Without a Safety Net: Public Security in the Age of Neoliberal Reforms

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Narcocorridos are the songs that chronicle the deeds of drug runners in Mexico. As such, these songs are often maligned as apologists of crime and promoters of violence. However, to dismiss and prohibit them, as the Mexican government has, is a mistake. Mexico’s exclusionary economic superstructure, not narcocorridos, compels individuals to crime. Narcocorridos’ function within society has become to provide economically disenfranchised citizens with a sense of belonging as cartel leaders fill the void left by the neoliberal reforms that have reduced the ability of the state to provide services to its people.

Narcocorridos express Mexico’s economic reality of severe inequality and poverty[1]. The country did not have much of a safety net during the 20th century, but did have a number of anti-poverty policies in place before 1982, during the first period of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government. Some of the programs run by the government, such as INFONAVIT (National Institute for the Fund of Worker’s Housing), provided valuable resources to low-income families. Other programs, such as the expropriation of PEMEX (Mexican Petroleum) offered an income source that enabled the state to avoid levying taxes from an underground economy that incorporated most low-income families.

This allowed people earning incomes near or below a subsistence level to barely make ends meet. Additional policies, like the ejido system, established communal lands that could not be appropriated and helped to keep capital from accumulating in only a few hands. Since the 1980s, however, most of these policies were reformed or rolled back to more closely align with the neoliberal principles aiming to reduce taxes, regulation, social spending, and governmental intervention in the economy.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2: Daily wages needed to pay for UWL

As shown in Figure 2, increases in per capita income before Miguel de la Madrid’s administration (1982-1988) translated into fewer hours required to cover minimum needs. After implementing neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and early 1990s, the real cost to cover minimum needs increased by 500%. Ever since President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León’s term (1994-2000), someone making minimum wage would need 39 days worth of earnings to pay for the monthly Urban Welfare Line (UWL).

Evidence of the failure of the government to ensure a minimum standard of welfare can be found in the spectacular failure of the Crusade Against Hunger. The current Mexican government’s main program to combat poverty claims to support 4.17 million people through the Alimentary Support Program, but in reality it only provides assistance to 1.15 million Mexicans. Even more damning is that the population the government claims to cover amounts to only 53% of Mexicans who cannot afford to buy enough food even if they spend their whole income on it. Excluding such a wide swath of the population from even subsistence consumption makes it easier to understand how alternative means of making a living can prove attractive. While many Mexican workers prefer “honest poverty,” it is not hard to see the appeal of the narratives of corridos like “El enamorado”, which portrays drug dealers with lifestyles that fulfill their every desire.

Narcocorridos are symptoms of a greater problem, the Drug Wars, which is a manifestation of an even greater problem: income inequality and poverty.  To ask those who are unable to afford basic subsistence to adhere to a set of conditions – lack of access to capital, safety, technical knowledge, and means of production or social welfare programs – that works against them is naïve. Anecdotal evidence points out that often, economic difficulties that arise out of the structural shortcomings of programs, such as Progresa or the National Crusade Against Hunger, lead people to organized crime. Stories, such as those told by scholar Domíngez Ruvalcaba, where parents go to drug lords to acquire medical treatment for their children, cannot be easily measured statistically. And yet, “the economic and political doctrine of neoliberalism sets the scene for the growth of criminal organizations. In effect, the welfare state is absent in the story.”

Several narcocorridos make very clear links between poverty and the drug trade. For example, Los Tucanes de Tijuana sings, “Many criticize my life, because I work against the law. They say I earn dirty money, I don’t deny it. I know it all too well. But money, no matter how dirty, satisfies hunger. Analyze this well: Not even in the movies is poverty a pretty thing” (Cartel de a Kilo). The argument that increasing poverty fuels the drug trade is not surprising, and yet the core of U.S. and Mexican drug control strategy ignores poverty almost completely. This happens because increases in inequality, and therefore poverty, are intrinsic to the reigning economic system. Additionally, since the majority of deaths and suffering are not endured by the elites that design public policy, they have no interest in increasing taxes and social spending to remedy a problem from which they do not fall victim.

Narcocorridos are also powerful because they seize on important nodes of cultural significance. Those who have low purchasing power are still given constant messages that consumption is the only path to self-fulfillment. Narcocorrido music provides its listeners a surrogate satisfaction, by which they vicariously experience the social standing of a drug lord, one of the few credible paths by which someone born poor may satisfy the urge to consume. The path of the drug lord is open to the disenfranchised, while just about any legal pathway to satisfactory consumption is harder to come by. The drug dealer stands in a privileged position to create an alternative social contract. Narcocorridos suggest that the drug dealer’s responsibility is to fix problems unresolved by the state.

Drug cartels attract large constituencies because the state disavows a large part of Mexico’s population. The songs are essentially propaganda, as drug dealers have their own interests at heart, but their labor is, nevertheless, much easier due to the political inadequacy of neoliberal policies. Joining a cartel seems a rational means of survival in the absence of other options. The readily available funds through drug trafficking, and the clear inadequacy of prohibition as a means of reducing recreational drug use, indicates that Mexico needs to change its approach to curb the drug trade and associated violence.

Mexico’s economic and social welfare policy should focus on reducing poverty and inequality, as well as employing smarter ways to deal with drug addiction, such as making drugs free (cheaper) and pure (safer). Without resolving both the demand for drugs and the profits therein, as well as the need for illegal profits as a means of basic survival, there seems to be very little promise of reducing violence. The drug trade is a by-product of the failed war on poverty, and is only one of the first manifestations of the breakdown of civil governance that the neoliberal project has brought about. No amount of military power, nor the banning of narcocorridos, will end the drug trade if the underlying causes are not addressed first.

Appendix A: Tables

Relative to Chart 1 (Gollás, 2003)

President Year Per capita income (in thousands of 1993 pesos) Average work hours to pay for Basic Basket
Ávila Camacho 1946 21 13
Alemán Valdés 1952 25 15
Ruiz Cortines 1958 29 12
López Mateos 1964 35 8
Díaz Ordaz 1970 43 6
Echeverría Álvarez 1976 54 5
López Portillo 1982 65 5
De la Madrid Hurtado 1988 65 9
Salinas de Gortari 1994 67 16
Zedillo Ponce 2000 69 25


Relative to Chart 2 (CONASAMI, 2016)
In Mexican Pesos, currently trading around 18 to a dollar. (05/25/2016)

2000 2006 2012 2016
Urban Welfare Line $1,278.40 $1,739.25 $2,293.77 $2,717.10
Minimum daily wage Zone A $37.90 $48.67 $62.33 $70.10
Daily Wages to pay for Monthly UWL 33.73 35.74 36.80 38.76

In México, poverty is calculated in the following manner: Anyone who has one main social lack (Education, Health, Social Security, Habitational, Basic Services or Nutritional), and has income lower to the line of welfare ($2542.13 pesos a month, or 143.57 dollars a month, as of March 12, 2016). For more information about the state of economic inequality, see Esquivel 2015


Rafael Acosta Morales is an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas. He received his Ph.D. from the Cornell University in 2014. His research interests relate to Political Theory, Latino Studies, Comparative Literature and Mexican Studies. His previous work has appeared in Revista Iberoamericana, Latin American Perspectives, and the Latin American Research Review. His current book project, Druglords, Cowboys and Desperadoes: Matrixes of Violence in the Mexican American Frontier, studies how affective structures represented in stories illustrate the substrata of political behavior.

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