As should be obvious from my review of season two of Narcos and the first two installments of a series of articles on films about the Sicilian mafia that I hope to continue before long, I have a keen interest in the class dimensions of organized crime and how popular culture reflects it.
Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:
Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)
A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.
The series ends with Gallardo being arrested in 1989 and sent to the Altiplano maximum security prison, where the 73-year old gangster is still locked up. Season three of El Chapo picks up where Narcos left off. Joaquín Guzmán (played by the unusually named Marco de la O) reigns over a coalition of gangs that have only come together because of his use of the carrot and the stick. The carrot? The right to profit handsomely by the export of drugs to the USA through his advanced transportation system that has nothing to do with refugees trekking through the desert. The stick? Getting a bullet in the head if they decline.
Narcos was filmed in Mexico, unlike El Chapo that was made in Colombia. Perhaps the production team for the latter series understood the risks of filming in a country where the drug wars dwarfed anything in Colombia. In May 2017, the bullet-riddled body of Carlos Muñoz Portal, a location scout for Narcos, was found dead in his car in a violent region of central Mexico just 37 miles from Mexico City. That year the murder rate in Mexico hit a record high: 20.5 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the rate in the USA was 5.3 per 100,000 for 2017.
If Kiki Camarena was the hero in Narcos, there are none to be found in El Chapo. As evil as El Chapo, even though he is on the right side of the law, Conrado Sol (Humberto Busto) is a fictionalized version of Genaro García Luna, the Secretary of Public Security under Vicente Fox, the PAN party’s president of Mexico between 2000 and 2006 that was named one of Mexico’s 10 most corrupt officials by Forbes Magazine in 2013.
Essentially, Conrado Sol played a role that existed during both PAN and PRI governments. The ruling class of Mexico decided to throw its weight behind El Chapo whose skill in cobbling out an alliance of previously clashing drug gangs meant that there would be relatively less mayhem in the streets. It did not care if drugs flowed into the USA and why would they? After all, the drug cartels were the fifth largest employer in Mexico and the billions that flowed into Mexico after laundering could be invested in real estate and other enterprises in a chronically weak economy. As Mandel wrote, it was all about capital accumulation.
Rather than devote any more words to the Netflix series themselves, I’d like to conclude this article with some thoughts on the Mexican drug wars. As great as these Netflix treatments were (and they are great), they were missing a class dimension. They, like most movies about drug cartels, were far more interested in the kind of drama you get in The French Connection or Traffic. The focus is on interdiction rather than interpretation. That’s what you’d expect from commercial films intended to sell tickets. Why would you and how could you capture the economic factors that led to a massive growth of the drug industry in Mexico?
For that, you need to read a book like A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” by Carmen Boullosa, a Mexican poet and journalist, and Mike Wallace, a Marxist historian at John Jay College in New York (where cops are trained!). This book is necessary reading in order to understand that capital accumulation is at the root of a dirty war that has led to the deaths of at least 60,000 Mexicans, most of them innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of sicarios.
Boullosa and Wallace begin by recounting the kidnapping and murder of 43 mostly indigenous students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero. As was their custom, and generally done with the grudging tolerance of the local police, they had commandeered buses in Iguala with the intention of transporting themselves to Mexico City, perhaps for protests and perhaps for leisure—or a combination of both. Unfortunately for them, they had come to the attention of the Mayor’s wife in Iguala who saw them as a threat to a re-election campaign rally held in the town’s main plaza. She sent the local cops after them, who were closely tied to Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang. In many respects, there was little difference between the cops, the drug gangs, local officials like the Mayor, and Genaro García Luna, the head of national security.
As was the case with most of these drug gangs, a sense of paranoia stoked by cocaine and amphetamine led them to believe that these students were affiliated with Los Rojos, a rival drug gang. After torturing them for hours to get a confession, the gangsters finally lined them up and shot all 43. Boullosa and Wallace describe what happened afterward:
Then the bodies were heaved down to the bottom of the ravine, where they were stacked, like cordwood, in alternating layers. The resulting tower of bodies was doused in diesel fuel and gasoline, and set on fire. The blaze was kept burning through the night and into the following afternoon of Saturday, September 27, perhaps fifteen hours or so, by feeding the flames with whatever inflammable materials happened to be in the dump—paper, plastic, planks, branches, tires—and with a continuous supply of diesel fuel ferried in by motorcycle. Finally the bodies were reduced to ashes and bits of bone, which were then pulverized. “They’ll never find them,” El Cabo Gil [second-in-command of Los Guerreros] texted to Casarrubias.
Nothing like this is ever depicted in any of these Netflix series. Their story, the story of Mexico’s poor and indigenous peoples, is of little interest to those of a commercial bent. It would take someone like Gillo Pontecorvo, who belongs to an earlier generation of filmmakers that valued its ties to the organized left.
If such a story is to be told, it would have to contend with the disaster that befell Mexico in 1994 and that is largely responsible for the meteoric rise of the drug trade and its dialectical opposite—the insurgencies that have finally culminated in the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, the leftist president popularly referred to as AMLO. I speak, of course, of NAFTA that left many thousands of campesinos ruined and was so hard-felt in Chiapas that it led to the rise of the Zapatista movement.
Carlos Salinas was just the sort of president who would see eye-to-eye with Bill Clinton over NAFTA. As Mexico’s version of Boris Yeltsin, he sold off 80 state-owned enterprises at bargain basement prices. This included a telecommunications company, two airlines, the national steel company, fertilizer and sugar companies, the railways, and the commercial banks that had been nationalized in 1982. The process created a new class of oligarchs just as perestroika had led to in Russia, as well as gangsters ready to take advantage of a Wild West form of capitalism. Among the capitalist crooks who rose to the top was Carlos Slim, the erstwhile majority share-owner of the NY Times.
NAFTA was particularly devastating for farm labor and the self-employed campesinos. NAFTA dictated that Mexico abolish the agrarian reforms incorporated in Article 27 of the Constitution. Communal land (ejido) could now be divided and converted into private property. No longer would there be price regulation of staple crops. Subsidies for the campesinos were eliminated. All this permitted US agribusiness to export corn to Mexico at cut rates. The price of corn dropped by 50 percent in the years following the passing of NAFTA and the number of farmers living in poverty increased by a third. Six years after NAFTA, two million farmers had been displaced from their land, just like the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”.
Just as burgeoning manufacturing absorbed the farmers victimized by the Enclosure Acts in England, so did a burgeoning industry in Mexico absorb some but not all of those who farmed. Those who still had land but no access to subsidies began growing marijuana and opium poppies just as happened in Colombia and Afghanistan.
In the zeal for the free movement of capital but not people, NAFTA led to a massive increase of truck movements between Mexico and the USA. Maquila plants that were close to the border benefited from “free trade”. Their trucks were exempt from tariffs and subject to only minimal inspection. In a method referred to as “shotgunning”, drug cartels would load up 10 trucks with their product. Since it was beyond the means of the border agents to check every truck, conceivably half of them would not be interdicted. Needless to say, people like El Chapo would never dream of having people walk through the desert with knapsacks full of drugs.
Furthermore, if he ever ran into a fence or even a wall, there were easy ways to avoid interdiction as Boullosa and Wallace point out:
Some of the cartels’ professionalism on Calderon’s [Vicente Fox’s successor] watch involved new high-tech tactics: more capacious tunnels, complete with railway line, electricity, and ventilation; submarines—the average sixty-foot narco-sub carried several tons of cocaine; and drones—airborne drug mules that border-hopped below the radar screen. But cartels still deployed old low-tech devices. A former chief of operations for the DEA noted that a few days after the U.S. erected a high-tech fence along a stretch of border in Arizona, the cartels showed up with a catapult and began flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side. “We’ve got the best fence money can buy,” he observed ruefully, “and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”
Finally, those farmers who lost their land and chose not to work in a maquiladora (that tended to hire women anyhow) could always get a job as a low-level drug dealer or as a sicario. Although Sean Penn took a lot of heat for interviewing El Chapo in Rolling Stone, I am glad that he gave him an opportunity to describe the path that many thousands of poor Mexicans have decided to take:
How was your childhood?
I remember from the time I was six until now, my parents, a very humble family, very poor, I remember how my mom made bread to support the family. I would sell it, I sold oranges, I sold soft drinks, I sold candy. My mom, she was a hard worker, she worked a lot. We grew corn, beans. I took care of my grandmother’s cattle and chopped wood.
And how did you get involved in the drug business?
Well, from the time I was 15 and after, where I come from, which is the municipality of Badiraguato, I was raised in a ranch named La Tuna, in that area, and up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you.
El Chapo’s arrest and imprisonment won’t change much in Mexico. As long as there is a demand for drugs in the USA, it will be supplied by those with an entrepreneurial bent. That demand is fueled by misery and by poverty. People do cocaine and opioids because capitalism is soul-destroying. To paraphrase Marx, opiates are the opiates of the masses, even those that are rich and successful as the NY Times reported in an article titled “America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable”. The author cites a friend who attended the Harvard Business School alongside him: “I feel like I’m wasting my life. When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless. If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says.” Something tells me that when a revolutionary movement begins to sweep this country carried along by the people who have the most to gain, it will pull along the people discussed in this article in their wake. There will always be a use for recreational drugs but only when they are used for recreation rather than obliteration.