From “narcocorridos” to narco-wives, Mexico’s drug war has spilled over into the cultural life of the nation, influencing language and even religion.
A recent report by the Associated Press surveys narco-language, running through some of the most grisly terms that have sprung up around Mexican organized crime. Its list includes “narcofosa,” for mass graves filled with the bodies of the drug war’s dead, and “encobijados" for the bodies of victims found tightly wrapped in a blanket.
To these can be added any number of phrases, mostly coined by the press, which feature the prefix “narco” added to anything that could conceivably be purchased with the vast fortunes of the drug kingpins. We now have the means to talk about narco-states, narco-submarines, narco-economies, narco-trucks, narco-elections, narco-terrorism, narco-presidents, and even narco-beauty queens.
Mexico’s drug gangs are themselves creative in their use of language, taking control of their images and of their names. Aliases range from the sinister, “The Most Crazy One” (“El Mas Loco”); to the ridiculous: “La Barbie"; the weird: “The Child-Eater” (“El Come Niños”); and the very literal: “El Narco.”
These nicknames are central to building a public profile, something that is increasingly important as the traffickers battle the government, and each other, to win the hearts and minds of the population. Many are named after an area or a state, appealing to regional pride. Others have evocative names, like The Historic Ones (“Los Historicos”), or the Knights Templar (“Caballeros Templarios”).
As well as shaping the language, forcing commentators and a terrorized public to invent new vocabularies to talk about the ever-evolving conflict, the country is now seeing the traffickers’ influence in the cultural arena, with what can be dubbed "narco-music" and "narco-religion."
Some commentators identify two distinct and clashing branches of this narco-culture. The first, centered around the groups of Mexico's Pacific coast, plays off the traditional idea of the rebel outlaw, while the other promotes a more glamorous bling-heavy gangster image. Both are corrosive, presenting the drug trade as an attractive lifestyle choice and traffickers as heroes.
Emblematic of the first is Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who has reportedly commissioned “narcocorridos,” songs in a traditional folk music style, to tell a heavily-edited version his life story. The Familia Michoacana, which has its roots in local vigilante groups in its home state of Michoacan, also draws on this tradition, appealing to traditional and religious sentiments and even claiming to protect the local population from drugs and drug traffickers.
The Zetas, a breakaway paramilitary group, represent the other side of the ideal. The ultra-violent group embrace a gangster lifestyle which draws on hip hop culture.
Both branches of the Mexican drug industry have coopted religious symbols and rituals. The cult of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, is famously associated with the drug trade. The saint has a macabre image, usually represented as a female with a skull for a face, and is often called on by criminals for protection. Another narco-saint is Jesus Malverde, popular in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa. Based on an early 20th-century outlaw, he is revered by drug traffickers, amongst others.
The Familia have even taken steps to create their own religion, with their leader publishing a book of moral maxims. The group announced their entrance onto the narco-scene in 2006 by entering a crowded nightclub to throw five severed heads onto the dancefloor, and left a message explaining their actions as the work of “divine justice.”
These steps into the world of religion, in an intensely Catholic country, demonstrate the deepening hold of the drug gangs and their intention to penetrate all aspects of life in Mexico.
The very real threat posed by this expanding narco subculture was demonstrated by an agreement signed by many of Mexico’s biggest media outlets, who agreed amongst other things not to adopt the “language and terminology used by criminals.” This pact represented a recognition from the establishment that the battle over culture, and over language itself, is a crucial part of Mexico’s drug war.