Column: ‘Narco-culture’ deeply complicates Mexican drug conflict

Authorities won’t win Mexico’s war until they address media and culture.

Songs blaring violent lyrics like “With an AK/and a bazooka taking aim/blowing off the heads/of whoever gets in the way,” are often heard in narcocorridos, songs influenced by the Mexican drug cartel. They are only one symptom of the influence of Mexican drug cartels. These lyrics, taken from the song “El Movimiento Alterado,” are perfect examples of the genre of music explicitly dedicated to the life and culture of drug trafficking.

Along with their own musical genre, they have developed movies, art, language and even a quasi-sect of Catholicism around their illicit trade. Though Mexico certainly has a culture separate from drug trafficking, the trade has begun to sink its roots into many facets of culture. The cultural influence of the cartels is greatly reflected in the numbers and statistics that describe them.

Since 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence as various cartels battle law enforcement and each other for a share of the American drug market, worth about $60 billion annually. Their reach is not only in Mexico; the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that cartels have operations in 1,286 U.S. cities.

The number of people involved in the trade is testament enough to the extent and power the cartels hold; the Sinaloa cartel is estimated to employ as many as 150,000 people at any time. That puts the Sinaloa cartel in the ranks of major corporations, with more employees than Dell (which has 109,400) and slightly more than Disney (149,000). And the Sinaloa cartel is only one of dozens of similar groups.

Cartels have access to seemingly unlimited money and cruelty, which they use to assert their rule over regions and to sway those dedicated to fighting against them. Even the top officials are subject to their influence; in 2008, Mexico’s former top anti-drug official was charged with providing information on investigations to cartels for the grand sum of $450,000 a month.

Through the use of their money and size, the drug cartels have established themselves as a norm of Mexican culture. They have their own media that glorify their acts of violence and portray the cartels as revolutionary heroes fighting the government instead of criminals.

The movie “El Bazukazo” is a typical movie from this genre. A large percentage of the movie is spent following a specific group of “narcos” as they intimidate, murder, drink expensive liquor and copulate with beautiful women. The characters in the movie hail themselves as “hombres de acción” or “men of action.” As they threaten and murder, they are portrayed as a brotherhood, a group of men who “have each others’ backs” instead of a band of criminals. The cartels have managed to twist their media image, and this romanticized image has won themselves more acceptance in the eyes of the Mexican population.

Drug traffickers even have their own saint that is prevalent in the folk Catholicism of the country. Shrines revering the narco-saint Jesús Malverde dot the Mexican landscape. Though the facts surrounding the actual man are sparse and widely debated, he represents a Robin Hood-like figure that offers protection to those about to embark on a smuggling mission. Traffickers come to his shrines to pray or leave alms for safety and to pay their respects after a safe trip. The walls in his largest shrine in Culiacán are covered with plaques and gifts thanking Malverde for safe passage and profitable business.

These examples do not mean that Mexico has been overrun by the cartels or that there is no other Mexican culture outside of them. However, the cultural influence the cartels do wield cannot be ignored.

The war on Mexico’s drug cartels cannot be won by pure force. The 50,000 soldiers deployed to combat the cartels are not enough to wage effective war on the narco-culture that has pervaded the region. The Mexican military can detain as many leaders as it pleases, but it will not get far without combating the way traffickers are viewed by Mexico as a whole.

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