“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked the small group of kids gathered in a circle in front of me.
“I want to be a Narco” eight-year-old Pepe replied without hesitation.
The community center in one of the poorest and most violent sectors of Monterrey, México was Pepe’s recreational sphere, his only access to arts, sports and education. However, despite anyone’s efforts, his role model is unlikely to change. When he grows up, he wants to be a Narco (Drug dealer).
In the last decade, the Narco issue in Mexico has become a major concern for the United States and the world. Not only is the amount of drugs smuggled across the border alarming, but the number of murders and the climate of violence and insecurity that now dominates everyday life in the country portray a problematic long-term scenario. However, what most national and international initiatives to address the problem seem to disregard is the social and cultural dimension of the issue.
Today, drug dealing in Mexico is more than a business; it is a culture and a way of life for many. Being able to offer a fast escape from the overwhelming problems of extreme poverty and exemplifying a luxurious lifestyle, the drug cartels and the iconic figures of the Narcos have become an aspiration model in the last years.
The oddly glamorous way of life the new generation of drug dealers and mercenaries live has translated into a series of cultural traits that are becoming part of the Mexican society. The cult to “la Santa Muerte” (The holy death”) and the legendary drug dealer Jesus Malverde, the famous and now banned Narcocorridos, the Narco fashion trends, and the “adventurous” and “powerful” way of life the Cartel leaders project, not only promote a culture of familiarity towards the Cartels, but a sense of admiration and respect for some of them.
It is also worth pointing out that it has never been easier and more appealing to be part of a Cartel than it is today. A series of social issues and alarming living conditions have been combined in a negative environment in Mexico. When you have a country with 13 million people living in extreme poverty on one hand, with restricted access to education and employment, and you combine that with a lucrative business that, on the other hand, offers “easy” money and operates without legal repercussions, you have the proper elements to create a society of violence, instability and insecurity that thrives. This vicious cycle is stimulated by the frustration of many who live in poverty that suffer from daily exposure to the lifestyle of a rising, privileged middle and upper-class that seems so separated from their reality and impossible to achieve.
In this way, drug Cartels have become employers that offer money and a lifestyle of privilege and eccentricities that most cannot even afford to dream about. Teenagers and young adults in risky situations and extreme poverty have become especially easy targets for the recruiting Cartels, posing new challenges for the Mexican State and the country’s laws. More than 30,000 minors are estimated to be contributing to the Cartels in different illicit activities that range from drug production and distribution to kidnapping, torture and murder.
Pepe wanting to be a drug dealer when he grows up is not a rare case. Neither is 13-year-old Sonia, who is proud to have a 15-year-old boyfriend that is part of the Zeta’s Cartel. These kids represent an entirely new paradigm that is developing rapidly in the Mexican society, especially in the poorest communities, where many would rather live “un día como rey” (a day as a King), than a life of poverty and struggle.
The drug problem in Mexico is extremely complex and wide, and by no means should its causes be reduced to one. The complexity of the Narco business in Mexico is the result of a structural problem that involves serious flaws in the rule of law, poverty, broken institutions, lack of education, corruption, social frustration, inequality, and a culture of violence.
It is essential that the Mexican State recognize that addressing the Narco issue in a proper way means addressing the damaged social structure and the issues derived from it. Although tedious, more expensive, long term and impractical, to recognize that no Merida initiative, no Fast and Furious operation, no militarization, no massive hunt for drug leaders, and certainly no investment in weapons and the military will ever be enough to solve the problem at its roots.
As long as there is hunger, poverty, lack of education and opportunities, and social agony and frustration, there will be a growing number of Mexicans willing to engage in at least one of the many activities drug cartels offer today.