Tag Archives: mexico

White Paper: Our Lady of Narco – Exploring the Fetishization of “Narcocultura,” and the Intersection of Drugs, Politics, Cults, and Pop Culture

26 Jun

At the crossroads of Mexican and American culture, and where drug policy and pop culture meet, Mexico’s identity is evolving into a dark place. Narcocultura eclipses more aspects of daily life, and the United States is ever complacent and responsible in the transformation that has taken root on both sides of the border. The harsh economic realities and failures of authority to protect its people, and prevent and control violence have led to this crisis which is slowly overtaking the literal and figurative Mexican landscape as it spills over into the United States.

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Two of the most useful theories that relate to this problem are the Social-Conflict Approach and the Symbolic-Interaction Approach. Social-Conflict perceives society as stratified by race, class and gender. Much of the violence and trafficking has resulted from the stark economic reality that if some people in Mexico want to make a living, one of the few options is involvement with drugs. On the other hand, people influence one another’s involvement in the terrifying escalation of violence, as explored by some of the articles explored for this paper. Symbolic-Interactionism suggests that peers play a deeper role in how our society operates and functions. This paper argues that the drug crisis in Mexico, and how it relates to the U.S., is a product of issues that will be analyzed by both of these theoretical frameworks. 

A growing body of research addresses the escalating drug-related violence in Mexico, as well as the social and cultural consequences of this near-decade-long war. Some of the investigations into this crisis make bold and damning critiques of the Mexico and United States governments. Others focus primarily on the increasingly disturbing nature of the violence itself; horror which warrants its very own exploration into the shifting social and cultural paradigms of a country in dire flux. 

First, it’s worthwhile to take a significant step back to evaluate the Mexican drug war as a whole. While conclusive data on who started the war remains elusive, we do know a few things about the escalating violence. For one thing, Mexico’s struggling economy may not provide enough employment and educational opportunities for people. Mexicans may resort to alternative livelihoods in the underground economy to earn an income without other legitimate jobs – but it’s false to assume that the economy is the sole reason for the war. Nonetheless, we do know that the drug and violence situation in Mexico changed dramatically when former president Felipe Calderon took office and declared a war on drugs. It’s also well known that the Mexican cartels exploded onto the scene and grew exponentially in the years after the fall of many Colombian drug organizations that held the vast amount of power in trafficking and production (Campbell, 2014).

More people have died since Calderon’s policies went into effect than the Americans who died during the Vietnam war (Rios, 2013). From 2006 to 2012, violence escalated rapidly. In 2011, 19 out of the world’s 50 most violent cities were in Mexico (Rios, 2013). Appallingly, the violence appears to become increasingly brutal over time. Every cartel seems to attempt to outdo one another in cruelty and vulgarity; and Mexican newspapers and magazines document the public displays of gruesome violence on the front pages of glossy papers, often bought at the grocery store checkout line – one of the most troubling aspects of Mexican drug culture (Campbell, 2014). 

A woman's body was recently found by the side of the road in Michoacan, with her arms and legs tied up.

A woman’s body was recently found by the side of the road in Michoacan, with her arms and legs tied up.

The culture of violence has reached dramatic depths. “The desecration of bodies takes many other forms including inscribing bodies with identifying labels and threats. Specific amputations carry particular meanings. For example, cutting off fingers implies that the dead person was a snitch (dedo, i.e., finger), cutting out the tongue implies that the person was an informant (soplón), cutting off hands signifies that the person stole money or a drug load, etc. Raped, sexually tortured and murdered women are often left in the streets with no clothing or with their undergarments pulled down (this is also done to men). The ritualized presentation or spectacle of dead bodies is such a common and patterned phenomenon that a whole vocabulary has emerged to describe the bodies: enteipados are bodies wrapped in duct tape (to suffocate the victims or prevent them from calling for help or knowing where they are going), descuartizados are bodies that have been quartered, encajuelados are bodies stored in the trunks of cars, entambados are bodies crammed in barrels, while encobijados are bodies wrapped in blankets (to stop blood seepage, to hide cadavers as they are being transported in cars, and for ease in carrying and throwing them)” (Campbell, 2014). Such violence, especially when broadcast in such a public way through mass media, surely has horrifying implications to a traumatized and desensitized society. It is of no wonder that the country has devised its own ways of dealing with it, sometimes as simply as in turn glorifying it. Both the US and Mexico appear to be equally guilty of this. 

The Mexican authorities are not innocent themselves, being highly corrupted in their ranks, and spilling military-style warfare into Mexican streets. In the meantime, the cartels become even more creative and commit worsening acts of violence; kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, and other criminal activities are just a few forms of the crime that threaten to overwhelm Mexico permanently (Campbell, 2014). 

For Mexico, this isn’t just a war between the cops and robbers, or the good guys and bad guys (always subjective in this context). This is a war between good and evil, Heaven and Hell. When headless corpses are routinely shown on evening news during suppertime, and blogs show photos of piles of human body parts that are meant to send a message to a rival cartel, the people of the country reach out to perhaps unlikely heroes. 

Some Mexicans have become so alienated by the corrupt authorities that they prefer the perceived “lesser evil” of the Robin Hood-style cartel leaders (Dotremon & Gonzalez, 2014). In the most lawless places, drug cartel leaders become stand-ins for legal authority and take over the operations of the state. Some take it upon themselves to provide people with protection, employment, education, food, medical care, utilities, as well as the building of infrastructure of roads and buildings (Dotremon & Gonzalez, 2014). Such an arrangement begets a complicated legacy of cultural understanding of drugs in Mexico. These provisions have become so powerful that they have influenced pop culture in a profound way. 

A man walks in front of a store that bears that name of "El Chapo," formerly the world's most wanted drug lord. He invested in local businesses and offered protection and security to his supporters.

A man walks in front of a store that bears that name of “El Chapo,” formerly the world’s most wanted drug lord. He invested in local businesses and offered protection and security to his supporters.

The corrido, a kind of oral history-inspired story-song performed by rural entertainers, has a brand-new sub-genre: the narcocorrido (Loewe, 2010). Some performers are literally cartel employees; that is, they are paid with financial reward and security protection for writing songs about cartel leaders, and often embed critical pan-cartel messages in them. Still others that dare to sing the wrong thing (or who are simply unlucky enough to be spotted in the other cartel’s nightclub turf) are brutally assassinated (Loewe, 2010). 

Narcocorrido singer Tito Torbellino was killed this spring. The Phoenix-born self-styled gangster was shot point-blank eating lunch in Mexico. He was known for singing love songs, a risk that cartel bosses' girlfriends may develop a crush on you.

Narcocorrido singer Tito Torbellino was killed this spring. The Phoenix-born self-styled gangster was shot point-blank eating lunch in Mexico. He was known for singing love songs, a risk that cartel bosses’ girlfriends may develop a crush on you. This poses the question: which is more dangerous, singing about romance or revenge?

The narcocorrido has become so popular that they are played on Spanish-language radio in the United States, and the performers come to tour US venues, especially in border states where the cartel presence is higher. The audiences of these concerts are often high school or college students, suggesting a broad listenership and implications for Mexican-American pop culture (Loewe, 2010). Given that the nature of this violence is often paramilitary in style, such as raids, firefights, and assassinations (Campbell, 2014), it isn’t difficult to imagine the low-income, alienated (especially male) youth of Mexico identifying with this display of power and control over the accepted authority. 

Drug cartels are employing other forms of propaganda directly, both to inform the public and government that they assume to have control over the state, and to recruit. Some other types of propaganda include blog posts, web videos displaying executions and beheadings, and control of media outlets (Campbell, 2014). This appears to be morphing into a pop-culture phenomenon of decreased sensitivity to this type of violence, as well as acceptability of the cartel activities. 

The people, overall, have developed their own response to this crisis in Mexico, whether as a coping mechanism or as an indirect result of cultural influence. The institution of Roman Catholicism is experiencing an enormous shift in Mexico, where its practitioners are incorporating non-Vatican-approved activities. For example, while the country worships the Virgin Guadeloupe freely, the Mother of Jesus, there is a growing cult that presents a dark mother figure, as an archetypal other half to Mary: Santa Muerte. Santisima Muerte (Holy Death), is portrayed as a shrouded skeleton, who holds a sickle and often an owl, both symbols of death and the eternal nighttime (Bastante & Dickieson, 2013). 

A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico City.

A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico City.

She is not simply the cultural representation of the yang to Mary’s yin; she is the embodiment of Mexico’s cult of death. Mexican culture is unafraid of death – rather, Mexican people embrace death as just the culmination of living, and have much less social taboo surrounding the subject of death. To Mexicans, this is just about balance.  To the Vatican, the new worship of Santa Muerte is sacrilege and devil-worship; symptomatic of Hell breaking open in Mexico itself. Indeed, the Catholic Church is performing more exorcisms in Mexico than anywhere else in the world (International Business Times, 2013). 

To make matters worse for the Vatican (but not the cartels), new unordained Saints have been invented by the people of Mexico – the most popular by far is Jesus Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, criminals, convicts, prostitutes, and assassins. (Campbell, 2014). Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde worship is influencing the spiritual consciousness of Mexico just as much as the Church did post-colonial invasion, and just as much as pre-Colombian culture roots the collective culture. 

A shrine to Jesus Malverde. Notice the ofrendas (offerings) of tequila and a gold-plated revolver.

A shrine to Jesus Malverde. Notice the ofrendas (offerings) of tequila and a gold-plated revolver.

This isn’t merely a question of social attitudes; the normalization of violence is effecting the pushing of the envelope by the cartels. Ironically, a culture that worships two female figures as pseudo-goddesses (Santa Maria and Santa Muerte), such violence is defined by a precedent-setting level of brutality in violence against women. Mass graves of dozens of women and girls are routinely unearthed, and photos of brutalized women corpses with their panties around their ankles are often on the front pages of the violence-glossies at the grocery store (Wright, 2011). The practice of “femicide” has become so widespread that it’s a message from the cartels, “we own everyone, and we especially own the women. We will kill you and your wife, daughter, and grandmother. No one is safe.” It’s how the cartels continue to control the social consciousness of the public, and dominate the political dialogue, though the failing state of Mexico has been entirely deficient in combating femicide (Wright, 2011). Such violence against women has taken on enormous political significance and it continues to dominate as an effective narcopolitical tool.

The femicide machine in Juarez has taken countless womens' lives.

The femicide machine in Juarez has taken countless womens’ lives. This is the site of a mass grave full of womens’ bodies. 

Contemporary sociological research has provided alarming conclusions about the escalating nature of violence in Mexico. One study from the University of Texas at El Paso found a strong correlation between religious imagery and risk-taking behavior (Shernberger, Smith, & Zarate, 2014). The findings of these researchers suggest that drug war terrorism in Mexico may be exacerbated and validated by their usage of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde in their propaganda and operations. This demonstration has important implications for modern Mexico. Could it also be interpreted conversely; if exposed to religious imagery in a different, anti-drug context, would people be less likely to engage in drug-related activities? If so, perhaps the Catholic Church could become a powerful advocate in deconstructing these narco-obsessive cultural institutions, should they devise such an effective, evidence-based policy. Perhaps the government could also employ these tactics. This context would be a worthwhile topic for future research. 

Past research has revealed that religious images can be used to produce both positive and negative outcomes, with negative consequences being the case most of the time (Shernberger, Smith, & Zarate, 2014). Could future research pose new solutions to this paradox? Could future research perhaps address the alternative solution to how drug cartels often use religious imagery to this end within their organizational behaviors and propaganda (Shernberger, Smith, & Zarate, 2014)? 

Other important research notes the direct connection between the media and normalizing these increasing levels of violence (Mercille, 2014). Academic analysis has shown that as movies, television, and video games present Mexican cartel violence onscreen, US levels of tolerance increase (Mercille, 2014). This also has startling implications for our own culture and representations of violence in the media. 

As individuals, we often like to think of ourselves as our own social agents, who interpret media images and representations as separate from ourselves, our society, and our identities. We may wish it was that simple, and we may often believe it is – but we are products of the society in which we live, both by media portrayals as well as how we influence one another. As one article points out, these glamorized representations are indeed part of the “corporate establishment,” and often reflect the very same viewpoints expressed by top US policymakers, though it may be in stark contrast with reality and empirical data (Mercille, 2014). 

The most important policy recommendations revolve around addressing the  underlying economic issues that may form the fundamental basis of this socio-political dialogue. The US is the single most critical influencing factor in the Mexican drug violence due to demand for Mexico’s drug supply, loose gun control, and political blindness to our complicity in this disaster (Mercille, 2011). The US is also responsible for “implementing neoliberal policies,” as well as encouraging them in Mexico as an interested and invested player, that have increased the illegal drug trade (Mercille, 2011). “The war on drugs has served as a pretext to intervene in Mexican affairs and to protect US hegemonic projects such as NAFTA, rather than as a genuine attack on drug problems. In particular, the drugs war has been used repeatedly to repress dissent and popular opposition to neoliberal policies in Mexico. Finally, US banks have increased their profits by laundering drug money from Mexico and elsewhere; the failure to implement tighter regulations testifies to the power of the financial community in the US,” (Mercille, 2011). These profoundly damning factors reveal the true forces behind US policy and legislative behavior, that without a doubt influence media and public opinion. Without addressing our responsibility as a nation, we cannot expect to escape the consequences or provide a viable solution. Dramatic implications deserve radical solutions.

Social-Conflict theory applies best here, where the perspective clearly rings true; that in a society stratified by class, profit is prioritized over people. However, Symbolic Interactionism suggests that the people of the US and Mexico are ourselves responsible for accepting the growing violence, and normalizing this in our daily lives through our consumption of media. 

Promotional poster for the TV show. Full disclosure: this is one of my favorite shows ever.

While the debates rage on about how to end the violence, TV shows in Mexico and the US glorify the lives of drug traffickers. The most popular of which, “La Reina del Sur,” which portrayed a female drug lord, set US television records, and Telemundo beat out national networks nearly every night it was broadcast (in almost every demographic age group) (Telemundo, 2011). Musical performers tour the US and Mexico, playing narcocorridos and attracting young Mexican Americans to their shows. Families in Mexico eat their dinners while the television news programs and soap operas both consist of drug-related stories and story-lines. Teenagers listen to the narcocorridos on the radio and in nightclubs, and read tweets, Facebook updates, and blog posts that hail the latest cartel victory (Campbell, 2014). 

Along the rural roads that stretch from Mexico to the American Southwest, spiritual pilgrims stop by roadside shrines to Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde (Campbell, 2014). Armed with assault rifles, they leave bottles of tequila and boxes of ammunition as prayer offerings (Corchado, 2009), asking their patron saints to watch over them as they ride into the next firefight or raid. 

Roadside shrines to the fallen in Mexico. They are also common in the Southwest US.

Annotated Bibliography:

Bastante, P., & Dickieson, B. (2013). Nuestra Señora de las Sombras: the enigmatic identity of Santa Muerte. Journal Of The Southwest, (4), 435.

This article explores the deeply rooted cult of Santa Muerte, or, “Holy Death.” She is seen as a kind of sister to Maria de Guadeloupe, the Holy Mother. Santa Muerte is a kind of Mother of Death. Possibly a manifestation of yin and yang sensibilities that are nearly universal to all religious movements, the prominence of the figure in pop culture on both sides of the border is on the rise. Her popularity with criminals and those in the black market and Mexican underworld is undeniable, and critical to the cartel institutions. 

Campbell, H. (2014). Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican “Drug War”: An Anthropological Perspective. Latin American Perspectives, 41(2), 60. doi:10.1177/0094582X12443519

The political entities of drug cartels employ vast amounts of narco-propaganda. This study examines the exhibitive acts of violence, videos released on the internet, public signs and banners, graffiti, blogs, and control of mass media, that are used as tools for the cartels. This expression of ideology threatens to take total control over the culture of Mexico as well as its political processes. 

Corchado, A. (2009). A fighting chance: as Mexico steps up its war against the brutal cartels that supply the United States’ drug habit, leaders on both sides of the border face tough questions about how to combat a problem that threatens the very fabric of Mexico’s democracy. The Wilson Quarterly, (2), 18.

This paper explores how to prevent drug and arms trafficking and violence, and how it relates to the geopolitics of the US and Mexico. 

Dotremon, D., & Gonzalez, R. (2014). Celebrating Robin Hood in Modern Border Ballads. Journal Of Alternative Perspectives In The Social Sciences, 5(4), 683-705.

Analyses the origins and cultural impact of drug-related music in Mexico. 

International Business, T. (2013, November 30). Mexico: Overworked Exorcists Exhausted by Popularity of Skeleton Saint Cult. International Business Times.

Explores the Catholic Church’s response to suspicions of demonic activity in Mexico. 

Loewe, R. B. (2010). El Narcotraficante: Narcocorridos and the Construction of a Cultural Persona on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Journal Of American Folklore, (489), 365. 

A critique of a scholarly book published on the phenomenon of drug-related music in Mexican and Mexican-American culture. 

Maralason, D. (2013). Dia de los Muertos: Celebrating life through Day of the Dead. Las Vegas Business Press (10712186), 6.

Explores the Mexican holiday “Dia de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, and its cultural practices, meaning and representations. 

Mercille, J. (2011). Violent Narco-Cartels or US Hegemony? The political economy of the ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico. Third World Quarterly, 32(9), 1637-1653. doi:10.1080/01436597.2011.619881

Investigates the mainstream perspectives that claim the US is a friendly player in the international drug war, and not a contributor, and that the cartels are the main factor in the drug crisis. 

Mercille, J. (2014). The Media-Entertainment Industry and the “War on Drugs” in Mexico. Latin American Perspectives, 41(2), 110. doi:10.1177/0094582X13509790

An examination and analysis of media representation of cartel violence, as well as a comparison to popular viewpoints of mainstream policymakers and analysts. 

Rios, V. (2013). Who Started the Mexican Drug War? What Google Taught us about the “Narcos”. Kennedy School Review, 1318-22.

Discusses the start of the drug war and the technological solutions that may assist in significant gains in stopping drug violence. 

Shenberger, J. M., Smith, B. A., & Zárate, M. A. (2014). The effect of religious imagery in a risk-taking paradigm. Peace And Conflict: Journal Of Peace Psychology, 20(2), 150-158. doi:10.1037/pac0000022

This research explores the link between religious imagery and risk-taking behavior. Fascinatingly, the study showed that people are more likely to engage in risky behavior when their peers associate somehow with such religious imagery. This has interesting implications for the drug war and understanding the rise of drug culture in Mexico, where certain sub-Catholic/ pre-Colombian-inspired cults, such as Santisima Muerte and Jesus Malverde are commonly worshipped, though they directly relate to gangs, violence, and drugs. 

Telemundo Communications Group, I. c. (2011, January). Telemundo’s Epic Original Production La Reina Del Sur Delivers Highest Premiere Ratings in Network History. Business Wire (English).

Summarizes the records broken by the hit television series, “La Reina del Sur.”

Wright, M. W. (2011). Necropolitics, Narcopolitics, and Femicide: Gendered Violence on the Mexico-U.S. Border. Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture & Society, 36(3), 707-731.

The gender-based violence in Mexico, especially in the borderlands, is explored in this article. Specifically, the article also addresses the response of the authorities, who suggest that this kind of violence is a positive force in society because it rids the population of “undesirable” people such as drug dealers and women with “loose morals.” The author argues that such femicide is the result of a failure and breakdown by the state in protecting the people. 

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Dia de los Muertos

25 Oct

For the uninitiated, this holiday may be a complete mystery. For the traditionalists, it is perhaps the most sacred. The day of the dead is a Mexican holiday that, as many Mexican spiritual traditions, has found cult-like status in the cultural diaspora, as we Chicanos continue to spread across the Americas and world.

I drew this two years ago for the occasion

I drew this two years ago for the occasion

Mexico is certainly a culture that is obsessed with the juxtaposition of life unto death and love unto pain. Suffering is as common of a theme in Mexican folklore, music, and art, as is the reverence of the divine. Some have criticized it as a cult of death, but it is quite the opposite. It is a culture that relentlessly worships the profound nature of living, as opposed to hiding from its impermanence.

As a Latina and a Mexican folklorist-hobbyist, I am pleased to present the above ofrenda as well as my own recorded version of the classic epic folk song, La Llorona.

 

For more on el Dia de los Muertos, please visit: http://latino.si.edu/education/LVMDayoftheDeadFestival.htm

Video

La Llorona :: Mexican Folk Song

7 Oct

guitars/ vocals by Evin Maria Ximena Phoenix
photography by jamie rasmussen
::Traditional Mexican folk song::

La Llorona is a song I’ve grown up loving.. Not just loving, but singing with my guts and grit. A Mexican folk song, it carries with it deep traditions of the music and culture of Mexico, and the general spirit of “la puebla.” A song of death, dying, despair, and loneliness, it is a chronicle of the most epic of ballads. Truly a woman’s allegory, this song epitomizes the voice of “la llorona,” or, the weeping woman.

This song is close to my heart and deeply influenced my style as a performer and songwriter. I hope you enjoy my interpretation of this iconic piece, and I hope I do justice to its roots and pay homage to La Chavela.

From wikipedia:
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly who was the first to compose the song “La Llorona”, since it stems from the hundred-year-old urban legend. However, the song was first made well-known to contemporary audiences in 1993 by the Costa Rican-born singer Chavela Vargas. The song’s name and inspiration comes from the urban legend of La Llorona popular in North and South America. The story is of a woman said to haunt the valleys of Mexico, weeping for her children whom she drowned in a fit of madness. There are many versions to the story, but all are a variation of certain details. In one version, a woman drowns her kids because the man she had been seeing wanted to break things off with her. He did not want someone who already had a family. After he finds out about that she killed her children, however, the man leaves her indefinitely and she then commits suicide.

Lyrics translated into English:
Everyone calls me the black one, Llorona
Black but loving
Everyone calls me the black one, Llorona
Black but loving
I am like the green chile, Llorona
Spicy but tasty
I am like the green chile, Llorona
Spicy but tasty

There in my weeping, weeping you’re my girl
There in my weeping, weeping you’re my girl

I removed the crybaby loving you, but never forget
I removed the crybaby loving you, but never forget

Alas, Llorona Llorona,
Llorona, take me to the river
Cover me with your shawl, Llorona
Because I’m dying of cold

Yes, because I love you, Llorona
Love you, want more
If you’ve already given your life, Llorona
What more do you want?
Do you want more?

Although the story lines differ when comparing the song and the legend, both integrate common themes such as loneliness and despair. One popular interpretation of the song is of the singer feeling trapped by this woman (La Llorona) who has fallen in love with him. If he even thinks about leaving her, she weeps. He tries everything in his power to leave her, but he is trapped by the woman’s twisted mind games. He wishes to be taken down to the river to be drowned, and so then his suffering can finally end. The suffering that the man goes through from being trapped in a relationship with a woman in a way parallels the suffering that the woman in the legend goes through from having her lover leave her.