Criminal groups in Mexico and across Latin America have become adept at grooming vulnerable young men as recruits. A new study has sought to understand how exposure to criminality from an early age conditions vulnerable people to view joining a criminal group as the next logical step in their lives.
InSight Crime spoke with Piotr Chomczyński, an associate professor at the University of Lodz in Poland and one of the co-authors of this study, to understand how the everyday experiences of these men prepared them for a life of crime, as opposed to their individual motivations. Some answers were obtained from one of Chomczyński’s “informers” in the community, who asked for anonymity.
InSight Crime: You outlined this idea of “collective trajectory,” in which recruiters focus on an individual’s social circumstances and background to prepare them to enter a drug trafficking group. How would you compare these social considerations with more individual desires, such as seeking wealth or power?
Piotr Chomczyński (PC): I think individual considerations are important, but they are shaped during early socialization in a specific group context. Cultural comparative research has proved that the national cultural context is important enough to facilitate some specific behavior. For example, a group is often more important than the individual in countries seen as “collectivistic,” like some of those in Latin America and Asia. Group affiliation is crucial. Criminal groups only further strengthen the factors of collectivism and conformism. These factors impact youths’ mental preparedness to join a group that offers them a sense of power and respect. Many recruiters went through the same path, coming from similar neighborhoods exposed to long-term crime.
IC: The collective trajectory theory describes a relatively gradual entrance into criminal groups, with individuals prepped from a young age to see joining the group as the next logical step. How do you reconcile this with the increase in forced recruitment in Mexico?
PC: Two types of criminal groups have been distinguished. There is an old school, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, and a new school, like the Zetas or the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). It is a very simplistic division, but we can observe that old-school groups use voluntary recruitment more than the new-school cartels that use more forced recruitment.
The Sinaloa Cartel has a longer history and presence in Mexico. They are rooted more deeply inside the communities because this long-term relationship between families connected to drug dealing stretches back three or four generations. They care more about the community, promoting less violence and more stability within their region. The CJNG and other groups were created under the command of much more violent leaders. Many of these had a military background, which brings a more violent approach to dealing with communities they want to control.
IC: Your study looked at deep-seated questions concerning poverty, crime, and power. How difficult was it to get people in these circumstances to open up to you?
PC: There is a saying in Mexico’s criminal world: ver, oir, y callar (see, hear, and keep quiet). The only way to obtain real information from people still actively involved in criminal activities is to gain their trust. This can only be achieved by years of showing your loyalty, understanding the needs and situations these people are in, and always keeping your promises to them. You must live up to your word, or they will quickly kick you out of their circle of trust.
IC: What statement from a person involved in organized crime surprised you the most during your research into collective trajectory?
PC: “We don’t have many options: a bullet in the head or prison.” I was shocked by how many people from marginalized areas believe they have very few options in their lives. Continued exposure to organized crime over a long time changes the point of view of many people, and they do not actively seek other options. This mentality is very common and passed down through the generations.
IC: Why was the area of Tepito in Mexico City chosen as the focus for much of your research?
PC: Tepito is the largest drug market, not just in Mexico City, but in all of Mexico. Many people from across central Mexico go to Tepito to buy drugs and other illegal items. This makes it the perfect place to carry out this type of study.
Tepito is a microcosm, a lens that reflects phenomena that extend beyond this neighborhood. I began my research in marginalized parts of Mexico City, such as Tepito, Tacubaya, and Iztapalapa, then Chalma in the State of Mexico.
IC: How has the rise in social and economic isolation seen during the pandemic changed how young men are being recruited?
Interviews for this research were carried out between 2015 and 2023. During the pandemic, the American drug market shrank. This led to an increase in violence, the disappearance of independent drug traffickers, changes in the modus operandi of established groups, and a transition from “old school” to “new school” tactics, as outlined above. We also saw social media being used far more intensively for recruitment as well as new ways of drug proliferation, such as using ride-share apps like Uber.
IC: Has the fragmentation of larger cartels into a myriad of smaller groups increased the pressures on recruits? Your latest report gave the example of young people in Tepito joining La Unión Tepito, but such locally entrenched groups are becoming rarer.
PC: Our data shows that the level of inter-group violence increased along with the fragmentation of larger cartels. Those young men being recruited into risky positions, such as soldiers or hitmen, are the victims of these conflicts, not only innocent people. They are seen as cannon fodder and are replaced with newcomers through constant recruitment tactics. Criminal groups are constantly hungry for new personnel in order to keep fighting for plazas (a term used to describe important drug trafficking territories).
IC: A lot of your research has focused on the ways young boys and men are drawn into criminal groups. Has there been any comparison with the ways in which women are recruited?
PC: Women are “recruited” in a different way. Many are recruited forcibly, or they have a different understanding of their involvement. For example, many women serving time in prison are sentenced for involvement in kidnappings, when they were “only” preparing food with little knowledge for whom and for what reason. Many women are also forced to smuggle drugs. Others have intimate relationships with men involved in organized crime or are economically dependent on them with a lack of other options.
IC: You have looked at the disappearance of independent drug dealers and how they have been absorbed into larger groups. Explain this process to us, focusing on how independent drug dealers have been in recent years and why they have found their opportunities diminish.
PC: There are two factors. One is linked with “traditional drugs” being displaced by synthetic drugs. Independent drug dealers operate mainly in their neighborhoods to support their family budget. Very often, they have legal jobs, and drug dealing is a way for them to earn additional money. They sell drugs to their friends and neighbors. They were rooted in their communities and used to have long-term good relations with their clients. Dealers who offer synthetic drugs break that informal agreement, sell highly destructive and addictive narcotics, and often do not maintain long-term relations with clients. They sell to everybody, no matter if they know them or not. They are very often linked to larger groups.
This trend relates to the disappearance of “traditional values,” respect, and somehow, protecting community integration.
The second factor relates to the pandemic. The level of competition between organizations has risen because the market shrank. Nowadays, income is more than “old-fashioned values,” and there are very few independent drug dealers left in marginalized neighborhoods of Mexico City, such as Tepito, Iztapalapa, and Tacubaya.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
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