Mexico: Narco Culture and Brutal Narco Reality Converge


EspañolThe phenomenon known as “narco cultura” (gangster culture) is one that, although recognized and studied for several decades, has seen gains in popularity and interest in recent years. The escalation of the drug war in Mexico and its consequent violence have given rise to a once largely “underground” sub-genre of music known as “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads.

The increased popularity and commercial success of narcocorridos, which often glorify the brutality of the drug cartels, has brought with it mounting questions regarding their potential societal effects. This question is, in fact, at the center of a newly released documentary film, titled Narco Cultura and produced by photojournalist Shaul Schwarz.

Buknas de Culiacán. Source: Narco Cultura.
Buknas de Culiacán. Source: Narco Cultura.

The film chronicles one such narcocorrido group based in Los Angeles, California, called Buknas de Culiacán. Their songs include “Sanguinarios del M1” and poetic musings such as “With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/ Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off/ We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill.”

Con cuerno de chivo y bazooka en la nuca

Volando cabezas a quien se atravieza

Somos sanguinarios, locos bien ondeados
Nos gusta matar

– “Sanguinarios del M1” by Buknas de Culiacán

Obvious comparisons have been made to the “gangsta rap” era of hip-hop in the 1990s, which was inspired by — and some critics have argued may have contributed to — real-life acts of violence. Indeed, the “East Coast/West Coast” melodrama that played out within fierce artistic verses can be said to have culminated in the murders of two of its leading artists in Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G.

Sergio Gomez from K-Paz de la Sierra.

In this way, narco cultura does actually resemble the broader gangster culture that has enthralled North American and European audiences for generations. Likewise, Mexico has seen the deaths of narcocorrido musicians, including the high profile murders of Valentín Elizalde and Sergio Gomez of K-Paz de la Sierra.

However, with regard to degree and scale, there are important differences between the gangster culture and music that emerged from societal conditions in south central Los Angeles and Brooklyn, New York, and what is occurring in present-day Mexico. While the murders of Tupac and Biggie were undeniably tragic, unlike Sergio Gomez and the scores of other narcocorrido singers who have been killed, they weren’t kidnapped, tortured, and butchered at the hands of the very people their music portrayed.

El Señor de los Cielos
El Señor de los Cielos, based on Juarez kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Source: Telemundo.

Between 2006 and 2008, there were over a dozen musicians associated with the narcocorrido genre who were murdered, and these trends continue to this day without any sign of change.

Similarly, telenovelas like El Señor de los Cielos or the upcoming made-for-American-tv drama El Varon de la Droga (The Drug Lord) — based on the adventures of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — are arguably not much different than proven commercial successes like The Godfather, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad (which, incidentally, inspired its very own narcocorrido based on the fictional Heisenberg).

However, the difference between gangster movies, music, and television shows emanating from North America and the narco cultura flourishing in Mexico is that the gangsters in Mexico depicted in pop culture are very real, very dangerous, and still very much alive — as in the case of El Chapo Guzman. Additionally, like El Chapo, these men are also known to operate with impunity, assisted and enabled by corrupt governments at the highest levels of power.

Melissa Plancarte, daughter of the Knights Templar cartel leader, poses in her Templario suit.
Source: Borderland Beat.

To complicate matters further, narcocorrido pop stars within Mexico not only provide private audiences to the heads of the most notorious cartels, some, like Melissa Plancarte, are directly related to the cartel leaders themselves. This is an extremely troubling element of the current cultural environment in Mexico — one where narco culture and narco reality converge and are increasingly difficult to separate.

Even while acknowledging these facts, it would be foolish to conclude that narco culture itself is a cause of drug war related violence.

In a recent interview on Demanufacturing Consent, Ioan Grillo, author of the book El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, commented on concerns over narco cultura. Grillo explained that in his opinion the culture can in a way serve to justify the “alternative society” these gangsters operate in, but there are also other much larger factors at play.

Ioan Grillo
Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. Source:

“I don’t think it’s the root of the problem. It’s just a symptom. If you really want to change things, you’ve got to change the realities on the ground. You’ve got to change the options for young people: the reality of a justice system, the reality of when you have neighbors with no paved streets, with the government not really existing in these neighborhoods or offering anything to young people. When they see the cartel as the only source of advancement for them — you have to change that reality. Then people can watch a soap opera about gangsters and it can be more harmless.”

At a base level, these stories can indeed raise the profile of organized criminals as antiheroes, and even capitalize monetarily on real world tragedy. On a deeper level, however, through dramatized fiction and over-the-top song lyrics, narco culture is able to explore a shadowy and dangerous world and reveal ugly, yet necessary truths. It can often go places that traditional news journalism cannot, even if susceptible to the same inherent risks involved in reporting on these activities.

When examining narco culture and its relationship to the societal realities of violent crime, it’s not as simple as to say “gangsta rap made me do it,” as Ice Cube would put it. There is undoubtedly a world of difference between how a teenager living in a suburb of Los Angeles relates to a narcocorrido, than one in the barrios of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, or Culiacán, Sinaloa.

Narco cultura is indeed a symptom of much larger social, economic, and political realities that are, in truth, created entirely by a black market that would not exist if not for state-enforced prohibitions. The solution is not to ban narcocorridos, as states in Mexico have sought to do. That has neither decreased the demand nor the profitability of the industry and serves as a commentary on what prohibition will do to a market. A real solution requires a critical look at the actual underlying problem. The process itself may be difficult, but the answer is simple: end the war on drugs.

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