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Illegal drug trade has left deep scars on Mexican culture

| 02 April 2009

'dynasties of criminals'

"[T]here was [a] notable decline in illegal crop harvests in the late 1970s, as the result of a series of violent and ambitious assaults on growers carried out by the Mexican federal police with the support of the Mexican Army, and with the energetic encouragement of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration….Forty years after Operación Intercepción — which was followed by Operación Cooperación, Operación Cóndor, and other drug-war initiatives — as much as 30 percent of Mexico's arable land is suspected of being under cultivation for clandestine crops, drug violence in Sinaloa has taken a quantitatively different turn, and the Sinaloa traffickers have generated entire dynasties of criminals who are at war in nearly every one of Mexico's 31 states, as well as Mexico City."

— Alma Guillermoprieto
"Days of the Dead," The New Yorker, November 10, 2008

Read the full article online at

As mounting concern over drug violence in Mexico prompted hearings in both houses of Congress and a flurry of high-level diplomacy, visiting scholar Alma Guillermoprieto told a campus audience March 18 that Mexico's thriving drug trade has produced not only a wave of increasingly shocking violence but a durable imprint on her country's culture.

"The drug trade is creating a new cultural soup," the award-winning Mexican reporter said in a talk on "The New Narcocultura," held at International House. Popular recordings, for example, use traditional Mexican song forms to glorify drug gangsters like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán (the subject of some 60 music videos and mini-documentaries on YouTube). And drug traffickers pray for a good death — instead of the torture or beheading that befalls many of their victims — to the saints of new "narco-religions" like the cult of La Santa Muerte, "the Holy Death" (which Guillermoprieto described in a November 2008 New Yorker article) and the cult of Jesús Malverde. (In the state of Sinaloa, where the latter originated, you can even buy fingernail sets featuring a tiny image of the santo on each nail, she noted.)

"In the emptiness of meaning that you need to become a mass murderer, you look desperately for redemption and for meaning," speculated Guillermoprieto. "You look for them in consumer goods, and you look for redemption in religion." The drug trade "infects the social body," and even when law-enforcement efforts diminish the level of trafficking for a few years, they leave in their wake "a corrupted society," she said.

Guillermoprieto's talk on narcotrafficking came as the Obama administration announced plans to beef up federal security on the U.S. side of the border, and just a week before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a diplomatic visit to Mexico City, spoke of the United States' "insatiable demand for illegal drugs" and "our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals."

Wanted posterU.S. law-enforcement agencies are increasingly concerned about the spillover effects of the Mexican drug wars, made clear in this "wanted" poster — which offers multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the arrest of individual cartel members. The Tijuana Cartel, run by Arellano family members, is among Mexico's most violent.

In her talk, Guillermoprieto cited a litany of drug-related carnage, culled from a random search of Mexican news reports over the past half-year (with the highest levels of violence in Mexico City and the states of Chihuahua and Michoacán): some 24 bodies found in a national park outside Mexico City; 57 killed in one bloody week in Tijuana; 8 downed in the city of Morelia, when hand grenades were lobbed into a crowd celebrating Mexican Independence Day. And that's only a tiny fraction of the more than 7,000 estimated to have died since the start of 2007, when President Felipe Calderón, shortly after his election, announced a war on drug traffickers.

Citing Mexican sociologist Luís Astorga as a key chronicler of her country's drug trade, Guillermoprieto said that Mexicans have been "growing, packing, and transporting drugs on a massive scale to the U.S." since the 1970s — marijuana, largely, "but also heroin and morphine in significant amounts." (Coca, she noted, is still largely grown in the Andes and processed in the Colombian Amazon, but must pass through Mexico to reach its largest market, in the United States. In 1993, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed and many of his operatives were arrested. In the ensuing vacuum, the Colombian cocaine trade fragmented and its control "devolved into Mexican hands," she said.)

Guillermoprieto said the Mexi-can government has attempted to crack down on drug trafficking, borrowing from policies of the United States, which first launched such a military-style "war on drugs" under the Nixon administration. Encouraged by the U.S., the Mexican government followed suit with a series of armed efforts to stamp out the drug trade.

Ironically, she said, these policies have brought drug traffickers into close contact with police and military — many of whom have been bought off and become involved in the trade themselves. The long military-style drug war also prompted an exodus of the heads of Mexico's most important drug families — from the early center of the business, Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, to other parts of the country. Now, she said — showing a map of the 31 Mexican states and their corresponding drug-trafficking operations — "there's no state where one of these families or groups is not operating....The violence is a result of the fight among all these families or organizations or groups," struggling for control of the routes north for their illegal cargo.

The carnage and chaos, she said, make this much clear: A 40-year experiment in military-style drug interdiction has failed, "and there's no reason it will start to work now."

Guillermoprieto is at Berkeley for a monthlong residency at the Center for Latin American Studies, which sponsored her lecture. A leading Latin American journalist, she was one of two reporters to break the story of the El Salvadoran army's 1981 massacre of 900 villagers at El Mozote. She has covered Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, life in contemporary Cuba, the aftermath of Argentina's "dirty war," and post-Sandinista Nicaragua; Foreign Policy magazine recently named her one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world.