The Making of a Sicario Class: Youth Mobilisation into the Mexican Drug War

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The research about the Mexican Drug War, launched by the government in 2006 against drug trafficking organisations, has mainly focused on conflict dynamics and external influences. However, the role of everyday participants and their massive-scale mobilisation has yet to be explained. Although there is research on personal experiences and profiles of the young men being recruited by drug trafficking organisations, there has not been research that links those individual stories to wider-scale conflict dynamics. Therefore, this research responds to the question: How did the Mexican Drug Cartels mobilise enough recruits to counter the Mexican Army and other Drug Trafficking Organisations?

To respond to the question, I applied sociological and political economy lenses to the mobilisation dynamics of young men into criminal violence. First, by considering the recruitment process as part of the political economy of the drug war, parallel to the development of the other violent markets: drug prohibition, extortion, and arms smuggling. Second, by situating the drug war military interjections as part of the widescale global war on drugs prohibition regime, fostered by the United States government in Latin America. Third, by conceptualising the military operations as the motivation behind the demand of criminal organisations for violence labour, and the socioeconomic marginalisation of young men in the region as the supply side. In other words, I characterise this as a labour-matching process.

I revised the literature about violence specialists under labour lenses. By finding convergences and divergences in criminology, political science, child soldering studies, terrorism studies, the economics of crime, and biosocial research, I crafted a reconceptualisation of organised violence and protection services as work. In that sense, I consider executing violence and protection with force as part of labour-power relations for criminal organisations, and those recruited as part of an occupation, regardless of the legality of their activities. I produced a structuration model for macrostructural, meso-organisational, and micro-behavioural approaches to recruitment into collective violence to understand how those theories portray occupational choices for Mexican sicarios. I applied the model with a criminal career life course perspective within a mixed method design: a descriptive socioeconomic analysis of the labour market of young men in Mexico; profiling of the homicide inmate population after 2006, when the drug war started; binomial logistic analysis to understand propensities towards violent labour; focus groups with schoolboys in a town with the presence of organised crime; and interviews with juvenile inmates sentenced for homicides. With the information collected, I show the profile of the reserve army of labour of Mexican drug cartels and their recruitment process.

The main findings indicate that the drug war activated a new labour market for young, marginalised men with low schooling rates, a history of family abuse, and work precarity. Criminal organisations took advantage of them as a labour supply by offering them high salaries. They later trapped them into exploitative violent labour with threats and drug addiction-related debt. These young boys were allured by their peers already in drug cartels because of the low prospects of achieving occupational upward social mobility in their communities. Therefore, their decisions were a risky social mobility gamble.
Date of Award1 Dec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSukanya Podder (Supervisor) & Mats Berdal (Supervisor)

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