The seductive lure of Mexico's drug lords
REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar Weapons, among other items including drugs, money and jewellery, seized during several anti-narcotics operations in Mexico are displayed during a news conference at the headquarters of the Attorney ...
The seductive trappings of a bloody business that is consuming Mexico is stored in warehouses that dot the countryside.
Hummers, ornate pistols, Rolexes and emerald-encrusted necklaces make up a cache of assets belonging to drug traffickers before they were seized by the state.
These are the riches of narco life: Partying in an outlandish mansion which has a caged panther and an albino tiger, employing a Look-What-I-Have attitude that extends to the Italian marble walls of the air-conditioned mausoleums where the chiefs rest. The traffickers have been known for their ostentatious style, sporting a designer cowboy look with bedazzled boots and gold neck chains.
Now, more discreet brethren dress in the finest threads, frequent storied social clubs and disappear into an urban landscape where it is increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.
This is Mexico these days: a country ravaged by a brutally violent power struggle between drug cartels and authorities, a society entangled in a web of narco love and narco hate. Tantalized by power and excess; terrorized by the deadly showdown in their midst.
Narcocultura, as it is know in Spanish, is everywhere. In popular music, fashion, business and movies. The narco patron saint and Robin Hood-type character, Jesus Malverde, is emblazoned on ball caps; his shrine in the home state of the ruthless Sinaloa cartel is adorned with fresh flowers. Pretty country girls vie for beauty queen status, and perhaps a chance at a narco prince who could give them a life of luxury. They fill the nail salons and splurge on attire that mimics that of narco leading ladies.
The narcos are trend-setters; their money changes lives.
According to various estimates, the Mexico drug trade generates $8-billion to $30-billion a year, and it is an industry that employs tens of thousands of people. President Felipe Calderon launched an aggressive offensive after he took office in late 2006, deploying 45,000 military troops in a "drug war." More than 5,000 people were killed in "drug-related" violence last year - the bloodiest on record - and the death toll continues to mount.
"We all have friends who we know are caught up in it because they don't have a job, but they're living the high life," said Arturo Dominguez Esquivel, a councillor in Juarez City, which occupies the especially dangerous border region with the United States. The severed head of a police commander was found in an ice cooler on the front lawn of a nearby town's police station in January.
A glimpse of just how high that life can get was splashed on newspapers and across television screens last October after a group of suspected drug traffickers were busted in a house in a wealthy neighbourhood of Mexico City. Inside, was a private zoo with jungle cats and chimpanzees. A hot tub was built into a cave-like section of the house, and its exclusive disco was outfitted with a stripper pole.
Julio Cesar Sanchez Gamino toured the property after the high profile arrest, which included a typical, quasi-celebrity parading of the accused to media. The decor was, in his opinion, "in poor taste." He is the lead attorney for the Asset Administration and Disposal Service, a caretaker agency that auctions off seized goods, or holds on to them until a case is resolved. The animals went to a zoo, he said. Alleged narco properties are under watch, and the profits from sales will go into a bank account, to accumulate interest, until the accused go to jail, or walk free. Other items confiscated by authorities include gold and silver-plated machine guns and private planes.
He said the days of over-the-top narco style, with homes decorated in marble and bronze, is dwindling in urban centres.
A brand of folkloric music that some see as glamorizing narcos, however, remains popular. The narcocorrido genre is a twist on old ballads about bandits fighting American law enforcement near the northern Mexico border; now they sing of drug trafficker exploits to a polka beat, the jovial-sounding arrangements masking its sometimes violent subject matter.
They sing about brandishing "a cuerno," a folk term for an AK-47 that means "horn of the goat," and the blows that await their enemies.
"Me, with my beautiful ranch in the sierras, my women and my dodge suburban and my cuernos, you try and get me," they will sing, according to Mark Edberg, a cultural anthropologist at The George Washington University who has written about narcocorridos. They sing of the complicity of the state, and can get poetic, too; musings on the beauty of the land laced with tragic reckonings of the risks that come with the job. "Verses like that will be interspersed with, ‘You come near me and I'll blow your head off.' It's a funny mix," Mr. Edberg said.
Periodically banned on Mexican airwaves, narcocorridos still have their groupies. Young people from disadvantaged families turn to it for inspiration, which explains the parallels drawn between it and American gangster rap. "It appeals to anyone who feels like they lack power at a certain time," said Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta, a professor at San Diego State University, even attracting professionals.
"It is not that everybody wants to become a drug trafficker, but I think the listener is able to distinguish or separate the two issues."
He said there is also a public fascination around the possibility that life mimics art, with shootings at narcocorrido concerts, and singers winding up dead.
It adds to the rockstar status of drug traffickers who started, decades ago, with nothing. They sported flamboyant, cowboy-inspired get ups, with ornate boots and huge belt buckles. They used to be a lot easier to spot - and shun.
"At the beginning they weren't accepted in the best neighbourhoods in [Sinaloa state capital] Culiacan, or the best schools, or social clubs," said Yudit Del Rincon, a Sinaloan legislator. "Now they're in everywhere."
The second and third generation have grown up with money, gone to private schools, and employ a more refined style as they carry on a family business that brings in millions.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel who escaped from jail, apparently through a laundry hamper, made it this year on to Forbes magazine list of billionaires. His "self made" fortune is pegged at $1-billion.
"You've got these glamorous mythological figures, and if you take a 12-year-old kid who is living on a dirt road, no electricity, some very high poverty setting and they see these people, it's a fantasy to be able to live like that. To have all that power and to be able to be so powerful even the government is afraid of you and they can be corrupted by you," said Mr. Edberg.
A major part of the current war has been Operation Cleanup, directed at rooting out dirty cops and politicians.
Organized crime expert Jay Albanese says Mexico, like other developing countries, suffers from a weak rule of law that is easily corruptible.
He likened it to America in the 1920s, and the Al Capone city gang era that could bribe their way through anybody, except "The Untouchables."
In Mexico, a sort of psychological war is also working to subvert the rule of law, with narcos draping banners across highway overpasses, outing police officers or authorities for corruption, even if it is not true. The result is that people do not know who to trust.
"It's a cultural thing that affects us in all areas," said Ms. Del Rincon, the Sinaloan legislator.
"It's obvious that good people, the people with high standards and morals continue to reject them. But there are also a lot of them who appear to do that in public, but then turn around and deal with them on the side," she said. "Things are complicated."
Natalie Alcoba, National Post
Published: Friday, September 11, 2009