Narcoculture in Mexico

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Narcoculture in Mexico is a subculture that has grown as a result of the strong presence of the various drug cartels throughout Mexico. In the same way that other subcultures around the world that are related to crime and drug use (for example the Scottish neds[1][2] and European hooligans,[3][4][5] or the American street-gangstas and outlaw bikers),[6] Mexican narco culture has developed its own form of dress, music, literature, film, religious beliefs and practices and language (slang) that has helped it become a part of the mainstream fashion in some areas of the country, mainly among lower-class, uneducated youth.[7] Narco culture is dynamic in that there are various regional differences within Mexico and among those who participate in it.


The origins of narco culture, like drug trafficking, had humble beginnings in Mexico. Narco culture emerged from the practice of drug trafficking in the highlands of Badiraguato, Sinaloa. It is in the sierra or countryside where an identity of drug trafficking was created and then consolidated once it crossed into the urban sphere. Narcoculture has been defined as a code of conduct and lifestyle for those that participate in the "narco world."[8]

Drug trafficking in Mexico has been considered by many scholars, like Luis Astorga, to have originated with the Chinese immigration to Sinaloa. It is said[citation needed] that the Chinese immigrants brought poppy seeds with them when they arrived in Mexico to work in the railroads and mines.

Luis Astorga and Jorge Alan Sanchez Godoy explain that there is no evidence that would suggest that cannabis or opium were consumed in Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish and the Chinese[citation needed]. Although indigenous communities in Mexico consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms in their religious practices it was not until the arrival of the Spanish that cannabis was introduced to Mexico. Sanchez Godoy explains that after cannabis was brought to Mexico, it was used for medical purposes and poppy plants were used for decoration and served as inspiration for several Mexican corridos or ballads.

Drug production in Mexico[edit]

The US effectively banned all Psychoactive drugs when the federal government passed in 1914 the Harrison Act, prohibiting all non-medicinal use of opium, morphine, and cocaine. In 1919 The National Prohibition Act made alcoholic beverages illegal and The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 outlawed marijuana.[9]

Mexico’s proximity to the US made it an easy source and American bootleggers and traffickers rushed to obtain illicit narcotics and alcohol. Exports of Mexican opium, heroin, and marijuana for US consumption steadily increased as a result of Prohibition.[9]

The black market grew quickly, with millions of Americans requiring a huge supply of alcohol, heroin, marijuana and cocaine. The initial shortage caused a boost in drug prices, and these new super-profits attracted black market suppliers to fill the vacuum.[9]

Expulsion of Chinese producers[edit]

During the early 1920s, the Chinese in Sinaloa were victims of segregation, hate crimes, and forceful deportation. In 1927, to cooperate with its northern neighbour Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, by federal mandate, ordered the expulsion of the Chinese poppy producers.[10]

US morphine demand[edit]

Once the Chinese were expelled from Sinaloa, the production of narcotics was then controlled by the rural Mexican farmers. The narcotics production in Mexico was still small,[citation needed] but the demand for morphine in the United States created by the disruption in its morphine supply from Europe during the World Wars led to the temporary legalization of narcotics in Mexico.

Mexican production and the birth of narcoculture[edit]

Scholars like Sanchez Godoy and Luis Astorga[citation needed] state that narcotics were temporarily legalized in Sinaloa in order to supply the United States' demand during the world war. The period when the production of narcotics was temporarily legalized, shaped and created the drug trafficking identity in the region. This is when narcoculture first begins to appear. It is also the period when Mexico entered the large-scale production of narcotics.

The rise of the Mexican drug cartels and the consolidation of narcoculture[edit]

The 1950s in Mexico were marked by the term "narcotrafico" (narco traffic) that began to appear in the media. During the 1940s and 1970s drug trafficking in Mexico was considered to be a "small family business" with a relatively simple organization and division of labor.[10] It is not until after the 1970s with the growth of demand from the United States and alliances with Colombian drug traffickers that cartels in Mexico were formed to control the production and distribution of narcotics. Mexico then became a producer and distributor.

In previous decades, Mexico served as the route of entrance for the cocaine arriving to the United States from Colombia. With Mexico supplying the United States with heroin and morphine during World War II, it became a producer. The alliance between Mexican cartels and Colombian cartels meant that Mexico was now a distributor and producer. As drug trafficking expanded in Mexico, so did narcoculture. Narcoculture expanded into the urban sector of society and began the process of legitimization and moved away from a subculture into a part of the dominant culture.

Coining the term narcoculture[edit]

The term "narcoculture" was first coined in the 1970s. Narcoculture defines the way of life and ideas of drug traffickers. Its existence depends on the acceptance of drug traffickers and drug trafficking, becoming a transnational network of production, transportation, and commercialization of illegal drugs.

Drug trafficking has political, economic, ideological, and cultural implications. Drug traffickers interact with the rest of society and as this daily interaction progresses, some of the drug traffickers' mannerisms are adopted by society and this leads to cultural change and legitimization. The drug traffickers' way of life or narcoculture becomes legitimate in the society. Some aspects are adopted by those outside of drug trafficking, and over time people forget that what they have adopted is narcoculture. Narcoculture begins a process of legitimization when it begins to include the popular classes in the urban cities.

Rise of the Mexican Mafiosos[edit]

Narcoculture in Sinaloa shares many characteristics with Mediterranean culture and mafias in that it is said that the Sinaloa narcoculture is based on honor, bravery, family loyalty, protection, vengeance, generosity, hospitality, nobility, and prestige much like the Mediterranean mafias. Drug traffickers use "claves" (codes) to maintain a level of secrecy. Some of these codes, however, have been revealed in narcocorridos (Mexican ballads about drug trafficking) and are then used by people who listen to this music, even if they are not drug traffickers. This is when narcoculture becomes a part of the mainstream discourse.

Prior to the 1970s, narcoculture and drug trafficking in Sinaloa were almost exclusively rural. The stigma that was placed on narcotics early on meant that people in the cities were reluctant to accept it as a legitimate activity. In the countryside of Sinaloa, people were starving and drug trafficking seemed like the only viable solution. The rural population saw themselves a part of the marginalized society with no real access to education or other methods of social upward mobility. They felt ignored by the government and by society. Drug trafficking then became a source of income and an outlet to rebel against the government that had forgotten them in the countryside.

Mafioso Poseurs and modern narcoculture[edit]

Narcoculture is a type of crime-related subculture that emerges in places where traffickers or other mafias have great power, and in consequence great cultural influence. Because of that influence their lives and exploits are often glamorised by the mass media and they are looked up to as role models by some young people.[11][12][13]

Subcultures similar to Mexican narco culture emerged in the United States during Prohibition,[14][15][16] and in Colombia and Italy in the 1990s.[17][18][19][20][21] These subcultures were characterized by extravagance, ostentation, hedonism, rural roots, honor, prestige, consumerism, power, utilitarianism, religiosity, and violence.[10]

Those who take part in narcoculture are not necessarily drug traffickers or part of a criminal organization. Indeed, many of the participants in narcoculture are young people who come from marginalized sectors of society. They feel the need to look and act like drug traffickers in order to feel that they are respected or have some sort of power. The admiration that youth have for narcos is similar to the way other kids look up to rock stars or sports legends. In some cases, the admiration that they feel for the drug traffickers, who they see as heroes, does lead them to get involved in drug trafficking. But in most cases they merely consume the narco culture and imagine that they are part of the narco world, becoming or "narco-poseurs".

Narcoculture has created a fantasy where people believe that drug trafficking is the only way to escape poverty. This fantasy is supported primarily through music (narcocorridos) and visual media, including television and film. Some believe that narcoculture originated in the highlands of Sinaloa, where many of the famous drug lords were born, such as the Beltran Leyva brothers, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo "Don Neto", Rafael Caro Quintero, and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno "El Azul". Narcoculture is rooted in the northern rural areas of Mexico and although it is constantly changing, it continues to foster and strength its rural roots over time.[10]

Narcoculture lifestyle[edit]

Narcoculture glorifies the individual and his achievements, wealth, and masculinity.[22][22] Narcos live luxurious lifestyles and display their wealth by wearing expensive clothing.[23] There are regional differences in the styles of dress, the northern cities closest to the border are influenced by American styles of dress and brands. The clothing is gender-conscious, where men and women wear distinct fashion items pertaining to their gender. In most Mexican cities, there are men wearing piteado belts, cowboy boots made of exotic animal skin, silk shirts and cowboy hats or baseball caps; thus, some narcos have cast aside the cowboy or Northern style to wear expensive designer clothes.

Certain clothing items, such as Ralph Lauren Polo shirts or Ed Hardy style clothing, were worn by several infamous drug traffickers at the moment of their capture, becoming highly fashionable items among the masses, prompting the creation of imitation styles sold on the black market.[24]

Styles vary in many border towns, but it is very common to see drug traffickers wearing luxury brand labels. This can include but is not limited to Burberry and Gucci hats, shirts, belts and shoes. Women associated with drug cartels often dress very ostentatiously and wear lots of jewels. It is common to see them wear brands including Bebe, Guess, Burberry, Gucci and Coach.

Besides wearing expensive brands, the drug lords run their own bars, which are visited mostly by men. The narco parties are get-togethers and parties where narcos drink and socialize.[25] Although many businesses closed down because of the tremendous amounts of violence sweeping the nation, the narcobars, restaurants, and nightclubs remained open and thrived.

The projection of a glamorous image of the drug cartels by the mass media in Mexico has thwarted to the federal government and its strategy to legitimize the war against drugs and organized crime.[23]

Narco music[edit]

Narco corridos[edit]

In Sinaloa, narcoculture enjoys a place of privilege. In other parts of Mexico the acceptance of narcoculture has been a slow process. Narco corridos, however, have helped narcoculture become more acceptable in places where interactions with drug traffickers do not take place on a daily basis.[8]

The Mexican corrido, a song narrating stories real or imagined about historical characters, became popular during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The corrido became popular because it narrated news and events to a largely illiterate population. The corrido also created popular heroes and celebrated their lives and adventures. Pancho Villa, revolutionary leader, was one of the figures celebrated through this corridos.[26]

Although these corridos mention kidnappings, assassination, executions, battles and disasters, they differ from the current narco-corridos in that the original corridos attempted to tell a story and give a moral message (like the fall and redemption, the sin and punishment, or life and death of a person ).

The first narco-corridos began to appear in the 1970s. Most scholars agree that the Tigres del Norte were the pioneers of this genre, first appearing in the southern United States, then becoming popular in Sinaloa, Sonora, Tijuana and Michoacán.[26]

Narcocorridos glorify and romanticize narco trafficking, and in a more recent trend of hyper-violent lyrics ( called Movimiento alterado, Spanish for the cocaine-alertness movement),[27] they started to express the pride of modern narcos have in murdering, torturing and dismembering their rivals. The traditional corridos spoke about the benevolent bandit who committed crimes for a good cause (in a robin-hood style). Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, and Rafael Caro Quintero among others, have been elevated to popular heroes in a similar way as the traditional corrido elevated the so-called benevolent bandits Heraclio Bernal and Jesus Malverde during the Mexican Revolution.[26] The corridos about these characters praised the bravery of these bandits and identified them as defenders of the poor against an unjust government.[26]

In addition to narrating the stories of well-known drug lords, narcocorridos demonstrate the evolution of drug trafficking in Mexico. The narcocorridos display a yearning for the countryside while expressing a desire for the modernity that the city has to offer. The austerity and simplicity of the countryside is reflected through images of horses, the ranch, agriculture, poverty, and the sombrero. The modernity of the city and material desires are expressed through images of mansions, luxury cars, cell phones, and designer clothing.[28] Despite the poverty that exists in rural areas, the narco corridos idealize it as a place where there is no judgment or obstacles that would impede drug trafficking.[26]

Narco Hip-Hop[edit]

A music scene, similar to the early underground gangsta-rap scene, has emerged in northeastern Mexico (Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Coahuila), where the musical phenomenon of hip-hop is being co-opted by the influence of organized crime and the drug war in the region.

With lyrics similar to those of a narcocorrido (drug ballad), has appeared the Mexican Narco-rap.

However, unlike the corridos, which relate to rural regions of the Mexican Pacific (and which are generally linked to the Sinaloa cartel) the narco-rap emerged in the urban area of Tamaulipas, in the border with Texas, a turf currently under armed dispute between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.

Derived from the constant presence of "halcones" ("hawks", cartel spies) and cartel-convoys circulating the streets of the region, young people have been involved in the local narcoculture, and narco-raps express the reality of life on the streets, of those cities under the drug cartels rule.

There are several notable cases, among them is a song called The Song of Metro 3 on YouTube that praises the life and explits of drug lord Samuel Flores Borrego (alias Metro 3) for his "ferocity and loyalty."

Some of the main exponents of the genre are Cano y Blunt, DemenT and Big Los.[29][30][31][32][33][34][35]

This trend of narco-Mexico-related hip-hop has also an American counterpart, artists such as the rapper Uncle Murda, Skrillex, YG, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz [276] and Jayceon "The Game" Taylor [277][278] have made songs dedicated Drug traffickers such as "El Chapo Guzmán"

(Ref: Gibler, John (2011). To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War. City Lights Bookstore. ISBN 0872865177.  External link in |title= (help) )

Narco juniors[edit]

"Narco juniors" are a new form of narcocultural expression. Narco juniors are the children of the older drug traffickers that have come to reconstitute the meaning of narcoculture and drug trafficking. Unlike their fathers or grandfathers, the narco juniors have for the most part been raised in urban wealth. The older narco traffickers were raised in rural poverty, placed a high value on family and felt connected to their people and culture. They felt a responsibility to give back to their community. The narco juniors share a cynical pride in being drug traffickers. The narco juniors place more value on spending money, parties, and luxury.[26] The marginalized people who were helped by the older traffickers, have now become the victims of the narco juniors' aggression.[26]

Narco religion[edit]

Narco religion is a major aspect of narcoculture. It is a form of superstition, depicted through drug traffickers' devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe, St. Jude Thaddaeus (patron of lost causes and desperate situations) and Jesus Malverde. Jesus Malverde was said to be a bandit that stole from the rich to give to the poor. He lived his life running from the authorities. His image was appropriated as the patron saint of drug traffickers, the poor, and the marginalized. An altar with his name was erected in the place where it is said that he was hanged by the government.

Another aspect of narco religion is the involvement of drug traffickers with their local churches. This occurs primarily through narco limosnas (narco-donations) that drug traffickers give to the church. Drug traffickers have also used the church to launder money. Nora Perez-Rayon Elizundia gives an example of a bishop in Aguascalientes that admitted to taking donations from a drug trafficker because he said that the money could be "purified" when used for good causes.

In other parts of Mexico some drug traffickers and their hitmen pray for protection to the Holy Death, a personification of death, and in some cases they practice Santería or devil worshiping. These type of activities are not mainstream narco-behaviors, but do occur in some remote areas.

Narco propaganda[edit]

Narco propaganda includes narco mantas, banners that appear in public places, such as highway overpasses and bridges. This is a way for narcos to communicate directly to the populace. These banners are also used to threaten leaders or other members of rival cartels. Variations of these banners include the narco poster, a message left next to a dead body, and the narco-pinta, graffiti sprayed or hand-painted on a whitewashed brick or adobe wall next to a commercial building or house.[36]

Narco western[edit]

Modern literature, not only novels or poetry but also newspapers, magazines and internet publishings, are means that tend to narrate 'real stories', or at least what is believed to be real about certain people involved with the narco movement. Sometimes they exaggerate the legacy of these people, and of the crimes they have committed, in order to intimidate their enemies or the population in general.[37]

The narco western is a new literary genre that was started by Hilario Peña's Chinola Kid published in October 2012. In a recent interview Hilario states that the narco western is the modern version of a western.[28] Instead of a horse, his character drives a truck and instead of fighting Apaches, his character must defeat criminals and the federal police in the state of Sinaloa.

Narco cinema[edit]

See: Mexploitation#Mexican narcocinema

Narco cinema in Mexico started as a combination of telenovelas (soap operas) and Mexican cinema during the 1960s, where the 'golden age' of cinema collapsed due to the interest of the population in television.[38] During the 1970s, narco cinema consisted of movies released mostly for home entertainment or 'video home', creating a B-film market that focused on very controversial topics, that with use of violence would try to create a national reality or identity. These films were mostly made with a low budget, usually under 140,000 Mexican pesos (US$10,000), telling stories about police, drug dealers and prostitutes. These films are rarely discussed in mainstream media because of their low budgets, and connection with pop culture and low brow entertainment.[38]

Narco cinema today controls the Mexican film market, being influential along the border between the United States and Mexico. The films deal with the identity of the narco, consisting of a struggle of an anti-hero being immersed in a border culture, articulating narratives of life, death, love, loss, hope, greed, desire, humor and violence, alongside addiction, repetition and compulsion.[39]

Narco cinema develops anti-norms and expresses feelings discouraged in culturally accepted institutions.[39] In this genre violence is at its most extreme, weapons and thug-like behavior taking center stage. The use of stereotyped characters and predictable plots alienates those looking for subtexts, complex story lines, and sophisticated writing, but for the poor rural people, these films are in demand because they tell the story of their lives and the lives around them.[39]

Narco violence is also used by mainstream films, taking inspiration from real life events that marked the country, or in other cases fictionalized events,[38] example: Breaking Bad.

Some examples of mainstream narco cinema include Miss Bala, El Infierno and Heli.

Miss Bala, a 2011 film directed by Gerardo Naranjo, that premiered in Cannes and got attention from critics, became a box office success in Mexico. Based on real life events, it tells the story of a young woman dreaming of becoming a beauty pageant queen. Narcos manipulate her to work for them, in exchange for her victory.[38]

El Infierno is a film directed by Luis Estrada. Compared to Miss Bala, this film is more fictionalized and makes use of dark humor, developing empathy for the anti-hero, glorifying the drug bosses.[38]

Heli, by Mexican director Amat Escalante, is one of the most representative films of narco cinema. The director said he tried not to focus the movie around explicit violence, which is expected of drug related movies. Yet one scene from the movie was considered the most brutal in Mexican cinema, showing traffickers burning the genitals of two young men in front of a group of children. Escalante refers to this as exposition, in that it shows how Mexico's youth is being ruined by these kind of people, at times leaving them without anything to look forward to in the future. The film focuses on love, family and hope, people wanting to believe they can succeed. This hope is conveyed through the eyes of Estela, a girl who falls in love with an older boy who involves her and her family in the drug world. Overall, Heli tries to eliminate the stereotypical figure of the Mexican cowboy or ranchero, where the male figure is depicted by wearing boots and a hat. Instead the film shows atrocities committed by traffickers without offering any real solutions.[40]

Social media[edit]

Cartels have been making use of the Internet over the years going from the outdated MySpace, to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.[41][42][43][44][45] Here they post videos that announce themselves as a new emerging power to be feared. One of the most visited websites to follow information about events related to narco violence is El Blog del Narco, which defines itself at neutral. Their only objective is to publish stories in a journalistic way. What draws the most attention are the confessional/torture videos posted, which contain lots of graphic violence, providing torture to the prisoners before being executed in front of the camera.[36] Twitter is used to post threats to one another, and sometimes, with the use of special technology, Narcos can track other rivals in order to kill them. This can be detrimental as well, because sometimes police finds them in the same way.[36] Instagram, can be used to show off their lifestyles, which includes new cars, expensive watches, designer clothes, fine liquor, exotic pets and massive weaponry.

Notable examples are El Chino Ántrax[46][47][48] and Claudia Ochoa Felix, supposed leaders of Los Ántrax, an enforcer gang of the Sinaloa cartel. Both captured the attention of news outlets and blogs with photos on Twitter and Instagram that showed how they enjoy the sort of spoils that Mexicans relate with the lives of successful drug traffickers.[49] Claudia posts pictures on social media, as which she poses with expensive accessories like watches, purses, designer clothes, champagne bottles, cars and planes. Also frequently poses with big guns. In a press release, she mentions how her life has changed after those pictures have circulated around the world, and she fears for her family's safety. She claims that all those pictures of her were modified, because she is not the one appearing in them. She also claims that she has no association whatsoever with any of the drug cartels operating in Mexico.[49]

See also[edit]


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