Alma Guillermoprieto: Photo by Harold Baquet

The title of this post comes from the response to a question, posed by a Venezuelan priest in the audience, at the end of an hour-long lecture and discussion about the ravaging of Mexico by drug violence:

“How do you maintain your hope?” he asked her.

Count on a priest to breach the topic of hope in the face of horror. Count on a journalist like Guillermoprieto to soberly dismiss the prospect. It was the final question of the night.

Alma Guillermoprieto is arguably the world’s foremost journalist currently publishing in English on Latin American topics. A Mexico City native and former professional dancer, she has written several acclaimed books and countless articles for periodicals like the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Newsweek, as well as many Spanish-language outlets of equal esteem. Her focus of late has been the same as most who seriously consider the region: The rise of massive and brutal Mexican drug operations that threaten to turn Mexico into a failed state. Her topic of the evening—she had been brought by Loyola University New Orleans—was ostensibly the novel vein of culture that has emerged in Mexico along with elevated levels of drug trafficking and violence: The New Narcocultura. Her thesis was that the traficantes, like any marginal society, require a culture to support their decision to engage in a lifestyle that will with little doubt ensure their lives are nasty, brutish and short. She talked about Santa Muerte, narcorridos, and narco fashion, but covered a lot of background to get there, which unfortunately took up most of her time.

Narco nails: A woman sports nails with famed traficante Jesus Malverde and some pot leaves on them

Guillermoprieto commanded the topic like an intellectual, but betrayed her personal connection to it when I asked her what she thought of the editorial printed last week in Ciudad Juarez’s major daily, El Diario, in response to the murder of a staff photographer by a cartel. Before answering specifically she provided context for those who hadn’t heard of the occurrence, beginning, “Yes, my friend at El Diario was murdered on Sunday …” Though she spoke in facts, no one missed the leveling emotion emanating from her hawk-like face.

The most consequential aspect of that editorial, she said, was its admission of the bald fact that the drug cartels are the de facto authorities in Ciudad Juarez, the deadliest city in the world, including cities in countries at war with foreign enemies. What most of the English-language coverage of it glossed over, Guillermoprieto said, was the scathing and wrathful irony that ran through the editorial. It purported to ask the drug cartels what the paper should and should not print in order to avoid another of its journalists being murdered—the recent victim was the second of the paper’s reporting staff killed in two years. But rather than being an out-and-out submission, the editorial’s mocking tone—which would be tough to pick up for anyone but a native—made it at once a concession and a sly ‘fuck you’ to the drug lords and, in turn, the government that is supposed to protect Ciudad Juarez’s citizens from them.

Mexican culture is obsessed with death. The Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca, in his lecture “Play and the Theory of the Duende” claimed, “A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than anyplace else in the world,” but went on to concede: “[In terms of] the popular triumph of death, in all the world, only Mexico can take my country’s hand.” El dia de los muertos is the most well-known manifestation of Mexico’s death fixation, and the thin, skeletal fingers of the reaper stretch in iconography and belief through many facets of Mexican life. But the New Narcocultura is defined in large part by a radical tangent of death worship that Guillermoprieto said is distinct from typical Mexican traditions that honor and respect the deceased.

La Santa Muerte has joined the roster of saints worshipped in mostly Catholic Mexico, and although she serves many among the country’s poor and disenfranchised, she holds a special place for men and women knowingly involved in occupations that will almost certainly end in grisly death—the one-upmanship pervasive in traficante culture urges rival cartels to burn and dismember their victims’ bodies, deliver their severed heads to their families, etc. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if I pray to Santa Muerte, she will allow my death to be of the less-graphic violent sort. One of her key attractive features is that she caters specifically to people who do not ask her for much. Guillermoprieto said prisoners she interviewed stayed true to Santa Muerte because she stayed true to them—after their families have stopped visiting and their girlfriends have moved on, they know that only death will not abandon them.

Santa Muerte tattoos

Santa Muerte Nikes

It’s difficult to think of a Mexican issue not directly impacted by the United States, but few have such concrete ties as the drug trade. One connection Guillermoprieto dismissed, however, was the narrative often touted by gun-control liberals that lax firearms laws in the U.S. account in large part for cartels’ robust arsenals, because guns can move south through the porous border as easily as drugs can move north. What this assertion neglects, Guillermoprieto said, is that the international trade of arms is so structurally dependable that multi-million dollar drug operations would have little trouble attaining weapons elsewhere if the U.S. tightened its reins, especially considering the flow of sub-machine guns and other war toys injected into Central America by the Soviets during the region’s rash of leftist revolutions in the 80s. This is not to say that Guillermoprieto disagrees with American gun control—she scoffed in what seemed like disgust when she mentioned the amendment that protected our right to bear arms, though she couldn’t remember which one it was.

Made in the U.S.A.?

But another U.S.-Mexico connection hit a bit closer to home in an auditorium full of college kids. Guillermoprieto noted American youths’ steadfast belief in exacting power via their purchases. We abstain from buying eggs and beef, she said, from farms that do not treat their animals well in an attempt to encourage industry-wide change. We do not eat tuna from the Gulf because it is being fished unsustainably. We do not shop at Wal-Mart or eat at McDonald’s because those companies thrive off of abusive labor practices. How, then, can we possibly smoke a bowl of weed and not cringe at the blood it’s soaked in? How can we buy drugs when we know where that money goes, and the misery it supports? How can we celebrate consumer activism when it applies to conventional goods, but turn a blind eye when we’re buying products on top of which lies the corpse of an entire country, our neighbor?

A roomful of eco-vegetarian potheads squirmed in their seats.