Mexican journalist explores contemporary narcoculture

Alma Guillermoprieto, a Latin American correspondent, is a visiting professor in the departments of English, Romance languages and literatures, and Latin American studies.

By Kelin Hall

Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto spoke Tuesday on the role of narcotic trafficking in the development of Mexican folk, religious, and musical culture during a lecture sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.

Guillermoprieto is the Tinker Visiting Professor in the departments of English, Romance languages and literatures, and Latin American and Caribbean studies.

Born in Mexico City, Guillermoprieto spent much of her life in the U.S. and has written groundbreaking stories for major publications, including The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, as well as several books in both Spanish and English.

The talk was the first of the year’s Latin America Briefing Series, a public education program presenting talks, videotaped and available online, which are free and open to the public. The talks bring together the leaders from the academic, policy, and business communities to weigh in on current issues facing Latin America.

Guillermoprieto began the talk by explaining why the popular analogy that fighting the war on drugs is like squeezing a balloon—if you push the air out of one part it only enters another—is “completely misleading, wrong, and false.”

She suggested that the drug trade is more like a virus that can never be truly eradicated. Even if there are no symptoms, the organism will still carry it, she said. Similarly, once the drug trade is eliminated, the judicial system, army, and government will still carry the corruption that the trade generated, she said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s new war on drugs, she explained, has set off a struggle for control of the trade, resulting in an intense escalation of violence.

The epitome of the cultural reaction to the situation is the narcocorrido, an adaptation of the corrido, a medieval song recounting heroic and decidedly violent tales—an apt genre in which to tell stories about the drug trade.

Through this medium, the traders have become heroes. People wear drug paraphernalia that mixes embroidered marijuana leaves with Swarovski crystals, emblematic of the links between drugs and fortune.

As she played the video clips demonstrating different popular versions of corridos and narcocorridos, Guillermoprieto encouraged the audience members who “were really Mexican” to sing along, and she sang out a few phrases herself.

But she elegantly balanced the entertainment with the harsh reality of the situation.

“All narcocorridos on YouTube have corpses,” she said. The videos show people being executed, while simultaneously extolling and reinforcing a culture marked by so much violence.

Beyond the songs, which “give courage,” the participants have generated religious systems to nurture their faith, she said.

In Mexico City, the church that houses the “Saint of the Impossible” now draws such a crowd of “spikey-haired, black T-shirted, chain-clad youth,” Guillermoprieto said, that the police have to shut off the block around it—one of the most highly trafficked blocks in the city.

In another city, a fabricated saint, Jesus Malverde, translated as “Jesus of the Bad Green,” has become very popular. Guillermoprieto explained that the name actually “means, of course, the good green, marijuana,” and that the saint represents to people a sort of “20th-century Robin Hood.”