Review: Los cárteles no existen – Oswaldo Zavala

Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.

Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.

For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile.  This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).

Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.

Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).**  However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.

*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.



On death and its representation in Mexico

There is a frequent trope in reporting about Mexico that suggests that Mexicans have a special relationship with death. The Mexican poet and essayist, Octavio Paz wrote an influential essay in his Laberinto de la soledad/Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) exploring the particularities of the Mexican attitude to death through the lens of the annual day of the dead celebrations. His romantic view of Mexican attitudes to death, that formed part of a collection, in turn, became a key text in Mexican self-representation and was as sweeping as it was exclusionary. It feeds into and draws on particular cultural practices that engage with death in ways that can seem celebratory and look like they trivialise death because of the colourful and ironic ways that gruesome symbols such as skulls and skeletons are converted into cartoons, children’s biscuits and other party treats.

Last February, I went to the Wellcome Trust’s exhibit Death: A Self-Portrait. A selection of images from the exhibit can be found here. Alongside art from Asian, African and European artists, Mexico was well represented by José Guadalupe PosadaDana Salvo, Marcos Raya, Graciela Iturbide, and Miguel Linares. This was a collection assembled by Richard Harris, a dealer based in Chicago and, as with any exhibition, it is not exhausting. The space could have been filled many times over with art from all over the world.

Another Mexican artist whose work has focused on death is Teresa Margolles. She uses autopsies and its by-products, extreme images of dramatic deaths, and the traces of violent deaths in her work that is often symbolic and metaphorical in its final artistic representation. Unsurprisingly, her work has attracted academic interest. Julia Banwell is currently completing a monograph on her work and at this year’s LASA in Washington, Anna Kingsley spoke about her research into Margolles’ work. Does this attention and list of artists mean that there is something specifically Mexican about these artists obsession with death? Or, are they part of a larger pattern as exhibits like the Wellcome Trust suggest? Art often taps into the universal, and death is certainly that, however, it also comes from specific historical and cultural contexts.

The Wellcome Trust exhibition displayed (literally and figuratively) that there is nothing specifically Mexican about an obsession with death. In the popular imaginary about Mexico, the idea that Mexicans are uniquely obsessed with death is held to be true. Unfortunately, when there has been an extremely violent and brutal escalation of deaths in Northern Mexico in recent years, it is hard to counter this view. 70,000 have been murdered in the last six years in battles between Narcos and the army as well as in tit for tat violence amongst Narcos. It is appalling in scale, brutality and consequences on those who witness and survive it.

This morning I came across the story of a blogger ‘Lucy’, who has been reporting on the violence in her Blog del Narco and has had to flee Northern Mexico. Her blogging partner went missing some weeks ago and she has had to go underground since. In a recent blog she wrote: “yo no soy un personaje, yo soy real de carne y hueso. Yo siento, yo sufro, yo lloro, yo estoy sola, yo estoy abandonada. No soy ´La Reyna del Sur´ [sic], soy ´Lucy´ la de Blog del Narco*. Soy mujer, soy mexicana” [I’m not a character, I’m real, made of flesh and bone. I feel, I suffer, I cry, I’m alone, I’m abandoned. I’m not ‘The Queen of the South’, I’m ‘Lucy’ from the Blog del Narco. I’m a woman. I’m Mexican].  It would take many words to unpick the weight and resonance of all that this statement says. It is worth noting that these words deal with the specifics of who she is ‘Lucy’, albeit an online nickname, a mask she is hiding behind, but mostly it deals in generalities where being Mexican comes last. It is horribly poignant and tragic. With online matters it is always hard to pick the truths out from the multiple fictions and fronts. My personal response to this is sadness. Not just at what ‘Lucy’ is (may or may not be) suffering, but because she is also representative of the multiple awful deaths that have happened and have become anonymised behind the sheer weight (70,000) of numbers.

There is something very specifically Mexican about ‘Lucy’ and her need to flee at this moment, at her inability to operate freely and safely as a journalist. At the same time, this “war on drugs” is not something that belongs only to Mexico, it is merely the locus where the transnational trade currently operates and has a hub and is the place that is currently experiencing the extremes of its violence. As someone who studies violence and its representation, ‘Lucy’s’ statement moves me intensely because it is about the geographical territory that I am fascinate by as a researcher, it gives a name (even if it is just a blogger’s tag) to the multiple deaths that have occurred, and reminds me that behind that blindingly huge number of deaths (70,000) there are individuals who have suffered and that their story must be allowed to be told whether in text or in a variety of visual media that are available.


*This is a reference to the extremely popular La reina del sur Mexican soap opera which tells the story of a woman who becomes the head of an international drug cartel.