Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Narcotecture

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Narcotecture

Article excerpt

Abstract

The term narcotecture often refers to grand mansions built with drug money. A blend of the words "narcotics" and "architecture," the portmanteau evokes florid gated communities in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Americas. Yet, this interest in ostentation strips narcotecture of full analytical purchase. To expand the term's significance, this article samples how the global drug trade interacts every day with the War on Drugs at the level of built environments. This interaction makes flashy mansions, to be sure, but also airplane hangars and shipping containers, security booths and watch towers, drop sites and crack houses--not to mention prisons, hospitals, and barracks. This broader notion of narcotecture is organized by the tactical manipulation of space pursued in ways that self-consciously attempt to avoid detection. This article's central claim is that narcotecture is not simply a form of conspicuous consumption but more importantly a mode of inconspicuous construction.

Keywords

Drugs, architecture, Central America, trafficking, the War on Drugs

Narcotecture

Narcotecture is a portmanteau that blends the words "narcotics" and "architecture." The term tends to describe ostentatious mansions built with drug money. Think domed entryways, Mediterranean-inspired swimming pools, and cavernous dining rooms complete with oversized chandeliers (Cave, 2012). Journalists, bloggers, and the occasional architect highlight narcotecture's quick construction and paranoid floor plans with hidden vaults and secret passageways (Brulliard, 2010; Gerszak, 2012; Kingstone, 2011). Critics note that these buildings punctuate the skylines and gated communities of Afghanistan, Africa, and the Americas, rendering visible the global drug trade's fascination with size, strength, and speed (Costa, 2008; O'Connor, 1992; Rubin, 2009). These buildings are monuments, as one analysis suggests, "to the fast processing of some kind of fast money" (Blom, 2012; see also Gutcher, 2013; Zucchino, 2014). Their oversized frames and muddled compositions give form to the excesses of illicit accumulation.

This article pushes past this popular understanding of narcotecture. The intention is to expand the term's significance by upending its most basic assumptions. One such assumption is that narcotecture is gauche. For while cocaine castles and poppy palaces are overstated, these gaudy buildings do not define narcotecture in full. Consider that a multi-billion dollar drug trade interacts every day with a multi-billion dollar War on Drugs--at the level of the built environment. This interaction between distribution and prohibition generates immodest mansions but also airplane hangars and shipping containers, security booths and watch towers, drop sites and crack houses--not to mention prisons, hospitals, and barracks. While the more conspicuous of these constructions receive critical attention, the vast majority of them slip below the threshold of remarkability while nonetheless altering how the War on Drugs and the global drug trade remake the spaces and practices of everyday life for millions of people.

To organize this argument, this essay addresses narcotecture from the perspective of what I call inconspicuous construction. This is the tactical manipulation of space pursued in ways that self-consciously attempt to avoid detection. The central aim here is to show how narcotecture allows the War on Drugs and the global drug trade to hide (architecturally speaking) in plain sight. There has been, of course, important work on so-called "blank spots on the map" (Paglen, 2010), narco-capitalism (Hernandez, 2014), and drug war capitalism (Paley, 2014) as well as the politicization of space (cf. Dike?, 2015) as it relates to the War on Drugs (Boyce et al., 2015). But the drug wars themselves have not received much geographical attention. Extant research on drugs details the politics of borders (Bemdt, 2013; Walker, 2015), public health (McCann, 2008), land (Ballve, 2012; Hough, 2011), and violence (Ceccato et al. …

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