- Narrating Narcos: Culiacán and Medellín by Gabriela Polit Dueñas
The narcotics trade in Latin America has spawned a culture of its own with literature, music, and art that either glorifies or vilifies the drug traffickers. The pervasive violence of this culture has become so ingrained that communities are desensitized to it because dealers and hitmen have replaced guerrillas and dictators as the central topic of interest. In this book, Gabriela Polit Dueñas gives a history of the drug trade in Culiacán, Mexico and Medellín, Colombia. While the introduction and first chapter are somewhat pedestrian, the rest of the work is quite interesting and informative.
Each of the nine chapters of the text has sub-categories to clarify differences between the two regions and the sociological, economic, political, and cultural paradigms that have arisen based on the drug trade. Polit Dueñas makes lucid points such as, “In Mexico, narco trafficking grew alongside state power, whereas in Colombia it initially developed largely outside the state apparatus and relied on its alliances with other violent actors such as the guerrillas and the paramilitary for its development” (p. 14). She also distinguishes between the vernacular used in Culiacán to a humorous effect in crime novels since it is not alien to those writers versus the distance established by the Colombian writers who seem uneasy with the vernacular of the shantytowns and tend to narrate in first person from a higher social class that admires the criminal element.
The study analyzes the works of various authors from both areas and includes not only research based on critical articles, but interviews with writers, critics, community members, and visits to the actual places described in the novels. Polit Dueñas also gives perspectives on works by more famous writers, which to her seem one-sided and tangential, if not opportunistic since these works are atypical of their literary production. Instead, she concentrates on authors from the regions who live the quotidian violence while blurring the line between fact and fiction since some of them have suffered reprisals due to their literary depictions. Some of the authors are journalists who have faced threats from narcos as well as from the government, which often is in collusion with the dealers and hitmen. [End Page 288] In fact, she states, Mexican reporters “explained that they do not sign certain articles as a way of protecting themselves” (p. 81). In this regard, she also wanted to ensure a critical and distant objectivity while analyzing the works, but feared that visiting the sites and meeting with authors and other people from the regions might make her analysis more subjective.
Besides the literary works, this volume also contains twelve photographs that depict artistic responses to the narco violence. Polit Dueñas incorporates the theories of Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault to interpret this cultural contribution to understanding and visualizing the nature of life and death in Culiacán and Medellín. In describing the works of Juan Fernando Ospina, she said, his “work helped me learn to discern many nuances of the paisa culture; to see beyond the contradictions between irreverent discourses in a city filled with churches. I even learned to understand the ways in which the region’s violent history is subtly manifested in daily life” (p. 171). Her conclusions are valid and complex.
In the Epilogue, Polit Dueñas mentions the inspiration for her research: a brilliant analysis of Julio Cortázar’s “Recortes de prensa,” which was given at a conference in 2010. She mentions that the critic stated: “Cortázar’s story was a paradigmatic text that revealed everything about the difficulties of representing violence” and that this haunted her for months (p. 172). She concludes that the Cortázar work failed to elucidate the texts in her study. First, the settings are very different. Second, the language in these two regions is very different from each other and from that in Cortázar’s story. Third, the violence follows a different set of rules. Fourth...