The Tate Drugs Gallery
Inside the Ministry of Defense in Mexico City is a museum that’s not open to the public. It displays all the jewels, weapons, clothing, and reliquaries that have been seized from drug traffickers since 1985. The collection is an example of the symbols the Mexican drug trafficker draws strength from: a gold Colt .38 studded with emeralds that belonged to Amado Carillo, leader of the cartel from the northern state of Chihuahua, and which was a present from the leader of the Jalisco cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo’ Guzmán, who escaped from prison in 2000; an AK-47 rifle with a gold palm tree on the handle, which belonged to Héctor “Blondie” Palma; a double-sided bullet-proof shirt which belonged to Osiel Cárdenas, leader of the Gulf of Mexico cartel. But as well as weapons, the collection houses cowboy hats, boots and belts, and the altars to the virgin of Guadalupe and Jesús Malverde, a saint from Sinaloa, where, in the 1950s—during America’s wars with Korea and Vietnam—the planting of poppy and marijuana plants and large-scale trafficking to the United States began.
The cult of Malverde lays down what for the drug trafficker is his moral justification: law and justice are not the same thing. The myth of Malverde is that he was a nineteenth-century thief who disguised himself in banana leaves so as to go unnoticed—hence mal-verde (evil-green)—and was imprisoned by the police because his comrade squealed on him. He is hanged and the priest doesn’t want to bury him. So the people bury him by the side of the road and put a stone on top of his grave. Now, with a chapel and a cult not recognized by the Catholic Church, people come to ask favors of Malverde, that he might resolve an injustice, and they bring him something, anything, so long as it is stolen. This saint of illegality was adopted by Mexican drug traffickers who tattooed his image—a mustached man—onto their bodies, built altars to him and paid for chapels. They associated the verde (green) of the mal (evil or bad) with a marijuana leaf. The banned cult became so associated with the trafficking of drugs that in the 1990s, the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) interrogated anyone with a tattoo of the saint.
But now, in the museum, all this imagery of the powerful drug trafficker born in untamed lands and armed because he is brave has been abandoned. The images gradually filtered down into Mexican popular culture—cinema, music—but the drug traffickers don’t use these symbols any more, they avoid them. The second generation consists of university students with degrees in business management; they don’t flaunt their money, and they hire chemists to make designer drugs for them.
The Drug Trafficker Sings, and Acts, Too.
Songs and films about drug traffickers are prohibited on radio stations and in cinemas. Like trafficking itself, they survive thanks to a parallel market: the pirate CDs, the straight-to-DVD movies. In the case of films, they’ve been making them since 1976, when Antonio Martínez made Contraband and Treachery and They Killed Camelia the Texan, based on two narcocorridos (traditional folk songs about drug traffickers) written by Los Tigres del Norte, who are the Beatles of the genre, if you like. The narco film always tell the same story: an honest family goes through financial problems—a bad investment, their sweet corn crop blighted—and ends up helping to traffic drugs. These low-budget films made use of actual plantations of marijuana and poppies as locations and also of the drug traffickers’ girlfriends—the feminine ideal must be curvy in a miniskirt—as actresses. Indeed, it’s said that Los Tigres del Norte were hired by Caro Quintero, one of the first drug traffickers to go to jail (for assassinating the delegate of the DEA in Mexico, Enrique Camarena), to sing their corridos next to the marijuana plants “to make them grow tall.”
Narcocorridos are part of a banned culture—drugs—that has to justify itself morally. Through their verses the motive becomes clear: I was very poor and now I have everything and endless amounts of it and, even if they kill me, it was worth living by illegal means. They are songs about those for whom trafficking implied a metamorphosis, not only in terms of material wealth—they never boast about being rich without listing their possessions: houses, cars, weapons, money in cash, women, and alcohol—but rather in terms of power. They were poor nobodies, and now they have power, while it lasts. They use the discourse of the prevailing power: the free market and the legitimacy of making money. Indeed, in some songs such as “La cruz de amapola,” they refer to drug lords as managers and to dealers as distributors. Like the market economy, drug traffickers see themselves as unquestionable:
This is nothing new, gentlemen,And nor is it going to end;This is a lifelong business,The Mafia of global origin.
I live off three animals whom I love as my life;They earn me money and I don’t even buy them food.They are very fine animals: my parakeet, my rooster, and my nanny goat.
The parakeet (el perico) is cocaine, the rooster (el gallo) is marijuana, and the nanny goat (la chiva) is an AK-47 assault rifle, known as goat’s horns because of the shape of the magazine. Indeed, this song ended up on the radio without the controllers understanding what it was really about.
The ideal drug trafficker depicted in the narcocorridos is somebody who justifies everything by way of an individual cult to personal autonomy: he doesn’t let himself be ordered around, doesn’t give in; he knows that he lives only once and that he doesn’t want to be poor. Nor does he want to go to the United States as an illegal immigrant, which would mean a loss of power: emigrating. He prefers to “export” drugs there from his “local branch.”
Sleeping with the Enemy
Mexican drug culture is simultaneously popular and prohibited. It is everywhere: songs, T-shirts, the movies, tattoos. Indeed, the upper- and middle-class fashion of buying Hummers with blacked-out windows comes from trying to feel safe—that is, immune—like them. The fact that the middle classes listen to these kinds of songs or watch films of this genre also helps to create a certain identity in a country where people have more empathy for each other because they watch the same television show than because they live in the same city. And it’s a culture that puts itself forward as useful to the global economy: it’s an export market that, if it didn’t exist, would make many people unhappy. It has media, music, and movies, and an aesthetic that, while not used by the top drug bosses any more, continues to recruit the new generation in the form of an identity: boots, belts, shirts encrusted with precious stones, an iPhone. In a country like Mexico where the opportunities are never, not even remotely, the same for everyone, the drug trafficker says the same thing as a global market: everything, right here and now.
This is how it was explained to me a few years ago by a recent young recruit, fourteen years old, in Culiacán, Sinaloa, where it all began: “They’ve already given me a nickname.” For him, it was the start of a dizzying managerial career, so much so that perhaps it would end very soon in a shower of bullets. And perhaps his gold pistol would end up on display in a museum.
Memoirs of a Dealer*
In April 2008, El Valde got out of jail and began to cry. It was one o’clock in the morning and he was alone outside the South Penitentiary. The city scared him; he had forgotten that there were such things as cars, light, open spaces, the sound of his own footsteps in the night. ”When I got out I didn’t know where to go, or what to do. All I did was cry—I just turned around and the tears started falling.” El Valde went to prison when he was twenty-one years old and came out ten years later. He’d left behind his twenties in prison and was rarely in front of a mirror, which, inside, is considered a weapon. During the five-hour examination the guards perform before you can leave—they check you’re the right person and not someone else who’s kidnapped you and left you tied up in an air duct so as to make an easy getaway—he looked at the photograph taken when he arrived: “I was face to face with the little kid who’d gone to jail. My hair long, without so many tattoos.” El Valde didn’t miss that little kid, he simply didn’t recognize him.
He went back to his mother’s house—he knew no other—on the outskirts of University City in Copilco, where his stepbrother was by then studying in the faculty of science and humanities and on Saturdays helping to install hydroponic gardens on the city’s roof terraces. He made the journey in a taxi and with the money he had earned inside, doing the only thing he knew how to: selling drugs. The kingpin of the South Penitentiary, Don Lalo, gave him a hundred pesos to give him a good start on the outside and asked him to do a few “favors” for him now that he was free. “No,” El Valde replied. “In here I’ll do anything you want. Outside it’s different.”
His mother, who at the end of the seventies was working for Levi’s of Mexico and had met El Valde’s father, Ricardo Valderrama Elizalde, when he was manager of Sani-Rent portosans, was now selling cut-price clothes on the street. His mother, who had taken him to the United States to live, now worked her fingers to the bone in the street markets selling sweatshirts. He hadn’t seen his father since he was twelve. El Valde had his father’s name and that of his godfather, Eduardo, he of the Edoardo’s jeans and the Kurián suits. But El Valde didn’t see him any more either. He thought his godfather had also ended up in jail for fraud but was out on bail. He wasn’t sure about any of this. Perhaps they were things he invented so as not to feel so bad about his passage through the North and South penitentiaries over the last ten years. Trying to get used to freedom again, El Valde looked up his father on the Internet but found only a cousin, at a construction company. They didn’t exchange a word because the secretary insisted on knowing the reason for the call. El Valde hung up.
El Valde has a memory from childhood. He was studying at La Salle primary school and it was nearly Father’s Day. Everyone was making their cards when suddenly, Iván, one of his classmates, came over to ask him if Valderrama was spelled with a “b” or a “v.”
“What do you want to know for?” he replied.
They ended up fighting and being sent to the principal’s office. “I told them, ‘This boy is stealing my daddy.’ And I cried and cried, and I remember this really clearly.”
*Based on the statements made by Ricardo “El Valde” Valderrama for the symposium “Trafficking,” held at 17, Instituto de Estudias Críticos for Critical Studies, Mexico City, March–June, 2008.
“El misterio del perico, el gallo, y la chiva” © Fabrizio Mejía Madrid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.