Narco culture, global media and victims

Narco series are a huge hit – not just in Latin America, but all over the world. But audiences should remember the reality behind these shows: the victims

Narco culture has a long history in Latin America, and now thanks to global media it is known worldwide. Surreal episodes of violence and corruption are the day-to-day reality of many countries in the region. Evidently content producers have been inspired by them, making narcos a recurring theme in the entertainment industry. Pablo Escobar and “El Chapo” Guzman are better known than actual historical characters such as Simon Bolivar and Benito Juarez.

Indeed, there has been extensive discussion with regards to narco culture, mainly on the banalization of evil, crime apology, preaching the narco lifestyle and the narco hero, the hypersexualization and objectification of women by these shows and films. However, a subject of the highest importance is normally missing in the discussion: the victims. In the words of Immi Tallgren, ‘beyond the survival of those suffering, and their struggles, anger, anxiety, resentment or resilience, most of the scholarship on images and suffering focuses on the presumed consumers of images at a distance, with the privilege of time and wealth to access images and contemplate’. This viewpoint fails to recognise that when talking about generalised organised crime, the victims are always the flip side of the coin.

Stranger than fiction

29 December 2009, 8:00 p.m., Ejido Benito Juárez, Chihuahua, a territory disputed among cartels in addition to considerable military presence and activity; José Ángel and Nitza Paola were waiting in a car outside a house, two trucks arrive, around ten men descend, all of them heavily armed, wearing military-like uniforms, they force them outside their vehicle into the truck. 9:00 p.m., Rocío Irene, 18 years old, is at home with her mother, brothers and daughter, someone knocks; the same men enter the house, inform her she is under arrest and take her. None of them has been seen again.

These facts gave rise to the Case “Alvarado Espinoza and others v. Mexico” (2018) before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In its defence, the Mexican government attributed the acts to members of organised crime. Despite this claim, the Court concluded that the State was internationally responsible for their forced disappearance, in violation of the rights to recognition of legal personality, life, personal integrity and freedom, in addition to access to justice.

Yet, this is just one case among hundreds; the ‘War on Drugs’ has led to 250,000 deaths and 60,000 disappearances over the last 13 years in Mexico alone. In its 2015 State Report, the Inter-American Commission recognised both authorities and criminal organisations as authors of grave human rights violations, including torture, displacement, detention, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions.

Still, the entertainment industry generally focuses on drug dealers and their deeds, excluding victims, their perspective and even their relevance as characters of the story they are telling; noticeably failing to give them a proper voice and represent them accurately, yet alone respectfully. This phenomenon is comparable to the ‘warlord’ narrative persistent in international criminal law, where the passivity of the victim is exaggerated against the activity of the victimizer – a mistakenly black and white approach.

Actually, shows and films of this sort rarely portray particular victims. On the contrary, they are mostly anonymous and perhaps it is the best way to avoid legal problems regarding privacy. Anonymity, however, should not translate into disregard or disrespect. Producers need to bear in mind the subject they are dealing with; several narco series and films approach the topic as if it was pure fiction, when in reality they are telling the story of real and on-going bloodshed. 2019, for instance, was the most violent year in Mexico’s modern history.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Still, blind condemnation of the content is not the answer. It must be admitted that shows and films of this sort can have a positive side as they are an approachable way of opening a discussion on violence in the region, or getting inspired to actually learn about the topic. In the words of a Narcos Mexico protagonist: ‘these kinds of issues are always painful, but they need to be confronted (…) stop talking about them would be normalizing violence’. Indeed, victims have an interest in the representation of their suffering and ideally they should have an active participation in the process.

Up till now, the media has two sides: the content producers and the audience. And here is where we can all take part in the debate; we need to demand a voice for victims by asking more from the industry, and, in the meantime, it is essential to access this content CONSCIOUSLY. Narco culture should be understood holistically rather than one-sided. Being caricatured as the actual situation is a nuance that involves crimes, grave human rights violations and countless victims who, under no circumstance, should be reduced to secondary characters with violent destinies just for the amusement of the masses. To Latin Americans they are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children.


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