Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas

Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas

Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas

All wars have their bards, and Mexico’s ongoing narco wars are no exception.


This essay was translated by Alfred Mac Adam.

In December 2006, a few days after taking the oath of office, the new president of Mexico issued a bland order that was also a brazen provocation. Felipe Calderón directed the army to join forces with the police in cracking down on the drug cartels operating in many parts of the country. These collaborations were called “combined operations”; the first was launched in the president’s home state of Michoacán, and it was quickly followed by others in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Baja California. The next year, during the swearing in of the National Council of Public Safety, Calderón described the strategy by using two words that would alter the life of the nation: crusade and war.

The president caught many Mexicans off guard. While crime statistics in Michoacán were among the highest in the nation that year, the number of homicides at the national level was at its lowest in a decade. At no time during his campaign had Calderón suggested that he would unleash the military against the country’s drug cartels. Moreover, Mexico was still embroiled in a series of street protests led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City who, as the candidate of a coalition of left-wing parties, rejected the results of the national elections: in the official recount, the difference between him and Calderón was less than 1 percent. López Obrador proclaimed himself the country’s “legitimate president” in a massive demonstration at Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo.

Numerous critics quickly pointed out that Calderón’s measures seemed designed to legitimize his presidency and curb his rival’s attacks instead of efficiently combating organized crime. In the drug cartels, Calderón also appeared to have discovered an enemy that could plausibly be treated as the incarnation of absolute evil and thereby justified his use of ominous terms like “crusade” and “war,” both derived from his own militant Catholicism and the 9/11 rhetoric of George W. Bush, as well as the United States’ longstanding “war on drugs.” (Events in Colombia may also have emboldened him: in 2002, Álvaro Uribe was elected to office with 53 percent of the popular vote and went on to become one of the country’s most popular presidents by taking a hard-line stance against drug traffickers and guerrilla forces.) On September 12, 2008, during the opening ceremonies for the courses of the Military Education System, Calderón reaffirmed his declaration of war: “It is absolutely necessary that all of us join this common front, that we all move from words to deeds, that we honestly declare war on the enemies of Mexico, and that we pursue the victory the nation demands and which is its right.” These military metaphors, employed repeatedly by the government, depicted the conflict as a fierce struggle between good and evil: on the side of evil, naturally, were the drug traffickers, opposed by the heroic forces of good commanded by Calderón, who had no compunctions about being photographed wearing a military uniform, something unprecedented in the past century of Mexican history. The forces of law and order were determined to annihilate the drug traffickers, no matter the cost.

This Manichean mind-set quickly collided with a more ambiguous and complex reality: when the drug traffickers, or narcos, enter a community, they alter all aspects of its productive life. On the one hand, they infiltrate the police force and the judicial system; on the other, thousands of people who are victims of drug violence get identified as being members of a criminal organization, whether or not they were really involved in the drug trade. The government’s use of the term “war” gave the impression that it had a well-defined strategy with precise objectives, that at some point it would defeat the narcos. But it soon became obvious that Calderón’s government lacked a strategy; nor would the president make his goals clear, even as the number of deaths in the war grew exponentially and the human rights violations committed by the security forces began to tarnish their image.

During the first stage of the war, Calderón did not seem to consider that targeting the cartels’ bosses and top managers could destabilize the precarious balance of power within the cartel system and provoke a bloody struggle for control among the survivors. As Eduardo Guerrero, a specialist in security matters, noted, each arrest or death of a cartel boss—which the government invariably celebrated with a spectacular media show—was followed by a wave of violence that lasted until the cartel in question was either in the hands of a new boss or had splintered into rival factions.

In 2010, four years after the start of Mexico’s “war on drugs” and in the face of growing rejection by the public, Calderón stopped using the expression. His failure was obvious, and it continues to be reflected in the stability of the street price for drugs in the United States. In 2012, a gram of cocaine cost $177.26—74 percent less than it did in the 1980s. If inflation is taken into account, the price of other drugs has also fallen. Some other signs of failure: the jail sentences for those convicted of crimes related to the drug trade are light, and the number of deaths related to organized crime has reached 47,500, according to official tallies. Other analyses estimate the number of dead at 64,000 or even, according to the poet and activist Javier Sicilia, 70,000, to which should be added some 26,000 missing persons and about 250,000 displaced people. These are figures comparable only to the casualties in a civil war—that is, to a real war.

* * *

All wars have their bards, and Mexico’s narco wars are no exception. Since 2006, myriad fictions have been added to the torrent of news articles, academic studies, poetry, artworks, movies, telenovelas and music (the famous narcocorridoscorridos are narrative folk songs) about narco culture. Of course, long before Calderón’s war, drug traffickers, especially in the northern states of Sonora and Sinaloa, had inspired countless corridos and been taken up as subjects by Mexican novelists.

In 1984, the Sinaloa playwright Óscar Liera wrote and staged El jinete de la divina providencia (The Rider of Divine Providence), a theatrical work based on the figure of Jesús Malverde, a kind of Robin Hood from Culiacán who in the early years of the twentieth century was revered by the public for his good works. In the play, investigations carried out by the church lead to Malverde’s eventual canonization (he was not canonized in real life). In effect, he became a folk saint for the narcos, who forgot his history and simply prayed for him to protect them. Around the same time, in Colombia, Fernando Vallejo published La virgin de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins, 1994), perhaps the first masterpiece in the genre, a novel that focuses on the desolate lives of the young sicarios, or hit men, working for the drug bosses in the city of Medellín. Vallejo opened a path for later novelists with the reproduction—actually, the literary reinvention—of the special slang of the hired killers. Following his example, many writers in Colombia and Mexico elected to give a literary patina to the language of the narcos and, by doing so, created one of the essential features of the so-called narconovelas.

The honor of introducing the theme to Mexican literature fell to another writer from Sinaloa, Élmer Mendoza. Born in 1949 in Culiacán, a city linked to drug trafficking since the dawn of the twentieth century, he’d published several collections of short stories and two works of nonfiction—Cada respiro que tomas (Every Breath You Take, 1992) and Buenos muchachos (Good Boys, 1995)—and a few articles about drug trafficking in his state before writing his first novel, Un asesino solitario (A Solitary Murderer), in 1999. Composed along the lines of a detective novel, Un asesino solitario portrays the life of a hit man hired to murder a presidential candidate during his visit to Culiacán; its title echoes the government statement made about the assassin of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate of the long-dominant PRI, who was killed in Tijuana in 1994. Mendoza not only incorporated “the effect of narco culture in our country,” as Federico Campbell wrote, but with acute auditory sharpness also recovered the slang of the criminals in the zone. 

Though he does so only fleetingly, Mendoza includes the world of organized crime in his novel, an approach quickly taken up by scores of writers. Notable among these is the Spaniard Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of bestselling literary thrillers and adventure novels. Pérez-Reverte transformed the female boss of the Sinaloa narcos into the protagonist of his La reina del sur (The Queen of the South, 2002), itself transformed into a successful telenovela. As the Colombian author Jorge Franco had done earlier in his Rosario Tijeras (1999), Pérez-Reverte introduced a fascinating female character into territory previously reserved for men: she is Teresa Mendoza, and her name pays homage to Élmer Mendoza, who had been Pérez-Reverte’s guide in his travels through the narco world of Sinaloa.

During the last ten years, narconovelas have flooded the bookstores, sparking interest among Mexican readers and foreign critics in a new strain of Latin American exoticism and displacing magic realism as the region’s characteristic genre. In these books, Mexico is portrayed as a violent, uncontrollable and fantastic world in contrast to the West, which consumes drugs without suffering or being scarred by the violence of the trade.

A few examples: in El vuelo (The Flight, 2008), Sergio González Rodríguez combines the detective novel with the supernatural; in A wevo, padrino (Hell Yes, Godfather, 2008), Mario González Suárez transcribes the delirious interior monologue of a thug immersed in the narco world; in Al otro lado (On the Other Side, 2008), Heriberto Yépez turns to science fiction to describe living conditions along the border, with its myriad cholos, “immigrants,” narcos and hit men; in Conducir un tráiler (Driving a Trailer, 2008), Rogelio Guedea delves into a northern Mexico devastated by drug trafficking by means of a story of family revenge; in Malasuerte en Tijuana (Bad Luck in Tijuana, 2009), Hilario Peña uses a Sinaloa detective to dramatize the dangers of life on the border; and in Tijuana: crimen y olvido (Tijuana: Crime and Oblivion, 2010), Luis Humberto Croswaithe turns to the “nonfiction novel” to denounce the murder of two journalists.

These and other books created a world that transcended stereotypes and became a paradigm repeated incessantly in novels, TV serials and films: a universe dominated by danger, death and the unforeseeable, a world of pathetic heroes and villains increasingly hard to tell apart—poor adolescents who become professional killers; beautiful young girls used as a medium of exchange; gunmen killing one another for no reason other than to fill an existential void; clumsy, ill-paid cops, almost always corrupt; and, of course, a few narco bosses transformed into multimillionaires, notable for their outsize eccentricities. These were new romances of chivalry in which no one knows what he’s fighting for; where, as the corrido says, “life is worth nothing”; where acts of heroism are extreme and rare; and where staying alive past 30 is a kind of victory.

The keenest paradox is that the most ambitious and well-crafted narco novel, the one that controls and unifies all these elements instead of being their creature, was written not by a Mexican but by an American, Don Winslow, who in The Power of the Dog (2005) skillfully re-creates the turbulent decade of the 1980s in Mexico in a kind of roman à clef (anyone familiar with the history of drug trafficking in Mexico knows the real names behind the fictitious characters). Winslow focuses on the reign of the Arellano Félix brothers and the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki" Camarena Salazar in 1985 at the hands of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo.

Some excellent narco novels attempt to depart from the detective format. Cocaína (Manual de usuario) (Cocaine [A User’s Manual], 2006), by Julián Herbert, is an intelligent collection of stories that takes up the drug theme from the perspective of addiction; Los minutos negros (The Black Minutes, 2006), by Martín Solares, uses black humor to depict crime and police corruption in Tampico; and Trabajos del reino (Kingdom Cons, 2004), by Yuri Herrera, and Down the Rabbit Hole (2011), by Juan Pablo Villalobos, are the most eccentric—and applauded—visions of narco culture in Mexico.

* * *

“Mexico 2010: Nothing to Celebrate.” This was the impish publicity slogan for the film El Infierno (Hell), Luis Estrada’s ferocious satire of Calderón’s “war on drugs.” In 2010, as part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s War of Independence, the government decided to finance films that would depict and perhaps demystify national heroes. Estrada was among the directors who received funding, but he quickly ditched the program to satirize Calderón’s narco strategy. It was both surprising and praiseworthy that a movie financed with public funds could be so critical of official policy and remain uncensored. El Infierno opened in 300 theaters two weeks before the bicentenary celebrations and was enormously popular.

El Infierno focuses on the figure of Benjamín García, “El Benny,” an undocumented Mexican deported from the United States, who returns to his hometown in northern Mexico and tries to settle back into his old way of life. He realizes that not only his hometown but also the entire nation is in the hands of the narcos, who control the politicians and the police. While at first he tries to avoid joining any criminal group, El Benny has no other choice but to become a sicario. The heavy-handed irony, bloody gags and digressions into infinite atrocious anecdotes pilfered from the news—the decapitations and the bodies dissolved in acid by El Pozolero (the Stew Chef)—make El Infierno difficult to digest, but the film’s ability to arouse public indignation has not been equaled by any contemporary film or literary work.

That same acid bath of humor is drawn by Juan Pablo Villalobos in Fiesta en la madriguera, named one of the best first novels of 2011 by The Guardian. The first volume of a projected trilogy about contemporary Mexico, continued in the much more ambitious and deftly crafted Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Lived in a Normal Place, 2012), Fiesta en la madriguera is written in the humoristic vein of Mexican literature and calls to mind authors like Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Carlos Monsiváis and Juan Villoro. Its basic idea is as brilliant as it is risky: a child narrates the family life of a cartel boss. Curious and impertinent, obsessed with samurai and hats, the child, Tochtli, reveals slowly but surely the bloody, implacable world of his father, Yolcaut, as he describes with an explosive mix of innocence and cynicism his bizarre daily life surrounded by drug traffickers. The characters’ names—like Tochtli, which means “rabbit,” or Yolcaut, which means “rattlesnake”—are Nahuatl in origin.

Few literary undertakings are as perilous as the creation of a child’s voice. In their desire to reveal a logic and an imagination lost to adults, a world of wonder, many writers succumb to the temptation of making their child protagonist too naïve and elemental, or too wise and adult. In Fiesta en la madriguera, Villalobos uses a dry, precise voice, avoiding lyrical turns of phrase and employing a breathless, intricate syntax to present the child’s anxiety-ridden perspective:

I think we really are a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that, because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection of hats from all over the world and from all the different periods of the world.

Through sentence inversion, eccentric word use and the evocation of an alternative moral reality, Villalobos is able to represent the mind of a particularly self-aware child who finds himself at odds with the rules of his monstrous family. Even so, Villalobos does not dig deeply into the strange consciousness of his character. Instead, he leans on a few gags, their only purpose being to reveal the twisted behavior of Tochtli’s father:

The other day a man I didn’t know came to our palace and Yolcaut wanted to know if I was macho or not. The man’s face was covered in blood and, the truth is, I was a bit scared when I saw him. But I didn’t say anything, because being macho means you’re not scared and if you are scared you’re a faggot.

But Villalobos doesn’t make the most of Tochtli: he has not added anything new to what is already known about the narcos from the newspapers and television—once again, they are sadistic and eccentric—nor has he offered an especially moving portrayal of an innocent’s perception of horror.

Even the novel’s central episode is marred by these defects. Tochtli speaks of owning a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia, a detail obviously inspired by the hippos that the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar kept in his private zoo. (Escobar’s hippos appear in another narco novel, the very powerful El ruido de las cosas al caer [The Sound of Things Falling], by the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez.) In the episode, as ridiculous as it is atrocious, Tochtli’s life has been deformed by the eccentricities of the drug trade—namely, being the son of a Mexican narco who will do anything to keep him happy. But the episode reveals what we already understand, and no more: Yolcaut’s obvious coarseness and Tochtli’s outsize desires. For all its excessive cleverness, Fiesta en la madriguera does not transcend clichés about the narcos. If anything, it ends up making them worse.

* * *

Cervantes counts as one of the few writers in the Spanish-speaking world who were able to subvert fashion, undermining the clichés and plot constrictions of a popular genre—in his case, the chivalric romance—to create in Don Quixote a perdurable and universal work. The same can be said of Juan Rulfo, who with Pedro Páramo (1955) upended the novel of the Mexican Revolution. With three novels to his name, the 42-year-old writer Yuri Herrera seems intent on carrying out the similarly necessary task of vaulting over the walls of the narco novel.

In Trabajos del reino, Herrera approaches the subject in an unexpected way—the arrival of a corrido composer at the intimate circle of a drug lord is told as the story of an ancient bard meeting a medieval lord:

He admired him in the light of the limits of the day that filtered through a hole in the wall. He’d never been this close to these people, but Lobo was sure he’d looked on the scene before. Somewhere, the respect the man and his people inspired in him was defined, the sudden sensation of the importance of his finding himself so close to him. He knew his way of sitting, eyes raised, the shine. He observed the jewels that wrapped around him, and then he understood: this was a king. 

Here metaphor functions in a surprising way and, with no need to reproduce the jargon of the characters, Herrera creates a radically new language—just as Rulfo did with the speech patterns of Los Altos (the highlands) in Jalisco—and condenses into a few pages what other authors need hundreds to convey: the panoply of loyalties and betrayals that surrounds the bosses; the vileness, clumsiness and fear of the sicarios; the irredeemable corruption of society at large; and, especially, the way art becomes an accomplice of crime. A narco novel and an implicit criticism of narco novels, Trabajos del reino is a surprising literary jewel.

Five years later, Herrera exceeded all expectations with the even more surprising Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs That Precede the End of the World, 2009). Some elements from his first novel reappear: the wise deconstruction of colloquial northern Mexican Spanish; the mixture of different levels of reading; the creation, with just a few brushstrokes, of memorable characters; a plot that can be read in several keys, from realism to allegory. But Herrera makes use of his resources even more skillfully, refining them to extremes of narrative efficacy and linguistic beauty, as if the grandsons of Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo had become wetbacks at the outset of the turbulent new century.

Señales que precederán al fin del mundo is not a narco novel, or perhaps it is, but only in a tangential way. Narrated in the manner of a fable, it is about the border between Mexico and the United States, but it is also about any border. The book chronicles the adventures of Makina, an astute, free-spirited and temperamental girl who has to travel the world in search of her disappeared brother. The homage to Rulfo, whose town of Comala is inhabited by the dead, is no accident: Makina survives in the macho world of the North like one of the rogues from the picaresque novels of the Spanish Golden Age. She escapes multiple misfortunes and finally achieves her objective, which will ultimately transform her, much to her sorrow, into someone else. Her odyssey contains mythic elements derived from both the Western European and Native American traditions, like her wading across the Rio Grande recalls crossing the river Styx (the other side is always the land of the dead). But Herrera never forgets the turbulent and moving humanity of his protagonist: adroit, angry, ineluctable, Makina is destined to become one of the essential characters of Mexico’s new literature.

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