Drugs and Mexican culture

Drugs and Mexican culture

By Fabrizio Mejía Madrid, Special correspondent, BBC Mundo

Inside the National Defence building in Mexico City there is a museum which is not open to the public. It houses the jewellery, weaponry, clothing and other precious items that have been seized from drug traffickers since 1985.

Mexico 2005 most wanted list

The imagery of the narco life filtered into Mexican popular culture

Narco Mexico

The collection is an example of those symbols typical of narcoculture in Mexico: a Colt .38 made of gold and encrusted with emeralds, belonging to Amado Carrillo, leader of the cartel in the northern state of Chihuahua. It was a gift from Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel who escaped from prison in 2000.

An AK-47 with a gold palm tree encrusted in the butt. This belonged to Héctor "El Güero" Palma; or a shirt with double plating on the left side, belonging to Osiel Cárdenas, leader of the Gulf of Mexico cartel.

But besides these weapons, there are hats, cowboy boots and belts, shrines to the Virgin Guadalupe and Jesús Malverde, a saint from Sinaloa. It was there in the 50s - during the Vietnam and Korean wars - that the cultivation of poppies and marijuana began, with extensive trafficking to the US.

The narco as a saint

The cult of Malverde establishes moral justification for drug trafficking: law and justice are not the same thing.

The Malverde myth tells the story of a 19 century thief who used banana leaves as a disguise (hence his name, the "green-evil"), until he is betrayed by a companion and captured by police. He is hanged and the priest refuses to bury him. Local people bury by the roadside and place a stone on the grave.

Now there is a chapel devoted to him and a cult following, although not recognised by the Catholic Church. People ask him to help resolve injustices by taking him offerings - it can be any item but it must be something stolen.

This sanctity of all things illegal was adopted by Mexican drug traffickers who bear tattoos of a moustachioed man, build shrines to him and finance chapels.

They associated the "green" of the "evil" with marijuana leaves. The proscribed cult was linked to drug trafficking to such an extent that during the 90s, the US DEA would interrogate anyone who had a tattoo of the saint.

Nowadays, in the museum, all that imagery of the powerful narco, born in some wild territory and armed because he is brave, is a thing of the past.

The images filtered into Mexican popular culture, the cinema and the songs, but the drug traffickers do not always use those symbols. Some of them go out of their way to avoid them.

The second generation of narcos are university educated with degrees in business administration, who don't show off their money and who employ chemists to manufacture designer drugs for them.

The narco as singer and actor

The marketing of songs and film about drug trafficking is banned on local radio stations and exhibition halls. Just like the trafficking, there is a parallel market: pirate recordings and film made only for DVD.

In the case of film, it has been going since 1976 when Antonio Martínez made "Contraband and betrayal" and "They killed Camelia the Texan", which were based on two songs, the so-called narcocorridos, written by Los Tigres del Norte (Tigers of the North), who are, as it were, The Beatles of the genre.

The narco films always tell the same story: an honest family falls on hard times - a bad investment, or a blight on the corn crop - and they end up helping to deal drugs.

The low budget movies used the actual marijuana and poppy cultivations as locations and the curvaceous mini-skirted girlfriends of the dealers as actresses.

The narcocorridos are part of a forbidden culture - drugs - which needs to justify itself morally. Their motives and reasons are apparent in the lyrics: that I was very poor and now I have everything I could possibly and even if they kill me, it was worth it.

They are songs about those for whom drug dealing brought about a complete metamorphosis. Not in terms of possession (they never presume to be rich, they just list their possession: houses, cars, weapons, cash, women and alcohol), rather in terms of power.

They were once poor nobodies and now they are powerful ... while it lasts. They adopt the discourse of the dominant power: the free market and the right to make money.

In fact, some songs like "La cruz de amapola" (The Poppy Cross), refer to the capos as managers and the dealers as distributors. Like the market economy, the narcos set themselves up as unassailable.

"This is nothing new, gentleman,
Nor is it going to be over;
This will go on forever,
It's global mafia."

The message is cryptic. If you don't know anything about drugs, you don't understand, because it parodies the Mexican ranchera songs written by corn-growing peasants, not by poppy growers:

I live off three animals I love with all my heart;
I earn my money through and I don't even have to feed them.
They are very sophisticated creatures: my parakeet, my cockerel and my goat.

The parakeet is cocaine, the cockerel, marijuana and the goat is an AK-47 rifle, nicknamed "goat horns" because of the shape of the chamber. This song was aired on the radio without the programmers realising the true meaning of the words.

The drug trafficker ideal expressed in the narcocorridos, and drug culture in general, justifies everything for an individual love of personal freedom.

He doesn't take order from anyone, he never surrenders, he knows he only has one life and he doesn't want to be poor.

Nor does he want to go to the US as an illegal, as this would constitute a loss of power: he prefers to "export" drugs there.

Sleeping with the enemy

Mexican narcoculture is both popular and prohibited at the same time. It permeates everywhere: music, tee shirts, film, tattoos.

In fact the fashion of the middle and upper classes for buying Hummer trucks with tinted windows comes from trying to feel safe, and like the narcos unpunishable.

The fact the middle classes listen to narcocorridos or watch films of the genre also helps towards a certain identity in a country where there is more empathy if you watch the same television programme than if you live in the same town.

It is a culture which establishes itself as a functionary of the global economy: an export market which, if it did not exist, would make a lot of people unhappy.

It has a lot of support: media, music and film and a doctrine which, though no longer adopted by the big bosses, continues to recruit new generations to their identity: boots, belts, gem-encrusted shirts and iPhones.

The narco says the same as the global market in a country like Mexico where opportunities are never, not even remotely, the same for all: everything, here and now.

This was how it was explained to me some years ago by a then recently-recruited 14 year old in Culiacán, Sinaloa, where it all began: "I've already been given a nickname."

For him it was the beginning of a vertiginous managerial career, which would no doubt end abruptly in a spray of bullets.

And maybe his golden gun will end up as a museum exhibit.

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Fabrizio Meíia Madrid was born in Mexico City in 1968. Currently a contributor to the magazine "Proceso". He also writes for the magazines "Letras Libres", "Gatopardo" and the "Reforma" newspaper supplement "El Angel". His work has been published in "The Mexico City Reader" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) and "A Ustedes les consta", the anthology of Mexican chronicles by Carlos Monsiváis.