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Illegal drug trade has left deep scars on Mexican culture, says renowned journalist

| 23 March 2009

  Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto

Mexico's thriving drug trade has produced not only a wave of increasingly shocking violence but a durable imprint on the culture, reports visiting scholar Alma Guillermoprieto.

"The drug trade is creating a new cultural soup," the award-winning Mexican reporter said in a March 18 campus lecture about "The New Narcocultura." Popular recordings use traditional Mexican song forms to glorify drug gangsters like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán. El Chapo is the inspiration for some 60 music videos and mini-documentaries on YouTube.

Drug traffickers pray for a good death — instead of torture or beheading like many of their victims — to the saints of new "narco-religions." There is 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 Sinaloa state where the latter originated, you can even buy fingernail sets featuring a tiny image of the santo on each nail.

"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 amidst mounting U.S. concern over the wave of drug violence in Mexico, with Capitol Hill lawmakers holding hearings on the topic and the Obama Administration announcing plans to beef up federal security on the U.S. side of the border. She 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, then newly elected, launched 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 Mexican government's has attempted to crackdown 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, first with "Operacion Cóndor” and since then 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 drugs families — from the early center of the business, Sinaloa state 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.

Guillermoprieto said the carnage and chaos 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."

The journalist is at UC Berkeley for a month-long residency as visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies, which sponsored her talk. 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 guerillas, 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.