A persistent narrative of narco issues south of the border maintains that violence is largely over the struggle to control drug routes leading into the dope-ridden United States, the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs.
Yet, an increasing share of Mexican narco-violence can be attributed to conflicts over domination of the country’s own expanding domestic market. From Tijuana to Tapachula and from Monterrey to Mexico City, the internal market is thriving as sales of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamine all meet a demand that’s soared since the early 1990s.
“Truth be told, the sale and consumption of drugs has never diminished in this city, said Catalina Castillo, director of Ciudad Juárez’s Independent Popular Organization, a civil society organization that works in low-income communities of the Mexican border city. “One of the things that has us on alert is that every day there are more young consumers, especially adolescents, who are taking drugs.”
Today’s retail drug business is ever more sophisticated, with substances designed and delivered by well-organized, top-down enterprises that employ thousands of people, and which assign each individual a specialized role in a specific market zone. In short, it’s the corporatization of street dealing.
A conservative estimate of the value of the market in Juárez alone came up with the sum of $115 million derived annually from the proceeds of 6,000 drug distribution outlets, or “tienditas,” as they are called in popular lingo. Farther to the south, in the state capital of Chihuahua City, the number of small-scale narco-stores is estimated to reach 3,500.
One examination of the geography of drug distribution in Juárez reported that 80 percent of the retail drug outlets are located in less than 20 neighborhoods-La Chavena, El Barreal, Riberas del Bravo and Division del Norte among them. The same neighborhoods have figured high on the zonal list of repeat violent incidents in recent years. A 2012 health department study estimated there were 45,000 drug users in Juárez.
In Mexico, consumer segments include factory workers, housewives, professionals, business people, students, and the unemployed. In the Digital Age, modern communications have greatly facilitated the drug trade. Widely publicized in social media, the youth parties known as raves attract hundreds to events where electronic music, drugs, alcohol, and sex are the ritualistic glue.
In a new twist, local police in Chihuahua City this month raided one such rave where they claimed the organizers were raffling off three underage girls for sex. The bash billed a swimming pool, snacks and security as available for attendees. Municipal police reported confiscating small quantities of marijuana, cocaine and pills.
The northern industrial city of Monterrey is another hot drug market. According to one anonymous Mexican military source quoted in the press, the small narco stores, protected by municipal police or members of street gangs, individually bring in about $3,000 every month. Additional distribution functions are performed by strippers at the large number of table dance joints in the city. Thousands of Monterrey residents are employed as packagers, lookouts, distributors and enforcers. Disguised as electronics or textile firms, small processing plants operate around the clock in shifts of 30 mainly female workers, who package the drugs for sale.
To specify brand-and the cartel-plastic bags for marijuana are variously stamped with images of the plant, a panther head or a naughty boy known as a “chico malo.” The plastic bags are colored differently to distinguish the day of intended distribution and the zone of the city. Unfortunates found selling off-colored bags are subject to beatings or executions. When detected, independent dealers are told to toe the corporate line or be killed. In Monterrey, retail prices for marijuana range from less than $10 to less than $30, while cocaine is sold in small packets for prices cheaper than $30.
Growing business sophistication is likewise evident in Mexico City. Officials in the Mexican capital have long promoted their city as above the violent mayhem that’s shook much of the country in the last several years, but a brisk business in illegal, mind-altering substances buzzes along in the nightclubs of the Roma-Condesa, Polanco and other popular entertainment districts.
Business as usual was partially disrupted by the mass kidnapping and murders of 13 young people from the after-hours Heaven club last May. Reports later attributed the crime to a drug-dealing turf dispute between two groups, including La Union of the Tepito barrio. Interviewed in the aftermath of the kidnapping, some owners of Roma-Condesa nightclubs claimed that groups of armed men were pressuring the clubs to allow drug sales within business premises.
According to the same owners, the retail drug business has greatly changed during the last two years. Previously, interested buyers purchased drugs from valet attendants, waiters, taxi drivers, street vendors, and others outside the clubs. Now, five-person cells linked to a criminal organization work inside the clubs. Each cell includes a marketer, the direct salesperson and lookouts.
In what is likely a very conservative estimate, Carlos Zamudio of the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy calculated that 100,000 Mexico City drug users spend on average $20 each to satisfy their habits every week. Cocaine is cheap in the Federal District, Zamudio said, varying in price from about $10 to $48 per gram, depending on the quality. Overall, Mexico City’s retail drug market brings in approximately $100 million annually, in Zamudio’s estimation.
The explosion of the domestic drug market coincided with sweeping economic changes beginning about 30 years ago. International commerce from globalization and free trade pacts facilitated the flow of precursor chemicals and refined products, while the decline in formal employment and the corresponding boom in informal jobs provided fertile ground for drug distribution. On the streets, the familiar taxi driver, flower seller or hot dog and burrito vendor might well have more for sale than the publicly advertised product at hand.
Sources: Proceso/Apro, September 4, 6 and 10, 2013. Articles by Raul Monge and editorial staff. Nortedigital.mx, July 4 and 6, 2013; August 23, 2013. Articles by Miguel Vargas and Hector Macias. El Diario de Juarez, July 14 and September 9, 2013. Articles by Luz del Carmen Sosa and editorial staff. El Universal, July 2, 2013.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico