguous and multilayered. As Macdonald (2007, 251) observes: "Scorpion tales [that is, stories about drugs] remind us that much of our taken for granted knowledge and understanding of drugs and drug users, as well as drug policies, is frequently flawed and based on uncertainties and unresolved paradoxes." My analytical comments, the oral histories, and the interviews take this into account: there is an endless interplay between facts and narratives, whether the issue is drug-trafficking folklore or government reports of drug busts or "victories" in the war on drugs.


Nonetheless, my approach is not primarily relativistic; that is, when I can verify to a reasonable degree my ethnographic data, I make that clear. Yet in other cases I am more skeptical. Is there really a drug epidemic ruining elements of our society, as the U.S. government has proclaimed for eighty years (see, for example, Reinarman and Levine 2004)? Does U.S. Customs actually confiscate as many tons of coke as it claims to? Are we actually "winning" the war on drugs?


Without such a critical view, one can easily fall into the trap of "seeing like a state," thus aping the perspectives of the powerful (Scott 1999). Yet, as West and Sanders (2003) have pointed out, the modern world, despite the efforts of powerful state and business interests to encourage free trade and transparency, is riddled with mystery, obscurity, and arbitrary power—a condition that lends itself to conspiracy theories. This book cannot clarify all the many opacities existing in the secretive drug-trafficking world or the equally secretive war on drugs, but it can contribute to a growing dialogue about the effects of drugs and antidrug policies on society.


I oppose the U.S. war on drugs for reasons that will be discussed in detail below. Moreover, I have more compassion for common workers in the drug trade—who, above all, work to make a living and provide for their families—than for Washington policy wonks or well-paid drug-war bureaucrats, who are often insulated from the dirty work in the streets but whose actions and decisions may negatively affect hundreds or thousands of families, especially those whose members have been incarcerated for selling drugs. One could be equally critical of everyday drug smugglers, yet one could also argue that they engage—at least in marijuana commerce—in victimless crimes.


But I am also critical of the drug kingpins who routinely order the brutal murders of dozens of people, and I am well aware of the social harm caused by heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine addiction. With these issues in mind, it is my hope that the ethnographic portraits and analytical points presented here can help us rethink and rework policies and practices concerned with drugs so as to lessen the harm already being done, whether from drug abuse, incarceration for drug crimes, or violence associated with drug-trafficking groups (Macdonald 2007).


The material that follows provides theoretical and analytical tools for conceptualizing what I call the "drug war zone." Readers who are more interested in Mexican drug-trafficking culture than in anthropological literature may want to skip this discussion and proceed directly to the section "El Paso-Juárez in the Drug War Zone," later in this chapter.


The Mexican-American Drug War Zone: Theoretical Issues


I can't even produce a metaphor for the drug world anymore. I don't even like the phrase the drug world since the phrase implies that it is a separate world.

Charles Bowden, Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family (2002)


I use the term "drug war zone" to refer to the cultural world of drug traffickers ("narco-culture") and the law-enforcement agents who combat drug trafficking. It is the transnational, fluid cultural space in which contending forces battle over the meaning, value, and control of drugs. Drug war zone (henceforth DWZ) is an orienting frame that helps explain how political and cultural connections and separations are materially and discursively produced and reproduced through drug-trafficking and law-enforcement activities. This zone is especially prominent and physically observable on the U.S.-Mexico border, but the term also applies to any place or situation in which drug traffickers, drug users, and antidrug narcs confront, avoid, or attempt to subvert one another. I would argue that such battles have been a nearly permanent part of world culture since the advent of agriculture. As long as humans have gathered or harvested and consumed mind-altering, transformative substances, such substances have been endowed with deep symbolic power and enmeshed within intricate prisms of meaning, especially those related to sacred or profane properties (Douglas 1978) or to complex webs of social and economic power (Courtwright 2001; Davis 1997; Dobkin de Rios 1984; Furst 1972; Schaefer and Furst 1997).


The DWZ is thus a theoretical concept that refers not only to a historically contingent, constructed geographical location (Gupta and Ferguson 1997) but also to a mental place and a symbolic domain—similar in Foucauldian terms to the dialectic between "real society" and "heterotopia" (Foucault 1967)—that connect drug producers, drug smugglers, and drug consumers to their police, military, and intelligence counterparts in a strategic, tactical, and ideological fight (Certeau 2002). The conflict is waged sometimes in the open, but more often in a clandestine, subterranean world, a social space in which the truth is elusive and relative and in which paranoia, fear, and mystery are the orders of the day. Antidrug warriors rely especially on undercover informants ("snitches"), while traffickers specialize in trickery and deception. Kafka's claustrophobic writing prefigured the secretive, duplicitous, unpredictable texture of the DWZ (Kafka 2003). The DWZ is a world where insecurity prevails and powerful forces, whose essence can never be fully known, impinge on the lives of individuals and communities.


I avoid the term "war on drugs" because I feel the U.S. government's deployment of this concept is hypocritical and misleading. A drug war pitting two tightly organized armies in a traditional military campaign, as in a World War I trench battle, simply does not exist, nor could it. War in this sense is the wrong metaphor, whether for contemporary military conflict or law-enforcement campaigns. The DWZ is more akin to the shifting terrain where military and intelligence forces pursue terrorists or guerrilla revolutionaries (Packer 2006). Drug traffickers, though they may be well organized, are generally covert, embedded in the civilian population, disappearing and eternally reemerging (if a leading drug lord is eliminated, a new one soon emerges), global, and constantly evolving and transforming. In any case, the DWZ, if in some sense involving a war, entails a cultural war that imbricates everyday life, moral values, popular culture, and political power (McCoy 1999).


Moreover, in major trafficking countries like Mexico, organized crime and official government are so tightly interwoven yet secretive that they indeed form an "underground empire," in the evocative language of journalist James Mills (Mills 1986), or a "deep politics," in the words of Kennedy assassination analyst Peter Dale Scott (1996). Hence a Manichean logic that conceives of drug traffickers as evil criminals outside the clean legal system, whether in Mexico or the United States, is erroneous (Heyman and Campbell 2007). Corruption cases involving U.S. law-enforcement agents have risen dramatically in recent years (ibid.). Moreover, Mexican intellectuals now debate the colombianización or "Afghanistan-ization" of the country, which refers to a condition of uncontrolled, extreme violence, a terrified citizenry, and a government outgunned in certain regions by traffickers and riddled with corruption. Some even discuss the Mexican state's loss of control of its territory and sovereignty, although this may be exaggerated and may belie the state's own toleration and complicity in the drug trade (Ravelo 2007d). The concept of the DWZ can help us rethink the rapidly changing, global, postmodern terrain of drug-antidrug movements.


Drugs in the World Political Economy: Issues of Globalization, Sovereignty, Resistance, and Complicity


Although the activities of drug traffickers and narcs may appear marginal and separate from mainstream society, the DWZ pervades modern life to such a degree that it has become critical for social scientists to gauge its international impact. Rather than conceptualizing the DWZ as a cultural space riven with clear ethnic-national-social dichotomies (drug-smuggling Mexicans vs. drug-busting or drug-consuming gringos, and marginal drug abusers vs. straight society), I prefer to see the DWZ as a cultural matrix with logics, practices, patterns, symbols, and worldviews that crisscross and transcend international boundaries, moral categories, social classes, and ethnic groups. The sociocultural terrain of the DWZ also possesses similar properties to the global domains and flows that Appadurai (1996) refers to as "scapes." For Appadurai, "ethnoscapes" are the mobile "landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live" (33). But my perspective differs from Appadurai's formulation of scapes to the extent that the DWZ refers to concrete, systematic, economically based, material practices (producing, selling, and consuming drugs as part of the international drug market) as well as their disjunctive, imagined dimensions or symbolic representations. That is, my approach to the DWZ is much more rooted in the mainstream political economy of Wolf (1982) and Roseberry (1989), although it still takes into account the discursive and semiotic dimensions of drug trafficking.


Other scholars (Knauft 2007; Ong 2006; Agamben 1998; Gupta and Ferguson 1997) have discussed political-economic spaces in the contemporary world similar to what I call the DWZ, but without focusing specifically on the narcotics trade. Ong (1999) uses the concept of "zones of graduated sovereignty" to refer to ways neoliberal state practices favor some areas and sideline others. This point is obviously relevant to why some regions or segments of Mexico, such as parts of urban and border areas, have benefited from free-trade policies, and why some drug-producing and drug-trafficking countries or regions prosper while others falter. Knauft (2007, 786), following Ferguson (2006), observes that "topologies of domination increasingly combine vertical impositions of organizational power with capitalist exploitations around and outside this power and, in the process, open new spaces for transnational and subnational resistance." These formulations help us understand how political-economic globalization and neoliberalism are not one-dimensional but instead create both domination and counterhegemony across international space and territory. Drug-trafficking flows clearly are strongly shaped by neoliberal globalization.


Yet it is not obvious that drug trafficking per se is resistance—at least not as that is conceived in anticapitalist political or ideological terms (see Benavides 2008). Rather, it is an illegal form of capitalist accumulation. In some cases, it is an almost caricatured celebration of consumerism and wealth—narco-mansions, big trucks, expensive tasteless clothing, gaudy jewelry—facilitated by neoliberalism and collusion with elements of the state. Certainly, traffickers resist and defy U.S and Mexican law enforcement and bourgeois society; but I argue that ultimately the drug trade is part of the U.S. and Mexican economic systems (Schlosser 2003; Naim 2006; Walker 1996). Drug trafficking, thus, is similar in this respect to the way that "illegal" immigration self-supplies labor to the U.S. agricultural, industrial, and service industries, although in this case, a commodity—one used for "self-medication"—not labor, is supplied.


Yet we should be cautious about labeling drug-trafficking networks an "experiment in freedom" (Ong 2006, 4), because they are also generators of arbitrary and brutal violence as well as social inequality (Hansen and Stepputat 2005). Thus, we should not romanticize countersystemic forces such as drug cartels; instead, we must understand how drug traffickers and the social circumstances they create are complex and contradictory or how they can be resistant on one level and not resistant on another (Campbell and Heyman 2007). We also need to understand how spaces such as the DWZ are the product of both state and nonstate forces, operating in the same social field (McCoy 1999; Nuijten and Anders 2007).


As Heyman and Smart (1999) and van Schendel and Abraham (2005) convincingly argue, states and illicit or illegal activities are not separate, distinct fields of social action, but are tightly intertwined in a dialectic relationship. To put it simply, a mutually parasitic relationship exists between the drug traffickers who profit from the illegal status of drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and the "drug warriors," bureaucracies, and prison-industrial complexes that justify their existence by reference to the "scourge" of drug traffickers.


As in Mintz's analysis of sugar and the commodity chains that sugar's production, distribution, and consumption create, drugs link large numbers of people across national and cultural boundaries (Mintz 1986). In this sense, sugar and drugs, as commodities and cultural icons, share many common characteristics. But unlike sugar and other legal commodities, drugs are imbued with unique conditions and marketing arrangements that derive from their illicit, clandestine status. Hence, border drug trafficking and the cultural complex I refer to as the DWZ cannot be fully understood without reference to international crime networks and global social and economic power structures.


Much academic debate discusses whether a U.S. empire dominates the world or whether (Hardt and Negri 2001) it is in decline (Knauft 2007). For my purposes, this issue is less important than the fact that drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—though at times in collusion with elements of national states—generally operate in ways that frustrate the most powerful state authorities in the United States. Yet at the same time, I argue that First World demand for drugs is the impetus for much of the world's illegal commerce (contra Courtwright 2001), and in that sense, drug markets hinge on consumer demand from within the imperial metropole.


Furthermore, less powerful countries of the world, such as Mexico, where marijuana, coca and cocaine, and opium and heroin are produced, suffer the worst consequences of the illegal drug trade, namely, the seemingly ceaseless drug-trafficking-related executions (la narco-violencia) of recent years. The consuming countries clearly have the most power in this context—the power to cut domestic drug demand (Burnett 2007, 1), the power to pressure the policies of drug-producing countries and otherwise meddle in their internal affairs, the power to demonize and otherwise stigmatize drug producers. Moreover, whether or not the United States is still the dominant world power, it is clearly in a superordinate relationship with Mexico and has been since the taking half of the country in the Mexican War, even though this relationship is, in Knauft's terms (2007, 785), one of "dominance without [cultural] hegemony."


This, then, is the larger context within which border drug trafficking occurs: an alienated North American and Mexican populace self-medicating with illicit drugs and suffering the social costs of addiction and drug-related crimes (Daudistel 2007; Campbell 2006); a hypocritical U.S. government and national culture that espouse puritanical values regarding drugs while consuming them in enormous amounts as part of the "psychoactive revolution" (Courtwright 2001, 2); a political system and economy founded and structured on U.S. dominance of Mexico (whether by U.S. government certification or decertification of Mexico's antidrug policies, coercive and unequal economic treaties such as NAFTA, etc.) and other countries;15 and a poor drug-producing, drug-smuggling, and drug-consuming country (Mexico) that needs drug profits in order to survive economically, even though drug-related violence, corruption, and public insecurity devastate the country. My focus, however, is less on the world-scale political economy of drugs or on U.S.-Mexican political relations than on the ways in which these factors play out in local border communities and individual lives. In that sense, my project is closer to Lutz's "empire . . . in the [cultural] details" (Lutz 2006) than in the larger-scale political-economic theorizing of scholars like Wallerstein (2003). The next section discusses analytical, empirical, and moral issues that complicate the ethnographic study of the DWZ.


Creativity, Mystery, and Conspiracy in the Drug War Zone: Understanding the Cultural Space of Drug Trafficking on the Ground


The seizures, totaling 703 pounds, were made at the Paso Del Norte Bridge, the Bridge of the Americas and the Zaragoza Bridge. The drugs were found in "a wide variety of hidden compartments," according to a written release. Ten drivers from El Paso, San Elizario, Albuquerque, Juárez and Chihuahua City were arrested.

El Paso Times, July 12, 2007


Although the international political-economic structures within which drug trafficking operates are readily identifiable, the actors and playing field of the DWZ change constantly because drug-trafficking groups continually improvise and innovate. They create new smuggling techniques and technologies, refine old ones, and go to great lengths to disguise their identities. An example from my field notes (July 10, 2007) illustrates why U.S. efforts to fully secure the southern border from drug or human smugglers is ultimately futile because of the creativity of smugglers and the ways smugglers use the system against itself:16




Last night while walking across the Santa Fe Bridge—which connects El Paso and Juárez in one of the most heavily fortified and guarded sections of the U.S./Mexico border—I observed an event that epitomizes for me why a border wall can't work.


The bridge was packed with cars heading from Juárez into the United States. Near the top of the bridge on the U.S. side of the pedestrian walkway to Juárez, a young man dressed as a cholo [barrio gangster] held a long steel chain with a hook on one end encased in thick plastic or rubber hose. He attached the hook to the steel mesh that encloses the walkway, then threw the hose over the mesh and twenty feet or so down to U.S. soil.17 Next he boosted his partner or client onto the mesh. From there the soon-to-be indocumentado (and possible smuggler) crawled over the mesh like Spiderman and scaled down the hose to the ground. Last I saw he was calmly running up Santa Fe Street with no Border Patrol vehicles in sight. His accomplice then reeled in the hose and, helped by another accomplice who had been acting as a spotter on the top of the bridge, stowed the hose in a duffel bag and walked towards Juárez. I was staring so intently at the scene that the first guy asked me to please quit looking at him because he didn't want to attract attention and be filmed by the security cameras. He didn't seem too worried, though, because he paused during his work to make sexual comments to two young girls who were also heading to Juárez. This whole event took place in a matter of two minutes.


What I find interesting about all this is that the pasamojados [people smuggler] used the strength of the U.S. steel mesh and railing to anchor the chain, which allowed the aspirante a indocumentado (potential "illegal immigrant" and/or smuggler) to rappel over the bridge and into "the promised land." Drugs are transported this way on people's persons, or simply launched down to the ground where they are spirited off into the city and eventually throughout the country.




As this example demonstrates, for smugglers and drug users, the issue is avoidance, trickery, evasion, and "slantwise behavior," that is, actions that are undertaken by actors in order to achieve their own ends and that, although they do not necessarily involve intentional political resistance, frustrate state interests (Campbell and Heyman 2007). Smugglers and drug users will do whatever it takes to get a load to its destination or smoke through one's pipe. Simultaneously, for the narcotics agents, it is an endless intelligence game: decoding the signs, symbols, and movements of often faceless, nameless traffickers. It is a battle reminiscent of the tit-for-tat volleying and the absurdity of the Spy vs. Spy comic strip in Mad magazine. Anthropologists who study such phenomena face a tremendous challenge: how to sort out fact from fiction, and how to keep track of the creative legerdemain of smugglers and their adversaries. Drug ethnography is made more difficult by the pervading atmosphere of paranoia and betrayal in the drug world.


Mystery and Treachery in the DWZ


A mood of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and treachery predominates in the DWZ—an atmosphere presciently captured by Phillip K. Dick in many brilliant novels, especially A Scanner Darkly: "But then, too, certain dealers, to burn their enemies or when expecting imminent busts, began narking and went that route, winding up as sort of unofficial narks. It all got murky. The drug world was a murky world for everyone anyhow" (Dick 1991, 87).


Deleuze and Guattari (1983), in their ruminations on the schizophrenic feeling of contemporary capitalism, and Taussig, (1992a) on the anxiety-laden "ordered disorder" or "state of emergency" provoked by the "Nervous State," also provide insight into the DWZ. No one has all the information—neither the traffickers nor the cops, and certainly not the general public. Informants lie, cheat, and double-cross their handlers. Smugglers disappear with loads of drugs and money, and their relatives, close friends, and business partners get busted and then "flip" and snitch (or maybe they don't). Traffickers are arrested and then swallowed up by a vast prison bureaucracy. Rumors fly as to whether the drug convict snitched.


On the streets of Mexican cities, bodies without identification, but sometimes bearing cryptic, threatening notes or signs of stylized torture, turn up wrapped in blankets, stuffed in barrels of acid, or crammed into car trunks. Other individuals are simply picked up (levantado) by hooded commandos armed with AK-47s and sometimes wearing Mexican military or police uniforms, never to be seen or heard from again. Are they alive or dead? Who killed or "disappeared" them? Was it cops or narcotraffickers? Who is more violent and treacherous, the cops or the traffickers? Are they one and the same? This is what Taussig (1992a, 17) means by "terror as usual," a condition all too familiar for residents of Ciudad Juárez or other prominent nodes in the border DWZ.


Some know who did it or what happened in a particular incident, but they can't be found or they have been murdered or threatened into silence. The Mexican press prints a luridly detailed description of events, and then later prints a completely contradictory but equally plausible alternative account. The government denies that any incident took place. There is no reconciliation of the distinct versions. Myth, folklore, chisme (gossip), and unverifiable stories endlessly proliferate. Who killed Luis Donaldo Colosio? Is Amado Carrillo Fuentes alive or dead? ¿Quién sabe? Multiply these unanswered questions by the thousands. Few crimes are solved in Mexico—it is said that crime does pay in Mexico—and only a small percentage of drugs smuggled across the U.S. border are actually intercepted.18


These are some of the confusing, labyrinthine facets and dimensions of the DWZ. Such conditions are fertile ground for "discourses of suspicion," the conspiracy theories discussed by West and Sanders (2003). Indeed, the border DWZ is filled with colorful conjecture about the Mexican government's complicity in drug trafficking, the commission of monstrous acts by specific drug cartels, and the hidden corruption and complicity of U.S. government agencies in the drug trade. Given such a murky environment, an ethnographer must accept that many things will be unknowable and that the best one can hope for is to get numerous accounts of, or versions about, the same event, issue, or person in order to have some sense of the range of possible partial truths.


Smuggling Techniques


The subject of drug trafficking and antidrug actions is vast, as author Joel Miller (2004) notes about drug-smuggling techniques. Miller struggled to keep his book Bad Trip: How the War against Drugs Is Destroying America down to a reasonable length because "smuggling is really about one of the biggest and broadest subjects any author can cover—human ingenuity." Miller quotes the legendary cocaine trafficker "Zachary Swan," who states that there are "a million ways" to smuggle cocaine, and lists the following examples:


  • Covertly building a submarine capable of hauling 10 tons of cocaine to carry it from Colombia to the U.S. [a tactic now being used to send cocaine from Colombia to Mexico].
  • Using time-released buoys and GPS trackers to sync drug shipments on the open sea.
  • Combining cocaine with plastic resin and producing functioning, commercial goods from which the drug can be chemically extracted once across the border.
  • Disguising stashes of cocaine in hollowed-out passion fruit or in plastic plantains; hiding psilocybin mushrooms in chocolates.
  • Digging a 1,200-foot tunnel, complete with ventilation ducts and electric lights[,] to take marijuana and cocaine from a home in Mexico to another in California.
  • Dropping drugs in the uninhabited desert by plane and using GPS locaters on the ground to find and bring them across the poorly manned border.
  • Training—no lie here, folks—pigeons to fly packets of dope across the border.


Miller further notes that "Swan used to buy cocaine in Colombia and then tightly compress it into wooden souvenirs—like rolling pins, carved tribal heads, and statuettes of the Madonna (who would suspect Mary?)—which he would easily smuggle into the United States. He never got busted with a load." Creative drug-trafficking strategies encountered during this research include swimming backpacks of drugs underwater through tunnels; floating loads across the Rio Grande on rafts; cleverly packing shipments of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin in hidden compartments of cars and trucks; hiding drugs in the mouth, genital, or breast areas, or in girdles and other items of clothing; etc.19 Clever smuggling tactics have a deep history in the El Paso-Juárez area, where in the 1920s, maybe even earlier, smugglers attached loads of contraband drugs to dogs and passenger pigeons, which easily crossed the international border.20


Morality, Ambiguity, and What Can Be Known about the Drug War Zone


As noted, a "war" against such smuggling is not a normal war, and in any case is not winnable, not even if the entire U.S. military, police, and intelligence forces and their total budgets are assigned to fight it.21 Moreover, unlike John Wayne in a western, neither side in the drug war commands the moral high ground. Drug lords murder their enemies in unimaginably sadistic ways—the creativity applied to murder and torture techniques seems boundless. Yet various capos have argued that their actions are actually good for Mexico, at least economically. Rafael Caro Quintero once braggingly offered to pay off Mexico's foreign debt with "green" (that is, marijuana).22 Amado Carrillo Fuentes compared himself favorably to corrupt politicians who take money from Mexico and hide it in Swiss banks: "Compadre . . . I don't sell even one gram of anything here in Mexico . . . I do bring money into Mexico, and activate the Mexican economy . . . In the same airplanes that I send out [full of cocaine] the money comes back in" (Andrade Bojorges 1999, 195). While such boasts hardly justify the massive drug violence, U.S. law enforcement can scarcely claim moral superiority either, since its policies have criminalized generations of drug users and petty traffickers.


Although an atmosphere of amorality, terror, and confusion pervades the DWZ, the zone—akin to the fictional Interzone of William Burroughs (1989), a multibordered netherworld loosely based on post-World War II Tangier—is not entirely chaotic or disorderly, nor simply in stochastic flux. Drug trafficking is above all a business that responds to market conditions. In fact, Mexican drug cartels and their counterparts, the antidrug bureaucracies, can be neatly diagrammed on organizational charts.


Yet the growth and decline of different drug organizations is not a result of either a grand unitary conspiracy or simple, single causes. Despite some arguments to the contrary, there is no cohesive structure that unites all drug cartels under a functioning umbrella-like organization (sometimes called "the Federation"), although several attempts to do so have perhaps succeeded for short periods (Blancornelas 2002, 46-52; Ravelo 2005; Payán 2006).23 The particular configuration of drug-trafficking organizations at any given moment is the product of conflicts and alliances among and between different trafficking groups and their allies or enemies within the government. Drug-related events or developments within society or the economy, though sometimes the outcome of large-scale conspiracy, are more often the result of the interlocking general forces of powerful groups, each pursuing its own specific interests.


Nonetheless, the DWZ is also pinholed with spaces of anarchy and unpredictable realities. On one hand, it is well established that the Mexican police, judicial, and military forces are deeply marked by corruption and collusion with drug traffickers. But the exact alliances and arrangements of the moment are known to few besides the immediate actors. Many actors in the Mexican drug panorama are, in fact, double agents working with one group of traffickers or one faction within the government while fighting other drug-trafficking or political groups. On the other hand, the U.S. antidrug bureaucracy appears to be a well-planned, determined force deeply committed to its antinarcotics mission. Yet, within antidrug agencies, a swirl of rumors of alleged corruption and collusion weakens organizational solidarity, and rampant envy, uncooperativeness, and competition divide the various antidrug forces. Moreover, despite billion-dollar budgets, these agencies seem helpless to stop smugglers from operating right under their noses. Many career agents, in fact, admit that the war on drugs is an untenable policy that they carry out simply because of the need for a paycheck. Overall, the DWZ is a complex blend of order and chaos, structure and antistructure.


The preceding discussion makes clear how difficult it is to conduct research on such an elusive topic as drug trafficking. However, the Mexican cartels have become so large and successful that is now possible to know many things about them, which is the subject of the next section.


Cultural Dimensions of Mexican Drug Cartels (La Narcocultura)


At 7:30 a.m., officers at the same bridge [Paso Del Norte] discovered 48.5 pounds of marijuana in the rocker panels of a 1993 Pontiac Bonneville and arrested the 41-year-old San Elizario driver.

El Paso Times, July 12, 2007


El narcotráfico (drug trafficking) is so pervasive and firmly embedded in daily life in Mexico and in the border region that the idea of a narco-culture—that is, a cultural complex or whole way of life centered around drug trafficking—is now accepted as a given by mexicanos, fronterizos (border people), and many social scientists (Ovalle 2007). So common is the prefix narco- that it is attached to almost any noun to specify some reputed aspect of la narcocultura, not just in the case of the drug ballads known as narcocorridos, but also in reference to narcomansiones or narcocastillos (drug mansions or castles), narcoarte (narco-art), narcotienditas (narco-stores, that is, buildings from which drugs are sold), narcointeligencia (cartel intelligence operatives), narcoabogados (lawyers who defend traffickers), narcotumbas (elaborate tombs), narcosantos (narco-saints, especially Jesús Malverde and La Santa Muerte, literally "Saint Death," roughly equivalent to the Grim Reaper), narcocumbres (high-level meetings between leaders of multiple trafficking groups), narcocerveza (narco-beer), and even narcomenonitas (Mennonite farmers of Chihuahua who have delved in drug smuggling; see Quiñones 2007).24 Additionally, drug traffickers have developed a complex vocabulary of slang and colloquial terminology to refer to all aspects of drug trafficking, including various drugs; the tools, objects, technologies, and vehicles used to produce, process, and transport them; and the various social types and roles associated with the drug-trafficking culture. Thus, narco has become a powerful, multivalent social identity.


In analyzing narco-culture, however, it is important not to "criminalize entire populations believed to have a common culture" (Schneider and Schneider 2005, 501); that is, the discussion of narco-culture that follows is limited to the inner workings of Mexican and border drug-trafficking organizations, not Mexican or border culture as a whole. Moreover, as Benavides (2008, 112) points out, narco-identity is a quintessential example of contemporary cultural hybridity, not an expression of an essential Mexican culture: "Mexico's northern frontier and being narco do not respond exclusively to a Mexican identity but, rather, to a wider transnational dialogue between the neocolonial U.S. empire and the postcolonial existence of Latin America."


Although there are, according to some sources, seven main Mexican cartels (Ravelo 2007b, 11), the largest ones share similar characteristics and circumstances, including dense webs of family ties, local loyalties, and long-term friendships and working relationships; an authoritarian structure; a main regional base with satellite centers and cells throughout Mexico, the United States, other parts of Latin America, and elsewhere; a style of living oscillating between extravagantly conspicuous consumption (of drugs, houses, cars and trucks, clothing, jewelry, elaborate fiestas, etc.) and seclusion; violent disputes over territory, lost or stolen loads of drugs or money, and alleged treason; close connections with and protection from police and governmental authorities, purchased through bribery; and the loss of members to violent death, incapacitation, or incarceration.


The biggest Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are composed of complex structures and strata comparable to legitimate multinational corporations. The huge Mexican cartels of Tijuana, Juárez, Sinaloa, and the Gulf are in fact multinational economic entities with hundreds or thousands of members or affiliates whose roles, functions, or titles range from capo-drug lord-jefe through numerous other, often hierarchically layered positions, including purchasing agent-negotiator, political liaison, financial manager-money launderer, accountant, lawyer, transportation specialist (pilot, boat captain, driver, "mule" [pedestrian transporter], etc.), intelligence agent, telecommunications specialist, arms procurer, car thief, enforcer or hit man, packager, warehouse foreman, guard, spotter, distribution agent, and street seller. Additionally, numerous other bribed operatives, politicians, policemen, military officers, customs officers, soldiers, and intelligence officers perform vital functions without which drug cartels cannot operate.


Cartels: A Critique and Reformulation


I have been careful about using the term "cartels," out of sensitivity to the loose and often misleading use of this term in the journalistic stories and chronicles of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that constitute the main published documentation of such groups. As Astorga (2005, 154-155) has noted, the profligate use of "cartel" may sustain a number of incorrect assumptions about drug-trafficking organizations. Some faulty, essentialist assumptions about cartels consist of the following: that they are all enormous, unified, permanent, and tightly organized from top to bottom; they are isomorphic with the Mexican landscape such that each region, route, or drug market has one and only one cartel (the Juárez cartel, the Tijuana cartel, the Gulf cartel, etc.); they are absolutely vertical in structure; they are removed from the larger society and strictly separate from the other equally seamless, coherent cartels that are their rivals.


This simplistic notion of drug-trafficking organizations should be replaced by a more supple concept of cartels as shifting, contingent, temporal alliances of traffickers whose territories and memberships evolve and change because of conflicts, imprisonment, deaths, changing political circumstances, etc., and whose fortunes and strengths wax and wane or die out over time. This is henceforth how I will use the term "cartel," and this usage applies only to the largest Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Moreover, many of the functions of a cartel are in fact carried out by cells, which are groups of outsourced growers, packagers, drivers, warehouse guards, gunmen, street sellers, etc. who have little or no connection to the larger drug organization (to, for example, the Juárez cartel) and whose services are bought and paid for with cash or drugs. This more flexible view of cartels is referred to by some observers as a "rectangular" (Ravelo 2005, 19) rather than a pyramidal structure.25 As Astorga (2005, 154) also points out, the various drug-trafficking groups, rather than forming a single, horizontally linked entity, actually engage in "open competition" and adhere to the "business ethos of pure liberalism," although because of the governmental favoritism shown to some cartels over others, the largest drug-trafficking organizations form a quasi-monopolistic, "oligopolistic structure."


Consequently, our analytical emphasis, rather than being centered on essentialized cartels, should be more sharply focused on the ever-changing negotiated relationship between various kinds and sizes of trafficking organizations and the political, military, and law-enforcement authorities that control territories; I refer to the intersection of these two sets of forces over a given territory or trafficking route as la plaza.26 The plaza is a more useful frame of analysis than the cartel because of the inherently unstable dimension of cartels compared to the relatively fixed physical geography in which they operate;27 the persistently optimal features of particular drug-transportation routes; and the more stable structure of the political system and its associated military and police apparatus.28 Furthermore, Astorga (2005, 124-125) correctly explains that drug organizations do not represent a "parallel power," completely independent of the state, but rather a form of economic activity connected with, tolerated, promoted, or protected by various sectors of the state.29 Our analyses, thus, should not focus on cartels in isolation from the national political context that sustain and permit large-scale drug trafficking, or from the international political-economic context within which they function.


Drug Lords and the Extension of Cartels


The main Mexican drug lords (Fonseca, Félix Gallardo, Acosta, Caro Quintero, García Abrego, the Carrillo Fuentes brothers, the Arellano Félix brothers, "Chapo" Guzmán), for the most part, have emerged from the lower socioeconomic strata of the peasantry and the working class.30 Like the legendary guerrilla revolutionary Pancho Villa and Friedrich's princes of Naranja, the drug capos have been relatively uneducated social bandits who made up for their lack of mainstream cultural capital with their knowledge of the mountains and back roads, marijuana cultivation, the clandestine codes and norms of underworld police corruption and crime, and the informal rules of masculine combat (Katz 1998; Friedrich 1987). Drug lords generally serve a long apprenticeship in the lower echelons of the drug trade before they reach the top. Their position at the top of a cartel, often gained through a violent takeover or the death of the incumbent, is generally rooted in family and regional loyalties. Many are considered heroes in their rural hometowns.


During their reign, drug lords run their organizations dictatorially and patriarchally, surrounded by bodyguards and served by a series of close advisors, relatives, and lieutenants who administer orders to the middle-level cadres of money managers, political operatives, communications specialists, corrupted officials, logistics operators, etc. Despite the great power of drug lords vis-à-vis their subordinates, such power is tenuous because the capos are hunted by the law and their drug-lord rivals, hence they are constantly moving and in danger of being caught or killed. Every phone call or trip they take may be monitored. They rule by force and through the money they provide to cartel members, but no formal law or official social convention sustains their power, and they are always vulnerable to treachery or the jealousy of their closest associates. They are dangerous, yet always endangered.


In standard imagery, Mexican drug cartels are depicted as evil, sanguinary, and hierarchical organizations that dominate vast areas of land. Certainly, Mexican trafficking organizations have committed countless murders.31 Yet this violence, which stems from the unregulated, illegal status of drug businesses, may cause us to forget that, ultimately, drug cartels, like normal businesses, are pragmatic firms whose bottom line is profit. Moreover, the notion that cartels are run autocratically, from top to bottom by authoritarian leaders, though partially correct, is misleading to the extent that drug-cartel activity involves intricate, loosely knit webs of individuals and organizations that stretch from peasant farmers in Latin America to consumers in U.S. towns and cities.


These networks far transcend the boundaries of one cartel or of unitary, regionally based organizations. This reflects trends in the structure of global business generally—a shift to horizontal linkages (and subcontracting) and away from vertical integration. Yet the emergence of drug cartels, in some sense, also reflects grassroots organization by local entrepreneurs rather than the structure of legitimate transnational corporations, which are procedurally protected within a formal political economy (Recio 2002; Martínez 1978). In the drug trade, numerous informal links in the commodity chain are semiautonomous, flexibly affiliated, temporary, etc.


Hence, the Cártel de Juárez does not produce the cocaine it buys from Colombian and other South American sources, and the cartel leaves much of the shipping in the hands of South Americans until the drugs reach Mexico or its contiguous territory. Cartel workers move the drugs through the interior of Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once there, however, the cocaine is transported across the border by local smuggling cells or sold in Juárez tienditas (small stores) or picaderos that are protected by bribed policemen. These smuggling and local-distribution cells include, especially, the cross-border Aztecas-Barrio Azteca prison gang-street gang. The cells are as mobile and elusive as the guerrilla foco revolutionary groups of Central and South America. As a CIA report (Central Intelligence Agency 1995, 19) describes the process: "Much of the actual movement of narcotics across the border, especially in Ciudad Juarez, is subcontracted to groups that specialize in only this aspect of transshipment. The drugs are then re-collected by Juarez cartel associates who forward the narcotics to distributor centers throughout the U.S. One such route from Ciudad Juarez to Sylmar, California, was believed to have carried over 250 tons of cocaine before it was disrupted."


Another misconception about Mexican drug cartels is that because most are regionally based—as in the Gulf, Juárez, or Sinaloa cartel—everyone in the drug-trafficking area, la plaza, is part of the cartel or connected to it by regional, ethnic, or family ties. Some drug-trafficking organizations—most especially La Familia in Michoacán; the Herrera family's organization in Durango, which has dominated the heroin trade from Durango through El Paso-Juárez to Chicago since the 1930s (Lupsha and Schlegel 1980); the Gulf cartel, whose roots in the Gulf of Mexico region and specific families date to the 1930s; and various Sinaloa and Michoacán groups—possess elements of such a regional model. But the Gulf cartel is also trans-Mexican and indeed pan-American in addition to having dealings with groups in other hemispheres. Yet other organizations, such as the Juárez cartel of the Carrillo Fuentes family, are run by outsiders who took control from local people or have engaged in complex alliances with regional groups while maintaining a transnational, multisited global reach that far transcends the strictly local or regional. Still others, such as the Zetas (Corchado 2007), are neither strictly regional nor based on family ties.32 Several narcocumbres, most notably one convened by Félix Gallardo in 1989 and another between members of the Chapo Guzmán cartel, the Gulf cartel, and the Zetas in 2007, have attempted to lessen conflicts, apportion territories, and encourage intercartel cooperation. However, such arrangements have invariably broken down relatively quickly (Ravelo 2007a, 8-9).


How Drug-Trafficking Plazas Operate


Given these caveats, several features of Mexican narco-culture stand out and can be amply documented. Marijuana plants and opium poppies require certain climatological and environmental conditions in order to prosper.33 Consequently, over the last fifty years, several key states have dominated the cultivation of drug crops. And because of the cultivation of new areas, an estimated 30 percent of arable land in Mexico is now devoted to marijuana and opium cultivation (Dávila 2007a, 16). According to Mexican antidrug authorities, there are fifteen main microregions where pot is produced. These are located along the western Sierra Madre range in the states of Sinaloa, Michoacán, Guerrero, Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, Oaxaca, Nayarit, and Jalisco. The fertility of these regions has made Mexico one of the world's leading producers of marijuana, yet sadly, and not coincidentally, the drug-producing areas are located in the zones of greatest poverty. Opium is primarily grown in eleven microregions in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Durango, Chihuahua, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Sonora. Also, not surprisingly, the largest drug cartels are located in the vicinity of these producing areas, adjacent to the United States or along the main Mexican transportation routes by which South American cocaine is shipped north (Dávila 2007a, 14-17)


Transportation routes and territories controlled by specific cartels in collusion with police, military, and government officials, as noted above, are known as plazas.34 Control of a plaza gives the drug lord and police commander of an area the power to charge less-powerful traffickers tolls, known as pisos. Generally, one main cartel dominates a plaza at any given time, although this control is often contested or subverted by internal conflict, may be disputed among several groups, and is subject to rapid change. Attempts by rival cartels to ship drugs through a plaza or take over a plaza controlled by their enemies has led to much of the recent drug violence in Mexico. The cartel that has the most power in a particular plaza receives police or military protection for its drug shipments. Authorities provide official documentation for loaded airplanes, freight trucks, and cars and allow traffickers to pass freely through airports and landing strips, freeway toll roads and desert highways, and checkpoints and border crossings.


Typically, a cartel purchases the loyalty of the head of the federal judicial police or the military commander in a particular district.35 This official provides officers or soldiers to physically protect drug loads in transit or in storage facilities, and in some cases to serve as bodyguards for high-level cartel members. Police on the cartel payroll intimidate, kidnap, or murder opponents of the organization, although they also may pressure and extort larger payments from the cartel with which they are associated. Additionally, cartel members establish connections with state governor or mayors of major cities, high-ranking officials in federal law enforcement, military and naval officers and commanders, and other powerful politicians and bureaucrats. These national connections facilitate the use of transportation routes and control of a given plaza. In addition to large-scale international smuggling, cartels distribute huge quantities of drugs for domestic consumption.36


Local and federal law-enforcement agents and authorities, often at high levels, provide inside information to cartel leaders; this facilitates smuggling and sales operations and allows cartel members to live undetected in major cities or rural areas. Additionally, governmental insiders warn drug traffickers of imminent antidrug operations (the warning is known as el pitazo), which allows them to escape capture. Even when drug lords are captured, by paying large bribes they may continue to run their plazas from prison, and they often receive special privileges or are permitted to escape in exchange for large sums of money. In general, Mexican police agencies seldom conduct thorough investigations of drug organizations, but simply make arrests at checkpoints or as result of information provided by snitches; there is very little follow-up directed toward tracing and dismantling the webs of cartel members and accomplices (Blancornelas 2003, 92-93, 353-357).


According to a leading authority on corruption in Mexico, Alejandro Gertz, much of the Mexican police force serves the interests of drug traffickers and the politically powerful because of the hierarchical structure established by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the dominant Mexican political party from 1929 to 2000 and still a major force in the country.37 According to Gertz: "The police are a vertical structure that was made to serve power and not justice or society. As a result of this local municipal and state police exercise control, but they become accomplices, hitmen, cover-ups and partners of the drug traffickers . . . [This structure] begins at the summit of power and ends in the policemen in the barrio" (quoted in Ravelo 2007e, 8).


Narco-style: Visibility in the Narco-Culture


The quotidian life and social style of drug traffickers has been codified through the often-stereotypical motifs of narcocorridos (Edberg 2004; Wald 2001; Valenzuela 2002). In the drug ballads, narcotraficantes appear as gunslinging machos, decked out in flamboyant outfits. The classic attire consists of an expensive Tejana cowboy hat, kilos of gold necklaces, medallions, bracelets, rings, a brightly colored silk Western shirt, a cinto piteado (woven ixtle fiber belt), Levi's jeans, and sharp-pointed boots made of exotic animal skins. The drug kingpins are referred to less often by their given names than by their underworld nicknames (e.g., "La Barbie," El Chacky," "El Señor de los Cielos," "El Güero," "El Cochiloco," "El Tigrillo").38 They drive trokotas del año (the newest trucks), live in huge, tasteless, nouveau riche mansions or on well-stocked ranches, spend money lavishly, squire sexy overdressed women draped in a female version of the narco look, and party recklessly while ostentatiously accompanied by vicious bodyguards. Such a characterization is, in fact, a caricature, but elements of the style are definitely recognizable in border towns and northern Mexico drug hotbeds. However, the narco-look is simply a monied, conspicuous extension of a general norteño Mexican cowboy or ranchero style brought to the city, and it is mimicked and elaborated on by thousands of narcocorrido-banda-norteña bands on both sides of the border as well as by their dance-hall followers and imitators in the streets.39 "Narco-goods," thus, represent an extreme form of commodity fetishism.


Narco-style also entails elaborate public events or "spectacles" (Debord 2006), especially potlatch-like fiestas thrown to celebrate birthdays, weddings, and other rites of passage as well as to mark the successful crossing of large drug loads, horse races, cockfights, rodeos, and other highlights of the narco-ranchero life; similar extravagances include wild parties in exclusive restaurants, bars, and discotheques, complete with platoons of prostitutes, piles of cocaine, and expensive alcoholic beverages.40 These shows of wealth are a direct expression of the social inequality that drug trafficking creates at the local level (Malkin 2001; McDonald 2005). The courtship and public marriage of Chapo Guzmán, described above, was only the most sensational of many recent narco-spectacles. Such lavish spending, conspicuous consumption, and heavily guarded events, and the rituals of power they represent, are engaged in only by the wealthiest and strongest drug lords, although the rank and file of the drug world may also attend and participate. The everyday lives of the common people in the DWZ are much more mundane, and their participation in la narcocultura expresses itself primarily in the work they do in the drug business.


Deception, Concealment, and the Transmission of Messages: Stash Houses and Hit Men


Two significant cells, or domains of activity, within narco-culture that illustrate the simultaneous processes of occlusion and projection of cultural meaning in the DWZ are the work of stash-house guards and hit men (sicarios). A main task in drug-trafficking areas is the warehousing of loads of drugs or money. Houses in which drugs are stored on the U.S. side of the border are known as "stash houses," a phenomenon that is so widespread in El Paso that there is an anti-stash-house police unit. The job of successfully running a stash house is tricky and requires considerable cleverness and skill in the arts of mimesis (Taussig 1992b).41


One stash house that I observed for an extended period in El Paso was located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the extreme eastern part of town on a main thoroughfare (details in this account have been changed for safety reasons). The people who ran the stash house meticulously mowed the grass; adorned it with appropriate seasonal decorations (Halloween pumpkins, Christmas lights), the American flag, or cheesy lawn ornaments; and in other small ways made the place appear a bland, standard middle-class suburban dwelling. Yet to regular observers of the house, it was noteworthy that the venetian blinds on the windows were almost never open. It was nearly impossible to see into the house, over the rock wall into the backyard, or into the closed garage. Neighbors informed me that they could see transparent plastic sheets taped to all the windows to prevent the smell of marijuana or other drugs from escaping. It was also significant that the relatively short driveway was nearly always filled to capacity with cars parked in a line, often five in a row, though the placement of the cars periodically changed, in a kind of three-card-monte-like arrangement. Unknown vehicles came to the house at odd hours.


A keen observer could tell that the mysterious occupants of the house, who changed frequently, did not socialize with neighbors or spend much time outside the dwelling. They did not appear to leave or return to the house at times consonant with a standard nine-to-five job. In fact, many longtime neighbors had no idea who lived there or how they made a living. This nosy ethnographer was once approached by one of the stash house's occupants, however, who came within one foot of me and engaged in trivial small talk while obviously trying to gauge who I was and whether I was a threat. I also observed the occupant engaging in discreet surveillance of me at other times. I found it especially telling that the residents of the house, though maintaining an image of normality successful enough to prevent them from being arrested by antidrug authorities, neglected to water a succulent pomegranate tree, which subsequently died. The functioning of this particular stash house exemplifies the general processes of hiding and deception that are central to la narcocultura.


Drug hit men also engage in intricate attempts to disguise their identities and activities, although many drug killings in Mexico and on the border have been conducted brazenly—with automatic weapons in broad daylight—with no attempt at camouflage or subterfuge. Besides physically eliminating enemies, drug killings are meant to intimidate rivals, law enforcement, government officials, and the public through richly choreographed rituals of brutality with specific symbolic meanings.42 They share some of the logic of, and affect society much like, the "sacrificial terrorism" or "suicide terrorism" of Middle Eastern insurgent groups (Pape 2005; see also Agamben 1998). These killings not only destroy human lives but also send the sociopolitical message that the state (in this case, the Mexican government) can neither completely control its national territory nor fully protect the populace. In street terms, the message is clear: "Don't fuck with us, or this will happen to you, too." Such murders are especially powerful and effective because generally few people really know who committed them or exactly why; rumors spread, fears mount. The overall effect is to heighten the dominant image of the regional cartels.


Weimann and Winn (Weimann 2008, 69), referring primarily to terrorist actions by Islamist groups, characterize such actions as a "theater of terror" that communicates meaning through "orchestrated violence." Likewise, border drug violence takes on a psychological dimension that transcends the victims and is meant to speak to a mass audience. Narco-killers know that drug murders will be broadcast on local and national television. They also make their own videos, complete with musical sound tracks, for dissemination through YouTube. The use of increasingly sophisticated electronic media by cartels demonstrates the important rhetorical dimension of narco-violence. Narco-murders as visual spectacle have become regular fare in the Mexican and border news media and on the Internet.




A recent trend in narco-killings is the attachment of a sign or banner to the body of the victim or to public monuments, such as bridges or statues. These signs may contain lists of policemen who are threatened with death if they do not cooperate with traffickers. In Ciudad Juárez, such a list was posted in public places and on YouTube. Sometimes messages are carved or inscribed in blood on a victim's body. These signs or messages are generally written in underworld drug slang (peppered with execrable spelling, bad grammar, and crude obscenities) with semisecret references to and threats against drug lords and other cartel members.43 They are meant to inform drug-world insiders of who is either in charge or attempting to take charge of a particular plaza and to explain why specific individuals have been or will be slaughtered. Members of the Zetas cartel, which controls states and regions adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico and the northeastern border of Mexico, frequently issue theatrical statements in which they substitute the letter z for the letter s to advertise their power and influence. An example of this occurred in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, at a Zetas toy giveaway on Mexico's Children's Day (April 30, 2006). Announcements for the event attributed the toy donations to the "Zindicato Anónimo Altruizta de PN" [Anonymous Altruistic Syndicate of Piedras Negras], in obvious reference to the Zetas (Páez Varela 2007, 3).


YouTube, blogs, and narcocorridos are constantly used as venues for the transmission of intimidating messages and manifestos by drug cartels and as general forums for discussing drug-related issues and events, although there is also a growing body of copycat cartel messages, videos, and songs.44 Online narco-terror is especially potent because it becomes immediately available to a wide audience, which may include sympathizers, enemies, and the general public. Narco-videos and narco-blogs justify violent actions and attempt to establish the military and moral superiority of one cartel over another. Weimann (2008) explains that terrorist cyber-rhetoric seeks moral disengagement through "displacement of responsibility," "dehumanization of targets" (in the case of Mexican cartels, this entails calling members of rival cartels "pigs," "dogs," etc.), "euphemistic language," "attribution of blame," and other discursive devices. In this sense, border narco-propaganda parallels that of Islamist terrorist groups. In fact, it appears that cartels have copied many terror tactics and cyberspace techniques from al Qaeda and similar groups.


Another recent trend is the murder of narcocorrido singers, most notably Valentín Elizalde, "El Gallo de Oro" (the Golden Rooster), or even of entire musical groups. Opinions vary about whether the singers were killed because they knew too much, revealed too much information in their songs, had a falling out with a cartel they were associated with, or were killed by members of a rival cartel.


The style of drug killings forms a semiotic system of "inscribed" bodies subject to endless interpretation by cartel members and observers. Traitors are shot in the neck, philanderers are castrated, spies are shot in the ear, and people who talk too much are shot in the mouth. A body found with one or more fingers cut off then placed in the victim's mouth, or with the tongue cut off, is considered to be a message that the victim was a police informer (a dedo, or finger); the mutilation is also a threat meant to discourage others from informing on traffickers. In terms used by Katz (1988, 135-138), these stylized killings represent the "construction of dread": they generate a climate of fear and reinforce the power of the perpetrators.


Other descriptive neologisms for the disposal of murder victims include encajuelados (dead bodies stuffed in car trunks), ensabanados (bodies wrapped in sheets), encobijados (bodies wrapped in blankets), entambados (bodies stuffed in metal barrels, often along with acid or wet cement), enteipados (bodies wrapped in industrial tape), etc. In these expressions, attaching the preposition en to a participial verb converts the verb into an adjective or noun; each shift is grammatically marked by a morpheme; and the active verb implies an act of violence at the level of grammar, since en implies the placing or rendering of a human body inside something it would not normally be inside.


Moreover, to hacer pozole, make pozole (pork and chile stew) or prepare a guiso (a generic term for prepared food) in the narcocultura refers to dissolving a body in a container of acid (Blancornelas 2005, 132). Cartel hit men dehumanize their victims in other ways, including cutting off limbs, stabbing a knife into a victim's skull (and leaving it there), dressing up dead bodies in Santa Claus outfits or the rustic clothes of a stereotypical Mexican peasant (a huge floppy sombrero, red bandana, and cowboy clothes), hanging beheaded bodies from bridges, and lining up cadavers in rows or piling them in heaps. Decapitated heads have been placed in beer coolers or plastic bags and left in front of police stations or in other prominent public places, such as by a Juárez statue dedicated to journalists (an obvious effort to intimidate the mass media—soon thereafter, a famous journalist who covered narco-issues was murdered). The placement of severed heads far from the bodies conveys a gruesome announcement of the drug cartels' power to destroy.


These depraved, choreographed, even ceremonialized actions and the inventive language used to refer to them are part of an emergent culture and discourse created by outsiders and marginal members of Mexican society who, however cruelly, are remaking their cultural world.45 Such vicious forms of violence, eerily and not surprisingly, parallel the equally ritualistic styles of torture and murder regularly committed by the Mexican police: el tehuacanazo (pouring mineral water, often laced with dried chile, down the nostrils), la chicharra (burning delicate parts of the body with electrical wires), la ducha (shoving the head in toilet), etc.


Stylized drug killings, symbolically charged messages, narco-slang, videos, and songs transmitted via various media, and the parading and performance of narco-style, are genres of communication and forms of publicity that attempt to rework the public sphere of Mexican society and elevate the status of drug traffickers and cartels (Habermas 1991). As Weimann (2008, 83) points out: "The new communication technologies and especially the Internet carry a paradigm shift: They empower the individuals over states or societies." This occurs within a context of the delegitimization of the PRI-dominated postrevolutionary regime that controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, chaotic and unequal neoliberal economic reforms, globalization challenges (including the growing power of U.S. businesses and popular culture), and attempts by the PAN to reestablish order based on conservative, free-market policies. Efforts by the Mexican government to wipe out, or at least to lessen, the power of drug-trafficking organizations through military campaigns, bans on the radio diffusion of narcocorridos, anticorruption crusades, and other efforts have largely failed because of preexisting ties between traffickers and elements of the state (especially within the police and judicial branches of government and among some politicians) and because of the jobs and revenue provided by drug trafficking. The Mexican drug cartels remain powerful through the use of creative tactics involving both visibility and concealment.


El Paso-Juárez in the Drug War Zone


The previous sections established a theoretical framework for understanding the Mexican-American DWZ and the drug-cartel culture that operates within it. I now turn to the local setting and people illustrated in this book. Nestled in the pass (hence the Spanish name "El Paso") that cuts through the southern end of the Rocky Mountains and traverses two nations and three states, the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region has been a smuggler's paradise for at least a hundred years (Martínez 1978; Staudt 1998). The local landscape provides myriad spaces for imaginative traffickers. Rugged mountains, creased with sharp canyons and arroyos, overlook vast deserts. The lowland, downtown section of El Paso winds along the Rio Grande. The urban population (approximately 600,000) spills out both east to west into farming, industrial, and residential lands that stretch for about fifty miles between rural Fabens, Texas, and Sunland Park, New Mexico, and to the north of the Franklin Mountains. Pecan and cotton farms with many outbuildings straddle both sides of the shallow Rio Grande (Río Bravo). Drug traffickers can easily ford the river and disappear into the maze of rural back roads scattered across El Paso County (one of the largest counties in the United States), and from there enter Interstate Highway 10, which connects the east and west coasts of the United States.


Besides the many rural, riverine smuggling venues, drug traffickers take advantage of the many connections between the two massive, densely intertwined cities of El Paso and Juárez. These include four international bridges across the Rio Grande, several railroad crossings, and numerous tunnels and drainage canals as well as holes in the chain-link fences that divide El Paso and Juárez. The city of Juárez, with a population of approximately 1.3 million, is clearly visible across the river from El Paso except where mountains or large buildings block the view. The sprawling, diffuse cities are filled with relatively new, anonymous neighborhoods as well as large industrial and warehouse districts, all of which are ideal sites for stash houses and staging areas for smuggling operations.


Social disorganization and lax public security are especially noteworthy in Ciudad Juárez, which is roughly twice the size of El Paso. Juárez extends from Avenida Juárez, the commercial hub of the decrepit central-city area—which is connected by an international bridge to El Paso Street in the heart of El Paso's vintage late-nineteenth-century western-style central business district—around the Juárez Mountains and into the desert. To the east of downtown Juárez, new commercial and residential sections and hundreds of maquiladoras loom on the horizon, and to the south and west a boundless web of impoverished colonias (poor neighborhoods) has replaced farm and desert lands. Just as El Pasoans can see the factories of their sister city, Juarenses can see the skyscrapers of El Paso from many parts of their city—the two border communities are inextricably linked.


Poor, and far from the centers of political power in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, border residents often view abstract laws as simply minor obstacles to be overcome. A local culture of silence and minding one's own business treats minor cross-border smuggling of food, clothing, medicine, and other items as a regular part of life rather than a moral crime (Dugan 1997). Drug trafficking is considered an inevitable, rather than shocking, fact of the border economy. Historical economic factors have also contributed to the growth of El Paso-Juárez as a major international drug-smuggling hub. These include cross-border differences in law (for example, the United States prohibited alcohol in the 1920s while Mexico remained alcohol friendly; currently, the United States outlaws marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs, while the Mexican government often acts with complicity in smuggling operations); the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which speeded up all manner of transnational commerce and expanded the industrial economy of Juárez; the relative wealth of Mexico's northern states, which has produced an excellent infrastructure for the transportation of drugs; and the proximity of the Sierra Madre opium and marijuana fields to the large drug-consuming cities of the United States.


Furthermore, migration to Juárez from Mexican states to the south brings a huge reserve labor army to the colonias and urban barrios, and local government is unable to deal with this influx. There is a virtually limitless supply of unemployed workers ready and willing to make good money by driving or walking loads of drugs across the border or by serving as a stash-house guard or a hit man. Smugglers have little difficulty adapting socially or communicating in Spanish, English, or Spanglish on either side of the bilingual, bicultural border. The enormous maquiladora industry and related El Paso long-haul trucking industry provide the heavy-duty eighteen-wheelers and every possible storage facility, tool, equipment, or supply needed to package, conceal, store, and transport contraband drugs. The binational conurbation also provides all necessary banking, currency exchange, telecommunications, legal, and other services required for an effective drug-smuggling organization. Likewise, black-market guns and stolen cars used for self-defense and smuggling are readily available. Thousands of local residents live simultaneously in both El Paso and Juárez, and families bisect the border. In essence, the border is more a resource for smugglers than a hindrance.


The Carrillo Fuentes family took control of the Juárez plaza in 1993. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, also known as the "Lord of the Skies" because he used Boeing 747s to bring loads of cocaine from Colombia to Juárez and then the United States, ran the Juárez cartel (or the Carrillo Fuentes cartel) until his death in 1997 (Bowden 2002). Since then, his brother Vicente has assumed control. At present, the Chapo Guzmán cartel of Sinaloa and possibly elements of the Zetas and the Beltrán family are engaged in a bloody street battle with the Juárez cartel. As of December, about 1,600 homicides were documented in Juárez during 2008. The winner of this violent struggle will command the lucrative Juárez plaza.


The interviews and oral histories that follow present a diversity of experiences within the border DWZ, from the perspectives of drug smugglers, law enforcement officials, and others.46 The interviewees provide details about their personal lives before their contact with the drug world as well as stories of their careers within that world. Brief introductions to each interview situate the individual biographies within the larger history of drug trafficking and law enforcement as well as within U.S.-Mexico border culture in the DWZ. Many of my informants are people whom I have known for a long time and with whom I engage, to a degree, in a common border social environment. For this reason, and as part of general anthropological ethics, I have endeavored to not reveal anything that would cause harm to the informants or anyone else. To achieve this aim, it has occasionally been necessary to change the names of people or places or to otherwise modify details of the biographies.


The interviewees include a high-level drug kingpin, middle-level organizers of drug deals, low-level mules, and street-level drug sellers. These people are or were associated with the Juárez cartel or its precursors in the region. I have inserted discussions also with experts on the history of drug trafficking in the El Paso-Juárez area, innocent bystanders, or victims of drug-trafficker activity, and a journalist whose life was threatened by narcotraficantes. Additionally, I present the stories of a variety of law-enforcement officials who combat drug trafficking, including an undercover narc, a Juárez beat cop, the former head of an antinarcotics task force, an active Border Patrol agent, and a retired Border Patrol-DEA agent who now opposes the war on drugs.


Note: The Spanish-language interviews were translated by the author with the assistance of Rafael Nuñez.



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