When I Wear My Alligator Boots examines how the lives of dispossessed men and women are affected by the rise of narcotrafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, the book explores a crucial tension at the heart of the “war on drugs”: despite the violence and suffering brought on by drug cartels, for the rural poor in Mexico’s north, narcotrafficking offers one of the few paths to upward mobility and is a powerful source of cultural meanings and local prestige.
In the borderlands, traces of the drug trade are everywhere: from gang violence in cities to drug addiction in rural villages, from the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music to the icon of Jesús Malverde, the “patron saint” of narcos, tucked beneath the shirts of local people. In When I Wear My Alligator Boots, the author explores the everyday reality of the drug trade by living alongside its low-level workers, who live at the edges of the violence generated by the militarization of the war on drugs. Rather than telling the story of the powerful cartel leaders, the book focuses on the women who occasionally make their sandwiches, the low-level businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their products, the mules who carry their money and drugs across borders, and the men and women who serve out prison sentences when their bosses' operations go awry.
When I Wear My Alligator Boots Narco-Culture in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands
The pandemic has created major supply chain challenges for publishers, manufacturers, warehousing facilities and shipping companies. Please allow for a minimum of 15 business days to receive your order. If you need your order sooner, consider purchasing from one of our retail partner links in the buying options. Thank you!
Narco-Wives, Beauty Queens, and a Mother's Bribes
When Andrés stepped out of his truck that day wearing his alligator boots, Isabella was instantly and powerfully attracted to him. She was eighteen years old and dreaming of living the opulent life of a narco-wife. I had never heard her say a word about the shy weed whacker until she saw him that day in the village, though she had apparently known him all her life. Soon thereafter, however, they were madly in love and virtually inseparable, despite everyone's disapproval. And then one day Andrés went out to work, like any other day, but didn't come home that night.
It was Paz, Andrés's devastated mother, who explained to me that he had been caught trying to smuggle a large shipment of drugs across the border. "It wasn't even his!" Paz emphasized, commenting on the intuitive injustice of the smuggler going to jail for getting caught with someone else's merchandise. And it was thus that Andrés was removed abruptly from Isabella's and Paz's everyday life. For Isabella, Paz, and Andrés's sister, Elsa, his sudden absence transformed their lives.
Media representations of the drug cartels and the war on drugs almost exclusively focus on men. They chronicle the exploits of macho drug capos, hit men, and smugglers. Music videos of corridos show tough-looking guys driving huge trucks and wielding AK-47s, often accompanied by busty, bejeweled, and beautiful women who appear backgrounded, as decoration. The "drug wars" in Mexico do indeed involve men most directly. Men are more likely to be lured into the trade (both to work as narcos and to work for the police and the military), and the deaths associated with narco-violence are overwhelmingly those of young men. The trope of the valiente, or brave, narcotrafficker permeates every aspect of the cultural sphere; the narcotrafficker is portrayed as fearless and violent in telenovelas (soap operas) and popular corridos, and this image is reinforced by media coverage of famous cartel bosses.
Nonetheless, my first introduction to the ravages of the drug trade was through the travails and triumphs of women. Over the course of my research, there were several women in particular whose experiences were deeply revealing about the nature of the narco presence in the region and especially the way this presence is felt by women. But it was the women most immediately affected by Andrés's imprisonment who alerted me to the ways the narco-economy in the region makes women vulnerable. I had spent very little time with Andrés before he went to jail, but it was through his absence that I first came to know him. It was through the effect of his imprisonment on Andrés's family, particularly the women in his life, that his story became fascinating to me.
For this reason, I'm going to begin Andrés's story much in the way that Ilearned itand much as I approached my study ofthe drug tradegenerally, that is, from the edges. At the edges of Andrés's imprisonment were his mother, sister, and girlfriend. And it was in the midst of the tremendous emotional and economic toll that his absence took on their lives that my role in this network of people began to develop.
The trajectory of research for this book was shaped by the fact that I began my fieldwork alone as a young, foreign woman and a stranger to locals. When I first arrived I had few connections among the people in local fishing villages. One effect of this was that it took me much longer to develop comfortable friendships or research rapport with men than women. This was frustrating because it made it difficult to learn about what life was like for local men and skewed my perspective on living conditions more generally.
My initial solution to this asymmetry in my research focus was to join whatever day labor projects were available where most of the local men worked. I volunteered in conservation talleres (workshops)and work programs on the river, like the one where I first met Andrés. While this did provide me with a unique perspective on the working conditions in such projects, ultimately it was not a productive strategy. The work was far too physically demanding for me, and later I realized the confusion that my participation on these work projects created. When I moved in with Ana's family in the village, a neighbor asked her if it was out of the same monetary desperation that led me to take these poorly paid manual jobs in the first place.
The reasons for these kinds of research barriers became clearer to me the longer I stayed in the area. It was Alvaro, the trafficker who confronted me about purportedly not being scared of him, who was most explicit about how my social status as a young foreign woman was perceived as odd to local people. On one of the first days I found myself in Alvaro's company, in the early stages of my fieldwork, I was sitting in his mother's house with his huge extended family. I had been interviewing his sister, a fisherwoman I'd become friendly with. I had met Alvaro a few times before, but for some reason on this occasion he asked me how old I was. I was twenty-six at the time, and I told him so. Apparently he had thought I was younger, so he overreacted to the news. "And you don't have a husband or kids yet?!" he asked, with not a little judgment in his tone.
Then I went on to explain that in Canada and the United States (I am a dual citizen of both countries) women often have children later in life or sometimes not at all. His sister and mother nodded supportively at my explanation, clearly uncomfortable with Alvaro's outburst. This only seemed to goad him further, and at a remarkable pace he started expounding on why that was ridiculous. "You are already twenty-six. And no kids! Think about it, if you have a kid now you'll be una anciana [an old woman] by the time the kid turns fifteen!"
Alvaro's comments helped clarify the ways that my solitary presence and lack of local family ties were initially peculiar to some people. Over time, however, people seemed to simply get used to me. In the process, most of the relationships I developed with male research subjects came about through the friendships I had initially established with their mothers, wives, and sisters. Living for stretches of time with Ana's and later Paz's family eventually allowed me to develop the kinds of fictive kinship relations that anthropologists often experience. For example, Cruz took on a fatherly role, and Javier and Andrés came to treat meet as a sister. This was extremely important for my long-term research (as well as my general well-being) because it situated me within a social structure that allowed my presence to make more sense to local people.
Nonetheless, it was through my initial friendships with Paz, Ana, and Isabella that I began to notice the subtle but significant ways that the drug trade uniquely affects women. In this chapter, I explore how both the violence experienced by women as a result of the trade and the opportunities it provides are organized spatially in ways that are powerfully gendered. Because women in the north of Mexico often work from home they are affected differently from men and made vulnerable in specific ways by their presence in the domestic sphere. In addition, the social roles available for women in the drug trade, though diverse, contrast in significant ways with those available to men.
This chapter is about the women often obscured in coverage of the drug war: mothers, wives, and daughters waiting for their loved ones to serve out their prison sentences or trying to find justice for their deaths. But it is also about the women who aspire to another kind of life, the kind that is sometimes available to them only through men who work as narcos.
"What Any Good Mother Would Do": Prayers, Tamales, and Bribes
I first met Paz after Andrés had already gone to jail, during the first year I lived in Mexico. I would sometimes wake to the sound of her horn as she cruised through the village in Andrés's truck, selling her homemade tamales out of her car window. Ana, the mother in the house where I was staying at the time, who was Paz's comadre, would often run out to buy some. She would come back in muttering, "Pobrecita Paz" (Poor Paz). On those days, she would offer Paz's tamales around at breakfast. I could tell from their reception among the family that they were not the best quality. Javier, Ana's son, would complain the most. "Ma, why do you buy those tamales? They're disgusting." According to Javier, they were the worst tamales this side of the border-too mealy, and the chicken was always dry and tough. The only reason Paz was able to stay in business was because when she took them to the hunting camps the gringos would buy them. Apparently she even sold them to the gringos at a higher price than she charged the locals. But Ana would just respond to Javier's complaints by repeating herself, "Pobrecita Paz." The fact was that she bought them out of pity, and many other people felt the same way. I learned later that Paz's neighbor would buy some once in a while and then feed them to his dog.
I often accompanied Ana on her visits with Paz in Santa Ana. We would sit at her kitchen table for hours drinking instant coffee and nibbling stale conchitas (sugary breads). In truth, at first these visits were excruciatingly boring for me as the women talked mostly about people I did not know and memories I did not share. Santa Ana seemed remote from my research interests, which at the time were focused squarely on indigenous fishing rights in Ana's village. But I felt obliged to take Ana to visit Paz, and I spent my first few visits to her house impatiently awaiting our departure. But Paz had such generosity of spirit and straightforward kindness that I quickly developed a strong affection for her and came to take much comfort in spending time with her on our visits. Slowly, I also became engrossed in her heartbreak and the sense of both chaos and fierce optimism she was experiencing during her son's imprisonment. She spoke often and dotingly of Andrés, who was featured prominently in the photos adorning the refrigerator and the walls. According to Paz, the day he went to jail was the first time he had become involved in smuggling, and it was just bad luck that he was caught. He was a good boy and had simply got drawn into a world that had overwhelmed him.
Ana's son Javier had also spent time in jail, and Ana and Paz's friendship crystallized around the shared experience of utter emotional suspension during their sons' prison sentences. Paz's situation was exacerbated by the fact that Andrés had gotten into a few bad fights when he first went to jail and, as a result, had made some enemies. At first he told Paz that it was an isolated incident, a squabble that got out of control. As the weeks went by, however, Paz found him looking increasingly swollen and bruised on her visits. Paz wandered through her days like a zombie. Between her weekly visits to the jail, she said she would lay awake at night imagining what was happening to Andrés, praying to Saint Jude (the patron saint of lost causes) that he was safe.
As her weekly visits continued, with Andrés bruised in an ever-increasing variety of shades, Paz started nagging him to talk to the guards about the beatings. She knew it was going to be difficult to convince him to do this. Andrés wouldn't want to snitch on the other inmates. But she kept begging him to do it anyway. Everything changed the day she went in to find that his knuckles had been smashed. He tried to play down the bandage around his hand, saying it was "nothing," but Paz panicked and tore it off to verify that, as she put it, "his hand was still there at all." She was horrified to find her boy's hand like that, and she started to get up, telling Andrés that she was going to go to the guards. Andrés stopped her and finally explained to his mother that it wouldn't do any good to talk to them. It was, in fact, a guard who had injured his hand. He admitted reluctantly that several weeks earlier, in what his sister Elsa later inferred would have been an alcohol-inspired moment of self-grandeur, he had "offended" a few of the guards. They had been giving him a hard time ever since.
Paz said that the world spun around her head for the rest of that visit, but when she said goodbye to Andrés, she resolved to do what she said in retrospect was what "any good mom would do." She marched right up to the guard on duty, firmly took his hand, and gave him a meaningful look. Then she thanked him for looking after her son. She released his hand, along with a wad of cash she had pressed into it, and as she walked out of the holding room she said, "Que Dios lo cuide" (God bless you).
Bribing guards is standard practice in Mexican prisons. By some estimates, guards can make millions of dollars a year providing basic perks to affluent inmates, and corruption in Mexican prisons regularly makes national headlines. One of the most famous cases was when Joaquín "Shorty" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, escaped from a maximum security prison in 2001 hidden in a laundry van. Guzmán reportedly paid "salaries" to prison officials of up to $4,500 a month, and over seventy guards were investigated for facilitating the escape.
Most of the bribes to guards are made in smaller increments, to compensate for the lack of basic services such as adequate food and medical care. Mexico's prisons were built to house 185,000 inmates but now house more than 45,000 above that capacity, according to figures from the National Public Safety System. Families often try to provide the funds to secure more consistent medical attention, to be able to bring in food, or to arrange conjugal visits.
Most of the time the cartels, or smaller gangs, buy protection for inmates. This is part of the taxation system that is calculated into the business of the trade, and gangs often have the resources to purchase such privileges for higher-level members. Paz, in contrast, did not have the resources to maintain such an arrangement. According to her, the cash she pressed into the guard's hand that day was all the money she had at that moment, and if the interaction had gone well, she knew that eventually she would need more to keep Andrés under the guard's protection. She was going to need to make more money.
Paz had been supporting herself and her family for a long time. Her husband, who was a fisherman and an alcoholic, had left when Andrés and Elsa were little. She had worked at a store on the road for years and also as a seamstress to piece together a living. Then when Andrés was old enough he had helped out, first working odd jobs and as a fish cleaner and then getting into illicit forms of work. When Elsa married her husband, Rafael, their fishing brought in good money during the season, but once Elsa started having children the costs grew along with them. It was going to be hard to cobble together enough to live on by herself and at the same time make the money to keep Andrés safe.
That's why Paz started making and selling tamales. She would prepare the meat and filling the day before and then wake up at 4 A.M. to wrap and steam them. On one of my visits when I was staying on Paz's couch, I woke with her early one day to observe the elaborate preparation. She sorted through the cornhusks and piled the good ones together. Then she laid out the husks one by one, spreading the filling into their folds and piling in the rest of the ingredients: an olive, some meat, a slice of potato. Then she wrapped the extra husk around the back and at the end. Finally she tied little strips of husk around the whole tamale to keep the folds down. When she was finished with this meticulous work of wrapping and tying she steamed them. She had an hour and a half as they steamed to bathe, dress, and put on makeup, then help her grandkids, Celia and Kike, get up and get ready for school.
When the tamales had been in the steamer long enough she loaded them into Andrés's truck (which she shared with her daughter and son-in-law) and drove through all the nearby villages and a few of the hunting/tourist camps to sell them. She drove around with her signature stop-and-honk, lurching through the settlements and fishing villages. She made her rounds with a new batch of tamales at least twice a week. In this way she saved the money that she would take to the guards at the prison every week when she visited her son.
Paz often took the tamales that were left over after her day's rounds to Andrés's old boss and his boys who guarded a post in the desert where drugs were transferred. If she had sold all the tamales she would make them a batch of tortas (sandwiches). More than anything she just wanted to remind them that her son was still in jail, paying for their crimes, suffering for their profits. But she knew better than to communicate this in anything other than idle chitchat and offerings of food. They would even give her a minimal amount of money fairly regularly, and she saw this as irrefutable proof that they were going to get him out soon. But the months kept passing, and Andrés was still in jail.
What Comes to Women at Home
The fact was that despite Paz's torment throughout Andrés's time in jail, we all knew she was lucky. She still had hope for her son. This was not true for Julia, who lived down the road from Paz. Julia had found her son dead, hanging from the rafters of their house, when she came home one afternoon. His death occurred under mysterious circumstances. The official story was that he committed suicide, but in several whispered asides I was informed that he was hung by his narco-bosses for failing to complete a series of tasks. No one really knew what had happened. But what was certain was that a few months earlier he had developed an addiction to crystal meth. It is often said that narcos don't last long in the business after they develop a serious drug addiction. They lose sight of their priorities, and they lose control. Julia also started smoking cristala few months after her son's death. Now she spent most days sitting in front of her house, staring out at nothing in particular. Paz would sometimes bring her food, but I could tell it was painful for her to even pass Julia on the road.
For Paz, Julia's experiences were a reminder that things could be much worse. And for me, Julia's story was a first glimpse at the indelible loss that many women have encountered as a result of the narco-associated violence that has overtaken Mexico. I have met many women since who have also lost children to the war on drugs. For example, when I traveled with the Caravana de la Paz (Peace Caravan) in the United States in August 2012, I met Doña Maria Herrera, a woman from Michoacán who had lost four sons since 2008 (figure 2). They were in metal trading, and the first two disappeared on a business trip in 2008. Her family searched for them with no help from the authorities, and then in 2010, another two of her sons went missing. Maria and her remaining two sons are still looking for them, though they know the chances that they are alive are very slim. Human rights groups estimate that the number of "disappeared" could be as high as 25,000. Authorities are hesitant to even register them as missing, and they are rarely seen again.
[Figure 2 about here]
The principal way in which women are made vulnerable by the drug trade's grip on the region is through the loss of loved ones to jail or death as a result of their involvement in, or encounters with, the trade. Another way in which women are made vulnerable by their husband's or child's activities in the trade is through their presence at home. Often it is the woman who is at home when the army arrives to investigate a lead on her husband's or child's activities. In such cases, if a stash is found in the house the woman may end up serving years in prison while her husband remains free. Because many women in rural Mexico work from home, they tend to be at a greater risk of exposure. They are in the places where the police and military are most likely to search first.
On the other hand, women's positions in their homes also make them vulnerable to cartel coercion. It is not uncommon in the rural north for narcos to intimidate people into allowing their homes to serve as "stash houses" for drugs between deliveries or sales. In this case, someone knocks on the door and asks the woman at home to take care of something, a package, a vehicle, or a box. She knows from their clothes and the vehicles they are driving that it would be unwise to refuse.
Most of the stories people told of such occurrences involve someone the women recognize through a personal connection. For instance, Paz recalled that one time Andrés's old boss arrived and asked her for a "favor," wanting to leave some packages in her house for a few days. It was right after Andrés had gone to jail, and Paz felt that she had to say yes, for she thought that maybe it was a test of her loyalty.
She knew his old boss personally; they called him "El Gordo" (presumably because he was a chubby short guy). During the first few months that Andrés was in jail, when she still had hope that El Gordo would be getting him out, Paz fixated on endearing herself to him. She fed and flattered him endlessly. Many thought her efforts were misguided. From all appearances, El Gordo was not a high-ranking boss (as Elsa pointed out, the fact that he guarded his own trade-off post was one indication of his underling status). But he was Paz's principal contact and her only hope, so she treated him like a godfather, a capo.
Andrés's employers had been promising that he would not be in jail long, and it was not uncommon to hear of narcos getting bribed out of jail by their employers. She said she felt pressured because Andrés's release seemed imminent. And El Gordo had come and asked to leave the stuff himself. So she agreed, and that night a few guys dropped off a bunch of packages. She kept them that night, the next day, and another night before different men came to pick them up. She was so nervous that she did not sleep for a single second while those packages were under her roof. According to her daughter, Paz's condition was evident to El Gordo when he came by for a visit a few days later. He gave her a couple hundred dollars. Elsa teased that she had been so nervous that El Gordo could probably tell she was a liability. He never asked her for that kind of favor again.
A year or so later, with Andrés still in jail, a similar incident took place one night when I was staying in Paz's house. I woke up around 2 A.M. to the sound of two huge trucks pulling into her driveway. Paz went out in pajamas with a blanket wrapped around her to see what was going on. She talked to the men briefly before coming back in. She said that they were friends of Andrés and were looking for him. We both thought that was strange, as Andrés had been in jail a year at this time. "Why hadn't they known?" she asked herself out loud. When she told them that Andrés was in jail they asked if they could leave one of the trucks there until the next day. She said no, making up an excuse about how there would be men there in the morning fixing her son-in-law's fishing nets. After Paz had finished explaining to me what was going on, the men had still not moved their trucks. In fact, they were still out there talking, engines running. We sat in the dark, nervously peering out the kitchen window, waiting. Finally the men got into the trucks and drove away. Paz said she never saw the men again. A few months later she told me that an elderly woman, a friend of the family, was busted for running a stash house just down the street in the village. When Paz told me this, she made the sign of the cross and shook her head.
Narco-Wives and Beauty Queens
When women are portrayed in the coverage on the so-called drug wars, the roles they play are limited. The image of the mother searching out information on a murdered or missing child sometimes emerges in coverage of the violence in Mexico. But this is a role that is rarely emphasized. Instead, the media tend to play down the extent to which deaths go uninvestigated. The role that is most often highlighted for women is that of the decadent, beautiful, young narco-wife. Tales of the women of wealthy drug traffickers lounging in beauty salons in designer clothes while having crystals glued to their fingernails are a consistent feature of borderland representations of the lifestyles of narcos.
I never met a narco-wife in this league. Those women I knew whose partners were minor narcos lived in conditions that could not be further from those portrayed in telenovelas, music, and the media. The families of lower-level male smugglers and traffickers live in a permanent state of economic uncertainty. For the most part, the women are left to fend for themselves and their children alone, if not because they are widowed, then because they are stranded without their husbands' income or paying off their debts while the men are in prison.
However, through my friendship with Isabella, I gained an appreciation for the dynamics that would lead young women to aspire to the role of the narco-wife, despite these local realities. When Andrés first went to jail, Isabella was devastated and devoted to visiting him every week with Paz. But as the months passed, she lost interest and eventually stopped visiting, and she started seeing other men. Paz could not forgive Isabella for this, especially because of the enthusiasm with which she pursued other men. She became the focus of intense scorn from Paz and her sisters, although she was able to maintain her friendship with Elsa, who always made a point of not taking sides in other people's conflicts. Paz said that Andrés didn't talk about it, but she could see the effects of Isabella's abandonment on him.
Narcos are attractive to many young women because they are powerful and often have money. They also have a subversive and rebellious persona that fits the cultural prototype of the classic "bad boy." Powerful capos often even reach celebrity heartthrob status, a fact that I was reminded of recently by a flurry of postings on Facebook by my young female friends in Mexico. They were posting and reposting a photo of Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias El Vicentillo, standing posed with his head held high after his capture in 2009, looking handsome, fashionable, and defiant (figure 3). Zambada is one of the Sinaloa cartel's leaders. He is still in U.S. custody as his case goes to trial in Chicago. His trial was not the important thing for my fifteen-year-old friend Arelia, however. She simply commented on the photo she posted with a heart shape.
One day, at my urging, Isabella tried to explain to me why narcotraffickers are so attractive. She told me a story about one afternoon in Mexicali when a handful of women were getting their hair done in a beauty parlor. One of the wealthy patrons from a "respectable" family began publicly lecturing a younger patron who was known to be married to a trafficker. The narco?wife responded by ordering the hairdresser to shave the first woman's head. Terrified at the prospect of displeasing her, the hairdresser obeyed and quickly shaved off the woman's carefully coiffed hairdo.
Although it was unlikely that Isabella would have occasion to patronize a beauty parlor in the city, I assumed she knew the people she was describing when she first related this story. She told the tale as if she had been sitting right there in the parlor. Since then, however, I have heard renditions of this tale from several other people. That the story has circulated widely enough in northern Mexico to reach the status of an urban legend is indicative of how evocatively it highlights important aspects of the social role of the narco-wife.
Foremost, the story shows vividly how narco-wives thwart conventional means of achieving social status. This is brought out by the juxtaposition of the woman from a good family, wealthy by "legitimate" means, and the narco-wife, who is scorned for being complicit in an illegal business deplored by bourgeois society. The foiling of conventional routes toward upward mobility is even more powerfully underscored by the fact that ultimately it does not matter how "good" a family the first woman is from or how rich she is. Her class status is suddenly irrelevant. Nor does it matter how shallow and unmannered the narco-wife is or how likely it is she will eventually be imprisoned for complicity in her husband's crimes. It does not matter because, at that moment in the beauty parlor, despite the stigma attached to the narco-wife, the hairdresser shaves the upper-class woman's head without hesitation. The narco-wife is unequivocally more powerful because her presence evokes the power of the narco to generate punitive violence against those who disobey.
The story also highlights the ways that being involved in the trade in the deeply feminized role of the narco-wife is seen as a status symbol of its own, distinct from the symbolic capital available to smugglers and, to a greater extent, traffickers. The role is empowering in very different ways from the other roles available to men or other women in the trade. For instance, becoming a smuggler or dealer may afford women economic independence. But the cultural cachet plays out differently in that the power draws on masculinized traits of bravery and bravado. The risks are also different. Many of the wives of high-profile capos have had their heads cut off and have been horribly tortured and murdered as acts of vengeance on the part of their spouses' rivals. Others have been arrested and sentenced along with their partners.
One of the most famous of these cases was Miss Sinaloa's arrest with her smuggler boyfriend when they were found in a truck full of guns and cash in December 2008. The next day photos carpeted the newspapers of the beauty queen, Laura Zuniga, shown in a lineup for the press along with several unidentified gunmen (figure 4). Her head was bowed as she posed, shamed, in a simple gray cardigan, the glitter of Chanel earrings just visible through her cascading dark hair.
There is a noteworthy contrast between the photos of Laura Zuniga and Vicente Zambada Niebla in the same scenario. Vicente's head is held high, with all of his power retained in that moment, even though it documents his own capture. Laura, on the other hand, is disgraced. Unlike her companions she cannot face the camera. It may not have been unladylike for the beauty queen to be cavorting with narcos. But to be arrested with drugs and firearms and implicated in those activities changed the symbolic connotations of her narco-association. While narcos are still narcos when imprisoned, the luxurious life of a narco-wife is compromised beyond recognition.
But for the most part Isabella's imaginings of what her life might be like as a narco-wife did not linger on the unfortunate fates of Laura Zuniga and others like her. Her picture of what would be in store for her stayed back in the beauty parlor. Isabella was ambitious and unwilling to settle for the kind of life that would be available to her in the village. She said that what she wanted was her own house and a nice car and nice clothes. One might assume that these are common aspirations for a young girl. But for a young girl from a fishing village in rural Mexico, they were dreams that seemed unrealistic.
Upward mobility for women with the financial and educational resources at Isabella's disposal is very limited. Therefore, more often than not Isabella's ambitions were more closely intertwined with romantic pursuits, and after Andrés's imprisonment her dreams were temporarily thwarted. After Andrés went to jail, she often talked about ways she could make the money herself to obtain the kind of life she wanted. Sometimes she talked about training to be an aesthetician and opening her own beauty parlor in Mexicali. But Isabella also often spoke of how much more difficult it was for women from the region to find work without an education. "Women can only work in the factories!" she would complain.
The factories to which she referred-maquiladoras- have been operating in Mexico for several decades, and, as Isabella pointed out, they are one of the major sources of work that exist for women outside of the home. The dangers of working in the drug trade need to be put in this context, for the maquiladoras have been associated with another terrifying surge of violence that has specifically targeted women in the region. The femicide that since 2000 has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 women and girls particularly in and around Ciudad Juárez (with another 3,000 still reported missing) is a backdrop to what is often called "drug violence." Since the 1990s many of the women who have been found dead, tortured, and raped in the desert outskirts of Ciudad Juárez were eventually identified as workers in the export factories (Wright 2011).
Both working in the drug trade and working in the maquiladoras, the main economic alternative for women, carry large risks. But working in the factories has been associated with violence aimed specifically at women. It has also been associated with extremely poor working conditions. Indeed, Isabella had worked in a glass factory in Mexicali for several weeks but hated it. The pay was terrible, the commute was long, and she was eventually let go. Like many of the women I interviewed in other fishing villages, Isabella found the work in the factories demoralizing and exploitative (Muehlmann 2013).
Through her boyfriends after Andrés's imprisonment, Isabella developed an array of informal strategies to garner an income. At one time she had two men simultaneously convinced that she was pregnant, and she demanded money from both for medical appointments or cell phone credit. There were several times when this income-earning strategy seemed on the verge of collapse: an actual pregnancy scare, for instance, or the possibility that one alleged father might have a revealing conversation with the other.
On one occasion, she tracked me down with a crisis that had emerged with one of her narco boyfriends. She explained, panicking, that she had "a package" she had to take to Mexicali. They would come after her if she did not deliver it that same night. She had had it for a while and had been too scared to follow through with the delivery. She kept imagining getting caught and had changed her mind. She did not want to go through with it anymore. She explained that the friends who offered her the job, her boyfriend and a few of the guys he knew, said they would pay her US$200 for a simple delivery just up to the city, not through the border (but presumably to a dealer).
At first she thought it was a lot of money for such a small package, but now she thought it was not worth it. She was too scared. But she knew that the reality was that not going through with it was more dangerous than making the delivery. They had been repeatedly calling her cell phone and threatening her. Her boyfriend was ignoring her calls. They said they would come to her family's house if she did not deliver the package. She said that the other problem was that she didn't have a ride. It occurred to me at this point that Isabella had come to me hoping that I would either convince her not to go through with the delivery or that I would offer her a ride-most likely the latter, something that I clearly could not do.
We talked in circles about the problem before Isabella finally thought of a potential solution. She realized that her mother and brother were waiting for a fish buyer named Don Emmanuel to arrive to purchase a load of fish. He would be taking the fish into Mexicali to sell later that night. Isabella thought she might be able to get a ride with Don Emmanuel. He was a kind man and often went out of his way to help her family. Isabella thought he would be happy to give her a ride.
Don Emmanuel, unlike many of the fish buyers that worked in the area (and there were many), was a trusted intermediary. Local fishing crews trusted him because he never reneged on preagreed prices and didn't just drop in and out of the village. He often stayed with a local family during the fishing season and sometimes even fronted families the cash to buy their fishing equipment. Many people told me that he "cared" about Santa Ana. He was also a very religious man. Some said he was a former priest, and part of what made his seasonal presence in Santa Ana salient was that he spent much of his free time lecturing locals and especially the youth about finding the "path of God." He was most concerned about reaching wayward youth like Isabella. So, ironically, I thought, he may well see the long ride into the city as a welcome opportunity to influence her moral judgment.
I watched Isabella awkwardly emptying a bag of sanitary napkins and fit the package tightly into the bag. "In case we get pulled over," she explained. She was worried and said that maybe she should ask Don Emmanuel to drive "slowly," so that they would be less likely to be pulled over, but she didn't want to make him suspicious. It was unlikely that Don Emmanuel, who seemed a very patient man, would be likely to speed. I worried about being privy to Isabella's manipulation of this man, but I thought her plan was brilliant. And it had the added bonus that Don Emmanuel was a clean-cut, conservative-looking businessman. He drove a nondescript Honda Civic and had a self-assured religiosity about him that would make him even less suspicious if they were to be searched. Isabella smiled. "He'll never have to know what I'm carrying with me," she said. She started to calm down, confident in her new plan. Then we walked over to her uncle's house where everyone was waiting with the fish. I went back to Paz's, where I was staying, as they waited to make their fish deal. Many hours later, Isabella returned from Mexicali. She texted to say it was over. She was safe, and she was immensely relieved.
Months later, after Isabella had a few similar experiences, we talked about the incident again. I asked her why she had agreed to take the job in the first place. "I had to cross drugs out of necessity," she said. Then she went on in a self-justifying tone, "There are moments when you can't find money and you become desperate because you want to find money to help your family. And this moment arrived for me." My own impression at the time was that this opportunity had made itself available through her boyfriend and that it seemed like easy money. But Isabella understood or at least portrayed the incident strictly in terms of family obligation. She said, "I had to find work, I had to do something because I thought I had to support my home. And when they wouldn't give me work, I had to put myself to work in what I could." She portrayed her vulnerability as placing her actions firmly within structures of gender disadvantage, lack of education, and an economy that provided few opportunities.
I was struck by Isabella's construal of the events because her family did not depend on her, and she had never expressed a sense of financial responsibility for them in any other context. They were very poor, but her mother relied almost entirely on her son, a fisherman, for food, water, and electricity. This was noteworthy because Isabella never felt the need to justify her other methods of making money. Extorting small amounts of money from her lovers by lying about her pregnancy, for example, struck me as dangerous considering the men she dated. But she would often dismiss my worries that she might be putting herself at risk and had no qualms about deceiving her boyfriends for cash. She certainly never claimed to be doing it for the good of her family.
This highlighted that the meanings associated with women who get involved in smuggling are more overdetermined than they are for men. Indeed, none of the women I have met who worked as mules identified themselves as narcos or smugglers. The majority agreed to make a run only a handful of times, and usually in contexts they described as financially desperate. While Isabella's explanation did not seem to resonate with the details of her own situation, she drew on the social discourses available to account for women's involvement in the trade. While male involvement is about rational business opportunities and bravery, female smuggling or trafficking is often understood through the idiom of sacrifice for the family and particularly one's children. It also indicates that women's involvement requires more justification than men's so as not be perceived as morally reproachable.
Therefore, while Isabella was attracted to the figure of the unapologetically violent narco and claimed she would have been proud to take up the role of such a man's wife, she was, like many women I knew, uncomfortable portraying her own brush with the trade in a way that accorded her power or agency. This was because there were not sufficient symbolic resources locally available to positively interpret her involvement as anything other than self-sacrificing.
Women rarely volunteered stories such as this about their involvement in the drug trade unless I had a long-standing and close relationship with them. In my interviews on the topic, I never asked people directly if they had worked in some respect for the trade. But sometimes people volunteered stories in the context of questions about how they had been "affected" by the war on drugs. I came to recognize that women in general played down the extent of their own involvement or their families'. This is not surprising, due to the illicit nature of these activities, but it is in sharp contrast to the ways men were sometimes quite forthright about their involvement.
An incident that highlighted this juxtaposition occurred with the first family I lived with in Mexico. When I moved into Ana's house her son Javier had just gotten out of jail. Javier told me in one of our first conversations that he'd gone to jail because he was caught smuggling a load of drugs in his fishing boat. Ana told me on another occasion that he went to jail because he was caught in a stolen boat (not with drugs) that he hadn't known was stolen. Months later, I told her that Javier had told me about the drugs. I wanted her to know that I wasn't going to judge him, and I also thought she could relax if she didn't have to keep up the pretense. But she insisted that he had made that up. "Why would he make something like that up?" I asked. "Oh, he just wants to impress you," she explained. A year or so later, she adjusted the story. Now she said Javier had gone to jail because he was caught in a boat with a load of drugs he hadn't known was there. She said he was framed by the rest of the fishing crew. I wondered about that, but Javier just rolled his eyes when I tried to confirm the story. It wasn't until six years after I had met Ana that one night she told me about Javier's smuggling and arrest, finally admitting that her son had worked as a minor narco.
When women did talk openly about their family's involvement in the drug trade they tended to highlight the drastic financial circumstances that led their husbands or sons into the work. Alma, one of Paz's sisters, told me that one year things got so bad that she had to cut up their bedsheets and use them as diapers for the baby. Alma had cervical cancer and was undergoing expensive treatment, and her husband, Jose, collected and sold scrap metal and worked as a farmhand, but there wasn't enough work to meet their basic needs. So, without any sheets on the bed, Alma said she'd had enough and went to Alvaro, who was the primary narco contact in Santa Ana at the time, and asked if there was any work for Jose. Alma didn't want him getting into anything permanent; she just thought that maybe they could make enough money to cover the treatments and hold them over until she recovered. Alvaro suggested that he make just a few runs-not crossing any checkpoints or borders, which would be riskier and which he didn't think Jose was up for, but maybe some more local transportation. Alvaro was able to find Jose work, and since then, Alma said, they've had both sheets and diapers.
Narco-Queens, Narco-Moms, and Other Women as Badass as Men
The physical presence of women in homes makes them targets for both narcos and the military. At the same time, I've argued, their ideological place in the home, as the primary and often sole caregivers of children, excludes them from benefiting from the symbolic capital and prestige associated with the trade. Ultimately, however, it's from this division of gendered labor that another role for women has emerged amid the violence. Rather than "poor narco-moms," portrayed by the media as not even knowing what their kids were up to before they were killed, women who lose their children are increasingly taking a political stance. For example, during the Mexican Peace Caravan in the United States, I asked a woman I met, Areceli, if she didn't feel frightened to be on such a tour after the numerous death threats she had received since she began investigating her son's disappearance in 2009. She said that the threats are the only way she knows she's on the right track. She searches and searches, and sometimes a few months pass without a death threat. When she receives another threat, she takes it as a sign that she's on the right track.
The same self-sacrificing characteristics that render female involvement in the trade apologetic also create potential challenges for the network of cartel and government interests that attempt to obfuscate the investigation of murders and disappearances. This then is another role for women that emerges from the home: the unrelenting mothers who have nothing more to lose and will stop at nothing to trace what happened to their children and to demand accountability. Though women make up a smaller proportion of murder victims in Mexico, they are the ones left to struggle in the wake of the violence. They are the ones left to bear witness and to demand justice, and they are also left to fend for their families under the same economic conditions that drew their husbands and sons into the trade in the first place. These are conditions that are permeated by social and economic networks that are intertwined with illegal actors.
The role of women in the drug trade in Mexico has been changing rapidly over the past few years. While Areceli, Paz, and Isabella were for the most part peripherally involved in illegal activities, more recently women in Mexico have become direct participants. They have been actively recruited by the cartels to work as burreros because they can more easily pass through military checkpoints and borders as security has increased. In fact, in the past few years there have been several cases of women in their sixties and seventies caught with large loads of cocaine and marijuana boarding planes and crossing military checkpoints in and around Mexicali. Arturo Santamaría, a researcher at the Autonomous University of the State of Sinaloa, argues that more and more women are playing major roles in Mexico's underground drug world. This is due in part to the fact that the violence has claimed a large number of men in the borderland cities. According to Santamaría, in some cases a woman will take over the end of an operation when her father and brothers are killed. In other cases, they start by transporting drugs, laundering money, and engaging in "narcodiplomacy" and later get involved in larger-scale operations (Santamaría 2012). As of October 2011, Mexican authorities have identified forty-six female cartel leaders, according to the country's attorney general's office. Because of this increased involvement there has also been a significant rise in the rates of women incarcerated in Mexico. A decade ago most women were in prison for theft or "crimes of passion," such as killing a spouse or lover. By 2009, the majority were incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking. And 80 percent of first-time female inmates were addicts or users.
One question that emerges about women's varied involvement in the drug trade concerns what this ultimately means for their quality of life and levels of empowerment generally. Campbell (2005) argues that women's involvement and the effects of smuggling and trafficking on their lives vary depending on their social and class position as well as their place within drug organizations. He describes how women at the higher levels of the trade have found trafficking empowering in ways women occupying lower positions do not. He points out that women in higher positions sometimes adopt stylized capo roles or postures but use them for their own ends. Cameron Mark Edberg (2004b) also documents that female narcotraffickers are increasingly featured in northern Mexican folklore. The role of the powerful female capo is famously portrayed in Arturo Perez-Reverte's critically acclaimed novel, The Queen of the South, which was later made into a popular telenovela, about a young woman from Sinaloa who becomes the mastermind of a multimillion-dollar drug empire operating from southern Spain. The late Jenni Rivera, who was the leading female narco-corrido artist in a genre otherwise dominated by men, personifies another adaptation of masculine norms in narco-culture. Jenni embodied the gendered transgression of norms as a Mexican American singer who had made a career exploring "vulgar" themes and an edgy "narco-chic" image: alligator skin boots and high-end cowgirl hats. Criticsaccused her of "coarsening Mexican femininity," but Jenni claimed that her intentions were more precise. Her message was simply that women "can be as bad-ass as men."
For women such as Paz, Isabella, and the others I've described here, the allure of powerful and legendary female figures such as Jenni and Teresa Mendoza shapes their experiences in the drug trade. But more important, their experiences are shaped by the immediate circumstances they are immersed in, which make the drug trade one of a limited set of strategies for survival. These strategies are constrained both by the risks involved in living and working in narco territory and by the meanings that shape their options. Women like Isabella and Paz confront the dilemma of doing dangerous and exploitative work at the maquiladoras or being vulnerable to state agents and the narcos. They are also confronted by their own attraction to the trade and to the men involved in it despite the contradictory impact it has on women's lives. More than anything, their experience with the drug trade is defined by the loss of sons and loved ones.
On one occasion Paz admitted that she knew she could never sell enough tamales to ensure Andrés's safety. She knew there weren't enough bribes in the world to console her as she tried to sleep at night, thinking about Andrés in jail. She realized that ultimately she was not in control of the situation. She could only wait and pray that Andrés would be okay and that he would soon be released. And she had faith that her prayers to Saint Jude would be enough. I asked why she prayed to Saint Jude. It seemed a strange choice of saints given her steadfast belief that Andrés would be okay, and her appeal to Saint Jude seemed fit for the bleakest of possible outcomes, that is, lost or impossible causes. But Paz explained that San Judasis not the saint to appeal to when you have lost hope. To the contrary, he's the saint you appeal to when you have no other options. He's the saint you pray to as a last resort. It was natural to turn to this saint during the long nights as she wondered what was happening to Andrés in jail.