Trying to identify a narcotrafficker ain’t so easy as you might like to think, and reveals as much about your preconceptions as anything else.

There’s a bar I used to like going to for after-work micheladas. The beers were big, the snacks were bountiful, the patrons were moustached and heavy-set, the girls on their arms were scooped up and in impossibly tight jeans, and the music was thumping northern stuff that was all mysterious to me.

It felt like a window into a side of Mexico that I didn’t often see. We don’t go there any more though. Too many people thought it was a narco place.

One of the ways of we’ve coped with the increased violence in Guadalajara has been to carefully delineate where a narco, or narcotrafficker, is likely to go, and where he is not. It’s a way of assuring yourself that you have some control over the situation: stay away from narco places and you’ll be fine. The problem is that the safe areas keep shrinking. Sure, everyone knows narcos go to showy clubs where they can throw their money and grenades around, but apparently they also go to (and get shot outside) Burger King now. It seems nowhere is safe.

I’ve denounced a few places as being distinctly narco too. They tend to be patronised by swaggering guys, tend to play thumping Pitbull remixes, tend to be very busy, and tend to charge a lot for a beer. So basically when I say, “This is a narco place,” what I really mean is, “I don’t like this place”.

Or is he just a cowboy? Photo: Pim Geerts

Part of my and our confusion about how to identify a narco place probably stems from our misconceptions about who narcos are. Some of what we take for quintessential narco culture is actually just Mexican culture (though not the part that most people choose to focus on).

Do narcos wear big hats, shiny snakeskin boots, and enormous cow skull belt buckles?

No, those are just ranchers in town for the weekend.

Do narcos wear tight jeans and lots of chains and plaster their hair with gel and strut around with a bottle-blonde sporting epic cleavage and 4-inch heels?

No, that’s just some guy on his way to a wedding.

Anyone could be a narco. Photo: _Ricky

Do Narcos pop the collars on their Versace polos, cruise about in gleaming Mercedes and jump the lines outside the best clubs in town?

No, those are the med students whose fathers paid for their schooling and style. They may be harmless, but their fathers, as successful businessmen, almost certainly know a few narcos.

Do narcos wax their moustaches, wear black suits decorated with heavy silver buckles and rove the streets in groups at night?

No, those are just mariachis looking for a gig. They’ll be at the wedding later, too.

Do narcos pile into cars and drive around late at night, screaming, beating the car horn and throwing half-full beer cans at girls?

No, those are just football fans on a winning night.

We want to have control, so we act like we know. Photo: Randy Pertiet

Do narcos wear black tank tops that show off the jagged tattoos stretched over their treetrunk biceps, and take their Rottweilers with them wherever they go?

No, those are just the gay guys enjoying the Sunday pedestrian-only streets. (The severe cut-offs probably should have made that obvious.)

Do narcos wear bandanas and combat boots and brandish machine guns while driving around in giant black trucks that have stylised silver wolves painted down their sides?

No, those are just the state police.

If narcos were that easy to sniff out, would Mexico really be lost in the War on Drugs?

You can say narcos are desensitised, dehumanised thugs, or you can say they are a product of poverty and hopelessness, but it’s still all just a reduction of something insidious down to something safe and manageable. The uncomfortable truth is that narcos look like everyone else, dress like everyone else, and go where everyone else goes. It’s what makes them so effective.

I still cling to the belief, however, that if there is one person unlikely to be a narco, it is the fauxhemian drinking chai lattes and dicking around on his iPhone in one of the cafes in my ‘hood. Maybe it’s all an illusion, but at the very least if it came to it, I’m pretty sure I could outrun anyone wearing jeggings.