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OSWALDO ZAVALA

Imagining the
U.S.-Mexico Drug War:
The Critical Limits of
Narconarratives
In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the
complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does
away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately
visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is
without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
A legend because, as in all legends, there is a certain ambiguity between
the fictional and the real but it occurs for opposite reasons. Whatever
its kernel of reality, the legendary is nothing else, finally, but the sum of
what is said about it. It is indifferent to the existence or nonexistence of the
persons whose glory it transmits. If they existed, the legend covers them
with so many wonders, embellishing them with so many impossibilities,
that its almost as if they had never lived. And if they are purely imaginary,
the legend reports so many insistent tales about them that they take on the
historical thickness of someone who existed.
M ichel Foucault, Lives of Infamous Men

he publication in 2002 of La reina del sur (The Queen of the South), a


novel by Spanish author Arturo Prez-Reverte, ignited in Mexico a literary
mini-boom that has come to be known as narcoliteratura (Ramrez). This label,
often employed in publishing advertisements, refers to a discontinuous corpus
of novels (narconovelas) whose central theme is drug trafficking. La reina
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Sarah Pollack for suggestions that substantially improved
the present article. During the XVI Congress of Contemporary Mexican Literature at the University of Texas at El Paso, March 35, 2011, where I first presented this argument, Irma Cant,
Oswaldo Estrada, Ryan Long, Viviane Mahieux, Marta Pia, Jos Ramn Ruisnchez, Ana Sabau,
Dante Salgado, Ignacio Snchez Prado, and Berenice Villagmez provided many insightful observations and suggestions. Finally, this article could not have been written without the valiant, committed work of Mexican journalists Ignacio Alvarado and Julin Cardona, whose expert knowledge
has provided me with a sophisticated critical view of drug cartels that I hope to have reproduced in
these pages.
Comparative Literature 66:3
DOI 10.1215/00104124-2764088 2014 by University of Oregon

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 341

del sur a cross between the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett
and Raymond Chandler, Alexandre Dumas The Count of Montecristo, James Bond
action movies, and John le Carrs espionage novels b ecame the paradigmatic example of this trend, with its narco queen (the beautiful Teresa Mendoza) a frequent-flyer businesswoman, self-taught avid reader, multi-tasking drug
kingpin, high-performance alcoholic, emancipated mother, and cold-blooded
psychopath in short, a mythic antihero of the post-industrial global village.
Prez-Revertes novel produced a readily identifiable and lucrative model that
reconfigured narcocultura, a term that I employ here as the cultural imaginary
surrounding the drug trade. Narcocultura first emerged in the 1970s through narcocorridos (drug ballads) and low-budget action films.1 La reina del sur brought
narcocultura fully into the literary field. Although Prez-Reverte had initially
based his story on the seminal 1972 narcocorrido Contrabando y traicin (Contraband and Betrayal) recorded by the California-based Los Tigres del Norte, a
highly popular norteo (Mexican polka) band, after the overnight success of La
reina del sur, Los Tigres recorded a new a nd very successful n
arcocorrido based
on Teresa Mendoza. The novels popularity eventually led to its television adaptation as a soap opera that premiered in February 2011, and it became an unprecedented blockbuster for the Spanish-language network Telemundo.2 In addition to
its importance in the TV and music industries, La reina del surhad a decisive impact
in Mexican publishing circles. Writer lmer Mendoza, a native of the drug-ridden
state of Sinaloa, the author of several narconovelas, and one of the people to whom
La reina del sur is dedicated, believes that Prez-Reverte was the first respected
writer in the world who gave us the place that we [Mexican narconovelists]
deserved (Ramrez).3 Likewise, for Juan Jos Rodrguez (also from Sinaloa) La
reina del sur was a magical book that did a dignified job putting the theme of
drug trafficking on the [world] map, at a time when no one was talking about it
(Baos).4
In what follows, I analyze several representative narconarratives published in
Mexico during the decade following the unprecedented commercial success of La
reina del sur. I define the term narconarratives as a dispersed but interrelated
corpus of texts, films, music, and conceptual art focusing on the drug trade,
1
Corridos were first composed along the U.S.-Mexico border during the 1860s to express the
problems of the region after the U.S.-Mexico war. They later evolved to become story-telling devices
during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Most recently, the genre has featured tales related to drug
trade and violence. See Wald and Wilkinson.
2
The series finale, which aired on May 30th, was the most watched program of the networks
nineteen-year rating history, as well as the number one program regardless of language for that
day, with nearly 4.2 million viewers (Gorman).
3

All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

For a precedent to Prez-Revertes Teresa Mendoza see the title character of Jorge Francos Rosario
Tijeras (1999). The use of the lives of drug traffickers as narrative material can be traced to what Hctor Abad Faciolince has called the Colombian novela sicaresca of the 1990s (Mutis 207). See, especially, Fernando Vallejos La virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins) (1994) and Gabriel Garca
Mrquezs Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping) (1996). However, despite the commercial success of these novels, the film adaptations of some of them, and the celebrity of their authors, I argue
that it was only after Prez-Revertes La reina del sur that narcoliteratura became consistently relevant
in Latin American literary fields, offering a bestselling formula that many authors across the continent, but specially in Mexico, have sought to reproduce.
4

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 342

although here I will mainly refer to works of fiction and non-fiction. Specifically, I
propose a deconstruction of certain textual narconarratives through the articulation of three critiques. First, I contend that the most commercial narconarratives are formulaic texts that reinforce the mainstream medias portrayal of drug
cartels, itself partially informed by popular narcocultura. Second, I assert that
most narconarratives comfortably reproduce a mythic notion of narcos mainly
fashioned and disseminated by Mexicos governing political elites at the federal,
state, and local levels. According to official discourse, the criminal organizations
profiting from the drug trade are a threat relegated to the discursive exteriority
outside the borders of the power and the reason of the state. As such, the
Mexican government represents drug cartels as criminal entities always readily
distinguishable from state structures. At its worst, the state a nd here are included
the army, police corps, and the political class is portrayed as weak, with sometimes dysfunctional and victimized institutions that the cartels are able to penetrate and corrupt. Third, I argue that, with the exception of a few Mexican
novels, only a particular narrative trend of fiction and non-fiction published in
the United States has been able to articulate a necessary, critical, and subversive
view of the official discourse on drug trafficking and its related organizations in
both countries.
1. The Ethical-Political Impasse of Narconarratives
There are four typical critical approaches to narconarratives: the conceptualization of violence as a philosophical and cultural problem (see Herman Herlinghaus and Gabriela Polit); a focus on the exceptionality of the cities of northern
Mexico, the headquarters of major drug cartels, as a post-national space of negativity alternative to the capital (Miguel Rodrguez Lozano); the investigation of
the narrative strategies and the oral histories of narcocorridos (Elijah Wald and
Juan Carlos Ramrez-Pimienta); and, finally, the exploration of mythic and stylized narrations (Christopher Domnguez-Michael). The common denominator of
these approaches is the absence of a critical assessment of the narrations relationship to their real referents. They focus instead on systems of representation
peripheral to the problem of the drug trade, thus choosing to elucidate alternative subjectivities, the deconstruction of Mexican nationalism, and the linguistic
particularities attributed to social imaginaries associated with drug cartels, but
never drug organizations in their concrete and immediate historical and political
materiality.
However, as textual devices exploring the phenomenon of drug trafficking,
narconarratives must be understood primarily as discursive sociopolitical interventions; as such, they compel us to revisit the classical notion of mimesis, often
invoked by critics in a reductive and superficial manner as an attempt to explain
the problematic link between narconarratives and the external reality to which
they refer. From theorizations of literary systems of representation by Antoine
Compagnon, Pierre Bourdieu, Alfonso Reyes, and Alain Badiou I derive the following critical directives. First, Compagnons notion of mimesisa knowledge
proper to man, the way he constructs and inhabits the world (93) implies that

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 343

narconarratives draw from a direct representation of the political order that has
structuring effects in the art form. Second, following Bourdieus theorization of
the literary field as temporarily dominated by power vectors (216), this inhabiting should be understood as producing a form of sociopolitical knowledge specific to the discursive enunciation about the drug world. Third, Reyess study of
the ancillary function of literature it is indispensable that literature moves
facts with a certain malice or insistency, with the intention of producing critical
knowledge (47) establishes the imperative that the sociopolitical knowledge
arranged in the texts studied here be enunciated from a critical standpoint
and not just deployed as obvious contextual references to reality. 5 Finally,
Badious proposed ethics of the work of art a truth procedure that arranges
the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole
in them (9) suggests that narconarratives can be designated as the textual
site where the simulacrum of truth conveyed by hegemonic (and official) representations of the drug trade may intentionally or not be either contested or
assimilated.
What I have termed, borrowing from Badiou, the simulacrum of truth refers
to official representations of drug cartels as entities that exist outside of state
parameters (see, for example, Guerrero Guitierrez, Los Hoyos negros 35).
This identification makes criminal organizations symbolically, and even literally, exterior to civil society, a framing that presupposes an interior composed of
the Mexican government and people, who are united against a common enemy.
Luis Astorga considers this narrative as a matrix of performative discourse
that creates things by naming them (Mitologa 10). This matrix erases the
historical presence, activity, and evolution of drug cartels, as well as the governments role in this history over the last four decades. It thus became the primary
justification for the national deployment of thousands of military and federal
agents on Dec. 11, 2006 only ten days into President Felipe Calderns administration to combat all domestic cartels (Guerrero Gutirrez, La estrategia
fallida 25). As a result, by the end of Calderns term in 2012, more than
100,000 people had been murdered, an unprecedented number of killings,
only matched in recent history by the atrocities committed against civilians
during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (about 130,000 killed) and the U.S.-led
Iraq war under President George W. Bush (about 110,000) (Turati 16; see, also,
Molloy 17). Unsurprisingly, this atrocity has prompted an abundance of academic studies and journalistic investigations that differ little from one another
and, even less, from the cultural productions that turn the drug trade and its
actors into commercially successful myths.6 This network of images operates as
5
See Snchez Prados discussion of Roberto Fernndez Retamars analysis of Reyess El deslinde,
in which Retamar argues that the central current of Latin Americans literature is in fact ancillary, that is, conceived with an emancipating, anti-colonial social function (Snchez Prado, Las
reencarnaciones del centauro 7475).
6
National and transnational publishers in Mexico responded to the generalized shock and outrage against the unprecedented violence unleashed across the country during the six years of President Calderns term with a flood of fiction and non-fiction titles about the so-called war on drugs.
For example, the prestigious political weekly magazine Proceso and Grijalbo Editorial (a subsidiary of
the media conglomerate Random House Mondadori) partnered to publish the Organized Crime
book series: 20 journalistic investigations of the various drug cartels and their kingpins, authored by,

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 344

a representational paradigm that frames most discussions about the drug trade.
In the literary field it has led, often uncritically, to scene after scene of brutality
and senseless bloodshed in narconarratives.
Two of the most celebrated narconovelas to date, Yuri Herreras Trabajos del reino
(Works of the Kingdom) (2004) and Orfa Alarcns Perra brava (Fierce Bitch) (2010),
are exemplary in this respect. The former traces the life of Lobo (Wolf), a composer of corridos, as he joins the court of a drug kingpin known simply as the
King or the Lord. Other characters in the novel are known by roles that are commonly believed to exist in a drug kingdom: a Jeweler, a Journalist, and a Priest.
Wolf, himself, becomes the kingdoms Artist. Stylized and written in a literary
language influenced by such prominent writers as Daniel Sada (19532011) and
Jess Gardea (19392000), Trabajos del reino thus attempts to imagine an archetypical drug cartel, from its private chambers to its public halls, from its celebratory rituals to its shady business transactions. As Wolf penetrates the organization,
he realizes that the King is the center of a self-regulated network that in the end
will produce his own downfall, and the leader is in fact betrayed by his closest
accomplices in a plot whose structure recalls a Greek tragedy. After the king is
finally arrested by federal army commanders who were previously on his payroll,
the narrative voice ambiguously explains that the soldiers capture and take away
the kingpin as if they were in charge (116).
As with official representations of drug cartels, most of Trabajos del reino takes
place in the Kings court, the kingdom, located in the margins of a city in what
appears to be the outer limits of the state. Of particular interest is the spatial disposition of the Kings quarters, a vast labyrinth of secret corridors, hidden chambers, and public areas. Inside, obscure characters are forced to decipher the hidden meanings of the enigmatic Kings words and movements. The organizations
power also appears so corrosive and absolute that it buys at least symbolically,
in the figures of the archetypical characters businessmen (the Jeweler), the
media (the Journalist), the Catholic Church (the Priest), intellectuals and creators
(the Artist). Furthermore, the novel does not hesitate to play on popular narcocultura mythology by alleging that narcocorridos describe the lives of real drug
lords: Wolf claims that the King speaks the truth (99), that the Journalist says
clean lies, while true news is the matter of corridos (37). As a city-state of its
own, the Kingdoms sole reason to exist seems to be the exercise of violence as the
ultimate mechanism of power.
The characters recurrent violence operates much like wrestling does in
Barthes Mythologies: a spectacle of iconography representing unmediated, excessive human suffering. Trabajos del reino presents a decontextualized collection of
exaggerated gestures that privileges moral forms over dramatized historical contents and is enclosed in the space of a melodrama where private and opposing
among others, award-winning journalists such as Julio Scherer Garca (founder and former director of Proceso), Jess Blancornelas (the former director of Tijuana-based Zeta magazine), Anabel
Hernndez (who wrote what is perhaps the most widely read history of drug cartels, Los seores del
narco), and Diego Enrique Osorno (whose accounts of the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas cartel are
currently considered authoritative). These books, to various degrees, reproduce President Calderns thesis that the violence in Mexico during his presidency was caused by a bloody war among
drug cartels that the Mexican army and the federal police unsuccessfully attempted to end.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 345

interests are made public in order to reestablish a balance broken by rival drug
lords. Wrestling and narconarratives are seen here as fabricated myths in the
semiotic sense, with myth understood as a type of speech (Barthes 109) derived
from intelligible objects (sports, books, music, films) that renders timeless (the
battle of good vs. evil; the ethical Artist lured by corrupt power; inhuman and
violent drug cartels threatening civil society, and so on; see epigraph) a previous
signification that has been extrapolated from an erased historical context. Herreras novel thus produces an imaginary world dominated by the inhuman deeds
of evildoers (the King and his rivals) who fight each other to the death. At the end
of the novel, Wolf believes in the almost limitless power of the cartel that devours
his community and, finally, itself, a process faithfully narrated through his ingenious corridos that he also elevates to the category of a transcendental myth: the
corrido is not a frame decorating the wall. It is a name and it is a weapon (70).
This mythic narcocultura, it may be argued following Barthes, points out and
it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us (Barthes
117) t hat is, the lives of infamous men and their legends (see Foucault epigraph)
replace our scarce knowledge of real traffickers.
In an interview, Herrera emphasized the need for articulating a textual critique
of drug trafficking through works of literature such as his: What art can do is
offer an alternative discourse that accounts for the complexity of the phenomenon, of its long history, its many complicities, and the need to reflect again on each
individuals responsibility. Good literature being produced today in Mexico ...
surpasses all Manichaeisms, giving depth to the debate concerning the state of the
nation (Colanzi). That Herreras novel demonstrates the same shallow, Manichean structure that in his view good literature must avoid is, I hope, clear from
the analysis above. Nevertheless, Eduardo Antonio Parra, also an author of narconarratives, contends that Herreras literary strategy is an effective critical approach
to the phenomenon, since the author does not waste time in exhaustive descriptions or in criminal procedures, but attempts to focus on the hidden meanings
and the psychology of the archetypes that make up his gallery of characters (80).
Christopher Domnguez Michael similarly argues that novels such as Herreras
avoid a cheap and commercial realism by sublimating political and social affairs
and so earn autonomy as a critique of the modern (Domnguez). Herrera himself claims that his project does not seek to be a reflection or a faithful representation of reality; as a result, he has purposely not employed a drug-related lexicon that only refers to clichs, to discourses structured from power or the mass
media (Arribas).
The statements above stem from a rhetorical simplification of Platos notion of
mimesis that produces two complementary claims: 1) mimesis is either a faulty
and imperfect imitation of reality (thus, the novel should not attempt to represent reality accurately); or 2) mimesis is a nave reworking of the romantic ideal
that separates art from social knowledge (thus, the novel should renounce producing sociopolitical meaning). Both voluntary renunciations are celebrated as
essential features of the modern novel in general and of Herreras book in particular. But both ideas are also contested by the more sophisticated reformulations of mimesis discussed earlier: because Herreras novel inhabits discursively
the phenomenon of drug trafficking, it produces a specific knowledge resulting

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 346

from the direct mimetic signification of that trafficking; the latter is in turn conditioned by the fact that Herreras book was written within a literary context temporarily dominated by a field of power that affected the structure and objectives
of his literary project. Furthermore, and I am here following Badiou, Trabajos del
reino displays the same ethical impasse found in most narconarratives by reproducing the simulacrum of truth about drug cartels promoted by official discourse.
Orfa Alarcns Perra brava is a more juvenile version of narconarratives that
exploit the popular imaginary of narcocultura. This novel offers readers the sadomasochist fantasy of an upper-class university student, Fernanda Salas, who
decides to move in with a sicario or drug cartel assassin (see Biron 83233). The
story takes place in the Monterrey of narcos, of reggaeton and hip-hop, to quote
the blurb on the back cover of the book. The plot begins with a graphic scene in
which Fernanda is raped by the sicario, who enters the house covered in someone
elses blood. As Fernandas character evolves, her banal taste for commercial
music, shopping, expensive nightclubs, and cruising in her car is overshadowed by
violent outbursts, culminating in a murder that she indirectly commits and celebrates as a coming-of-age ritual through which she ends her destructive relationship with the sicario.
Some critics have hailed the novel for empowering a female protagonist in the
male-dominated drug world. Alain Saint Martin, for example, claims that Perra
brava offers an interesting twist by adding to narconarratives a taboo-breaking
treatment of the female protagonists sexuality and affective issues. Similarly, Ignacio Snchez Prado argues that Alarcns novel fills the void of a feminine character in the literature of violence. Thus, Fernanda breaks all canons in a much
more original way than Prez-Revertes La reina del sur, since she does not aspire
to iconicity but to inhabit her world (Consideraciones sobre Perra brava). To the
contrary, however, Fernandas violence only reinforces male-dominated positions
in the representation of class and gender as they intersect with drug trafficking.
Far from being subversive, the story of Fernanda is that of an impossible and forbidden love condemned by class structures and gender roles deeply ingrained in
the same conservative ideologies that also feed the mythic imaginary of the drug
trade promoted by the Mexican government.7 Throughout the novel, mythic drug
traffickers appear in full force: violent, sadistic psychopaths who kill rival criminals, abuse their women, victimize civil society in general, and consistently overpower and manipulate weak and corrupt police in occasional, brief confrontations. Fernanda herself mutates in the same direction, aspiring to become as
violent as the man who controls and abuses her. Thus, she decides to kill her
sicario boyfriends former lover, a woman living in poverty in a slum on the outskirts of Monterrey. Although that womans child is in the end Fernandas only
victim (and accidentally so), Fernanda expresses no remorse and is actually
excited, since by navigating the city in order to commit a crime with absolute
impunity she completes her imitation of the sicario. The murder in essence pro7
My analysis follows in part Irma Cants insightful paper La construccin del sujeto femenino
en la narrativa del narco en Perra Brava de Orfa Alarcn y Miss Narco de Javier Valdz Crdenas,
presented at the XVI Congress of Contemporary Mexican Literature at the University of Texas at
El Paso, March 35, 2011.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 347

vides the climax of the novel, which ultimately differs little from Mexican soap
operas and low-budget action films of the 1980s and 1990s.8
Herrera and Alarcn also make evident, if involuntarily, their uncritical
assimilation of hegemonic official discourse regarding drug cartels through
their use of popular commercial music. While Trabajos del reino privileges narcocorridos as the preferred manifestation of narcocultura, Perra brava opts for the
hip-hop songs of the band Cartel de Santa, which are quoted throughout the
narration and fully cited at the end of the book. The titles of these gratuitously
violent and sexist songs seem to propose a soundtrack to accompany the reading: The Car of the Cartel, Saintly Death, and, predictably, Dogs. Both hiphop and narcocorridos depict a fictitious and glorifying image of powerful drug
criminals and their clandestine culture of inhuman excess. In pointing this
out, I am not advocating that this type of music be banned, an action which
would only serve to increase publicity and record sales; however, I do wish to
emphasize the ethical and political implications of the celebratory magnification
of drug cartels and kingpins. Like narconovelas, this music reinforces the convenient discursive illusion that drug cartels threaten civil society and its government from without and so cancels a priori the possibility of incorporating a critique of the states responsibility in drug trafficking.
The central narrative strategy of both novels is the over-exploitation of violence.
Slavoj ieks conceptualization of violence as a phenomenon operating on three
different levels helps illustrate how most narconarratives manipulate violence as a
form of sensationalism, but rarely challenge its systemic origins. iek first discusses a subjective violence perpetrated in common crimes, terrorism, civil crises, and international conflicts. He warns, however, that we should learn to step
back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible subjective violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent (1), because it threatens
to mask more pervasive and systematic levels of violence. The second level of violence, according to iek, is a symbolic violence that affects language and that
may be expressed in hate-speech, racism, and discrimination. iek calls the third
level systemic the most invisible of all precisely because it is produced within
political and economic systems (12): Were talking here of the violence inherent
in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of
coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the
threat of violence (9). The disciplinary disposition of the individual human body
inscribed in the official strategy of the war on drugs is the resonant background
of the systemic violence that remains unaccounted for in most narconarratives,
which revel instead in various expressions of subjective violence: scenes of torture,
rape, and gruesome murders.
The striking correspondence between official and literary discourse can be
understood, following Alain Badiou again, as an ideological reiteration of the real.
As in the artificial Moscow trials ordered by Stalin in the 1930s to purge the regime
8
For example, the plot mechanics of Perra brava parallel those of the 1996 film Laura Garza,
directed by Jorge Manrique. This melodrama tells the story of Laura, a rich landowner from the
northern state of Nuevo Len, whose father kills her mother after she falls in love and runs away with
the haciendas foreman. Laura is seduced by Eduardo, a hitman hired by a local cacique who plans to
kill her and take over her estate, but Laura kills Eduardo instead.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 348

of dissidents, we encounter here what Badiou terms the passion of the real (The
Century 52), the need for a system of discursive fiction that allows for the constant
assertion of the materiality of the real that is, paradoxically, only perceptible from
the symbolic. Both the prosecutors and those they condemned understood that
the purge organized by Stalin was nothing short of a mise en scne, but ideological
ends justified their enactment. Likewise, within narcocultura manifestations of violence are organized by the pre-established conditions of hegemonic discourse in
order to corroborate the real of the drug trade that has been enunciated by the
State. As a result, the real of the drug trade always emerges as the same in journalism, academic research, and cultural productions that seek to represent it. As
Jacques Rancire argues, the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought
(38), but that fictionalization is constructed through a network of signification that
is established a priori in an archive constituted by specific power vectors. The
archive of statements that is activated by the hegemonic discourse on the drug
trade thus recalls what Rancire defines as the distribution of the sensible that
is, the audible and visible conditions of possibility of all systems of representation.
This dominating trend in narconarratives can be quickly confirmed through
a serial reading of the opening sentences of some of the best-known works:
The phone rang and she knew that they were going to kill her (La reina del sur
11); I knew that with one hand he could kill me (Orfa Alarcn, Perra brava [Fierce
Bitch] 11); I am dead, Makina told herself when all things winced (Yuri Herrera,
Seales que precedern al fin del mundo [Signs Leading Up to the End of the World] 11);
Shark did not know if he was dead. Or alive (Heriberto Ypez, Al otro lado [On the
Other Side] 9); Fifteen minutes before his head exploded in pieces, auxiliary
policeman Ceferino Martnez, alias El Oaxaca, finished his last round of the
night (Bernardo Fernndez BEF, Hielo negro [Black Ice] 11); He knew of blood
and saw that his was different (Yuri Herrera, Trabajos del reino [Works of the Kingdom] 9). By opening their works with actual, imminent, or symbolic murders, these
novels project spectacles of subjective violence as prominent lures for voyeuristic consumption to return to ieks description thus masking and seeming to
obviate a critique of systemic violence. It is no coincidence that, as expressions of
the inhumanity of the people involved in drug trade, many of the names and attributes of the characters in these novels are those of animal predators: Shark, Wolf,
Dog. The drug lord man or woman is always at the center of a community of
exception, based on an imaginary cult of violence for violences sake.9 But while
9
Among many comparable examples of this phenomenon, Fiesta en la madriguera (Down the Rabit
Hole) (2010), by Juan Pablo Villalobos, stands out. It narrates the story of a child who lives with his
father, a drug lord, in what is described as a narco fortress. The child is surrounded by expensive
gifts, while witnessing torture and executions and assimilating the macho discourse of power
taught by his father and a designated mentor. All of the characters bear names of indigenous origin, as if referring to a sort of trans-historic, non-Western ancestral source of their violence. See,
also, Alejandro Almazns El ms buscado (The Most Wanted ) (2012), the autobiographical story of
Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn, allegedly the head of the Sinaloa cartel; Juan Jos Rodrguezs Mi
nombre es Casablanca (My Name is Casablanca) (2003), the story of a police officer who confronts a
drug cartel in the course of his investigation of the serial killings of bricklayers in the state of
Sinaloa; Bernardo Fernndez BEFs Tiempo de alacranes (Scorpion Season) (2005), which focuses on a
veteran sicario who plans to retire after killing a key protected witness who could testify against El
Seor, the head of a cartel operating from a Mexican federal prison; and finally, also by the same
author, Hielo negro (Black Ice) (2011), which narrates the life of Lizzy Zubiaga, who interrupts her
studies of visual arts abroad to inherit a drug cartel in Mexico.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 349

the systemic violence that produces drug trafficking frequently disappears under
the recurrent manifestations of subjective violence in the majority of narconarratives, in the last two decades other narratives have articulated critical alternatives to this complacent, if commercially successful, representation of official
imaginaries of the drug war. I discuss some examples below.
2. Counterhegemonic Narconarratives in Mexico and the U.S.
The most powerful critical analyses of the intersection between state power
and the drug trade have been articulated in the social sciences (see, for example, Escalante Gonzalbo, Die Tageszietung, and Astorga). However, predating La
reina del sur and the celebratory narcocultura of which the novel is part, a literary deconstruction of the phenomenon also emerged in Mexico in the 1990s. In
1991, Vctor Hugo Rascn Banda (19482008) was awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize
for his novel Contrabando (Contraband ), narrated in the first person as a fictitious
testimonial recounting the effects of the drug trade in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua.10 Rascn Banda tells of his travels back to his native Santa Rosa, a small
village surrounded by farms and clandestine drug plantations, where he intends
to find the time and space away from Mexico City to fulfill a contract to write a
movie script based on songs of the popular norteo singer Antonio Aguilar. As
soon as he arrives, he witnesses at the airport the killing of two young men at the
hands of police agents. After the shooting, he speculates that the two were probably novice drug smugglers whose lives were cut short because of their vulnerable position in the global drug business.
This initial episode sets the tone for the entire novel: as the protagonist is
exposed to other cases of drug violence in Chihuahua, he gradually realizes that
the violence consistently originates with police agents and the military patrolling
the region. Thus, despite media reports describing shootings in Santa Rosa among
rival cartel members, Rascn Banda and others in the community observe only
brutal incursions by the military, federal, and state police, who harass villagers
and rob civilians while allegedly fighting drug smugglers.
As he completes the commissioned script, Rascn Banda discovers that his new
perspective no longer fits popular expectations regarding the literary representation of rural life in the north of the country. The script itself tells the story of rival
drug organizations whose kingpins fight over a woman. The two groups represent
the sum of all official and de facto power in their small town, with the woman
being the ultimate prize. There is no exterior authority beyond their dominion:
both cartels command every aspect of daily life, and there is no mention of any
official institution from the town, the nearest city, state, or even the federation.
In the end, the groups massacre each other, as if the symbolic elimination of both
is the only possible retaliation. The point here is that drug trafficking exists within
the community and is not a criminal force attacking the community from the outside: it is a social construct always inside the state, with organized structures that
also fulfill the roles of the state when needed. Narcos are not invading criminals;
10
I would like to thank Edmundo Paz Soldn for recommending this novel to me at the conference Crime Narratives in Modern Latin America: From Detectives to Narcos, held at Columbia
University, April 30May 1, 2010.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 350

they occupy the top strata of power and civil society. Unfortunately, however,
Rascn Bandas viewpoint is so extreme that Antonio Aguilar cancels the contract, arguing that using the script may offend a public accustomed to uncritical
commercial melodramas and not a narco story of revenge (210).
Although written in 1991 and awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize at that time, Contrabando was only published posthumously in 2008, after the death of Rascn Banda
that same year. The reasons for the seventeen-year delay are unclear. Rascn
Banda was a renowned and prolific playwright, who explored sociopolitical injustice regarding immigration, gender violence, and political corruption, frequently
structuring his searing works as testimonial narratives. In 1991 he wrote a play
also titled Contrabando (a condensed version of which was included as one of the
novels chapters) that had a modest reception (see Adler). The limited success of
both the novel and play can be explained, in part, by the marginal position of
theater and playwrights in Mexicos literary field. But it should also be noted that
these texts, which appeared 20 years ago, shed a critical light on drug trafficking
at a time when the topic had not yet accumulated its current level of symbolic
capital or reached todays levels of social and political urgency. Indeed, Rascn
Bandas narconarrative was virtually unknown, especially when compared to the
wide attention received by other novels critical of official power published the
same year.11 In Fernando Garca Ramrezs words, publishers rejected Contrabando
twenty years ago because no one wanted to see at that moment what was happening. Today that destiny has caught up with us. Today, Rascons novel seems to have
been written yesterday (84).
Yet even today, two decades after its first public appearance, Contrabando still
has been unable to reach a wide audience. The reasons for this may not be
entirely different from its initial failure to do so in the 1990s, for Contrabandos
portrayal of drug organizations does not adhere to the structures and strategies of the most profitable narconarratives currently dominating the literary
field. Far from the enigmatic mythical kingpin of Herreras Trabajos del reino or
Alarcns disturbed hip-hop-dancing upper-class beauty, Rascn Bandas narcos are impersonal, unapproachable, and lacking in celebrity appeal. His drug
cartels do not inhabit mysterious kingdoms, but appear as dispersed, unidentifiable organizations. In addition, the violence in the novel is perpetrated by
obscurely uniformed anonymous commandos, or, more significantly, by clearly
recognizable police agents and soldiers. At the most basic level, Rascn Bandas
criminals fail to follow any of the implied rules for this type of best-selling fiction: his are instead nameless figures, usually seen from the perspective of witnesses. I would argue, however, that Rascn Bandas refusal to seduce his readers with a contradictory and enthralling character such as the protagonist of La
reina del sur is a crucial structural condition of his literary project. His novel is a
calculated political statement that denounces the decades-long symbiosis
between the state and drug cartels. As such, his portrayal of drug traffickers is
consistent and, following Badious lead, coextensive with his critical interven11
I am referring in particular to Carlos Montemayor (19472010), who was awarded the Colima
Prize for his novel Guerra en el paraso (War in Paradise), a historical account of a rural uprising in
the state of Guerrero during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Also in 1991, Hctor Aguilar Camn
published La guerra de Galio (Galios War), a roman clef detailing the federal governments repression of Exclsior, the sole Mexican newspaper that refused to join its payroll.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 351

tion from an artistic perspective, even if it risks not seducing his readers with a
melodramatic action story. The novel assumes the very narrative form that, in
his view of the phenomenon, corresponds to real drug cartels: they are profitdriven organizations that advance their goals with impunity through police
force and political authority because they are in fact the police and the political
elites of the region.
While most narconarratives published after La reina del surseem to be attempting
to reproduce Prez-Revertes bestselling formula, Roberto Bolaos (19532003)
acclaimed posthumous novel 2666 (2004) provides an alternative representation of
drug trafficking. An ambitious project consisting of five semi-independent books
connecting the Holocaust with the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad
Jurez at the U.S.-Mexico border, 2666 explores in detail various dimensions of
violence in post-industrial societies, from gender hate crimes to killings related
to the drug trade. In The Part about the Crimes, which focuses on the murders
of women, there is a scene in a bar in which police agent Juan de Dios Martnez
speculates that a rancher, who he sees from behind, must be a narco, a drug trafficker. Meanwhile, two young musicians try unsuccessfully to get the ranchers
attention: The saddest thing, thought Juan de Dios Martnez, was that the narco,
or the suited back of the man he thought was a narco, was hardly paying any attention to them, busy as he was talking to a man with the face of a mongoose and a
hooker with the face of a cat (380). When the supposed narco finally notices the
musicians, something happens that intrigues the police officer:
The man with the mongoose face rose from his chair and said something into the accordionists
ear. Then he sat down again and the accordionists mouth screwed up into a pout. Like a child on
the verge of tears. The violinist had her eyes open and she was smiling. The narco and the woman
with the cat face bent their heads together. The narcos nose was big and bony and aristocratic looking. But aristocratic how? There was a wild expression on the accordionists face, except for his lips.
Unfamiliar currents surged through the inspectors chest. The world is a strange and fascinating
place, he thought. (381)

Bolaos alleged narco is anonymous, even faceless. The effects of his actions are
only perceptible in the terrorized grimace of the accordionist and the tense smile
of the violinist. The alleged narco is also the only character sitting at the table not
described with an animal attribute (mongoose, cat). In fact, his persona does not
require such similes to make evident the violence he commands without even getting up. This embodiment of power grants him de facto a specific social function
that turns him into a self-evident character: he is a narco. When a glimpse of his
profile is finally visible, the police agent associates him with the aristocracy; in
other words, he recognizes him as a member of the elite class. This scene can thus
be read as a critique illustrating the limited way in which the drug trade is being
narrated in Mexico: brief glances of a phenomenon whose reality cannot be penetrated but only transcribed in imaginary constructions involving certain effects
of violence seen from an insurmountable distance, a situation in which some
aspects of the power of an elite can be known intuitively, never in full. If in 2666
the reality of the drug trade appears under an oblique light, this is because it is an
integral part of hegemonic power in Santa Teresa, a border city modeled after
Ciudad Jurez, where most of the novel takes place.
As a dramatization of the impossibility of knowing the real of the drug trade,
Bolaos masterpiece offers a unique narrative that relocates the phenomenon as

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 352

a domain controlled and disciplined by local and federal powers. Bolaos narcos
are people committed to the particularities of the trade, but never exceptional
criminals or psychopaths challenging state power or threatening civil society.
They vary according to their role in a business structure: some work as simple
armed guards or as small-time hoodlums peddling drugs; others, like crime boss
Pedro Rengifo, are well-recognized businessmen.
The main plotline of The Part about the Crimes focuses on the killing of
women in Santa Teresa, a decade-long series of brutal murders that have received
international media attention. Like the crimes themselves, the drug trafficking
occurs within a web of power relations that remains invisible to the majority of society. The most profitable illegal activities are carried out with a high level of discretion and discipline, and this explains why even those closely guarding kingpins
such as Lalo Cura, who was hired to protect Rengifos wife are ignorant of their
involvement in organized crime. As the novel progresses, the drug trade is represented as simply one of the many levels of corruption and crime that function
within the citys economy. For example, the intimate relationship between police
agents, local caciques, and narcos is suggested by a scene in which Epifanio talks to
Lalo Cura about the unsolved murder of Isabel Urrea, a radio reporter. Epifanio
decides to take a look into Urreas appointment book, which state police judiciales
did not even bother to open:
I found the phone numbers of three narcos. One of them was Pedro Rengifo. I also found the numbers of several judiciales, including a big boss in Hermosillo. What were those phone numbers doing
in an ordinary reporters appointment book? Had she interviewed them, put them on the air? Was
she friends with them? And if she wasnt, who had given her the numbers? A mystery. (463)

The dispersion of motifs and plotlines in 2666 is Bolaos attempt to represent the
complexity of a society in which the drug trade is an integral, but not dominant,
aspect of organized crime. As in Contrabando, the narcos of 2666 are the elite:
police agents, businessmen, politicians. Some believe, like Bolaos police agent
Juan de Dios Martnez, that a narco is an enigmatic character whose face cannot
be known and who is capable of the most horrific acts. A closer look, however,
reveals that narcos always exist on the surface of civil society, integrated in the
economy, the political class, and police institutions.
Although there are certainly other notable attempts by Mexican writers to
critique in a similar fashion organized drug crime and hegemonic power,12 most
Mexican narconarratives continue to operate within the hegemonic discourse
that reinforces the mythology surrounding drug cartels. In the U.S., the opposite seems to be the case, and in what follows I briefly discuss two such narconarratives whose deconstructive examination of the drug trade mirrors Rascn
Bandas and Bolaos: Don Winslows The Power of the Dog (2005), a novel, and
Charles Bowdens Down by the River (2002), a work of nonfiction.
12
These include lmer Mendozas first novel, Un asesino solitario (Lone Assassin) (1999), which tells
the story of a professional assassin hired by a government agency to murder the official presidential
candidate, a plot based on the 1994 assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio; Daniel Sadas El lenguaje
del juego (The Language of the Game) (2012), in which the owner of a pizzeria in a small town in the
north of Mexico faces an emerging drug trade mounted by the local cacique and other de facto
powers; and Juan Villoros Arrecife (Reef ) (2012), a novel about a post-apocalyptic Mexico in which
transnational conglomerates profit from ecological disasters and state-regulated drug violence.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 353

The Power of the Dog begins in 1997, when Art Keller, a DEA agent, walks through
a ranch near the town of El Sauzal in the state of Baja California Norte, where an
extended family of nineteen has been murdered, including children and seniors.
Keller is indirectly responsible for the massacre, since he framed a young sicario to
make him appear to be a snitch so that his cartel bosses would execute him. But
Keller did not intend the same fate for the sicarios family: He forces himself to
look at the bodies again. Its my fault, Art thinks. I brought this on these people.
Im sorry, Art thinks. I am so sorry (5). These deaths are part of an ironic chain
of causalities (which includes Kellers murdered DEA partner, Ernie Hidalgo) that
began in 1975 with Operation Condor, in which Mexican soldiers and federal
police destroyed poppy plantations in the state of Sinaloa, where Mexicos first
drug organization had its headquarters. The operation involved the recently created DEA, which hired pilots, mostly former CIA agents, to spray defoliants and
destroy the facilities for producing heroin. Keller joins Miguel ngel Barrera a
Sinaloan state policeman and a type of Mexican godfather, who asks his friends,
including Keller, to call him To (uncle) to form what Keller will later call a
partnership made in hell (31). Together they bring down the cartel boss, Don
Pedro viles, whom Barrera kills even though he does not seem to be resisting
arrest: Then Art gets it t his wasnt an arrest or an execution. It was an assassination (36). Following Tos plan, Keller (whose name sounds almost like killer)
takes the dead drug lord as his trophy and makes a name for himself in the DEA.
Just as the Mexican-American agent (Keller has an American father and Mexican
mother) rises in the DEA, so To Barrera makes a parallel ascent as a drug lord.
Relocated to the central city of Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco, To now
heads the federacin, a conglomerate of smugglers that brings the first massive
shipments of Colombian cocaine to the U.S. market. Keller knows the true origin of
the federation Operation Condor was intended to cut the Sinaloan cancer out of
Mexico, but what it did instead was spread it through the entire body (103) and
he suddenly realizes the larger implications of his relationship with To:
He used you, set you like a dog on his enemies, and you did it. Then you kept your mouth shut about
it. While they lauded you as a hero, slapped you on the back, finally let you on the team. You
pathetic son of a bitch, thats what its been about, hasnt it? Your desperation to finally belong. You
sold your soul for it. Now you think you can buy it back. (10607)

Ultimately but only after his persistent investigation of Tos federation leads to
the murder of his partner Ernie Hidalgo Keller realizes that the governments of
both the U.S. and Mexico approach the drug trade not as a war but as an asset to
be leveraged in a web of international geopolitical affairs. Although they maintain
an official discourse that attacks drug cartels, they also selectively and secretly
protect rings of production and distribution that serve specific state purposes.
The Power of the Dogs complex plot is carefully structured as a roman clef, weaving together multiple historical events and figures: Operation Condor; the formation of the drug cartel federation; the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Kiki
Camarena in Mexico (the fictionalized Ernie Hidalgo); the 1993 assassination of
Cardinal Juan Jess Posadas Ocampo (Father Juan Parada in the novel); the
Tijuana cartel led by the Arellano Flix brothers (Tos nephews, Adn and Ral
Barrera); the rise of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Jurez Cartels leader known
as the lord of the skies for smuggling cocaine into the U.S. in airplanes; and

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 354

To himself, a fictionalized combination of such historical drug lords as former


police agent Miguel ngel Flix Gallardo and Ernesto To Neto Fonseca Carrillo,
the uncle of Carrillo Fuentes. Yet Winslows narrative strategy manages to maintain a sense of critical truth throughout his fictionalized account of the drug war
without ever subjugating the narrative arc to historical referents. And although
Keller often navigates these events seeking to avenge an episode of personal loss
the murder of his partner he nonetheless becomes conscious of how that tragedy belongs to a wider network of systemic violence, of which the international
drug trade is a part. Moreover, he does so without resorting to mythic constructions of drug lords and their imagined fantastic and eccentric lives.
Charles Bowdens nonfiction investigation Down by the River provides another
critical examination of the official discourse surrounding the drug trade.13
Spanning three decades of the history of this phenomenon, it tells the story of
Phil Jordan, a DEA agent obsessed with the murder of his brother, Lionel Bruno
Jordan, who was killed in El Paso, Texas, in what initially seemed like a carjacking. The Jordan family, of Italian descent, had been living for decades in the
region, and Felipe Jordan grew up speaking both Spanish and English. The murder takes place in 1995, a year after a series of political assassinations in Mexico
that included the murders of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and
the head of the PRI party, Jos Francisco Ruiz Massieu.14 Jordan had earlier been
named the head of the DEAs El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), and he soon
suspects that the murder of his brother is a message from the Jurez cartel to
stay away from their business. Frantically pursuing his brothers killers, Jordan
gradually penetrates the world of international cartels, in which the U.S. and
Mexican governments have deeply rooted political and economic interests.
The case of Enrique Kiki Camarena is of particular interest, since it helps
reveal to Jordan the complexity of the official war on drugs. Jordan meets
Camarena in 1984 in Mexico City. When Jordan notices that agents from the Mexican federal secret police DFS (Federal Security Directorate) are shadowing them,
Camarena explains that, although the DFS is trained by the CIA, drug trafficking
is another dimension of their duties. Although, Like anyone in DEA, he knows
that drug investigations always come second to concerns of foreign policy and to
the appetites of trade (Down 149), Jordan is puzzled by the relationship that
Camarena details between the CIA, the DFS, and the drug cartels. What frus13
A New York Times article reported a news conference at the White House with President Caldern,
in which President Obama said Mexico had shown extraordinary courage in its stand against a wave
of crime and violence that has left tens of thousands of Mexicans dead since 2006 ... We are very
mindful that the battle President Caldern is fighting in Mexico is not just his, Mr. Obama said. Its
also ours. We have to take responsibility, just as hes taking responsibility. See Thompson.
However, according to Bowden, the Mexico that claims to be a sister republic to the U.S., with a
functional civil society protected by President Calderns valiant implementation of a policy of zero
tolerance against drug cartels (see Thompson), does not exist: There is a second Mexico, where
the war is for drugs, for the enormous money to be made in drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a
steady diet of bribes, and where the line between government and the drug world has never existed
(Murder City 18; see, also, Burnett).
14
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)s seventy-one-year rule in Mexico ended with the
election of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 2000.

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 355

trates Camarena is the fact that his information linking the Mexican government
to the cartels never produces a serious DEA investigation, and he is killed in Mexico after discovering a four and a half square mile drug plantation guarded by
DFS agents. Bowden then connects the plantation to the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, noting that it is public knowledge that the CIA
partially financed the contra war in Nicaragua with money obtained from the sale
of narcotics in the U.S. after a Congressional amendment cut off official support
(see Webb).
The parallels between Bowdens Phil Jordan and Winslows Art Keller are striking: they both are initially driven by the need for revenge; the sons of immigrants
with close family connections to Mexico, they feel like outsiders in the white maledominated political world of the U.S. As they navigate the justice systems of both
countries, they realize that they are immersed in a complex and sensitive network
of interests: It is a model of the New Economy, stateless, borderless, global. It
rewards merit, ignores class origins, hires and fires at will. It despises regulations
and ducks tariffs. It is color-blind and judges the work, not skin color (Bowden,
Down 214). Far removed from the gratuitously gory scenes of most Mexican narconovelas, drug-related violence in these texts is considered a foreseeable consequence of a billion-dollar industry rather than the product of senseless outbursts
of irritable psychopaths having a bad day:
Killing still continues it is inevitable in a business lacking access to courts and contract law. Without death, the business simply cannot function. And in a business rife with problems of industrial
espionage t he constant danger of snitches m
urder and torture are inescapable business expenses.
As is bribery, the only accepted form of taxation in the drug business. (Bowden, Down 248)

Drug traffickers, Bowden explains in an interview, theyre just people making a


living in a murderous business (Karlin).
3. Coda: Challenging the Narco Archive and Official Discourse
As with other U.S. narconarratives, the sophistication and the depth of documentation and analysis of both The Power of the Dog and Down by the River have few
equivalents in Mexican fiction and non-fiction narconarratives.15 Latin American
literature in general, nonetheless, has a long tradition of sociopolitical critique. In
Myth and Archive (1990), critic Roberto Gonzlez Echevarra argues that a certain
current of the continental production of novels since the nineteenth century has
striven to adopt what he calls a nonliterary form, here echoing Roberto Fernndez Retamars interpretation of Alfonso Reyess theory of the ancillary function
of literature in El deslinde (see note 6). Approaching Latin America itself as a
cultural entity, as a context or archive from which to narrate that diachronically
(39), Latin American literature exhibits for Gonzlez Echevarra a type of Derridean archive fever:
15
Similar critiques of the drug trade can be found in Gay Taleses Honor Thy Father (1971), Dan
Baums Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (1997), Gary Webbs Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (1998), Howard Campbells Drug War Zone:
Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Jurez (2009), and Molly Molloys El Sicario. The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin (2011). See also Gianfranco Rosis award-winning documentary El
sicario: Room 164 (2010), available online at <http://youtu.be/LxbfodeE9Ic>.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 356

It is my hypothesis that the novel, having no fixed form of its own, often assumes that of a given
kind of document endowed with truth-bearing power by society at specific moments in time. The
novel, or what is called the novel at various points in history, mimics such documents to show their
conventionality, their subjection to strategies of textual engenderment similar to those governing
literature, which in turn reflect those of language itself. It is through this simulacrum of legitimacy
that the novel makes its contradictory and veiled claim to literariness. (8)

As they adopt non-literary elements, novels construct in turn a literary space in


which a critical dissection of those referents becomes a constitutive condition of
each narrative project. While this approach has been adopted by a significant
number of contemporary Mexican novels, I would venture that the key to achieving critical relevance in a literary work does not lie in its formal elements, even
when these aim at a simulacrum of legitimacy through the mimesis of a specific
archive. While narconarratives maintain different degrees of proximity to what
could be conceptualized as the drug war archive government documents,
journalistic news stories, testimonials, police and military reports, analyses by
human rights organizations, narcocorridos, films, websites, and other related cultural productions I believe that their potential for having a lasting impact on
the literary canon mostly resides in their political critique of hegemonic positions
inscribed in that same archive. Although this critical relevance may be articulated
as a counternarrative to official representations of the drug war (The Power of Dog
and Down by the River), it need not resort to realist techniques or a factual engagement with the archive (Contrabando and 2666).
The canon of modern Mexican narrative is composed of novels with very different relationships to the countrys various archival imaginaries, but most incorporate a critical dimension with regard to a specific archive. I would go as far
as to say that a current of counterhegemonic narratives lies at the very foundation of Mexicos literary tradition. Along with some of the novels mentioned
above (Contrabando, 2666, and others referred to in footnotes 10 and 13), two key
texts from the end of the nineteenth century are exemplary: Manuel Paynos
Los bandidos de Ro Fro (188991), which narrates the countrys sociopolitical
crisis during the first decades after its independence from Spain, when corruption and crime were endemic within the highest levels of official power; and
Heriberto Frass Tomchic. Episodios de Campaa (1893), an account of a peasant
uprising in the northern state of Chihuahua that was brutally repressed by Mexican dictator Porfirio Daz in 1892. Decades later, and in the context of Mexicos
1910 civil war, the narrations referred to as novels of the Mexican Revolution
in particular those by Martn Luis Guzmn (18871976), Nellie Campobello
(19001986), and Mariano Azuela (18731952) provide critical accounts of
the human and social carnage that resulted from the fratricidal power ambitions of military generals and politicians. This genealogy can be extended to
non-realist works such as Juan Rulfos groundbreaking Pedro Pramo (1955), the
historical parodies of Jorge Ibargengoitias Los relmpagos de agosto (1964) and
Los pasos de Lpez (1982), and the political deconstructions present in Carlos
Montemayors Guerra en el paraso (1991), Vicente Leeros Los periodistas (1978),
and Hctor Aguilar Camns La guerra de Galio (1991). These literary precedents
support Christopher Domnguez Michaels assessment of Yuri Herreras Trabajos del reino as an important piece of narcoliteratura, but not as a work that can
aspire to become a canonic fictionalization of Mexicos drug war: Herrera

THE CRITICAL LIMITS OF NARCONARRATIVES / 357

seems to me not the beginning but the end of a road: the narco empire reduced
(as only good prose can and should) to the falsely idiotic gaze of a buffoon sheltered inside the palace (Domnguez). This ambiguous praise hints at the central problem both of Herreras novel and most narconarratives: they represent
literary dead-ends that reproduce the limited hegemonic vision of drug trafficking that even the most skillful narration whether realist or not cannot
overcome.
In Julio Cortzars celebrated short story Casa tomada (House Taken Over),
two siblings are gradually expelled from their home as invisible forces take over
each room. Since the nature of these forces is never accounted for, the text invites
virtually endless explanations and interpretations of their exile. As the drug business expands ubiquitously, corroding all dimensions of the social tissue of both
Mexico and the U.S., it is understandable that narconarratives analogously struggle to provide sometimes desperate explanations of the situation. Thus, such
accounts present a country that is being taken over by dark ahistorical forces that
can only be expressed in mythic and archetypical terms: spontaneous, exotic,
senseless, and random violence; unstoppable corruption; the inevitable triumph
of evil. With their romantic focus on death as an ontological destiny and their
emphasis on an imagined narcocultura that makes victims of the official institutions of justice, most narconarratives propagate an illusory enemy that the Mexican state relies upon in order to legitimize its actions in the drug war. In short,
most of the narconarratives written during the last decade in Mexico reify the simulacrum of truth constructed by official propaganda. Only through the articulation of deliberately political counternarratives can light be shed on drug trafficking as one of the many dimensions of official power in both countries. To achieve
this, critical narconarratives must abandon the exhausted myths of drug lords and
their fantastic kingdoms and stop objectifying drug trafficking as a problem external to official power in Mexico and the U.S. and instead propose a careful historical revision of its place inside that power: drug trafficking as power itself.
College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center, City University of New York
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