Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, July 17, 2020

Inside Mexico’s war on drugs: Conversations with narcos

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat The Conversation

Narcos may not blame the state or society for their condition of poverty – each is, after all, his own man – but they don’t feel remorse for their crimes, either. They had the “bad luck” of being born in poverty, they told me, and their victims had the “bad luck” to be in their way.

Note: 11 years ago allowing a child to 'narco-dress' for Halloween was unacceptable, in 2019 this child parades in a Sinaloa mall dressed as a narco complete with a 'body bag' which he dragged around the mall.

The Conversation Post:

I am from northern Mexico, one of the regions most affected by the global war on drugs.

From 2008 to 2012 my hometown – which I’m not naming here for safety reasons – went through one of the most violent times in its history. Shootings between cartels and the military became frequent events, which could happen at any time of the day anywhere in the city. I personally witnessed a shooting just across from the university where I used to teach.

My friends and family had similar experiences. Some of them witnessed shootings from their cars, others from their home.

In addition to the growing violence, the Zetas cartel started to bribe the local businesses. If owners did not pay, the cartel would either destroy their businesses or kidnap a family member. As a result, many businesses had to close their doors. The cartels fueled paranoia on social media. “Do not come out tonight,” a tweet would warn, “because there will be a shooting.” Sometimes, these threats proved to be true.

Similar terror is occurring across Mexico as a result of the war on cartels launched by former President Felipe Calderón in 2006. The violence unleashed by the government’s assault on drug-trafficking groups has wracked a nation.

Life stories of former drug traffickers

Not wanting to stay in a country where I felt so vulnerable, I decided to continue my postgraduate studies abroad, in England. There, I channeled my frustration with Mexico’s war on cartels into my doctoral dissertation, which analyzes drug-related violence through the lens of those who committed the crimes.

Between October 2014 and January 2015, I interviewed 33 men who used to work in the drug trade to understand how their experiences relate to their involvement in drug trafficking. From street drug dealers to hitmen and bodyguards, I found, they all share similar life stories.

These firsthand interviews with former drug traffickers, widely known as “narcos” in Mexico, bring a new perspective to political science research on Mexico’s drug war: that of the perpetrators.

This analysis of the narcos’ narratives shed light on the possible causes of these men’s involvement in the drug trade and elucidates the logic through which they understand the world.

This view is almost entirely neglected by researchers and politicians. To date, Mexican policies to curb drug trafficking and reduce violence have been designed using solely the logic of policymakers.

Is it any surprise they’ve failed?

Neither monsters nor victims

My research begins with the premise that the narcos are part of Mexican society, just like anyone else. They are exposed to the same messages, values, and traditions.

Yet the Mexican government has systematically rejected this notion, preferring to invoke the same binaries present in U.S. policies like the war on drugs and the war on terror. It’s “us” against “them,” this framing goes the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.”

In the movies, the narcos are portrayed as bloodthirsty criminals. More compassionate views, especially in academia, suggest the drug trade is the “only option” for poor kids in cartel-infested parts of the country.

Beyond being simplistic, such framing conceals nuances that may actually help to explain the root causes of Mexico’s drug violence.

Despite seeing themselves as free agents who decided to work in the drug trade, the men I interviewed also see themselves as disposable. They shared feelings of social exclusion and a lack of a life purpose, making them feel that their lives are worthless.

“I knew I was alone,” one man, Rigoleto told me. “If I wanted something, I had to get it myself.”

My research also reveals that these narcos embrace the government’s binary discourse. They identified as “they” – the people excluded from “our” civil society.

The former drug traffickers I spoke with also reproduce the individualistic, every-man-for-himself ethos that has permeated Mexican society since the introduction of a neoliberal, U.S.-style economic system in the late 1980s.

This ethos is a double-edged sword. Mexico’s narcos may not blame the state or society for their condition of poverty – each is, after all, his own man – but they don’t feel remorse for their crimes, either. They had the “bad luck” of being born in poverty, they told me, and their victims had the “bad luck” to be in their way.

The narco’s logic is simple, according to Yuca, one of the men I interviewed: We are, all of us, bound to the “law of the fittest.”

As Cristian said: “In my neighborhood, we all knew the rules: You snooze, you lose. That was the law. You have to be tough, you have to be violent, you have to take care of yourself because nobody will do it for you.”

Poverty: A fixed and inevitable condition

This is one of several shared values I identified in my interviews, which together form what I refer to in my dissertation as “the narco discourse.”

The narco discourse puts poverty in sharp relief. The men I spoke with believe poor people have no future and, therefore, have nothing to lose.

“I knew I would grow up and die in poverty,” said one of my interviewees, Wilson. “I just asked God: Why me?”

Poverty is understood as an inevitable condition. “Somebody has to be poor,” said one man, Lamberto.

“There is nothing you can do to avoid it,” said another, Tabo.

The narco discourse also assumes that poor children will, like them, inevitably become involved with drugs and gangs. It is taken for granted that poor children have no future, that they are disposable.

“When you grow up in a poor neighborhood you know that at some point you will become a drug addict,” said Palomo. “When you are a drug addict you see yourself as rubbish. Who would care about the life of a poor drug addict?”

In this crowd, I learned, an early death is also seen as inevitable.

“When you see so many of your peers dying in street fights, from an overdose, shot by the police, you think that is your future as well,” a man I’ll call Tigre told me.

The possibility of being killed or killing, then, isn’t necessarily a drawback of the drug trade. The kids who grow up to be drug traffickers assume that death is their destiny.

“I always thought that my destiny was to die from an overdose or by a bullet,” said Pancho.


One of the few ways poor kids with this worldview could imagine enjoying life, they told me, is by buying stuff – nice stuff, luxury items, things they couldn’t afford.

The only way to achieve that is with the “easy money” that an “easy life” in the drug business would give them.

They understood the happiness brought on by easy money to be momentary. But still, they said, it was worth it. My interview subjects assume that “in this world, you’re a nobody without money,” as Canastas put it.

Crucially, the narcos recognize that the flip side of the “easy life” is either death or jail.

“One day you are in a nice restaurant, surrounded by beautiful women and important people,” Ponciano told me. “The next day you may wake up in a dungeon.”

That’s why the easy life has to be so fast, so hedonistic – to maximize the benefits of that easy money.

As Jaime told me, “My goal was to live every day as if was the last. I did not pinch pennies when it came to enjoy[ing] myself. [I bought] the best trucks, the best wines [and had] the most beautiful women.”

‘A real man’

In the narco discourse, physical violence is essential to survive, literally, in poor neighborhoods which participants referred to as “the jungle.”

Violence, I was informed, is learned. Men are not born violent, but they must become violent. As Jorge explained:

“When I was a child, older children hit me, they took advantage of me because I was alone. I was not violent, but I had to become even more violent than them. You must do it if you want to survive in the streets.”

In “the jungle,” men also had to keep a certain reputation as a “real man.” As they see it, that means being an aggressive, heterosexual, violent womanizer. A true man is “good for the party, drugs, and alcohol,” said Dávila.

The real man cannot show his fears – no emotions, no weaknesses. The best way to hide them, the narcos I interviewed said, is by proving their strength. This can be done in different ways: within your own gangs, fighting rival gangs, or at home, with their family.

A recurrent theme in my interviews was the anger that participants felt against their fathers, most of who were domestic abusers.

Twenty-eight out of the 33 men admitted that at some point in their lives their greatest aspiration had been to kill their fathers. All said their biggest frustration had been watching their fathers beat their mothers. They wanted revenge not for themselves, but for their mothers.

The men invoked the trauma of witnessing gender violence not only when we spoke about their childhood but also when we discussed their reasons for illegal acts like drug use, vandalism and drug trafficking.

To some participants, a fantasy of making their fathers suffer was their main motivation to work in the drug trade.

“My only thought was to kill my father when I grew up,” Rorro explained. “I wanted to cut him into little pieces.” Being a narco gave him that power.

A man named Ponciano told me that he thought of his father when he was torturing his victims.

“And I made them suffer even more, like he made us suffer.”

Not everyone who had the opportunity to kill their fathers could follow through. Facundo, wishing his father to suffer but unable to kill him, told his dad to leave town.

“If I see you again, I will kill you,” he said.

What can we learn in Latin America?

Poverty and toxic masculinity. These are, my research finds, two common themes driving the men who commit so much violence not only in Mexico but across Latin America, the world’s most violent region.

The everyday life of these narcos is a breeding ground for all sorts of violence, from domestic abuse to gang rivalry. When policymakers focus on “ending drug violence,” this is the view so often missing.

Even when poverty is acknowledged as the root of other major social problems in Mexico, as some researchers have done, there is insufficient knowledge of what living in poverty actually means for these people. While many experiences of poverty were shared by my interviewees, each person in each region and each neighborhood had their own problems and specific needs.

Understanding how that background leads to violence would mean listening – really listening – to men like those I interviewed. And it means asking questions that don’t fit within the “us versus them” mentality of presidents, policymakers and police chiefs. To design more effective policies for ending violence, one must understand the logic, the worldview, of its perpetrators.

Where does all this violence come from? Who justifies its use, and how? How is violence reproduced within Mexican families, and echoed within communities? When the government responds to this violence with more violence – by sending soldiers out to fight crime, as Mexico has done for 12 years – what message does that send?

As long as governments maintain their discourse about “good people” versus “bad men,” my research suggests, it will only feed “their” indifference to “us.”


  1. Great insight and interesting reading what makes some people choose what they do
    Thank you

    1. Puras mamadas de Karina Garcia, estaba entrvistando tecatos afuera del Food for Less en Stockton.


  2. Where did the violence come from? The Spanish massacred, looted, enslaved and raped their way to the top of the wheel. The Spanish were evil people, devils incarnate, and their evil legacy lives on in Mexico and Colombia. You reap what you sow
    In a just world, Spain and the Spanish royal family would be indicted on charges of crimes against humanity.

    1. Europe has a long history of violence, but over the last 200 years it has gradually given way for civil society under democracy. Today the incidence of violence is quite low by international standards.

      Conclusion: it is possible to get away from the violence.

      Assumption: a more equitable society with less concentration of resources to the (aristocratic/oligoarchic/capitalistic) elite.

      Since socialism/communism has proved to fail, the answer must lie in a more democratic society with more than only two parties holding all the power (as in Mex and the US).

    2. 💯 Jamesbrown

    3. The same can be said of every "colonial" society throughout history. They were all conquistadors, happily dominating any technologically inferior peoples they encountered along the way. Genocide was Standard Operating Procedure. So much for the "all men are created equal" mantra... not true, never has been, and never will be; at least not in the short space of time that I have left on this planet. Crimes against humanity? No mames, güey.

      Hasta luego,

    4. You forgot about the 100 million people dead from ww1 and ww2 and more millions from other conflicts. Really, a civil society? Perhaps since ww2 you could make that argument but not for 2 centuries. However, colonialism and NATO destroying countries to this second still exists.

    5. It was not a "colonial" way it was the way every society has operated since the first gathering of people......The Vikings did it to anyone they could....the Romans to anyone that they could...the Indians dominated other Indian tribes...and so the victors go the spoils.

      The difference is why in the mostly causation countries can their enemies eventually be their (England and the US ) but the rest of the world the two former enemies can never reconcile......why is that?

    6. " the rest of the world the two former enemies can never reconcile......why is that?"

      Because the "new" Americans were pretty much the same color. When it's whites vs coloreds, the whites get fertile farmlands and the coloreds get 🏜️ desert lands. No justice, no peace. An old, but appropriate saying... relevant to this very day.
      Cortes evicted the Tlatelolcas from the area that ultimately became México D.F. after they had been instrumental in defeating the Aztecs. Thanks for that, Hernan. The descendents of those Tlatelolcas will never forget, because they remain marginalized to this very day; i.e. the antithesis of reconciliation.

      Hasta luego,

    7. @AmigoAnonimo, Cognitive Dissonance: When two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent.

    8. You do know the US and England are not ALL white right? You're a bitter racist obviously.

    9. It is always someone else's fault, isn't it?

  3. Wow, what a read! Thank you!

  4. Most impressed with the turn BB has taken lately to present a more varied range of topics than just the blood and the gore.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Then you will like another post I have in draft, it is a little highbrow so the keyboard narcos prob won't like it...

    2. Good Website also.
      Author has quite the credentials.
      excellent !

  5. James Brown,

    Your ignorant if you think Spaniards are the only people who were violent in this world.

    In your eyes any country who has fought a war is evil?

    Where are you from I am sure your people are just as guilty.

    1. James Brown is a puro racist with no onw saying shit to this payoso

    2. 8:21 why don't you refute him then?

  6. Great find, thank you Chivis

  7. Thanks for the insight. Capitalism defines us by what we have, what status symbols we posses. In Mexico, the you are looked down upon by those with money and many poor kids will are tempted to have those resources by whatever means necessary. The U.S. does not help in any other way than providing arms and training for Mexicans to become better in killing other Mexicans. To the U.S. Mexico is just another market to expand the goals of the military-industrial complex.

  8. Damn, that photo says it all.

  9. Costa Rica and Panama have shown that a stable country is possible. Is their model too far out for Mexico to achieve if tried?

  10. Kind off off topic but Chivis was claimed many times Chapo Isidro is the smartest narco for avoiding capture but Chavo Felix has never even been close to being arrested, spoted, or had operations focused on capturing him like Isidro. And no I don’t support any cartel it’s just interesting stuff

    1. Chavp felix is the son in law of el mayo snitching has its rewards

  11. Also ridiculous all these "narco novelas" fantisizing and glorafaing this.

  12. Good on the critique of neoliberal capitalism but wtf is this shit on toxic masculinity? Fuck out of here.

    1. Exactly brother, exactly. Unfortunately those are the boxes that need to be checked nowadays in order to be considered a "good" article. I'm surprised the author used pronouns, probably asked first.

  13. Your paper has little substance in regards to explaining the root causes of the narco world. I'll give you a hint: Mexico has EVERYTHING it needs to become a super power, & yet it is not, because corruption goes all the way to the government..

  14. "What a self-grandizing, ridiculous article, full of just enough social justice bullshit to gather support amongst fledgling thinkers" said one man, let's call him anonymous

  15. The chattering classes talking about violence and never done a violent thing in their lives,trying to understand it.Learned violence complete bullshit,born with a predisposition to it,some dont want it but its there,extreme violence,anyway

  16. There seems to be more allowance of racist comment on here,specially against whites?

  17. Asi Ninio. Arrastra lo por lo calle ah garrar tu dulce. Esta muerte que trigo con un sinton meh lo amaro y leh doy buelta paca sepa que en el merro centro desta tierra es Indio del prencipio. Apoco les quetaron algo? Put your costume on playa.

  18. This isn’t the peak. It is a sign of more and crazier. Mexico is going full failed state soon.


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