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Frontera norte

On-line version ISSN 2594-0260Print version ISSN 0187-7372

Frontera norte vol.31  México  2019  Epub Feb 05, 2020 


Changes in the Dynamics of Drug Dealing and Use. A Generational Analysis for Hermosillo, Sonora

Angélica María Ospina Escobar 1

1Programa de Política de Drogas. Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE), México,


The article examines generational changes in the links between organized crime and male problem drug users in Hermosillo, Sonora. To this end, biographical narratives are reconstructed that establish links between participating males’ individual life stories, the timeline of illegal drug production and trafficking in Mexico, and the social timeline of the socioeconomic changes experienced in Hermosillo between 1970 and 2016.

Keywords: Organized crime; youth; drugs; northern Mexico; Hermosillo


El artículo examina cambios generacionales en las formas de vinculación entre delincuencia organizada y varones con uso problemático de drogas en Hermosillo, Sonora. Para ello, se reconstruyen narrativas biográficas que relacionan el tiempo individual de los varones participantes con el tiempo histórico de la producción y tráfico de drogas ilegales en México y el tiempo social de los cambios socioeconómicos experimentados en Hermosillo entre 1970 y 2016.

Palabras clave: delincuencia organizada; jóvenes; drogas; norte de México; Hermosillo


Problem drug use and criminal income and drug markets are usually analyzed in isolation. Regarding problem drug use, there are prevailing views that stress the so-called “inadequacy of the self” ( Reguillo, 2010 ), and which posit the existence of individual predisposing factors toward “addictions” without engaging in a critical discussion of the role played by structural conditions or the possible meanings of drug use for drug users. Illegal drug markets, on the other hand, are generally discussed at meso and macro levels, with a tendency to focus on the violence this phenomenon causes. In this article, I suggest there is a need to establish a connection between both levels of analysis (micro and meso) to uncover how security policies affect populations’ health and, in particular, how changes in the dynamics of local drug markets affect individual drug use trajectories.

Specifically, I describe how the socioeconomic conditions of the city of Hermosillo, rifts within organizations engaged in organized crime3 and emerging dynamics in such organizations, and the lack of sufficient public addiction treatment programs have led to, on the one hand, a local market for methamphetamine and heroine and a resulting increase in heavy use of these substances with no alternatives to reduce harm or access public treatment services. On the other hand, a greater presence of organized crime groups in neighborhood spaces facilitated conditions that would encourage younger problem drug users to take up a career in crime, viewing the illegal drug market as an option that could enable them to survive, advance socially, and earn the respect of their peers. This setting has seen an increase in drug-related risks and harm, resulting in greater levels of social marginalization and exclusion, and heavier, riskier patterns of drug use, among other consequences.

This paper is organized into five parts. The first presents the theoretical perspective from which problem drug use and its relationship with organized crime are addressed. The second part describes the methodological strategy employed to collect and analyze empirical material. Subsequently, the article presents the broader context in which study participants shaped their own criminal and drug use trajectories, before exploring the life stories of three male drug users from three different generations, which reveal changes in the association between study participants and criminality.

The article concludes by suggesting that reorganizations in the criminal world, carried out in response to state strategies to eradicate it, along with the social stigma around the figure of the “addict,” have facilitated the entry of impoverished young problem drug users into the lowest rungs of criminal groups, increasing their exposure to violence and death while legitimizing the social control of poor youth through these deadly mechanisms by portraying them socially as “unfit” for the system –in other words, as surplus population.


Drug use is seen here as a sociocultural practice with meanings and consequences interwoven in a complex web of social, economic, political, historical, and cultural conditions that tie in with subjects’ life stories. As such, drug use is a diverse and changing practice with meanings, representations, and dynamics that evolve over time to conform to changes in sociocultural frameworks, the availability of substances in markets, the types of sociability constructed around them, and subjects’ individual life circumstances.

Neither are the effects of drug use on individuals’ lives homogeneous. Indeed, these effects are mediated by users’ social class and sex, and the way they connect to conventional society, which condemns drug use as a threat to cultural expectations linked to the values of productivity and rationality resulting from capitalism as a form of social organization ( Romaní, 2010 ).

In these terms, it is in interaction between subjects and/or social groups occupying different parts of the social structure, and among whom power is distributed unequally, that drug use is construed as a transgressive practice, and the transgressor is labeled and eventually stigmatized ( Link & Phelan, 2001 ).

Stigma, according to Goffman (2006), is the result of social relations in which a particular characteristic of an individual becomes a discreditable attribute. In keeping with Link and Phelan (2001) , the construction of stigma requires the co-occurrence of labeling, stereotyping, separation, loss of status, discrimination, and the exercise of power. These mechanisms are mutually reinforcing and interchangeable; however, it is the exercise of power by one group over another that enables stigmatization.

Effective stigmatization through the figure of the “addict” legitimizes discrimination and social exclusion processes, bringing about new inequality in access to opportunities that overlaps with other pre-existing types of inequality (based on gender, class, ethnicity, etc.), exacerbating the social disadvantage and depriving the participants of this study of the little capital within their reach and the means of cashing in on this capital, thus worsening “the spiral of decapitalization and accumulation of disadvantages (both material and symbolic)” ( Reguillo, 2010, p. 396 ) throughout their lifetime. It is within the context of this process that an association with violent or criminal groups takes on meaning, while changing drug use experiences and associated meanings, bringing about new conditions that may potentially worsen substance dependence.

The hypothesis I develop in this study is that problem drug use, and subsequent association with organized crime groups, are the result of the tension caused among the participants of this study by the internalization of an aspirational framework that emphasizes monetary success, social advancement, and consumption as ideals for wellbeing, and the difficulty of achieving these goals through institutional channels or socially accepted means due to their subordinate position in the opportunity structure4 ( Merton, 1995 [1938] ).

This does not mean there is an automatic relationship between poverty and violence, lawlessness and/or problem drug use; rather, the analysis presented here attempts to show how this context of structural tension has taken shape within a framework characterized by an institutional vacuum, worsening social exclusion, and the spread of organized crime ( Reguillo, 2012a ). The objective of the narratives constructed is to show how the narrators’ life stories have been challenged by each of these aspects, in different ways for each generation, and how the complex relationship between subjectivities and context creates a favorable platform for the efficient recruitment by organized crime groups of “disillusioned, impoverished youth seeking recognition” ( Reguillo, 2012a, p. 40 ).


The study population is made up of males who have injected illegal drugs at least once in the month prior to interviewing and are resident in Hermosillo, Sonora. Due to the population characteristics, critical case sampling was used ( Martínez Salgado, 2012 ) and as such, the study participants are the most stigmatized and vulnerable users in the diverse universe of illegal drug users in Mexico. This selection of extreme cases reflects an interest in understanding what, at the time, was known as “HIV-risk contexts” within the framework of a broader study that focused on analyzing the structural characteristics that contributed to high HIV prevalence observed among injecting drug users (IDUs) in the city.

The data I analyze in this study was collected by means of an ethnographic participant observation exercise in IDU meeting places between January 2010 and December 2012 in Hermosillo. This enabled me to build trust with the participants, while defining the population and gaining an insight into their meeting places and socialization dynamics. In 2014, I selected meeting places that attracted the highest number of IDUs in order to gain a deeper understanding of the socialization and drug use practices that facilitated HIV transmission. Given that these spaces were chiefly occupied by males, I elected to make them the focus of my study, as it became clear that women had different drug use dynamics. Similarly, female socialization practices in peer groups and the ways they associate with organized crime groups are different from those of males, and as such, I felt they warranted a separate in-depth study.

The spaces chosen were located close to places were drugs were dealt and used, in the north of the city. The ethnographic work involved conducting day-long visits once a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Access to these spaces was facilitated by IDUs with whom a prior relationship had been established. Being there allowed me to witness the comings and goings around areas where drugs are purchased and used, and engage in informal conversations about the wide range of issues that shaped participants’ daily lives. This dayto-day presence helped to better understand the neighborhoods and other social and community actors, with whom I also struck up informal conservations aimed at broadening my understanding of the history of the sector, changes in the dynamics of drug dealing and use, and associated community conflicts. All this information was systematized in field diaries, which were part of the analysis.

Additionally, thirteen life stories were collected among the men who occupied these spaces on a daily basis, using an in-depth interview based on the instruction “Tell me about your history with drugs, from the time you began until now,” which sought to elicit a free story around individual lives that would enable a detailed reconstruction of drug use trajectories and how they relate to other life trajectories, together with the dynamics of drug dealing and use. The theoretical sample was stratified by birth cohort or generation (1960s, 1980s, 1990s), in an attempt to gather sufficient evidence to illustrate changes in the dynamics of drug dealing and use in each generation. As will be explained in the following section, each generation is the echo of a different stage in the history of illegal drug production, trafficking, and commercialization in Mexico and the socioeconomic history of Hermosillo.

The interviewees gave informed consent to be interviewed, and the study protocol was approved by the Ethics Committee of El Colegio de Sonora. The interviews were conducted in participants’ houses and public spaces like parks and coffee shops close to the meeting places. All interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed for analysis by constructing life stories ( Bertaux, 1983 ) organized by generation.

In general terms, study participants come from poor households and, at the time of the interview, continue to hold the same social position as their parents and are employed mostly in low-skilled manual jobs. A generational comparison reveals that younger participants attained higher levels of schooling. The maximum level of schooling attained is a full middle school education, which, although lower than the average in Sonora (10 years of education), is the average level of education for the Mexican population as a whole (9 years) (Intercensal Survey, Inegi, 2015 ). As far as drug use trajectories are concerned, no generational differences were observed in starting ages, but the type of drugs did differ.

While those born in the 1960s started out on inhalants,5 those born in the 1980s started mostly on psychotropic pills and/or marijuana, and those born in the 1990s began on crystal meth.

For this article, I analyze the life stories of three participants in the study –one for each generation (1960s, 1980s, 1990s)– who were directly involved in drug dealing in Hermosillo. Emergent themes were identified in each story and used to analyze the data as a whole. The participants’ names have been changed in this article.

The fact that the narrative analysis is structured as a story that develops over time, with a beginning and ending, makes it possible to forge comprehensive links between historical time, social time, and individual time, helping to show how they affect each other ( Chase, 2005 ). To that end, the following section describes the socioeconomic conditions experienced in Hermosillo between 1970 and 2000, the changes documented during this period in the dynamics of illegal drug dealing, and how these changes have manifested themselves in the city. I go on to describe how these social and historical changes impacted the participants’ lives in terms of the drugs they had access to, the type of trajectory constructed, and their relationship with organized crime.


Poppy cultivation in Mexico’s northern states, including Sonora, is not a recent phenomenon. Crops of papaver somniferum, commonly known as poppy, have been reported since the first decade of the 20th century in various municipalities across the state6 and initially associated with the presence of a Chinese population ( Astorga, 2015 ).

Hermosillo’s geographical location, 66 miles from the coast of the Sea of Cortés and 178 miles from Arizona (see Map 1 ), among other reasons, have made this city a key setting for heroin trafficking since 1920. This is not just due to its proximity to the Pacific, but its location on the railroad7 connecting Mexico City to Nogales ( Astorga, 2015 ). Since then, the highways connecting Hermosillo to Nogales (a border city between Sonora and Arizona) and the railroad have been seen by U.S. agents as routes for opium, heroin, and marijuana trafficking, while Hermosillo was considered a city with a substantial population of opium smokers.

Source: Google Maps, 2019.

Map 1. Location of the City of Hermosillo, Sonora  

Due to its strategic importance, from 1920 Sonora became a key focus area for the implementation of illicit crop eradication campaigns, which became more frequent from 1938 under pressure from the U.S. government ( Astorga, 2007 , 2015 ). Consequently, during the 20th century, poppy and marijuana crops were gradually relocated to less accessible parts of the state, in the Sierra Madre Occidental, ultimately becoming concentrated in the so-called Golden Triangle in the mountain range shared by the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua ( Astorga, 2015 ). From 1970, the mountain-dwellers faced increased pressure to give up their marijuana and poppy plantations, a process that crystallized with “Operation Condor” in the mountainous terrain of the Golden Triangle towards the end of the decade ( Astorga, 2007 ).

The 1980s saw the greatest population growth in Hermosillo, which was partly the result of an exodus of impoverished peasants that had begun in the 1950s but intensified in the late 1970s. Military incursions in rural areas, along with ongoing conflicts over land and water since the turn of the century8 ( Sanderson, 1981 ), were among the factors behind this exodus. So it was that in 1980, irregular settlements began to spring up to the north of the city, which were regularized at the end of the decade and gave rise to the neighborhoods where the lives of the study participants play out.

According to Covarrubias (1990) , the 1980s in Sonora were also characterized by significant rural decapitalization and the resulting crisis of the agricultural sector, along with an increase in the importance of industry, particularly maquiladoras9  and the automobile industry. Despite the new jobs created in the city, the decade saw the highest census unemployment rate (6.6%) and a significant decrease in wages, salaries, and social benefits, putting pressure on families to increase participation in informal labor ( Lara Enríquez, 1990, p. 83 ).

According to Covarrubias (1990) , in addition to the decrease in public investment in social welfare, the processes described above also brought about an increase in inequality, which worsened in the 1990s and was accompanied by socio-spatial segregation processes and rational discrimination narratives.

In this context, the emergence of criminal organizations involved in the production, trafficking, and commercialization of illegal drugs in the 1980s marked the transformation of illicit crop farmers into transnational entrepreneurs, exponentially increasing their economic power, capacity for violence and ability to bribe local and national drug control agencies ( Astorga, 2007 ; Nill Sánchez, 2013 ). From that point, Hermosillo came under the control of the Sonora Cartel group, and was subsequently occupied by the so-called Sinaloa Cartel.

The establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1994 marked the rural and urban economic crisis of the late 1990s, a decade in which poverty and inequality continued to increase in Hermosillo and Sonora. Two-thirds of jobs created in the state were informal, and unemployment reached 18% by the end of the decade ( Camberos & Yáñez, 2003 ). Although 86 000 new jobs were generated, there was a 28% shortfall in formal jobs10 ( Covarrubias, 2000 ). The number of people living in poverty increased by 52%, of whom 12% lived in extreme poverty ( Camberos, 2000 ).

In this context, trafficking organizations enjoyed increased power, not just because, as a result of NAFTA, the volume of drugs exported to the United States increased and money laundering became easier ( Payá, 2006 ), but also because they became a job option for farmers made destitute by the importation of corn from the United States and young people from low-income sectors who were unable to find work in border cities ( Knight, 2012 ).

This increase in the power wielded by criminal drug trafficking organizations entailed a loss of any subordination to authorities; the beginning of territorial disputes, resulting in an increase in violence in border cities; the creation of local drug markets through the opening of tienditas (literally, “little shops”), 11 by way of which poor neighborhoods became key spots for territorial control ( García, 2013 ); and a heightened military presence in areas considered strategic for drug trafficking.

The election of the National Action Party (PAN) to the presidency in 2000 marked the end of 70 years of single-party rule in Mexico by the PRI. Among other consequences, this political change eroded the channels of mediation and control between the state and criminal organizations ( Ríos Contreras, 2012 ). Additionally, the fall in the prices of heroin12 and cocaine, and reduced demand for Mexican marijuana in the United States, exacerbated territorial disputes between groups of traffickers ( García, 2013 ). This situation, in conjunction with political decentralization,13 drove these groups to form private armies, propelling violence in the country to historic levels ( Ríos Contreras, 2012 ). Poorer young people were key actors in the establishment of these armies (op. cit.).14

Armed forces have been deployed on a constant basis since 1940 to control the production, and later the trafficking and commercialization, of illegal drugs in Sonora and other states playing a major role in these processes ( Astorga, 2007 , 2015 ). However, criminal organizations’ increased capacity for response, along with the state’s diminished capacity to control and negotiate with them, was put forward as an argument to increase the number of military personnel, broaden their scope of action, and extend their presence in cities over the last twenty years. All this took place within a context of reduced job opportunities, for young men in particular, 15 and the suspension or downsizing of social programs aimed at that sector of the population.

During the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-2012), also under the National Action Party, the militarization process in cities was stepped up to an unprecedented level in the context of the so-called “War on Drugs”, which sought to, among other objectives, capture the leaders of organizations involved in the production, trafficking, and commercialization of illegal drugs. At the time, Sonora underwent military interventions on an almost permanent basis ( Atuesta Becerra, 2018 ). However, even with this heightened military presence, displays of violence were limited in Hermosillo until 2010, when the local press began to report frequent targeted killings in public spaces in broad daylight, clashes between heavily armed groups, kidnappings, and forced disappearances ( Ospina Escobar, 2016 ).

It was precisely in 2010 that reports emerged of the breakup of criminal groups under the leadership of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who had been killed that year and exercised a territorial monopoly on Hermosillo through the Sinaloa Cartel criminal group. This marked the beginning of an unprecedented increase in crime and homicide rates in Hermosillo, capital of the state of Sonora. Between 2006 and 2017, for example, the number of murders skyrocketed from 39 to 154 (Mortality statistics. Deaths from homicide by city of registration, Inegi, 2018a ). In 2016, Sonora was the sixth highest-ranking state in terms of crime rate per 100 000 inhabitants (42.6) (Crime rate. Sentences by state and municipality, Inegi, 2018b ).

Neither has the increased military presence in the state since 2006, in the context of the misnamed “War on Drugs”, managed to control the supply of drugs in the state. From 2008 to 2017, the amount of methamphetamine seized by the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) and the Navy shot up from 81 kg to just over 27 000 kg, with the greatest reported amount seized in 2015 (36 000 kg). The state of Sonora ranked fifth nationally for methamphetamine seizures, with 10.7% of the national total, and along with Baja California, accounted for 70% of methamphetamine seized by U.S. border patrol between 2012 and 2016 ( Arredondo, 2018 ).

Furthermore, the military presence has been inefficient in reducing the demand for drugs in Sonora, such that by 2012, the city of Hermosillo, the state capital, had the third highest number of injecting drug users, after Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana ( Censida, 2010 ).


Reports by the Epidemiological Surveillance System of Addictions (SISVEA) for Sonora show an increase in the proportion of people who started drug use with cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.16 According to the National Survey of Drug Use Among Students (ENCODE, 2014), in Sonora in 2014, 1.3% of middle school students and 3.7% of high school students had used cocaine at some time, and 0.9% and 2.6%, respectively, had used methamphetamine at least once ( Villatoro-Velázquez et al., 2015 ).

From 2012, methamphetamine and heroin emerged as the main drugs that drove users to attend treatment centers. Whereas in 2007, 15% of users seeking help at non-governmental treatment centers reported heroin as the drug with the highest impact, by 2009 this proportion had risen to 24.6%, and remained at this level until 2016, the date of the most recent national addiction survey. Methamphetamine was reported as the drug with the highest impact by 69% of adults attending treatment centers in 2017 ( SISVEA, 2018 ). My hypothesis is that the growing prevalence of methamphetamine use in Hermosillo is associated with the establishment of a local drug market and the greater control exerted by organized crime groups over the last decade in neighborhood spaces, attributable to, among other factors, the breakup of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel.

The three narratives I present below describe how the socioeconomic changes experienced in Hermosillo, along with changes in the ways in which criminal organizations involved in the production, trafficking, and commercialization of illegal drugs operate, intertwine with the life stories of different generations of male problem drug users in Hermosillo, increasing drug use-related risks.


Rafael (1965). An Entrepreneur Well Shrouded by a Godfather

Rafael is the second of five children, second-generation migrants from the municipality of Banámichi, near the Sierra Madre Occidental, 104 miles from Hermosillo. He witnessed how the original settlers, including his extended family, built the neighborhood where he lives. The settlers exerted political pressure and contributed to introducing basic utilities like electricity, water, and a drainage system, along with road paving, and as a result Rafael grew up among networks of neighbors characterized by ties of camaraderie and solidarity. The son of a single mother, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. His precarious living conditions led him to drop out of school at a very young age and work informally to provide for the household. This prompted a constant search for income-generating opportunities. The fact that he knew drug users near his home, had family members who used and sold drugs, and was a drug user himself enabled him to become familiar with the dynamics of dealing from an early age, such that by the age of 13 he had begun to function as a distributor for his peer group in his neighborhood.

Three aspects characterize Rafael’s role as a drug distributor: the lack of violence in his dealings, the power wielded by his “godfather”17 in the local government structure, and his late entry into prison (at the age of 37). Rafael’s story showcases the beginnings of illegal drug sales in Mexico, in which certain local authorities played a key role in protecting local traffickers in exchange for money and obedience, and violence was not predominant ( Serrano, 2007 ; Astorga, 2015 ; Knight, 2012 ; Ríos Contreras, 2012 ).

Rafael’s close relationship with his “godfather” allowed him to consolidate his position as a distributor of drugs as it gave him access to a greater range and higher volumes of substances (cocaine, marijuana, and psychotropic pills). Thus, through his “godfather”, Rafael gained access to new places (fashionable nightclubs and discotheques) to distribute mostly cocaine, while receiving protection from the police and military operations.

“Through D. [a partner and sex worker in a house used as a brothel that belonged to Rafael’s aunt] I met my godfather. He held an important position in the state judicial [police force] ... I’ve been lucky, because that old geezer singled me out as his helper… it was with him that I started moving boxes of pills and kilos of coke. He used to call me and say ‘this is how the deal goes, kid’. I just went where he told me, everything was covered, I was never stopped by the soldiers or anybody. He would also instruct me to go to such and such a nightclub, or whichever discotheques were trendy at the time, where I could shift the goods, and that’s how the business expanded to other places… He would drop the stuff off with me, I sold it at the price I wanted, depending on the customer, and I was accountable to the old guy for his money. […] The old man took no chances, it was my ass that was on the line, he’d just call me and say ‘go there’, ‘speak to so-and-so’, ‘go deliver such-and-such to so-and-so’…”

The prolonged nature of this relationship with his godfather, which lasted almost eight years, and the godfather’s position in the government structure18 ensured that Rafael stayed in the business, and was able to steadily expand his clientele and access “safe” places to sell drugs. The protection from his “godfather” helped keep Rafael out of prison and ensured he did not have to resort to violence to defend himself from other competitors in the market

After eight years of this relationship, his “godfather” died of cancer. Without the protective figure of the “godfather,” Rafael was unable to regain access to the amounts of cocaine, marijuana, and pills he was used to selling, and he lost access to distribution points, lessening his ability to sustain the level of income he needed to support his drug addiction. It was under these circumstances, in 2002, at the age of 37, that Rafael ended up in jail, charged with possessing and selling heroin and cocaine.

Several factors contributed to Rafael’s arrest for the possession and sale of drugs. The first was the lack of protection from and dialogue with a police force desperate to show results in the fight against drug trafficking. Secondly, a new drug sales method made him vulnerable, as he had to run a dealing house on the orders of a criminal group that began to impose new rules for buying and selling drugs in neighborhoods in the north of the city,19 and which operated through ill-fortuned “addicts” like Rafael, who had no choice but to accept the conditions imposed by the criminal group to secure the necessary income to feed their heroin addiction

His six-year stay in prison provided him access to other criminal networks through which, after his release, he was able to reenter the drug trade, until violence reared its head in 2010:

“[…] That’s the way we worked until mid-2010, when municipal police officers rounded us up and handed us to the hitmen… When they delivered us to the hitmen, they covered us with hoods so we couldn’t see and beat the crap out of me. From that point I was traumatized. […] At one point they received an order and took us and dumped us somewhere; when they removed the hoods, we were in the pen.”

The accounts given by the participants reflect the arrival, around 2010, of groups seeking to control drug sales in the neighborhoods to the north of the city. Small-scale distributors who traveled to Nogales or San Luis Río Colorado in Sonora, or Culiacán in the state of Sinaloa, to buy a few grams of heroin to sell on to their peers, began to find themselves co-opted by these groups. From that point, the narratives reveal a certain complexification in the relationship between drug dealing and the police; police officers continued to track down and close down locations where drugs are sold, and detain traffickers and users, but with the goal of helping a criminal group to control the market. As a result, the life stories often recount how they were stopped by police and handed over to criminal groups, who questioned them about the origin of the drugs they were using and/or selling, forcing them to reveal where and from whom they bought drugs on pain of death. Then they were freed or sent to jail.

These stories describe how in the late 2000s, the groups controlling drug sales assigned weapons to their distributors, who were also put under pressure to attend to dealing houses, where drugs could be purchased all day, every day, and where debtors were forced to stay and work to pay off their debt. Thus, a frequent complaint among participants was that distributors were no longer “buddies” or peers, instead following the logic of the “organization” for which they worked, as they were accountable for amounts of money and drugs sold. In this context, some users20  had become drug dealers with a wage and working hours, or doormen and watchmen, increasing the risk of being apprehended by law enforcement or killed in clashes with rival groups.

Aurelio (1978): Gangs as Mediators and the Construction of the “Gang Movement” (Cholismo) as a Way of Life

Aurelio is the youngest child of an alcoholic boxer and a worker in one of the city’s maquiladoras. The difficulty of accessing and sustaining formal employment contributed to Aurelio’s father’s unemployment over most of Aurelio’s childhood and adolescence, in the 1980s. His jobless father would spend his time drinking while his mother attempted to keep the household afloat with three underage children. Their precarious living conditions, and his father’s recurring episodes of violence, were driving factors behind Aurelio’s decision to leave the family home at an early age and join a local gang as a means of survival.

For Aurelio’s generation, the neighborhood is a built space that has become appropriated by the young people born within it. Gangs emerged in the late 1980s as an actor in this land appropriation process, which is not only about building housing and providing adequate public services, but articulating the singularity of being a young resident of this sector of the city, soon to be stigmatized and criminalized by official discourse and institutional practices ( Valenzuela, 2010 ), leading to a stronger consolidation of their practices and greater cohesion between members.

The gangs’ importance lies in their ability to inject meaning into lifestyles and routines, as a mediating space between the public and the private ( Valenzuela, 2009, p. 31 ), and as a safety net, space for containment, and survival strategy in a context in which violence was increasingly present and institutions were becoming ever less capable of constructing and providing meaning ( Reguillo, 2010 , 2012b ; Urteaga, 2010 ; Valenzuela, 2010 ).

In Aurelio’s case, the gang took the form of a new family, structured with rules, tasks, codes, and ranks that shaped the world inhabited by these youths, where they also enjoyed the camaraderie and protection of their peers. In Valenzuela’s words, “gangs articulate constructed life stories based on similar living conditions and become stronger in shared lifeworlds, daily experiences, and face-to-face relationships in defense of others,” (2010, p. 328).

Entry into the gang was subject to completing a series of tests that involved taking part in criminal acts (mostly theft), which, among other things, also provided access to consumer goods that were otherwise off-limits for Aurelio.

“Being a gangster (cholo) was cool at the time, it was something new, a way of life […] It was like a symbol of defiance and I liked that […]. Gangs defended the infamous three dots representing the vida loca (crazy life). You could say it was a pact between neighborhoods, you gave your life for your neighborhood, for your community […] You might even feel proud of your neighborhood, as they’d stick their hands in the fire for you, they had your back because if somebody wanted to screw me over, they’d jump right in.”

As was well described by Valenzuela (2009, p. 60) , “gangs consist of strong relationships established at early ages and which define common socialization processes but are constructed within complex contexts of interaction with other social networks and family members.”

In the narratives from this period, gangs emerge as mediators between young people and other actors on the illegal scene in Hermosillo, such as drug dealers and corrupt police officers who sold weapons and drugs. Weapons and drugs both belonged to the gang, and could only be accessed by approaching these groups of youths. Weapons were reserved for specific settings and only given to higher-status members.

Drug use and criminal acts within the gang were collective actions, as there existed a shared vision that guided individual participation and injected a particular meaning into these practices, which cannot be understood merely from the lens of “addiction” or criminality, but rather are part of the way these young people carve out a place in the world amid marginalization, criminalization, and the risk of death ( Valenzuela, 2010 ).

Gang wars, more visible drug use on local streets and parks, and the emergence of firearms in neighborhood areas, along with higher rates of theft and fighting among young people, started to frighten the adults, who stopped acting as regulators and in their absence, fear and silence began to take over community life.

Given the failure of control mechanisms to address youth behavior, in the 1990s confinement became another option: mandatory commitment to rehabilitation centers, paid for by families, along with a higher rate of incarceration for young people from this sector of the city. Along with other factors, this increase in labeling, confinement, and criminalization of young males made it harder for them to access other sociability networks, helping to further their criminal trajectories and patterns of heavy drug use.

In Aurelio’s case, taking on the appearance of a gangster, going off to the mountains to work on marijuana plantations, 21  dropping out and making new alliances with criminal groups, together with his frequent jail admissions, were all events that allowed him to establish a reputation through which he met people who facilitated his access to drugs (heroin and methamphetamines22 ) for distribution among his network of acquaintances. However, throughout his life, these events came to marginalize him and cause a gradual loss of capital with respect to the broader market of interactions with mainstream society.

One particular incident in 2010 put the brakes on his criminal trajectory, forcing him to dissociate himself from selling heroin.

“I was dealing, but… the feds stopped me. That was when the mafia here today showed up, about five years ago… They turned up ratting on all the people I worked with, they all got busted. They switched over to working with them because they made arrangements with the federal police and got to keep the network. […] They told me it was a warning, that if I wanted to get in on the job, 23  I knew where to go… I decided I wanted to live, and that’s why I started selling candy on buses, I sacrificed my dignity… Sometimes I wonder if it was worth it.”

Vicente (1988): Kill to Survive

“My whole life, as long as I can remember, I’ve been a thug and I’ve been

surrounded by thugs. My father was a thug and he started taking me along on his




when I was just a little kid. […] When he disappeared, I started hanging out

with the depraved guys on my street. Then some pals set me a task so I could start

working with the top guys.



They said, ‘So you think you’re tough? Let’s see.’ I had

to send him off [kill him] […] I did it and they gave me coke and crystal for me to

shift in the neighborhood. […] I started driving around in a car with a pistol…

Those were good times.”


From the late 1990s, sociability in low-income neighborhoods in northern Hermosillo was characterized by less interaction with members of other sectors of society, fewer opportunities to leave the neighborhood, and a reduced institutional presence through social programs. The neighborhood –and street corners– became ever more confined spaces, and sociability ever more fluid, with incarceration events that were not only more frequent, but also occurred at an earlier age in young people born from 1990 onwards.

Vicente is the eldest of three, the son of a corrupt police officer and a homemaker turned hotel maid following her partner’s disappearance. It was Vicente’s father who introduced him to crime from an early age, and when he disappeared, he began to engage more actively, taking on the role of a “hitman.”

The crazy “vida loca” lifestyle of young gangs in the 1980s and 1990s gave way to the “hitman” lifestyle in the new millennium. Although death was a constant companion from an early age for both the preceding generations, when gang members found protection and camaraderie in their gangs, the life stories of those born from 1990 reflect a greater level of loneliness and mistrust in their relationships with peers, a result of the rivalry encouraged within criminal groups, where these young people’s lives are expendable.

The solidarity found in gangs of the previous decade was replaced by the “brotherhood of thugs and fugitives”, which constitutes a much more marginal world for these young “hitmen.” While a sense of belonging to the neighborhood was the glue that held together the gangs of the eighties, in this new “brotherhood of thugs and fugitives”, the common theme is a criminal past and constantly being on the run from “the law”, represented by the state and law enforcement institutions –or the criminal groups they have deserted.

This upsurge in violence among youth has been accompanied by deeper silence from the adult world. The adults of the neighborhood seem to live as prisoners of the fear instilled by these youths, to which their response is to legitimize their violent deaths since “a dead thug is one less thug.” In this sense, while confinement emerged in the nineties as a strategy used by adults to control impoverished youth, in the new millennium, annihilation seems to be the new control strategy.

Additionally, Vicente’s generation has faced more severe social dissociation than previous generations. Indeed, although Rafael and Aurelio did not complete elementary education either, they did learn a trade, which they practiced alongside their criminal activities. Vicente completed high school in juvenile detention centers and at the time of interviewing, had never had a legal occupation. Following his father’s disappearance, he was “adopted” by the local group of “thugs,” who from time to time engaged in criminal acts for Vicente’s father.

In this context, in the younger men’s life stories, the police force is depicted as just another agent working for organized crime, with officers who carried out torture, sowed drugs, and harassed anybody not afforded the protection of these organizations or without the means to pay bribes.

School is another absent institution in the accounts given by those born from 1990 onwards. These narratives also paint a picture of overwhelmed families, with severe material shortcomings but also a marked inability to contain and emotionally support their children. For example, the stories of the youngest generation allude repeatedly to a failure by their mothers and other adults living in the household to “command respect,” and describe how, from a very early age, they openly had to face up to adults’ struggles to meet their basic needs.

On another level, the ethnographic observation has shown that the neighborhood community has become an accomplice in young deaths –sometimes by justifying these deaths, at other times through a silence that rarefies sociability within a context marked by constant mistrust of others.

Given this vacuum, for those born from 1990 onwards, their peer group has seemingly become a key pillar for survival –a group in which violent practices have become crucial to gain entry and status. The ethnographic observation found that conversations in these settings almost always revolved around confrontations, kidnappings, collections, and killings they have engaged in. The youngest would listen carefully to the feats of older members, those with a greater criminal record, and clearly state their desire to follow in their footsteps, showing a willingness to complete tests to demonstrate their loyalty and capacity to exercise violence.

In Vicente’s case, his fearlessness in performing each of the tasks entrusted by the group earned him a reputation, which was consolidated by his frequent arrests. In prison, this reputation grew stronger, while he made new criminal connections and furthered his criminal trajectory. In prison he met his “boss,” who hired him as a member of his criminal group, firstly as a “muleteer” carrying drugs through the desert, later as a “go-between” in a county of Texas, and then as a security guard for armed commando groups in the state of Tamaulipas and the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City.

“I was in Tamaulipas for all of 2010. It was my craziest period. We all had AK-47s and it was nothing but shootouts, every day. We were always “sky high,” with loads of coke [cocaine], there were always huge bags of coke, to keep us happy. I saw all sorts; I saw lots of pals die. We lived each day to the full, messed up from all the coke we had in us. We didn’t sleep because there was always something to do… nothing but mischief…”

Vicente’s struggle against his own marginalization fueled his dependent/submissive relationship with the criminal group he worked for, as it was seen as the only opportunity to access the goods and status he aspired to. Furthermore, this dependent/submissive relationship made him more vulnerable: he was more visible, engaged in higher-risk work (as a gunman, for example), lived in places he was unfamiliar with, etc. All these situations eroded his poor social capital and increased the level of stigma and discrimination he faced, undermining his chances of finding legal work.

In this setting, the ritual of nonchalant, collective drug use has been replaced by compulsive individual use. The younger generations’ stories describe how they consumed large amounts of drugs, over long periods, and how these patterns of consumption enabled them to forget the atrocities they had committed and function within the group, in that they were able to stay awake and on the lookout. This in turn exposed them to greater risks and harm, not just from the drugs but from the illegal acts they had to commit to procure them.

The drugs available nowadays have also changed. Within the neighborhoods it is no longer possible to find cocaine, which has become a luxury drug. In its place came crystal meth, which is given away for free or sold in doses for as little as twenty pesos. It is the drug of the poor –a highly addictive substance that comes with a wide range of side effects that undermine young users’ mental and physical health, and for which no therapeutic alternative is available besides withdrawal.

In keeping with Merton (1995 [1938]) , young people like Vicente have noted a disconnect between work and economic and social progress. They refuse to participate in a labor market that does not offer sufficient income to meet their life expectations, and in which they are, in any case, ineligible on account of their physical appearance, criminal record, lack of identity documents (including their official ID card), and lack of required skills. Nonetheless, they have not given up on aspiring to the consumer goods they desire. Nor do they want to be excluded or marginalized. For Vicente, the use of violence became an individual resource to gain upward mobility, albeit short-lived. Vicente is one of thousands of young people in Mexico for whom “selling risk” is their only alternative to exclusion; their only capital is their own body ( Reguillo, 2012b , 2013 ). These young bodies give themselves up just as eagerly to a fight to the death with another armed group (whether legal or illegal) as to heavy drug use pushed to the limits.


The three narratives presented here illustrate changes in the dynamics of drug dealing and the local drug market in poor sectors of northern Hermosillo between 1970 and 2016. In particular, a cross-generational interpretation of these narratives reveals the changes that have occurred in the types of drugs sold in this sector of the city, the intermediaries through whom drugs arrive in the neighborhoods, the relationships between distributors and users, and the type of relationship users from each generation establish with the police and the way they associate with criminal groups and actors that enable the supply of drugs in this sector of the city.

The changes described by the participants in the dynamics of drug dealing and use show how the social changes described in the brief overview of the history of illegal drug production and commercialization processes in the country have manifested themselves on an individual timeline, and the specificities that this social history translates into in the context of Hermosillo. This tale reveals how an increase in military and police presence has not just failed to stem the dynamism of local drug markets, but has actually increased deaths and criminalization among impoverished youth.

Analyzed from a generational perspective, the life stories of Rafael, Aurelio, and Vicente show how families in northern Hermosillo have faced worsening poverty from one generation to the next, how young people in this sector of the city have found themselves increasingly marginalized, and how organized crime has presented itself in different ways. This increased presence of organized crime has led to new forms of sociability in neighborhoods and transformed young men’s income-generating options and identity referents, along with the dynamics of drug dealing and use.

Although all three participants faced conditions of economic hardship and the stigma of being an “addict” due to drug use, the type of actors used to procure drugs exposed them to different levels of violence within contexts of drug dealing and use specific to each generation, marking differences in their criminal trajectories. Violence is less present in the account given by Rafael –the participant from the oldest generation– and takes on ever increasing relevance in the identity construction of younger users and as a foundation for relationships with others, their peers, institutions and/or their rivals. Additionally, the crime trajectories of younger generations began with more serious crimes (homicides) and were marked by early admission into prison (before the age of 18), hindering these younger subjects’ social inclusion and consolidating their criminal trajectories.

In a world where identities are increasingly constructed around appearance and consumption, joining organized crime –even within its lowest ranks– offers those who are young and living in poverty a window of opportunity to achieve their aspirations. As inequality in society increases, exclusion becomes more pronounced and social spaces are eroded, violence increasingly serves a function as a resource to gain respect and find one’s place in the world.

The stigma around the “addict” and the accompanying discourse on the failure of the “self” black out the key role played by the institutional and psychological violence faced by these young people throughout their lives, inequality, and social segregation in shaping the tragic fate associated with these young men who experience problem drug use. These young people are the incarnation of the sharpest contradiction of capitalism, as bearers of values and ideals imposed by the very system that excludes them from the benefits it offers, while perversely deriving profit from their yearning for inclusion. Stigma and exclusion transform these young people into disposable soldiers who fight to the death for drugs and distinction. Their deaths and dependence on drugs only matter to their families –when such families exist– as they constituted a surplus population long before they became addicted to drugs and found in violence a way of living and constructing their identity.


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2This article was produced with support from UNAM. UNAM Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Fellow of the Social Research Institute, advised by Dra. Marina Ariza

3Marisol Ochoa (2017) discusses the difficulty of providing a conceptual definition of the term “organized crime” due to the dynamic nature of criminal activity, with changes in the way criminals operate and are organized, and new interventions and forms of crime coming into play constantly. Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution defines organized crime as “a de facto organization of three or more people to commit crimes permanently or repeatedly, under the terms provided by the corresponding law.” I use the term organized crime (crimen organizado or delincuencia organizada in Spanish) to describe criminal groups dedicated to the production and commercialization of illegal drugs.

4The concept of opportunity structure “designates the scale and distribution of conditions that provide various probabilities for acting individuals and groups to achieve specifiable outcomes,” (Merton, 1995 [1938], p. 25).

5He most popular inhalant in Mexico is an industrial glue known by the brand name “Resistol,” which has become a generic term for inhalants.

6Navojoa, Álamos, Huatabampo, Cananea, Agua Prieta, and Etchojoa, to name just a few.

7This was a passenger and freight railroad until 1998, when passenger transportation was suspended. Today it only carries freight.

8By 1970, “irrigation works grew to a value of over 400 million pesos. Of that value, 0.5% went to irrigation units of less than five hectares, 8.5% to ejidal plots, and the rest to large properties. The same happened with water pumps; 91% of funds invested went to plots over five hectares” (Sanderson, 1981, p. 150).

9TN: In-bond assembly plants, chiefly found along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, run by foreign companies with the purpose of exporting the finished products.

10According to Covarrubias (2000), this is due in part to a greater concentration of higherranking business activities in Hermosillo, which call for a more highly skilled workforce, and a high level of technology-intensive processes.

11Outlets for the clandestine sale of drugs in neighborhoods.

12Between 1992 and 2004, the price of heroin fell by 62% due to the influx of Colombian heroin (Ciccarone, Unick, & Kraus, 2009).

13The argument given by Ríos Contreras (2012) is that when different parties govern at different levels, this creates a perverse environment in which the gains for low-level authorities for enforcing the law are few and far between, while criminal organizations offer major short-term benefits in exchange for cooperating with them, allowing them to grow.

14According to Reguillo (2012a, p. 40), 67% of cases of homicidal violence associated with organized crime that come under the public eye involve youth under the age of 25, and 49% of bodies that appear as displays of the power accumulated by criminal organizations belong to young people.

15In Hermosillo, between 2005 and 2010, the unemployment rate for men aged 20 to 24 was 26% (12th Population and Housing Census, Inegi, 2010). The proportion of young people without access to formal employment was 51.3% in 2010, and the percentage of young people keen to work but with no expectation of finding employment doubled between 2005 and 2010, rising from 4.3% to 9.9% (op. cit.).

16While in 2007, 5.8%, 2.8%, and 1% of users reported cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, respectively, as starting drugs (SISVEA, 2008), in 2014, these figures were 3.6%, 2.6%, and 6% respectively (SISVEA, 2015).

17Here, “godfather” does not refer to a close personal bond, but rather a person (or “figure”) who provided him access to the substances he was to sell, while also offering protection from state security officers (the police and the army) and potential competitors.

18According to Rafael, he was a chief administrative officer for the state judicial police force.

19According to his own account, Rafael was contacted by a “boss” (patrón) who offered him the possibility to sell drugs in a safe house, which he accepted, for want of other options and fully aware of the high risks this entailed.

20Especially those with greater economic and emotional needs, which made them more likely to agree to the armed group’s conditions, and those with qualities sought after by criminal groups (ability and/or willingness to use violence, knowledge of weaponry, among others).

21In the late 1990s, word reached the neighborhoods to the north of the city –through the gangs’ socialization networks– that people were needed to work on marijuana plantations in the mountains of Chihuahua. Wages of a thousand pesos a day were offered, and buses were provided to transport those interested. Tens of young people from this sector of the city heeded the call; many never came back. Aurelio enlisted, having just been released from jail and in desperate need of a “change of air.” He dropped out five months later due to the isolation and subservience required by those in charge, which meant switching allegiances to survive. This marked his exit from the gang and the beginning of his criminal activities outside of the group.

22Known colloquially as crystal (meth), ice, or crank, among other names.

23In this context, selling illegal drugs.

24In this context, the term “jobs” is used to refer to the illegal activities his father engaged in, such as extortion, kidnapping, and murder.

25He most powerful, those who controlled drug sales.

Received: June 15, 2018; Accepted: October 22, 2018

Translator: Joshua Parker

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