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Narcoliteratura - Dangerous Words

Words:

Edd Norval
April 12, 2018

The War on Drugs, just like the War on Terror, is an unofficial and unsanctioned world of mystery and intrigue. As the US Government wages war on the drug trade in South and Central America there are a handful of writers that are immortalising the struggles of the people that are involved.

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Death casts itself like a wide and unassuming net over Colombia and Mexico - producer and shipper of the majority of the world's cocaine. Of those who die, some are directly involved in the 'war' on either side of the line. Like most other wars though, it's not the generals that tend to die first. There's also a lot of collateral damage.


This is to say that death means the physical death - the unchallenged loss of life. To talk about death as loss in general - of ways of life, of freedom, the number is insurmountable. It's this wider sense, the accumulated human cost, from those pulling string and those barely on the fringes, that interests the writers of narcoliteratura - a sub-genre of crime writing that blends fiction and investigative journalism to get to the beating heart of the issue. It tells the stories that will continue through generations first as myths and then as legends.


As is so often the case, fiction is truer than fact, or at least what is packaged as fact. The American government aren't going to tell you the truth - they have the image of the 'good guys' to protect. They must be seen as chivalrous and brave, protectors of freedom - guardians of the people. On the other side, the drug lords and low-level dealers, they have their own images to maintain. Who's going to pay their dealer back if he isn't feared? Who will respect a boss that doesn't commit acts more atrocious than the guy that preceded them?

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And so it stands then, that the most truthful way to navigate the treacherous terrain of self-mythologizing and legality is to communicate the general feeling. By talking about characters as composites, those outside of the firing line can imagine better what it's really like. Those writers with the most deft grasp of nuance can create characters so real that they themselves have become role-models for the narcos - entering their own pantheon of criminal legend.


To find real information, that is a documented fact, or as close as one could get, is virtually impossible. Between state and criminal repression there is very little in terms of objective documentation or statistics to inform the writers. Their job then becomes both detective and anthropologist. They must hone in on the minutiae they can find, flesh it out with their creative writing abilities and shape it to become a looking glass for society as a whole.


Broadcasting an indicting voice in-between a rock and a hard place, sandwiched between two very powerful opponents, means that theses writers serve are activists against the atrocities. For every honest duty performed by the CIA, there is another sleight-of-hand power-play that manipulates power dynamics in their favour - even if that means clandestine tactics. The same goes for the narcos. For every kilo of drugs sold, they'll give something back to a community. Even if this is only low-level employment offered solely to improve their public image - the contribution has still manifested. They have a reputation as bandits, Robin Hood figures. This is carefully cultivated as a form of protection.

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Considering both sides can be viewed as enforcers of their own laws and both viewed with equal suspicion, the common target for writers is the pervasive and inhumane violence enacted by either side. There have been many atrocities than cannot be justly illustrated by words alone. The narcos commit symbolic killings to provoke fear from enemies and broadcast it online. In September 2014, 43 male students were forcibly taken by local police forces and handed over to a cartel and then murdered. Some said that it was masterminded by the local mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez and others thought it was from even higher up. When body parts in plastic bags turned up, assumed to be the students - unrest broke our. Yet a veil of fear cloaked any hope of faithful reporting - the collusion between state and cartel seemed clear.


This type of crime is very different to those committed in Europe and the USA, just as Mexico is a very different state, at all levels, than the USA or European states are. That means the language and style utilised to document the crimes necessitate being different from the popular crime writers of Scandinavia, the UK and the USA. It has given rise to some of the most singular and creative voices in contemporary fiction.


Juan Pablo Villalobos in Down The Rabbit Hole bucked the trend of the world-weary alcohol-dependent middle-aged detective popularised by Scandi noir novels and televised adaptations. Villalobos' story is narrated by a drug lord's young son. In the preface of the novel, Adam Thirlwell introduces the idea that "no story, in the end, is only the story it tells." This makes the naive observations of the protagonist especially poignant. Unbeknownst to him, he is a victim of the horrors committed by his father - yet more collateral damage in the war. The seeming innocence of the story as he delivers it means we are to deduce the horrors ourself - nothing is more vicious and sordid than our own minds.


The unconventional in life requires the unconventional in art and this is only one example from the sub-genre. In a world where transgressions are punished yet massacres walk free, the writer needs every tool in their arsenal to convey the absurdity and gravity of the stories they tell. This is a grey war - entirely absent of black and white. State and narco rarely collide as much as conjoin. There aren't so much double-crossers as livers of double lives. Instead of paid-off for information - characters use their power in the policeforce to protect the people that really pay their way. Forget a salary of a few thousand pesos - these figures of power run on much more powerful things. In the end, the only way to stay safe is to kill the vultures and the hyenas that wait for you at either side.

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It has to be understood that oftentimes the fallout of vast financial inequality is the idolisation of the wicked, who are portrayed as straight-talking, no-bullshit leaders. When bankruptcy strikes - banks first take the blame and then the politicians. Once your back has turned, there's a gloved hand waiting to pat it. Everything has a price. In these situations of social inequality, forget the press. The media in Mexico and Colombia are nothing but mouthpieces for either side - the propaganda arm that wages a media war for the people's minds. To really find out what's going on and to begin to make sense of the madness, it has fallen into the hands of novelists and intrepid journalists.


Proponents of this sub-genre include Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Elmer Mendoza, Yuri Herrera and the maverick American Don Winslow. They are taking the battle into their own arena. They're telling the truth about characters that they have made up based on documents created by either side. They find truth in-between both sides. They also grant themselves an element of safety by not naming names on either side. By carving their own place to explore the intricate and precarious situation of the War On Drugs they write books that are exposés. By taking authorial responsibility they are giving people a banner to gather under. These bespectacled writers are fighting a smart war, not entirely devoid of casualty, but certainly considerably safer - and more effective. Their victims are the state and narcos. They are our last hope of finding truth in a moment that truth is the deadliest weapon.

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