Latin America’s Top 5 Crime Clichés

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Organized crime has become deeply embedded in Latin culture, and its terminology has been incorporated into everyday language, indeed now becoming cliché. 

Here is our list of the top five well-worn clichés that everyone is tired of hearing, but can’t stop using. 

 

 

1) Narco

Definition: word-forming element meaning “stupor, narcosis, sleep,” from Latinized form of Greek narko-

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As you can probably tell, the prefix “narco” has come a long way from its original Latin meaning. Today, it is simply a shorter version of “narcotraficante,”or drug trafficker. But as Ioan Grillo’s book “El Narco” demonstrates, the word itself has become powerful enough to encompass everything that falls under the shadow of the illegal drug industry.

The media has used narco- words with glee, covering just about anything even remotely to do with drugs. Plucked directly from their Spanish equivalent, terms such as narco-aesthetics, narco-novelas and narco-religion have been popping up incessantly in international press. Narco-corridos — musical odes to drug trafficking — are an especially popular phenomenon and the focus of a 2013 documentary aptly named “Narco Cultura“.

Here at InSight Crime, we are hardly immune to using “narco” as a catch-all prefix. Over the years, we have written headlines featuring everything from “Narco-Guerrillas” to “Narco-Planes,” and even a “Narco-Mom.” If you are particularly interested in the intersection between drug trafficking and religion, we have also highlighted “Narco-Saints,” who are presumably venerated in “Narco-Churches.”

And of course, the word has now lent its name to the Netflix series “Narcos,” an incredibly successful gangster drama that may have taken one or two liberties in narrating the dawn of the Colombian cocaine trade.

2) Cartel

Definition: An association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition

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Why does the word “cartel” almost exclusively conjure images of bloodthirsty, gun-toting, drug-trafficking groups causing havoc in Latin America? Maybe it’s television’s fault. Or perhaps it’s the legacy of Mexico’s warmongering criminal groups.

Regardless of the reason, the ubiquitous use of the term “cartel” to describe drug trafficking groups has obscured the important differences between today’s criminal organizations and their predecessors. In past decades, “cartel” denoted a powerful, hierarchical, and well-organized drug trafficking organization based in Mexico or Colombia. Barring a few notable exceptions, these cartels are now defunct or a shadow of their former selves. Their modern day counterparts bear few resemblances in terms of size and sophistication, yet they have retained the “cartel” moniker

Some have tried to distinguish the difference between today’s “fourth generation” drug trafficking groups and their predecessors by labeling them as “baby cartels.” Now, if only we could combine the enthusiasm for declaring everything either a “narco” or a “cartel,” we could christen the first ever “narco-baby cartel.”

3) The Pablo Escobar of …

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Few people haven’t heard of Pablo Escobar, the man considered to be one of the richest and most powerful drug traffickers of all time. His name is so evocative that it lives on more than 20 years after his death, often to refer to kingpins that have cornered the drug market in certain Latin American countries.

The ex-leader of the powerful Juarez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was dubbed Mexico’s Escobar all the way back in 1997, and over the years there has also emerged the Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean, Jose Figueroa Agosto; the Pablo Escobar of Europe, Huseyin Baybasin; and even the Colombian’s Deep Web counterpart, the Pablo Escobar of Silk Road.

Let’s not forget the interminable parallels that have been drawn between Escobar and today’s most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Even Escobar’s old hit man had a few words of advice for the Mexican fugitive predicting that, like his former boss, he would probably get killed before spending a day in a US jail.

Comparing Escobar to today’s kingpins is tempting largely because of the interest the correlation generates among the general population. In fact, we do it too. In addition to crowning a modern day Pablo Escobar in Colombia, InSight Crime has breathlessly reported on “El Salvador’s Pablo Escobar” and the “Pablo Escobar of Peru.

In reality, however, few — if any — drug lords have ever built a cocaine empire rivaling the one Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel established during the 1980s in Colombia. 

4) The Queen Of …

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The Colombian beauty queen turned “Narco Queen”

Drug traffickers have come up with all kinds of wacky aliases (“El Winnie Pooh,” anyone?), but among the least original is being the “Queen of” something. Still, the media soaks up flashy nicknames such as the “Narco Queen” or the “Queen of Cocaine,” a label attributed to Griselda Blanco, Pablo Escobar’s mentor and one of the Colombian underworld’s most notorious characters. 

In later years some these high-profile characters would become the subject of TV dramas such as “La reina del sur,” (“Queen of the South”) which was inspired by the real story of Sandra Avila Beltra, known as the “Queen of the Pacific” or “Queenpin.” 

Perhaps the most-well known “Queen” of recent times is Guatemala’s Marllory Chacon Rossell. Before her arrest, the “Queen of the South” was one of Guatemala’s biggest money launderers and in 2012 the US government added her to the “Kingpin” list, labeling her as “one of the most prolific narcotics traffickers in Central America.”

InSight Crime has covered several other women involved in the drug trade who have earned “Queen” status, including Peruvian sex trafficker Clara Quispe, alias “Queen of the Delta,” and Paraguay’s Maria Cristina Villalba, alias “Queen of the North.”

The popularity of the alias “Queen of” is tied to the enduring fascination of women drug traffickers, and the media’s tendency to portray them as either helpless victims caught in a male-dominated industry or powerful “drug queens.” In many cases, however, the role these women play in the drug business is more complicated. 

5) Gang Tattoos

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Call this a visual cliché. When articles are written about the Barrio 18 and MS13, Central America’s two most powerful street gangs, they are invariably accompanied by photos of gang members with full-body tattoos that prominently display their criminal affiliations.

A quick search through InSight Crime’s database shows we are habitual offenders. We even dedicated an entire article to decoding the secret meaning of the gangs’ most common tattoos. 

However, getting full-body ink is no longer a common practice for the gangs. This change was in response to “iron fist” policies that swept through the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) that criminalized being a gang member, and the tattoos were easily the most visible tip-off for authorities. 

Tattoos are not very easy to erase, of course, so there are still plenty of inked-up Barrio 18 and MS13 members. But while visually striking, these images reflect an outdated gang policy on tattoos. 

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