Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.
Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.
For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile. This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).
Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.
Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).** However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.
*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.