When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narco-Culture in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands is an ethnography of the drug industry’s asymmetrical distribution of risks and rewards across the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond. Anthropologist Shaylih Muehlmann wrote intending to influence public opinion about drug policy, and she provides a powerful argument against US prohibition policies and the war on drugs. Her ethnography provides further evidence for the argument that drug trafficking organizations are not separate from society. Muehlmann draws upon participant observation and semi-structured interviews to show how licit and illicit economies and activities were intertwined with one another for rural poor border dwellers. Muehlmann’s argument that drug cartels are not separate from society extends to US banks and corporations, which finance and profit from prohibition and the war on drugs. She heavily implicates US policy in creating the conditions of possibility for Mexico’s poor to suffer the brunt of the drug violence. Muehlmann provides an overview of literature to contextualize how United States policy has worked to facilitate the expansion of drug cartels in Mexico through prohibition, neoliberal policies, and the war on drugs.
The primary ethnographic focus of Muehlmann’s book is the people who filled what she calls “the most vulnerable and exploited roles” in the drug economy: those who were addicted to drugs and those who made money smuggling, stashing, and selling small amounts of drugs (p. 5). Muehlmann builds interpretive links between the experiences of a few key characters and shared meanings within a larger social structure to shed light upon what could be considered the moral careers of subjects involved in the drug industry and the affects associated with these changing stages of subjectivity. For example, Muehlmann reminds readers that many people in positions similar to Andres experience shifting emotional states, through the rising prestige and sex appeal associated with his employment as a narco, to his sense of vulnerability in prison, and, finally, to his diminished prestige after getting out of jail and leaving the drug industry.
Muehlmann shows how working for drug trafficking organizations offered one of the few possibilities for upward mobility to people whose prior ways of earning a living were ravaged by neoliberal policies. Trafficking became the best option for some, not only because of the economic incentives but also the cultural meanings attached to drug trafficking. Muehlmann’s analysis also offers important insight into the local gendered meanings attached to work in the drug industry. Boys and men could feel masculine and sexually desirable by aligning themselves with the image of the successful and well-dressed narcotraficante. While men and boys emphasized and often exaggerated their roles in the drug trade, such symbolic resources did not exist for women, who tended to downplay their roles.
Muehlmann argues that the war on drugs is an attack on the rural Mexican poor because those who live on what she calls the drug war’s edges were not only the most seduced by the drug economy’s rewards but also the most vulnerable to its risks. Drawing upon Mary Douglas’s insight that the perception of risk is socially mediated, Muehlmann demonstrates how issues of social debt, obligation, and risk factored into decisions of whether or not to work in the drug trade. For some of the participants in her study, it was riskier not to get involved with narcos. For others, attempts to stop working for narcos were stymied because the drug economy was so deeply embedded into the rest of the economy. These stories support her argument that it is not possible to demarcate what is inside of and what is outside of the drug industry.
Further, Muehlmann shows a side of the drug economy that is rarely explored in the media and academic texts: how it makes women uniquely vulnerable. She tracks the emotional and financial hardships of the mothers, wives, and sisters waiting for men to come back from prison as well as the complex webs of obligation in which they were entangled. For example, when Paz’s son was abused by a prison guard, Paz took on a second job making and selling tamales with the hope that bribing a guard would end her son’s abuse. Paz’s story reflects the creative strategies used by women whose lives were shaped by the structural factors that made it necessary for families, gangs, and cartels to supplement the salaries of prison workers and the care of inmates. While women like Paz made ends meet and fostered social ties while their male kin were in jail, other women sought justice for their children who were disappeared or killed.
The stories Muehlmann tells are compelling enough to attract a wide readership, and Muehlmann’s analysis is beautifully woven into the ethnographic stories. The book would be suitable for classes about the US/Mexico border, US policy, drug economies, risk, and engaged anthropology.
Sarah Luna, University of Houston
Muehlmann, Shaylih. When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narco-Culture in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. University of California Press, 2014.