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Dining with the Devil

‘Narco narratives’ may take the edge off fear—while expressing hostility toward the privileged

By Lisa Raleigh


Ritual Mexican Dead (shutter 28382950).jpgOne of the stories goes like this: The setting is an upscale restaurant. Patrons are enjoying their dinner when a thuggish group of men bursts in. Brandishing automatic weapons, they demand everyone’s cell phones, purses and wallets. Things do not look good.

But it’s not the potential massacre it seems. Take it easy, the men say. El Chapo merely wishes to have a meal here—just like an ordinary person. Just like you. Go about your business; we will return your personal items when the boss has finished his supper. By the way, the boss has also paid for all of your meals.

There’s an uncertain sigh of relief. Maybe el Chapo, the notorious head of the Sinoloa cartel, is not the ruthless butcher he is reputed to be.

Assistant professor Claudia Holguín Mendoza heard this story time and again when she was conducting ethnographic research in her hometown of Juárez, the Mexican border city infamous for narco violence in the streets.

Her interview subjects would share this story in hushed tones, apparently fearing they might be overheard by narco spies. They claimed to have heard this story from someone who was actually in the restaurant that night. Or from someone who heard it from someone who was there. And so on.

There’s no evidence that this event actually took place, says Holguín Mendoza. It’s purely urban legend.

Here’s another one:

A well-to-do woman is getting her hair done in a salon, complaining loudly to her female stylist that it’s not safe to go out in public any more because the cartels have taken over the streets. Another customer, a man (presumably a narco), overhears this and pulls out a gun. He commands the stylist to shave the woman’s head. The stylist complies. Satisfied, the gunman leaves.


Random Death Avoided

As with the el Chapo narrative, this one has gained wide circulation throughout Juárez. Again, the prospect of random death is avoided—this time because the potential assassin mercifully spares the one who has offended him, when he easily might have shot her instead.

In considering why these stories have gained so much traction and what purpose they serve, Holguín Mendoza first interprets them at the most basic psychological level—as anxiety-reducing. Maybe the narcos are not as cold-blooded as the press makes them out to be. Maybe the citizens of Juárez are not necessarily risking their lives when they conduct the activities of a normal life: eating in a restaurant, getting their hair done.

But there are other themes in play here, too, says Holguín Mendoza—particularly related to tensions involving social class and longstanding resentments against the privileged.

Consider the arc of el Chapo’s life story: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a former farmhand, rises to great wealth and power in a society where upward mobility from rural poverty is essentially unheard of. While el Chapo’s wealth and power might be viewed as illegitimate, there is also a pervasive disgust with the widespread  corruption among police and federal officials, says Holguín Mendoza, and this disgust reframes the concept of justice.

“For some, the narco becomes a celebrated hero . . . by defying police and governmental authorities, widely known to misuse both state control and capital. It is socially justifiable as a sign of revenge,” writes Holguín Mendoza in a recent article entitled “Dining with the Devil: Identity Formations in Juárez, Mexico.”

A similar dynamic can be seen in another popular phenomenon, the narcocorridos, a musical genre that exalts traffickers as the new heroes of Mexican youth. The songs celebrate the “adventures” of fearless drug lords who defy the authorities.

And there’s another reason the narcos might be viewed with some semblance of admiration. From a pragmatic standpoint, the narcotics business can be seen as having benefits in economic terms, says Holguín Mendoza, because it employs “not only mercenaries but also many part-or full-time farmers who otherwise would have migrated to the cities under the pressure of an agrarian crisis that has long devastated the Mexican countryside.”

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A Way to Put Women in Their Place

In the story about the woman complaining about street intimidation and then enduring the humiliation of having her head shaved, Holguín Mendoza sees a narrative that demonstrates the desire to shame the privileged class—and also put women in their place.

In one sense, this story reinforces the cultural mythology that “the narco dealer is the one who terrorizes the time-honored upper classes in society,” she says.

But considered from another perspective, she notes that the narco’s threat of assassination to enforce silence (the woman complaining) and obedience (the stylist) also reveals gender tensions in a society undergoing profound transformation.

Juárez, as the setting for this urban legend, is a city plagued with near-epidemic violence against women. Not only is it notorious for drug-related crime, it is also infamous for the murder of hundreds of women. It is estimated that nearly 400 women and girls have been killed in the Juárez area since 1993; most of these crimes remain unsolved.

Mexican Flag (shutter 104674190).jpg

These murders have taken place at a time when the economic status of women has changed dramatically in Mexican border towns, as U.S. companies have located manufacturing plants (maquiladoras ) just across the border to take advantage of NAFTA. In fact, Holguín Mendoza makes a direct link between the liberalization of trade policies and increased violence.

“There’s a solid association between structures of power, impunity, violence and the neoliberal market,” she asserts. In other words, she views social inequalities as the root of violence, and these are a product of “not only local forces, but of global socioeconomic changes.”

The workers in the maquiladoras  are predominately women, many of whom lived in rural poverty before migrating to the city for work. And many of them, whether they were originally from rural or urban locations, are now the breadwinners in their families. This challenges traditional gender roles in a society previously defined by a macho sensibility.

As with the restaurant story, the hair salon story also minimizes actual danger. “In reality, women in Juárez are not just silenced and left alone if they obey,” says Holguín Mendoza. “They are kidnapped, raped, tortured, mutilated, assassinated and then dumped in the desert outside the ‘civilized world.’”

Taken together, Holguín Mendoza sees these two urban legends as commentary on “the impunity system.” Cartel gangsters can kill each other and everyday citizens on the streets without threat of arrest or other consequences—because the authorities also act with impunity, taking bribes and otherwise enabling a system of corruption. Women can be murdered with impunity for many of the same reasons.

The stories might deflect the grim reality of life in Juárez by suggesting that death-dealing narcos may in fact be merciful—maybe even misunderstood. But according to Holguín Mendoza, they also point to “deep struggles regarding social hierarchies and structures” that currently define this border city.

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