The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat
by Fabrizio Mejía Madrid
Words Without Borders
The Tate Drugs Gallery
Inside the Ministry of Defense in Mexico City is a museum that’s not open to the public. It displays all the jewels, weapons, clothing, and reliquaries that have been seized from drug traffickers since 1985. The collection is an example of the symbols the Mexican drug trafficker draws strength from: a gold Colt .38 studded with emeralds that belonged to Amado Carillo, leader of the cartel from the northern state of Chihuahua, and which was a present from the leader of the Jalisco cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo’ Guzmán, who escaped from prison in 2000; an AK-47 rifle with a gold palm tree on the handle, which belonged to Héctor “Blondie” Palma; a double-sided bullet-proof shirt which belonged to Osiel Cárdenas, leader of the Gulf of Mexico cartel. But as well as weapons, the collection houses cowboy hats, boots and belts, and the altars to the virgin of Guadalupe and Jesús Malverde, a saint from Sinaloa, where, in the 1950s—during America’s wars with Korea and Vietnam—the planting of poppy and marijuana plants and large-scale trafficking to the United States began.
The cult of Malverde lays down what for the drug trafficker is his moral justification: law and justice are not the same thing. The myth of Malverde is that he was a nineteenth-century thief who disguised himself in banana leaves so as to go unnoticed—hence mal-verde (evil-green)—and was imprisoned by the police because his comrade squealed on him. He is hanged and the priest doesn’t want to bury him. So the people bury him by the side of the road and put a stone on top of his grave. Now, with a chapel and a cult not recognized by the Catholic Church, people come to ask favors of Malverde, that he might resolve an injustice, and they bring him something, anything, so long as it is stolen. This saint of illegality was adopted by Mexican drug traffickers who tattooed his image—a mustached man—onto their bodies, built altars to him and paid for chapels. They associated the verde (green) of the mal (evil or bad) with a marijuana leaf. The banned cult became so associated with the trafficking of drugs that in the 1990s, the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) interrogated anyone with a tattoo of the saint.
But now, in the museum, all this imagery of the powerful drug trafficker born in untamed lands and armed because he is brave has been abandoned. The images gradually filtered down into Mexican popular culture—cinema, music—but the drug traffickers don’t use these symbols any more, they avoid them. The second generation consists of university students with degrees in business management; they don’t flaunt their money, and they hire chemists to make designer drugs for them.
The Drug Trafficker Sings, and Acts, Too.
Songs and films about drug traffickers are prohibited on radio stations and in cinemas. Like trafficking itself, they survive thanks to a parallel market: the pirate CDs, the straight-to-DVD movies. In the case of films, they’ve been making them since 1976, when Antonio Martínez made Contraband and Treachery and They Killed Camelia the Texan, based on two narcocorridos (traditional folk songs about drug traffickers) written by Los Tigres del Norte, who are the Beatles of the genre, if you like. The narco film always tell the same story: an honest family goes through financial problems—a bad investment, their sweet corn crop blighted—and ends up helping to traffic drugs. These low-budget films made use of actual plantations of marijuana and poppies as locations and also of the drug traffickers’ girlfriends—the feminine ideal must be curvy in a miniskirt—as actresses. Indeed, it’s said that Los Tigres del Norte were hired by Caro Quintero, one of the first drug traffickers to go to jail (for assassinating the delegate of the DEA in Mexico, Enrique Camarena), to sing their corridos next to the marijuana plants “to make them grow tall.”
Narcocorridos are part of a banned culture—drugs—that has to justify itself morally. Through their verses the motive becomes clear: I was very poor and now I have everything and endless amounts of it and, even if they kill me, it was worth living by illegal means. They are songs about those for whom trafficking implied a metamorphosis, not only in terms of material wealth—they never boast about being rich without listing their possessions: houses, cars, weapons, money in cash, women, and alcohol—but rather in terms of power. They were poor nobodies, and now they have power, while it lasts. They use the discourse of the prevailing power: the free market and the legitimacy of making money. Indeed, in some songs such as “La cruz de amapola,” they refer to drug lords as managers and to dealers as distributors. Like the market economy, drug traffickers see themselves as unquestionable:
This is nothing new, gentlemen,
And nor is it going to end;
This is a lifelong business,
The Mafia of global origin.
But they always speak a language that, if you don’t know about drugs, you won’t understand, because it parodies the Mexican ranchero songs written by peasant sweet corn farmers, not poppy planters:
I live off three animals whom I love as my life;
They earn me money and I don’t even buy them food.
They are very fine animals: my parakeet, my rooster, and my nanny goat.
The parakeet (el perico) is cocaine, the rooster (el gallo) is marijuana, and the nanny goat (la chiva) is an AK-47 assault rifle, known as goat’s horns because of the shape of the magazine. Indeed, this song ended up on the radio without the controllers understanding what it was really about.
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