A cartel is defined by Merriam-Webster as a combination of independent commercial or industrial enterprises designed to limit competition or fix prices. Technically, there are legal cartels like OPEC and the NCAA (yeah I thought that one was weird too), but more often than not, the word cartel is synonymous with narcotics, bloodthirsty killers, and a world so backwards that it’s easier to just pretend it doesn’t exist.
Before I begin my ramblings on a topic I’m nowhere near experienced enough to write a +3000 word blog post on, I want to state why exactly I chose this topic. My last SAMO was on one of, if not the most shameless and disgusting underbellies of society: sex trafficking. Being one of the most heinous things a person can do, I found it apt to raise awareness on something that is generally just seen as something that only happens in far-away lands where backwards savages sell each other off and hurt each other for no apparent reason, and can be avoided if you tuck yourself in tight enough in bed and tell yourself “it doesn’t happen here”. This topic struck a chord with me because it highlighted a personal side of a dark industry where statistics are heard more than individual voices. I landed on cartel violence in Mexico for that same reason. With this SAMO I want to shine light on the under spoken civilian impact of the war on drugs.
My first surface-level understanding of any of this came from the Netflix original show, Narcos. In my defence, how couldn’t I enjoy a crime/action thriller show about two polar opposite individuals who are equally badass in different ways constantly fighting a brutal urban war, knowing that the good guy eventually came out on top… kind of. After I watched Narcos I went on with my life and never considered anything else about it. It’s only until after my first SAMO that I remembered that show and how cool they made Pablo Escobar out to be, and the lasting impression that there was almost something to be desired about living a life like that. Now of course that was just a small thought in the back of my head that can only be written up as an intrusive thought and nothing more. But, for some, that life is a reality. I started my second SAMO journey with a documentary from Russian documenteur Alexey Brazhnikov called Narco-song of Sinaloa: El-Chapo’s Drug Cartel which follows Alexey and a fellow journalist through the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Documentary: Narco-Song of Sinaloa
Alexey starts off his documentary as most sensationalist cartel documentaries do: by giving the usual startling facts about money and murder — how cartels bring in $30 billion a year accross the country and how the death toll is only as eye watering as the nearly unimaginable amount of money made from the cartels’ dealings. But, that’s where the sensationalism ends. Alexey leaves his apartment and goes straight to an ex-cartel member who lost his daughter to a botched hit, and whose wife died of unstated causes. After his introduction and some questions to preface, the man he was interviewing begins talking about that if there was anything he could change about his life, it would be protecting his daughter. He goes on to say that “It [life as a narco] gives you a lot, but it takes too. It takes away your family, and gives you money and problems in return” (Narco-Song of Sinaloa, 03:49-04:07). This quote sets a tone for the rest of the documentary, as Alexey and his crew travel around Sinaloa discovering the unexpected positives of cartel influence and folklore while maintaining a spirit of humanity and genuine interest in the people this industry affects. After the first interview, Alexey finds himself in a church devoted to the saint Jesus Malverde. Malverde is not a saint recognized by the Catholic church, nor is his existence proved in historical documents. So, one may ask: why do thousands of people worship a saint that never lived? Malverde was adopted in the 70’s as the patron saint of the poor (and the cartels) and has been immortalized in Corridos (Essentially a Mexican ballad). He was said to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor, and didn’t live the life of a prophetic saint, but rather enjoyed life as anyone else did and lived among the people as a fellow member of his community. Malverde is considered an positive icon of the cartels because individuals from cartels often treat him as a saint, and when they find success will often come back to their communities and give back in the name of Malverde, giving his following an essence of hope and equity. This portion of the documentary blindsided me because I thought that, going into the documentary, I would only find testimonies of violence and destruction; the only byproduct of the cartel’s existence is a lifetime of torment for those around them. I was wrong. Throughout the documentary, Alexy finds other ways that communities benefit from cartels. There is also a flourishing music scene in Sinaloa that tells ballads of those who came before, and immortalizes those who were loved and lost. These ballads are called corridos. For many in Sinaloa, corridos memorialize loved ones lost in the crossfire of the constant sparring between federal government, civilian fighting coalitions, and cartel forces. Sadly, corridos are now often written if the deceased had a connection to drug trafficking — whether it be civilian or narco. Cartels in Mexico also provide a large amount of labor jobs to maintain the infrastructure needed to support the various organizations. The Positives begin to taper as the documentary progresses.
Alexey finds himself in the small town of Cosola, a small town in the mountains of Sinaloa. Cosola’s population has skyrocketed recently due to an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting going on between cartels and the Mexican government. It’s here that Alexey stays for much of the documentary. They discuss the growing danger of journalism in Mexico as well as the violence perpetrated against civilians. As Alexey travels across Cosola, he finds an array of different personalities and life stories, but one thing that stayed consistent throughout was that every individual he talked to had some interaction with the cartel, and everyone has lost someone to the ongoing violence brought on by the cartels. This theme of pervasive violence seems to affect far more than just Cosola. As Alexey travels into Culiacan — Sinaloa’s largest city — he interviews a pedestrian nearby about the safety of the city, and learns that the interviewee was shot in the crossfire between the police and the Sinaloa Cartel. Just a day after the interview, Alexey was back in the same area as police sirens went off responding to a homicide where someone accidentally ran into a cartel member’s car and was executed for it.
The documentary finishes on a solemn note; It started off in the realm of what Sinaloans experience at face value: lives filled with culture, history, and community. The cartel’s presence was certainly apparent, but the public didn’t seem to have a resentment towards them. As the documentary progressed, however, I realized that people choose to ignore the violence because there really aren’t any other options. The people of Sinaloa (and many other regions of Mexico) are stripped of their means to fight back against the violent organizations that ; the government is corrupt, the children are subject to indoctrination at a young age, the civilian fighting forces struggle to parallel the cartel’s firepower, journalists are killed when they speak the truth, and those who speak out are murdered in cold blood. The documentary left me with the impression that cartels like the Sinaloa Cartel have become so powerful that the citizens of Mexico are in a state of learned helplessness and acceptance of the cartels rather than the initial “live and let live” sort of reaction I saw in the beginning.
The reason this documentary is important to my SAMO is because it glosses over topics that are imperative to understanding the situation in Mexico. It touches on the loss of loved ones and the void they leave, it talks about how the line between pure and evil isn’t easily drawn and the philanthropy done by those in cartels, it shows the enduring spirit of the Sinaloans, the insensitivity to violence, the war against journalism, the thousands displaced by the fighting, and the sheer reach of the cartels.
The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography: An American Epidemic – Guns in the United States
Unlike my last SAMO, I knew what I wanted this time. I knew that seeing something in person would elevate my SAMO from a research project to an actual exploration. To do this, I needed to find somewhere to go, and Mrs. Henrich provided me with the perfect exhibit. Coincidentally, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography was hosting an exhibit on gun violence, so I sprung on the opportunity. Before I could schedule a date to visit, I learned that some of my friends were working on a similar project for their respective English classes as well. After some short discussion we agreed to all visit the museum and make a day of it.
When the day came, we all woke up around 9:00 in the morning and got picked up by our gracious driver and my good friend Michael Swift, who’s doing his SAMO on shootings in the US. I was the second person to be picked up after another friend Samantha Kaminsky, who is doing her Out of the Box on Gun violence, and lastly we stopped off at David Brodsky’s house — also doing gun violence. We got to the city early so we had a great breakfast at Lasalle Cafe Luna before heading in. Once we entered the Museum, the aura changed from a casual day in the city to feeling like we stepped into a graveyard. The museum was empty and completely quiet. The walls were painted stark white and each picture stuck out in its own eerie way, almost as if the entire exhibit was meant to feel like the dead silence after a bad storm. I think the first floor felt so eerie because so many of the pictures didn’t show any of the victims or even the crime scenes shortly after the shooting occured. It was off-putting at first, but then I began to realize that the effect of this exhibit came not from graphic images depicting bullet-ridden victims or blood stained walls, but rather from the empty eyes and barren landscapes left behind.
The first picture I took an in depth look at was of Peter Read. Peter was a father to Mary Read, a freshman at Virginia Tech in 2007. For those unaware, in 2007, Virginia Tech University was victim to a mass shooting that took the lives of 33 and wounded many more. The text in the middle of the photo describes the rollercoaster of emotions that Peter felt as the news of what had happened to his daughter broke. He continues by explaining what’s left for him and the rest of Mary’s family as “this gaping wound, this hole where Mary should be. It’s inexpressible how it must have been for her, but… That’s the best way I can explain it: that everything changes because it has to rearrange around this empty place. And it’s not ever going to be any different until the day I die.” (Peter Read). This picture’s meaning to me was that it showed the pain of a loved one’s death only truly begins once you realize the void that’s been left by them.
This “void” was further explored through both Deborah Luster’s “From Tooth for an Eye” and the landscape photograph of what was once the Lanza family home. Debora Luster’s photography project gains inspiration from her grandmother, the victim of a lethal shooting. The project was done across New Orleans at the scene of recent and historical homicides. Each picture shows barren landscapes devoid of any life or color. Debora’s work was powerful to me because that emptiness is perfectly captured upon a landscape: a place that once was, isn’t anymore. The only reminder of the life that was once there is the space occupied by the shells of empty buildings. The last photograph that I feel follows this sentiment is the now-demolished property that used to be home to a man who killed 20 elementary school students as well as 6 teachers and his mother. This picture serves a similar purpose as Luster’s work. The Adam Lanza’s childhood home was cleared for demolition and in 2016 was torn down. Now, the property is protected to serve as a memory for the events that occurred, and the space is left empty to commemorate the 26 children and teachers whose space can’t ever be filled.
While the museum provided an impactful and well curated display of the issues we’re grappling with here at home, it also sent a message about victims worldwide. I felt that the documentary relates back to my experience at the museum because during the pedestrian interviews, the citizens seem to live happy and full lives, but when confronted with the thought of their lost friends and loved ones, they realize how hard it is to continue on without them. What time and again startles me, however, is the chilling consistency and frequency of each of the stories told: they mourn the lost, they say a prayer, and can do nothing more than hope that they don’t know the next victim.
I left the museum that day with an elevated perspective on the way loss is dealt with in Mexico. It’s a hard reality to accept, but the strength of those that endure it is immeasurable. While much of what I’ve seen throughout has been accounts of loss and tragedy, the silver lining of this project for me has been that I constantly see individuals who even through pain and adversity are able to hold their spirits high and embrace their community no matter what happens.
To end on a more positive note, the exhibit (which ends February 20) is worth a visit. Entry is free and it’s a great learning experience. It’s approachable for those who don’t feel comfortable dissecting art and has almost a casual feel to it. After my friends and I were finished at the museum, we went to Osaka sushi to eat afterwards and some of the best sushi I’ve ever had, not to mention the prices weren’t too bad
Diving back into my research, I wanted to explore another aspect of the documentary that was left to the viewer to look more into. When Alexey visited Cosola, he mentioned that there was a sudden influx in the thousands when talking about refugees fleeing the conflict between the cartels and the police. I found it disturbing yet fascinating how little was being done to help these people when they’re fleeing one part of a state and moving to another, almost as if there was a civil war. Well, technically, there is. Since 2018, Andres Obrador has been president. He ran on the platform of ending the drug war through reasonable amnesty and demilitarization, but the numbers are still getting worse. The murder rate is higher, people are still disappearing, and a statistic that I didn’t even know was being calculated is at a staggeringly high sum. Apparently, it’s commonplace for residents to flee their hometown due to violence. A USA Today article titled ”Cartel violence in Mexico forces people to flee their homes, leaving ghost towns behind” shines more light on the situation.
Karol Suarez, a writer for USA Today, finds herself in the (very) small village of El Cajon. El Cajon used to be home to over 100 residents; it now holds eight. There is a sector of the Mexican government that handles issues like this known as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) who were open to an interview regarding the situation in El Cajon. At the beginning of the article, the IDMC provides the statistics necessary to understand the toll this takes on the citizens of Mexico: according to the IDMC, 9,700 people have been displaced in 2020 alone, bringing the total number of displaced persons up to 357,000. An even more worrying consideration is that while the heart of the IDMC is in the right place, Another representative says that figuring out the exact numbers of displaced people and the reasons for it is hard in a country that isn’t able to allocate the resources to assess the scale and magnitude of the issue. This becomes a big problem when trying to grasp the scope of displacement. The number could be far higher than the projected statistics and the Mexican government still isn’t able to collect itself enough to gather the resources necessary to bring people back home. While I’m in no way blaming the Mexican government for forces outside of its control, I still find it alarming how a government doesn’t have the capacity to ensure that residents are even allowed to stay in their homes. For some of the residents of El Cajon, that’s not an option. Another interviewee who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons claimed that he’s become locked into a life in the abandoned town. “It was hard to live over a year without power and running water” “I didn’t want to leave because I still have to take care of my sister and my uncle, and not to leave them all. There are sick people here, elderly, I don’t need to live like this, but I do it for them. We’re a family now.” says the anonymous resident. The humble man is one of the last vestiges of the little town for the sole purpose of taking care of his family.
Displacement in Mexico is obviously another unfortunate byproduct of this combat, but the relationship to the project may not be. I decided to include the stats about displacement to show how the death toll isn’t the only alarming number to pay attention to. While the death toll does reach nearly 150,000, the displacement is nearly three times that amount. The quality of life and stability for the displaced population is too low to be ignored and further proves how these people are left to fend for themselves.
The War on Journalism
While the cartels use many ways to coerce and intimidate the people of Mexico, one of the more targeted ways is through restriction of free speech. Since the year 2000, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been able to report 100 journalists killed for doing their job, and those are the ones that have been reported. There isn’t any one story I wanted to pick for this section, but I wanted to include it for the sole reason that this happens in Mexico and I want it to be stated that the reason you don’t hear as many voices as you should is because the cartels want to keep it that way. They force the hand of the media to stay silent and back off at the convenience of the criminal organizations. This is yet another reason why I pursued this topic, because they want to suppress the voices of those they target and keep their suffering to the dumbed down headlines and nothing more. I suggest taking a look at CPJ if you’re interested in preservation of the press overseas.
The Person Sitting Next to you
This SAMO comes back to the CST theme of listening to a voice that may not always be heard. The news is always right in front of you, but how often do you consider the real life implications of those statistics you see in the news? Of course you feel bad, but more often than not when people see an article like “65 bodies found in mass graves in Sinaloa” they give it a “Hmm” and keep going about their day. I’ve found that Ross Snyder’s The Person Sitting Next to you was able to take his elevated consideration from our CSText to my research. Snyder wants to emphasize with his piece that each individual has an endless amount of story and potential that isn’t going to be found on the surface level just by eyeballing a situation “Thus, the person sitting next to you is a cluster of memories of the past and expectations of the future. He is really a whole colony of persons, of people met all during a life.” (Snyder).