Researcher studies ‘narco narratives’ in Juárez

One of the stories goes like this: The setting is an upscale restaurant. Patrons are enjoying their dinner when a thuggish group of men bursts in. Brandishing automatic weapons, they demand everyone’s cell phones, purses and wallets. Things do not look good.

But it’s not the potential massacre it seems. Take it easy, the men say. El Chapo merely wishes to have a meal here—just like an ordinary person. Just like you. Go about your business; we will return your personal items when the boss has finished his supper. By the way, the boss has also paid for all of your meals.

There’s an uncertain sigh of relief. Maybe el Chapo, the notorious head of the Sinoloa cartel, is not the ruthless butcher he is reputed to be.

Assistant professor Claudia Holguín Mendoza heard this story time and again when she was conducting ethnographic research in her hometown of Juárez, the Mexican border city infamous for narco violence in the streets. Her recent article is entitled, “Dining with the Devil: Identity Formations in Juárez, Mexico.”

In considering why these stories have gained so much traction and what purpose they serve, Holguín Mendoza first interprets them as anxiety-reducing; maybe the narcos are not as cold-blooded as the press makes them out to be, maybe the citizens of Juárez are not necessarily risking their lives when they conduct the activities of a normal life.

But there are other themes in play here, too, said Holguín Mendoza—particularly related to tensions involving women and longstanding resentments against the privileged.

“For some, the narco becomes a celebrated hero . . . by defying police and governmental authorities, widely known to misuse both state control and capital. It is socially justifiable as a sign of revenge,” Holguín Mendoza said.

Holguín Mendoza said there are also urban legends in Juárez that demonstrate the desire to shame the privileged class and put women in their place.

Juárez is plagued with near-epidemic violence against women. It is estimated that nearly 400 women and girls have been killed in the area since 1993, with most of these crimes unsolved.

The murders have taken place at a time when the economic status of women has changed dramatically in Mexican border towns, as U.S. companies have located manufacturing plants just across the border to take advantage of NAFTA.

The workers in the plants are predominately women, many of whom lived in rural poverty before migrating to the city for work. And many of them, whether they were originally from rural or urban locations, are now the breadwinners in their families. This challenges traditional gender roles in a society previously defined by a macho sensibility.

In another story that Holguín Mendoza encountered, a well-to-do woman who complains about narco violence while at a salon is confronted by a man with a pistol – who promptly orders the stylist to shave the woman’s head.

As with the restaurant story, the hair salon story also minimizes actual danger. “In reality, women in Juárez are not just silenced and left alone if they obey,” said Holguín Mendoza. “They are kidnapped, raped, tortured, mutilated, assassinated and then dumped in the desert outside the ‘civilized world.’”

Holguín Mendoza said the two narratives are commentary on “the impunity system.”

Cartel gangsters can kill each other and everyday citizens on the streets without threat of arrest or other consequences—because the authorities also act with impunity, taking bribes and otherwise enabling a system of corruption. Women can be murdered with impunity for many of the same reasons.

The stories might deflect the grim reality of life in Juárez by suggesting that death-dealing narcos may in fact be merciful—maybe even misunderstood.

But according to Holguín Mendoza, they also point to “deep struggles regarding social hierarchies and structures” that currently define this border city.

- from an article by Lisa Raleigh that originally appeared in Cascade, the alumni magazine of the UO College of Arts and Sciences