By O. Hugo Benavides
In May 2017, the acclaimed band Los Tigres del Norte was fined $25,000 for singing a couple of narcocorridos (traditional Mexican ballads with lyrics that tell of the exploits of drug traffickers). The city of Chihuahua, Mexico, where the concert took place, considers that performing such songs is an “act against public security” (Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2017). "We always sing what the people want to hear, and what the people are living," lead singer Jorge Hernandez had said in 2009, after the group preferred to cancel a Mexico City venue performance rather than being censored.
Los Tigres del Norte are a musical institution for Mexicans, Chicanos and other Latinos. They have taken on a folk hero identity and have been consistently adamant that they don’t seek to glamorize cartels or narco-culture but simply, as popular artists, express and reflect contemporary reality in their music. They sing about all kinds of border issues such as immigrant life and political corruption, and that includes, drug cartels and narco-culture. But violence in Mexico has only worsened. Not only is 2017 one of the most violent years in modern history, but the disappearance of 43 teacher training students in Ayotzinapa in 2014, which still have gone unaccounted for, only serves to heighten this tragic reality.
Since the 1970s, as social and political violence began to escalate, narcocorridos and narcodramas became part of Mexico culture. And narco-telenovelas (or narconovelas) have become the most recent cultural artifact to represent the complex and violent world of cartels and the transnational drug trade. Unlike narcocorridos, however, narconovelas have so far successfully escaped explicit state censorship. They still encounter the same implicit bad press, accused of contributing to the increasing state of violence, corruption and drug consumption. Also implicit in this critique is the myth (and hope) that the drug trade exists in a simplistic black-and-white vacuum, where ever more complex factors of poverty, immigrant challenges, state corruption and a colonial legacy that continues to impose strong racist, gender and class forms of discriminations do not exist.
Narconovela actors also have been consistently ostracized by the national elite and intellectuals, for their populist appeal, along with their glorification of drug-related behavior and violence. However, since the mid-2000s, narconovelas have become an important part of Mexico's and Colombia’s telenovela market and are more and more influential throughout the Americas. As with the drug trade it would be Colombia the first to produce and control the narconovela market.
Despite the fact that criminal violence, political corruption and money laundering had been present in telenovelas before most hail Sin tetas no hay paraíso (2006) as the first official narconovela. Following this initial success there would be a series of them to hit the market between 2009-2010: El cartel de los sapos, Las muñecas de la mafia, El patrón del mal, Rosario Tijeras (there would be a Mexican re-make in 2017), among a couple of others. However, it would be La reina del sur, that would reach and surpass “Sin tetas’…” initial success and also cement Mexico’s narconovela production, reaffirmed by the more recent productions of El señor de los cielos (2013-2017), and La señora de acero (2013-2017).
Narconovelas elaborate a story set within the larger violent context of the drug trade and immigration, and incorporate a violent Mafia-like ethos of loyalty and trust. They always present a patriarchal power structure (even when the head of the drug cartel is a woman) with beautiful women paraded as sexual objects, and have significantly added seasons to telenovela productions (blurring the lines even more between narconovelas and television series). They also exploit the typical melodramatic structure of excessive sentiment, musical cues for the development of the plot, and a moral metanarrative of local good versus a global evil.
Most significantly, narconovelas set up an alternative moral political structure in which the state, government, politicians, law enforcement, bureaucrats and soldiers, are seldom portrayed as the good guys. The heroes are always either Lone Ranger types or misunderstood (and sometimes conflicted) drug dealers. This alternative narconovela structure has made it particularly difficult for the state and elite to tolerate the genre but has further secured its popular appeal. The illegal elements of narconovelas, their subversive representation of official authority and dynamic expression of popular culture are essential to their success.
Narconovelas portray narcos as likeable subjects who, although involved in the illegal drug trade, maintain strong social and personal commitments to their local communities, family members and friends. At the same time, they are mostly active on Mexico's northern frontier, reflecting the broader picture of the migrant condition and the drug trade. However, narconovelas also maintain an inherent relationship with their Colombian counterparts, the continent's initial drug producers and the group from which Mexican cartels clearly learned their trade.
It was the development of several regional centers of sophisticated drug marketing and export to the United States (as opposed to mere local production) that marked Colombia's violent expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean. It would not be long, however, before this particular Colombian model of strong family-run cartels coupled with extreme violence and strict honor codes, all pointing to a dangerous and fast lifestyle, became the model for the Mexican drug industry. Mexicans, eventually, stopped being mere intermediaries between the two markets and claimed a stake in drug production and trade, independent of the Colombian cartels.
This Mexican drug trade independence meant several things, including the encouragement of contestatory agrarian politics among northern rural peasants. These northern transformations were part of the region's historical heritage of opposition to the official (and hypocritical) trade monopoly proclaimed by the central government in Mexico City. At the same time, these new Mexican cartels and drug lords also had at least a century-long history of outlaw figures to fall back upon. As sociologist Luis Astorga points out since the 1920s Mexicans were already trading illegally across the northern border to support not only themselves but whole communities that were being left out of the state's monopoly practices. Thus the more lucrative and dangerous drug trade introduced by Colombian cartels only added a dramatic element to an existing network of informal entrepreneurs and hard working laborers in the area.
These shifts in the local communities’ social relationships also reworked the more traditional representation of Mexicans from a peaceful (or backwards and lazy as expressed in racist U.S. caricatures) to a more violent and gang-prone identity. This representation was coupled in the United States with an urban, xenophobic and anti-immigration discourse. In this manner narconovelas can be read as a more complex and local image of illegality than that imposed by both Mexico's official government discourse and that of the neighbor of the north.
Therefore violence is central in narconovelas. It reflects a survivor mentality that at all costs had made this northern region thrive over the last century. The popularity of narconovelas reflects the primary role of violence in people’s lives along the border as a mechanism of daily survival that has been incorporated at so intimate a level that it creates new cultural products in conjunction with, or from, it. This is not surprising considering that border towns and regional ports, like images of the old West in the United States, have always been dynamic and violent.
We have seen, since the 1980s, an increase in military surveillance of the border, including not only the construction of fences and increase in state and civilian patrols, but most recently the rhetorical insistence that Mexico will be made to pay the construction of a wall across its whole northern border. Many have noticed this almost paranoid response from the United States, a country that not only claims immigrant origins but looks to increase the flow of goods between countries. It is almost as if the goods, not the people, are deemed the only acceptable objects of free trade, emphasizing the essential role of commodities and the commodification of people as a colonial legacy of capitalist expansion.
These particular forms of border and state violences nourish narconovelas. So does the image of the United States that is present in narconovelas, mainly as the enforcer of drug laws and guardian of its borders from Mexican (and Latin American) criminals. But the problem is that neither position is truthful or derives from a respect of national sovereignty.
Narconovelas reaffirm this Latin American narrative of the predatory policies coming from the north. That is, most of the central heroic figures of narconovelas are drug lords and traffickers, as well as illegal immigrants, but the fact is that they are not really criminals from the Third World perspective from which they are being represented and reenacted. The allure, and seductiveness, of these heroes, mostly men, of course, comes from their not pretending to be innocent players, but rather, taking full responsibility for their illegal trade and violent behavior, and the implications of both. It is this honest acceptance of who they are and have always been (because they have been immersed as Karl Marx would say, in a history of violence not of their making) that has captured everybody’s imagination. As inhabitants of the border (geographically and otherwise), audience members not only relate to these protagonists but also know them intimately, from the inside out.
The similarities do not end there, however, as the naïve figure is also incorporated for mirroring purposes and offered as another level of seductive psychic integration. If there is anything that is ultimately recoverable from the way in which the empire of the North ever looks to historically annihilate its enemies it is the appearance of Lone Ranger figures on which it is impossible to place social blame. Even though these heroes are enshrined in positions of power that are the direct result of their home country’s criminal behavior, it is that same contradictory innocence that allows them to be seen as somehow above or free of the constraining and constitutive behavior that has explicitly contributed to making them who they are. Thus it is this contradictory character who finds himself facing the hero’s dilemma in narconovelas and who is also what allows us to see the hero in a good light, even though he is involved in the drug trade and goes around killing almost everybody in sight.
Therefore, the U.S. presence in narconovelas is central, even though it is always (and, for melodramatic reasons, must be) represented by stock figures who fulfill their roles with predictable accuracy to secure the greatest effect. Narconovelas are re-presenting decades, if not over a century, of imperial policies that have made explicit use of physical and emotional violence to hide its (and the audience’s) insecure global moral positioning.
It is this border identity, more independent, but not totally so, of the official rhetoric of mestizaje, that has proven paradigmatic in a new type of northern regional identity, one that sees itself enshrined in the narconovelas. The political and cultural implications of this newfound norteño identity are extremely varied and fertile, including its incorporation into the national myth of southern Mexico’s identity represented by Indians; the center's (mainly Mexico City), by intellectuals; and the north, by criminals. This emblematic image of the cultural division of the nation was further complicated when large groups of Mexican Indians from the south migrated to the north, not only looking to cross the border but also seeking new socioeconomic possibilities in the northern border cities of Tijuana, Chihuahua, and even the infamous Juárez.
This new migrant push was also accompanied by a constant influx of Central and South Americans looking to use these northern Mexican cities as their base to cross the border. This same influx of Latin Americans has further fueled the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States. However, under the shadow of the opulent north, all of Mexico’s northern cities have grown exponentially since the 1980s, from small cities into quite large, and at times chaotic, metropolises. It was this uncontrolled development into a new globalized urban sprawl that supported the view of Tijuana and other border cities as criminalized urban centers that have nothing to do with the true spirit of the Mexican nation, at least as officially defined by the state.
This new expansion at the southern U.S. border was further affected by the United States’ restructuring of its economy within the new global capitalist order. It was this restructuring that supported larger regional alliances such as the one enabled by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and allowed the vigorous creation of maquiladoras—clothing assembly plants—throughout the region. This industrialization contributed to greater socioeconomic exploitation and a new gendered division of labor; all of these partly responsible for the massacre of young women in Juárez and Chihuahua, whose bodies and lives, no longer just their labor, are seen as objects for the enjoyment and use of the patriarchal structure.
It is is exactly these elements that the most recent Mexican narconovelas such as El señor de los cielos, La reina del sur and La señora de acero would exploit; interestingly enough these last two have female protagonists as the cartel leaders. Narconovelas exploit these ambiguous violent scenarios where gender discrimination and the patriarchal structure are both re-inscribed and subverted at one and the same time. La reina del sur was particularly poignant in this regard also expanding the border imaginary beyond Latin America’s neighbor to the north and heading back to Spain – La madre patria – to control the European drug trade alongside Arab, Russian and Serbian mobsters.
These developments contributed to an even more subtle reworking of border identity as an illegal one; one constituted both by the racist Mexican and xenophobic European and North American discourses. From this perspective, narconovelas have both incorporated and contributed new forms of resistance that subtly articulate the border criminal as the hero escaping the corrupt Mexican and North American law enforcement officials who are always looking to gain the upper economic and moral hand.
As a narco character notes when a U.S. citizen had been robbed in Mexico, “That is so uncommon, since it is always the other way around.” In some ways, narconovelas have been able to incorporate the violent and criminal behavior of the Mexican-Colombian and North American states to find human spaces of liberation and agency, precisely because this genre looks to escape the oppressive and inhumane civilizing norms that have defined our existence for much too long.
Therefore the representation of violence in narconovelas, as in other minority cultural genres like hip-hop and rap, rejects the naïve sense of moral innocence or righteousness. The discourse of being above the utterly disastrous social conditions of a society being depleted by its own government and left to suffer at the hands of transnational maquiladoras and border patrols is a rhetoric available only for elite and white (in figurative racial terms) people. That is why narconovelas, above all, are not about the white elite but about “true” Mexicans/Colombians (Latin Americans), and what being Mexican/Colombian (Latin American) is all about.
The narconovelas are a local story told by Latin Americans about Latin Americans in which both the Latin American and the U.S. states may limit and condition the contours of the cultural narrative but not the scope, essence and agency of those who have the most at stake in daily life. Narconovelas may be violent, but they are infinitely more humane and realistic than any antidrug campaign or judicial process for massacred women in the area has ever been, or most likely will ever be. All disempowered Latin American communities know that as surely as they know the consequences of crossing the imaginary border that separates them from the North and, ultimately, from themselves.
O. Hugo Benavides is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department at Fordham University. He has written three books and more than forty-five articles on Latin American cultural politics, and lives in Brooklyn with his partner and four beautiful cats.