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Rurality, Drug Trafficking, and Violence: A Model to Assemble

Mexico & Central America

This article is the introduction to Noria’s “Violence Takes Place. Land, Markets and Power in Rural Mexico” ongoing Series.


“ ‘There have always been deaths here,’ Ana told me with detachment. I know that my interest in the region’s history of violence seems unjustified to her. I get the same reaction to my questions about marijuana crops. Last time we talked about it, she said, ‘it’s just like growing corn,’ before changing the subject. My questions sound ridiculous in a context where violence and drug trafficking have been part of everyday life for decades.”   

Field journal, Villa Victoria, Michoacán, June 15th 2017

These pages are an introduction to the relation between drug trafficking, violence and rural life in Mexico. As the epigraph shows, the distinction between licit and illicit crops is porous, just as the association of violence with drug trafficking is not always obvious. For the most part of the 20th century, in rural areas of Michoacán, Nayarit, Guerrero and Sinaloa, everyday conflicts in ranchos and villages often resulted in tragic outcomes. Such conflicts may be related to illegal activities, but they were also about land disputes, clashes between various factions, or vendettas seeking to right “honor offenses.” To quote a schoolmaster from the highlands of Guerrero: “there had always been quarrels over land, women or alcohol” (July 15th, 2019, Atoyac de Álvarez).

In this respect, violence could be linked to drug trafficking, but it was not the only explanation or reason for it. Following that line of thought, the following series of studies aim to contribute to the debate over violence, rural areas and drug trafficking. We know that over the last years, Mexico has been affected by a terrible security crisis ; but we do not know much about the distribution of violence and its local manifestations1. In order to change this state of affairs, our work relies on ethnographical and historical work that shows that in various rural areas of Mexico the rupture between a supposedly “governable” country and one plagued with criminal violence does not make sense.

History and ethnography are key tools to further the debate, which, at present, seems to be dominated by analyses arguing that the causes for violence are easy to identify. We are highly skeptical of any analysis according to which violence can be understood by pointing to its results – characteristically, the control of a plaza or a drug route – that people can obtain solely by resorting to coercion.

Such analyses forget that violence is part of social processes, with a defined timeframe. They dismiss the fact that the motives for acts of violence do not necessarily determine their results, and determine even less the way they are interpreted. Similarly, even if we were to admit that violence is produced by rational individuals who pursue specific interests, we would have to add that said interests are defined by historical and cultural backgrounds that need accounting for.

In various rural areas of Mexico the rupture between a supposedly “governable” country and one plagued with criminal violence does not make sense.

Country people, not “narcos

In order to examine clearly the links between violence, drug trafficking and rural areas, one can start by focusing on the protagonists. That is why throughout this ongoing, collective work we will talk about country people, not “narcos.” Putting this social group at the heart of our analyses allows us to highlight the experiences of the people living in Mexican rural areas.

About 22% of Mexican people live in towns of less than 2500 inhabitants (INEGI, 2010); but beyond technical definitions, we consider rurality as an environment that presents some specific features, like isolation and scattered inhabitants. Rural areas are generally associated with farming, so country people tend to be defined as farmers, but we draw a distinction between the two because many households that are defined as rural have stopped depending on agricultural production.

By using the term country people, we mostly mean to emphasize the position that this group of people has adopted vis à vis capitalism and state power. This is not to say that country people are a homogenous group – without ethnic differences, social classes or ideologies – but we do assume that the people under study have a limited scope of action, and the limits to what they can do, or even wish for, are restricted by processes of political and economic domination.

César Rodriguez – All Rights Reserved

Dispossession and international markets

Perhaps one of the most obvious attributes of country people is that their relationship to the ruling class is one marked by dispossession. As Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson for the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) put it in 1997: “We are here because these governments keep forgetting indigenous peoples’ memory, and because the rich landowners keep robbing peasants of their land, always hiding behind different names” (April 10th 1997). From the 1980s onwards, that process of dispossession materialized in public policy laws prioritizing crops that were competitive on the international market.

This mostly affected small and medium farmers. That is how unequal conditions for competition were established in Mexican rural areas. Sinaloa and Michoacán, for example, became agro-industrial hubs, able to export large volumes of livestock, – such as avocados and tomatoes – while the Guerrero and Nayarit highlands, to name two emblematic areas, turned into exporters of workers. Those workers were often indigenous and were hired as rural proletarians in the agro-industrial centers, or barely getting by on precarious jobs in the United States. It is worth mentioning that migrations had devastating effects on subsistence farming: to this day, most of the Mexican rural landscape is made up of abandoned plots and empty houses.

Drug trafficking must be understood in the light of the relation between rural populations (including indigenous people) and the State.

In the poorest rural areas, the production of illicit crops is virtually the only way to stay in one’s home region. Unlike corn, poppy and marijuana are commercial plants that allow farmers to make a profit in areas where money is scarce. Revenues derived from the commercialization of illicit crops are used for house repairs or for children’s education. In an economic model combining subsistence farming and illicit cultivation, in the best-case scenario, it is possible to make enough money to buy food staples, and to afford other necessities. For those economic sectors, paid work often means illegal work.

As a consequence, drug trafficking must be understood in the light of the relation between rural populations (including indigenous people) and the State. Illicit crop farming has generated a variety of agents, ranging from farmhands and poppy crop overseers to bosses or caciques who bulk-buy the drug production of several ranchos or even entire municipalities (the “acaparadores”, literally “hoarders”). Poor peasants grow illicit crops to survive, but they have trouble increasing their production capacity. When they do get a surplus, they may use the profits to grab wide land extensions and produce more poppy and marijuana, which, in time, can lead to the emergence of what we call “capos de la droga,” or “drug lords”.       

The ascent and establishment of a drug trafficking bourgeoisie has been articulated to territorial control through the use of violence. Having a monopoly on land allows not to pay rent for land use. Moreover, the accumulation of property enables the atomization of farmed land, hiding illicit crops in large fields, which acts as a preventative measure against a possible raid by armed forces. However, it must be said that land grabbing and violence are not specific to drug trafficking : they are part of the establishment of agrarian societies in many areas in Mexico (Cochet, 1991).

Our current areas of work for this project

Sometimes, peasants who dedicate themselves to illicit cultivations manage to build an economic capital which allows them to move on from poppy or marijuana farming to licit goods trading. Such is the case of a criminal organization from the Costa Grande of Guerrero. One family started out controlling the wood production from a ranch in the 1950s, to trafficking poppy and marijuana, and, in the face of the recent depreciation of those crops, has specialized in selling livestock, growing blackberries and avocadoes, packing mangoes and managing sawmills2. In one local peasant’s words: “all of those people who used to walk the streets with their weapons on now […] earn their living working in the fields” (Atoyac de Álvarez, February 16th 2020). In that sense, it is not hard to imagine that part of the country’s agro-industrial production can be linked to the accumulation of capital generated by drug trafficking.

However, the transition from illicit to licit crop growing does not necessarily imply legality. Sometimes, the agro-industrial boom went hand in hand with an increase in violence and the emergence of armed groups protecting the rural bourgeoisie. The people who benefit from processes of capitalistic accumulation establish ways to regulate violence which are often presented as safety measures. For example, since 2014, on the Pacific coast, in municipalities that have a history of marijuana production such as Coahuayana in Michoacán, businessmen producing bananas have funded a self-defense group to protect themselves from racketeering and kidnapping.

The protection has been efficient, but it has not been extended to all the inhabitants of the municipality. For instance, banana harvesters, who are mostly day laborers coming from Guerrero, are not directly covered that protection, although they might benefit indirectly from the reduction of violence (Álvarez, 2020). The situation is very similar in Tancítaro, Michoacán, where the self-defense group is funded by avocado growers according to an understanding of safety that ignores the experiences of laborers and harvesters working in the orchards, as well as workers in Hass avocado packing plants (Román, 2020).   

Agrarian realities at the heart of the debate on violence and drug trafficking

Many of the protagonists of the so-called “drug war” deal with socio-historical factors that must be acknowledged. In rural areas, illicit crop growing is a strategy that helps people cope with extreme precariousness in a country where commercial and export crops were privileged over others. Those practices were not always synonymous with armed violence.

In some cases, farming marijuana or poppy was, indeed, just like farming corn; in other cases, the increase in violence was linked to the emergence of a rural bourgeoisie tied to drug trafficking. This being said, legal farming does not mean the absence of violence, either. As mentioned before, the agro-industrial boom contributed to radicalizing the concentration of wealth and incentivized the regulation of violence in very questionable ways.

To conclude, I want to voice some ideas. Maybe the relation between drug trafficking and violence is not as obvious as it seems. Armed violence happens when the agreements over who rules and who obeys are broken. It is used to establish or renew control over a territory, a people or a crop – and it often doest not really matter if that crop is licit or illicit. But I think it would be a mistake to assume that a lack of explicit violence means there is a consensus over or acceptance of a hierarchy. Authority – for governments, landowners, bosses or criminal leaders – is often grounded in a pact of silence. To quote one of Rulfo’s peasants before he faced a state official: “we don’t say what we think. We lost our desire to talk a long time ago” (1953: 14).

Finally, I admit that something that remains to be done is to analyze the expressive quality of violence. Many of the acts of violence that fill newspaper headlines go beyond instrumental reasons. The way in which people are killed, in which bodies are exhibited, to mention a few of the gestures and languages of violence, would be worthy of systemic analysis. Although such work exceeds the possibilities of this paper, it is important to mention it because it allows us to underline the complexity of violence and the need to reflect on more than its merely utilitarian factors.

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  1. In 2008, “there were 5500 more killings than in 2007” (Escalante, January 1st 2011). Violence did not decrease in following years. ↩︎
  2. Since mid 2016 to this day, the dramatic increase in demand for fentanyl – a powerful synthetic opioid coming from Asia – in the United States has caused a drop in demand for natural opioids, such as the opium gum that is extracted from poppies. (Le Cour Grandmaison et.al., 2019). ↩︎