When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narco-Culture in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands
“Involvement in the drug trade is seen often as a realistic or necessary alternative for marginalized Mexicans—even if they end up as casualties.”
In the Mexican borderlands narcotraffickers favor the traditional rancher uniform of a cowboy hat, wide belt with a metal buckle, and boots. Alligator boots are the signature touch. “It’s how you tell a real narcotraficante,” locals informed anthropologist Dr. Shaylih Muehlmann.
Over the past decade, this dress style has been transformed by rapid globalization of both the economic networks and cultural forms that shape the drug trade. The frontier cowboy look still prevails among the old guard, but the new generation is likely to sport designer brands of suits and polo shirts, or ball caps, bling, and Nikes, though the latter are associated more with the lower echelons.
Local cultural meanings around the narcotraficantes have become imbued with global images of gangster or rapper swagger—albeit with ranchero undertones.
Until the 1980s drug smuggling in Mexico was regionally based, as Colombia controlled international trade largely by air. The escalation of the U.S. war on drugs shifted the main corridors from the Caribbean and South Florida to land routes across the southwest border of the United States, facilitated by the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
NAFTA greatly increased illegal as well as legal cross-border trade. Mexican farmers, rural workers, and others marginalized by U.S. economic competition turned to the drug trade as one of the few available paths to upward mobility. Neoliberal economic policies and narcotrafficking reinforced each other as increasing border militarization under prohibition fostered a dramatic increase in the power of Mexican cartels. A culture of narco-violence and fear cemented in institutionalized corruption became endemic.
Muehlmann did not intend to study narco-culture. In fact, her environmental research was supposed to keep her away from border city bloodbaths; however, it became obvious that the topic was a persistent feature of gossip and conversation even in the remotest villages, since the drug trade now permeates almost every aspect of daily life.
Informants were eager to share their stories about how the tentacles of the narco-economy not only adhere to economic life-chances but also have drastically reshaped social relations, especially for close family members of narcos, such as narco-moms.
This book then is not about the high-profile cartel leaders who dominate media headlines, but the ordinary people working and living at the fringes of the narco-economy.
“This is not the story of the powerful capos but of the women who make them their sandwiches, the businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their product, the mules who carry their money and drugs through borders and military checkpoints, and the men and women who serve out the prison sentences.”
Using the central ethnographic method of participant observation based on sharing the everyday lives of informants, Muehlmann spent extended periods on and off from 2005 “in a dusty little village in the middle of the desert hanging out with a bunch of narcos.”
Whether or not her informants were “real narcos” is immaterial, because there is no definable “in” and “out” of the trade. Rather, gradations, cycles, and circles of entwinement are the norm as the drug economy functions not just through the acts of brutal mafioso, but also through routine social networks and legitimate businesses.
In order to protect her informants, Muehlmann uses pseudonyms and composite names for places and people, but, clearly, an ethnography of this delicate nature is not without risks for all concerned, including the anthropologist.
Muehlmann initially was so naïve about the narco-world that she did not recognize obvious signs of involvement. She was puzzled by a friend’s nocturnal fixation on performing repetitive tasks, typical of “andando cristalino” (“going around high on crystal meth”) and by an informant suddenly appearing in a new pickup truck and the defining alligator boots.
As a single, white, female anthropologist from Canada, it was easier, initially, for Muehlmann to establish rapport with women informants. This allows for nuanced gendered insights into the traditionally masculine narco universe, where, until recently, women have been ancillaries rather than major players.
The Mexican narco world is rife with machismo—the exaggerated maleness of the swaggering Latino exuding power from every pore. Young women, like Muehlmann’s friend Isabella, find this image irresistible.
“When Andres stepped out of the 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.”
Isabella tried to explain why narcotraffickers are so attractive by retelling the urban legend of a young narco-wife who ordered the hairdresser in a Mexicali salon to shave the head of a wealthy patron who was publicly criticizing her.
In this way narco-wives thwart conventional routes to social status. But this is extremely risky as the women can be jailed, kidnapped, tortured, or even beheaded as pawns in cartel violence. Furthermore, a double standard prevails, because a narco is a still a narco, powerful and proud of his legend—even in prison. But the luxurious life of a narco-wife can be terminally compromised when her man loses his life or street credibility.
Status loss is an even bigger issue for narco men who attempt to cut ties to the trade because of the danger. Narco-culture is rooted in vibrant Norteño folklore, predicated on a history of resentment of the neighboring American giant, widespread poverty, hypermasculinity, and a tradition of celebrating social bandits who challenge authority.
Many people wear icons of Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of narcos, under their shirts, while narco-corridos, the popular ballads lionizing traffickers’ exploits are heard everywhere: on the radio, booming from pickup tape decks, in bars, and at fiestas.
Everybody, including children, knows the words to these rhythmic, hypnotic songs whose bloody lyrics extol violence. People sing or tap along, gesturing the action, while the retelling asserts personal and public pride in achievement. “A narco without a corrido doesn’t exist.”
Thus, in addition to economic opportunity, narco-culture provides symbolic resources to reaffirm identity and empower the powerless. Involvement in the drug trade is seen often as a realistic or necessary alternative for marginalized Mexicans—even if they end up as casualties.