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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Drug Issues. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 January 7.
Published in final edited form as:
J Drug Issues. 2007 FALL; 37(4): 893–918.
PMCID: PMC3017422



Research on drug trafficking has not been able to discern the exact nature of illegal drug markets and the relationship between their individual and group participants. This article delineates the role of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American participants involved in the stratified drug market of South Texas. This article synthesizes ethnographic materials drawn from two previous National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) studies in order identify the different types of drug distribution behaviors that occur within the groups, the differentiated roles of individuals, the organizational framework, and most significantly, the processes that link market participants to others outside of the drug market. This illegal behavior can be interpreted as an adaptive mechanism that is a direct response to the marginal economic status imposed by macro socio-economical background factors. As well, we conclude that the specific foreground factors of the opportunities offered by the context, culture, and proximity of the U.S./Mexico border and invitational edges explain this behavior. There are both parallels and particular differences between the South Texas case and the structuring and functioning of informal legal and illegal markets that are characteristic of other economically disadvantaged communities.


Research on drug trafficking has neither been able to discern the exact nature of illegal drug markets nor the relationship between individual and group participants. Previous studies have found the business of the illegal distribution of drugs a complex operation with various levels, each with distinct roles and functions (Adler, 1985; Johnson, Williams, Dei, & Sanabria, 1990; Reuter & Haaga, 1989). The activities of the U.S. drug market are often centered in low-income urban minority communities (Kornblum, 1993; Moore, 1978; Spergel, 1964). Consistent with the general literature on drug markets, the South Texas drug business is comprised of different actors with specific roles. In South Texas, drug trafficking enterprises are distinct in that they involve people of Mexican origin at diverse levels of the market, differentiated by nationality and generational status and operating binationally in the U.S. and Mexico. How many of these persons become involved in this drug market through the invitational edge process is discussed.

This article delineates the role of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American participants involved in the drug market of South Texas. This study’s primary focus is on discerning the different types of drug distribution behaviors that occur within these groups, the differentiated roles of individuals, the organizational framework, and the relationship to others outside the drug market. More specifically, we examine how this drug market is influenced by the immigration process. We conclude that this illegal behavior can be interpreted as an adaptive mechanism that is a direct response to the marginal economic status imposed by macro socio-economical background factors. This market is influenced as well by the foreground factors related to opportunities offered by the proximity of the U.S./Mexico border, which have been the critical emphasis of “post-modern” criminology (Milovanovic, 1996, 2002). Foreground factors identify the more particular short-term conditions, situations and contexts that interact with background factors to bring about specific behaviors. In this sense, there is a parallel between the South Texas case and the structuring and functioning of informal legal and illegal markets that are characteristic of economically disadvantaged communities. However, adding to the complexity of South Texas is a unique process of rapid social and economic change brought about by large-scale international policy initiatives such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Department of Homeland Security.1 This process has contributed to the militarization of South Texas, a region characterized by economic disparity and persistent poverty (Oehmke & Sanchez-Bane, 1999).


The proximity of Mexico has made heroin as well as other illegal substances more accessible to users in South Texas compared to other regions of the country (Bucardo et al., 2005). For almost two decades, the U.S. government has designated the Southwest border as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). These areas are considered major staging areas for binational narcotic drug trafficking operations entering the United States. These conditions result in Mexican Americans and others living near the U.S./Mexico border having more direct access to marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine sources compared to those in other regions. More importantly, Mexican Americans have an advantage compared to others in that they share a common language and ethnic background with drug wholesalers in Mexico’s interior and border regions.

The relationship between Mexican Americans and Mexicans has been augmented by a distinct immigration history that extends to the present day. As opposed to immigration from other parts of the world, especially Europe, Mexican immigration has been continuous with only slight interruptions during economically and politically contentious periods (i.e., the Great Depression, World War II). In contrast, most European immigration into the U.S. ended with federal legislation in 1917 that imposed restrictive quotas on Eastern European countries. However, this legislation did not restrict immigration from Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Between 1917 and 1920, there were over 73,000 Mexican temporary workers and 100,000 permanent Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. Most of these early immigrants settled in established Mexican communities in large cities in the Southwest like East Los Angeles, San Antonio’s Westside, and Houston’s Second Ward.

The settlement process of European immigrants was distinct from that of Mexicans in that after the first generation these immigrants tended to move away from their initial urban ethnic enclaves (i.e.. Little Italy, Polishtown, etc.). As a result, the European ethnic communities gradually disappeared because of the absence of new immigrants from these countries to replace those that moved away from these initial settlement areas (Ward, 1975; Yancy, Ericksen, & Juliani, 1976). In contrast, the growth of Mexican urban enclaves intensified over the decades as a result of the characteristic pattern of continuous migration from Mexico (Massey, Durand, & Malone, 2002). More recently, other Latino groups have had similar experiences (i.e., Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans, etc.) in cities on the east coast such as New York and Boston. This urban concentration of Mexicans (and other Latino groups) occurred despite the outflow of socially mobile Mexican Americans to areas outside the traditional enclave (De Leon, 1989; Valdez, 1986). Today, there are approximately 40.5 million Hispanics (three fourths of Mexican descent) in the U.S., with 12 million of these being undocumented.

The settlement patterns of these Mexican immigrants are highly pertinent to the development of the illegal drug markets and other informal underground economic activities. Most of these Mexican immigrants established residency in economically marginal Mexican American enclaves in larger cities (and to a lesser extent in small towns and rural areas). These neighborhoods were characterized by poverty, inadequate housing, inferior infrastructure (water, sewers, electricity, etc), and limited public services (schools, police, clinics, hospitals). In these impoverished neighborhoods there were high rates of crime, delinquent behavior, and gang activity (Garcia, 1991; Vigil, 1988). Moreover, many of these Mexican enclaves were situated in close proximity to the city’s vice districts where prostitution, gambling, and illegal alcohol and drug consumption were tolerated by public authorities (Bowser, 2003; Maddux & Desmond, 1981). These “ethnic vice districts” have historically provided a niche for immigrants in both legal and illegal economic activities that otherwise would not have a chance of developing (Light, 1977). In a similar fashion, throughout the last decades of the 20th century, exposure to these activities has led to the participation of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans in criminal activities including involvement in drug markets.


Drug markets are complex and hierarchical organizations with different leadership roles and supportive functions performed by its many participants. In the hierarchy of the New York heroin market, for example, Preble and Casey (1969) and Moore (1977) identified six different levels of inner city heroin distributors such as kilo dealers, house connections, street sellers, and jugglers. Johnson et al. (1990), building upon the seminal work of Preble and Casey, present one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the drug distribution business by identifying the following hierarchical levels: producers, traffickers, dealers, sellers, and low-level distributors. In their working model, the major functions accomplished at each level and the common names of persons operating at each level are also provided. Adler’s (1985) models of the hierarchy of commercial marijuana and cocaine dealers in Southwest County (San Diego) are similarly structured by the volume of drugs (marijuana and cocaine) sold and bought at each level.

A common characteristic of these models is that markets tend to be highly competitive and open where individuals and groups trade freely. This was especially the case as one proceeded down the hierarchy to the neighborhood level (Hagedorn, 1994). This market characteristic changed, at least temporarily, with the explosion of crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s when the social hierarchy of drug dealing changed primarily to vertically integrated dealing organizations comprised primarily of minorities (Johnson et al., 1990). The New York drug market continues to change as documented by recent research identifying a bifurcation of the market into commercial and designer marijuana sectors (Sifaneck, Ream, Johnson, & Dunlap, 2007). These sectors involve differences in ethnic composition, geographic location in the city, and quality of the drug. In short, drug markets are complex and dynamic social organizations that are sensitive to ever-changing conditions.

Early studies of these hierarchically organized drug markets and their business practices have recognized their many similarities with legitimate markets and business roles (Moore, 1977; Schelling, 1967). In the Johnson et al. (1990) model, the approximate role equivalents in the legal markets are added at each of the drug market levels. Both legitimate and illegitimate markets are organized for the provision of goods and services for which there is a clear economic demand (Merton, 1958). Nevertheless, important differences exist between legitimate and illegitimate markets in the way they are regulated. The moral intention of regulatory statutes, the loyalties of those applying the statutes, and the manner of application have been found to constitute an “invitational edge” to the corruption of the regulators of illegal markets (Manning & Redlinger, 1977). This is particularly the case among police field agents enforcing drug laws. Police corruption has been found to be pervasive, not bound by rank, and influenced by numerous foreground factors intrinsic to police work, including how this work is organized, the organizational culture of the police department, and the political and work environments (Newburn & Webb, 1999). However, other regulators of legal markets (e.g., building inspectors, licensing agents) may also be “invited” to corruption but to a lesser degree given legitimate access and influence to governing authorities by market participants.

The original theory of the invitational edge to corruption as focused on market regulation has a wider application than formal social control. The theory suggests that the line between legitimate and illegitimate drug markets is fluid and varies with the morality, loyalties, and manners of all market participants as well as the wider political and social context. For example, as has been documented in historical studies of piracy, legitimately employed sailors moved opportunistically back and forth between legal and illegal market lines as it suited them (Cordingly, 1995; Snelders, 2004). This “drift” from legitimate to deviant behavior has been formalized in criminological theory to account for the theoretical limitations of social control (Matza, 1990). The loosening from the bonds of social institutions such as the family and the law does not deterministically lead to criminal behavior. The “will” to become involved in the drug business is preconditioned by social context. In a supportive environment, a person can experience a conflict between the bonds of legal order and the informal norms of society. A person can drift into drug market activities, especially within the context of rapid social change and if there is a sense of injustice and desperation in the efficacy of controlling one’s life situation (Boehnke & Bergs-Winkels, 2002; Hagan, 1991; Hagan, Merkens, & Boehnke, 1995).

However, we argue against any simple conception of this drift theory, postulating that along with a thin demarcation line between the legal and illegal markets engendered by an inconsistent legal and normative environment, there can be a relatively thick invitational edge to corruption. This situation involves a particular foreground factor of “edgework” that negotiates numerous temptations (Lyng, 1990; Lyng, 2004; Milovanovic, 1996). We hypothesize that the theory of the invitational edge to corruption (i.e., the involvement in the drug business by noncriminals for personal gain) and its concurrent edgework is not limited to the agents of formal social control, but also extends to the persons engaged in the formal and informal economy and its informal normative order. These individuals and groups are frequently offered temptations to obtain profit by willfully taking the risk of including illegal drug market operations in the course of their legal business and social activities. In this context, Mexican immigrants can have an important latent function in working the edge of the legal markets and those of the illegal drug market. Such a conception suggests that not only the processes linking the levels of hierarchy in markets are critical, but also the nature of the connection between the legal and illegal markets themselves, of which immigrants play a key role.

Moreover, a major concern with drug market research is that most tends to be regional studies conducted in single urban areas like New York, San Diego, and Milwaukee. This limits application to other regions of the U.S. that may be socially distinct. This limitation is problematic because it excludes how issues such as levels of economic disparity, ethnic composition, opportunity structures, institutional completeness, geographic characteristics, and political factors may influence the drug markets. Moreover, research fails to take into consideration how the informal economy may lend itself to the business of drug dealing (see Hagedorn, 1998). In particular, previous discussions of the drug market have tended to exclude or not focus on the role of immigrants and the immigration process. We hypothesize that immigrants, particularly given their growing social demographic presence in the U.S., play an increasingly important role in drug markets.

In response to these analytical limitations, this article will present an analysis of a drug market hierarchy based on the situation and circumstances embedded in the conditions in South Texas. This has led us to change the emphasis. For example, the analytical category of approximate role equivalents in the New York model was key, and it defined roles in legal markets that were similar to those in illegal markets. In our analytical approach, however, we found that this category is not critical for understanding the involvement in the drug market hierarchy in South Texas. More importantly, the analysis will focus on the invitational edge to corruption and the role of Mexican immigrants at all levels of the drug market in this U.S./Mexico border context. Finally, our analysis will also clarify a number of complex processes that link the hierarchy into a coherent system that influences the interactions of the diverse roles that are acted out in these drug markets.


This research evolved from data collected from two NIDA funded research projects conducted in the U.S./Mexico border region. The first was a study of gang violence among Mexican American gangs in South Texas. The focus of the study was to identify and distinguish the relationship between gang violence and drug use among male gangs. The second focused on determining the risks of transitioning to injecting heroin and of acquiring HIV among Mexican American noninjecting heroin users (NIUs). The purpose of the study was to better understand the specific drug risk practices that NIUs engaged in and the influence of the drug market and social context on their drug and other risk behaviors. Both studies implemented a multi-methods design. The first gang study conducted cross-sectional life history/intensive interviews with 160 male gang members. The second study’s data collection consisted of a baseline questionnaire and two follow-up interviews every six months among 300 noninjecting heroin users who were 16 years and older and who were not in drug treatment. The subjects were all persons of Mexican descent in these studies.

In both studies extensive qualitative data were collected through ethnographic interviews and field observations. Outreach fieldworkers under the supervision of the authors conducted extensive fieldwork in the targeted community. This fieldwork resulted in the identification and observation of sites that were mapped based on spatial (neighborhoods) and temporal (time of day, day of the week) characteristics. In-depth, multiple ethnographic interviews were conducted with 20 subjects in the NIU study. Finally, field notes were collected by the outreach field workers based on their observations in the community while recruiting the targeted baseline sample. The ethnographic interviews were recorded and transcribed. As these studies progressed, we began to instruct the field staff to conduct more interviews on drug markets. All ethnographic interviews and field notes from both studies were combined into an electronic qualitative database and became the data for this article. The field note data were analyzed using grounded theory methodological procedures (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The field notes were selectively coded for categories drawn from earlier models of drug markets, presence of immigrants, and instances of invitational edges between the legal and illegal economies in South Texas. Analytical seminars were held with the fieldworkers in order to assess, elaborate, and expand upon the emerging theoretical modifications of the initial coding scheme and to theoretically sample for new field note data.



The analysis confirmed our hypothesis that South Texas drug markets (heroin, cocaine, and marijuana) have a hierarchical structure distinct from drug markets described in other regions of the U.S. One of these distinguishing characteristics is a hierarchical structure that incorporates a large concentration of U.S.-born Mexicans (Mexican Americans) and Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. The relationship between these two distinct groups in the drug market is strengthened by the geographic proximity of the U.S./Mexico border and the volume and fluidity of transnational trade and commuters, both legal and illegal (Figliozzi, Harrison, & McCray, 2001). This strong dominance of Mexican-origin persons in the U.S. drug markets dates back to as early as the late 1930s and 1940s (Maddux & Desmond, 1984; Redlinger & Michel, 1970). Other regional and local U.S. drug markets are likely to involve immigrants, but they do not have the persistence and historical continuity of Mexican immigrants in strategic market roles as we have found in this South Texas region.

Another distinguishing feature of the South Texas drug markets is the presence of a “thick” invitational edge between participants in the legal market and illegal drug markets. This feature not only increases the likelihood of corruption, but also has entrenched a comparatively greater tolerance of criminal activities than in other communities. According to one source, this border region has 24 points of entry with few untainted by allegations of drug-related graft (Dettmer, 2003). Within this social context, the intense interaction on the edge between legal and illegal roles in South Texas facilitates a moral ambiguity and distinct normative order that permeates the region. For instance, officials investigated by the FBI and convicted increased from 79 in 1997 to 157 in 1998 (Taylor & Sandoval, 1999). In Hidalgo County, which is adjacent to the U.S./Mexico border, a county judge, two commissioners, and five other officials were indicted for kickbacks, money laundering, and tax evasion (Pinkerton, 1995). In Donna, Texas (Star County), the former police chief was convicted by a federal court for aiding drug trafficking, conspiracy, and extortion (Castillo, 2003). During the past 11 years, there have been five Texas border sheriffs convicted for abusing their offices (Balli, 2006). Moreover, a recent U.S. federal report indicated that protection networks based on corruption are a long-time sustained tactic on the U.S./Mexico border (Miro, 2003).

The corruption that characterizes the edge between the markets also involves actors other than just law enforcement personnel, as has been described in other regions of the U.S. We found in South Texas the participation of small and large business owners, civil service workers, government employees (at all branches), retirees, students, and many other individuals on the edge between the two markets. A common refrain from persons familiar with drug trafficking practices (marijuana and cocaine) was that successfully getting past roadblocks and checkpoints (on both sides of the border) depended on using persons such as the elderly, families with children, and known frequent crossers. For instance, one informant described how they were able to get several hundred kilos of cocaine past the second U.S. Customs check point (approximately 30 miles from the border) by using a small town municipal worker familiar to customs officials. Since this person had to pass the check point several times a day in the course of his daily work routine, he was just routinely waved through the checkpoint without any suspicion. The municipal worker was able earn more than half of his yearly income through this one illegal act.


Johnson and colleagues have constructed a useful hierarchical model of roles and functions to make sense of the complexity of the New York drug distribution markets (Johnson et al., 1990). Based on the findings from our ethnographic analysis of South Texas’ drug market, we modified and revised the New York models in several ways. In our model the invitational edge category of roles are a mixture of legal and illegal drug market activities in routine business and regulatory practices. As Table 1 indicates, these mixed “roles” are found at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, at the level of traffickers and transporters, the invitational edge role of craftsman is found. Craftsmen consist of carpenters and mechanics that conduct legitimate business activities, but also take on occasional jobs to build concealment locations for drugs in smuggling and transport vehicles. Without the willing participation of craftsmen in a consistent and reliable way, the effectiveness of drug trafficking in South Texas would be significantly reduced.

Market Roles and Functions Within the Drug Distribution Hierarchy in South Texas

Another main modification of the New York models resulting from our analysis is the addition of an analytical category, immigrant roles. As presented in our model, Mexican immigrants participate at all levels of the drug market hierarchy. These immigrants may be documented or undocumented with long- as well as short-term periods of residence in South Texas. Their immigration status provides both groups unique opportunities for participation in drug market activities. For example, undocumented Mexicans generally find their niche in the more clandestine roles in drug markets as they do in the informal underground border economy. Individuals with this immigration status are often involved as small time smugglers or coyotes (Martinez, 2001; Urrea, 2004). They often are part of larger organizations that recruit Mexicans from the interior of the country, transport them to the border, clandestinely cross them into the U.S. and arrange for transportation to interior cities. These coyotes are known to smuggle small amounts of drugs along with those attempting to illegally enter the U.S. These crossings often occur away from major cities along remote rural routes used to avoid detection by the border patrol and other officials.

On the other hand, documented (legal resident) immigrants have the advantage of being able to operate more openly and take advantage of the mobility that their legal status offers them in the U.S. For those more business-oriented immigrants, they often apply their knowledge of both societies in binationally based legal and illegal enterprises. These advantages generate numerous opportunities and resources to participate at the higher levels of the drug market. For instance, many legal Mexican immigrant businessmen along the U.S./Mexico border are involved as import/export brokers of products such as fresh produce, apparel, electronics, auto parts, and others associated with the maquiladora industry.2 Many of these products are stored in warehouses and shipped back and forth across the border in railroad cars and long-haul trucks. In these vehicles, large quantities of illegal drugs can be easily concealed and smuggled. Mexican nationals living on the Mexican side of the border have a special legal status that allows them limited access to the U.S. This allows Mexican residents to shop, visit, and conduct business in the U.S. in a 15 mile zone along the U.S./Mexico border and thereby increases their opportunities to participate in illegal drug market roles.

Along with these structural modifications, Table 1 also includes a number of distinct roles frequently observed in the South Texas drug market. At all levels of the South Texas drug market (with the exception of the producers), we found notably more internal structural differentiation than was reported in other drug markets. For example, smuggling, transportation, and redistribution of large quantities of substances and related roles (i.e., money launderer, investor, etc.) were subsumed under the category of trafficker in one of the New York models. However, in South Texas, large scale independent transporters and smugglers and mules that traffic in smaller amounts are also subsumed under this more differentiated traffickers and transporters level. This level also includes a range of legal professions that have invitational edge roles in the drug market (e.g., import/exporters, truck drivers, craftsmen, car dealers). Given their transitory affiliation with the traffickers and transporters, we interpret these edge roles as secondary (nonprofessional criminals), yet constituting an essential component of the market. Table 1 also provides the distinctive and pervasive roles carried out by immigrants at this level.

Another structural characteristic found in South Texas drug markets is that the distribution of illegal drugs throughout the hierarchy is often done on a consignment basis or fronted. In the argot of the drug culture, fronting drugs is a process where a form of credit or consignment is given to sellers who agree to pay for the drugs within a given period of time. Although this was found in other drug markets, we argue that fronting is more pervasive here in South Texas (Reuter & Haaga, 1989). Although fronting is common at the lower street levels of most drug markets, it is a common business practice at all levels of the South Texas drug market hierarchy. Participants will front smaller quantities of drugs to larger numbers of distributors and sellers as the drugs move down the levels of the hierarchy. In this type of system, the millions of dollars in cash associated with drug markets are actually generated by the street level consumers buying drugs for their personal use. This market system may emerge in South Texas as opposed to other regions of the U.S. because participants share a common ethnic background and a close physical proximity, and they interact frequently in a drug market with limited vertical integration. These factors generate a robust connectivity and more social cohesion and trust among market participants than has been found in other regions of the U.S.


At all levels of the hierarchy in the South Texas market there is a mixing of professional, criminal, and immigrant roles engendered by the key process of the invitational edge. These roles were found to be highly fluid and diverse and change depending on the context, activity, and demands involved within and across the levels of the drug market hierarchy. The association between these roles can be best understood in reference to the complex invitational edge process in which people in direct personal relationships, such as friendships, prison acquaintances, kinship relations, and more secondary ties like those in business, politics, and law enforcement seduce and recruit each other. The temptation of taking a risk to make extraordinary profit presents itself time and again (Friedman, Curtis, Neaigus, Jose, & Des Jarlais, 1999; Moore, 1994; Neaigus et al., 1994).

Our ethnographic data indicates how the multiplicity of roles embedded in this process is apparently universal to all levels of drug business operations in South Texas. The following field note describes how in a federal prison a Mexican American drug dealer and prison gang member developed a personal relationship with a Colombian cartel member. This prison relationship led to the smuggling of large quantities of cocaine with the assistance of Mexican elected officials and the army, a clear example of how the invitational edge functions. A project fieldworker provided the following field note:

After being released, these two individuals met to discuss possible future drug dealings. The Colombian first wanted Juan to have two guys killed that had burnt his business partner for a lot of money. Juan ended up having the two killed in another state. This proved that Juan and his guys could be trusted. Juan then introduced the Colombians to a Mexican immigrant living in the Valley (Rio Grande Valley) who had been a federal police officer in Mexico and part of his group.

The ex-federal Mexican agent, who was living in the U.S. as an immigrant, had extensive contacts in the Mexican government and the army. He subsequently met with the first Colombian’s uncle who along with his brother led a drug cartel. They needed assistance in transporting their drugs into Mexico and the U.S. The uncle and ex-federal officer arranged for 3,500 kilos of cocaine to be transported to a makeshift landing strip in a remote mountainous area of Mexico. According to the informant, “The landing strip was being guarded by a perimeter of Mexican soldiers under the order of a high ranking Mexican officer and the governor of that state.” These two officials allegedly received $750,000 in cash to ensure the safe landing of the cocaine from Colombia, an example of the rewards available from engaging in drug market edgework. Under the direction of the Mexican immigrant and a Mexican American prison gang, the cocaine was then transported to the border in hidden compartments of long-haul trailers carrying livestock owned by a prominent company in Mexico. Along the route to their destination, numerous U.S. and Mexican customs and border patrol officials were bribed by the representatives of this gang.

We found that immigrants often function as middlemen for Mexican American traffickers who have buyers in South Texas and other parts of the country, but lack access to primary sources in Mexico. The following scenario provides an example:

After years of working and living in the U.S., a Mexican immigrant met a Mexican American and discussed the possibility of smuggling marijuana into the U.S. This Mexican immigrant was legal. The Mexican had relatives in Mexico that were growers and smugglers. The Mexican American tells him that he has a Black friend who has connections on the East Coast that would buy weed (marijuana) in large quantities. The immigrant makes arrangements with his Mexican relative to transport a ton of marijuana to the South Texas area via an 18-wheeler. The Black guy arranges with his contact on the East Coast to pick up the weed in South Texas. He picks it up in a mobile home, which he drives back where the weed is distributed in the Baltimore area.

The involvement of this Mexican immigrant in the South Texas drug market was facilitated by his continual contacts with relatives and acquaintances in Mexico. In a sense, the invitational edge was significantly thickened by changes in the federal legal structure since his Mexican network of contacts was made possible by the legal status offered to him and millions of other undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).3 As a result of the IRCA, family and other social ties, as well as the exchange of information relevant to the drug market, can be sustained. A circular migration pattern in which immigrants are mobile and continually moving between their home and host country has become the norm. What is described in the field note is how this transnational migration pattern can facilitate a distinctive process of international criminal drug smuggling activities in South Texas.

Immigrants also are significant in linking traffickers and transporters to the lower levels of the hierarchy. The following case illustrates the role of Carlos, a legal Mexican immigrant from Nuevo Laredo living in South Texas and running a used tire shop in an inner-city Mexican American neighborhood. Nuevo Laredo is located along the Texas/Mexico border directly across from Laredo, Texas and is recognized as a major conduit for illegal drugs from Mexico into the U.S. The field notes reveal more about this individual:

Carlos moved to a city in South Texas with his wife and two children from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Through his tire shop he met some Chicanos (Mexican Americans) that were small time drug dealers and sellers. Using his contacts in Nuevo Laredo, he began to smuggle marijuana. He started by bringing between 10 and 25 pounds inside a spare tire in the trunk of his station wagon from Nuevo Laredo.

To defer suspicion, Carlos reported, “I would take my wife and two young children whenever I used my SUV to pass the illegal drugs through U.S. Customs.” Once arriving in the city, he said, “I would break down the marijuana into much smaller quantities that I would front to Chicano sellers in my neighborhood.”

Carlos continued to engage in this activity for at least six years until being arrested by U.S. federal authorities for crossing the border. According to a respondent who knew Carlos:

They gave him a five-year sentence and he got out after 2 ½ years. They told him that he could not come back to the United States for 10 years. So, he moved back to Nuevo Laredo. They’re lots of immigrants like him in South Texas who set up little businesses and have drug connections in Mexico, then after a while get into the drug selling business with other dealers.

Throughout the years of conducting fieldwork in South Texas, we became familiar with how the invitational edge became embedded into the everyday life of many immigrants in the barrios. We documented many other cases of Mexican immigrants who used their small businesses such as used auto dealerships, junk yards, bars and clubs, restaurants, and convenience stores as both drug distribution outlets and fronts to launder money from their drug activities.

Like Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans were present at all levels of the South Texas drug markets. However, their participation is most prominent at the lower street levels in urban disadvantaged neighborhoods. The following field note describes how proximity and opportunity condition the complex process that links dealing roles. This case description focuses upon Frank, a second generation Mexican American who grew up in an urban South Texas public housing project. He is described in a field note in the following manner:

He’s a Chicano who grew up in a tough barrio. He was a guy with enough drug connections and trust that allowed him to score (buy) up to a kilo of cocaine from the larger dealers. He paid about $12,000 to $15,000 a kilo. He then broke it down into 36 ounces for his retail sale. These were bagged and sold to smaller dealers. Frank would sell them by the ounce from $600–$800.

According to various reports from the field, the special trust Frank had was based on his sustained links to his old neighborhood and keeping up the appearance of having a regular job and family. The respondent stated: “Frank fronted ounces to neighborhood sellers and dealers, expecting to get paid in a few days or a week”. The respondent went on to say,

The persons he fronted to would break the ounces into grams, a sixteenth, or maybe an eight-ball (3 ½ grams of coke). They would distribute these quantities to low level sellers and distributors who would usually sell on a cash basis $10 or $20 bags to neighborhood users.

Most of the customers for these small quantities of cocaine were young Mexican Americans from the area’s poorest neighborhoods. This case provides an account of the way in which the invitational edge process is intermingled with the complex internal drug market processes at the lowest levels of the model: low-level sellers and distributors, sellers and distributors, and dealers and distributors in the South Texas drug market. Consumers of these drugs, as well as most drug market participants at these levels, are living in socially isolated and disadvantaged urban communities. This relative social isolation contributes to a further thickening of the invitational edge. The familiarity and intensity of the daily interaction among participants at this level breeds a trust in each other that counteracts the increased level of risk involved in drug market roles. This is exemplified by the case of Richard, an 18 year old who was born and raised in the Roosevelt courts (public housing). Richard was a daily user of heroin. But, because he was well known in the courts, the invitational edge of the drug market moved into the foreground of his life. The respondent telling the story of Richard begins: “He was fronted an ochenta ($50 worth of heroin) by Chuy, an old friend and member of a street drug dealing gang.” The respondent goes on to relate what happened to Richard:

Chuy knew that Richard was injecting so he would not front him more than he could cover himself He knew the punishment for nonpayment. Richard would sell dimes and tens to other kids in the courts. About 16 to 18 dime ($10) papers can be made out of an ochenta ($80). With this he made enough bucks to cover his costs and enough for his daily injections. This went on for a while until Richard’s addiction got the best of him and he decided not to pay. Chuy’s gang then had him killed.

This case illustrates how persons can drift into the drug market if they are also willing to take the invitation and embody the risk. However, the intense familiarity at this low level of the market hierarchy can also lead to highly volatile situations if the normative order is not adhered to, especially in the absence of formal social control mechanisms.


Our analysis delineates how the invitational edge processes interact with the geographical factors of the U.S./Mexico border, such as persistent immigration, to influence the South Texas drug market. Despite more recent economic transformations, this U.S./Mexico border region continues to have a scarcity of institutional resources and economic development. The largely Mexican-origin populations living in this region have continued to experience exceedingly high levels of poverty and inequality. These characteristics have created the need for alternative economic strategies tacitly accepted by the community. This condition translates into relatively high numbers of persons from these communities that are involved in some form of informal or illicit economic activities centered upon the international border including smuggling and dealing drugs (Martinez, 1994; Ward, 1999). These alternative economic strategies create an environment of comparatively greater tolerance of criminal activity, illicit business practices, and political corruption than is documented in other regions of the U.S. Such tolerance, plus the presence of strongly influential marginalized groups and their social contacts, is reinforced by the region’s social and geographic isolation.

The findings of our ethnographic analysis describe the diverse and mixed roles immigrants have in the hierarchal structure of the South Texas drug market. Mexican immigrants settle in poor Mexican American barrio enclaves in South Texas cities and small towns. In these social environments, they find themselves anonymously blending into the everyday life of these communities and are exposed to criminogenic structural conditions by Mexican Americans, including a viable drug market. Drug markets present illegitimate opportunities for all immigrants including both poor and undocumented and more established legal immigrants such as small businessmen. These opportunities are reinforced by the U.S./Mexico border context, which is a primary staging area for trafficking of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

These findings also show how the interactions of Mexican immigrants with Mexican American family based street youth and adult prison gang networks have a moderating influence on the unique character of this regional drug market. The socially symbiotic relationship among immigrants and these groups had been latent in our prior analyses of drug-related issues among this population (Valdez & Sifaneck, 2004). However, in the present analysis we see that in these markets, Mexican immigrants function as middlemen to primary drug resources, such as growers and distributors in Mexico. They also provide direct specialized services based on their social and cultural assets, such as language proficiency and connections to Mexico. Mexican Americans have roles throughout the drug market hierarchy but tend to dominate the lowest levels, especially as street sellers and distributors. Together the interaction of these groups within this context explains the underlying difference of South Texas drug markets from other regional U.S. drug markets.

The Mexican immigrant’s persistent role in these drug markets is sustained by a continual and circular immigration pattern. This is distinct from earlier waves of immigrants in the U.S., such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews, whose participation in criminality tended to dissipate after the first and second generation (Bell, 1960; Block & Chambliss, 1981). More importantly, Mexicans maintain close social ties to Mexico through this distinctive immigration process that sustains and nurtures international relationships and contacts. Other immigration researchers have identified the social, economic, and political consequences of this transnational immigration process such as Smith’s (2006) study of Mexican immigrants in New York City. In that study, the transnational system of the immigration process resulted in a change in the Mexican political system of the municipio (city) from where they emigrated. In our study, we find that a consequence of this immigration process influences the structure of the South Texas drug market.

Overall, the drug market as presented here is highly decentralized and diverse with a wide spectrum of individual entrepreneurs operating independently. This market exists despite the emergence during the last two decades of large Mexican based drug cartels. Moreover, our model of the drug market reflects that the thick edge of corruption that defines the boundary between legal and illegal markets in South Texas involves a larger variety of occupations than are found in other U.S. regional markets. Legal occupations involved with transporting these drugs such as truck drivers, export-importers, and used car dealers were found to be routinely participating in South Texas drug markets. Given the frequency of arrests and indictments of government officials and law enforcement, corruption in South Texas seems more common and socially acceptable than in other parts of the state and country. The large demographic presence of Mexicans and the close proximity of Mexico to South Texas creates the conditions that increase involvement in these drug markets.

Given these findings, we argue that the immigrant’s participation in these South Texas drug markets and related crimes can be interpreted as a rational response to highly lucrative opportunities. This may be best understood by the synthesis of postmodern criminological (i.e., invitational edge) theories and the differential opportunity theoretical framework that explains how these types of behaviors are highly influenced by this group’s relationship to both the legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structure (Akers, 1997; Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). We recognize that these findings are distinct from more current research on immigrants, which has found that crime actually decreased in U.S. cities with large Mexican immigrant populations (Martinez, 2002; Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush, 2006). Proportionately higher rates of participation in criminal activities for South Texas immigrants may be a result of the particular context and culture of this U.S./Mexico border region. Paradoxically, however, the very fact that greater numbers of relatively less violent individuals are participating in the drug market makes it likely that drug market specific violence is actually diluted. This may be one of the unexpected effects of an exaggerated invitational edge.

Lastly, apart from the differences in South Texas, it is important to emphasize that commonalities among drug markets can be clarified not only by the documentation of similar background factors, but by the identification of key foreground factors, such as the invitational edge. These foreground commonalties can best be seen at the lowest levels where our analysis found that the user-seller’s role parallels the “subsistence dealer” described in the New York cannabis market (Sifaneck, Kaplan, Dunlap, & Johnson, 2003). Drugs are sold in order to pay for one’s personal use, and with this the invitational edge for continuing and expanding involvement grows. However, this transaction is the foundation (financial and social) upon which all the higher levels of the drug market are built (i.e., the cash flows from the bottom to the top). Recognition of the centrality of these foreground factors associated with drug markets suggests that future research must continue to modify the hierarchical model by considering that the shape of the hierarchy might be better represented as a pyramid rather than a ladder. Equally important for drug policy is the recognition that there are several options for reducing the thickness of the invitational edge of the drug markets. One option is separating the drug markets themselves through differential law enforcement priorities and procedures corresponding to the differences in the size and shape of the pyramid (Van Vliet, 1990). Another option is “demand reduction” in the form of treatment, prevention, and social services. These policy efforts targeting the lower levels of drug markets and their relatively thicker invitational edges must be seen at least as valuable in changing the pyramid as “top down” policies that target the apex of the market.


This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Grant Numbers R01DA13560 and RO1 DA08604. We are grateful for the careful critical reading and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article by Stephen Sifaneck and Alice Cepeda.


1The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a trade agreement passed in 1993 by the U.S., Mexico, and Canada that eliminated the majority of tariffs between products traded among these countries over a 15-year period. Since 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has invested millions of dollars in policing against terrorism along the U.S./Mexico border through its administrative consolidation of all federal border enforcement and customs agencies.

2Maquiladoras are non-Mexican owned factories and assembly plants located primarily along the Mexican side of border whose products are imported back to the US duty free.

3U.S. immigration law (1986) that granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants (mostly Mexicans) who entered the U.S. before January 1, 1982.

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Contributor Information

Avelardo Valdez, professor at the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston and director of the Office for Drug and Social Policy Research.

Charles Kaplan, research professor and associate dean of research in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston.


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