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from the March 2012 issue

The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat

El misterio del perico, el gallo, y la chiva

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.
But they always speak a language that, if you don’t know about drugs, you won’t understand, because it parodies the Mexican ranchero songs written by peasant sweet corn farmers, not poppy planters:
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.

El misterio del perico, el gallo, y la chiva

El  Tate Narco Gallery

Dentro del edificio de la Defensa en Ciudad de México existe un museo que no está abierto al público. En él se muestran las joyas, armas, vestimenta, relicarios que les han sido incautados a los narcotraficantes desde 1985. La colección es una muestra de los símbolos de los que se nutre el narco en México: una Colt .38 de oro e incrustaciones de esmeraldas que perteneció a Amado Carrillo, líder del Cartel del norteño estado de Chihuahua, y que fue un regalo del líder del Cartel de Jalisco, Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, quien se fugó en 2000 de la cárcel; un rifle AK-47 con una palmera de oro en la cacha, que pertenecía a Héctor El Güero Palma; o una camiseta con doble blindaje en el lado del corazón que fue de Osiel Cárdenas, líder del Cartel del Golfo de México. Pero, además de armas, los sombreros, botas y cinturones de vaquero, los altares a la Virgen de Guadalupe y a Jesús Malverde, un santo originario de Sinaloa, donde comenzaron, en los cincuentas ---con las guerras de Estados Unidos en Corea y Vietnam---, las plantaciones de amapola y mariguana,  y el tráfico masivo hacia Estados Unidos.

El culto a Malverde establece lo que para el narcotráfico es su justificación moral: la ley y la justicia no son la misma cosa. El mito de Malverde es que era un ladrón que se vestía con hojas de plátano para pasar desapercibido ---de ahí: el “mal-verde”--- en el siglo XIX que es apresado por la policía porque su compadre lo delata. Lo ahorcan y el cura no quiere sepultarlo. Así que la gente lo entierra en el camino y le ponen una piedra encima. Ahora con una capilla y un culto no reconocido por la Iglesia Católica, a Malverde se le piden favores para que resuelva una injusticia llevándole algo, lo que sea, pero que sea robado. Esa santidad de lo ilegal fue adoptada por los narcotraficantes mexicanos que se tatuaron la imagen ---un hombre de bigote---, le levantaron altares, y financian capillas. Asociaron lo “verde” del “mal” con la hoja de la mariguana. A tal grado quedó asociado un culto prohibido con el tráfico de drogas que la DEA norteamericana, en los años noventa interrogaba a cualquiera que tuviera un tatuaje del santo.

Pero, ahora, en el museo, toda esa imaginería del narco poderoso, nacido en tierras indómitas, y armado porque es valiente, ha quedado atrás. Las imágenes se fueron filtrando a la cultura popular mexicana, al cine, a las canciones, pero los narcotraficantes ya no usan esos símbolos. Los evitan. La segunda generación es de universitarios con grados en administración de empresas, no ostentan su dinero, y contratan químicos para que les fabriquen drogas de diseño.  

El narco canta y, también, actúa

El mercado de canciones y cine sobre narcotraficantes está prohibido en estaciones de radio y salas de exhibición. Como el tráfico mismo vive de un mercado paralelo: los discos piratas, el cine que se hace sólo en DVD. En el caso del cine se vienen haciendo desde 1976 cuando Antonio Martínez filma “Contrabando y traición” y “Mataron a Camelia La Texana”, basados en dos canciones, llamadas narco corridos, cuya autoría es de Los Tigres del Norte que son, digamos, Los Beatles del género. Las películas de narcos cuentan siempre la misma historia: una familia honesta atraviesa por problemas financieros ---una mala inversión, una plaga en la cosecha de maíz--- y acaba ayudando a traficar drogas. Las películas de bajo presupuesto aprovechaban los plantíos verdaderos de mariguana y amapola como locaciones y a las novias de los traficantes ---el ideal femenino debe ser curvilínea con minifalda--- como actrices. De hecho, se cuenta que Los Tigres del Norte eran contratados por uno de los primeros narcos en caer preso, Caro Quintero (por asesinar al delegado de la DEA norteamericana en México, Enrique Camarena) para que cantaran sus corridos junto a las plantas de mariguana, “para que crecieran alto”.

Los narco corridos son parte de una cultura prohibida, la de las drogas, que necesita justificarse moralmente. En sus versos se da cuenta de cuál es el motivo: era muy pobre y ahora tengo de todo y sin límite y, aunque me maten, valió la pena vivir en lo ilegal. Son canciones de a quienes el narcotráfico les significó una metamorfosis, no sólo de posesiones ---jamás presumen de ser ricos sino que hacen listas de sus posesiones: casas, coches, armas, dinero en efectivo, mujeres y alcohol--- sino en términos de poder. Eran pobres don nadies, y ahora tienen poder, mientras dure. Toman el discurso del poder imperante: la libertad de mercado y la legitimidad de hacer dinero. De hecho, en algunas canciones como La cruz de amapola, se refieren a los capos como gerentes y a los dealers como distribuidores. Como la economía de mercado, los narcos se plantean como inobjetables:

Esto no es nada nuevo, señores,
Ni tampoco se va a acabar;
Esto es cosa de toda la vida,
Es la mafia de origen global.
Pero siempre manejando un lenguaje que, si no sabes de drogas, no entiendes porque parodia a las canciones rancheras mexicanas escritas por campesinos de maíz, no sembradores de amapola:
Vivo de tres animales que quiero como a mi vida;
Con ellos gano dinero y ni les compro comida.
Son animales muy finos: mi perico, mi gallo, y mi chiva.
El perico es la cocaína, el gallo es la mariguana y la chiva es un rifle de asalto AK-47, llamados “cuernos de chivo” por la forma del cargador. Esta canción, de hecho, pasó a la radio sin que los programadores supieran de su verdadero contenido.

El narcotraficante ideal que plantean los narco corridos es alguien que justifica todo por un culto individual a la autonomía personal: no se deja dar órdenes, no se rinde, sabe que se vive una vez y no quiere ser pobre. Tampoco quiere ir a Estados Unidos de ilegal, lo que significaría una pérdida de poder: emigrar. Prefiere “exportarle” drogas en su “sucursal”.

Durmiendo con el enemigo

La narco cultura mexicana es, al mismo tiempo, popular y prohibida. Está por todos lados: canciones, camisetas, cine, tatuajes. De hecho, la moda de la clase media y alta de comprar camionetas Hummer con vidrios polarizados viene de tratar de sentirse seguros, como ellos, es decir, impunes. Que la clase media escuche narco corridos o vea cine de ese género ayuda, también, a una cierta identidad en un país donde la gente es más empática si ve el mismo programa de televisión que si vive en la misma ciudad. Y es una cultura que se plantea a sí misma como funcional a la economía global: es un mercado de exportaciones que, si no existiera, haría a mucha gente infeliz. Cuenta con medios de comunicación, música y cine, y una estética que, si bien ya no es usada por los capos superiores, sigue reclutando a las nuevas generaciones como identidad: botas, cinturón, camisas con pedrería incrustada, y un IPhone. El narco dice lo mismo que el mercado global en un país como México donde las oportunidades nunca son, ni remotamente, las mismas para todos: todo, aquí y ahora.

Así me lo explicó hace algunos años un recién reclutado joven de catorce años en Culiacán, Sinaloa, donde todo empezó: “Ya me dieron un apodo”. Para él era el principio de una carrera gerencial vertiginosa, tanto, que quizás acabaría muy pronto a fuerza de balas. Y, acaso, su revólver de oro, terminará expuesto en un museo.

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