Taking the pulse of the Mexican drug trade

A UBC researcher who was first drawn to Mexico to study water shortages has turned her efforts to putting a human face on that country’s bloody drug war.

While media focus on sensational stories of drug violence, for the last decade, UBC anthropology Prof. Shaylih Muehlmann has been looking into the lives of people working on the lowest rungs of the drug trade in rural northwest Mexico.

In her forthcoming book, When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Life at the Edges of the War on Drugs, she details how the U.S.-backed war on drugs has failed Mexican society: 70,000 deaths since 2006, skyrocketing addiction rates, and widespread social problems, including a generation of drug orphans—children who have lost parents to drugs and violence.

Muehlmann, Canada Research Chair in Culture, Language and the Environment, is among a growing chorus of policy experts to conclude that drugs prohibition does not work. “Criminalizing drugs is supposed to reduce their availability and keep communities safe,” says Muehlmann. “But drugs are more available than ever and drug violence is an everyday part of life in northern Mexico—so something clearly isn’t working.

“Part of my book is an attempt to understand why people generally support drug prohibition, in the face of the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.”

Muehlmann initially went to Mexico in 2003 to study the impacts of the Colorado River basin water shortage on rural fishing villages. “I was aware of the drug issue, and the danger, and fully intended to completely ignore it,” she says. “But I quickly realized that would be impossible, because the drug trade is everywhere.”

Fishing boats, passenger vehicles and trucks were used to transport drugs, she says. Medals featuring the folk saint of drug dealers, Jesús Malverde, were hanging from people’s necks. Many villagers were addicted to crystal meth. Unkempt drug orphans relied on the charity of strangers.

The book follows the stories of a few key individuals. One is Andreas, a former drug runner whose mother paid guards to protect him from beatings in jail. Another is a taxi driver whose passengers are primarily halcones (“lookouts”) working for the cartels. Others made sandwiches for mafiosos or laundered mob money. Muehlmann says that poverty, unemployment and a lack of social mobility offer few alternatives for villagers.

“People ask me how anyone could be crazy enough to become involved in Mexico’s violent drug trade,” she says. “But for many people in Northern Mexico, it is actually riskier not to get involved—the drug trade is implicated in every aspect of life.”

The killings increased dramatically when Mexico’s military was brought in to fight the cartels in 2006, Muehlmann says. “This has caused the drug related violence to escalate.” She says the government’s strategy of targeting cartel leaders is failing also. “Removing leaders has only succeeded in bringing more violence, as gangs and factions attempt to fill the power void.”

She disputes the official claims that the staggering number of killings are restricted to the drug community. “There is this popular notion, which the government is happy to foster, that anyone killed was involved with the cartels. But police investigate less than 10 per cent of murders, so it is impossible to know if these claims are true.”

According to Muehlmann, the only way to address the problem is to focus on the root issues that make the drug trade attractive: prohibition policies that make drugs lucrative, and poverty. She points to recent Washington and Colorado state decisions to legalize marijuana, adding that many Latin American countries now favour decriminalization.

“The sooner we decriminalize drugs, the faster we can start addressing the problem in a meaningful way,” she says. “Instead of guns and enforcement, we need to invest that money on education, jobs and treatment programs for addiction.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 12 | Dec. 5, 2012

A forthcoming book by UBC's Shaylih Muehlmann details how the U.S.-backed war on drugs has failed Mexicans. Gastón Gordillo Photograph

A forthcoming book by UBC's Shaylih Muehlmann details how the U.S.-backed war on drugs has failed Mexicans. Gastón Gordillo Photograph

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“It is actually riskier not to get involved—the drug trade is implicated in every aspect of life.”

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