The Cultural Politics of the ‘War on Drugs’ in Latin America: Prohibition and Beyond? – By Dr Joey Whitfield, Cardiff University, 22.11.17
Dr Joey Whitfield is a Research Fellow and member of the Spanish department at Cardiff University. He has a forthcoming book (available on Amazon) titled Prison Writing of Latin America https://www.amazon.co.uk/Prison-Writing-Latin-America-Whitfield/dp/150133462X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1512133181&sr=8-1&keywords=prison+writing+of+latin+america
The book details his study of prison writing from the 1910s to the present day. His interest in the War on Drugs springs from this extensive research where he has explored the creative output of prisoners. His work leads him to conclude that there is not so clear a distinction in Latin American jails between political prisoners and criminal prisoners.. Similarly in Latin America, politically, there is not a great deal of difference between democracies and dictatorships.
One of the groups he has investigated is the Red Command – from Rio De Janeiro – who are a trafficking gang.
There has been a decline if the role of the Urban Guerrilla in Latin America.
There have been repressive regimes that are dictatorial. Eg. The government of Brazil during the 1980s
The same repressive apparatus that has been used against urban guerrillas is now being used on drug cartels.
As the Cold War ended across Latin America the political conflicts gave way to the ‘War on Drugs’.
A new class of political prisoner has emerged.
US President Ronald Reagan followed on from Nixon’s 1971 declaration of the ‘War on Drugs’. Aid payments to Latin American governments required a certification procedure that these governments were fighting this war appropriately. Often this led to high-profile arrests of cartel leaders in an attempt to justify the aid payments. Also, often there would be swoops upon the easiest people to arrest in the industry.
The ‘War on Drugs’ has been completely lost. It is, in essence, impossible to win.
It can be dealt with through legislation. The myth that drugs only involve hippies is incorrect. There are global groups that specialize in narco-policy.
Leading figures such as Carlo Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Kofi Annan, Nick Clegg and former Latin American presidents, César Gaviria (Colombia) and Vicente Fox (underwent a terrible phase of presidency in Mexico during the War on Drugs), all of these figures are advocates of legalisation of drugs as being the key solution to the global crisis.
However, all of the important political figures in this list are no longer in power. It is a matter of Realpolitik.
It is impossible to countenance wide scale legalisation in order to end violence when these politicians are in actual power.
Currently legalisation schemes are being rolled out with some degree of success in certain parts of the world, eg. California, Mexico.
There has been decriminalisation of Cannabis but no policies for harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin and crystal meth.
Cultural industries played an important role in making these legalisation moves possible.
There is an obscure complicity of the State.
Trafficking laws punish the poor and vulnerable.
There is a suppression of alternative, non-violent ways of solving the issue.
Among cultural products are:
- We have the aesthetics of Prohibition.
A range of films and TV series from Scarface to Narcos may cover the aesthetics of prohibition.
Authors of narco-novelas have claimed that they ‘have never even seen a gramme of coke’
- Videohomes – narco-cinema as the people’s cinema
- Subaltern perspectives
Eg. Hermanas en la Sombra, Rebusque Mayor
- Beyond Prohibition : celebrating psychoactive substances.
here was a controversial incident in the UK where government professor, David Nutt, made a public claim that the active ingredient in ecstasy was not as dangerous as other cultural pastimes such as riding horses or smoking.
There is the effect of culture / cultural beliefs
There are the pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves
Homegrown – by Isaac Campos – tells the tale of Prohibition of marijuana in Mexico
Marijuana came to Mexico from India. It was introduced by the Spanish as a means of manufacturing the hemp ropes that they required for their Armada.
In the nineteenth century marijuana users were running amok, killing people.
This was because there was a myth that this is what the substance did to you that people believed
An example of how drugs travel differently and are regarded differently in different regions is that of how alcohol is perceived in the UK. Here it is regarded as a violent drug whereas in the Mediterranean it isn’t.
In Mexico, it was felt that marijuana caused indigenous provenance. It caused atavistic reawakening. It was also associated with violence.
There is a racist subtext in the prohibition of drugs.
When Nixon was running his Presidential campaign in 1971 he had two enemies:
- Anti-Vietnam hippies
- Civil Rights movement / Black rioters
His ‘War on Drugs’ policy demonised hippies for their use of marijuana and the Black Power movement for its use of heroin.
Let’s examine the cultural production involved in the ‘War on Drugs’ today:
With Nixon’s declaration of the ‘War on Drugs’ the study can begin in the 1970s.
The vast majority of cultural production falls into the categories 1. And 2.
TV Productions –
La Reina del Sur
El Señor de los Cielos
Pablo Escobar – Narcos, El Patrón del Mal (Colombian version of Narcos)
Lockdown – about AIDS patients in Brazil
Most of these TV dramas are filmed in a certain style
There are saturated colours and themes of machismo
These dominate the cultural production regarding the ‘War on Drugs’.
It can be critiqued and lamented.
Narcocultura has leached into mainstream culture.
Whereas Colombian middle classes might be ashamed to admit watching El Patrón del Mal, they do watch it and are hence participating in Narcocultura.
Scarface is often the model that these new dramas try to emulate.
They are racially inflected.
There is hyper-masculinity.
There is hyper-violence.
There are massive celebrations of ridiculous levels of wealth and capitalist consumption.
It has been easy to criticise the series Narcos from a Latin American perspective.
The actor who plays Escobar speaks Spanish very badly.
There are Mexican actors playing Colombian roles.
Netflix is US-funded and homogenizes Latin America.
Instead of lamenting the fact, it produces a narcoaesthetic
Escobar is glorified and an antihero.
The aesthetic of prohibition is preferable to talking about narco-aesthetica
In Narcos there is a circularity.
It is narrated by Agent Murphy who works for the DEA.
It is interesting to hear exactly what the DEA thought it was doing out there.
The aesthetic of prohibition is mirroring here.
The DEA often behaves like Escobar himself. They use narco-like tactics to fight the narco-trafickers.
There is a mimesis of violence
This is often found in repressive systems or States.
They produce levels of violence themselves by oppressing.
An example from history was the rubber boom in the Amazon were indigenous inhabitants were identified as cannibals and in fighting these ‘cannibals’ there was much brutality.
These TV shows are not only hegemonic when it comes to Prohibition, they are also anti-capitalist. It is possible to be attracted to the wish fulfilment of making lots of money.
Apart from normalising capitalism and masculinity, they also justify the mimetic violent logic.
Chapter 2 looks at Narcocinema. There is a lot of small productions from Colombia and mostly Mexico.
These films are very profitable. They are made cheaply. They might have a budget of $10000.
The videos that are released are bundled up and sold with Narcocorridos.
These songs about narcos are banned on the radio. Pirate radio plays Narcocorridos. They form part of not the ‘War on Drugs’ but rather the ‘War for Drugs’.
Some people who have sung Narcocorridos have been killed by rival gangs.
They exploit the conflict of gang against gang.
An example of Narcocorridos comes from Sanguinarios del M1
They are part of the logic of prohibition.
Although funded by Narcos this whole industry is a very convenient way of laundering money.
They are not trying to apologise for the mindblowing levels of violence and horror. They are celebrating it.
‘Possessed by a demon, devil, man.’
Culture has taken these ideas on board.
They are part of it.
Films like Scarface are a model for films and also affect the styling of Narcos in real life.
There is a feedback loop between Hollywood films and Narcocultura.
Griselda Blanco, the female Colombian Narco celebrated in ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ even named her son after ‘The Godfather’ by calling him Michael Corleone.
Sinaloan drug lord ‘El Chapo’ met with Mexican La Reina del Sur actress Kate del Castillo and Hollywood actor Sean Penn.
He wanted to meet with them to discuss the making of a film about his life.
The meet was scheduled to be an interview for Rolling Stone magazine.
The Mexican government who knew were El Chapo was, 2 months after the interview, finally captured him. They had been tracking Sean Penn.
So, El Chapo was responsible for his own eventual downfall.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez – El ruido de las cosas al caer – The Sound of Things Falling (2011)
Yuri Herrera – Trabajos del reino – Kingdom Works (2004)
Juan Pablo Villalobos – Fiesta en la Madriguera – Down the Rabbit Hole (2011)
All cultural production around Narcos are not representative of Narcocultura but a constituent of it.
An interesting aside in the War on Drugs in Latin America is the situation of Ayahuasca, the native shamanic medicine. Embrace of the Serpent is a film that documents this.