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El Chapo: drug lord, Robin Hood, Hollywood star

Glamorizing El Chapo, on either side of the US-Mexico border, detracts from the horrors of the drug war.
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Gladys McCormick is associate professor of history and the Jay and Debe Moskowitz Chair in Mexico-US Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University
2018-03-14T15:22:19-04:00
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Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is one of the world’s top criminals -- and is quickly becoming a Hollywood legend. An infamous Mexican drug lord, El Chapo, or “Shorty,” is part of the pantheon of outlaw Latin American cartel leaders whose first and foremost example is Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.

El Chapo’s tale, with its hard luck childhood, prison escapes, and place among Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires, has proven irresistible to the entertainment industry both here and in Mexico. But glamorizing El Chapo, on either side of the US-Mexico border, detracts from the horrors of the drug war.

In the real world, the arrest of El Chapo has actually worsened Mexico’s crisis of violence. Since his arrest, El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel has been splintered into a multitude of smaller, often competing, groups, where leadership disputes are often resolved by a bullet. Mexicans are exhausted from having to live the day to day reality of ever mounting body counts in a protracted conflict with no clear-cut enemy or savior.

El Chapo’s arrest and extradition to the United States has not adversely affected the Sinaloa cartel, which is currently having one of its best years. That’s because he was merely one of several leaders in this enormous horizontal criminal network. All this attention on him has fed the myth that his arrest mattered, when the reality is that it did nothing to cripple the largest of the cartels or stem the violence.

Before it does its next drug lord movie, Hollywood should be aware that bolstering the image of the outlaw feeds into the make-believe story arc of good versus evil as a way to persevere. That is the difference between fantasy and the much messier reality that a hero cult hides – and profits – from.

To be sure, popular culture in Mexico has long fed off the trope of the benevolent outlaw. This Robin Hood-like figure is featured in the folk ballads known as corridos and has been a big factor in building the telenovela factory in Mexican broadcaster Televisa’s empire. El Chapo’s story is but the latest oft-told tale of the Mexican Robin Hood and his exploits, in large part the creation of television magnates in Mexico City and mariachi singers in the many small-town plazas dotting the countryside.

The story has a patriarchal logic that is attractive to Mexican audiences. Much like a good father, El Chapo doles out justice to vindicate evildoers and never forgets to take care of his people by sharing with them his illicitly-gained wealth. Women desire to be taken by him, men want to emulate him. In today’s complex and corrupt Mexico where often police and political leaders are criminals, inhabiting the realm of fantasy is so much easier than having to confront the reality of endemic insecurity, rampant corruption, and a seemingly never-ending Drug War.

It has been over a decade since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels back in 2006, leaving in its wake over 100,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared; not to mention the fact that 2017 is on track to being the most violent year since the Mexican government started recording killings.

It is easy to see why the realm of fantasy is so much more palatable to inhabit than the tedious reality of daily life in an intractable war. In El Chapo’s case, his story has the veneer of an enviable reality. His exploits include two daring escapes from some of Mexico’s top security prisons, the last featuring an almost mile-long tunnel, until his final capture and extradition to the United States in 2016.

El Chapo is the architect of his outlaw image, but he has had help from others in the entertainment industry. Hollywood is profiting from El Chapo’s hero cult, as it has done before with the cult of other top criminals. For instance, Netflix’s hit series Narcos feeds off the mystique of another in the lineage of outlaw drug lords, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.

Netflix Mexican crossover star, Kate del Castillo, is proving to be an industry in and of herself, starting with her first series Ingobernable (Ungovernable), to now the docuseries on her meeting, along with Sean Penn representing Rolling Stone magazine, with the drug lord while he was on the run from the law.

Del Castillo casts herself as both a spokesperson and a heroine for all Mexicans. If El Chapo can’t do it because he is now behind bars and awaiting trial in New York City, heroine Kate will step us as his spokesman and shine the light on the truth, including the government’s impunity and corruption.

But let’s be clear what the bottom line is here: El Chapo should be condemned, not celebrated, for his crimes.

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