Covering news stories on the Mexican drug war as a Mexican journalist comes with the risk of your life. Even for American Journalists covering those stories come at a risk. According to a Pew study of international news coverage between January 2009 and September 2011, just 0.6% of U.S. news stories were about the drug war, placing it 12th against all international stories in that period. Meanwhile, cartel violence seems to be everywhere in pop culture. Drug films have become the new Westerns. It has become a whole genre.
Mexican drug cartels are often the stars of stories in movies and series. The movie Desperado from 1995 can be seen as the start of the Mexican drug violence genre in film. The movie which starred the Mexican actress Salma Hayek, is about a Mariachi who seeks revenge on the drug lord who killed his lover. Now there are many movies and series about the Mexican drug war. Portraying Mexico is one of Hollywood favorite sets. Mexican cartels are often featured in network crime dramas like CSI and NCIS. The series Breaking Bad from 2008, which follows a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque that cooks meth and outdeals cartel operators south of the border has won multiple Emmy’s. And the international success of the series Narcos from 2015, has inspired the US entertainment industry to explore the narcotics underworld even more in the last years. El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord of the Sinaloa Cartel has become a marketable stereotype. He inspired the entire Grand Theft Auto franchises for example.
All these movies and series need actors to represent the Latino heritage. That is how Spanish speaking actors have become the ‘cliché’ and the stereotype of Latin American Narcos. If you think about Latino stars in movies, it is probably harder to name movies in which the Latino star wasn’t the criminal. Only 3% of all starring roles of American movies are Latin Americans. Even though a quarter of the US audience is Latin American. According to research of the university of Southern California, 25% of Latin Americans are portrayed as criminals and 17% as poverty-stricken or low-income characters. These roles are hard to decline for Spanish speaking actors, because the role will give them international exposure and a good paycheck. However, there are some speaking actors who refuse to become the stereotype. An interview with the Argentinian actor Ricardo Darín in which he told he refused the role of a Mexican drug trafficker in a Hollywood movie became viral in 2013. He said “are all drug traffickers Latin Americans? Given that the united Stated is the country with the highest consumption of drugs on the face of the earth. I didn’t like it.” After turning it down, Ricardo has still not starred in a Hollywood film.
The dominant story the Latino audience in the US wants to see in film is not the drug war, but it’s inequality, immigrant ambition and the wounds caused by the separation of extended families. But Hollywood seems to be inventing screen stories that sell the image of lawbreaking Latinos as a threat to American peace and security. The 2018 movie Peppermint is an example of this and has received criticism of being a “racist” film. The movie is about a suburban mom whose husband and daughter were killed by Latino drug dealers.
Of course, the drug war is a topic in the Mexican entertainment industry such as in the “telenovelas” or on the radio. The Televisa network aired a prime-time cop drama “El Equipo”, featuring four federal cops using a real-life military hardware to hunt down crime bosses. Critics accused the program of being a federally funded propaganda piece to fuel support for the drug war. For drug runners the Mexican radio stations have been part of their campaign. Drug runners and hitmen have been hiring songwriters to write “Pen Corridos” about their latest criminal exploits. State governments then asked the radio stations to ban this music. In 2008, a drug lord in Juárez hacked police radios to broadcast a song that glorified his organization. In 2011 the governor of Sinaloa state issued a decree banning narco music from bars and nightclubs. But by 2012 the love of narco corridos has crossed over to the United States.
An important message to media entertainment industry is to not give the Narcos glorified publicity, but show the audience how the Mexican society is being traumatized by them.
“By choosing to glorify these particular stories on-screen, not only are we sending a terrible message to young Latinos, we’re also reinforcing stereotypes that have typecast Latinos as criminals for decades on TV” wrote the journalist Patricia García in an article for Vogue.
For more info on 5 movies to help you understand the Mexican drug war visit:
Arnold, C. F. (2012). The Mexican drug war is not sexy. The Atlantic.
Megía, C. (2019). Latino drug dealers: The clichéd rle that Spanish-speaking actors willingly accept. El Pais.
Tobar, H. (2019). Hollywood’s obsession with cartels. The New York Times.