El Chapo’s Recapture: A Fictionalized Reality Show

By Núria Vilanova*

Chapo Kate Penn Film

Photo Credit: Abd allah Foteih, Fanpage.- & Sachyn Mital – (modified) / Flickr & Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent interview granted by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo and his subsequent re-arrest validate yet again the observation of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that no matter how hard fiction strives to emulate reality, reality always surpasses it.  Narco-lives and deeds have attracted myriad fiction writers, filmmakers, and musicians giving way to a successful narco-literature and narco-cinema that has fascinated the general public, journalists, and scholars alike.  A recent example is the popular Netflix series Narcos, based on one of the most notorious drug traffickers, Pablo Escobar.  Well known also are the corridos in Northern Mexico that sing the adventures and prowess of powerful drug lords (often in exchange for large payments).  The narco-corridos are today the epical portrayal of criminal lords whose lives straddle glory and vileness.

In the interstices between reality and fiction rest the publicity-mongering and recapture this month of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the subject of an intense six-month manhunt following his escape last July from a high-security prison.  No film would have been sufficiently credible and convincing had it attempted to stage El Chapo’s flight, but the reality is that the most prominent narco-lord since Escobar was able to vanish through a highly sophisticated tunnel whose construction required great engineering expertise.  The final seconds of his stay in his cell before entering his path to freedom were recorded by a security camera.  Megalomania – his eagerness to have his life and deeds taken to the big screen – apparently led to his undoing.  He reached out through intermediaries to soap-opera and film actress Kate del Castillo, whose role as narcotress in the popular show La reina del sur apparently captivated his heart, to set up a meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn to present his version of his reality to the world.  Playing the role of an adventurous and intrepid journalist, Penn produced a 10,000-word report-interview for Rolling Stone magazine.  Thus, the three main characters of this story – El Chapo, Kate del Castillo, and Sean Penn – traveled from reality to fiction and back in a fictional-yet-real encounter.  The three characters straddled between two dangerous dimensions in complicity – reality and fiction – unaware that their secret meeting would somehow provide the clue that enabled Mexican security to shut El Chapo down again.

The reality-fiction play brings a much higher toll than just El Chapo’s return to prison.  Dozens of the corrido singers who extol the narcos’ lifestyle have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mexico since the late 1990s.  Mexico is also at the international forefront on the number of journalists assassinated since 2006, when former President Calderón launched a bloody (and failed) war on drugs.  While the Mexican actress has not made any substantial comments on her apparent role in El Chapo’s return to prison, Penn has blustered his innocence as a courageous journalist-star whose mission was to make his countrymen reflect and make a self-critique of the bloodthirsty, futile war on drugs.  We, the audience, would probably wish this reality show would have brought about a less trivial outcome, but the last episode is not yet written.

January 25, 2016

* Núria Vilanova is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of World Languages and Cultures.

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.”