Boots, Belt Buckles, and Sombreros: Narco-Culture in the Altar Desert

June 30, 2011

The opening chapter of Ulises Criollo (1935), the first of Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos’s autobiographical works, takes place when the author was a child, in the year 1885, in the small frontier settlement of Sásabe, Sonora. Vasconcelos’s father had been sent there as part of a Mexican government force to block the “Yankee advances.” But there was one thing both the Mexicans and the North Americans feared more than each other, and that was attacks by the Apache. One of the scenes Vasconcelos describes is worth returning to: “To the far right, the mesquites disappeared into their shadows. Caressed by the light, the distance was silver-plated, and suddenly a voice cried out: ‘I saw the light of a cigar and some shadows near the waterwheel . . . ’ Everyone rose from their seats, the alarm was sounded, and from mouth to mouth went the frozen cry: ‘The Indians . . . the Indians are coming . . . ’ ” Vasconcelos remembers the commotion: The men climbed onto the roof, and while gunshots sounded, women and children prayed the Magnificat. Later the men came down: “They’re smugglers,” they declared, “and they’re already on the run. We’ll saddle up to go after them.”


Read today, this account acquires an almost inaugural character: Amid the commotion, the Apaches became smugglers. Vasconcelos describes Sásabe as “less than a village, a door to the Sonoran Desert,” and this description holds true today. Along the borderline that extends from Sásabe toward the west, you find places known as las puertas de los pápagos, or the doors of the Pápagos, as the Tohono O’odham people were once called by the conquistadors, where cooperation with the indigenous residents was traditionally negotiated for the crossing of merchandise and most recently to organize the passage of undocumented migrants. As of just a few years ago, several of these “entrances”—located on the same territory that Vasconcelos described as dominated by the Apaches—are controlled by a group of nacro-traffickers who charge a toll to the polleros, or guides, who help migrants cross the border: $50 for each Mexican, and $100 for each Central American.


This area of the Altar Desert, one of the major parts of the Sonora, is marginally important in the drug-trafficking world, especially when compared with other places along the border. But over the last decade it has become one of the most important border-crossing locations for undocumented migrants. Beyond its numeric significance, what makes the Altar Desert so interesting is that it has become the gateway to the most rudimentary forms of people and merchandise trafficking. The migrants pay $1,500 to be guided on a three-day walk across the desert. The drugs, mostly marijuana, are often carried over by groups of 10 to 15 burreros, or couriers, who alternate between walking and riding horseback. But these trafficking systems, precisely because they are so rudimentary, must involve the local population’s participation to a great degree.


Today’s narco-traffickers try to legitimize themselves as the heirs of the local genealogy of Indian attacks, contraband, cattle rustling, shoot-outs, and territorial controls. Others, meanwhile, criticize them for breaking with tradition. In the Altar Desert region, as in many others in the north of Mexico, there is a debate over the legitimacy of drug trafficking and the social position of the traffickers. This debate is largely made up of arguments that associate drug trafficking with, or set it apart from, traditional understandings of prestige and morality. Much of what we call “narco-culture” today recycles elements that have a resonance with the old ranching cultures and societies of the north. At the same time, those who oppose narco-trafficking try to undermine its attractiveness by recuperating the persona of an ideal masculine rancher who is far from violence and illegality.




One place where the ranching tradition and drug trafficking both overlap and draw apart is on the question of work and the value assigned to it, especially to physical labor. The old elites and the middle classes, attempting to represent the moral reaction against narco-trafficking, express their opposition by elevating the quality of traditional work: “The problem,” I have heard it frequently said, “is that people don’t want to work anymore. They have become lazy and used to easy money.” For their part, those connected to drug trafficking try to prove the opposite, that narco-trafficking requires as much effort as any other job and that the money narco-traffickers earn is well-deserved. “Narco-trafficking has its risks,” a boy who had recently begun working in the family business told me. “It’s not so easy. It’s a lousy job just like any other. If people see it as something bad, that’s one thing. But easy money? Easy money my ass: It’s a fucking drag.”


It is precisely the purifying power attributed to work, to suffering in general, that exempts the burreros from some of their guilt in public opinion. The burreros are the lowest rung of the narco-traffickers. It is their job to cross the border on foot with 40 pounds of marijuana on their back, often without even knowing who the drug belongs to. They constitute a kind of disorganized, addicted army that doesn’t get up early in the morning. During the harvest months—as the abundant months are called when most of the marijuana reaches the people—they fill the cantinas, the cock-fighting pits, and the horse races. Some, above all those in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa to the south, wear hats and belts embossed with the marijuana leaf, a new heraldry that openly defies the traditional iconography. Others wear boots, sombrero, and belt buckle, symbols of ranchero pride that in fact have little to do with participating in the labors of the countryside.


One of the strongest arguments about work I heard came from the wife of a burrero. She was an eloquent, direct women who had several times taken a leadership role in the marginalized neighborhoods of Altar, a small city about 100 miles southwest of Tucson. She sells sandwiches, works as a teacher at the Sonoran Institute for Adult Education, organizes a Bible-study group with women in her community, and has sued over water distribution in the town’s outskirts. I asked her if narco-trafficking had personally harmed her, and this was her answer:


“No, it hasn’t harmed me. Narco-trafficking has benefited me. Because thanks to this I have a car, thanks to this I have clothes and food. Thanks to this I have been able to educate my children, buy them what they need. If I run the numbers, with the sandwiches I don’t even make enough for the daily cost of the children. It’s just not enough. This is what I say: If you take a job to maintain your family, who are you working for? If you are leaving your children alone to go to work for a day’s pay . . . That’s where you say, the narco-trafficking doesn’t harm me, it helps me. Why? Because my husband is away for seven days. During these seven days, the kids don’t have a dad. But he comes back and they have their dad at home, because he’s done working and he stays with them and takes care of them well. Sometimes there are problems because he’s drinking a lot or he’s getting high and making problems. But I think that it has benefitted me more than it has harmed me.”


From the point of view of these small and medium-size narco-traffickers, this activity rarely allows for a true change in social position. It allows them to survive, to provide them some luxuries, but they know almost fatally that “this money,” the dirty money, does not last. After a while, you go back to where you were or worse. Curiously, defenders and critics share the same conviction that the money from narco-trafficking is “easy come, easy go.” The same young man who moments earlier fervently argued that narco-trafficking is a job like any other, a drag, describes his family finances with more pride than criticism:


“Let’s say that tomorrow, God willing, if everything turns out as my dad plans, he will bring home $20,000. We suppose, because we can’t know, because maybe they’ll screw him over, maybe they’ll rob him. But if everything works out, it’ll be $20,000. A lousy $20,000, and in two months we aren’t going to have one cent left. And two months would be long. And it’s like that, it runs out; without telling any lies or exaggerating: not one fucking single cent. It’s like, I don’t know, those are the ideas here, easy come, easy go. They say that it’s like this with this money. . . . If I joined the mafia, I’d like to invest the money, but without becoming stingy. If I had a kid and I got this money, I would be the same as my dad: Give it to my kid so he’ll spend it. I’m going to die anyway, so why am I going to save it? Spend it!”




Traditionally, one of the most admired figures in the region is the cattle rancher or ranchero. So it is not surprising that the narco-trafficking money often translates into prestigious symbols that have a great resonance in the territory: ranches, pickup trucks, horses, cowboy hats, boots. It is in the area of horse races and cock-fighting pits that the most natural convergence exists between the ranchero and the narco-trafficker. There is a collective delight in the attitudes of manliness, risk, honor, the squandering of money. In the same way, this young man who lives and works legally in Arizona confesses to me that, as many others, being at the horse races he has fantasized about being a big-time trafficker:


“It never occurred to you guys to make a living from narco-trafficking? I don’t know what it is, but when you’re walking at the horse races and they put on the corridos and you see everyone on fire and even though you have nothing to do with it, you also get going real good. It has something that is really attractive. Two, three beers, and you’re singing corridos at the top of your lungs, and it comes from the soul, from the soul . . . and you can imagine yourself there, super powerful.”


It is difficult to do justice to the intensity of this desire when he says, “It has something that is really attractive.” Of course, it breaks down any notion of the profit-maximizing individual. On the contrary: I give you my life for a little bit of glory. You can’t understand this intensity if you don’t understand that it’s not new, that “to die trying,” “to die killing,” and “to fight over it” are lines that appear often in narco-corridos but were already in the corridos of the Mexican Revolution. They express attitudes that have their own history and their own value that traverses the realm of the illegal, politics, business, and love. It’s important to note, however, that drug trafficking has turned the tables on the privileged way of responding to the demand “to fight over it.” The force of the economic incentive matters, of course, but it matters above all if it is able to translate into long-desired kinds of prestige.


The stories of horses, gambling, and violence are not new. I was still able to meet some mythic cowboys—they are old, solid, and astute, neither good nor bad—who back on their ranches told stories of hunts, fights, contraband, Indians, and the old bull runs of Altar and Mexicali. One of them told me a story. In the years before the Revolution, there lived in the area a man named Emilio Robledo, who had a racehorse that no one could beat. Until one day another man, Ramón Valencia, devised a scheme. In those days, there were no fences or stables, and the horses basically ran free in the hills. Valencia arranged to try Robledo’s horse in secret against other horses until he found a hairy little mare that beat the horse without a problem. They ran the race and the mare won. But there was no lack of people to tell Robledo that Valencia had pulled a fast one on him, since he already knew ahead of time how the race would end. Robledo went looking for Valencia but didn’t find him, so he killed his brother. Valencia went on the campaign against Pancho Villa in Chihuahua, returned two years later as a captain, and demanded that the local authorities hand over his brother’s killer. He took him by military order and right there, just beyond the hills, hung him.


A century is enough for a story like this to become polished, acquiring a kind of disproportionate clarity: Those were true horses, those were men of honor. And so, in the vain attempt to emulate, today’s stories of narcos and horses are so full of holes that they are comedic. At Christmas I took a bus from the Sonoran state capital of Hermosillo to Altar. We were the only two passengers, and after a while we began to talk. The man made his living from training horses to dance. They were owned by, it was understood, the narcos. Dancing horses are completely new in the region. Never before has anyone seen anything like them. He told me a story, which I’m reconstructing by memory, of a horse that he named Donca, in honor of Don Carlos Slim, Mexico’s billionaire telecom magnate:


“We went to take the horse to Mexico City, from a ranch that is supposed to belong to Don Carlos Slim. The owner was a boy from this region who made a lot of money as a cruzador.* He got it in his head to bring a Spanish horse to Mexico, and I went with him. He bought the horse for $300. He also bought a saddle with silver engravings and a whip with a solid-gold grip. He was later killed; this was about three years ago. And it seems the horse ended up with a partner of his who took it to Chihuahua. The whip was left behind at the first drinking party. Who knows if they gave it away or they lost it or what. To be honest, I felt sorry for the horse. I felt sorry to see the boy mount the horse without any boots or sombrero.”


“But looking at him on his horse, would you imagine he was a rancher from around here?”


“Yes, but since he had started to date this little daddy’s girl, he was also completely short of cash, so he would ride the horse with any old shoes.”


What’s interesting about this story is that it contains a type of resistance to falling under the illusion of the narco-rancher continuity. The boy had achieved everything, the best horse, the best saddle, and even the whip. But he lacked the shoes.


Regionalism and Violence


The opposition between the old and new mafia is a recurring theme in the history of organized crime in many parts of the world. Moral decadence and the abuses of the “new mafia” are always opposed by an idolized version of the “old mafia,” an opposition that is often used to legitimize some groups over others. In Sonora, this debate has taken the shape of a peculiar regionalism in which the drug traffickers’ propensity for violence is unabashedly identified with “people from the south”—meaning Sinaloa and its people.


The owner of one of the many hotels for polleros and migrants constructed in Altar during the last decade complained about the insecurity that rules over the town today. She comes from a local family that until recently still lived intermittently between the ranch and the town. In her family, as in almost any other, there are men who work in narco-trafficking. Her evaluation of the insecurity in Altar can be considered representative:


“When did the town become insecure?” I ask her. “Is it because of the narco-traffickers, the migrants?”


“No, no,” she says. “We always had mafia and migrants. I think it was as of last year or the year before that people from Sinaloa began to seep in and that you had to be careful. The insecurity doesn’t come from the people who pass through, or the mafia, because we’ve always had mafia and we’ve never had this kind of insecurity. The cause of it here is that there are a lot of drug runners who aren’t from this town. These are people from Sinaloa, and that’s the truth: The people from Sinaloa have taken over the local market. No one from this town works here doing this: selling coke here in the town.”




A moral distinction is commonly made between trafficking drugs to the United States and selling drugs in town or the region. But what is important is that the argument is made on almost ethnic terms. That does not mean that town narcos are considered better because they are surrounded by family and affected by a series of relations that compel them to accept certain moral norms. Rather, the narcos of Sinaloa are considered more violent because that is what the Sinaloans are supposedly like. The son of a cruzador explained it to me eloquently, but you hear the argument repeatedly:


“The people from Sinaloa are tougher and braver, you can see it. That is, they die very easily. For example, if someone has a little girlfriend who’s really flirtatious and goes around talking to this guy and that one, they’ll start fighting each other over her. That’s how they are in Sinaloa: They’ll die over a girl. Now, imagine in the mafia: shit! Well, if someone steals something from them, they’re ready to die for it. But here, no. Sonorans have always been more calm.”


In the mythology of the “old mafia,” smugglers appear as hardworking rancheros who don’t take drugs, much less sell them to their community. Another recurring element is the idea that Sonorans, and thus the good narcos, the old mafia, are much less violent, do not kill each other, and have a means of resolving their conflicts. To this is contrasted the image, also recurring, of Sinaloans as killers. In contrast, the idea of rupture is expressed always in the same way: Everything changed when the people from the south arrived. This is how it was explained, for example, by an elementary school teacher:


“Before they were mafiosos, but they were mafiosos from the town who brought in money and stuff, but they were people from Altar and they didn’t hurt anybody. Before there were no fights and arguments between people. But you know that now with the mafia come people from the south, people who take over the business. Like it says in the newspaper, people have disappeared because their cargo was stolen.”


This fear that the old world will fall apart is, paradoxically, what feeds the appeal of illicit activities. Narco-trafficking offers a kind of subsidy, a grace period, an old lifestyle; it allows people to maintain their otherwise unprofitable ranches, it allows them to avoid having to migrate, and it allows them to stay out of the wage-earning labor market.


Of course, much has changed since Vasconcelos passed through Sásabe, but it is exactly this strange illusion of continuity that has made change possible. Everything has changed exactly because we all think there was something of the same in the past: the “men’s business,” the same horses and the same boots, the same shoot-outs and the same gunshots as always, the same corridos, the same honor.



Natalia Mendoza Rockwell is an anthropologist and author of Conversaciones del desierto: Cultura, moral y tráfico de drogas (Mexico City: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, 2008). This article was originally published in April 2009 by the Mexican magazine Nexos ( Republished with permission. Translation and editing by NACLA.



*A cruzador or cruce is a kind of local subcontractor in charge of organizing the passage of the large cargos that arrive in the town. He finds clandestine runways, contracts smugglers, and so on.



Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.