Who are the narcos asking? Emancipation and justice in drug culture in Mexico

Received: December 14, 2018

Acceptance: May 13, 2019


Since the 1990s, narcoculture in Mexico has been studied as the symbolic repertoire of the "criminal town" that portrays the daily life of drug traffickers. Their expressions are understood as a reliable record of the traffickers' lives, with a transgressive aesthetic that presents excess and ostentation as forms of domination. In this article, forms of spiritual protection among drug traffickers are studied in order to debate the narcoculture. The ethnographic material was collected between 2014 and 2017 in the states of Hidalgo and Michoacán, through participant observations and in-depth interviews. The protection of popular saints such as Santa Muerte, Angelito Negro and San Nazario, allows us to understand how narcoculture is a resource for social emancipation, legitimizing the definitions of justice and sovereignty of organized crime.

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Who Do Narcos Pray To? Emancipation and Justice in Mexican Narcoculture

Since the 1990s, Mexico's narcoculture has been studied as a “criminal community's” symbolic repertoire that serves to portray traffickers' everyday existence. Its expressions are understood as reliable documentation of narco lives and feature a transgressive aesthetic that frames excess and ostentation as forms of domination. The article also studies narcotraffickers' forms of spiritual protection, to debate narcoculture; its ethnographic data was gathered between 2014 and 2017 in the Mexican states of Hidalgo and Michoacán by means of participatory observation and in-depth interviews. Seeking protection from popular saints such as Holy death, the Little Black Angel and “San Nazario” Moreno González offers insight into how narcoculture is a tool of social emancipation that legitimates organized crime's notions of justice and sovereignty.

Key words: Criminality, narcoculture, violence, popular saints, Holy death, “San Nazario” Moreno González, the Knights Templar and Mexico.

The violence that has been recorded since the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs”, launched by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 and which expanded during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto since 2012, has been accompanied by cultural expressions related to the world increasingly strident drug trafficking. It is a transversal phenomenon that touches each of the social strata of Mexico. Citizens are the first victims of the violence and coercion of drug trafficking, but they are also victims of State crimes.1 In Mexico, the impunity that takes place every day only accelerates the machinery of crime and death, which dissolves the legitimacy of the state.

An aberration in terms of human dignity is manifested in the body of the victims: the body of young men and women has become a kind of canvas on which brutality is printed and messages are written between traffickers, threats to civil society or government.

The humanitarian crisis that Mexico is going through has drug trafficking as the main cause of violent conflicts. The “narco” can be defined as a network of networks of criminal economies organized by different actors, both illegal and legitimate, that include individuals and different types of social and economic institutions, such as political authority (see Bailey, 2014). Industries related to drug trafficking include drug production and trafficking, arms trafficking, prostitution, extortion, kidnapping, and money laundering, among others. These criminal economies are organized on a local, national, regional and transnational scale by different actors and interests. Organized crime mobilizes multiple values and generates forms of production, consumption, and accumulation. Clearly, money is the most expansive expression of the drug's power, which exists alongside violence and multiple forms of coercion that are exercised over and between state actors, criminals, and civil society as a whole.

The security and human rights crisis is related to the lack of legitimacy of the State. The government does not have the capacity to guarantee the most essential rights of Mexicans, including the right to life and human and property security.

Meanwhile, the rule of law and the social contract that give cohesion and institutional order seem to be an increasingly remote reference in Mexico. Instead, Mexican society is going through a process of deinstitutionalization of broad social spaces, particularly visible in the loss of legitimacy of institutions such as the great organizers of individual biographies, a process that is particularly visible in the State, the Catholic Church and the family (Portes and Roberts, 2005; Suárez, 2015). In Mexico, institutions compete with emerging organizations and communities, many of them informal or generated "from below", for the hegemony of the great social narratives that order social life. In addition, there is a progressive individualization of the perception of justice and success. In the context of impunity, corruption and expansive violence that characterizes Mexico, justice does not emanate from the institutions, but from the hands of the citizens themselves. The forms of social emancipation and economic advance are also individualized, many times expressed as the consumption of material goods, regardless of the form of access.

Faced with uncertainty and the defenselessness of broad citizen sectors, alternative forms of protection are generated. The emergence of popular devotions, cleansing and healing rituals, as well as different forms of spiritual empowerment for traffickers, rather than showing the power of the drug world, reveal the vulnerability and fear of criminal actors. Therefore, the religious sphere is key to intimately understand the culture that distinguishes the drug trafficker.

The diversification of the religious market in Mexico has not only generated alternatives to Catholicism within institutional frameworks, that is, with properly established and recognized confessions as such. Furthermore, in Mexico there is a cluster of religiosity systems with “secular” saints and syncretic rituals that emerge as an alternative to the official religion (s) (De la Torre Castellanos, 2011). Unlike other forms of “popular Catholicism” that syncretically incorporate rituals and icons from different symbolic systems (Norget, Napolitano & Mayblin, 2017), the syncretism in the religiosity of drug traffickers that takes place in Mexico today exposes the world of violence, crime and the marginalization of believers. The cult of new saints and popular devotions is a response to these social conflicts.

In popular culture, drug traffickers are represented as powerful and unpunished beings. In this article, and based on data collection by ethnographic methods, popular devotions related to the world of crime in Mexico are presented, in particular Santa Muerte, Angelito Negro and San Nazario.2 There, on the altars and "cathedrals" of the "narcocultos", the traffickers appear as vulnerable beings, in search of protection. This is a poorly researched anthropological field, about which very little has been written, which allows us to understand the cultural mechanisms that criminals use to invest themselves in power and impunity. In a broader context, the study of popular devotions linked to crime allows us to place the debate on narcoculture in the context of emancipation and social domination.

In this article I am interested in studying the records of religious protection that can be observed in the narcoculture, in order to explore the relationship between narcoculture and perceptions of "evil" in Mexico, particularly the presence and manifestations of the devil. Similar to the analysis of spiritual apparitions and witchcraft in West Africa (Geschiere, 1997), narcoculture can be understood as a result and expression of the political and institutional crisis of the nation state. These emerging devotions reach not only those who are involved in trafficking, but much wider audiences who are equally exposed to this violence or are vulnerable in the face of the collapse of the State, the Church and the family.

The chingones: narcoculture as emancipation

From the trafficking of goods and drugs that has been recorded at least since the century xix Between Mexico and the United States (Campbell, 2009; Andreas, 2013), an accumulation of signs and interpretation systems has formed over the years that portray and capture the life and death of Mexican drug traffickers. Cocaine consolidated the transnational market for drugs in Mexico in the 1950s (Astorga, 1995; Roldán and Gootenberg, 1999; Flores, 2013). The production and trafficking of narcotic drugs, as well as the different activities that derive from them, have generated material and immaterial references and narratives that express the biography and the modus operandi of drug traffickers. This historical and biographical accumulation has been called “narcoculture”.

The study of narcoculture emerged in the 1990s, when “narcocorridos” and “narconovelas” are analyzed as social texts that allow us to understand the identity and daily life of traffickers (Wald, 2001; Sánchez Godoy, 2009; Córdova Solís , 2012; Valenzuela, 2012). Northern Mexico, and in particular the border line with the United States, is the center of the geography of narcoculture (Valenzuela 2002; Ramírez-Pimienta, 2011), where band music, the rural world, the border and the Weapons are empirical references of the daily life and social destiny of young men linked to drug trafficking (Simonette, 2001; Ruvalcaba, 2015). In the existing bibliography, three central points that distinguish narcoculture can be recovered:

  1. It is an accurate record of the traffickers' lives. Although it is a “mediated” culture that circulates in different formats, including films, literary works, soap operas and the music industry, the narcoculture is valued as a real and truthful record of the risks, violence and corruption that traffickers face ( Ramírez-Pimienta, 2010; Franco, 2014). Then then, the cultural expressions of drug trafficking have a biographical character, since they speak from the point of view of the traffickers. Among the favorite topics are money, drugs, trafficking, violence, weapons, luxuries, ostentation, sex and corruption of the authorities. Although the narrative of the narcoculture can include multiple voices and situations, in general less or little is said about the victims, the pain, or the social trauma of the death and criminality of the narco.
  2. Material expressions have been at the center of the study of narcoculture. As cultural references, the goat horns, the Hummer trucks, the stunning jewelry, the attractive women, are all indicators of the "identity" of the narco. In the exhibition of weapons and violence is the representation of the criminal as a successful, liberated subject, who has achieved considerable social mobility. The material culture of the drug traffickers is even sacralized: in Sinaloa tours are organized where houses are visited, emblematic places where shootings between drug traffickers took place.3 In Mexico City, the so-called “narco museum” collects firearms, clothing, jewelry, and other property confiscated from drug traffickers by the Mexican State (Sharp, 2014). In this sense, the material culture of the drug trafficker is defined by ostentation, not only to show monetary capacity, but also as a form of domination. The overwhelming exhibition of material goods positions the trafficker as an all-powerful subject.
  3. The world of drug traffickers is, on the one hand, one of risk and violence, but also of personal success and material abundance. And it is precisely in excess, ostentation, extravagance, hypersexualization of the female body that criminality and violence become the guiding lines of a biography that is perceived as legitimate, making evident the rise of traffickers (Duarte, 2014; Mondaca Cota, 2015; Bernabeu Albert, 2017). The aesthetics of narcoculture prescribes the identity of the drug traffickers, and to some extent their biography (Cameron Edbert, 2004). The narcoculture has established a subversive aesthetic based on distinctive notions of legitimacy and taste that are at the base of the identity of the traffickers.

In this sense, narcoculture is the discourse that allows us to understand criminality as a legitimate way of life, where illegality is a mechanism of social emancipation. The drug trafficker is described as "a chingón." The subject then becomes the main actor in his own biography, using his own, atypical definitions of justice. The chingón is "imposed" on the institutions. Organized crime is configured in a legitimate social field to obtain success, power and impunity, claiming a kind of sovereignty over the territories and the lives of its inhabitants. It may sound contradictory or perverse, but crime in Mexico is a mechanism to generate social change. It frees the individual from the mechanisms of social control and the order of the law.

The culture of drug trafficking has been observed many times in the context of young people. The novel The mara (2004), by Tamaulipas writer and journalist Rafael Ramírez Heredia, narrates the lives of young Salvadorans who belong to the Salvatrucha gang and the MS18, thus introducing the subject into Latin American literature. The novel tells of "the crazy life" of young people who traffic in drugs and kill for hire, among other criminal activities.

In the same way, Mexican journalism has documented the process of normalization of crime among young people from urban popular sectors: “many adolescents must survive as it is, and there are not a few who end up integrating into the environment, drink, take drugs, they spy, they report. And more and more, everything seems normal”.4 From an early age, sometimes even before entering secondary school, young people can come into contact with the world of drug trafficking and extortion, a process that has an impact on the perception of the rule of law and the role of the law . Based on cases of convicted adolescent criminals, in the work of the journalist Julio Scherer the emergence of life forms linked to crime can be observed, which have become legitimate narratives in some social contexts in Mexico (Scherer, 2013). These cultural expressions give meaning and appeal to criminal figures: young millionaire, powerful and sexually aggressive men who can act at will outside the law.

Although the narcoculture can be seen as exclusive to drug traffickers, many more have access to the symbolic universe of criminality. What social actors carry the narcoculture? To whom do its signifiers and forms of interpretation belong? Who tells us what it means? The narcoculture is not just for traffickers; it also circulates through wider circuits of "popular culture" and the communication and digital media. In this way, images are created and stereotypes of the "narco" and "criminality" are reaffirmed as something rooted in a social class or in the town, as if being a chingón included the fascination for ostentation.

Even the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo managed to make an appointment in 2015 with the "chief of bosses", Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and who was then a fugitive from justice. Without the actress apparently knowing well what she was exposing herself to or what the purpose of the meeting was, she found "the boss" before the Mexican justice. If the narcoculture contains the symbols and interpretive systems of the narcos, it can also be concluded that it is an open system. That is, narcoculture is not a hidden, exclusive or clandestine knowledge for closed communities, but rather circulates openly through the mass media, among other cultural fields, and allows a lot of cultural appropriation, as was the case with the actress.

The study of narcoculture has not focused on the distinctive symbolic repertoire of the “criminal town”, much less on how drug trafficking reverses or reinforces the social order, and in particular that of the elites. A recent phenomenon in social networks is the videos of men and women violating public order under the influence of alcohol or simply because of arrogance, impunity that they claim as a privilege of their social class, which is also referred to by their skin color more clear. Emphasizing the racial and social class conflict, on YouTube and Facebook there are videos of “lords" Y "ladies”, Some very well known, such as the case of #LadyPolanco in one of the most exclusive areas of Mexico City. These videos show the white elite yelling at policemen and other “dark” public servants, parking the car in the middle of the street, trying to corrupt state agents, claiming and exercising privileges above the law or the common interest. The social phenomenon of lords and ladies it perpetuates the pigmentocracy in Mexico, since it is an expression of neocolonialism where the white elite hold their class privileges above the law, public order and the dark people.

As a kind of inversion of the pigmentocracy in Mexico, the narcoculture portrays narcos, equally dark men or “güeros” from town,5 who behave like lords. Impoverished peasants or workers, or the unemployed in the cities, are converted, according to the narcoculture narrative, into chingones. In band music videos, in literature and journalistic reports on biographies linked to drug trafficking, drug traffickers are seen who make use of attitudes of the Mexican ruling class, such as ostentation, arrogance, corruption and impunity.

As sovereign agents, criminals have the power to impose fear and violence, death as a form of control. But violence and corruption are just some of the resources that traffickers use to dominate, along with other "softer" ones that influence social perceptions of crime, such as the financing of community works that make the power and presence of the government legitimate. drug trafficking (Ruvalcaba, 2015; Grillo, 2016). As an anthropological phenomenon, narcoculture is more than an "exotic" cultural repertoire that promotes "anti-values."

The world of drug trafficking and its symbolic references are inscribed in broader contexts that order and give meaning to the systems of violence and death in Mexico. This disorder can only be understood in relation to broader processes of capital production and accumulation, the role of the rule of law and neocolonialism (Bunker, Campbell, and Bunker, 2010; Sullivan and Bunker, 2011; Gil Olmos, 2017). In other words, narcoculture, as a text, has a broader audience than just that of drug traffickers.

Narcoculture is not an autonomous or sovereign or stable cultural matrix: it is rooted in the social, political, and religious practices of Mexican popular culture, such as Catholicism and pre-Hispanic cultures and, given its emergent nature, it is in continuous adaptation. But the narcoculture also reports on "global" urban subcultures, such as the hip hop or the consumption of luxury brands. The narcoculture is then the system of knowledge and symbols that forms the sediment of the biography and identity of drug traffickers. Faced with “hard” methods of coercion, such as a weapon, money, or threats, the narcoculture is also an instrument of power and legitimacy from which criminals confer legitimacy and impunity.

The Little Black Angel and impunity

The dead victims of violence fall and are added every day throughout Mexico, showing the vulnerability of Mexican institutions in the face of corruption, criminality and impunity. On the one hand, the more conservative religious groups, such as Opus Dei, a certain Catholic hierarchy and the "Christians",6 they see in violence and the collapse of institutions a demonic presence, a victory of evil over good. On the other hand, the image of Satan circulates in markets and yerberías in an open way never before seen in Mexico. The "evil" seems to be gaining more visibility in Mexico. In particular, people linked to the world of criminality make promises and offerings to Satan to protect themselves from their enemies and ensure success.

Although the image of the devil has been present in Mexican popular culture in different ways (Monsiváis, 2004), such as in the figures of birth or the lottery game, today there are new records of the devil in Mexico, which give a different meaning and function to the forces of evil. In the prison world, devotion to Satan is a popular form of protection well known among inmates (O'Neill, 2015; Yllescas Illescas, 2018). Since the 1980s, rumors have circulated in Mexico about satanic rituals that drug traffickers performed to ask the angel of evil for protection and success (Roush, 2014). Traffickers, politicians, and even entertainment figures were said to make human sacrifices for success (Roush, 2014: 139). It was rumored that they offered children and that they practiced cannibalism. However, at that time when the media were controlled by the state, there was no concrete evidence about these practices, and the rumor remained a kind of urban myth. Up to now.

The Cathedral of Santa Muerte 333

The city of Pachuca is the capital of the state of Hidalgo and has 267 thousand inhabitants (National Institute of Statistics, 2010). Poverty and marginalization in Pachuca are enormous. The 70% of the population is poor or vulnerable in terms of their income or access to social services. The state borders Tamaulipas and Veracruz, areas of influence for the trafficking routes of the Los Zetas cartel. The Huasteca of Hidalgo is part of the territory for the transfer of the Zetas. However, the state has homicide indicators below the national average, with low to medium violence.7

In Pachuca, a few steps from the municipal pantheon, the largest and most monumental center of devotion to Santa Muerte in the country is located in the Sonorita market (image 1). It is also the oldest. The year of construction of the "cathedral" is 1996, as can be read on the plaque at the entrance of the building that commemorates its opening. The “cathedral” of Pachuca precedes the altars and chapels found in the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City, where they began to appear in 2001.8 Since then, the building has gone through different construction stages and the decoration is constantly changing thanks to donations from devotees. Followers give donations as a token of appreciation in the form of an image or the construction of a chapel. Gradually levels and areas have been added to the sides, until it became the "cathedral" that it is today.

Image 1. Central nave of the “cathedral” of Santa Muerte, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

Looking at the facade from the front, the building looks like a large gallery, an industrial warehouse, and no image of Santa Muerte can be distinguished from the outside. Only the name written in large letters: "Catedral de la Santa Muerte 333". The number 333 refers to the three powers to which the cathedral is dedicated: those of God, Santa Muerte and Satan. The building functions as a sanctuary where pilgrims can express their devotion. Inside there is a central nave where there is a large image of Santa Muerte about five meters high; Altars and chapels have been built on the sides of the nave with dozens of images that represent it with different powers and attributes.

In terms of use, the "cathedral" is not in principle very different from any other church. It works as a sanctuary where devotees meet and express their needs and ask for an answer to a situation, a miracle. They come in search of solutions to problems, of a blessing, or to quit an addiction. To this end, they visit to make a prayer or offering. Some come to the "masses" that are celebrated every day; the "parents" perform syncretic rituals incorporating elements of Catholicism, Santeria, and "pre-Hispanic cultures." Other devotees come to do "protection work" from envy, violence, illness, fear, or death. Still others come to perform "cures", cleansing and healing rituals, or to request assistance for burials. But also Santa Muerte is well known for being miraculous in matters of relationships and love.

It is difficult to imagine any image among Catholic or popular saints so diverse in meaning, with so many representations, such as Santa Muerte. As a religious icon, it is polysemic and ambivalent. It has many meanings that may seem contradictory. It brings good, love, life and health, but also evil, disease, despair and destruction (Hernández Hernández, 2016; Perrée, 2016). Santa Muerte is an authority among the dead and in the world of the dead, as is the god Mictlantecuhtil, king of the underworld, in the original cultures of the Gulf, Central and Southern Mexico, where he was represented as a skeleton, a father old man (Perdigón Castañeda, 2008).

In principle, Santa Muerte is represented as a feminine being, a voluptuous woman, a mother or a bride. Her femininity empowers her to care for others and care for the sick, the vulnerable; it is then then the loving mother. But it can also appear as a man (image 2), embodied in an Aztec warrior or a catrín;9 his masculinity is vindictive and predatory.

Image 2. Santa Muerte represented as a catrín, “cathedral” of Santa Muerte, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

The ambivalence of Santa Muerte is notorious also among her devotees, among whom there are both criminals and her victims, but also policemen, all asking for equal protection. Street vendors, hitmen, addicts, single mothers with abandoned children or financial stress, sex workers, transsexuals, migrants, same-sex couples, drug traffickers, many young people in search of work or salvation, all are believers in the justice that emanates from the hand of Santa Muerte, of her power of action and protection. The devotees ask Santa Muerte for things that they would not dare to ask of the official saints, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Santa Muerte is powerful because she has in her hands the tool that cuts the thread of life, makes the truth evident and exercises justice. Following the myth of the Greek deity Atropos, who cuts the thread of mortal life with her scissors, Santa Muerte manages the line between life and death. Santa Muerte can suddenly end the lives of enemies, or just save the lives of the most loved ones. She is the angel of death who collects souls to lead them to the afterlife. She is also a source of justice, because with her hand she gives each devotee what corresponds to him and not what he asks of him. The capacity for justice of the Saint is related to the faith of the devotee, with her patience, discipline and unconditional, pure, honest veneration. She gives to those who deserve it, to whom she trusts the most.

But the greatest effect of the image is not only in obtaining a miracle or material benefit, but in its power to emancipate its devotees. It gives a face and a space to illegitimate, criminal, marginal, rejected identities. Social groups with conflicts of visibility and legitimacy gather around the veneration of the image, where the unemployed, sexual minorities, criminals, police and military, devotees and non-believers, are all explicitly welcome to the altars or temples erected for their devotion. "It is like a mother, who accepts her child as he is," says a devout young man, explaining how "the Saint" accepts all her faithful. Without making a difference between good or bad, victims or criminals, the ambivalence and moral relativism of the image are understood as inclusion, equality. Santa Muerte does not judge her devotees for their deeds, nor for their vices or mistakes.

Clearly, Santa Muerte is not an exclusive devotion. Its believers can be for example Catholic, and combine both systems. In fact, some images of "popular Catholicism" devotions have their space in the "Catedral de la Santa Muerte 333" in Pachuca (image 3). Altars to the Divine Child Jesus, Saint Lazarus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Black Christ are found inside. It is also true that several of these images represent orishas (gods) of Cuban Santeria.10 Likewise, there are images specialized in criminality, such as an altar to Jesús Malverde, seen as a protector of drug traffickers (particularly marijuana), but also the power of evil, and the chapel to “Angelito Negro”, which are unthinkable in institutional religious contexts.

Image 3. Altar to Jesús Malverde, Virgin of Guadalupe and San Judas, “cathedral” of Santa Muerte, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

The chapel

As the name says with the number 333, three powers are present in the sanctuary: those of God, Santa Muerte and Satan. As a semi-private space, it not only includes an explicit reference to Satan, something that was not seen before in Mexico, but it is also a center of devotion to evil. At the back of the building there is a corridor that leads to the Chapel of the Little Black Angel.

In the underworld that represents the Chapel of the Little Black Angel (image 4) and the power of the images of Satan, the aesthetics of evil become visible, through which evil desires and energies circulate. It seems as if the visitor has gone down to hell. The walls are covered with tiles that simulate black marble. There is no ventilation and it smells of dirt, damp and incense. The chapel is very dark, suffocating, lit only by a red light emanating from two altars in the background.

Image 4. Chapel of the Little Black Angel, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

In these altars, which are more like glass cabinets, there are two images of the Little Black Angel. The largest represents a black-skinned rancher, dressed in a Texan suit and boots and rope in hand. Although two huge horns grow from his forehead, unmistakable signs of the devil, the little angel wears a rancher hat. The image represents the archetype of the rural Mexican drug trafficker from the 1970s to 1990s, when the drug lords were men from the fields, who grew plants themselves, and were in contact with nature. The little angel dressed as a rancher is sitting on a throne; He is a "chingón" (image 5).

Image 5. Angelito Negro, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

The chapel was built in 2012 to venerate the Little Black Angel, "the patron" Satan. In the chapel, people pray and make requests, and spiritual and spiritualist "works" are carried out. El Angelito Negro is greatly assisted by drug traffickers who come from different parts of Hidalgo, but also from various states of the country, such as Michoacán. They are passing through and come to ask for protection from their enemies when hitting the road to start a journey, or before carrying out high-risk operations.

The devil is paid with money, but also with life, offering his own. The little angel gives, but also takes away, since the favors received are given in exchange for valuable offerings in gold, relationships or people. People seek to be invincible, all-powerful, to impose on the law or to have control over their own death in the face of imminent risk. Or contact a deceased loved one who you think manifests to you during the day or you see in dreams.

The little angel is thought to be very powerful and grants any favor that is asked of him through "black jobs" (witchcraft). The offering of the blood of sacrificed animals is the essence of "work": it allows access to the world of the dead and the management of spirits and forces. By offering a hen or the blood of a goat or other animal, a sorcerer can establish contact with a deceased, bring death on someone, perform cleansing (purifying energy), "moorings" (love spells) or "spoils" (exorcisms ).

Victor11 He is a young man of about 25 years who works as a sorcerer of the Angelito Negro in the "cathedral" of Santa Muerte in Pachuca. He is a devotee of Santa Muerte, and has his own image with his altar in his house; they call you the Doña and takes care of her every day. Victor openly says that he works with Satan, not with Santeria. He claims to have learned the rituals "from here and there", and that there is no school or rules to follow to worship Satan. Since he was about seven years old, Victor began to have visions and contact with the devil. It was communicated to him in dreams and appearances during the day. It was no surprise to Victor that the devil appeared to him. He is part of the third generation of witches in his family, although his parents did not practice any specific religion.

Over time, Victor learned not to fear the devil, but to interact with him. The cult of Satan is for him a way to access the world of spirits and energies. The devil gives unlimited power to his devotees; it even makes them invulnerable. On his own, Victor has to free himself from the negativity of devotees who come to ask him for jobs. She tells that she has to get clean in order not to be left with the bad energy and desires that people may have. To do this, Victor “scratches” his back with a razor until he produces superficial wounds on the skin where the blood flows. Facing the altar of the Little Black Angel, Victor shows with some pride the scars of the "scratches" on his shoulder blades and upper back. This practice of "scratching", explains Victor in an interview, is both an offering to protect himself from evil (that others wish him), and at the same time has the function of releasing bad energy and purifying himself.

Victor explains that he can bring death to the enemy, "work" with bones and other organs and human matter, to heal or make people sick. Then he talks about a "parameter" that he works with. He only performs "black jobs" on men; he does not do “jobs” with women or children. Victor believes that they are the angels of God, and that men are reincarnations of spirits that had already passed through the earth, and that is why he allows himself to "work" with them. That is the first and only parameter.

The parties to the Angelito Negro

Every year the party to the Black Angel is celebrated in the chapel with the devotees, live music and food. The celebration in October 2014 was led by the "sorcerer" of the "cathedral" of Santa Muerte, Óscar, who has been in charge of the place since its construction. Among the attendees are several children. At the beginning of the party, people drink horchata water and eat tamales in front of the altar. When distributing the tamales for dinner, Óscar says in his speech during the celebration that he is “grateful to the one below, the almighty”, who “imparts justice” to those who approach, and assures: “everything works according to the faith of each person". During the night dozens of people attend to celebrate, thank the Little Black Angel and have a drink with the group of devotees.

While Oscar directs his words, a trio of norteño music plays different corridos, among them the “El Jefe de Jefes”, dedicated to Chapo Guzmán. The text of the corrido addresses the biography and psychology of the capo: “I am the chief of bosses and I say it without presumption”, to later talk about the legitimacy of drug traffickers: “I also like brands, dress in fashion and buy good cars, and although my money is ranch, here it is worth the same. I have not stolen it ”.

The corrido is a claim to legitimacy by drug traffickers. Power, success and status they are obtained by material means and consumption. Drug trafficking makes it possible to accumulate this wealth, to later blur its criminal origin. The money is not stolen, following the text of the corrido, but it is "ranchero", a euphemism for drug trafficking that indicates its illegitimacy.

As the celebration for the little angel progresses and it is almost midnight, the children go to sleep. After the corridos, the mariachi follows, playing classic themes of ranchera music. The horchata water gives rise to tequila and Buchanans bottles, so prized by the mailboxes.12 And late in the morning, inside the same chapel, a cockfight is organized, offered to the Little Black Angel. Two roosters attack and sting to death, and only one can survive, the stronger. The bloody fight between the roosters at the same time synthesizes the life and death of drug traffickers: young men and older men who are governed by the law of the fittest, killing to survive, survive by killing, and dying to kill.

Image 6. Portrait of Óscar, “el brujo mayor”, with the Angelito Negro, “cathedral” of Santa Muerte, Pachuca. Source: Aguiar 2015.

The sovereign leader: Saint Nazario

Although the figure of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán has been the epitome of the drug trafficker for more than three decades, no other "boss" in the history of organized crime in Mexico has made use of cultural resources as notoriously as Nazario Moreno González. He is the first organized crime leader on record to have written books and devised religious devotions, in order to gain control and legitimacy over territories and populations in Michoacán. Nazario developed an original cultural system to collect resources, exercise violence, and gain popular support and impunity. Among his cultural production are two books of his authorship, the Decalogue of the Knights Templar and a religious cult around him.

Nazario was born in 1970 in Tierra Caliente, in the city of Apatzingán, Michoacán. Among the locals it is believed that he hails from the people of Holland. Nazario's childhood was spent in the countryside, in a context of marginalization, poverty and violence. Four of his brothers were killed. Given the lack of perspective, Nazario emigrated with his family at the age of 16 to the United States, like many other Michoacans. At first he worked in California as a gardener, and on one occasion he was nearly kicked to death during a football game. As a result of the beating, a metal prosthesis was placed on his skull; He also suffered from headaches, hallucinations, and substance abuse.13 In California he became involved in the marijuana trade and in 1994 he was arrested in Texas.14 Eventually he went free and followed the rehabilitation plan in Alcoholics Anonymous and also received spiritual help from evangelicals. At this stage he also came into contact with the philosophy of self-improvement, in particular of the Protestant author John Eldredge and Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez. But a new arrest warrant against him was issued in 2003 and it was then that Nazario returned to Michoacán.

In 2003, Michoacán had become the territory of the Zetas, the bloodthirsty paramilitary group derived from the Gulf cartel. The economic relevance of the region is linked to the different criminal economies that exist in Michoacán. The state, particularly the sierra called Tierra Caliente, is fertile for growing marijuana. The Lázaro Cárdenas seaport has been the Mexican Pacific smuggling exchange point since the 1990s, and later for chemicals from China and India needed for the production of synthetic drugs. The population of the area lived under the terror of the Zetas, when the daily routine was summary and massive murders, rapes, extortion, environmental degradation and the corruption of local authorities.

Nazario then made a meteoric career in Michoacán as a leader of organized crime (Grillo, 2016: 235-323). From 2005 to 2006, he collaborated with the Zetas to keep the Sinaloa cartel out of the region. But in the end, Nazario's loyalty was not with the Zetas. In 2006 the Michoacan Family makes its appearance by throwing five heads of alleged Zetas onto the dance floor of a bar in Uruapan. In this scenario of violence never seen before, the Family left a note: “The family does not kill for pay. It does not kill women, it does not kill innocents, only those who must die die, let all people know, this is divine justice ”.15

The message could only have been devised by Nazario Moreno, who had already positioned himself as the leader of the Michoacan Family. In the cascade of violence and blood under the Zetas, the Family made the "execution" of the hit men an act of "divine justice" in order to enforce their order. In the same year the book began to circulate in Michoacán El más loco: pensamientos (Moreno González, 2006), a 92-page publication attributed to Nazario of which it is said that six editions were thrown with a total of 60 thousand copies, which were given away among the residents. The book is a kind of criminal biography of Nazario where he rants and elucidates about justice and illegality; a hybrid between a self-help manual and a guide to “Christian” religiosity. Nazario Moreno found inspiration in the historical figure of medieval knights who fought during the Crusades in the century xii to formulate his own response to the disorder and violence imposed by drug traffickers like the Zetas.

Brothers in Christ, Mexicans, Michoacanos, Tierracalenteños: we have had many things in common, a humble crib, a tough childhood, a lot of work, short but plagued games (sic) of our dreams. And everything arises there in that town, when I dreamed that I would be someone, that I would fight for mine, that I would work hard so that my family had what I lacked, when injustices made my body tremble with contained fury and then I thought that I would fight to defend to mine, thank God that my dreams have not changed, but today they are part of my reality (Moreno, 2006).

The book contains a reflection on the relationship between poverty, crime and social justice, where illegality is seen as a tool to "fight" against injustice. Nazario's book circulated almost exclusively in Michoacán, and was censored by the Ministry of the Interior. The publication was seen by the federal government as a type of propaganda to win popular support. The printed copies were confiscated and destroyed, although the archive can still be found at pdf In the net. However, those who survived the censorship became a fetish, a collectible of a narco who also writes books.

Since the appearance of the Family in 2006, the criminal group had the purpose of restoring “the order” that the Gulf cartel, the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel had broken. But the “moral” project of “divine” justice of the Family was interrupted in December 2010, when the Chayo he was reported dead in the "war on drugs" commanded by then-president Felipe Calderón. The official version maintained that Nazario died during a shootout with the federal police, although the lifeless body was recovered by the cartel members.

After the announcement of Nazario's death, the Family seemed to fade as an organization, but at the same time a myth was consolidated. A rumor ran through Tierra Caliente and the valleys of Michoacán that Nazario was still alive. But Nazario was no longer the same. People claimed to have seen the spirit of Nazario in appearances, dressed in white as a shining Christ and performing miracles. Inspired again by the Knights Templar, Nazario made himself represent himself by means of religious figures, wearing the Franciscan tunic and medieval armor, performing miracles and rituals (image 7). By becoming a religious icon, Nazario is the first secular "saint" of drug trafficking; He is the first head of a cartel or criminal organization to present himself as a saint and protector of the members of his own group.

Image 7. “San Nazario”, protector of the Templars, Drug Trafficking Museum, Mexico City. Source: Rodrigo Peña, 2018.

The images of San Nazario soon began to circulate in Tierra Caliente among members of the Michoacan Family and also among residents of the area. Once represented as a religious icon, he becomes the patron saint of the Knights Templar, the protector of members of the criminal group.

In addition, a decalogue appears in Tierra Caliente, a moral code against senseless violence that plagues the state of Michoacán (image 7). The code, both in its style and its visual references, is clearly influenced by the imagery of the Knights Templar and the Crusades. The notion of "mysticism" and "moral authority" are at the center of the cartel's claims. Among other things, the Decalogue prohibits murder "without reason" and raping women and infants.

In 2010 a second book appears (posthumous, apparently) attributed to Nazario, entitled They tell me: the craziest (Moreno González, 2010), where the author shows his philosophical and spiritual motivation to join organized crime.

The code and the patron saint show the emergence of a new group, the Order of the Knights Templar, which had its peak between 2010 and 2014. The founding of the Templars results from the split of the Michoacan Family (Lomnitz, 2016).

Nazario is an abject subject, like any other drug dealer; however, his management of cultural resources is unmatched in the history of drug trafficking in Mexico. In the four years that ran from 2010 on, a stage of formation of the devotion to "San Nazario" would come. That devotion among the Knights Templar began to spread throughout Michoacán. Nazario hoped that the members of his criminal organization would convert to the religion that he himself had founded.

Nazario and the Templars used violence as strident as the Zetas. Nazario, like the Zetas, ordered public assassinations, extortion, and kidnapping in order to subdue the local population. In other words, Nazario is at the same time the cause of violence and also presents himself as the solution to it. This ambivalence is typical of organized crime, where armed actors exert violence but also sell protection to the populations under their command (Hazen and Rodgers, 2014). Likewise, Nazario supported different “philanthropic” activities, such as financing schools, public works, gifts for entire towns and generous donations to the Catholic Church in order to sympathize with the people.

Image 8. Cover of the Code of the Knights Templar. Source: ADN Informativo (2015), “Extintos, los Caballeros Templarios; affirms special command ”https://adninformativo.mx/extintos-los-caballeros-templarios-afirma-mando-especial/.

But in March 2014 the Navy surprisingly announced that it had riddled Nazario, just one day after his 44th birthday. The body was exhibited as unquestionable forensic evidence of his death, in order to make it clear that this time it was the "true" and "last" death of Nazario.

In the same month of March 2014, Alfredo Castillo, security commissioner for Michoacán, was interviewed in mvs News by Carmen Aristegui shortly after Nazario's liquidation. The official clarified that the Attorney General's Office had included the use of human bodies as a line of investigation based on the statements of different informants that referred to the rituals of anthropophagy by the Knights Templar. Among the informants was José Manuel Mireles, leader of the self-defense groups in Michoacán. The detainee Manuel Plancarte, nephew of Kike Plancarte, who would be the leader of the Templars after Nazario's death, gave information about the kidnapping of infants and the removal of their organs.16

Manuel Plancarte described in Aristegui's program how Nazario made ritual use of the body of victims in the practices of the Templars, particularly to create trust and test the loyalty of his affiliates. Nazario announced: “we are going to have a dinner”, and supposedly human hearts were offered to the diners. All invited cartel members were expected to eat them. Plancarte points out that the use of the heart was part of an initiation ritual where members of the cartel were forced to consume it.

The ingestion of human flesh is a claim to sovereign power over society and its rules. Anthropophagy rituals provide meaning to violence: they are a form of symbolic sovereignty; but they are also a mechanism to regulate the loyalty and power of the Templars. The most extreme, sinister and macabre violence has the purpose of defining an order. Cannibalism perpetuates the political order, as also happened in the Mexica culture with the sacrifices of the Templo Mayor and the ritual eating of human flesh in Tenochtitlán (Matos Moctezuma, 2014). By serving the bodies of innocent victims, religious and military authorities kept the cosmos going. The cartels see in the Mexican indigenous past an inspiration, but at the same time also a justification for their blood practices.

Rituals with human sacrifices by criminal groups have been observed in Mexico in the context of human and organ trafficking (Campbell, 2009). As has been widely documented and debated, drug trafficking has articulated different criminal industries, including kidnapping, extraction, and organ trafficking on the black market (Buscaglia, 2015; Correa-Cabrera, 2017).

In the case of Michoacán, mutilated bodies have been found, with signs of having been used for rituals (Lomnitz, 2016; Grillo, 2016). These murders are no exception and take place in other devotions as well. Human remains or those responsible for the crimes have been found in the vicinity of the Santa Muerte chapels or just in front of them in different states of the country.17 Human sacrifices are part of the rituals linked to Santa Muerte; Human blood is the most valuable offering that can be made to a supernatural force.

The human body is the primary material for rituals and offerings to "work" with the "saints" of the world of crime. Anthropophagy is an empowering ritual for those who eat meat, but at the same time it represents a test of loyalty; facilitates cooperation between members of a group and reduces anxiety about possible betrayal. The body is the offering: it is swallowed or adorned with gold and luxury brands to show off success. But it is also a resource: when dissolved or annihilated, the body of innocent victims constitutes the power of criminal actors. As if there were a relationship between the forms of liberation of the drug trafficker as a person, annihilating innocent victims, thus gaining impunity. The spilled blood increases the sovereignty of the drug trafficker as an agent: each death perpetuates their power and impunity.

In the absence of an expedited forensic investigation, it is impossible to establish reliable data in Mexico on the fatalities of drug trafficking, the number of illegal graves discovered or the number of victims of ritual drug violence. Every third day a new report appears on the discovery of illegal graves. In the countryside there have been apparitions of bodies on roads and lands near the altars of Santa Muerte. In the city, bodies are piled up in high crime areas, often dominated by a certain cartel. In 2018, hundreds of mass graves were registered throughout the country that made evident the difficulties of the authorities to locate and identify human remains.

Presenting himself as a religious icon was a highly potent resource for Nazario. By proclaiming himself a patron saint of the cartel, Nazario expanded his power over the culture, identity and spirituality of the members.

To what extent was Nazario's use of cultural resources efficient? Was it helpful to present yourself as a patron saint or did you instigate the members of your group against you? Although they may have aroused antipathy by imposing a moral code and a religious system of their own, the Knights Templar and the figure of Nazario allowed the cartel to consolidate the power and domination of the Tierra Caliente in Michoacán. By obtaining a dominant position the Templars were able to steal and accumulate resources through extortion and hitmen, drug trafficking and corruption of the rule of law. By incorporating the issues of justice and order in the Michoacan context through a decalogue and a “religion” of “gentlemen” (members of a criminal group), violence and crime are seen as resources for social emancipation.

The narco as social change

Although many manifestations of the narcoculture have gained wide popular taste, such as music or television series, there are also dark, abominable records that are neither seen nor accepted. Practices such as the worship of the devil in the city of Pachuca, the ritual use of human sacrifices and cannibalism with the Templars do not have social legitimacy. What use then do these rituals have and what do they mean? What do they allow us to understand about narcoculture? Who and how benefits from these practices?

In the processes of social legitimation of violent or criminal actors, culture has been studied as a key resource to gain legitimacy among the population (Duyvesteyn, 2017). Forms of communicative action, such as the production of messages or symbols that appeal to a social or group identity, can be resources to gain sympathy, hold authority and thus rule over populations (Gambetta, 1996; Smith and Varese, 2001).

A typical mechanism of legitimation in the culture of criminals is paternalism: “giving the poor” what they don't have and in this way exercising a certain social justice, as in the Robin Hood legend. In the case of the Sicilian mafia (Schneider and Schneider, 2003; Santino, 2015), the grand gestures of the bosses can be interpreted as philanthropy or expressions of social justice, and thus produce a positive impact on the perceptions of legitimacy among the inhabitants .

In principle, popular devotions linked to the criminal world in Mexico have the same function: to legitimize the presence and function of the capo and his organization. Once recognized as regulatory actors of security and physical protection, criminal actors make use of symbolic resources such as saints and cults; With these images and practices, notions of protection and social justice are defined and circulated. Devotees try to access justice through the supernatural intervention of a saint. In fact, Santa Muerte is often the last resort that devotees have on hand in order to obtain a favor or change their reality with a religious image.18

In the prayers and offerings to Santa Muerte and the Little Black Angel are the biographies of the devotees, the concerns of young people who live between the order of institutions and the order of criminals. Protecting a saint is helpful in making sense of unpredictable daily events, such as death or disappearance. Curiously, the traumatic events that drug traffickers experience are often the same in society as a whole. In the streets and at home, broad social sectors in Mexico feel prisoners of the daily violence of criminal groups and the State, trapped in the uncertainty that crime generates and the impotence in the face of the lack of justice (Benítez Manaut and Aguayo, 2017 ).

Nazario Moreno sought to extend his dominance over the members of his cartel in Michoacán by declaring himself their patron saint and thus forcing them to venerate him. As has been argued in this article, narcoculture functions as a resource for social emancipation, and also nurtures the sovereignty of criminal actors. With prayers, celebrations, offerings, purifications and works, believers experience a transformation in their people and an impact on their living conditions.

Culture is undoubtedly a mechanism that criminal actors use to gain legitimacy in Mexico. Through material or immaterial goods, such as offerings or prayers, devotees increase their power almost in an unlimited way, which can only be explained in the context of generalized impunity in Mexico.

Culture is effective in gaining legitimacy; but there is a deficit. In the first place, the vast majority of the devotees at the altars to Santa Muerte are from the people. As criminals, the drug traffickers are “the underdogs”, vulnerable subjects with an unresolved conflict of legitimacy and a need for continuous protection. The narcoculture that, on the one hand, presents drug traffickers as chingones and sovereign subjects in corridos and soap operas, in the same way shows how disorderly and unpredictable their biographies are.

Through spiritual and magical practices that in principle contradict the most essential values of society, such as the common good and human life, drug traffickers are constituted as sovereign actors that operate and survive outside the law, or above it. . They are sovereign because they are unpunished and their power seems to have no limits - even if it does. The points presented here allow us to understand which are the cultural resources used by criminal actors, and how the narcoculture presents or promotes notions of social change through the commission of a crime; change for those directly involved in trafficking, and also produce broader symbols of social justice that can have an impact on society.

Conclusions: individualized justice

The study of narcoculture has focused largely on the description of specific cultural expressions, originating from the world of crime. The films, literature or music that tell the life of the drug traffickers are understood as vernacular texts or chronicles of disorder, which represent life outside the institutions. In this essay, the debate on narcoculture has been placed from another point of view: the spiritual world of criminals. Popular devotions form a cultural record of drug trafficking that makes it possible to explain the relationship between crime and perceptions of emancipation, justice and protection.

It is clear that the narcoculture solves the social deficit of drug trafficking. The endemic and expansive violence of the narco, as well as the corruption or destruction of organized crime, are replaced by images and narratives of young men who have transformed their social identity and masculinity through crime. The narcoculture turns the trafficker into a "chingón".

In the altars, chapels and places of worship that arise around legends, totems or individuals linked to the world of crime, the relationship between vulnerability, crime and impunity in Mexico is established. The accumulation of practices and symbols related to spiritual protection allows us to understand how drug trafficking, as a sociocultural field, emancipates subjects: it frees them from the order of the laws that govern society. In this sense, the intervention of Santa Muerte, Angelito Negro or San Nazario endows the devotees with a spiritual protection that gives them a certain power and capacity to commit crimes and obtain impunity.

The use of blood or the body to generate intimacy and loyalty between criminal groups has been documented in the case of the Sicilian mafia (Schneider and Schneider, 2003; Santino, 2015). In the case of Mexico, anthropophagy and the use of organs are practices inspired by the “pre-Columbian past” that sustain the daily and fantastic narratives about the power and impunity of criminals. Offerings and sacrifices define and perpetuate the social and symbolic order of the drug traffickers, with sovereign saints and places of worship that function outside of the hegemonic religion (s). This is a modernity defined by supernatural powers and the mediation of spirits, following the line of Geschiere (2015), where the subject claims his sovereignty through crime and the abominable.

Risk is omnipresent in the daily life of a trafficker, and that very risk becomes the catalyst for his power. The more danger there is, the more risks are taken. The drug traffickers are perceived as "chingones" because they take risks, break the social order and impose themselves as sovereign authority. A weapon and a patron saint can be the foundation of the power that the devotee sees in criminality, to change the world, or at least his own immediate world. The promise of social change in drug trafficking is an extremely powerful notion, because it articulates and individualizes the definitions of justice and social emancipation of criminals, but at the same time those of society as a whole.

The devotees of the Angelito Negro or Santa Muerte seek answers that they cannot find in the institutional churches; they ask for "miracles" to protect themselves, empower themselves and thus operate outside the law. Furthermore, popular devotions are part of the different strategies that traffickers and believers use in order to access justice, find protection, or materialize economic progress. The intervention of a spiritual power can give meaning to the achievement of daily, disconnected and arbitrary events, as well as their impact on the lives of the devotees. In this way, the development and result of the acts are attributed to a divine justice, outside the sphere of influence of the believer.

At the center of the narcoculture is the premise that violence and crime are legal strategies for personal success and material progress. Taking destiny into one's own hands, the radical individualization of definitions of justice that superimpose individual interest on the life and human dignity of the other. Therein lies the main threat to any form of social order or common good.


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EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: encartesantropologicos@ciesas.edu.mx. Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at https://encartes.mx. Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.