Narcoliteratura: Another Way to Look at the Problem

By Héctor Silva

Élmer Mendoza

Élmer Mendoza

Latin America has suffered through almost three decades of the so-called war on drugs.  U.S. President George H.W. Bush formally declared the war in the late 1980s, but from the Andes to the Rio Grande it started when the Colombian cartels and their Mexican partners (then exclusively involved in distribution) created a multi-billion-dollar business to satisfy the growing U.S. market.  The druglords’ strategy of “plata o plomo” brought Mesoamerica and Mexico to their knees through violence and institutional corruption.  Hundreds of thousands have died, but the “war” has failed to tackle the economic basis of the industry: markets shift and supplies remain steady.  The cartels are smaller and more ruthless, and nation states are weakened by corruption.  Reams of reports have been written by official agencies, international organizations and think tanks – the latest a creative study by the OAS – but solutions remain elusive.

The drug trade has left an indelible mark on the very fabric of Latin American culture and society.  “Narcoliteratura,” one of whose main creators is Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza, is one of the most curious manifestations of this.  (Mendoza spoke at American University and was interviewed by this writer in February.)  His main character is Edgar “El Zurdo” Mendieta, a troubled police officer in Culiacán, Sinaloa, a city emblematic of the Mexican drug cartels.  El Zurdo’s stories capture the dual representation that Latin American culture has given to both the trade and its capos – romantic and profitable, yet evil.  Mendoza’s books give a naked and honest portrait of a society that has adapted, for its own survival, to most of the values associated with the narco business.  As Mendoza says, “El Zurdo” tries to keep a distance from the narco, but he can’t avoid him because the narco is there and is very strong and, almost without wanting to be, is always in contact.”

Compared to the many reports that fail to lead to policies that would help attack the core problems that give rise to the narco industry, Mendoza’s work provides a fresh and sincere portrait of the devastating impact the drug trade and the “drug war” have had on Latin America.  In books like El Amante de Janis Joplin and Nombre de Perro, his message is powerful, coming from a writer that has been there, in Culiacán, since it all started.  He writes with no restraints, through the voice of his characters, to tell some simple truths.  In an interview with this writer, he offered a sampling of his wisdom.  “If the US came up all of a sudden with a program to deal with its addicts, it would mean the end for the narco business,” later adding that “the war on drugs is useless and has only caused death.”  He poignantly stated:  “The war on drugs also allowed us to relax our emotions and lose the last chance for justice.”

 

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