Latin America's newest export: Narcoculture

Illustration made by CONNECTAS. Used with permission.

This article was written by Leonardo Oliva and published in CONNECTAS on January 26, 2023. An edited version is republished on Global Voices under a content sharing partnership.

The Colombian actress Sofía Vergara has just released the series “Griselda” on Netflix, in which she stars in the role of the “queen of coca”. The faces of Pablo Escobar and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán appear printed on T-shirts sold in markets around the planet. The narcocorridos of the Mexican Peso Pluma will  be at the legendary Coachella, in California.

These events are all part of the emerging narcoculture, a pop culture product that Latin America is exporting to the world with unprecedented success. In many cases, these are North American productions in which all things Latino appear on the margins and with a negative connotation.

Peso Pluma is the clearest example. The chorus of his megahit “PRC” describes the activity of an average trafficker and is sung by millions of people, including children. Because of his lyrics and his image (balaclava, expensive cars, diamond teeth), this 24-year-old artist ignited controversy in Chile after being confirmed as the headliner at the Viña del Mar Festival, organized by the municipality of that coastal city.

“On March 1, on the screens of the state channel, we will hear the voice of the drug trafficker,” sociologist Carlos Mayol wrote in a much-discussed opinion column. The scandal reached the Chilean parliament; there was talk of apology for drug trafficking and — at the other extreme — of censorship. But finally, the organizers confirmed the presence of Peso Pluma at the festival.

Peso Pluma and the controversy over the Viña del Mar Festival: what happened and what have those involved said?

But how much truth is there in the fact that Peso Pluma's music romanticizes or even glorifies drug traffickers? In reality, he, the first Mexican to reach number one on Spotify's Global Top Charts list, is, along with his colleague Natanael Cano, the latest to emerge from a genre — narcocorridos — with a long tradition in Mexico. These are songs that tell stories of working-class antiheroes who fight against their inevitable destiny: poverty and violent death. The only alternative they have is getting involved in the trafficking of illegal drugs to the United States, with its promise of easy money, the power that weapons give, and the pleasure that women offer.

Corridos were born at the beginning of the 20th century to celebrate the popular heroes of the Mexican Revolution. The current “corridos tumbados” are derived from them, the success of which is explained by the writer and music journalist Oscar Adame:

Los cárteles de drogas y demás grupos delictivos empezaron a utilizar este género musical para propagar sus propias noticias, para promover a sus propios héroes, para difundir sus valores. Los cárteles no pueden promocionarse en un diario, en un programa de televisión; pero sí pueden tener sus corridos, sí pueden tener su discurso boca a boca, sí pueden tener a Peso Pluma escribiéndoles sus canciones y a Natanael Cano presentándolas. Es querer que el pueblo los reconozca y que esté de su lado.

Drug cartels and other criminal groups began to use this musical genre to spread their own news, to promote their own heroes, to spread their values. Cartels cannot promote themselves in a newspaper or on a television program; but yes they can have their corridos, yes they can have their word-of-mouth speech, yes they can have Peso Pluma writing their songs for them and Natanael Cano presenting them. It is wanting the people to recognize them and be on their side.

This phenomenon so deeply rooted in Mexico has spread to the rest of Latin America, where narcoculture has found expressions through music but also in other aspects of daily life.

It happens in Colombia, where tourists can now tour the places where Pablo Escobar built his drug empire in Medellín. Similarly, the commercial success of “Pablo Escobar: The Drug Lord,” a Netflix series that portrayed him, speaks to this phenomenon. In Ecuador, the country that today faces its greatest challenge in drug trafficking, narcoculture has permeated even everyday speech. “Andamo rulay,” is a phrase that emerged from a “narcobanda” song that is repeated in neighborhoods dominated by armed groups, which means “partying in the streets.”

Similar situations are experienced in the south of the region. In Argentina, there is “cumbia narco,” with musicians who record videos of themselves surrounded by dollars, packages of cocaine, and weapons while singing about the exploits of drug traffickers. In Chile, for its part, “narcopop” emerging from the poorest neighborhoods of the country's capital, is today the most listened to music.

In Ecuador, it is believed that the cartels themselves finance this music industry. There, the most famous drug trafficker, José Adolfo Macías Villamar (alias “Fito,” recently escaped from prison), stars from prison in the video of a song that pays tribute to him, “El Corrido del León,” in which his daughter even sings.

On YouTube and other networks such as TikTok and Instagram, the corridos tumbados of Peso Pluma and other artists find their largest audience. On these platforms, narcoculture is expressed in another parallel phenomenon: the “alucín,” or “hallucination.” It is a label that alludes to “pretending another life,” and that accompanies videos where users of all ages display themselves in designer clothing, luxury cars, and with wads of cash and weapons. They are ordinary people who adopt a fantasy, aware that their reality will never be like that “hallucination.”

Another perspective from which to analyze the expansion of narcoculture arises here: its degree of representation of reality. Is the life of a drug dealer that “romantic?” América Becerra, a Mexican academic who has been studying the phenomenon among young people in her country, responds:

“All expressions of narcoculture, be it corridos, literature about hitmen and traffickers, movies and television series that talk about drug trafficking, take elements from reality,” she says. But she clarifies that “it should be considered that the cultural industry, in order to make them attractive to audiences, adds elements of fiction. Well, drug trafficking is a risk area where death is always present, and wealth and power are not always achieved.”

Laura Alicino, a researcher at the University of Bologna, also works on the influence of narcoism on mass culture. According to her:

siempre ha representado una gran fascinación, tanto para los medios masivos como para otras formas de arte, como la literatura. Yo soy italiana y en la historia de los productos artísticos de mi país, las mafias están muy presentes. Por ejemplo, con el legado que ha representado y todavía representan películas de culto como ‘El Padrino’. La violencia se ha vuelto la nueva marca del exotismo de América Latina. En este sentido, la violencia también puede ser una mercancía y la narcocultura se vuelve el brand.

It has always represented a great fascination, both for the mass media and for other forms of art, such as literature. I am Italian and in the history of artistic products in my country, mafias are very present. For example, with the legacy that cult films like ‘The Godfather’ have represented and still represent. Violence has become the new mark of exoticism in Latin America. In this sense, violence can also be a commodity and narcoculture becomes the brand.

Becerra also explains how art, and narcocorridos in particular, did not give rise to drug trafficking or the violence that is associated with it:

Narcoculture has developed alongside drug trafficking. So as long as there continue to be acts of violence and organized crime, there will continue to be cultural expressions that reflect these scenarios through television series, movies, novels and songs.

You can listen to the full episode of the CONNECTAS podcast here:

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