Narco-Saints Are Melding Catholicism with the Drug Trade in Mexico
Since the 1970s, Mexico has been plagued with high-volume drug traffickers attempting to satiate the United States’ demand for low-cost narcotics, resulting in country-wide violence and guerrilla warfare in the streets. In Mexico, a rapidly adopted narco-culture built on the back of folk Catholicism has transformed from back-alley prayers to narco-saint Jesús Malverde into public altars for Santa Muerte, Lady of the Holy Death.
Patrick Polk is a professor at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, as well as a curator of Latin American and Caribbean Arts. His current exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum takes on representations of narco-culture, along with marginalized religious icons and unrecognized sacred figures from Latin America and the United States. Called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners, the collection plays on folk legends and the drug traffickers and impoverished who rely on them as nonjudgmental sources of strength and protection. I sat down with the bespectacled, bearded professor, who has an upside-down tattoo of St. Expedite on his right arm.
Marcos López (b. Santa Fe, Argentina, 1958): Santos Populares, 2013
VICE: Where does your interest in narco-saints start?
Patrick Polk: Well, I got my MA and PhD in folklore here at UCLA, so my interests have fundamentally been religions and ritual traditions of the African diaspora and also popular religion and religious art in the United States. A lot of my work has been where Europe and Native America and Latin America and Africa sort of collide in Los Angeles, particularly with the way in which religion, material culture, and visual spirituality mix and mingle and reshape in LA.
Not a lot of saints here.
I’m from an even more sinful place: Las Vegas. But I love to drive around LA and just look and see what kind of things pop out. I’ve done exhibitions on storefront murals, muffler sculptures, little rider bicycles. A lot of folk art in general and religious art in the sense of the vernacular.
When people talk about ending the drug war, they usually mean “no one should go to prison for marijuana.” There’s no doubt the public has shifted its collective opinion on pot—currently, a majority of Americans believe it should be as legal, regulated, and taxed as tobacco and alcohol—and naturally, politicians are beginning to sense the way the wind is blowing. But elected officials, like people at large, are less gun-ho about legalizing the harder drugs.
First, let’s clarify that no one is recommending that we all follow Philip Seymour Hoffman’sexample and start shooting up. Heroin is awful. Don’t do heroin. It fucks up your life. But as the case of the fentanyl-cut heroin that has killed 22 people in Pittsburgh illustrates, the only thing worse than legal heroin is illegal heroin.
In the aftermath of Hoffman’s death, Jeff Deeney, a former drug addict who now works as a social worker, wrote a piece in the Atlantic that calls for treating heroin like a health issue, not a criminal act. All the nasty effects of this drug—and all the reasons not to do it—are magnified by the threat of prison, the stigma that leads to shame and secrecy, and the increased of HIV and infection that comes with sharing needles. According to Deeney, if Hoffman had access to a space where it was legal to shoot heroin and where doctors could supervise users, he might still be alive. Why doesn’t the US have any such sites, though Vancouver, Canada, does? Why the hell isn’t Naloxone, the much-touted miracle drug that stops opioid overdoses, not available over the counter? Why isn’t it passed out in urban health clinics like candy? Out of the 1.5 million peoplearrested for drug crimes in 2012, 82 percent were for possession, and 16.5 percent of those were for cocaine, heroin, or associated drugs. Did those arrests do anyone any good?
One reason legalizing pot is more popular than legalizing heroin is that far more people smoke than shoot. At least 100 million people in the US have done marijuana, while the number of frequent heroin users has stayed under half a million for decades. But use (which isn’t necessarily addiction) has nearly doubled since 2007—one survey calculated that 669,000 Americans had done heroin in 2012, compared with 373,000 in 2007. (This may be because some former pill addicts move on to heroin, as Hoffman did).
That’s what prohibition (which includes policies that levy draconian punishments for pill possession) does—it causes rippling effects in human behavior. It does not stop drug use, though it may change a user’s drug of choice. Regardless, it’s time to give up trying to scare addicts into getting healthy and do what Portugal did in 2001 and decriminalize all drugs. Laws can’t stop people from using drugs, they can only make drug use a more harrowing experience for addicts who have to deal with jail time and police harassment and products that, thanks to a lack of oversight, may contain dangerous chemicals.
This country needs to grow up and realize that the legal system is a hammer, and drug users and addicts are not nails. End the drug war. End it all.
And now on to some bad cops of the week
Mexican Drug Cartels Love Social Media
Above: “Broly”, an alleged member of the Knights Templar Cartel, posing for a selfie with his handgun. (All images courtesy of Antoine Nouvet / Open Empowerment Initiative.)
Members of Mexico’s drug cartels are really starting to harness the power of the internet, using it to run positive PR campaigns, post selfies with their pistols, and hunt down targets by tracking their movements on social media.
Antoine Nouvet from the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organization, has been working with drug policy think-tank the Igarapé Institute on a project called the Open Empowerment Initiative. The project looks into “how cyberspace is empowering individuals and rewiring relations in Latin America” and has uncovered a wealth of information about how cartels are using the internet to their own nefarious ends.
Some gold weapons posted on a cartel member’s Facebook page.
The first point Antoine touched on was how cartels have utilized cyberspace in much the same way as a TV company’s PR department might: “They advertise their activities, they conduct public relations initiatives, and they have basically turned themselves into their own media company,” he explained. “Colombia’s cartel groups or drug traffickers in Myanmar in the 1990s were very sophisticated at public relations, but they didn’t have this massive broadcasting platform.”
The Last-Ever Interview with the Leaders of Peru’s Shining Path Guerrilla Army
This August, newspapers in Peru splashed headlines across their front pages about the huge blow the government had dealt to what is left of the infamous Shining Path—a brutal Maoist guerrilla group who have spent the last 20 years hanging out in the jungle slaughtering peasants and smuggling coke. The headlines announced to the world thatComrade Alipio, the group’s military leader, had been killed.
Alipio’s death was as cartoonish as it was emphatic. A cocaine trafficker who had links to the Shining Path, but who’d turned informant for the police, lured an armed column of rebels towards a hut that he owned. Most of the fighters stayed outside, guarding the building while Comrade Alipio and two other Shining Path bigwigs, Comrades Gabriel and Alfonso, went into what was meant to be a safe house, expecting to meet some ladies of the night that the drug trafficker had organized for them.
Crucially, what Alipio and company didn’t know was that the army had rigged the house with ANFO explosives. As soon as the three rebels had made themselves comfortable, the whole hut went up in one big blast. The charred bodies had to be identified through DNA tests.
As soon as news of the killing came out, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing: I have the arguable privilege of being the only journalist to have met Comrade Alipio, and the local media were desperate for a soundbite.
Back in September 2010, I received a call on behalf of the leadership of the Shining Path, who had agreed to meet me if I travelled, unaccompanied, to Peru’s Valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers, known by the acronym VRAEM. It’s a jungle region that routinely serves as the battleground between armed forces and drug lords. The Shining Path contacted me after I sent them a message while I was reporting in the area, tailing some anti-narcotics police patrols a few months prior.
Anabel Hernandez Thinks the Mexican Government Is Behind the Country’s Drug War
On January 19, 2001, the head of Mexico’s largest drug cartel escaped from his maximum security prison. According to Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloas cartel, was escorted through the prison dressed as a government official—accompanied by conspiring government officers—and out to a helicopter that whisked him away to sweet, sweet freedom. The official government report, however, claims that El Chapo escaped in a laundry bin, which—given he’s only 5 foot 5 inches and looks like Super Mario—seems plausible, albeit slightly unlikely.
If what Hernandez found while researching Guzmán’s escape is true, it’s pretty much the pinnacle of the government corruption that she alleges has aided Mexico’s drug cartels throughout their long and bloody grip over the country.
Hernandez was looking into El Chapo’s escape as part of the research for her new book,Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, which investigates the Mexican government and business elite’s ties to the country’s drug cartels. In the book, she claims that ex-president Vicente Fox started the war between Mexico’s cartels, and that—since El Chapo’s release—the government has continued to conspire with the Sinaloa cartel, allowing the web of corruption that keeps Mexico’s cartels thriving to keep on growing.
We spoke to Anabel earlier this year after another discovery led to the Mexican chief of police allegedly instructing his men to make her disappear by any means necessary. Now that her book has had its English-language release, I thought I’d get in touch again to talk about the discoveries Anabel made while investigating the Mexican government’s complicity in their country’s drug trade.
Ex-Mexican president Vicente Fox. (Photo via)
VICE: Hi, Anabel. How would you describe the Mexican government’s war on drugs?
Anabel Hernandez: Ever since the 1960s in Mexico, the war on drugs has been fake—it has never existed. In the 60s, the federal government provided protection to all the cartels, letting them grow and continue their business while they paid money to the government. It wasn’t a bribe, it was like a tax; the Mexican government used that money for government projects. So, in the 80s and 90s, these medium-sized drug cartels and criminal organizations started to grow with money from cocaine. Mexico started to increase the scale of the cocaine that came from Colombia, then the Mexican cartels moved that drug into the USA.
Then what happened?
[The cartels] said, “Well, we don’t want to make an arrangement with the government—we don’t like the government telling us what we can do and what we can’t.” So, instead, they paid bribes to members of the government and the government started to lose control over the cartels. The cartels started to buy judges and congressmen, started to buy governors, police chiefs, and generals, and started to create their own world, on their terms.
Dealing Drugs in Saudi Arabia Is Stressful
“Abdullah” sounds nervous over the phone. He nearly didn’t want to talk to me in the first place, even though I’m not using his real name in this article. His paranoia stems from the fact that a close friend was recently arrested for possessing some of the hash Abdullah had sold him, and now he believes the authorities are “out to get” him, too. Which is why he’s recently shut down his Facebook, deactivated his email account and gone into hiding from the mutawa—the country’s religious police.
I’ve been an expat in Saudi Arabia for almost 15 years, so I’m well accustomed to how frustrating its hardline Islamic restrictions can be for secular people trying to live their lives. However, this doesn’t compare to the dangers of doing what Abudllah does and illegally importing or selling drugs or booze, crimes for which perpertrators can be thrown in jail, lashed, or even publicly executed. Increasingly, the mutawa are the ones responsible for finding and catching those deemed guilty of these crimes against Sharia.
Regardless of the law and the heavy penalties for breaking it, liquor and many other illicit substances are available in Saudi Arabia—it’s just a question of knowing where to look. A rare study on the topic, published by the World Health Organization in 1998, found that 24 percent of patients at a hospital in Riyadh had abused alcohol. More recently,WikiLeaks exposed the royal family’s wild parties, which include liquor, cocaine, and prostitutes.
The Trickle-Down Economics of Nicaragua’s Drug Trade
Bluefields, the largest port on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, is in many ways a typical small coastal Central American city—bustling but poor, a natural center for all kinds of commerce, legal and illegal. If you hang out by the bay you’ll see cargo ships come in and passenger boats ferry people to and from the surrounding towns, some of which aren’t reachable by overland routes. By day, the streets are filled with garishly decorated taxis, starving stray dogs, and people selling mangos and pineapples. At night, a few downtown bars stay open late to serve beer and play reggae, bachata, and country music.
The majority of the men who aren’t cops or store owners work on boats, while women often turn their living rooms into sit-down restaurants or sell grilled meat and tortillas outside their homes. There aren’t many more options for the mostly black and indigenous population of 90,000—there’s no highway connecting Bluefields with the wealthier western part of the country, and without infrastructure there’s little prospect of outside investment.
Just about the only industry that’s pumped outside money into the local economy is drug trafficking.
Who Protects New Yorkers from the NYPD?
Nicholas Heyward is a haunted man. He is one of many New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to the police. Nineteen years ago, Heyward’s son was playing with a toy gun in the stairwell of a Boerum Hill housing project in Brooklyn, New York, when he was fatally shot by an NYPD officer. Nicholas Jr. was 13 years old when he was killed.
"I heard Nick say, ‘We’re playing,’ and then I heard a boom," Katrell Fowler, a friend of Nick Jr.’s told the New York Times shortly after the incident. Yet blame was placed on the boy’s toy rifle, instead of officer Brian George, who fired his very real revolver into the child’s abdomen.
The tragedy Heyward suffered has turned him into an activist. These days he spends much of his time calling for the Justice Department to review cases of alleged abuse committed by the NYPD, including that of his son’s. Heyward claims he had a deposition taken by his attorney in which officer George contradicts reasons cited by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes—currently up for reelection and the subject of a new reality show on CBS—for closing the case.
“Hynes said the stairwell was dimly lit, it was not. Hynes said George was responding to a 911 call, he was not.” Heyward has written several letters to Hynes over the years, he said, without receiving a response. In 2001, he was granted a meeting with the Brooklyn DA, after confronting him at a press conference. Heyward pleaded his case in Hynes’s office but nothing came of it. The DA’s office declined to comment on Heyward’s allegations when I called them yesterday, saying that since the case is more than ten years old, the office did not have the case’s file on hand. But for Heyward, the the pain of the slaying of his 13-year-old boy are still very fresh.
“I want the officer who murdered my son to go to jail,” he said to me, dressed all in black and holding a school-portrait photograph of his son over his heart at a protest last Friday in front of the Federal Court building in Manhattan’s Foley Square to demand the Justice Department appoint an independent prosecutor to scrutinize the death of his son and those of other’s killed by the NYPD.
Heyward is not alone in his suspicion of foul play in Hynes executions of justice. The DA has recently come under great scrutiny for spending years refusing to review convictions that he and his predecessor obtained through working with a homicide detective of such dubious repute. Last week, the Hynes office was forced to reopen 50 cases in which NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella was involved, after the Times uncovered that he obtained false confessions, lied, and relied on testimony from a single, crack-addicted prostitute to obtain a number of convictions. While families of those convicted through Scarlla’s police plan to start bird-dogging Hynes, others, like Heyward, have vowed to win justice for those they will never see again.
Prisons Punish Families Too
When I read articles like this one in the New York Times about how prison makes people poor and destroys families, I have mixed emotions. I think it’s admirable that this high-and-mighty mainstream paper is examining the effects of the nation’s prison population explosion over the past 40 years. The author, John Tierney, tells the story of Carl Harris, a guy from DC who used to sell crack until he beat up some of his customers who robbed him and got 20 years on a trumped-up charge because the cops thought he was some big-time drug dealer. Sounds like Carl is doing better now, and I’m real happy he’s gotten to the point where he can enjoy life. Sadly, I ain’t exactly there yet—the drug statutes of New York State are continuing to butt pump my unlucky rump, even though I’m out of prison.
I could repeatedly point out injustices I believe I’ve incurred over the past eight years, however, I’m trying to stop that train of thought and get back to basics. I’ve been beating off to my old Susan Powter videos like it’s ’94 again and thanking whatever there is to thank up there that I didn’t get 20 years for beating up crackheads. As that Times article demonstrates through Carl and his family’s story, some prison terms are WAY too long, and excessive sentences unnecessarily handicap communities already in dire straits. Basically, prison is responsible for more chaos than anything else. But if it took the Times writing about it for you to get that, you’re probably a simpleton who needs some help eating solid food.
I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale and by many peoples’ accounts I’m dumber than dookie-dipped dewdrops drying on a dildo, yet I know prisons better than the front of my dick. While the clink-clink blows balls on a number of levels, the one aspect of doing time that, at least in my experience, isn’t that bad is the one the media plays up the most, and that’s the actual physical doing-time part. Movies and shows depict prisons as full of bloody dicks and shivs, and no doubt, dirt gets done in prison. But actually, most motherfuzzies in jail deal with a lot iller shit in the streets. The prisons I’ve been to were all pretty much chillin’. It’s basically summer camp minus the baby beavers. Lots of us bitch and moan, but we play cards and sports, watch TV, eat free food, have people clean up after us, lift weights, listen to music all day, take profucive naps, read and write a lot, and get money (masturbate) till the cows come home. The best part is you taxpayers pay for it all!