Mexico’s Narco Soap Operas Do More Than Just Glorify Drug Trade

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The growing backlash against Mexican soap operas revolving around the drug trade and its principal players, known as “narcotelenovelas,” is based largely on their perceived harm to the country’s social fabric. But this criticism ignores the very social factors that contribute to the growing popularity of narco culture in Mexico. Below, InSight Crime examines the underlying social and political issues that are addressed in two of the country’s most popular narcotelenovelas currently on television.

In early November, Senator Zoé Robledo and Congresswoman Lía Limón released a joint statement in which they called upon the Secretary of the Interior and the Federal Telecommunications Institute to be more restrictive with regards to commercial television channels airing narcotelenovelas during the family programming time slot. According to the two officials, the airing of such programs during that time period is in violation of the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Federal Law, because the content of the series “promotes and glorifies violence and depicts drug trafficking and its [related] activities as an aspirational life-style” and is thus inadequate for young viewers.

The officials have pushed for the narcotelenovelas to either be taken off the air or, failing that, that they be broadcast at a later hour, as these series “weaken the social fabric of Mexican families” by promoting wrong values and behaviors which feed organized crime.

Since September, the conservative non-governmental organization “A Favor de lo Mejor” (In Favor of the Best) has expressed its concerns over narcotelenovelas and launched a campaign for these programs to be classified as “D,” a category which would prohibit them from airing before midnight. The NGO insists that the narco-series’ constant depiction of violence and crime could produce serious harm in a country where 81 percent of the population has access to television.

Censoring aspects of narcoculture is nothing new. Narcocorridos, or drug ballads, have previously provoked scandal due to their drug-themed lyrics. In some instances, drug capos have even hired musicians to play the narcocorridos. Various Mexican states have accordingly adopted some sort of regulation to supervise in some form or another this musical genre.

Competent authorities will decide whether it is legal or not for narcotelenovelas to be aired at early time slots. But the argument that these programs glorify drug trafficking and damage the social fabric is a faulty one, because it doesn’t take into account the context in which theses series and their success have emerged.

“The problem isn’t viewing it on television, it’s viewing it on the streets.”

Miguel Cabañas, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies the popular cultural representation of drug trafficking, told InSight Crime that the authorities and activists are trying to assign narco-culture’s success to a single reason. But in reality, it is much more complicated than that. Cabañas said that the stigmatization of narco culture is a means of drawing attention away from the enduring problems organized crime present to citizen security.

“If we follow this line of thought, we realize that the [aforementioned politicians and activists] are redirecting the debate from the corruption in the country or problems with the justice system towards cultural aspects,” Cabañas said. “The problem isn’t to view it on television, it is to view it on the streets.”

Cultural portrayals of drug traffickers also offer an alternative way to understand Mexico’s criminal situation. Cabañas pointed out that the conventional and institutional means of communications do not always offer a satisfying explanation of the country’s organized crime dynamics. In that sense, narcotelenovelas are a means of widening the debate.

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“Many of the shows have an implicit criticism,” Cabañas said. “Some combine historical and fictional elements. And this appeals to people because it shows them the government response to this [criminal] phenomenon. They try to explore these themes through these characters.”

InSight Crime considers some of these alternative interpretations by analyzing two of the most popular narcotelenovelas in Mexico.

The Lord of the Skies

This Telemundo production enjoys huge popularity not only in Mexico but among Hispanic audiences in general. The series tells the story of a fictional character, Aurelio Casillas, who — at least in the first season — represents Amado Carrillo Fuentes, former leader of the Juárez Cartel. The real “Lord of the Skies” (El Señor de Los Cielos) allegedly died while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997. In the series, however, he survives and begins an aggressive expansion within the international drug market. As the story progresses, the main character is immersed in various conflict with Mexican and Colombian cartels, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Mexican government. The series also shows how Aurelio Casillas makes different alliances with these high-level operators, illustrating the fluid nature of criminal pacts as well as the traffickers’ alleged links with political elites.

To a certain extent, The Lord of the Skies does give Aurelio Casillas an air of invincibility. There are several occasions in which the main character is on the verge of death and financial ruin, while in others he loses loved ones and faces serious illnesses. However, he always finds a way to overcome obstacles and return stronger than ever. For example, in the last season, he has so much influence he can appoint ministers and even the president. And his character’s lifestyle is full of luxury, love affairs, and power.

Beyond the dramatic elements, the telenovela is illustrative, to a certain extent, of organized crime in the region. The series alludes to several real criminal groups, and it shows how they relate to one another and the way in which they carry out their business. In Mexico, in addition to the Juárez Cartel (called the Casillas Cartel in the series), there are also references to the Tijuana Cartel (the Robles Cartel), the Zetas (the Emes), and drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (as the character Cheme Venegas). Other criminal actors in the region, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia- FARC) , the Norte de Valle Cartel, Central American street gangs, and the Venezuelan Cartel of the Suns are also part of the story.

Another important aspect is that The Lord of the Skies criticizes corruption in the Mexican government by fictionalizing real government officials. It tries to show how they are a part of the broader criminal dynamic and how some have allowed the drug trade to persist. It covers several cases of illicit enrichment of political elites, from Raul Salinas, the brother of ex-president Carlos Salinas, to more recent cases such as the “Casa Blanca” scandal involving President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife.

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In addition to addressing corruption, the series also looks at controversial murders, some of which are considered state crimes or have been linked to organized crime. This includes the mysterious murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas in Guadalajara in 1993; the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994; and the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa in 2014. The last example also showed the complicity of certain government officials in the crime. It it worth noting, however, that in the telenovela this case occurs not in Guerrero but in the neighboring state of Michoacán.

What all the examples mentioned above have in common is that there was no clean resolution to these issues. In some cases, the accused have been acquitted of their criminal charges or have never been charged. Thus, its representation in popular culture may be attractive to an audience seeking answers or an interpretation of events. 

Epigmenio Ibarra, producer of Lord of the Skies, has defended his work by stating that the series reflects reality by portraying government corruption, which he considers to be the central problem with drug trafficking.

However, this does not mean that The Lord of the Skies should be taken as a documentary; its a fictional representation of a real problem plaguing Mexico. The show clearly has a deeper objective than to simply glorify drug trafficking. 

The Queen of the South

This telenovela is based on a novel written by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte. It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, a woman from the state of Sinaloa who grew up in circumstances where abuse, mistreatment, poverty and crime were part of her daily life. After the murder of her drug trafficker boyfriend — who in the end turns out to be an undercover police officer — she is forced to flee to save her life. She ends up settling in Melilla, Spain, where in order to survive she starts dealing with smugglers and even comes into contact with the Russian mafia.

Teresa is not a money-hungry character or even inclined towards crime. Nevertheless, due to the set of circumstances that she finds herself in, she goes deeper and deeper into organized crime, climbing and triumphing in her criminal career without looking for opportunities, but without dodging them either.

For various reasons, some of which are outside her control, Teresa finds herself trapped at the crossroads of legality and illegality.

Teresa’s character initially goes through several difficult situations: she has no money, loses loved ones, is abused, is mistreated and does not have many options to defend herself, so to survive she becomes a criminal. This can create a sense of empathy and compassion for her on the part of the audience, despite her criminal activity. In this regard, The Queen of the South humanizes the protagonist, presenting an alternative narrative to that which is usually shown in the media.

The telenovela offers an alternative perspective to the usual debate of “the good guys versus the bad guys.” For various reasons, some of which are outside her control, Teresa — along with other characters — finds herself trapped at the crossroads of legality and illegality. This suggests that there is a much more complex dynamic at work than a simple dichotomy between “good” and “bad.”

Many Mexican citizens have little chance at upward social mobility. According to the Center for Studies Espinosa Yglesias (Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias- CEEY), 48 percent of Mexicans belonging to the poorest quintile of the population never leave it during the course of their lives. In a country with such limitations, drug trafficking can be viewed as one of the few opportunities for upward social mobility.

At first glance, it could be argued that this narrative makes drug trafficking look acceptable. At the same time, however, The Queen of the South seems to criticize the hard and difficult life of people involved in drug trafficking, so the show does not paint it as something to which people should aspire. The series also reinforces the idea that once inside this business, it is not easy to leave. In the telenovela, the only possibilities for exiting the drug trade are death or, as in the case of Teresa, disappearing.

Although it does not deal with real cases, The Queen of the South is a reflection of reality, as it tells a story from the perspective of a character who, through difficult circumstances, got involved in the drug business. As in the case of The Lord of the Skies, to interpret this telenovela solely as an apology for drug trafficking would obscure some of its deeper messages.

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