Adriana Bustos, Fátima y su ilusión - Jackie y la Ilusion de Fátima (2008)
Adriana Bustos, Fátima y su ilusión - Jackie y la Ilusion de Fátima (2008)

Yuppies, Junkies, and Mules: Narcotic Subjectivities, Dialectical Images, and Contemporary Art in Córdoba (Argentina)[1]

Abstract: Any analysis of contemporary societies lacks objectivity if it omits the production, distribution, and consumption on a planetary scale of psychoactive substances considered illegal by nation states and international organizations. In the management of these "illegal molecules" dissolved in the humors that constitute the inner space of subjects, a “war machine” has been installed that is capable of "exciting" both life and death. What subjectivities might such an active narco-machine produce in the capitalism of the first decade of the 21st century? This matter is considered through an ethnography of the nightly consumption habits of youths in the city of Córdoba and their experiences of cocaine use. As a counterpoint, the essay then examines the work of the Argentinean artist Adriana Bustos as she critically explores the relationship between colonial biomules and contemporary narcomules.

We dreamed of utopia and we woke up screaming

—Roberto Bolaño, Infrarealist manifesto

With your help I will create this notebook,

recounting diverse adventures

and oddities of the Argentine realm,

wonders, hunger, wars and exploits

—Martín del Barco Centenera, La Argentina

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn

looking for an angry fix

—Allen Ginsberg, Howl


Argentina and cocaine converge in their whiteness. The former, silvery by name, tends to be imagined as a white nation, an almost European one. Buenos Aires flirts with being Paris, and many cities in the interior such as Córdoba or Salta reinforce its colonial façade. The latter––the powder trafficked on a planetary scale––looks like talcum or has tiny multicolored sparkles like the wings of a fly, depending on its snowy purity. In addition to their phonetic connection (in Spanish, Argentina and cocaína), both words also intersect in silver: the metal as well as money, which is termed plata (silver) in the colloquial speech of the Río de la Plata region.

The colonial fantasies that gave rise to the name of the Río de la Plata, and of the South American nation itself,[2] encountered the reality of the territory upon the discovery––far from the pampas––of the mountain with the world’s greatest silver deposits, the Cerro Rico de Potosí (Rich Hill of Potosí), the great seventeenth-century metropolis in what is present-day Bolivia.

Between the riches of Alto Peru and the Río de la Plata lay the city of Córdoba. From the beginning of the seventeenth century through the end of the colonial period, mules were the most important commodity in the integration of region’s economy, and an important part of the replacement of American camelids with equine hybrids of European origin (Assadourian 1983). By the second half of the eighteenth century, as the colonial text Lazarrilo de ciegos y caminantes desde Buenos Aires hasta Lima shows, Córdoba was a site for wintering livestock. According to this narrative, mules born and raised in the pastures of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe arrived in Córdoba at two years of age. The animals remained here for twelve to fourteen months after which they were moved to Salta, where “the largest assembly of mules in the world gathered” (Carrió 1985: 63).

In the economy of the twenty-first century, Córdoba is also a city of mules, but now it is the drug trafficking mules that link the lands of Alto Perú with Buenos Aires and Europe, much like they did during the colonial period. The trafficking of cocaine produced in Bolivia or increasingly in local kitchens, has found an anchor point in Córdoba, as demonstrated by the fact that the majority of women and foreigners imprisoned in Córdoba’s jails are serving time for offences related to drug trafficking.

Córdoba, Argentina, cocaine, and plata (silver/money) are intertwined realities in a web that connects them time and again. According to official studies in Argentina, the percentage of people who have used cocaine increased from 0.3% in 2004 to 1% in 2010, and the tendency in its use is growing for both sexes, with more elevated rates among 16–34 year-olds (Informe del Área de Investigaciones de la Secretaria de Programación para la Prevención de la Drogadicción y la Lucha contra el Narcotráfico, Argentina 2011).

Plata (silver/money), along with gold and cocaine, as Michael Taussig (2004: 314) has posited, are interwoven within a “transgressive dynamic” that inspires greed and violence on a scale far beyond their contributions to human existence. Plata, gold, and cocaine emerge as authentic fetishes, insofar as their true substance is located far beyond the mineral and vegetable realms, becoming personified substances capable of subtle trickery, the undermining of human comprehension, and the clouding of the senses.

Visual artist Adriana Busto’s recent work powerfully reveals the secret connection between the colonial period in Cordoba and its new, postcolonial realities. The meaningful historical association between biomules and narcomules that Bustos develops enables her to intervene—from the art world—in that machine of narcotic subjectification that, citing the call for papers for this issue of e-misférica, we call the narco-machine.

The narco-machine has proven to be a highly productive notion, as it gives shape to a set of observations regarding the “chemical technologies of the self” (Blázquez 2009), and allows us to extend our analysis beyond consumption, and into the production and distribution of the molecules that fuel these technologies. E-misférica’s call conjured for me an image of a narco-machine eating the entrails of Latin America and its disseminations throughout the planet, with a loop of Allen Ginsberg reading first verses “Howl,” and against the backdrop of a screen with the projected illustration of the “nomadic cart made entirely of wood, Altaï” that Deleuze and Guattari used to open “Plateau 12” of A Thousand Plateaus: 1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine.

This synesthesia made me turn my attention to some of the data I have collected in my fieldwork as an anthropologist, and cross it with experiences from the field of art and criticism. It is from this intersection that this work arises, opening with a particular reading of the narco-machine as one of the subjectivizing technologies that is active in the present. To that end, I make use of data from a number of ethnographies of nightlife that I carried out in the city of Córdoba between 2000 and 2009.[3] Following this reading, I concentrate on the work of contemporary artist Adriana Bustos to analyze specific modes through which it is possible to continue producing discourses critical of narcotic domination and its regime of fantasies. In the conclusion, I briefly examine the subjectivity of the contemporary narco-mule.

Confronting this narcotic, intoxicating, criminal, and planetary machine—as e-misférica proposes—proved too difficult a task to undertake with only the support of the demystifying power of science. To my aid I called upon the power of art and its capacity to make real, in images, other worlds that are none other than this one.

The narco-machine: toward a transfeminist schizoanalysis

Any analysis of contemporary societies lacks objectivity if it omits the production, distribution and consumption at planetary scale of a series of psychoactive substances considered illegal by nation states and international organizations. Marihuana, cocaine, heroin, ketamine, methamphetamine, LSD and many other substances comprise a set of molecules produced on the margins of the medical-scientific and cosmetics apparatus known as the legal pharmaceutical industry. The State has entered the battle surrounding the management of these illegalized molecules: the fight against drug trafficking or the war on drugs. Coca leaf plantations in the Andes and marihuana plants cultivated under a Buenos Aires highway; marches for decriminalization and the swelling of state institutions dedicated to surveillance and punishment; tortured and destroyed bodies; popular saints; songs; the murder of peasants; architectural works; cartels; barons, lords and massive fortunes; sneakers, machine guns and armored cars; bandits, police and para-police; nothing and no one appear to escape the presence of illegal chemicals being distributed throughout the entire social fabric. Drugs, in the general opinion, move day and night, in shantytowns and on the floor of the Stock Exchange, in official offices and under a bridge.

In order to conceptualize this situation, we can imagine ourselves faced with the development of a new abstract machine (Deleuze and Guattari 2004), the narco-machine.[4] In each of its incarnations, this machine would act by conjugating—as Deleuze (1987) explains in his reading of Michel Foucault’s work—curves of visibilization and curves of enunciation, lines of strength/power, and lines of subjectification. As a practical realization of determined relations of Power/Knowledge/Subject, the narcotic machine makes us see and makes us speak; it contributes to the sedimentation and fracturing of discourses and practices, it articulates experiences, creates subjects, and enables agency.

A schizoanalysis of this narco-machine requires, in the first place, a qualitative examination of the creation of different modes of agency. Who uses the machine and how? Who makes and is made by this machine? What are the grammars inscribed on bodies and moralities? Which lives turn out to be (in)significant and (un)livable? What are the raw materials, the products and residues processed by the narco-machine?

This narco-machine would include mechanisms of normalization such as the training camps of narcosoldiers, or raves where the body functions as the medium and the final product of a set of disciplinary practices. Discursive tropes (“drugs as an epidemic”) and cultural genres like the narcocorridos and the cumbia cabeza of Buenos Aires (Miguéz and Semán 2006) are among the mechanisms that would stabilize the poetics of representation. Practices of inscription—tattoos, linguistic, gestural, or dress codes, reflexes for detecting dangerous situations, visual, audio, and bodily representations, states of consciousness—also form part of the machine.

The production of subjectivities, a dimension irreducible to the relations of power and knowledge, offers a set of privileged practices for observing abstract machines in action.[5] What subjectivities are produced by the narco-machine, so active in the capitalism of the first decade of the twenty-first century? What are the mechanisms by which narcosubjectivity is produced and what are the “chemical” technologies of the self that are set into motion? What happens when the molecules of drug trafficking dissolve in the body, in the humors that constitute the internal medium of subjects? We can find clues to think about these questions in transfeminist thinking, particularly in the work of Beatriz Preciado (2008) and Sayak Valencia (2010). These authors analyze new forms of capitalist development: pharmaco-pornographic capitalism and gore capitalism, associated respectively with toxico-pornographic subjectivity and the monstrous subject.

In Testo Yonqui, Beatriz Preciado analyzes the current postindustrial, global, and media regime of production and consumption. In accordance with its developments, the excitable body—an object of state control since the end of the nineteenth century—became the fundamental raw material of capitalism. Arousal, erection, ejaculation, pleasure, the feeling of self-satisfaction, and of omnipotent control would bcomee the privileged materials of the new regime of pharmaco-pornographic production. Among the indicators of this hot, psychotropic, punk, and digitally-based capitalism, we find the mass production/consumption of synthetic steroids, the creation of new legal and illegal synthetic psychotropic drugs, and the global circulation of pornographic images.

This new capitalist avatar would take as a point of departure orgasmic power or potentia gaudendi, that is, “the (actual or virtual) power to (totally) arouse a body” (38). Arousing and controlling this orgasmic power would be the basic operations of pharmaco-pornographic capitalism, made up of contraceptives, Playboy, Viagra, the pornography industry as the motor behind the information economy, cocaine, human trafficking, money laundering, tax havens, etc.[6]

For Preciado, any current regime of production would be molded within this pharmaco-pornographic matrix that exploits and produces a molecular intensification of bodily desire, especially of narcotic-sexual desire. This mold would also organize consumption, in such a way as to produce a virtual and hallucinogenic aestheticization of the living subject (the Photoshop effect), the transformation of interior subjective space into an exterior on public display (the Facebook effect), the increase in techniques of self-monitoring (diets and self-help books) and the ultrafast diffusion of information (the Twitter effect) that would end in a “masturbatory temporalization of life” (37).

The objective of this “Hilton-Weber” regime, named by the author in honor of millionaire (porn)star Paris Hilton and the German sociologist Max Weber, is not the production of pleasure but rather its control through the production of the circuit of arousal-frustration. The production of “frustrating satisfaction” particular to the pharmaco-pornographic regime, which pornography achieves paradigmatically, defines all other production in the post-Fordist economy, including the production of subjectivities.

In this context, the task of sex-politics and narco-politics would be none other than the production of subjectivities through the techno-biological control of the body, “of its capacity to desire, to come, to arouse and be aroused (208). A key component of the arousal–frustration–arousal circuit is the toxicological nature of sexual pleasure, its addictive quality. “Pleasure is frustrating satisfaction. This is the currency of the post-Fordist pharmaco-pornographic economy, its latest source of wealth production” (213).

The processes of bio-molecular (pharmaco) governance and semiotic-technical (porn) governance, organized in accordance with the Hilton-Weber principle, would give way to toxico-pornographic subjectivities that would be defined by “the substances that dominate their metabolisms, by cybernetic prostheses through which they become agents, by the types of pharmaco-pornographic desires that orient their actions” (33).

My ethnographic work on Córdoba’s nightlife allowed for an analysis of the formation of these subjectivities, as well as of the workings of the arousal-frustration circuit in the experiences on the dance floor of the electronic music club (Blázquez,2009), and in the consumption of psychoactive substances. As concerns cocaine, it was possible to describe two different modes of narcoexperiences associated with differing forms of consumption.

On the one hand we find the experience that I term yuppie, which aims to increase the subject’s productivity and the power of his or her actions. Not stopping, keeping on, going full speed were the ways in which the interviewees defined their experience of consumption. Cocaine use was combined with alcohol, whose depressive effects on the central nervous system were countered with more cocaine which enabled the movement to continue. Not letting oneself drop was the slogan that organized consumption in a circuit that included alcohol and cocaine, where marihuana could function as a sort of permanent downer, and which sometimes ended, for some males, with a Viagra at the end of the night.

We use the term junkie to describe another experience characterized by the quest for the bodily state of hardness. Through a continuous and abundant consumption of cocaine, some subjects acquired a particular state of muscular rigidity where their jaws locked, sometimes breaking teeth as a result of the pressure. Situated in a static position, with their arms and legs stuck in place and gazing at a fixed point, these hard subjects appeared to stop, and be stopped in, time and space—the space of the club.

Beyond the differences between these experiences, both ended in the comedown, the hangover, or the lime, terms that describe some feeling of depression, muscular exhaustion, and unease that came about following withdrawal from the stimulant effects of cocaine. The memory of the pleasurable experience of the state and its subsequent frustration stimulate a new consumption that seeks to produce a new excitation that would restart the magical circuit of pharmaco-pornographic capitalism.

Following the trail blazed by Preciado, Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism proposes a less global description and puts forth a specific execution of the narco-machine in the localized space of the border. Valencia, who participates in the world of performance art under the name Miss Violence, describes a current of contemporary capitalism and the “reinterpretation given to the hegemonic and global economy in (geographical) border spaces” (Valencia 15).

This new type of capitalism is a product of globalization, economic polarizations, the bombardment of information/advertising that creates and consolidates identities founded upon (hyper)consumption, and the increasingly small population with a purchasing power that is capable of fulfilling this desire. In this universe, whose capital would be Tijuana, violence appears as the price that the Third-World people of the planet must pay for clinging to the consumer logic of pharmaco-pornographic capitalism. Within this dynamic, ultra-specialized, theatricalized, and spectral violence inserts itself into the everyday life of populations located in strategic geopolitical points on a map organized by drug trafficking (and other forms of organized crime) and nation states.

Gore capitalism is made, like the film genre from which it takes its name, out of human entrails, exposed cadavers, murdered women, explicit and spectacular spilling of blood mixed with high doses of organized crime, predatory uses of bodies, gender difference, and eroticism. In gore capitalism, the body, provided that is a dead body, is merchandise, a resource. Death and its necro-politics become the most profitable business in the contemporary gore moment, when accumulation is carried out through the accounting of the number of the dead.

Within the framework of this form of capitalism, the author sees new discursive figures emerge, figures that constitute an episteme of violence, along with the reconfiguration of the concept of work through a perverse granting of agency built upon the necropolitical commercialization of murder. As part of these transformations, shown in series such as The Sopranos, Weeds, or Breaking Bad, videogames and films, Valencia also proposes the emergence of a new subjectivity that she terms the “monstrous subject” (84–93).

Monstrous subjectivities seek to establish themselves, and those who embody them, as valid subjects, with possibilities of social belonging and ascent. Their formation includes both logics of scarcity (poverty, frustration, dissatisfaction) and of excess (waste, opulence, fortune). In a practical sense, the subjects reinterpret themselves according to a the logic of consumption and create economic fields that are dystopic in relation to those that are supposedly legitimate within the capitalist double standard. In these spaces––like drug trafficking––subjects become entrepreneurs who influence political, public, official, social, and cultural processes. Considered within the logic of the market, and no longer from the perspective of media spectacle or the law, monstrous subjects “would be perfectly valid, and not only valid but also legitimate entrepreneurs who strengthen the pillars of the economy” (45).

These monstrous subjectivities would evidence a revolt against the established order and the condemnation to being a “bodies that don't matter” (Butler 2002), but, to the degree that they emerge under the same hegemonic logic, they reinforce domination and end up extending the bad life (el mal vivir) to ever-greater numbers. In this way, the pharmaco-pornographic capitalism that we observe in the electronic music club becomes gore in the cocaine “kitchen” staffed by undocumented foreigners in a shantytown.

This schizoanalytic transfeminist outline of the narco-machine, which I began with a qualitative examination of different modes of agency, also requires their quantitative study in relation to a supposedly pure machine, following Deleuze and Guattari (2004: 522). In this sense, the authors analyze two great engines of agency: the war machine and the State apparatus, which confront one another and constitute themselves in difference. What type of war machine does drug trafficking constitute? What state apparatus is formed and empowered in the war on drug trafficking? Does the current organization of drug trafficking, and of other forms such as human trafficking, entail this war machine being subsumed by a (para)state apparatus?

Far from being able to answer such difficult questions, the remainder of this essay focuses on a much smaller issue. What is the place in this situation of another war machine, “contemporary art?” What are the poetic and political tools deployed specific artistic practices interested in making critical interventions in the era of the narco-machine?

Adriana Bustos

She and I came into the world a few days and some thirty kilometers apart. Perhaps we played together on the same beaches during the summers of our early childhoods. Nonetheless, we met many years later in Córdoba. We both studied psychology and shared many celebrations and moments of joy. As artists, we were in an exhibition together during the Mundo Mix festival in 1998. After some time, we met again when Adriana was devising her project on mules—both the equine hybrids and the women who illegally transport cocaine across borders. These meetings took place in the context of an art clinic where we discussed the poetics and politics of her artistic work, reading and reflecting on anthropological, philosophical, and historiographical texts, as well as on diverse experiences.

Adriana Bustos’ artistic production is centered on the minor details and the little-known but obvious connections that form the plot of everyday life. Active since the 1990s, Bustos has made incursions into various media and techniques: painting, performance, photography, and video, among others. Affected by the financial, political, and social crisis that erupted in December of 2001, she began to explore the underlying material of the new national reality. Interested in the nature of the crisis, or more specifically, in nature in crisis, the artist began with an exploration of the cartoneros’ horses.[7] In these works, Bustos also returned to Córdoba’s painting tradition, focusing on its preferred theme (the mountain landscape) and a fetishized artist (Cerrito).

As part of her research into nature, the artist discovered mules ––both the beasts of burden and women who transport cocaine. Departing from this “profane illumination,” in Benjamin’s terms (1998), Bustos embarked on a new artistic project that would lead her first to the mountains of Córdoba and the women’s prisons located there, and later to Medellín. Like an explorer of pharmaco-pornographic and gore capitalism, the artist presents us with “dialectical images” (Benjamin 1999) of those journeys that, in the form of art, seek to intervene in the narco-machine.

The Anthropology of the Mule and other Illustrations

Photo: Adriana Bustos.
Adriana Bustos, Antropología de la mula (2007)

Rendered on cloth canvas, we find variety of images and texts in pencil. The figure of a Spanish conquistador, colonial maps with land and sea routes, uniformed police officers, beasts of burden, exemplifications of different modes of cocaine transport, and an X-ray showing capsules lodged in a narcomule’s stomach are some of the drawings grouped together under the title Anthropology of the Mule. At the first reading, the work’s name seems incoherent, inasmuch as it would be impossible to undertake an anthropology ––the science of man––of an animal. From this dissonance, the work opens a suspended space-time and materializes it in the form of an illustration where the simultaneity of the images, the varied information they present, and the multiple associations they awaken—added to the manual nature of the craftsmanship—form a dense fabric that sustains detailed reflection. Like a collector of curiosities, Bustos assembles a complex album page that grasps the mule’s humanity and charts an anthropology of bestiality.

Photo: Adriana Bustos.
Adriana Bustos, My cocaine museum (2008)

This poetics animates the entire series of illustrations that Bustos continues producing, such as My Cocaine Museum or her different Routes. In the first, the title ––a quote from Michael Taussig’s eponymous book–– appears along with the flower of the cocaine plant and the figure of a European conquistador from the sixteenth century. Nature and Domination inaugurate this museum that exhibits maps, infographics, artworks, trafficking technologies and modern chemistry. The illustration opens with the maxim: “Drugs go to Money… to Gold… back to Money… to” (in English), alongside gold ingots, cocaine particles, twenty-euro and ten-dollar bills, all of which are connected by arrows. A set of images stretches out under the rule of this law of narcocapitalist convertibility, speaking to us of other times.

The Spanish colonial period in the Americas appears on a map of the Río de la Plata Viceroyalty and another map showing the commercial routes to and from Mexico. The times when cocaine was not illegal, and even had important public recognition, become present through goods such as an Emergency Kit that allows the transport of cocaine, morphine, atropine, strychnine, the corresponding syringe and needle, or the tonic Mariani Wine.[9] The present is rendered in the chemical formula of cocaine, the image of a capsule used by human mules to transport narcotics, and the representation of one of the artist’s works where a mule poses in front of a curtain. In Anabella’s Route and Leonor’s Route, illustrations that make reference to two human mules detained in a Córdoba jail whom Bustos interviewed, we find new combinations of these and other signs and realities.

Photo: Adriana Bustos.
Adriana Bustos, La Ruta de Anabella(2008)

Colonial maps, world maps, and trafficking routes mix together with goods like Mariani Wine or pills for dental pain whose container shows a tender and kitschy image of two children gathering the fruits of a generous Nature. A giant bottle and a naked woman meld into a single visual reality to publicize a tonic that “sustains and refreshes the body and brain” while at the same time promising to double productivity without any fatigue. This world of fantasies created in and by goods appears in the Hemingway quote that opens one of the illustrations, “When I dream of my afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz,” and its accompanying image.

Amid these dreams of consumption, exhibited through fossilized goods from a primordial pharmaco-pornographic capitalism, the artist introduces the gore world of crime, police, and espionage. Secret weapons hidden under a jacket sleeve, devices for wiretapping telephones, self-defense techniques, criminological science with its positivist research and its fascination with the bodily indications of criminality, portraits, physiognomy and X-rays. Finally, in the lower left quadrant, a prison “built in the panopticon design.

Photo: Adriana Bustos.
Adriana Bustos, La Ruta de Leonor (2008)

All these images come from very diverse media. Royal and virtual libraries were plundered in the search for information, cases, anecdotes, clues, indications, a relation, multiple relations. The illustrations’ abundant information interpellates an active reader who must work to read the artwork in order to trace the relationships and pause at the various points that tell a particular story.

Like an image produced during the ingestion of ayahuasca––a practice studied by both Taussig and Bustos–– the illustrations display traces and connections without establishing causal or spatial-temporal lines. Juxtaposition serves as a poetic strategy to explore the power of the dialectical image. In this task, Bustos supports her work with the mimetic theory of language put forth by Benjamin (2007). For this author, words and things are materially connected, although history––as a space between the produced symbol and what it means––intervenes, making the connection of contiguity between the symbol and its meaning impossible. While dulled, these connections expose themselves fleetingly, in images that appear and disappear with the speed of lightning. In these images, for Benjamin, lies the possibility of historical knowledge capable of honoring the tradition of the oppressed (Benjamin 2008).

If, on the one hand, the illustrations appear to make reference to the educational context, a quotation the artist offers in order to reinforce her pedagogical aims, she also disassociates herself from this world by not employing the techniques of mechanical reproduction that are so dear to pedagogical institutions. The illustrations become unique when they materialize the trace of the artist’s hand; an artist who puts special emphasis on this manual character and on the trance that produces the drawing, during which the images seem to materialize automatically. In their uniqueness, these works seek to occupy the space that history creates between words and things, between colonial times and the postcolonial era, between the traffic metals and of cocaine, with the unfolding of the not at all arbitrary connection that connects them: the mule.


Illusions is composed of a series of four works, each one made up of two photographs of the same dimensions. In each of the photographs we see a female character seated with her back to the viewer, contemplating a large-scale image that takes up the whole frame. The other photograph shows a full-body portrait of a mule. The animal that looks at the audience is posing against the same background as the woman. In three of the works, the photograph of the woman is in black and white and the animal is in color, while in the final one this relationship is inverted.

Photo: Adriana Bustos.
Adriana Bustos, Fátima y su ilusión - Jackie y la Ilusion de Fátima (2008)

In a pedagogical way, each of the works in this series presents two opposite experiences (human/animal, color/black and white, back/front, left/right) unified by the same background image in order to demonstrate the identity/difference between the characters. If one is a mule, the other is one as well.

These sort of Benjaminian lightning bolts that form the series Illusions arose following an experience the artist had in Córdoba’s provincial jail. For several months and after navigating various bureaucratic channels, Adriana Bustos interviewed women imprisoned for crimes associated with drug trafficking, explaining her artistic project and inviting them to participate. Out of these interviews emerged the women’s dreams and hopes, and more specifically, the economic motivations that led them to commit crimes, to defy the State’s power to control borders or intercept cargo. What would these women use the money for? What projects could materialize with the monetary difference that would be provided by making their bodies a vehicle for illegal goods?

With this information, the artist began to sketch out the images that would make the narcomules’ hopes a reality, and to discuss them with the women. After arriving at a definitive version, she painted large-scale curtain-like cloths displaying a rather oneiric image of dreams realized.

Each of the prisoners was photographed, sitting with her back to the viewer, contemplating her dream spread out before her like a hallucination. Her hope had materialized, but in the form of an image. Each curtain made use of different poetic resources to construct the special dimension of reality possessed by images of dreams, privileging a naïve language associated with “popular art.” Posters and legends cite, like an echo, the photographed narcomules: “See if I stopped,” “My house,” and “The operation was a success. That’s why I say there’s always a because.” Subsequently, with the same backgrounds, the artist photographed the animal mules that she found in different places in the mountains of Córdoba.

With the layout of these two photographs, Bustos constructs dialectical images that reconfigure the present and the past. The operation that Illusions brings to the fore emerges out of the intersection of a set of contradictory social processes piled up like cars in a multiple collision on a highway. Through shock, the montage calls attention to the continuity/discontinuity between the mules of the colonial economy and the narcomules of the pharmaco-pornographic and gore era. In this collision, the works exhibit the impossible stillness of the crash, related to the messianic conception of the event that Bustos takes from Walter Benjamin, where thought not only flows but rather is arrested, petrified in a monad, crystallized by the shock.

The works achieve this stillness through the repetition of the painted curtain and the women’s pose in front of it. The women, Bustos has commented, became petrified to the point of seeming, as in the photo of Lydia, almost like a child’s painting. In this freezing of time-space, the work produces knowledge that makes visible the continuities/discontinuities between the contemporary narco-machine and the colonial technologies that prefigured it.

These dialectical images make significant the fact that traffic has found in Córdoba a stopping point for colonial silver and postcolonial cocaine, by showing that language found the same word for those who carried them. Memory, space, and time coagulate in the fragment of historical knowledge that the works produce, in the discovery that these routes are not random, making way for a third alchemical dimension where image and material substance become one and the same.[10]

More than a polemic on the catastrophe of drugs and the evils of narco-trafficking, the dialectical images Bustos produces invoke the changing power of money (silver) and of the seductive white substance called cocaine. From this position, the artist enacts a commentary on the narco-machine. Inscribing herself within a shamanic tradition capable of materializing subjects’ desires as images, the artist makes visible the connections, ties, and relationships that the narco-machine produces, with the explicit objective of destabilizing the triumphal march of narcocapitalism. Resting on an observation of the “day-remnants” (Freud 1998) of dust that traffic shakes up, Illusions calls attention to the nightmares of which dreams are made. Making use of autobiographical registers, interviews, allegories, Walter Benjamin and Michael Taussig, natural history, political history, and colonial economy, Bustos depicts how silver, now cocaine, came back into play with the new postcolonial mules.


According to our ethnographic observations in the city of Córdoba’s nightlife, the term rescue designates a last remnant of cocaine that is saved or magically found in a pants pocket, when the supply has run out. The rescue is that which remains in order to stay in motion and thus be able to finish the party. A remnant that one must know how to make last and hide or share with friends. Taking advantage of this narcology of consumption, and to close this essay, we ask ourselves what rescue might be found in the artistic interventions under consideration. What final knowledge can we extract from them?

In addition to the fleeting historical knowledge that these dialectical images produce, the works also allow us to survey the narcomules’ hopes and dreams projected on the curtains. Fátima wanted to travel to Machu Picchu; Leonor to open her own hair salon; Anabella to get her daughter an operation and Lydia to have her own home. It would appear that small bourgeois dreams––a little tourism, being a homeowner or working for oneself, or securing healthcare for the family that the state does not guarantee––guided the actions of these women who acted radically and illegally in becoming narcomules. Who are the narcomules? How can we think about them beyond the tropes that prefigure them in the polarity of victim/criminal? What subjectivities are constructed in this practice?

In a social world resulting from the implantation of narcoconsumerism as a logic that organizes relationships with others and with goods, certain subjects take certain risks and defy an established order that denied them social mobility, the enjoyment of a good life or health. Through the contraband of illegal molecules, Bustos’s narcomules affirm themselves as desiring subjects by behaving like authentic businessmen or brave capitalist entrepreneurs. But in doing so, they from a subaltern position and as subjects of consumption, they become entangled in the meanders of capitalist production. Human mules are the weakest link in the chain of exchanges that make up drug trafficking, in that their pay is not very high and the possibilities of death or detention by the police are always high.

The dangerous and ambivalent (Bhabha 1998) self-affirmation that becoming a narcomule implies requires, in a very concrete way, emptying oneself of oneself to fill or cover oneself with cocaine. The body itself or some of its extensions––like clothing, suitcases, shoes, etc.––become mobile warehouses, instruments of cargo and transport. This operation opens a space for the development of agency that would seem to respond to a sort of narcoempowerment. Selling the body’s transport capacity and learning the techniques to conceal cocaine, these subjects attempt to transform their situation of vulnerability into concrete actions. But in doing it through dystopian, violent practices, associated with suffering and death, they give way, yet again, to the reproduction of relations of domination.

If pharmaco-pornographic capitalism produces the yuppie and junkie subjectivities that we saw in our ethnography, and gore capitalism engenders monstrous subjects, personified by hit men, then the narcocapitalism that Bustos’s art explores produces mule subjects. Although dissimilar, and not necessarily contradictory, these different contemporary subjectivities account for the commodification of the body and the hypercorporalization of narcoconsumer society, which can be observed from recreational, medical, and aesthetic technologies to kidnapping, torture, and contract killings.

The old Aristotelian distinction between zoe and bios, between animal life lacking intentionality and worthy life endowed with meaning, appears, as Bustos’s work shows, to have become blurred. The body that the narcomules offer is a disposable container, a mere vehicle or means of transport. Hybrid and sterile, the new human mules, neither bios nor zoe, are transport platforms, a corpus on the inside of the narco-machine.

Translated by Sarah Thomas

Gustavo Blásquez earned his PhD in Social Anthropology from the Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro. Currently, he is Professor of the Problematic of Artistic Production at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. A researcher for CONICET, his work explores urban youth cultures and cultural consumption in the Cordoban nightlife. He recently published the book Músicos, mujeres y algo para tomar: Los mundos de los cuartetos en Córdoba, with Editorial Recovecos. He is also currently working independently in artistic production and criticism. As an artist, he has participated in performances and installations in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Salta, and Germany.


 [1] Thanks to the following for their readings, contributions, and generosity in assisting me to carry out this work: Adriana Bustos, María Gabriela Lugones, Belkys Scolamieri, Federico Lavezzo, Mónica Jacobo, and Sebastián Peña.

 [2] The name Argentina appears in Martín del Barco Centenera’s 1602 epic poem “La Argentina y la conquista del Río de la Plata and it was in 1860 that it was established as the official name of the country.

 [3] Between 2000 and 2009 I conducted various ethnographies in a variety of nightlife scenes associated with a local musical style called Cuarteto (Cf. Blázquez 2008), with dance music/electronica, floggers, otakus, and rock stars.

 [4] Deleuze and Guattari (2004: 520) hold that abstract machines are “singular and creative, here and now, real though not concrete, current but not executed.” Therefore, “there do not exist abstract machines that would be like Platonic ideals, transcendent and universal, eternal” (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 519). These machines, like Foucauldian devices, only exist in concrete, singular, and immanent agentifications. “Abstract machines are dated and they have a name” (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 520).

 [5] In several texts, Foucault analyzed the modes of subjectification through the study of the subject’s constitution in discourse, through classifying practices and by means of “technologies of the self,” which allow individuals to carry out “a transformation of themselves with the goal of reaching a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, or immortality (Foucault, 1996:48). Becoming a subject would be part of the subjectification of the individual, of the subjection to a structure or institution, a network of power that produces the individual and produces certain knowledge about him or her.

 [6] Preciado proposes that to understand this regime it would be necessary to study three areas seldom visited by social theory: the production, trafficking, and consumption of drugs (both legal and illegal), and of audiovisual pornographic materials, as well as sex work as a form of commodification of this potential gaudendi.

 [7] The cartoneros are groups of people, generally united by family ties, who collect cardboard and other paper products on the streets of large cities, often assisted by horse-drawn carts.

 [8] Vin Mariani or Mariani Wine was a drink made from Bordeaux wine mixed with crushed coca leaves, patented by the Corsican chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863. The public recognition of this tonic was such that even Pope Leon XIII, who awarded Mariani a gold medal for the merit of his creation, appears in an advertisement that forms part of the collection of Bustos’s personal museum.

 [9] This transformative dimension of dialectical images will be explored by Adriana Bustos in her video series “Motete.” These pieces show the more or less perfect spiral movement that forms when a pinch of cocaine is dissolved in a container with household bleach, with a soundtrack that includes excerpts of interviews with the narcomules.

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Míguez Daniel y Pablo Semán (ed). 2006. Entre santos, cumbias y piquetes. Las culturas populares en la Argentina reciente. Buenos Aires: Biblos.

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