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El Narcotraficante

El Narcotraficante
Narcocorridos and the Construction of a Cultural Persona on the U.S.-Mexican Border

This multilayered ethnography takes a wide-ranging look at the persona of the narcotrafficker and how it has been shaped by Mexican border culture, socioeconomic and power disparities, and the transnational music industry.

Series: Inter America Series, Duncan Earle, Howard Campbell, and John Peterson, series editors

February 2003
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212 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w photos, 2 figures |

Since the late 1970s, a new folk hero has risen to prominence in the U.S.-Mexico border region and beyond—the narcotrafficker. Celebrated in the narcocorrido, a current form of the traditional border song known as the corrido, narcotraffickers are often portrayed as larger-than-life "social bandits" who rise from poor or marginalized backgrounds to positions of power and wealth by operating outside the law and by living a life of excess, challenging authority (whether U.S. or Mexican), and flouting all risks, including death. This image, rooted in Mexican history, has been transformed and commodified by the music industry and by the drug trafficking industry itself into a potent and highly marketable product that has a broad appeal, particularly among those experiencing poverty and power disparities. At the same time, the transformation from folk hero to marketable product raises serious questions about characterizations of narcocorridos as "narratives of resistance."

This multilayered ethnography takes a wide-ranging look at the persona of the narcotrafficker and how it has been shaped by Mexican border culture, socioeconomic and power disparities, and the transnational music industry. Mark Edberg begins by analyzing how the narcocorrido emerged from and relates to the traditional corrido and its folk hero. Then, drawing upon interviews and participant-observation with corrido listening audiences in the border zone, as well as musicians and industry producers of narcocorridos, he elucidates how the persona of the narcotrafficker has been created, commodified, and enacted, and why this character resonates so strongly with people who are excluded from traditional power structures. Finally, he takes a look at the concept of the cultural persona itself and its role as both cultural representation and model for practice.

  • Foreword by Howard Campbell
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: Narcocorridos and the Meaning of the Drug Trafficker Image on the U.S.-Mexico Border
  • 1. Corridos, Cultural Representations, and Poverty
  • 2. Investigating Narcocorridos and Their Meaning in the U.S.-Mexico Border Context
  • 3. Interpreting Narcocorridos
  • 4. Narcocorridos and the Cultural Persona of the Narcotrafficker
  • Appendix 1. Research Methodology and Sample Interview Guides
  • Appendix 2. Spanish Texts of Corridos and Narcocorridos
  • Notes
  • References

Mark Cameron Edberg is Research Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services, Department of Prevention and Community Health, and in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


Woody Guthrie once asked, "Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws... and never about governors, mayors or police chiefs?" The answer is easy. An outlaw is someone "disgusted with trying to live decent in the rich man's system," who tries to "whip the world down to his size" and finds out he cannot, because the world is much bigger than he is. But he tries. He may die trying, but he tries—and "goes down shooting." By contrast, "politicians don't even try. They shoot the bull and the hot air, but they don't try their best to make the world better... and the people just don't waste any pencil lead on their politicians, unless it's to write up a song showing how bad they was compared to the outlaw."


There is something compelling about the image of men or women who are willing to risk all against social forces that are stacked against them in the quest for respect. It is an image that resonates in the inventory of enduring cultural representations that make up American culture and Mexican culture in the border region and elsewhere. It is the kind of image long featured in a culturally "thick" narrative and musical genre of northern Mexico and the border region known as the "corrido." Corridos are a discursive form through which heroic values and the situations that frame them have been articulated, particularly since the Mexican-American War in the mid-nineteenth century. However, in the past decade or so, a type of corrido featuring drug traffickers as protagonists has become highly popular in the border region and elsewhere in Mexico, Latin America, and now in parts of the United States. These corridos are often called "narcocorridos," and they are the subject of the research that informed this book.


Since narcocorridos are commonly (though not universally) viewed as within the corrido tradition, an obvious question comes to mind: Are narcotraffickers understood to be of a type with Pancho Villa, Gregorio Cortez, and the other heroes—both named and unnamed—of past corridos? If so, why? And by whom? The answers to these kinds of questions may say a lot about the nature of this heroic cultural persona, and about the ways in which this persona, and the values and understandings it represents, is mapped onto current circumstances. Moreover, given the military focus of the "drug war," it may also point out a glaring gap in how well Americans understand a situation that is far more complex than is possible to construe under a metaphor of war.


Finally, there is unquestionably a point of view in the literature on narcocorridos (see Chapter 4) that casts them as narratives of resistance, such that the narcotrafficker is discursively framed as a social bandit in the manner described by Hobsbawm (1969), or at least as a trickster or cultural antagonist. My experience conducting this research supports those characterizations to some degree; however, I encountered a much more complex pattern of interpretation, which argues against easy categorization. Moreover, it is clear that the narcotrafficker image as represented in narcocorridos has become commodified—because narcocorridos (at least during the period of this research) are popular and a booming business for some record companies and producers. Thus the image is now co-constructed by market forces, a significant contradiction to any interpretation that focuses on narcocorridos solely as populist or resistance narratives.


In any case, it's time to head to the border.


Borderlands: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas


Flying in toward El Paso, as the plane banks around the stark Franklin Mountains, what you see first is a barren crust of earth, which, from the plane, is just barely spotted with scrub brush, as though with a pox. The overwhelming effect is brown. And dry. And brown. And dry. Here and there, ghostly traces of a housing development that was to be—shallow, shadowlike etchings in the dust, laid out in a regular grid of streets and side streets. But no one there. Nothing there. And here and there, the superficial scars of someone's dirt bike treads. All of it is strangely ineffectual, mere timeworn scratches on the leathery skin of a very old face.


I can laugh at myself now, but I thought of El Paso as Old El Paso, a kind of vision, a rich heartland of Mexican American culture. Yes, as a place, El Paso reflects some of that history, to be sure, but in other ways it is a kind of commercial representation long overshadowed by its more workaday role as a place of business on the border. It took some time even to begin to understand. Strangely, I felt that I understood Juárez better, and that I did so right from the beginning. Yet as I became more familiar with El Paso, and many wonderful people who live there, I came to appreciate it on its own terms, not in reference to my vision.


Granted, when I began the research in the summer of 1998, much of Texas was going through a drought and a heat wave, so some of what may have been normal activity was in hiding during the day. Yet my first question, still to some degree unanswered, was, "Where is Old El Paso?" There are a few old-house neighborhoods in the central downtown area, and there is Sunset Heights, a historic district off Mesa Avenue toward UTEP. But the main plaza, the main square—what you would think of as the heart of the city—is small, dusty little San Jacinto Plaza, a block-sized park populated only by a few languid habitués, resting under trees around the famous, but actually very understated, alligator fountain in the center. The rest of the downtown is a somewhat nondescript collection of office buildings, mingled with a few bars and discount clothing stores, except near the Convention Center. There, a small, showpiece urban walk-space around the art museum, Convention Center, and Camino Real hotel has been redone into a modern little enclave clearly tailored to a generic, upscale urban gentry—of which, by the way, there is not much in El Paso. (It is no accident, then, that El Paso's "GQ quarter" is directly adjacent to its poshest hotel.) El Paso is just not a stop on the Starbucks and GQ circuit. Not just yet, anyway. And in any case, the art museum place d'ambience dissipates quickly enough. Just down El Paso Street, in the Old El Paso market area, are rows of discount merchandise of all kinds—electronics, T-shirts, clothes, tourist trinkets, handbags. To the west, on Santa Fe Street, is an old border town bus station advertising in painted letters buses heading to Mexicali, Los Angeles, and other destinations. Generally speaking, after work hours, downtown El Paso is just plain empty.


Where, then, is life in El Paso? As I came to learn, El Paso is not a center. It is strung out along Interstate 10, east and west, like grapes clustered to a vine. It is a city of neighborhoods, and it is in those neighborhoods where life takes shape around centers. I first felt this when I happened on a Kermess, a community festival, in a neighborhood somewhere in South El Paso, west of I-10 as it turns south along the border.2 These festivals are often held at a church or school, and a good percentage of the community comes for some part of the day or evening. At the Kermess, there were booths with games, food, and people selling flea market items and some religious goods. Some of the food was standard festival fare of hot dogs and soft drinks; some was homemade—tamales, taquitos, burritos, and desserts made by the something-auxiliary-club-of-something. And then there was a long lineup of music. When I got there, a band was just finishing up. They played Latino-style rock, the kind of early rock-and-roll that was heavily influenced by 1950s-1960s Chicano culture, like Sam the Sham, or the Mysterions. Next up were four homegirls who had worked out a Spice Girls routine. They had a boombox as backup, turned on taped music sans lyrics, and fronted that little machine with a set of rap-inflected tunes (of their own) in Spanish and a dance act, replete with all the necessary body arching and pouting. I missed the mariachis who had played earlier in the day.


Down on Alameda Avenue in East El Paso, there is also a lot of activity—at night—in the cluster of norteño music bars and clubs in that area. On weekend nights, the parking lots are jammed, especially with trucks of the kind that are popular in the border area, big Suburbans, Dodge Rams, and the like. Inside, the bars and dance floors are crowded with men and women wearing boots, hats, and broad belts. Even with the crowds, though, an outsider walking in may find that more than a few heads turn and tacitly ask the question, "Who are you and what are you doing here?"


Driving along the main line of I-10 at night, El Paso blares at you with its kudzulike overgrowth (or, depending on your point of view, a carnival) of garish signs advertising a sale on this, buy the newest that, motel package stays, discount home furnishings, cars, motorcycles, pizzas, Chinese buffet lunches, the best Mexican food, Toys R Us, on and on. It is a kind of home video American dream, and, indeed, it is set up in part to appeal to consumers coming across the border from Mexico, who are a key customer base, along with all the civilian and military staff and families associated with Fort Bliss and Biggs Army Airfield, a large military base and airfield on El Paso's north side. On Friday nights some of the most popular places to be are the several Wal-Marts—whose parking lots are a great sea of cars, pickup trucks, women trundling babies and bags, and a general chaos of people and things.


Another phenomenon: El Paso has more cheap hotels advertising weekly rates than anywhere I have ever been. What does this mean? Transience, movement, migration. El Paso also has what claims to be the world's largest Harley-Davidson dealership. Again, movement and migration. It is, after all, the borderland. At the same time, underneath the transient overlay, there are a lot of people who have lived in El Paso for a long time, and whose families and extended relationships span both sides of the border. It is the social core.


Just across the bridge over the anticlimactic Rio Grande—manhandled in its drab, gray cement channel—Ciudad Juárez is something quite different (Plate 1). Juárez is chaotic, even vaguely menacing at first. Dusty. Dirty. Taxis, belching cars, painted buses, Tarahumara Indian women and little children selling tourist trinkets of various descriptions, and people walking everywhere, with babies, with packages, on sidewalks that are obstacle courses (of holes, some boarded-up, some not, exposed pipes never quite repaired, etc.) in the plaza with its old Spanish church (Plate 2). But at least there are people. Walking, talking, laughing, standing, waiting for buses. For all its harshness, there is an energy in Juárez that is palpable.


And the river. The infamous, or fabled, Rio Grande. Yet here, it is eviscerated, rendered soul-less between its dusty, gray cement banks, barely distinguishable in tonality from the relentless and thrumming functionality of the interstate just to the north. Atop the riverbank on both sides, a chain-link fence, crowned in barbed wire, fronting a dirt road that parallels the river and appears mainly to be used by Border Patrol or Mexican police. One day, I saw three men wading across in the muddy water, holding clothes (or something else indeterminable from the viewpoint of the bridge) above their heads, in full view of everyone, including, presumably, the Mexican police. They were wading underneath the train trestle, with its huge iron gate midway across designed to thwart use by migrants. On the U.S. side, two green Border Patrol ("Migra") trucks sat on the dirt road, right next to the trestle. Did the men not see the trucks? At some point they must have, because they scuttled up the bank and hid underneath the bridge.


And the chaos. A large pothole in the road, repaired with a junked car door and a tree limb. On a long street lined with buildings and shops close to crumbling or being blown off into the desert, a brand-new high-rise hotel in fresh pastel colors. Why there? And Avenida Juárez—where at every corner you are approached with overdramatic, yet hushed, questions: "Boystown? Want to go to Boystown? What kinda women you like? You want some pills? What do you like?"—only a block away from a street lined with bridal shops, beauty academies, dentists' offices, and pharmacies. Contrast this with the glitzy PRONAF (Programa Nacional Fronterizo, National Border Program) area around Avenida 16 Septiembre and López Mateos, with its glass-faced buildings, restaurants, banks, and, not far away, American-style malls.


And the poverty. In the concentric sprawl of colonias near parts of the city center and in an ever-widening circle around it, the outer boundary of which seems to fizzle out into the bone-dry desert, at which point the mud-colored colonia dwellings and the desert appear almost as one and the same. Amid the ostensible economic boon from the maquilas, the colonias are the other side of the equation, pouring forth workers on early-morning buses and taking them back in the evening, to the dirt-road, scrap, and cement neighborhoods, some of which have been part of Juárez for a long time, others of which are more recent additions to accommodate the substantial numbers of migrants heading up to the borderlands. Many of these colonias go by mellifluous names that border on the surreal—Colonia Bella Vista (Beautiful View), Colonia Revolución (Revolution), Colonia Alta Vista (High View).


El Paso, Juárez. Juárez, El Paso. So different, yet tendrils of one so rooted in the other—families with cousins on one side, brothers just across the Rio Grande. Back and forth; here for one thing, there for another.


It was in this setting that I began trundling myself and a small backpack with notebooks, a tape recorder, and bottled water back and forth across the Santa Fe bridge—in step, I suppose, in some small way with all the others. In those treks back and forth across the bridge, back and forth from Juárez to El Paso (and later to other parts of the border area in Arizona and California), I recorded some distinct impressions about the place, the setting, as a way of trying to become aware, in the limited way that I could, of the kinds of sights, sounds, and cues that form part of the background for how daily events are interpreted. This was a way of introducing myself to a complex setting within which I sought to investigate the cultural image of the narcotrafficker as it is played out in narcocorridos.




Generally, the notion of a border zone as a growing ground for narcocorridos may best be viewed under a broader definition, less tied to the actual geographic border—especially since narcocorridos are known and written well beyond the border (and in Mexico, certain states in the sierra or near the Pacific coast, such as Sinaloa, are well-known narcotrafficker territory and thus the origin of many a narcocorrido). Still, however it is imagined, it could be said that the border is a distiller of themes and a metaphoric region of ambiguity—a liminal space. It is a zone of conflict, a zone of movement and transition, a zone of both harsh poverty and fantastic wealth, a zone where there is a "thin line between love and hate," but also a zone where normal life exists, on its own terms. Among many impressions recorded in my field notes are the following:


The first time I crossed the Santa Fe bridge into Juárez, over the broad cement channel that is the fabled Rio Grande (or Río Bravo) at that point, I looked down and saw graffiti on the sloping, dusty, gray channel wall—far more prosaic than one would imagine for the banks of the Rio Grande. On one wall some of the graffiti read as follows:


¡¡¡Ya basta!!!
Por cada ilegal que nos maltraten
En los Estados Unidos de N.A.
Vamos a maltratar
Un visitante gabacho
"Bienvenidos los paisanos"


This translates, more or less, as "Enough! For every illegal mistreated in the United States, we will mistreat one gringo visitor. Welcome, countrymen!"


¡¡Ojo migra!!
Para reportar abusos


This translates as "Watch out, INS [or Border Patrol]! 533-4346, to report abuses."


9 de mayo del 91
Tarin, descansa en paz
Querido amigo siempre
Te recordaremos
Tus compas del PN
y de tu madre


This piece of graffiti is a little less clear, but translates as "May 9, 1991. Tarin, rest in peace. Dear friend always. We will remember you—your PN [Partido Nacional] friends and from your mother." Does it refer to someone who died crossing the river?


Another day, as I crossed the bridge, I looked back toward the graffiti and it was set against a row of green Border Patrol trucks parked on the dirt road that immediately parallels the river, above the banks and behind a chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. The overall image was quite stark, though I must consider my own reaction as a visitor to the situation, in contrast to that of residents who see this kind of picture all the time and for whom it may be mere background noise. And yet, as I surveyed the setting, a constant stream of people flowed back and forth across the bridge, many of those returning to the Mexican side trundling along with bags of purchased goods. It is, as best I can tell, a kind of love-hate relationship.




Then there are the sprawling colonias both near the central part of the city and on the outskirts. These colonias have euphemistic names such as "Bella Vista," or "Alta Vista," or "Revolución," that belie their crumbling, dusty poverty. One day, I went out to Colonia Revolución with Jorge, a member of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas' Partido de la Revolución Democrática and health outreach worker for a Juárez-based drug and HIV/AIDS program. I was going to interview two youth, but before that I spent time in a community meeting where colonia residents of a particular "block" were discussing a petition they were going to sign and present requesting that the municipal government pave their dirt streets. The houses along the street were all small, cubelike, and makeshift in character, some constructed of what looked like scrap wood and other scrap materials, others appearing somewhat more permanent, built using cinderblocks along with a patchwork of miscellaneous items for roofing and fences. The streets were dirt, occasionally embedded with old discarded tires and metal scraps. A scruffy, anemic dog ambled up the street. At one house around the corner, a lime-green golf cart was parked in a loosely built wood enclosure—car and garage. All those I talked to at the meeting said that they worked at various maquilas. Their typical pay rate was the equivalent of about $30-$40 per week; at that time, though, it must be noted that the peso was in a continual slide, so even that equivalent amount would be less within a matter of weeks.


At the same time, in one colonia I noticed a house that stood out as unusual at the end of a long row of dwellings in the manner I described above. It was a permanent, constructed house, with a fence, windows, a front yard—much like a small American suburban home. Why was this house here? I was told that the owner was probably involved in the drug trade at some point, and that he most likely used the money he made to set up or buy the small car repair shop and eatery on the corner near his house. He may or may not still be involved in the trade, but, either way, the drug money had served as "development money" or investment capital of a sort. It is not an uncommon story.




In contrast to the poverty of the colonias, I also took a tour of the "other side" in Juárez. There was, for example, a family "compound" of one of the elite ruling families in Juárez. The compound was a strange sight, a virtual walled city with ornate walls so high it was not possible to see anything but the tops of palm trees inside. Yet the compound sits in an ugly industrial park area. There is no neighborhood around at all. The closest sign of activity other than traffic and a small mini-mall with shops and a restaurant is a dirt lot, devoid of any vegetation and strewn here and there with glinting glass shards, on which a few children were playing soccer.


Nearby, there is a residential area known as El Campestre, in which the houses are often garish in their façades, very much like some houses in Beverly Hills, with ornate Greek columns and multicolored domes, or palatial in the manner of a European estate. Some had imposing walls and gates, and I saw one that was clearly equipped for a high level of security, with several manned guard stations. Right next to this neighborhood is a section called "Rincones de San Marcos," which has been dubbed "Rincones de San Narcos" because of all the narcotraffickers who are said to live there. Narcotrafficker families and other wealthy families in these neighborhoods, I understand, mix without much problem, despite what may be differences in class origin. Maybe money is just money.


A short distance away, and close to one of the only remaining ejidos in Juárez, is a walled and gated community called Misión de los Lagos. The former governor of the State of Chihuahua keeps a house there...




“In sum, Edberg's is a valuable contribution to an emerging, promising, and rich interdisciplinary field.”
Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“This is a brilliant study on a subject that since the 1970s has riveted national and international attention: the exploits of those men and women who traffic in drugs. . . . The work is very original and offers new theoretical paradigms for both understanding the corrido as an artistic cultural form and understanding a people through this expressive artistic form.Maria”
Herrera-Sobek Acting Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Policy, University of California, Santa Barbara


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