ArtsWIRE caught up with Shaylih Muehlmann, an assistant professor of anthropology, who has recently been named the Canada Research Chair in Language, Culture and Environment, to talk about her research in how drug trafficking affects the rural-underclasses along the US-Mexico border.
A specialist in environmental politics, she teaches the Anth 300A, Anth 540D and Anth 217 courses at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus.
What was it that first piqued your interest in anthropology?
I always loved to read and write, but when it came to deciding what I wanted to do for a career, I wanted to be able to travel and have adventures. I wanted to be able to learn from things that were not just books and professors.
You were living in Northern Mexico in 2005 when the drug war first began to escalate. What made you want to investigate such a dangerous topic?
Well, I didn’t want to investigate it. In fact, when I went down there, I was set on not talking to people about it.
I was first there for a year’s worth of field work when I was doing my doctoral research, which was about water scarcity in Northern Mexico, right at the end of the Colorado River where the river used to meet the sea. But it doesn’t anymore because it’s been so overused upstream. So I was there investigating water scarcity, fishing issues and the cultural changes that have resulted from that, for my first book, Where The River Ends, which is forthcoming with Duke University Press.
And one of the reasons I decided not to talk to anyone about the war on drugs was that the year I was there, there were nine journalists killed for reporting on drug-related issues. So it was clearly a topic that was dangerous to explore.
But, in thinking I could avoid the topic, I was really underestimating the extent to which the drug economy and the violence associated with it affect the lives of people in this area. So it turned out that people were talking to me about it all the time. And traces of the drug trade were everywhere you looked. For instance, in the first couple of months I was there, I noticed these notches right in the middle of the desert, in a very rural area. And wherever the sand was packed down in flat areas of the desert, there were these huge notches dug out. And because it was so out of place I began to ask people about it, and it turns out that the military would dig these trenches so the planes couldn’t land. So the situation was that I was in a major throughway for the transportation of drugs.
And so eventually I did start writing about it and talking to people about it and expanding my research network out to some of the border cities in a lot of the other fishing communities. And I decided to write a book about it. But I wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about the cartel violence that has received so much attention in the news. Instead, I wanted to write about the everyday effects of the drug trade on ordinary people in the borderlands.
More than 48,000 people have been killed in suspected drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006. The government maintains that 90 per cent of these were rival traffickers. Even so, what is the effect of all this violence on the average Mexican family?
First of all, that 90 per cent is interesting, because 95 per cent of the murders are not investigated. So the government tries to portray all these deaths as being connected to the drug industry in some way, but that’s really not the case. I think we’re up to 50,000 deaths now. And this affects everyone – some of these deaths are bystanders, some are people who were complaining about corpses being dumped on their front lawn, some are journalists trying to report on these issues, and some are musicians singing songs about the drug traffickers and government corruption.
So it’s obviously affecting people who are targeted, and it’s also affecting their families. And it has an effect on the public at large, even in places insulated from the violence. There is just a constant awareness of what is going on, and I think a lot of people live in fear.
You’ve said that the war on drugs is ultimately a war on the poor. Is there a difference between how this trade affects Mexico’s wealthy and poor?
Yes, I think people who are most susceptible to the promises of upward mobility through the drug trade are also the most vulnerable to the violence associated with it. It’s the very poor who are recruited to work in the lowest echelons of the trade as mules. And so they are also the ones that serve prison sentences.
It’s also the poor rural enclaves that experience the most problems with rampant drug addiction, with methamphetamines most recently.
The wealthy and middle-class have the luxury of mobility, of being able to move away from these problems.
According to the lobby group Network for the Rights of Childhood in Mexico, drug gangs have recruited nearly 30,000 minors since 2006. What is the draw for Mexican youth?
Often analysts will say the draw of the narco-economy is economic. And of course, a huge percentage of the annual revenue of Mexico is coming from the drug industry.
But the cultural appeal of the drug trade is monumental. And one of the things I want to describe in this book is what an incredible cultural salience the figure of the “narcotraficante” has, especially in Northern Mexico today.
One of the best examples of that is this phenomenon of the “narcocorrido,” which is a genre of folk song that tells the story of men and women in the drug trade. It’s an accordion-based, polka-rhythm genre. These are songs that are very traditional; they used to tell the story of revolutionary heroes like Pancho Villa and Joaquín Murrieta. And now they tell the story of these drug traffickers.
And some scholars have argued that the narcotraficante now represents the same cultural figure that’s positioned in this long-term structural inequality from the border, between the U.S. and Mexico, rich vs. poor. And so you can see that the narcotraficante often has that revolutionary character for many youth. It’s someone who is defying the law and is attaining upward mobility that is not otherwise possible if you’re poor in Mexico.
More than 3,000 police officers have been killed in Mexico since 2007. If you’re a young child living in Northern Mexico, what is a safer option – joining a gang or becoming a police officer?
That’s a good question. A lot of kids in the village I was staying in would play their version of cowboys and Indians, except it was ‘Narcos Y Federales’ (drug traffickers and police). One day I found this kid who had fallen and skinned his knee and was crying. And I asked him why he was crying, and he said his brother always made him play a Federales. And he doesn’t like to be the Federales. And I asked him why. And he said, “Because the Federales always lose.”
I have a few godsons between five and six years old, and the last time I was there, something that really surprised me was that they know all the words to these narcocorridos. And these songs are often really gory; they’re about shooting people and cutting off their heads. Kids between four and seven were singing along to the lyrics. So it’s just a part of everyday life, of the culture in the region, and it’s also a lesson in the extent to which the situation has been naturalized in the perception of these kids.
Analysts estimate that the wholesale earnings from illicit drugs in Mexico could be as high as $40 billion annually. To borrow a popular phrase, is the Mexican drug trafficking industry now too big to fail?
The drug industry is just far too profitable. Not just for the narcos, for the states involved and the capitalist economy in general. And that’s why they haven’t legalized drugs – because it’s far more profitable to keep them illegal. The only thing that would stop this widespread massacre would be to legalize the drugs. But the economy is too big to fail, and that’s why they haven’t.
Former Mexican president Vincente Fox has discussed the option of decriminalization of marijuana to cut the value of the cartel’s product. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has already said the U.S. will not budge in its opposition to legalizing drugs. Does the U.S. hold enough influence to deter Mexico from this option?
They could if they wanted to, but neither the U.S. nor Mexico seems interested in that. The reason they say drugs should be illegal is because they are harmful to communities.
But they’re not as harmful as 50,000 deaths since 2006.
Bio: Shaylih Muehlmann completed her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Toronto in 2008. Her first book, “Where the River Ends: Environmental Conflict and Contested Identities at the End of the Colorado River” is forthcoming with Duke University Press. She is also the 2009 winner of the Public Anthropology Prize awarded by the University of California Press for the manuscript she is currently working on entitled: “When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narcotrafficking in the US-Mexico Borderlands.”