(Winner of the 2016-2017 Amendment Essay Award)
El Narco: Mexico’s False Prophets
by Alejandra Santander
In the barrios of northern Mexico, bordering the outskirts of the Sonoran mountains and the highlands of the Sinaloan desert, a young boy’s skinny arms carry an AR-15, his most prized possession; the only thing of worth in his two-bedroom dirt-floored house. It was a gift from his father that, years later, Junior will dip in gold and encase on the mantel of his mansion’s fireplace. The boy, Ismael Jr., was the man of the house when his dad was gone. His father would leave⎯sometimes for days⎯ and before he left would say “Protect your mother and sister, I’ll be back soon”, and would come back bloody and beaten. He was working his way up, paying his dues.
Ismael Jr. was born sometime in the 1980s before the rise of the Sinaloan cartel, and his father’s subsequent dominance over Mexico’s northern trade routes; all administered from Ciudad Juárez, Narco-country and the murder capital of the world. His father, Ismael Zambada García, born in the 1950s, is the spitting image of a Mexican narco. Ismael Sr., like his father and his father’s father, was born poor, brown, and marginalized; an “Indio” in the fullest sense of the word. Ismael Sr. could not pay for college, let alone high-school, yet sought respect and power, the kind that is now overflowing in his line of work.
To live with dignity in a rural state like Sinaloa, earn a decent living, and provide the same for your children, you are either college-educated, or as Ismael Sr. discovered in the 1970s, dangerous. Influence is scarce and limited in Mexico. The drug trade is a family business, and the narcos are weary of strangers.
Ismael Sr. goes by many names: “El Mayo”, “El del Sombrero” and “El Padrino” to name a few. His son and successor, “El Mayito” or Ismael Jr., is the eldest of eight and the inheritor of his father’s empire. Ismael Sr. could not be prouder. His son is learning the trade and will take good care of the business when he is gone.
Blood ties are one of the most defining characteristics of Mexican cartels⎯nothing comes before family. And in a market where the most powerful cartels kill for control and territory, loyalty is a must. Ismael Sr. is the current leader, or “padre” of the Sinaloan cartel. This strange title, meaning father, explains perfectly why the narco not only threatens Mexico’s security and economy, but it’s culture as well. The narco is the father of thousands; from the child soldier selling the product by gram on the street corner, to the state’s governor, who occasionally looks the other way when “El Mayo” gives the order.
According to a report from the Secretary General of National Public Safety, about 60% of Sinaloa’s state police force are corrupt or bribed by the cartels. Latin culture, and its emphasis on family creates a bureaucratization of power comparable to that of the Roman empire. The Sinaloan cartel is a highly organized international crime syndicate with more than 500,000 members operating in more than 20 countries, eight of which are overseas. In 2010, it was estimated that state and local police officers in some regions of Mexico accepted more than 100 million dollars per month in bribes from drug-traffickers (Rosen & Zepeda). Being a part of Ismael’s organization means more to a poor, illiterate orphan from the slums of Badiraguato than we can ever imagine. To wear the symbol of the cartel⎯a skeleton on a cross-⎯is a badge of honor, and with it, brings a sense of worth as well as pride.
But the greatest threat el narco poses, the one that plays into the psyche of the multitudes, those with no access to health care and schooling, is control. The narco is feared yet respected; despised but honored. And in a country like Mexico, where crime and poverty are imparted from the nation’s highest office trickling down to the local cop, the narco⎯to millions⎯feels like the lesser of two evils.
Why does Mexico’s poorest class admire the narco? Why is it a young man’s biggest ambition to join a cartel? Or the local beauty-pageant winner’s dream to marry one? The same can be asked of cowboys. American western films all star the same man: a rugged outlaw who plays the authorities and gets the girl. He steals and lies, ending anyone who gets in his way. The audience loves him⎯he takes care of the poor, only cheating the rich or powerful and gives back to the people. The narco and the cowboy share many qualities, but ultimately, both are what every young man wants to be. The only difference between an American boy, and a Mexican boy is opportunity. When we speak of crime, we are really talking about poverty. And in a country where the world’s richest man resides, where more than 53.3 million people live in poverty, and 11.5 million in extreme poverty (Watt & Zepeda), a cartel feels like the easy out, especially when they are prophesized in a cult of personality that borders, and often travels into the realm of idolatry.
A Robin Hood of sorts, Jesús Malverde, one of the earliest known drug-lords, and a man whose existence is still questioned, is the perfect example of the sort of narcoculture that glorifies the Drug War. Known as the “Generous Bandit”, “angel of the poor” and the “narco-saint”, Jesús’ parents died when he was a child. His effigy is worshiped in the most obscure of villages and in the poorest of households. The visage of Malverde is enshrined in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa. Every year on the anniversary of his death, a large party is held at Malverde’s shrine. He is an outlaw, a bandit, and “patron saint” of the region’s drug trade. According to a testimony given in Grillo’s El Narco, he stole from the “rich, drug-addicted gringos and gave back to the people of Sinaloa’s villages in the form of schools and infrastructure.”
Narcoculture feeds on this image: the glorification of the narco is not rooted in the murder and torture they regularly impart in, but on the people’s sense of pride in their success and rebellion. They are referred to as “guererros” or “insurgentes“. Narcoculture, in a way, is an extension of Mexican culture; a strange combination of strict Spanish Catholicism, obscure mystic cults of the rural, poorest regions of the country, and the rebel spirit of the north; an outlaw perspective that the desert can claim ownership of.
Righteousness and machismo are both crucial aspects of el narco. Grillo interviewed “El Gonzalo” (real name unknown), a hitman for numerous drug gangs from a Mexican prison. When Ioan asked “El Gonzalo” about his past, he said he had “enjoyed power in a country where the poor are so powerless, had a latest model truck and could pay for houses in cash, had four wives and children scattered all over.” Grillo, after years of studying the Drug War and narcoculture in general, called these mafia capitalists and kingpins “the new dictators and the new rebels of Latin-America.”
Drug lords have been likened to revolutionaries. In Mexico City, circling the rotunda of the city’s most affluent borough is the street known as “Insurgentes“, named after the founding men who rebelled against the Spanish Crown, taking back their land and their name. Comparing narcos to honorable revolutionaries is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.
Narcocorridos are one of Mexico’s most popular music, and narcocultura in its most emblematic form. Literally translated into “drug ballad” these songs can be folksy or techno, mainstream or regional. But they all have one thing in common: the adoration, and celebration of narcos. Whether it be Kalashnikovs, cocaine kingpins or contract killings, they all glorify drug traffickers. The narcos’ violence is now so entrenched in society, that when the cartels are tearing each other up in turf wars and shipping drugs across state lines, these ballads provide the soundtrack.
As mentioned before, “el padre” or “el padrino” (godfather) is the mafia leader at the heart of narcoculture. He is a self-made man, born to rags but now wrapped in riches; he defies the Mexican army and the DEA; he is the benefactor who hands out rolls of dollar bills to hungry mothers, and then disappears into the red and purple sunset of the desert sky. Narcos, like the land that bore them, are rebels; frontiersman who spit in the face of politicians and the establishment. On the streets of Sinaloa, they are referred to as los valientes, “the brave ones”.
Today, the children of the narcos of the 70s, whose fathers were born in slums and ranches, exiled by class and frowned upon by the country’s elite, now attend the most expensive private schools. Sinaloan narcos have long been a part of the state’s “high society”. Hanging around the sons of capos can be compared to gangster-culture in the US. This hybrid society of wealth and crime has produced “the buchones”; men who wear cowboy hats and Jordans, and women who don big rancher belts and fake breasts under tight Gucci minis.
Felipe Calderón, nicknamed “Mission Impossible ” for his stance on the Drug War, after only 10 days in office increased the deployment of troops on the streets to almost 50,000. But things quickly got worse. The war was deadlier than ever, and violence multiplied exponentially. In the first four years of Calderon’s administration, the Drug war claimed a stunning 34,000 lives (Rosen & Zepeda). A study done in 2015 by PBS showed that from 2007-2014 alone, more than 164,000 civilians have died in Mexico⎯more than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Mexico’s interior minister says 26,121 people disappeared from 2006-2012.
The reality, that hidden behind pet tigers and golden chains is too hideous to blur with the mirage of fame and fortune. The narcos may prophesize themselves from social media, but the same tools ruled by their ego will be their demise. The people can now witness first-hand the truth behind el narco. And like Ismael Sr., who looked around at the injustice of his country, the vast income inequality, and the despotism of government imparted on his people, they too do not like what they see.
Breslow, Jason M. “FRONTLINE.” PBS. PBS, 27 July 2015. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
Grillo, Ioan. El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. Print.
Gurney, Written By Kyra. “Corrupt Mexico Police Concentrated in 10 States.” Corrupt Mexico Police Concentrated in 10 States. InSight Crime, 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
Rosen, Jonathan D., and Roberto Zepeda MartÃnez. Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking, and Violence in Mexico: The Transition from Felipe CalderÃ³n to Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto. Lanham, MD: Lexington , an Imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Group, 2016. Print.
Watt, Peter, and Roberto Zepeda MartÃnez. Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy. London: Zed, 2012. Print.
The Drug War is glorified in film, on television, and by any and all who comprise the millions of followers many narcos have on Twitter or Instagram. Every picture is either ostentatious, cruel, or blatantly indifferent, yet yields thousands of likes and retweets.
I knew I wanted to write about the Drug War⎯a conflict so long, so ingrained in the lives of millions that we sometimes forget who the real perpetrator is. The Drug War is unlike any other present conflict. There are no two clear sides. There is no defense line where the opposition can be defined from. No Gaza Strip separating enemy from enemy. And even worse, no battle ground to avoid the death of civilians. Which in Mexico, are predominantly women and children; all just caught in the line of fire.
The narco is the church, the state, and everything in between. Most civilians never call the police in an emergency…you’re better off. Politicians no longer launder their money, fain impartiality, or fake tax returns. When crime and government are as intertwined as they are in Mexico, addressing, and beginning to bring forth change is incredibly difficult and dangerous.
I don’t know what the answer is. And even though narcos are not revered by most, any amount at all is enough to raise suspicion. The most difficult part of researching for this paper was not finding reputable sources or in-depth reports, but discerning the material. When I read of Pancho Villa and Jesús Malverde, rebels and cowboys in their own right, I too got caught up in the glorification and romanticism that I was supposed to be criticizing. Legends of lone-gunmen who protected the weak and stuck it to the elites are folk-heroes for many; and I now understand why.
I spent most of time writing about el narco himself; his background and history, and what he means to thousands. For me, el narco is not mislabeled as a criminal, nor is he just “misunderstood”. Yet when I watch Breaking Bad or Scarface, I feel like maybe there is a grey area; maybe el narco is a bad-ass. But then I realized that if I, someone who has witnessed the atrocities the cartels have unleashed on so many, can get carried away in the myth and the legend of el narco, how can an American, or any other outsider not feel in a way, enamored by the adventure they see on screen, let alone a young boy in the barrios of Culiacán?
And that was the hardest part of writing this essay. When things are as messy and dark as are Mexican Politics, how can we know who the bad guy is?
Choosing the topic was not the most difficult aspect of the process, but sending it to my best friend back home was. He read and it told me I was “Americanized”. That I had come to the US to just criticize our culture and our government. I knew he was right. I was being “disloyal”; not portraying my culture in a decent light.
But the further I investigated, the more numbers I saw⎯all of either dead or missing people. That’s when I knew that criticizing is the first step. Hundreds of journalists have been killed in Mexico. Like I said, I do not know how to stop this violence, but dismantling their rebel-cowboy image is the first step.
If I could do it again, I would add more statistics, make their atrocities even clearer. I think that comprehending the poverty and corruption that goes on in not just Mexico, but in all of Latin America can help us understand why he is, for many, “patron saint of the poor”. After much research, I would compare their huge following with the rise of ISIS. Like jihadists, the cartels give the most destitute a sense of purpose. The only difference? ISIS members are marked as terrorists, and do it all without a hit Netflix show.