Culture from Horror:
On Teaching the Mexican Drug Wars
In his essay for the Mexico course units offered by the new educational website Words Without Borders Campus, the Mexican writer Francisco Goldman raises an outcry in memory of Ayotiznapa—the word on the lips of tens of thousands of his fellow citizens who continue to march through the streets calling for justice and government reforms. On the night of September 26, 2014, forty-three students, most of them teenagers studying to be rural schoolteachers at the Ayotzinapa Normal School, were “disappeared” in Iguala, Guerrero. Their disappearance is a state crime in which a corrupt mayor, the local police, a narco gang, and federal forces all colluded. Ever since, political and judicial authorities all the way up to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto have been involved in a cover-up of the crime, sharply noted in an April 26, 2016 editorial in the New York Times.1 The editorial describes how the final report on Ayotzinapa by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an external group brought in to investigate, has been blocked in various ways and then summarily disrespected and ignored by the Mexican government. The Times editorial criticizes the government of Mexico for its “lack of political will to reform judicial institutions and its callousness toward its citizens.”
The crime called “Ayotiznapa” can be added to a list of tens of thousands of murders, kidnappings, extortions, and outrageous acts carried out over the past decade by growing, corrupt alliances between a handful of warring drug and human trafficking cartels, several state and city governments, and the Mexican federal government, such that the narco cartels have assumed the power and authority of shadow criminal states. Apologists for this perverse transformation of whole regions of the country into allegedly state-sanctioned criminal enterprises reason that such evil partnerships may be Mexico’s most pragmatic means of pacifying the country and imposing an uneasy truce to end the horror of the Mexican “drug wars.”
The forty-three missing students of Ayotiznapa thus become the latest human sacrifices to Mexico’s often bloody history marked by cycles of violence: the era of the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century; Mexico’s first constitutional independence from Spain and turbulent 19th century, at its center a humiliating, costly defeat in the war with the United States, losing almost half its territory—then the new nation disturbed by frequent internecine feuds carried on by its landed oligarchy. And before that, the 300 years of Spanish colonization, infamous for its cruel peonage system of agrarian slavery and native genocide; then the tribal battles and religious violence reaching all the way back to Mexico’s pre-Columbian, indigenous blood-ritual ceremonies performed on the summits of the pyramids by Aztec priests with obsidian knives who cut out living, beating hearts from their sacrificial victims. That the murdered students of Ayotiznapa were mostly from Guerrero’s poor, rural indigenous people is significant. So is the slogan shouted by protestors of their murders: ¡Fué el Estado! (“It was the state!”) The history of Mexico describes varying cycles of its government acting as a systematic repressor of its poorest and most powerless citizens, thus of the majority of its people. When this repression has become widespread enough, the Mexican people have risen up and forced change.
For thirteen years, I’ve been a part of Words Without Borders, the international magazine of world literature in translation, and I serve on its board. I’m a writer and teacher committed to world literature, to exposing students to its richness—and to how “reading the world” provides experiences of diverse cultures, so that they might become more informed global citizens. For four years, I’ve also been helping to make, from the magazine’s extensive backlist of fiction, poetry and essays translated from 112 languages from more than 120 countries, the Words Without Borders Campus website. Edited by author and education specialist Nadia Kalman with assistance and support from Executive Director Karen Phillips and WWB staff, the site organizes teachable, themed “units” of literature in translation from different countries, aimed at both high-school classrooms, as well as introductory studies at colleges and universities. In addition to publications from the magazine, the site commissions contextual essays and original writing that provide informed perspectives on literature and culture. For each unit, we add multimedia resources from scholars and authors, such as video interviews, audio recordings, numerous Internet links and resources about each country’s language, and the challenges of translation—plus a menu of useful teaching tools. In 2014 and 2015, Words Without Borders Campus launched a testing phase, which so far has been completed in eighty high-school and college classrooms, offering units from three countries: China, Egypt, and Mexico (we added Japan in 2016, with Russia soon available in 2017).
One of the most widely read and controversial issues Words Without Borders has ever published is on “The Mexican Drug War”2 put together in 2012 by Susan Harris, Editorial Director, with a Guest Editor, Mexican writer and poet, Carmen Boullosa. Because of the topical, impactful writing in this issue, one of the major educational sub-units for Mexico offered by Words Without Borders Campus is organized around this disturbing theme.
In 2015, I first taught this unit from the site, to test it. Given the nature of the topic of the Mexican Drug Wars, with its stark confrontations of such searingly tragic, macabre, shocking realities and crimes, I didn’t know what to expect from my students. I teach at UNLV, currently rated among the top five most diverse colleges and universities in the United States.3 My class represented this, with a range of different races, ethnicities, and income-level backgrounds, including two recent students who had recently immigrated, and two working high-school teachers who regularly shared news from their diverse classrooms in Las Vegas. Despite this diversity, like most American students, my class had been exposed to very little world literature in translation—a few classics, perhaps, plus an eclectic sampling from the contemporary. In my opinion, based on thirty-five years of teaching, one of the most distressing developments over the past three decades in the high-school and even college-level preparation of most American students has been an increasing cultural myopia and literary isolationism. International studies, writing in translation, foreign languages, all are subject-areas steadily more marginalized in favor of more focus on “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). How ironic that this is happening in an era when, all the better to comprehend globalization and just what it means—and to cope with it in a sophisticated way (urgently needed now in response to the Trump presidency and its thuggish isolationism)—increased awareness of the world should be one of the top concerns of American education. Indeed, the rise of extreme nationalism and ever-more-reckless forms of xenophobic populism can be in part be blamed on this educational myopia. Words Without Borders Campus, designed to provide students with eye-opening, multi-cultural experiences, is directly aimed at helping to correct this educational failure.
Before studying the Mexican Drug Wars, our class had explored the theme of “Leaving Home”—reading about the often heart-wrenching issues of immigration of both documented and undocumented workers, and of Mexicans who attempt, often with great difficulty, to return home from economic exile and assimilate back into Mexican society. We had also studied some of the folklore and beauty found in indigenous writing, organized around the theme of “The Mother,” so proverbial and iconic in Mexican tradition, as translated from the Purépecha and Mazateco languages. We had learned something about Mexico’s history and art, and about the astonishing variety and complexity of Mexican diversity spread out across the spectacular mosaic of its geography.
While preparing to teach the unit on the Drug Wars, I was more than a little apprehensive that such dark, existentially challenging reading, so shocking in its witness to violence and mass murder, might lead to my class dead-ending into a numbing fatalism, with the students seriously depressed and turned-off—a result not at all the positive influence Words Without Borders Campus intends. I should have known better. Students are more emotionally and intellectually resilient, and more imaginative, than I generally am. One of the great rewards of being a teacher is that, in teaching them, we can often learn more from our students than they do from us.
What I learned from my students about the Mexican Drug Wars is how a vibrant, thriving culture, including new art, has arisen from horror. The WWBC unit on the Mexican Drug Wars includes poems, essays, and commentaries by such luminary Mexican authors as Carmen Boullosa, Juan Villoro, Luis Felipe Fabre, and Fabrizio Mejía Madrid, among others. Assignments for each of these readings, including contexts and playlist resources, were for students to use their Internet skills to find augmenting material—to think of the site as a kind of educational octopus, with tentacles reaching out from a cohesive center into whatever they could find, then they presented what they discovered to our class. My students found alternative truths about this hard subject, and several new perspectives. Their presentations were generally not so much about the “war,” as about Mexico and its people struggling to come to terms with, by either resisting or accepting, the realities of an emerging narco culture in Mexican society.
Like any culture, narco culture has its own literature, stories of heroes, villains, and new social codes with commonly accepted tropes—most not in print but in Internet media. This literature usually expresses two main themes: the heroes of resistance, those political activists, brave journalists, and common people fighting back against the cartels; or the anti-heroes of narco lore, the stories of gangster outlaws who rise in an unjust world at any cost, proud of their capacity for murder and violence. My students compared Mexican gangster ideologies to similar tropes found in rap or hip-hop in U.S. inner cities.4 One student presented an overview that describes major figures in the drug cartels taken from Guardian journalist Anabel Hernández’s scathing book, Los Señores del Narco, framed by that magazine’s interview,5 in which Hernández states: “So many Mexicans do not believe the official version of this war. They do not believe the government are good guys, fighting the cartels. They know the government is lying...” Another student brought in El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin (which is the basis of a recent movie), and an audio link to an interview with a former hit man6 who worked for the police and a narco-gang at the same time, underscoring the increasingly complex alliances between police and criminals. One of the students found the Telegraph feature that describes the passionate resistance to narco violence led by poet Javier Sicilia7, who lost his son, an innocent bystander in crossfire. Our explorations were emotionally affected, or framed, by beginning with poet Carmen Boullosa’s lament for Mexico,8 her mother country, on the WWBC site: Where did you fall, sleepless homeland / like the star in the story / like the drunk woman who crashed into a lamppost?
In class, we kept asking ourselves questions: Why is this happening? What are the possible social and political solutions—if any—that might stop these horrors? Would the Mexican government’s militancy in declaring “war” against the narco gangs, with soldiers and gangsters shooting it out in the streets (as was official policy for at least six years) actually help? And what should be our own responses to these horrors?
We spent considerable class time going over a Princeton University-sponsored research study (by Calderón, Robles, Magaloni, and Díaz-Cayeros)9 discovered by a serious, ambitious student, a Filipino-American immigrant who drew parallels to corruption and crime in his home country. The study analyzes the policy of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s government (2006 – 12) to use military campaigns and police raids to kill off or engage in “beheading” leaders of the drug cartels, from middle management on up. Evidence shows how this policy resulted in increased violence and homicide, murder rates spiking especially in border cities and regions, with little effect on drug traffic. And as if in defense of President Calderón, we watched and listened to a BBC interview10 in which he blames, in part, the dangerous and irrational policy of uncontrolled gun sales in the United States. That controversial U.S. policy, backed by the National Rifle Association with all its bullying political influence, permits gun stores (most located in Texas or Arizona) to sell to both U.S. and Mexican straw-buyers who act as shamelessly profiteering arms dealers, equipping whole narco-armies with advanced weapons with which to fight their bloody wars. The U.S. Congress does nothing11 about it. Since the turn of the millennium, an estimated 26,000 people have been killed by narco violence in Mexico,12 most by bullets purchased in the United States. Our class then linked to a series of Drug Enforcement Agency maps showing the territories controlled by Mexican drug cartels in the U.S., the narco-traffickers firmly established, for decades, in our cities, forming alliances mainly with various urban American street gangs—the Mexican Drug Wars are distressingly close, as close as next door, or just down the block (updated map one13 and map two14 cited here).
This Filipino-American student relayed an auto-biographical event which was shocking for all in our class. While he was working in his family’s garage, his house only a few short blocks from an opioid drug treatment center in a neighborhood newly afflicted by gangs, an armed robber entered through the open garage door to steal tools and other valuables. Though this student did not resist, the robber shot him anyway. After spending a night in the emergency room, he came to class on crutches the next day, his leg wrapped in bandages, and with a knee brace—he was determined not to let a difficult surgery he would require mess up his exam week and so ruin his hard-earned grades. So he gave his final presentation to us with the bullet still lodged in his knee.
Another student in our class, an aspiring economist, looked into the impact of narco-trafficking as a business sector to the Mexican economy, treating it as objectively as possible. The drug trade (and human trafficking that goes along with it) now contributes between twenty-five billion and forty billion dollars yearly to the Mexican economy. At the same time, narco-violence in 2013 is estimated to have cost as much as fifteen percent of Mexican GDP.15 Amid these conflicting statistics, it’s difficult to measure how drug cartel profits and their economic impact balances against losses to legal commerce, especially to tourism, caused by the drug wars. Neither has any very accurate calculation yet been made to determine the agrarian economic impact of annual crops of poppies and marijuana, fields that are growing and thriving, openly, especially in the Mexican highlands; or of the spread of state-of-the-art production laboratories—like numerous small factories—for methamphetamine. In 2015, with violence gradually diminishing under new PRI party President Peña Nieto’s less interventionist and allegedly more collusive policies with the narco gangs, Mexico’s economy grew a reported 2.5 percent—which is a respectable rate, despite falling oil prices (a half-point higher than economic growth in the U.S.). Notwithstanding their effect on growth, the cartels, and narco culture, have become permanent features of the Mexican economy.
Would legalizing drugs in the United States help to stop the Drug Wars? Would such a radical change in U.S. domestic policy curb the power and influence of the cartels, as well as our own homegrown street gangs, by taking away their core business? My students explored these questions, and suggested that legalization might actually work. One student brought in an article with early indications published in the Washington Post (a more updated WaPo piece16 is linked to here, published after my class concluded) suggesting that the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. is, indeed, having a significant effect on cartel profits. But as would any business, the Mexican cartels are now reacting, changing their product streams by increasing production and exports of heroin and methamphetamine, and by more human trafficking.
The drug and human trafficking business, when looked at objectively, and coldly, can feel eerily like almost any other business. We found a similar sentiment expressed in the narcocorrido “La cruz de amapola” (“The Poppy Cross”), in the way it uses the language of business, referring to drug lords as “managers” and drug dealers as “distributors,” and in one of its lyrical refrains: “This is nothing new, gentlemen, / And nor is it going to end; / This is a lifelong business, / The Mafia of global origin.” As Juan Villoro writes in his essay on the WWBC site, “Violence and Drug Trafficking in Mexico”17:
“Over the decades, drug-trafficking has created a subculture, a kind of parallel normality. Nowadays, it’s possible to give birth to your child in a hospital owned by drug-traffickers or narcos, baptize him in a church owned by narcos, enroll him in a school owned by narcos, bring him up in a condominium owned by narcos, hold his wedding reception in a function room owned by narcos, get him a job in a business run by narcos and hold a wake for him in a funeral parlor owned by narcos.
Villoro might have added how his exemplary boy-child might also grow up listening to narco music and watching narco movies. Two students explored the worlds of low-budget films and the narcocorridos, a popular musical genre rising out of outlaw narco culture much in the same way gangsta rap and hip-hop did in the 1980s in the United States. We listened to the parodic ranchera melodies and discussed the coded, double-meanings in “La cruz de amapola” and “Mis tres animales”18 (“My three animals”), available on the WWBC site. Also, for more than three decades, narco-culture has been growing its own fringe movie industry, producing hundreds of low-budget movies or videohomes (“home videos”) per year, giving rise to a subculture of directors, stars and entertainment icons19, such as Enrique Murillo, who directed twenty-six narco-movies in a single year; and veteran character actor, Mario Almada, who may be the most prolific movie actor on the planet (maybe even in film history), having appeared in more than 1,000 videos and films, so many that he long ago lost count. A link and story that posts access to trailers of “the 10 best vintage narco films”20 provides an overview of early classics of the genre, which influenced mainstream Hollywood directors such as Oliver Stone and Robert Rodriguez. The Netflix series “Narcos” draws from this genre as a source, as did the sensational A&E series, “Breaking Bad.”
Narco movies and narcocorridos are being produced by drug lords, with direct script and song lyric input exceeding the old Hollywood studio system moguls in their power. They insert content meant to aggrandize themselves and spread Robin Hood-like myths throughout Mexican popular culture. And their narco-films have long-ago crossed the border to become popular alternatives to more mainstream entertainment in the U.S. So widespread is the audience for Mexican narco movies and home videos that titles are routinely refreshed and for sale in Walmarts21 across America, and my students in Las Vegas could easily find them. And in both the U.S. and Mexico, the number of recent, serious issue films that treat the social consequences of the Drug Wars and heroic resistance to the narcos and the official corruption they engender is growing, including director Matthew Heineman’s prize-winning 2015 documentary, Cartel Land, produced by Kathryn Bigelow; or the exemplary serious drama, Heli, for which Amat Escalante won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Festival, and which was Mexico’s official entry in the Foreign Films category for the 2013 Academy Awards.
Narco culture is rapidly growing its own religion, too, with the cult-worship of the folkloric figure of Jesús Malverde, patron saint of los narcos, derived from a 19th-century legend of an outlaw from the Sinaloa highlands. And even more rooted than Jesús Malverde is the worship of Santa Muerte, a death-cult figure often dressed like a feminine Grim Reaper with a death’s head skeleton reminiscent of the famous engravings by José Guadalupe Posada, inspired by the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. The figure herself carries resonant echoes of the pre-Columbian, indigenous goddess, Mictecacihuatl, one of the pair of rulers over the Aztec underworld. The Santa Muerte figure is often tattooed on the arms or chests of narcos. Shrines to her are found in the homes of the lowest cartel foot soldiers on up through the ranks—including the house of the infamous serial kidnapper, Daniel Arizmendi López, known as El Mochaorejas for his practice of cutting off ears of his victims during negotiations; and in the house of Gilberto García Mena, one of the major bosses of the Gulf Cartel. Santa Muerte is prayed to by wives, girlfriends, and families of cartel members. Ritual sacrifices (and promises of them) are made to her, especially by narcos in prison, and before committing their crimes. Santa Muerte, by one estimate, has as many as twelve million dévotées, or roughly ten percent of Mexico’s population.
The emergence of a religious death-cult is nothing new in Mexico—rather, it can be considered a contemporary variation on long-standing traditions—and the fatalism of its narco versions recall a folk lyric sung during the Mexican Revolution: life is beautiful, life means nothing. The eerie correspondence of Santa Muerte to a pre-Columbian deity also echoes a common practice in early Spanish church construction in colonial Mexico. In the fantastically ornate, baroque altars of these churches, indigenous peasant-laborers often hid a clay or stone figure of a roughly corresponding Mesoamerican god behind the niches that housed statues or carvings of Roman Catholic saints. The more deeply our class explored the Mexican Drug Wars, the more echoes from (or through) the long sweep of Mexican history we discovered, some reaching back at least 3,000 years, suggesting that, perhaps, some aspects of narco culture might not be quite as new as we had initially believed. Our class noted striking similarities between maps that display the geographical origins of the nine major indigenous language groups in Mexico (or, roughly, the native-Mexican tribal territories) and maps showing the regions and cities currently under the control of the seven (or eight) major drug cartels. Given the humble, often rural, working-class origins of so many drug lords and their followers, this raised a question: how much of the vicious in-fighting among the cartels (fights over territory, without doubt) can be viewed as a resurgence of ancient tribal blood feuds, rivalries and wars? And is this question even politically appropriate to ask, given Mexico’s contemporary realities?
The story of the recently re-captured Sinaloa Cartel drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman—a topic in U.S. media for his extradition process—embodies the kind of anti-heroic figure celebrated in narcocorridos, narcocinema, and narcoreligión. In many corners of Mexico, particularly in his home state of Sinaloa, El Chapo is considered a hero, a kind of Robin Hood, rising up out of rural poverty to the status of a king. Other recently captured drug lords have similar stories: Miguel Treviño Morales, a former leader of the Zetas cartel (infamous for their gruesome, signature practice of beheading their victims) was a street kid who ruthlessly fought his way up from the mean streets of Nuevo Laredo. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, a former leader of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas (currently serving a twenty-five-year federal prison sentence in the U.S.), started out as an auto mechanic. Most drug lords, including El Chapo, fit a mythic type, or a trope, described by Fabrizio Mejía Madrid in his essay, “The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny-goat”22 on the WWBC site: “The ideal drug trafficker…is somebody who justifies everything by way of an individual cult to personal autonomy: he doesn’t let himself be ordered around, doesn’t give in; he knows that he lives only once and that he doesn’t want to be poor. Nor does he want to go to the United States as an illegal immigrant, which would mean a loss of power: emigrating. He prefers to ‘export’ drugs there…”
Madrid’s essay sums up the most common anti-hero storyline of narcocorridos, narco movies, and in prayers to Jesús de Malverde and Santa Muerte: it’s the story of the rise of the young man from the repressed underclass, who risks it all to succeed, no matter what, quite often leading to a celebrated death by violence at a young age. It’s the story of an outlaw who fights and murders his way out of poverty up through the ranks of the narco gang, admired and pursued by beautiful women, paying off corrupt police, judges, and politicians along the way. Ruthlessness, risking all with guns and violence, is his stock in trade. From the point of view of a people who see themselves as historically repressed—especially for young, poor, rural men without access to educational opportunities that the forty-three students of the Normal School (or teachers’ college) in Ayotzinapa were on their way to demonstrate for in a town plaza to demand more resources to support on the day they were “disappeared”—this outlaw myth offers a possibility, through cruel, delirious fantasy, of at least one life-path that might lead to financial and political advancement in an historically class-stratified Mexican society.
But the story felt most deeply by my students is the counter-story to such a false folk myth—it’s the story of the heroism of the Mexican resistance to narco gangs and violence, all the more reinforced by news of the outrageous crime of Ayotzinapa and its popular response. This is the discovery they were most inspired by and that they most embraced, the story that they wished most to tell others about and pass on: how the Mexican resistance—now with Ayotzinapa as its focus—has become a protest cry on the lips of hundreds of thousands of honest, hard-working, exceptionally moral and ethical people in Mexico, a people who are fed up with the drug wars and the ruling PRI party’s corruption. As Francisco Goldman writes:
If “Todos somos Ayotzinapa” (“We are all Ayotzinapa”)—as the slogan shouted out at so many protests marches and carried aloft on so many banners goes—then we are all poor, indigenous normalistas now, and we are their families and neighbors, too. In reality, most of us are not them, of course, but in some part of our hearts, we are. That simple, poetic metaphor has now become a part of Mexican reality; and it holds out the hope and promise of even greater transformation.
- New York Times Editorial Board, “Mexico Runs Away From the Truth,” April 26, 2016.
- “The Mexican Drug War,” ed. Carmen Boullosa, Words Without Borders, (March 2012).
- See “Campus Ethnic Diversity,” U.S. News, 2017.
- For example, Geto Boys’s “Aint With Being Broke,” 1991.
- Ed Vulliamy, “‘Mexico’s war on drugs is one big lie,’” The Guardian, August 31, 2013.
- “Former Hitman Warns Others to Avoid His Path,” Here & Now, prod. Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, June 2, 2011.
- Alfonso Daniels, “Mexico’s drug war : a poet and the people fight back,” Telegraph, December 6, 2012.
- Carmen Boullosa, “Sleepless Homeland,” Words Without Borders (“The Mexican Drug War,” March 2012).
- Gabriela Calderón, Gustavo Robles, Beatriz Magaloni, and Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, “The Beheading of Criminal Organizations and the Dynamics of Violence in Mexico’s Drug War,” Princeton University, September 25, 2013.
- “U.S. graft adds to Mexico’s woes,” BBC News, March 30, 2009.
- Chris McGreal, “How Mexico’s drug cartels profit from flow of guns across the border,” The Guardian, December 8, 2011.
- Jason M. Breslow, “The Staggering Death Toll of Mexico’s Drug War,” PBS Frontline, July 27, 2015.
- Ollie Gillman, “The United States of El Chapo: DEA cartel map of America shows that the fugitive drug lord dominates almost the whole of the U.S.,” Daily Mail, November 30, 2015.
- Christopher Woody, “These maps show how Mexican cartels dominate the U.S. drug market,” Business Insider, December 15, 2016.
- Natalie Southwick, “Mexico Violence Costs Country 15% of GDP: Minister,” InSight Crime, November 14, 2013.
- Christopher Ingraham, “Legal marijuana is finally doing what the drug war couldn’t,” Washington Post, March 3, 2016.
- Juan Villoro trans. Margaret Jull Costa, “Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico,” Words Without Borders (“The Mexican Drug War,” March 2012), re-published on Words Without Borders Campus.
- Fabrizio Mejía Madrid trans. Rosalind Harvey, “The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat,” Words Without Borders (“The Mexican Drug War,” March 2012), re-published on Words Without Borders Campus.
- Bastian Espada, “6 Insane Things Happening Throughout Mexican Cartel Culture,” Cracked, February 11, 2015.
- Lisa Liebman, “The 10 Best Vintage Narco Films, Mexico’s Underground Drug Dramas,” Vulture, September 9, 2015.
- Bernardo Loyola and Abelardo Martín, “Narcotic Films for Illegal Fans,” Vice, August 31, 2009.
- Map of Aboriginal Mexico.
- Map of Drug cartel areas in Mexico.
- Mardid, 2012.