narco-web inside.jpg
“Sex, Drugs & Video”
By Benjamin Ortiz, for
Café Latino Lifestyle Magazine
August/September 2010

The buxom bombshell named Sabrina Solano stops her man Chuy drop-dead cold with impeccably arched eyebrows and a sizzling point-blank glare, as piercing as an actual bullet. “Even the worst of men has someone who would cry for him if he died,” she gasps.

Sabrina’s words prove prophetic when Chuy and his partner, Mauricio, brutally execute their rich kingpin rival, the ruthless Oscar Solano — Sabrina’s father. But Chuy makes the mistake of falling for her.

In a reckless blaze of pistol fire and automatic blasts that fill the streets with shells and gore, the partners dodge ambushes and out-drive the Federales, even faking their own deaths to fool the cops. “From here,” Chuy says philosophically, “you end up either dead or in jail.”

But right when it looks like they’ve escaped, Sabrina guns down Mauricio and mortally wounds Chuy in a double-cross they didn’t see coming. As Sabrina walks away with all the cash, the credits roll while a ballad kicks in, retelling the story of Chuy and Mauricio. Their exploits now live forever in song and on screen, in the movie “El Chrysler 300” (2009) by Mexican director Enrique Murillo.

Welcome to narco-cinema, an endless chain of B-movies that has come out of Mexico for decades, from “La Banda del Carro Rojo” (1978) that featured Los Tigres del Norte singing “Contrabando y Traición,” to the parody of straight-to-video, on-the-fly, cheap, absurdist shootouts in Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” (1992). Offering home video for the large portion of Mexico that can’t afford to go to a movie theater, these high-octane action flicks have long been considered disposable fodder for the masses.

But with the consolidation of the Mexican drug trade last century and its more recent up-tick of violence, corruption and a grisly body count, narco-trafficking has become a subject for mainstream treatment on both sides of the border. From its influence in American movies (“Traffic,” “No Country for Old Men”) and TV shows (“Breaking Bad,” “Weeds”), to big-budget television series that are busting viewing records in Latin America and the U.S. — and now to award-winning narco-novels — narco-cultura is reaching global audiences, reflecting the reality of the trade, its villains and consumers who just can’t get enough.

It all started, really, with the creation of the border, the forging of modern Mexico and United States in a dialectic relationship of power and domination. In consolidating its boundaries and commerce, the U.S. found it necessary to guard the border against fugitives from the law, deserters, revolutionists and those trading without sanction. By the early 20th century, folk minstrels started singing about smuggling, banditry and illegal crossings in the Mexican corrido ballad tradition whose roots stretch back to medieval Europe and the legend of Robin Hood.

Reflecting on the current state of the drug trade, musician and corrido expert Elijah Wald thinks narco-trafficking and its culture are here to stay. “I don’t see any possibility that Mexico can solve its drug problems,” Wald says, “as long as the United States is next door with the kind of money that’s over here and the kind of demand that there is for drugs.”

Wald, author of “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas” (Rayo, 2002), first heard of this ballad tradition as a peace observer with the Zapatistas in 1995. He points to Los Tigres del Norte’s 1997 double-CD, “Jefe de jefes,” that included songs about politics, drugs and the plight of Mexican immigrants in the United States as an example of how the corridos rip stories right from newspaper headlines.

“I was listening to [‘Jefe de jefes’] over and over,” said Wald, “and just got to thinking that it really was, I thought, the most complex and interesting literary document of present-day Mexico, and nobody was treating it as serious literature. It just began to strike me that when anyone talked about modern Mexican literature or poetry, they talked about Carlos Fuentes and people like him, who, frankly, a tiny, tiny proportion of Mexicans are even aware of his work, and they never talked about people like [corrido composer] Paulino Vargas, whose songs everyone in Mexico knows, whether you like them or not.”

Regardless, the Mexican government has succeeded in banning many of these songs from radio play. Even though narco-traffickers themselves sometimes commission corridos and even fund some of the B-movies that end up adapting songs to the big screen, Wald says blaming the drug problem on art is simply posturing. Despite censorship, narco-corridos still sell, and with YouTube the ballads now go viral, as artists are using electronics and hip-hop beats to fiddle with the centuries-old minstrel tradition.

A similar backlash is happening with the adaptation of narco-culture to major Latin American network television, as politicians decry what they consider glorification of the violent, materialistic, drug-peddling cartels. Coming out of a long heritage of soap operas depicting melodramatic domestic intrigue, the new narco-telenovelas are lavish, heavily budgeted series flush with expensive sets and costumes, plantation-size landscapes, military-grade props and seductive cumbia rhythms.

Created by FOXTelecolombia and picked up by Telefutura, the series “El Capo” depicts a narco-trafficking kingpin who will make Colombia forget about Pablo Escobar, as the promotional material puts it. With a sprawling cast of characters in a labyrinthine plot of double-crosses, bloody gun melee, torture and cartel treachery, “El Capo” hit a fevered pitch with its grand finale (the highest rated in the network’s history) in June, pulling in 2 million viewers and helping the network beat NBC Universal’s Telemundo in primetime demographics.

But there’s more. Telefutura’s “Asuntos Internos” portrays the travails of an internal affairs police unit in Rio de Janeiro trying to root out corruption while taking drugs off streets ablaze with cartel competition, depicted with fast-cutting panache and the violent grit of bloodletting. Gunfire likewise counterpoints cumbias and high-heeled opulence in “Las Muñecas de la Mafia,” another Colombian show on Telefutura that focuses on the women behind two narco-clans — wives, daughters, girlfriends and mistresses — and their tangled web of affairs, murder, betrayal and lust for a designer-label lifestyle fueled by drugs.

And this is just the tip of an iceberg that includes “Rosario Tijeras,” “El Cartel de los Sapos” and the upcoming Telemundo adaptation of “La Reina del Sur,” a novel by Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who lived in Sinaloa to study the drug trade and paired up with famed Mexican writer Elmer Mendoza, whose narco-themed work is also being adapted to screens both small and large.

Likewise, the adaptation of a Colombian novel and telenovela into the series “Sin Senos No Hay Paraíso” in 2008 drew big numbers — 1.9 million viewers at its peak in November — for Telemundo. The show became Telemundo’s highest-rated novela in network history at the time.

Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition met with Telemundo president Don Browne before the series began airing to urge them to reconsider the show’s original title, “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso” (“Without Tits There Is No Paradise”), the name of the novel by investigative journalist Gustavo Bolívar. The coalition, a media watchdog group based in Pasadena, Calif., that advocates positive representation of Latinos in the media, objected to the title saying it was crude and appealed to the most vulgar aspects of machismo in Latino culture. “I object to the content as well,” Nogales says, “but it’s being presented in a way that is not glorifying the narco-trade.”

The show’s main character, Catalina, is a young woman who falls into prostitution to pull herself out of poverty. After becoming a pre-paid call girl managed by her best friend, Yésica, Catalina learns the women with large breasts are the most successful and have better chances of leaving the business for a life of luxury as girlfriends or wives of wealthy drug kingpins. She yearns for breast implants and wins the affections of a rich and seemingly successful drug lord who will pay for her surgery and help her to achieve her dreams of fame and fortune. But the road is often difficult and takes her into very dark places, and her dreams fall apart when she realizes she’s been used as a drug mule and her implants have to be removed. In the end — feeling angry, betrayed and alone — Catalina plans Yésica’s assassination, but changes her mind at the last minute and steps in dressed as her friend so that she receives the fatal bullet instead.

“When you look at it from that point of view,” says Nogales, “there’s a redeeming heart to it Â… What I object to is when they glorify criminals versus basing it on that culture, the drug culture, and coming out with a moral point to it.”

Nogales connects these images of the drug trade with the actual incidence of violence and incarceration of Latinos, as well as the recent increase in hate crimes against Latinos in the United States. “The reality is that Latinos are being accused now of everything that is wrong in America,” he says. “This is not the time for us to show our worst garbage [in pop culture].”

Despite the outcry, these shows have always been big business, prompting Fordham University anthropology professor O. Hugo Benavides to ask why so many people are watching them if they are so terrible and trashy, as some have argued. His book, “Drugs, Thugs, and Divas: Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas in Latin America” (University of Texas Press, 2008), contends these programs and movies depict the human pursuit of dignity in life despite an undignified and inhuman social reality.

“I think narco-dramas are expressing a problem,” Benavides says. “And the problem is us, so if we turn that around and actually make the narco-dramas the problem, we’re really not doing anything, because the problem’s going to remain, and there will be another cultural form that’s going to express the same kind of violence.”

Benavides says the important thing is that it’s very close to the reality many know and have grown up with. “There is something very close [culturally speaking] and comfortable about these images that is immediately understandable,” he says. “I keep arguing, however, that it’s this ambiguity that is the big seducer for the soaps, and the narco-dramas as well Â… And I do believe it is that eerie, uncanny feeling that sell the shows even more.”

Besides, says Benavides, “once you see a couple of episodes, you get really hooked.”

Beyond the videos and literature, narco-cultura has its own patron saints and spiritual realm. The hybrid religion of the Americas developed its unique spin on Catholicism long ago, and the process of syncretism — or fusion of beliefs — continues with saints bubbling up from folk practices that the official church has neither canonized nor sanctioned. For example, the figures known as Jesus Malverde and Juan Soldado have been venerated in Mexico as the patron saints of banditry and border-crossing, respectively. But the ultimate saint of Mexico’s dark social reality and narco-violence has become the figure of Death herself, La Santa Muerte.

In his book “Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint of Death” (Fringe Research Press, 2010), folk-religion documentarian and law-enforcement consultant Tony Kail describes the movement throughout Mexico and U.S. Latino communities to venerate the representation of Death in icons, shrines, amulets, tattoos, prayer cards and votive candles with variations on the skeletal figure typically recognized as the Grim Reaper.

“While there are many that are using the image as a form of protection for criminal activities, there are far more that follow her as a source of spiritual comfort,” Kail says. His work charts the transformation of Death from her role as a symbol of comfort to that of the patron saint of crime. “The cartels seem to be embracing her as sort of a rallying symbol for power,” Kail argues.

Santa Muerte worship, he says, constitutes “an evolving religion that Â… is manifesting in front of our very eyes” — even if this image now appears on tennis shoes and in rap songs.

« »