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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

PhD Candidate discusses narcotics and drug violence in Latin America

On April 21, Marie Jose Mendez Gutierrez, a PhD. candidate from the Political Science department presented her research regarding “Narcocorridos” and drug war violence in Latin America at the biweekly Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies workshop. This portion of her dissertation explores the violence in Central America and Mexico through what she calls Narco culture. This realm consists of art, songs, and literature, which carry the political consciousness of Latin America.  Previously, these spaces were largely dominated by the language of repression and autocratic rule, where as now, drug trafficking permeates such forms.

Gutierrez focused on Narcocorridos, a folk storytelling style of music, which originated during the US invasion of Mexico.  Since the 1970s, these songs have expressed stories of the drug war, striving to create a counter narrative. Due to the increasingly hostile environment for investigative journalists, who are constantly under threat in the current political climate, these narratives express the texture of ordinary people’s lives and their stories.  The Narcocorridos have however, been accused of glorifying the lives of traffickers and subsequently, have been banned from radio and public performances in some states, despite their growing popularity. These songs frequently top latin music charts, also dominating playlists in cities in the US and in Latin America.

Gutierrez noted the old-fashioned style of the music, often mocked by her high school friends for its association with “common people.” Educated, upper-middle class Mexicans are horrified to see a once “noble” art form corrupted by its association with what they considered uncivilized in society. Yet, she highlights how these songs bring bodies together in various sectors of society in what she calls the “geography of intimacy,” which illustrates a common experience of many people living in Latin America. She finds we can glean a number of insights into the dynamics of power in the region when dissecting these songs. 

The Narcocorridos direct our gaze to the bloody landscape of massacres, which are condemned by the Church and various parties who believe this style creates a culture of death. However, for students of the drug war, these songs present a street level portrait of violence in Central America. Gutierrez further characterized these songs, which are often released within hours of major massacres. Oddly, these songs are crafted in a non-sensationalist way, lacking any sort of melodramatic heightening we see in other fear inducing spaces, such as mass media. Their nonchalant tone serves as a manifestation of how individuals interrelate and live in society, rather than offering an image of isolated acts of violence that disturb the social order.

Beyond issues of violence, the Narcocorridos highlight the “silent voice of hunger” and exploitation of agrarian economies. Gutierrez cites the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s as a major source of suffering for individuals in the Global South as private protections were eliminated. Moreover, the emergence of NAFTA enabled the influx of heavily subsidized corn into Latin America, devastating landless farmers and pushing them to turn to drugs or to “change the seed” as an alternative means of survival.

Gutierrez emphasized that violence is typically associated with a clandestine realm of society. However, these songs do not present individuals in the drug trade as scandalous, but rather as part of the larger neoliberal structure.  Rather than viewing the drug trade as an aberration, these individuals are simply producing another commodity for the system, which relies on the extraction of mental and physical rigors of these bodies.  The state is often guilty of reducing these individuals to categories of pathological sadism.  Conversely, in Narcocorridos this sort of work is marked by intention and specialization, therefore demonstrating what she sees as the violence of capitalism.

Gutierrez also touched upon what she called the  “percussive sounds” of violence. Violent acts project beyond the moment of impact.  They resound into the future in less immediate and sensationally visible ways. These songs therefore, discuss the war on drugs but also the war on agrarian production.  The Narcocorridos have documented these developments since the 1980s and the aerial crop fugmation campaigns, in which the peasant farmer endures the most destructive consequences.  She explores the Colombian case in particular, where civilians did not experience the effects of repression immediately. Toxic rain, pesticides and hunger prove to be just as devastating as the drug violence.   In these regard, we see a direct connection between state repression of bodies through physical violence and progressive and repercussive destruction of bodies through fumigation policies. Different songs in this genre challenges state policies, demonstrating how violence can be dispersed across time and space.

Gutierrez ended her discussion with an allusion to the corruption of these Narcocorridos. Before such songs were designed to be the voice of the voiceless.  Today they have been commodified and sold to society, particularly in a gendered way perpetuating patriarchal norms. Some are even commissioned by high level drug capitalists, who possess the capacity to silence others. Nevertheless, she finds these songs have the potential to call to our attention the complexity of the drug war and the violence associated with it.