Narco and Cinema: Notes on Media Representation in Mexico

By Carlos A. Gutiérrez

Two weeks ago, on Thursday, March 24th, a group conformed by some of the largest and most influential media conglomerates in Mexico signed a pact in which they publicly committed to follow a series of guidelines on how to cover the federal government’s so-called war on the drug cartels and the violence of the organized crime. Amongst other agreements, the 10-point guideline (click here to read it in Spanish) vowed not to glorify drug traffickers or publish cartel propaganda. The pact generated some abundant yet divisive debate whether this agreement was truly setting effective professional standards or, on the other hand, it was acting as a self-censorship instance.

Nevertheless, and as if it wasn’t ironic and contradictory enough, there were at least three central references on Mexican cinema dealing with narco culture the same week of the agreement:

The very same day that the pact was signed, the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 53rd edition of the Ariel Awards –the country’s national film prize, which was lead by Luis Estrada’s El infierno (Hell) with 14 nominations including the categories for best film, best director and best actor. The film, which had been released last September to great box-office success, is a violent and satirical comedy about an undocumented worker who finds himself deported back to Mexico where he ends up getting involved in the world of drug trafficking. Estrada, best known for his controversial and hit comedy La ley de herodes (Herod’s Law, 2000), offers through this film billed as an "epic black comedy", a poignant criticism of the government and the corruption in the country.

Coincidentally, the number one film in the Mexican box office the weekend of March 25th was Beto Gómez’s Salvando al soldado Pérez (Saving Private Pérez), a parody about a commando of Mexican narcos headed that travel to Iraq to look for the brother of one of them who has disappeared in the war fighting for the American army. The film, starring actor Miguel Rodarte as the leader of the group, was released on March 18th and in its first three weeks has earned more than $54 million pesos (approximately $4.5 million USD) at the local box office.

Additionally, on Sunday March 27th, Natalia Almada’s newest film El Velador had its world premiere at the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival in New York City. The film is a highly-stylized documentary feature with almost no dialogue and long sequences that follows a night watchman who works at a narco cemetery in Culiacán, that houses enormous and extravagant mausoleums. Hailed as "an unsettingly quiet, even lyrical film about a world made and unmade by violence" by The New York Times, Almada’s film is a intriguing and significant artistic attempt at creating a different approximation to the violence of the country and its aftermath in the everyday lives of people.

Throughout the present administration, the Mexican federal government has largely held a black-or-white and one-dimensional moral position in regards to media and representation of the drug cartels  –i.e. criticizing narco corrridos as mere glorifying vehicles to drug traffickers, or condemning Forbes Magazine in its editorial decision to include Mexican drugpin Joaquín “El Chapo Guzman in the annual list of the world multimillionaires (he appears ranked number #1140 with and estimated fortune of $1 billion USD). With the signed pact, it now seems evident that some of media conglomerates are following the government’s shallow condemnation of the ‘veneration’ of narco culture, without any of a larger discussion of the social, economic, political and cultural issues surrounding the phenomenon. 

The fascination of Mexican cinema with the narco is not new. Hand in hand with the long and rich tradition of narco corridos, since the late 70s and early 80s the country witnessed the flourishing of Narco Cinema, or ‘videohome’ as it’s known in Mexico –a hugely popular B-movie industry mostly composed of low-budget action films about drug traffickers, cops and prostitutes. This is arguably the most successful Mexican film industry, and the titles are easily available locally in the country, as well in the US, in any Mexican grocery store, and in national outlets such as Walmart. Yet despite its enormous popularity and cultural penetration, these films rarely get discussed or debated in mainstream media. Vice Television made a special reportage on Narco Cinema last year, as part of ‘The Vice Guide to Film’ where they interview some of the industry’s icon stars such as Mario Almada and Jorge Reynoso (click here to watch it).

And these are only film references, as telenovelas are also trying to catch up. Telemundo’s record-breaking La Reina del Sur based on the best-selling novel by Javier Pérez Reverte novel and starring Kate del Castillo about a humble girl from Sinaloa who after a series of tragic events ends up becoming a queen of drug trafficking, serves as good testament to it. The telenovela is breaking audience records for Telemundo network in the U.S., and was just released on Mexican television this week to high ratings.

It’s interesting that Mexican cinema is now offering very diverse and variegated depictions of the narco phenomenon, equally stemming from the mainstream, the art-house, and the B-movie realms, that are in many cases much more eloquent, complex and articulated representations than most of the daily press reports. Perhaps cinema has been more invested and able in trying to find more creative and different ways to represent the drug war in Mexico and filling the informational vacuum that the country is experiencing due, on one hand, to the strange mix of sensationalism (images of beheaded bodies plague local newspapers) and superficiality characteristic of the mainstream news outlets; and on the other hand, the direct threat to independent journalism –Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work, and the lack of funds for investigative journalism and deep-digging coverage.

It’s surprising that despite the fact that the media agreement got ample coverage, there was no discussion on the irony that the same week three Mexican films dealing with the same subject were making headlines. There’s a pressing need to incorporate cinema to the national debate, as film might bring additional and fresh insight on how to discuss the complexity of the presented issues. Yet, we also need to create more textual analyses of the body of work created by Mexican cinema, as it will be necessary to discuss all the nuisances and complexities that these films are elaborating for better or worse. The urgency is that as with the current political contexts, the temptation to use popular culture as a scapegoat for failed government policies is huge, and we need to avoid the moralistic pitfalls of the official discourse on media representation on drug trafficking.