Review: Narrating Narcos: Culiacán and Medellín – by Gabriela Polit Dueñas

narrating narcos

The author is exploring the impact of local culture on the artistic output of Narcoculture in the form of literature and art in two specific par excellence Narco cities in Latin America. We are introduced to the Culichis of Culiacán in Mexicos Sinaloa and they can be contrasted with the paisas of Medellín in Colombia. There are unique linguistic characteristics to each area and each city produces distinct styles in terms of its experience of drug war and wide scale narco-trafficking. Culiacán is the capital of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel territory and faced the brunt of the President Calderon Mexican Government War on Drugs. Medellín was home to Pablo Escobar’s capo rule during the 1980s when he declared war on the State and ran a brutal campaign akin to terrorism, brutalising many of the local population in the crossfire. The rough nature of macho Culichi campesinos, raised in the surrounding rural mountains is portrayed in the natural acceptance of violence and the local landscape is scarred with the memories of narco killings and warfare. Post Escobar paisas are dealing with the world where they had to face paramilitary suppression and the middle classes have been integrated with fast money immigrants from the shantytowns, the home of sicaresca (cultural works about sicario hitmen). Authors may use local dialects such as Medellin’s urban poor parlache in order to express their work. Most of the artists and authors have either suffered directly from the violence or know people killed in the wars. The underlying tone for cultural content from both areas is one of ultraviolence that is socially accepted and ingrained in the conscience and collective memory. The popularity of narconovelas is rising globally. The author of this study does some great work in exposing some perhaps lesser known creators and does a relatively in depth analysis of their works, often drawing on external cultural ideas and philosophies in order to justify her analyses. I found this text to be very enlightening and it opened many doors to this area for future critical study. The often dark subjects prove to be very adept at dealing with their work, often under extreme circumstances that fellow artists across the world do not have to endure. The culture of Medellín and Culiacán is opened to the world by Gabriela Polit Dueñas and I highly recommend her work.


Review: Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas – by Elijah Wald


Whilst planning to do a university translation dissertation on some aspect of narcoculture I was drawn to this work (in English – also simultaneously released bilingually with a Spanish version) by American author and folk musician, Elijah Wald. Having been introduced and hooked on the sounds of Los Tigres Del Norte for years, the Narcocorrido is a music form that particularly interests me. The Spanish word ‘Correr’ = to run, gives way to the Corrido form of music, a Mexican musical ballad, originally historically done as the spoken word, but more recently with Mexican folk music of accordions, guitars and harps added. It is a form of Norteño / Ranchera / Mariachi music, very spicy in rhythm, with neatly rhyming lyrics, telling a popular story. A lively, popular music artform, where masculinity and hyper-masculinity can flourish. The traditional Corrido has been superseded by the Narcocorrido, which tells the stories of Mexican and Latin American drug lords and their conquests – their crossborder trafficking, their grisly assassinations, their lovelife, their organisations. The Corrido is an alternative form of news and corridistas may cover any political event, with some controversial writers documenting political scandals and guerrilla uprisings. Elijah Wald takes us on an interesting personal journey as he hitchhikes and buses across every conceivable region in Mexico and also dips into the Corrido communities of North America. We meet the stars of the genre, the well known celebrity figures, from Los Tigres Del Norte themselves and their most famous writers such as Jefe del Jefes, Teodoro Bello. The issues of assassinated star Chalino Sánchez were particularly interesting and displayed the true dangerous nature of these musicians and their controversial cultural work. We head from the Sinaloan narcocorrido heartland, up to Texas and onto rural Michoacan. Not only do we learn more of the drug trafficking inspirations and the gruesome Mexican drug war, but also we learn of other areas of Mexican culture, history and politics. Wald is a man of the people and the rural campesinos are never far from his heart. He is equally at home listening to corridista buskers on the bus aswell as being able to snort cocaine whilst partying with the stars. For me, the translations done by the author about the often unknown corridos are a true revelation and, being an apprentice translator, I particularly found this aspect of the book exciting. The book is a real adventure and I’d encourage any travel lover to get involved in the quint narrations and journeying. I think that this book will long be regarded as the definitive text on Narcocorridos and I look forward to reading more work by Elijah Wald. It has left me a large legacy of topics and material to research and I shall be busy well into the future covering issues raised by my reading of this most excellent, well written text.

Review: Fiesta en la Madriguera – by Juan Pablo Villalobos

fiesta en la madriguera

This is a narconovela, a Spanish language work of fiction set in the narco world of drug trafficking. The young Mexican author, Juan Pablo Villalobos presents ‘ Party in the Rabbit Burrow’, a short, fast-moving look at life behind the palace facade of a Mexican drug kingpin, Yolcaut, through the eyes of his young son. Tochtli is shut up in this rabbit warren, living a deluded life of extreme wealth. He only knows fifteen people through his contact with the outside world. He has private tuition at home, where he learns a few relevant facts about the real world. Tochtli is fascinated by sombreros and is proud of his worldwide hat collection. He is fond of the French people due to their penchant for the guillotine. The Liberian dwarf hippos they have obtained from Africa for the palace’s private zoo demonstrate the levels of extreme wealth that Yolcaut has. The violence of his father’s lifestyle and the Mexican drug war reflects upon Tochtli in his craving for Japanese Samurais and obsession with death. He has witnessed some killings at his home and when he guns down some exotic lovebirds it is no surprise. Tochtli exhibits his anger and loneliness through electing muteness, his way of rebelling against the system that he knows. The book is narrated by Tochtli in a childlike flow with plenty of rhythm and decent use of Spanish language meter. There is a lot of repetition of ideas and key phrases and words that enhance the literary beauty of this narconovela. Chapter 1 focuses on an introduction to Tochtli’s world. Chapter 2 is about their trip to Monrovia., the capital of Liberia, in order to hunt down some dwarf hippopotamuses. Chapter 3 returns to the palace. They are betrayed by Tochtli’s tutor, inside details of the King’s life revealed to the media, irritating the kingpin and provoking his mortal anger. There is a clever use of character’s names – the Liberian guides being former US presidents (JFK) and social heroes (Martin Luther King). The hippos are Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. We see the nastiness of Mexican’s über violent social conflict, in a bizarre and extreme mirror, that is never far from violence but has the safety and protection of a secluded fairytale princess life of the ‘Rey’s child. A very good start to me for authentic narconovela subgenre fiction.

Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of his comrades and left him few publishing opportunities during his lifetime. As Nazi Germany ultimately rose up and invaded France, Serge fled Paris for one final time and luckily managed to secure a final exit from the continent as he became a war refugee in Mexico where he ultimately died peacefully a couple of years after the cessation of hostilities. I love this book for its detailed insight. The frankness of the author is inviting and his ideology and awareness are truly inspiring on both a political and personal level. For any student of world history in the twentieth century this book is a must read and for any aspiring revolutionaries I cannot think of a better book to read (with the possible exception of the Guevarist diaries) in order to quench your revolutionary zeal.

Review: Cocaine Nation – How The White Trade Took Over The World – by Tom Feiling

cocaine nation

This is an enthralling, well-researched book, that reveals many unknown new facts about the global cocaine industry. The book opens with a chapter focussing on the USA, the biggest market for the Cocaine industry, where 66% of Cocaine users exist. We then enter into the producing and transit phase of the drug and examine Colombia, Mexico and the Caribbean in detail. Colombia has the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels, much responsible for the initial production of Cocaine. The role of the FARC, AUC and the Colombian Civil War is documented and the political difficulties with America’s Plan Colombia and the extreme bribery involved in Colombian political life. In Mexico, we see how the various cartels such as Sinaloa, Juárez, Gulf and Tijuana have gone to war, recruiting the services of such paramilitaries as Los Zetas. The Caribbean covers Jamaica in detail and also Cuba, Haiti and the various tax haven islands. In Jamaica we see how politics have heavily influenced the gang culture and the rise of the Shower Posse is documented. In all of the Western producer country sphere, the USA and its policies is never far from the forefront. The ‘War on Drugs’ in force from many successive administrations at the White House, often focuses on producer and transit countries and is totally supported by draconian United Nations international legislation. The European market, in particular the United Kingdom is the second largest market for Cocaine and some countries here have introduced decriminalisation. In places such as Holland and Portugal, drug use is not penalised. The author explores how users are affected by the drug and explores addiction, in particular the problems of crack cocaine. In the final part of the book we look at possible legalisation solutions although, despite Feiling’s enthusiasm for this to happen, I fear it will be many generations before this becomes politically possible. Perhaps with potential cannabis decriminalisation and legalisation on the agenda, it will open up the doors for other narcotics to follow suit? I enjoyed the book and it really does go into detail on what is an interesting subject and a truly global industry.

Review: Gangland – The Rise of the Mexican Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver – by Jerry Langton


This fascinating subject is explored by the author, Jerry Langton, in a fresh and vibrant manner. He makes the often bloody stories flow nicely into each other. What is for sure is that the Mexican drug war is a nasty business and page after page of horrifying bloodthirstiness attends to this. We read of the different cartels from Sinaloa across Mexico. Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world is a common area for discussion. The author always has his mind on the export role of the cartels and how their actions are affecting populations further North in the USA and Canada. If anything, it is difficult to weave together a fabric of the tale due to the sheer mass of brutalities that have occurred. More people are killed each year in Mexico due to the cartel warfare than in foreign war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is not the first I have studied on this topic in Mexico and I found it very well-researched and full of details, some of which were unknown to me previously. It is certainly worth a read if the topic of Mexican cartels interests you.

Review: Cartels At War – by Paul Rexton Can

cartels at war


The author is a military expert and the phrase he coins to determine Mexico’s narcotics problem is a ‘mosaic cartel war’. This book analyses in detail the various cartels that are present in Mexico that operate in a highly competitive, highly profitable, highly illegal, immensely violent global industry. The Mexican cartels mainly provide a distribution service for the drug-producing areas of South America, and provide the market pathway into the riches of the United States. Thus, the problem in Mexico is very much in tandem a US problem and therefore a valid area of study for the US Military. The cartels are vast and all very different: Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, Beltrán-Leyva,Juarez, La Familia Michoacana & Los Zetas – these are the main cartels although subdivisions exist and other splinter groups may assist various different bodies in the distribution and enforcement of the criminal activity. There are alliances among the cartels in addition to disputes and the intra-cartel warfare can be particularly brutal. The Mexican State utilise many strategies from military to political to law enforcement policing, and they are often backed up from the USA with it Merida initiative. Solutions to the conflicts and problem are provided in detail and range from legalisation of drugs, in particular in the USA and also improved military and law enforcement tactics. This study is comprehensive and provides much detail on a very complex subject. I don’t think that any immediate solution is on the horizon for Mexico and for if it is not to exist as a failed state the cartels and their power are an issue which must not be allowed to further escalate out of control.