Recruiters for Mexican criminal groups sway prospective members with promises of social belonging, according to a new study that highlights the omnipresence of criminal groups in the lives of the most susceptible recruits. 

The study, conducted by researchers in the United States, Mexico, and Poland, was based on in-depth interviews with 79 former and current members of criminal groups. The interviewees had held different levels of responsibility, ranging from lookouts and traffickers to hired gunmen and gang bosses.

The study comes at a time when recruitment is of the utmost importance to Mexican criminals, the authors argue. Violence between criminal groups has remained high since the early 2000s and continues to claim lives, prompting groups to replenish lost manpower. 

Below, InSight Crime analyzes the authors’ findings, which provide a comprehensive look at recruits’ motivations when joining Mexican criminal groups. 

Collective Trajectory 

Collective trajectory is a novel framework presented by the authors to help understand recruitment to organized criminal groups. It describes how many prospective members see joining a criminal group as a logical step due to their extensive exposure to criminality in their social surroundings and upbringing. 

Recruits are “mentally prepared” for group membership, according to the framework. Involvement of family members in criminal groups and a desensitization to groups’ presence simplify the path to recruitment. 

Recruiters then take advantage of this mental priming, offering affiliation with a wider social group. In the criminal organization, members often share common experiences and values. 

The authors confirmed this through interviews in Tepito, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous neighborhoods, which has given rise to major criminal groups such as La Unión Tepito. Researchers found that many children had been exposed to organized crime at a young age, easing their transition into criminal organizations when they are older. 

“Many of their families are involved in some criminal activity, the father, the uncle, the cousin,” a social worker told the authors.  

The recruits themselves may already be involved in low-level crime, further facilitating group membership. For those in this situation, formally joining a criminal group may not be seen as a big step. Rather, it is an extension of a lifestyle in which they were already participating. 

SEE ALSO: A Cartel Bodyguard in Mexico’s ‘Hot Land’

But social integration into criminal groups is usually a one-way street.  

“The risk of retribution from the cartel makes [leaving] possible only if a member is willing to undertake complete self-ostracism from intimate groups, which is against the current of collectivism,” the study concludes. 

Dropping out can have disastrous social and physical consequences for former members. InSight Crime has covered the stories of members of groups such as the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), who find trying to leave a group nearly impossible, risking their lives in the process. 

“I would like to change for my kids, but it’s very difficult. We all came in together,” a member of a criminal group told the authors. 

Wealth, Power, and Status

In addition to social forces, individualistic motivations also drive criminal recruitment, the researchers found.  

Recruits are motivated by personal desires for the wealth, power, and status that they associate with group membership. This link has been explained in previous literature, according to the authors. 

In neighborhoods with little other economic opportunity, offers by criminal groups are difficult to turn down. The authors saw this firsthand in Tepito, where individuals see membership of a criminal group as a way to live a lavish lifestyle and hold influence within the community.  

“The kids from Tepito are attracted by all this cash, and they want to work for La Unión Tepito to have the same things,” a Tepito resident told the authors. 

SEE ALSO: Going Door to Door: Mexico City’s Response To Child Recruitment

The problem extends beyond Tepito. Millions of Mexican adolescents experience poverty, according to official statistics. Many of these children become prime targets of criminal groups, who use promises of wealth to draw them to the organization. 

Mexican criminal groups have increasingly used social media to flaunt their lifestyles. Posts that display the trappings of the criminal life — cars, weapons, drugs, and money — likely aid recruitment. Perhaps the best example of this is the Chapitos, the sons of former Sinaloa Cartel leader, Joaquín Guzmán, alias “El Chapo.” They have built a strong brand on TikTok known as “La Chapiza.”

Notions of Masculinity 

As members are mostly male, fulfilling societal notions of masculinity also plays a role in recruits’ decisions to join criminal groups, the authors found. 

Through group membership, males can obtain financial independence and provide for their family.  

The authors provide the example of an interviewee who was an active member of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios), a powerful criminal group in western Mexico. He first got involved in the group at age 14 to earn money for his family as his father’s income was not enough.

The authors’ work builds on prior findings and highlights an aspect of the relationship between masculinity and organized crime that extends beyond the more common focus on how masculinity drives groups’ ultra-violent tendencies towards other groups and women.

Although the authors did not make specific policy recommendations, their work underscores the important role of recruitment in sustaining criminal organizations. It also suggests possibilities for disrupting paths to recruitment by providing alternative models for susceptible recruits to fulfill their desire to help their families, establish social connections, and live up to ideals set by fathers, brothers, and uncles.

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