La nueva narco-religión

23 03 2009

In Culiacan, Sinaloa/ they land with much urgency/ A special operation with maximum power / in the compound of the DEA/ at the in the center of intelligence

They brought in a lieutenant and performed surgery on him/ He ended up looking just like Malverde / anyone would be fooled / Presidential secrets / That’s how the CIA works

A very astute man / he was the best police / and he visited the narcotraffickers just how he looked / They thought he was Malverde and offered up prayers to him.

The impostor asked them: Where do you move your shipments/ to protect your merchandise/ be it through Tijuana or Nogales/ And when they told him / He sent the police after them.

The dudes are astute and soon they realized what was going on / They caught that liar / at the other end of a machine gun / in the neighborhood of Las Quintas, there they evened the score.

The only thing left of the impostor/ are his remains up there on the hill / they say he doesn’t even have a tomb / the dogs gobbled him up / He wanted to pass for Malverde, but Malverde is not a game

This gory ballad is an example of the now infamous narcocorrido, but with a religious twist. The narcocorrido is a Mexican song celebrating the exploits of a drug-related outlaw or kingpin, and is a genre made famous by such popular groups as Los Tigres del Norte. In this one, faith also comes into play, as a rather strange fable is weaved of the government using the superstition of the drug traffickers to catch them in the act of illegal smuggling. The emergence of such “narcosantos” as Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte is not an isolated incident in the popular Mexican religious consciousness, but is rather a sign of escalating violence in Mexican society, the growing importance of the drug trade, and the general decline of the rule of law.

Last Wednesday, I attended an event hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies here in Berkeley on the topic of the cultural implications of the drug trade and rising violence in Mexican society. The main speaker was the Mexican journalist and intellectual, Alma Guillermoprieto, and the title of the talk was “The New Narcocultura”. Though the event was advertised to be a talk about culture, the main thrust of the talk was the background as to why drug violence is escalating in the first place. Though she touched briefly on the religious aspects of the escalation of the drug war, as with many public intellectuals in secular society, she painted the religious issues with strokes that were too broad to catch the nuances involved in the cults to these narco-saints. There is much more continuity between their cults and the general Catholic practice than most would care to admit.

Ms. Guillermoprieto’s description of the increased violence in Mexico and its origins were most compelling, and her reasoning was air-tight if counterintuitive to an American audience. She described how dozens of mutilated bodies are being found in public places in broad daylight, and that parts of Mexico that were historically immune to drug violence are now becoming fresh battle grounds. For her, this is not a result of a failure of the drug war, but of the drug war itself. According to her description, all of this is due to leading drug families (not “cartels”) being scattered throughout Mexico and competing for turf. At some point, the drug families will stop attacking each other and begin to attack the government. The scariest aspect of these events is that the drug traffickers can attack and kill the police without much consequence, and there is so much money changing hands that the police are often already bought off before the battles even begin.

The pre-history of the drug trade begins in the state of Sinaloa, which is incidentally the home state of the folk saint, Jesus Malverde. Marijuana has been grown and trafficked from there for more than a hundred years, and heroine poppies also grow quite well in that region. After a while, “families” began to emerge to regulate this trafficking. When the first drug war started late last century, these families scattered from Sinaloa to establish themselves in other parts of Mexico, often buying off the police and the military in the process. Although they left with an agreement to not step on each other’s turf, lately these gentleman’s agreements have been breaking down, causing more and more conflict. Added to this is the emergence of players not from Sinaloa, such as the bloody but disciplined Los Zetas, who are ex-cadets in the Mexican military trained by the United States to combat the drug traffickers. They instead went into business for themselves.

Culturally, the rise in conflict in Mexico has led to the apotheosis of violence in many of the sectors involved in this dangerous trade. Murders are not only more frequent, but more and more brutal and disturbing. People are left dead in the streets with “Columbian neck ties”, heads and hands cut off, and other marks of extreme brutality. For some years now, these events have been celebrated by the narco-ballad praising various kingpins and “heroes” of the drug trade. This is an example of one of the earliest ones from Los Tigres del Norte, cited in the presentation:

[The story is basically about a couple who smuggled marijuana across the border in the tires of their car. After they do the drop in Los Angeles, the woman kills the man, takes the money, and disappears.]

Singers in Mexico often get bought off just like the police, and often serve as their P.R. wing. Here is a song dedicated to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, made infamous now by being named by Forbes Magazine as one of the richest men in the world. (Guillermoprieto was incredulous about this distinction, since the drug trade has such high overhead costs that it would be hard to assess his real worth):

Though the event was advertised with a poster of the Santa Muerte, the religious aspects of these phenomena were only briefly described at the end of the talk. For her, the emergence of the cults to Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte are the result of a search for meaning in the midst of violence. They are also a result of the extension of the drug trade itself. As the “families” and their people move throughout Mexico and beyond, they spread their own “devotions” with them. As I have pointed out, Jesus Malverde was local bandit turned folk saint in Sinaloa, and since his devotees spread throughout Mexico for “business” purposes, so did his cult. The origins of Santa Muerte are more obscure, but Guillermoprieto’s hypothesis is that it spread due to the rise of the Gulf Coast traffickers who were most in contact with santeria and other syncretic cults. The images of Santa Muerte notably shocked the audience during the presentation.

While Guillermoprieto’s theories are very plausible, they do not tell the whole story. Folk saints have been part of Latin American Catholicism for centuries, and bandits have been “canonized” by the people for years throughout Latin America, from Pancho Villa to Gauchito Gil. Not only that, but these narco-traffickers tend to also keep their devotions to St. Jude and the Virgin of Guadalupe, so the break from tradition is nowhere nearly as stark as our presenter wanted to make it. She was also adamant that Santa Muerte was not Mexican at all, but this is also quite false. The Santa Muerte is about as Mexican as el pulque and el nopal. The oldest statues of a skeleton saint date back to at least the eighteenth century, and they were venerated in at least three parts of Mexico, albeit underground. A version of Santa Muerte even made it to the Philippines, which is a mirror image of Mexican Catholicism in the Asian context. Though its origins remain obscure, and its spread is obviously due to the drug trade, it is much older and familiar to the Mexican psyche than Guillermoprieto would care to admit.

Although I have been ambivalent about the cult to Santa Muerte in the past, I will admit that its spread and current form are inspired by the rise of brutal violence in the drug trade, and the emergence of a new “narco-religion”. People in such a dirty and bloody business, on both sides of the law, become devotees to Santa Muerte since they live in the state of complete despair and fear. They know that they are going to die, they would just like to avoid a gruesome death. Or worse, they know they are going to die, and they pray to Santa Muerte or get her tattooed on their bodies so that she can avenge their death. In a lawless society, Santa Muerte is seen to be “justa entre las justas”: completely fair and not given to favoritism. Everyone dies in the end, and according to her devotees, it is Santa Muerte who comes to pick you up and take you to your final judgment. They feel that they need to be on her good side, so they often consider her their “madrina” or godmother in a life defined by crime and violence.

Guillermoprieto’s solution to all of this would not be a very popular one with an American audience: legalization. For her, all of this is not due to a failure to act, but rather to a flawed principle that “if you fight an invisible trade with guns and rack up the prices, you are not going to have more violence”. Throwing more guns into the equation will not solve the problem, according to the night’s speaker. As the violence escalates and weakens the stability of the Mexican state, more radical solutions will have to be sought to try to diminish the narco-culture that has Mexico in its terrible grip.

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19 09 2009

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