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Mariana Hernández León
Mariana Hernández León

The Crónica of the Narco and the Transa According to Cristian Alarcón

This essay explores the work of the cronista of drug trafficking, in particular the diffuse formal and methodological outlines of his work, through a reading of the Cristian Alarcón’s, Si me querés, quereme transa. Recollecting the sessions of a workshop for young cronistas led by Alarcón, Polit Dueñas explores the complex interrelations between the slippery concept of violence, the experiences of the low-level protagonists of the drug-trade, and the subjectivities these experiences generate upon being narrated to a cronista. The crónica emerges then as a sort of polyphonic text capable of shedding light on a series of realities that contradict official discourses, narrating stories centered on the people that endure them. But the crónica also entails a critical function, since it can signal and recognize the permeability between violence, its representation and its interpretation. The crónica embodies the medium through which violence becomes text, illustrating a reality in which we are all caught up—performers and spectators, narrators and readers, victims and perpetrators.

Cristian Alarcón’s Si me querés, quereme transa (If you love me, love me transa, 2010) is the story of turf wars among drug dealers in a Buenos Aires villa (slum). Villa del Señor, where the Señor de los Milagros massacre—an event in which the lives of more than 40 of the story’s characters intersect and coincide—occurred in 2005, is an urban labyrinth, as one of the informants explains to the cronista:

Have you seen that corner where Señor de los Milagros is, next to a fountain? That’s Bonavena [the avenue]. I’ll draw it for you so you know where you are. You keep going deeper, this way, where there’s a corner, keep going straight and here is where the Canchita de los Paraguayos was, which they have taken, and where they now live. Yes? OK. This here’s an alley, and here it ends in Galíndez [the other avenue]. That’s where the incident occurred. That’s how the shit went down. From this house towards the inside, on the other side, there was an entrance. Who would dare go there? That’s why they took us by surprise. (Italics mine, 88)

In this intricate area of the city, as in the majority of barrios created by land invasions (informal settlements), improvisation predominates. Urban planners define these as places where the design process follows no logic in adapting space to material but, on the contrary, it is a matter of adapting material to space (Lara, Studio: 1).[1] Something similar happens in literature: crónicas about narcos adapt literary genres to the reality they describe.

In Villa del Señor, as in other marginal territories of Latin America, illegal drug trafficking is a possible (and sometimes the only) path to economic integration; it holds the promise of social ascension and even of personal recognition. Even so, narco-trafficking is a violent universe, not only because of the practices deriving from its illegality but most of all because of the corrupt actions of the authorities, who seize profit or drugs while hiding behind the rhetoric of the war on crime and practice violence with impunity.

Nevertheless, the complex universe of narco-trafficking must be understood in its specific expressions and determined historical moments.[2] The rhetoric of the War on Drugs and the way in which it is portrayed makes narco-trafficking appear to be the same in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina.[3] Loïc Wacquant assertively warns that this war on crime is carried out with the purpose of exhibiting it as, and transforming it into, spectacle, in the literal sense of the term: “For this, words and deeds, proclaiming to fight crime and assorted urban disorder must be methodically orchestrated, exaggerated, dramatized, even ritualized. This explains why […] they are extraordinarily repetitive, mechanical, uniform, and therefore eminently predictable” (xii).[4] (emphasis in the original, Punishing the Poor xii)[5] The predictable character of the war shows the lack of information available on its real protagonists, on the clandestine and corrupt networks with which it operates, the forms that define it in different regions, and principally, on the stories of its victims. This lack of content simultaneously constitutes the war against narco as a violence machine and reproducer of empty signifiers.[6]

In that context, the crónica makes it possible to understand the world of the narco from another perspective. This narrative genre functions as an antidote against the media’s mise en scene of an inhuman and dehumanizing violence. Crónicas—or certain crónicas—explore the state’s unexplored paths, contradict the news media and the serially produced official discourses, and give voice to stories of the effects of illegal drug trafficking on the people who suffer them. The genre registers the local language with which narcos are named and tells their complex stories.

Si me querés, quereme transa is one of these crónicas. Much like Alonso Salazar’s No nacimos pa’ semilla (1990) and Elmer Mendoza’s Each Breath You Take (1991), Transas warns of the necessity to think about the issue of narco-trafficking from a cultural and local point of view. Read in this perspective, the crónicas of Salazar and Mendoza were expressions of specific circumstances in the histories of the development of drug trafficking in Medellín and Culiacán, respectively, and they show the characteristics with which the phenomenon was identified in each city. In both cases, the author’s interest lie in the recording and codification of a new type of violence predominates. It is no accident that Transas appears when Argentina acquires an important place in the transport of illegal drugs as a port of shipment to Europe.[7] Alarcón describes the effects of shift on Argentine society and takes note of the new type of violence that spreads through the marginal zones of Buenos Aires’ urban sprawl, which are inhabited by Andean and Paraguayan migrants.

Similar to the crónicas previously mentioned, Transas also puts into question the network of arbitrary judgments and beliefs about what society considers abject. In the case of Medellín, this figure was the hit man, the assassin for hire, which generated a local literary genre that became fashionable in 1990s Colombian literature: the sicaresca.[8] In the case of Culiacán, it was the serrano—emerging from the Sierra Madre—through which the local imaginary carried its bandolero culture into the development of the drug trade and its various mythologies.[9] In the case of Buenos Aires, it is the Andean immigrants: Peruvians and Bolivians who reproduce their traditions, food, religious rituals, and choreographies of violence in the poor areas of the city. In all cases, we are dealing with the character of the narco, but also with the marginal groups that are burdened with the stigma of crime in every society.

In this context, it is necessary to understand narco-crónicas as critical tools of analysis (Josefina Lúdmer 1999) and to recognize that every story brings us closer to a region’s particular reality, as well as to the literary traditions of each writer. In the case of Transas, Alarcón describes narco-culture in greater Buenos Aires, and his book is a contribution to the collection of narratives on crime in Latin America. Transas is a text with complex levels of representation in which the author shows the necessity to experience and adapt the narrative genres to the violent reality of the villa.

The Work of the Cronista and the Role of Criticism

In “Reality and its Shadow,” Levinas defines criticism as a discourse emerging from art objects that—in many cases—we appreciate precisely because they express without the use of words. A work of art is a closed universe, complete, and criticism emerges in its wake to situate it in concrete time and space. Only then can we interpret what artists communicate and reflect on their aesthetic proposals (1991).

In the case of the crónica, a genre defined by roots that are not only explicitly of a specific moment and place, criticism demands a different approach. To tell stories of the violence that currently assaults a region implies—in the majority of cases—taking enormous risks, confronting dangers and submitting oneself to intense personal transformation.[10] Because of the immediacy, sometimes urgency, with which some narco-crónicas are written and published, it is necessary to go beyond the writer/work binary and find what Maria Elena Rueda describes as “the constant permeability between violent acts and the form with which they are understood and narrated” (9). The rigor of the task of criticism is measured by its capacity to signify this permeability and to recognize—in the tone, rhythm and style of the narrative—how violence becomes a written work.

Rueda’s reflection relies on a notion of violence as a slippery and continuous concept, which is fundamental to understanding its contemporary narratives. In the words of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgeois: “”[The concept of violence] is non-linear productive, descriptive, and reproductive […] Violence gives birth to itself. So we can rightly speak of chains, spirals and mirrors of violence—or as we prefer, a continuum of violence” (Violence 1).[11] This continuum does not suggest the understanding of violent phenomena as isolated acts, nor as eruptions in everyday life, but on the contrary, as events in a reality that reproduces itself in a spiral. This requires thinking of the work of the cronista, whose work is a product of the violence he narrates, and of his personal experience as part of the violence that he narrates.

In August of this year, I accompanied Alarcón to Buenos Aires, where he lead a seminar on narratives of narco-trafficking for a group of young journalists at one of the workshops organized by the New Iberoamerican Journalism Foundation (FNPI).[12] Here, I read Alarcón’s text with the experiences from the workshop in mind and aim to incorporate observations of the problems that young cronistas face when narrating current violence in Latin America into my analysis. This reading allows me to situate Transas in the continuum of violence and to recognize in the text the author’s strategies, which the author and teacher of the workshop recommended the students use to sort through the demands of narrating violence.[13] Because of Alarcón’s influence in the formation of new generations of cronistas, his book also serves as a model for examining tendencies in these narrative repertoires.

Monday: Presentation of the Workshop Participants, the Teacher, and Projects[14]

The members of the workshop are from Peru (3), Colombia (4), Chile (1), Ecuador (1), Argentina (3), Mexico (1), Venezuela (1), and Guatemala (1). The majority work in print media, a few work in television. Some come from very prestigious media with national coverage; others work in areas of the media that have less impact. Their investigations cover themes of violence and narco-trafficking, unsolved murders, authorities’ abuses, corruption, rape; many have painful testimonies of unresolved mourning and traumas. The majority of stories take place in marginal areas.

Photo courtesy of FNPI
Photo courtesy of FNPI

The journalists come to the workshop seeking to write stories that are not simply news, but that recover the humanity of both victims and perpetrators. They feel a surprising need to master a language that mainstream news has led them away from, to take on the challenge of converting the narco-trafficker into a character, to recreate the environment of the villa without repeating a vocabulary that stigmatizes poverty. They all speak of the difficulties of gaining the confidence of sources, of analyzing judicial records with a sufficient dose of skepticism in order to transform the facts into a story. How one resolves these dilemmas will not determine—and this the teacher makes clear—the reality they see, not even the difficulties they come across, but it will determine the strength of their crónicas.

The first difficulty that a narrator of violence faces is the risk of thinking that the magnitude of the horror comes across in the story and that atrocity is enough to sustain a narrative and give it political transcendence. Reality is not sufficient to produce literature. At the same time, everyone knows that only a well-told story reveals the magnitude of what is narrated, and, eventually, impacts readers. One of the recurring themes in the workshop is the difficulty of narrating horror without slipping into clichés. This is a never-ending issue. In all of the stories there are mothers that bury their children; young people who lose their way; parents without freedom; the authorities’ abuses are present in all of them; there are massacres in many of them; impunity is in every single one. These forms of suffering are similar and unbelievably repetitive, resulting in the difficulty of narrating the structure of violence while avoiding the constant threat of the commonplace and of stigmatization.

The second risk is the desire to be the author of the story. This risk not only has to do with the every writer’s necessary negotiations with his own narcissism, it also involves knowing up to which point to probe and to respect the invisible boundary of fear of threats or the dangerous territory that they cover. The notion of this limit is developed in the writers’ experiences as reporters, but the definitive border has to do with the strength of the institutions in the countries where they work. In Transas, Alarcón writes about the networks of mid-level drug dealers in a poor area of Buenos Aires’ urban sprawl with a level of detail that is unimaginable in stories written in today’s Guatemala or Mexico. This is due to the fact that complex networks of corruption in the contexts of Guatemala or Mexico cross the conflicts of mid-level drug-dealers. The degree of violence in those contexts make it necessary to keep a greater distance from the subject, and as a consequence, the stories they narrate are different.[15]

Clearly, no narrative genre is as vulnerable to the tensions of the political sphere as the crónica of violence, just as no cronista runs as many risks as those who write about narcos. The tensions between these worlds have to do with the gray areas in which the police, the legal apparatus, the political point person in the barrio (called punteros), and even the white-collar criminal who launders money, all operate.[16] The cronista must then carry out his research as if walking on a lose wire, having to maintain balance between locating a source, arranging an interview, establishing relationships in the territory, and guarding his security. All those elements also have to be understood as part of a literary search. When the cronista includes these efforts in his story, there is more suspense and more emotion in the text. As such, he calls on the readers to experience the process through which violence becomes text. This means that the crónica must also emulate the police report.

Alarcón wrote Transas in order to fulfill a pending debt with the central character of his previous book, Cuando me muera quiero que me toquen cumbia (Norma: 2004), which was the story of pibes chorros (gang members) in the urban sprawl of Buenos Aires. With much sensitivity to the use of vernacular speech, Cumbia tells the myth of a thief transformed into local saint. He is assassinated by members of a police quad that runs a security agency which establishes its reputation through the use of a firm hand, to the detriment of the youth in the villa. In Cumbia, Alarcón establishes a stark symbolic distinction in the barrio—evident in his books—between the territory of the transa (a hustler in the drug trade) and the chorro (gang member). Each defends the honor he lends to his work, and, so as to enhance the reputation of the thief (chorro)—the protagonist of Cumbia—the dealer (transa) appears as a dark character.

The symbolic difference between their territories is marked by a particular rhetoric in each case: “I won’t kill him,” the transa would say; “I don’t lead children to vice,” the killer would say. This is where the material for the drama that the cronista will write can be found. The subject of the dispute over the construction of rhetoric is always the access point to good material, as Alarcón explains:

[…] the symbolic trenches are important in the barrios, and they are important in all the territories. These positionings have to do first with what I call the melodramatic discourses about allocating or obtaining resources that are key to human existence, and which cross all classical and contemporary literature. So, demystifying these trenches, in the sense of how they are articulated, they are rhetoric that serves to achieve and affirm identities. (Interview 2010)[7]

Conscious that the seed of a good story lies in the rhetorical strategies with which a territory is defended, Alarcón submerges himself in that of the narcos. In Transas he not only recovers their humanity, of which he had deprived them in Cumbia, he also demonstrates a common narrative strategy: the act of withholding, of deciding not to speak. To portray a character concisely, to not describe them fully (because of ignorance, fear or morals), is an effective way to portray his opponent, his challenger, his enemy. What is silenced about a character can easily result in stigma, but it is also the best way to show the qualities of his rival. The silence that surrounds the transa in Cumbia is a conscious decision on the part of the cronista who wants to narrate the tragedy of an urban thief as a modern epic. For this reason, he returns to the barrio eagerly seeking out stories about transa in order to give voice to those he had deprived in his previous book.

Tuesday: The Pact with the Reader

The reader’s distrust, says the teacher, should also be ours. That is why the tone of the book must be established in the first chapter, because the pact with the reader is established in that chapter.

In order to arrive at this book, Alarcón wrote about the street as a police reporter for two decades. He commands the journalistic slang of sensationalism and he has researched police and court files as well as the psychiatric reports that unite and separate illegality and power. Describing his tours through these institutions—in which the material to write a Foucauldian reading of the illegal world and a Kakfaesque reading of law can be found—Alarcón stays close to the police story, liberating the words from their institutional form in order to make literature of the descriptions of old buildings, the idle rest of records and his writing: “Amidst of a murmur of laws and articles among incommunicative judicial employees, the stories burst out of their juridical straightjacket in a matter of weeks” (106).

But the measure of his story is reality, and he returns to reality to show his face. Alarcón accompanies Alcira (one of his subjects) and her family to make an offering to an orishá deity, where she asks for help with her future ventures. In this first encounter with the reader, Alarcón deviates from the omniscient narrative mode and presents himself as an eyewitness of Alcira, her children, her helper, and la mai in the religious ritual. They take the offerings on a square raft, to float it down the Rio de la Plata to the goddess Oxún. It is windy, making it hard to balance the raft.

And at that instant, it was hard to tell if it was the wind, or la mai, if the mother and la mai, if Olray—who?—lets the damned raft overturn; the cloth, like a slippery mattress that slides off the bed without fail, falls from the board, yellow, gold, flying. We all feel bad. I am grateful for having been two steps behind, far enough not to be faulted for the mishap. (Emphasis mine, 19)

The cronista’s position suggests a reflection on the ethics of representation, journalistic objectivity, and non-intervention of the “I:” a mandate of canonical U.S. journalism that continues to mark the great difference between crónicas of the U.S. and Latin America.[18] Following the scene, however, this tension dissolves because Alarcón positions himself in the text while at the same time announcing his distance. The readers know from where the story is being told and who guides our travels through the world of the transa. As all elements that make a story, the scene of the raft is a game of equilibrium. To carry the flowers, keep the candles burning, to not trip on uneven turf, and be capable of sending a raft along the river’s currents despite the wind, becomes a commitment to narrate a complex story from the “I” without getting tangled in the first person. The task is to write about the misery of others without stripping them of their dignity; to produce investigative work without converting the book into a news report; to portray men whose masculine code appears to come from a manual with enough dramatics for it to seem like a personal characteristic; and the women who suffer the weight of this code without reducing them to victims.

That balance, suggested in the scene of the raft and the prudent distance Alarcón keeps from the rest of the characters, goes through various moments of transformation in the story. The last, definitive one is when after much deliberation, having to sort out many doubts and almost at mid-story, the cronista accepts Alcira’s request to be the godfather of her son. This fact—incorporated as an event in the story—challenges the classical criteria of objectivity. This does not mean that Alarcón in not objective, but that his objectivity is based on the conditions in which he writes. This implies adapting literary genres to reality. In this story the logic of adaptation is implacable: Alcira tells him her life story and asks him to hold her son at the baptism. Alarcón writes a book about Alcira’s life and becomes the godfather of her son.

Wednesday: Choosing Characters, Interview Strategies

The title of the book, Si me querés, quereme transa, are the words of Alcira, when she confronts her second husband Jerry—a thief and hit man—rebukes him, and asks him to accept her as she is and stop criticizing her for being a drug dealer. They (Alcira and Jerry) are united by love and children and they are divided by the codes of their work, his as killer and hers as transa. (Here we also have the writing of the writing: the balance of Alarcón’s debt with the transa of Cumbia).

The first word of Transas is her name, Alcira. A moment later, the story of Alciria’s past emerges: there is nothing in this story that surprises us in its novels, but rather for the triteness of the suffering that women like her undergo. Alcira is the daughter of Bolivian immigrants, born in Argentina; an uncle raped her as a child; her mother mistreated her; she was widowed twice before ago 20 and left with an infant child and the story that her dead husband had not told her: he was a narco. She is pursued by this legacy and the ambitions of her former in-laws. When she began to earn her own living, she worked selling drinks in a cabaret and then started her career as a transa. Alcira never says whether she has been a prostitute, and Alarcón never seeks to know: what would it add to the story? The limits of the respondent are also the limits of the interviewer: this research should never be invasive.

When there is indispensable information for the story, persuasion gets better results:

“Are you religious?”
I asked only to bring up a possible topic, one sincere opinion, before he hung up on me. He listens, keep quiet for a few seconds, and at last shows enthusiasm. (51)

Here Alarcón was interviewing Arsenio, brother of Teodoro and Porfirio (Niki Lauda), two characters who have pasts in Peru, by telephone. Old Arsenio is about to hang up, but with Alarcón’s probe, he finally responds. The work, says the teacher, has more to do with the “how” than with the “why;” the questions cannot anticipate the content. The trajectory leading to a question can add suspense to the story.

The secret to every interview is trust. On Teodoro give his version of an event, Alarcón asks himself: “At what point did he cross the barrier of distrust and stand, with his hands on his elbows, ready to tell a stranger everything?” The musings over a joke that instigated trust, a look of complicity, a laugh, gave way to dialogue. The source insists on loyalty and the cronista assures it and writes. “In my ethic, the greatest virtue is the truth. The truth is far from the police stations and the courts, the truth is found only in the streets” (119-120).

The tactics of the interview can be based on methods ranging from basic survey methodology to the most elaborate methods of anthropology. From the point of view of someone who writes a 300-page story about massacres that occurred in a barrio, all based on interviews, there is an element that applies to all of them: time. The development of a character depends on the time the interviewee gives to the cronista. If the interview is short, the character will at most have intensity, but not depth. Alcira gives Alarcón lots of time and that is why she is the story’s main character, even though Transas narrates the life and death of four clans who fight over the territory of the villa. Her ethic is what the reader comes to understand the most; her misfortunes are the drama of the story and also its success. We see Alcira as a victim, as an entrepreneur, as transa, tired of living an illegal life, as a hit man’s woman, as someone who lost two husbands, as someone who did not satiate her need for immediate accumulation, as a woman who gives orders like a man. Although we do not share her criteria, we understand why Alcira gives orders to kill in order to stay in business. The character that gives the cronista time is the one who gives the story depth.

Thursday: The Models - Discussion of In Cold Blood and Operción masacre. What you have to read in order to write

This, like all stories of narcos that we read or imagine, is driven by treason. When Alarcón mentions the word “treason,” he names Macbeth. Shakespeare does not come into the story because of the author’s literary whim, but because one of the protagonists names Macbeth as one of the texts he read, assigned by Abimael Guzman, as part of the military training he received when he was in Shining Path. The commander wanted to train future soldiers to grasp the deep significance of treason. Reality—even in war—imitates literature: “The construction of a figure of power within a territory usually borrows from fiction, even to convert an impossible biography into an oral story that is complete on its own, capable of being credible and of remaining salient” (93).

The members of the workshop had read and re-read texts by Rodolfo Walsh and Truman Capote before the beginning of the workshop. Alarcón guides them in his reading as a writer, and they all seek to imitate literature. One can see traces of these crónicas in Transas, in the cautious reconstruction of events by way of interviews as well as in the going back and forth from files and records. In more than one section of the book the writer confesses to taking facts from files: “Each stretch of this story was originally a note taken from a six-part dossier. Amidst a murmur of laws and articles, between incommunicative judicial employees, the stories emerged from their juridical straightjacket in a matter of weeks” (106).

Even though Transas follows the path of those books, it deviates from them in that the executioners are not easily recognized, or at least it is not easy to distinguish them from the victims. The descriptions of Alcira are sifted through conventions of thrillers in which the point of view of the criminal predominates, with the intention of showing a complex reality in which the truth is constructed on the basis of concrete experiences of corruption, abusive police, punteros, and of various dark aspects of power that makes narco-trafficking function.

But the criminal story also falls short as an analogue, especially when the parish priest agrees to baptize Alcira’s son at dawn, without any witnesses or paper trail. This is another moment of great literary achievement that meets the demands of the reality Alarcón wants to understand, and which again demands that the writing adapts to the event.

Perhaps the strongest similarities to Walsh and Capote are in the diversity of voices that tell the story. In Transas there are more that 40 characters, all with something to say. In addition to narcos, their families, their victims, the consumers who are victims of addiction (like Alcira’s son and his helper, Olray), there is a character that stands out and inhabits those gray areas that function as a hinge between the legal and illegal worlds. This woman takes charge of burying the dead: “Burying the unknown dead is an art. You have to take a collection to get money for the coffin, talk to the priest to give them a Christian farewell; you cry a bit afterwards, before they throw dirt on the coffin, and later you leave the cemetery with empty hands and a heavy heart” (164). In the neighborhood they call her Maria Buena and she is a puntera of Paraguayan origin.

Everyone knows Maria, as she herself tells the cronista, and since she talks with everyone, Maria changes the name of the cronista every time he contacts her to ask a question: “Because I, to avoid problems, am going to re-baptize you, since you are so delicate, Lupe. […] Lupe suits you fine. That way no one suspects when you call me to ask me something, instead of greeting you, ‘Hello Mr. Journalist,’ I’ll say, ‘Hi Lupe!’” (165).

Beyond its hilarity, the anecdote shows the fluidity of the genre. Instead of protecting the identity of the informant, as should be the case, Maria’s declaration flips it around: the informant protects the identity of the cronista.[19] Maria protects Alarcón because everyone knows her: government officials, the transas, the chorros, addicts’ mothers, and the police. Although she agrees to give the cronista information about the world in which she lives, she knows that doing so puts them both in danger.

In order to get to know better the brothers Teodoro and Porfirio, who compete for control of the territory of Villa del Señor, the cronista asks about their Peruvian past, in order to understand the way in which they kill. Here Alarcón shows something he constantly repeats in the workshop: to contextualize is the only way to avoid clichés and the repetition of prejudices. The advantage of the cronista over the reporter is that he can contextualize while he investigates.

To explain the way the brothers operate, Alarcón speaks of the “choreography of violence” as a set of movements that make up a dance, in which repetition and memory play as important a role as improvisation and originality. Using the idea of choreography to describe assassinations and massacres allows him to employ the notion of violence as a composition requiring various subjects, which also responds to its own traditions and genealogy. Villa del Señor’s genealogy and tradition have roots in the Andes, in the Shining Path’s military training, in the Peruvian jungle, in the transport of drugs down the Paraguayan rivers, in wanderings around greater Lima, to finally be deployed for the defense of drug territory in the Argentine villa.

The idea of choreography simultaneously implies the use and waste of civilization and barbarity, the stigma of atavistic violence attributed to the poor of Latin America because of their origins, near or far, in a rural past, and the various forms in which violence has been recycled in the recent decades.[20] In these choreographies of violence one can track the similarities and differences between the Cold War and the Drug War as two bellicose ventures whose rhetoric—just like that of the villa—legitimate a struggle over material resources.

More than an analytical category, the notion of choreography of violence illustrates a reality in which we are all implicated, performers and spectators, narrators and readers, and victims and victimizers. From here stems the necessity to comprehend its routines.

Friday: The Place from which to Narrate Narco-Trafficking, and the Metaphor of Writing from the Bathroom

The tendency to read narco narratives as a homogeneous genre that defines Latin America from North to South and which exposes society’s most vulnerable groups is not simply a whim of readers. It is a vice for which the publishing markets prepare us.[21] Fortunately, Si me querés, quereme transa escapes simple labels because it illuminates the ambiguities of the transa’s world and illustrates how the drug business cannot subsist without the complicity of the police and the authorities, the political machine that dominates barrios, the corruption of those in power, and the various discourses of the media that reproduce the authorities’ words as if they were the truth. The capacity to recognize these ambiguities is part of Alarcón’s knowledge of the territory: “[…] the bathroom is the most secure place in any house […] it has more walls per square foot, it is a reduced space and there is less room for bullets to ricochet” (124). This understanding of the bathroom’s qualities is the result a long and intense exploration of the villa.

When Alarcón’s characters confess to running to the bathroom, they do so to talk about a shootout: “I told myself, good Maria, don’t peek out añamembuí porá; and I started to pray while I was shut in the bathroom. It was the only solid place; bullets weren’t going to come through” (165). To protect oneself from bullets in the bathroom is not a metaphor. In the writing, it is. To write about the villa the cronista must know the villa profoundly, and that places him in a vulnerable place. However, writing demands security, a place from which you can look out but which is at the same time a refuge. The metaphor also explains that the experience of the victims is never the same as the writers’, despite the fact that many times the writers are the only ones who make the victims’ pain known.

When the narco, the transa or the common resident of the villa enters the narrative territory of the cronista, he transforms into a character. We readers only have the materiality of the text. This is our access into the territory, the cadence of the local language, and also the tradition in which the author bases his writing of the crónica. That is the reason for the necessity to know the place from which he narrates.

For this book, Alarcón carried out the majority of the interviews outside of the territory. He met with his sources in restaurants at the limits of the barrio in places that he chose as a gesture of reciprocity for the time his informants gave him (Interview with Alarcón). If most of the interviews in this book took place in the cafés of Buenos Aires, it is because its author knows the villa profoundly. His experience of almost 20 years narrating crimes in Buenos Aires’ urban sprawl as a police reporter is best described by the refrain of the “devil you know.”

Each of the journalists in the workshop seeks that place from which to narrate the violence they research. They all know the territory of their stories very well; many even have an established relationship with their sources. In some cases, it is not the lack of information but the close relationship with the victims or the perpetrators that makes the process of writing difficult. Some are voracious readers and those readings will help them in their writing. All of them know that writing those stories is a way to exorcize their own experiences on in the field, and that is why they must find the small place with thick walls in which to write, where the bullets don’t ricochet.

Friday Night

As in other stories of this type, the pending thoughts, the ideas that no one dared propose in the session because of their informality or foolishness, and the questions that seem out of order, came out during conversations over lunch, or at a bar, and at the dance club that the group chose to close the meeting.

The place the members of the workshop chose was La Viruta, a club that played the now necessary porteño combination of tango and salsa. The writing workshop continued there because literature makes every moment propitious to story telling and reflecting, even about the various possibilities to narrate the narco:

Salsa is like narco-trafficking. The issue may seem messy, but it requires calculated movements to avoid stepping on the other person while moving around the limited space of a patio, without putting pressure, maintaining equilibrium and grace. That is where you note the effort, where an exaggerated movement reveals the dancer’s talent, and leads to a mistake. Exaggeration is for other scenarios, not for salsa, not for narco-trafficking. (225)

Translated by Margot Olavarría

Gabriela Polit Dueñas is an Assistant Professor of Latin American Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published Cosas de hombres: Escritores y caudillos en la narrativa latinoamericana del siglo XX (2008) and Crítica literaria ecuatoriana: Hacia un nuevo siglo (2001). She is currently working on her book, Fictions of Drugs. Stories from Culiacan and Medellin, which is a comparative analysis of the representation of the traffic of illegal drugs.


 [1] “[n]o proceso de projeto como o conhecemos, a espacialidade vem quase sempre antes da materialidade” (“[a] process in which the materials come first and actually arrive at the construction site before any spatial abstraction has been conceived…”) (1).

 [2] The War on Drugs was initiated in 1986 by the government of Ronald Reagan converting illegal drug trafficking into an issue of state security. It gathered strength during the years of the development of the neoliberal state. Contemporary studies suggest certain continuity between the rhetoric of the Cold War and the War on Drugs as a search for legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy; see Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government, Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004). Paul Gootenberg, in Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), points out the historical continuities between the Cold War and the War on Drugs. To understand the Mexican case, see Luis Astorga, El siglo de las drogas (Plaza y Janés, 2005) and Seguridad traficantes y militares (Tusquets, 2008). To understand the effects of the War on Drugs in the U.S. see Waquant (2009); Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend, (Berkeley: University of California. Press, 2009).

 [3] I have researched the cases of Medellín and Culiacán in the last four years to understand the different histories and forms used to represent the War on Drugs. The resulting book is tentatively called, Narrating Narcos: Stories from Culiacán and Medellín. I currently study the representations of narcos in Buenos Aires and La Paz.

 [4] The news coverage of the death of drug-lords and the grotesque exhibition of their corpses (i.e. Pablo Escobar Gaviria in Colombia in 1993, Atruro Beltrán Leyca in Mexico in 2009) as war ytrophies serve as en example of this ritual. For every two druglords assassinated that appear in the newspapers during for weeks at a time, the death of hundreds of innocent people is rendered a mere statistic. The rhetoric of “cleansing” that has yielded such atrocious results in Latin America, appears again to bear homage to impunity. New York Times: “Mexico’s President Works to Lock In Drug War Tactics” Octubre 15, 2011. Internet.

 [5] In Punishing the Poor (2009), Loïq Waquant argues that the new economic model has reduced the function of the state to that of an institution for regulating order. Hi analytical model serves for understanding the necessary combination of the development of the neoliberal state and the rhetoric of insecurity. Linking them, it is evident that the war of narcos is a war on the poor.

The news on the death of crime bosses and grotesque exhibition of their corpses as war trophies is an example of these rituals (i.e. Pablo Escobar Gaviria in Colombia in 1993, Arturo Beltrán Leiva in Mexico in 2009). For every two drug bosses murdered that appear in the newspapers for weeks, there are hundreds of innocent persons murdered, that is a statistic. The rhetoric of “clean up” that has had such atrocious results in Latin America, returns to establish a cult of impunity. See: “Mexico’s President Works to Lock In Drug War Tactics,” New York Times October 15, 2011. Web.

 [6] In 1994, Luis Astorga spoke of the performative character of the term “narco-trafficking,” which in a Foucaultian sense creates the reality it names; Astorga warns of the dangers that the imprecision of the word creates at the moment of condemning a crime. See, Mitología del narcotraficante en México.

 [7] News of large quantities of cocaine and marijuana seized in Argentina are becoming increasingly frequent. For example, see: “Decomisan 300 kilos de cocaína en puerto de Buenos Aires,” Ámbito, June 29, 2010 (web) amd press release number 167 of the Ministry of Security, “Operativo Carbón Narco,” published October 20, 2011 (web).

 [8] This neologism was coined by Héctor Abad Faciolince (2003) to describe the moment of cultural production that took place in Antioquia in the wake of the death of Pablo Escobar, the story of which circulated amongst hit men.

 [9] The works of César López Cuadras, La novela inconclusa de Bernardino Casablanca (UAG, 1992) and Cástulo Bojórquez (Fondo de Cultura, 2001) best portray the rural origin of the mythology of the narco in Sinaloa. In his first two novels, Un asesino solitario (Tusquets, 1999) and El amante de Janis Joplin (Tusquets, 2001) Elmer Mendoza works with characters of the 70s and 90s and shows the transition from a rural business to one of urban practices. In the case of La Paz, it is the cholo who profits from the commercialization of cocaine in non-traditional networks of exchange. Alison Spedding’s trilogy—Manuel y Fortunato. Una picaresca andina (Mamahuaco, 1997), El viento de la cordillera. Un thriller de los 90 (Mamahuaco, 2001) and De cuando en cuando Saturnina. Una historia oral del futuro (Mamahuaco, 2003)—is a good example of these same dynamics; the author puts forward an archeology of the characters who traditionally commercialize coca. For an analysis of Spedding’s work, see Polit Dueñas, “La utopía de la coca en la obra de Alison Spedding,” in Utopías urbanas: geopolíticas del deseo en América Latina,. Gisela Hefes (ed.) Iberoamericana Veruet 2012.

 [10] The number of journalists murdered in Mexico in recent years, as well as of those who have died covering the Colombian conflict, is evidence of this risk. However, it is not only the deaths but also the difficulties that continuing to live and work implies. The Dart Center of the Columbia University School of Journalism takes a concrete and effective approach to the problems of those who cover violence. The Center trains journalists, offers scholarships, and even provides psychological assistance in cases of post-traumatic disorder.

 [11] For an analysis of the continuum of violence in contemporary Latin America, see Meanings of Violence in Contemporary Latin America, Polit Dueñas Gabriela and María Helena Rueda (eds.), (New York: Palgrave, 2011).

 [12] FNPI was founded by Gabriel Garcia Márquez in 1995. It began holding workshops lead by Ryszard Kapuscinski and Tomás Eloy Martínez. Its current instructors are Alma Guillermoprieto, John Lee Anderson, María Teresa Ronderos, Juan Villoro, Gustavo Gorriti, Martín Caparrós, and Donna De Cessare; Cristian Alarcón is the youngest of the group. The workshop in August 2011 took place at the National University of San Martín and was funded by the Open Society Institute.

 [13] Alarcón is coordinator and editor of the Chronicles on Gangs project administrated by CCPVJ Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In 2010 CCPVJ released “Cosecha Roja,” a network of judicial journalists in Latin America who propose a “holistic” approach to writing on violence in the social sciences, the news, and literary criticism. In Buenos Aires, they hold a workshop on crónicas, of which the results are published on the Aguilas Humanas blog, which serves as an alternative space for young journalists to publish, for those who cannot publish in the principal magazines, which every aspiring cronista aims for (Gatopardo, El Malpensante, SOHO, Rolling Stone, etc.). Alarcón’s importance in the field is evident in the breadth of his involvement. He has worked to establish bridges of institutional exchange between journalism, social science, literature and literary criticism. He organized the meeting “Violence and Narco-trafficking in Latin American Cities” in Mexico City in October 2009, in which, besides workshop members and specialized journalists, various academics participated, including Phillipe Bourgois, Rossana Reguillo, Juan Cajas, Luis Astorga, Ricardo Vargas Meza, and this author. It is part of the project Lectura-Mundi of the National University of San Martín. It coordinates the magazine Revista Anfibia, a space for dialogue between academics and journalists.

 [14] As a literary critic with an established career in the American academy, the workshop on narratives of violence and narcos in Latin America was an intense experience. “Humbling” is the word that best describes it, the English word that describes something that makes us humble. I hope the following pages show what I learned in the course of that week.

 [15] In Fuego cruzado (Fundación MEPI, 2011) Marcela Turati writes chronicles that narrate the effects of the current drug war in Mexico on people’s everyday lives. In his columns “Malayerba,” published in the weekly Riodoce (some of them converted into books edited by JUS, 2010), Javier Valdez covers the day-to-day violence in Culiacán. In Jonathan no tiene tatuajes (2011), a group of cronistas from the CCPVJ tell stories of young gang members in Central America. The stories of Diego Osorno published in Gatopardo, are indispensable references to understand violence in northern Mexico. All these authors write works that examine the violence in each region and approach the complexity of local conflicts.

 [16] Punteros are barrio leaders who manage and distribute resources.

 [17] Interview with University of Texas at Austin students a few months after the publication of the book.

 [18] Recent chronicles, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Random House, 2009), are a good example of how contemporary authors in the U.S. confront the crisis of narrating the other from the perspective of the omniscient observer. In interview with Terry Gross for “Fresh Air,” Skloot reflects on the immersion of the “I” as the only way to bridge between writing and reality, between her place as a cronista and the family that is the protagonist of her story. The immersion of the “I” has nothing to do with the narrator’s occupying the position of protagonist, but with the intimacy that writers establish with the protagonists of their stories (Skloot’s reflections are published in “Fresh Air” February 2, 2010). Another example is Francisco Goldman in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, a cronica in which the author writes about his Guatemalan mother’s family, and includes himself in the story as a journalist to narrate it without distance.

 [19] The book begins as non-fiction books usually do: “…[T]he names of the protagonists of this story have been changed to protect their identity…”

 [20] In Sinaloa, says Rolando González, the scores of peasants who sympathized with the guerrillas were recruited by the narcos after the military came in as part of Operation Condor and destroyed the marijuana plantations and some guerrilla strongholds (Sinaloa 2007). In Colombia, the urban army of Pablo Escobar recruited young people who had been trained by the M19 (Salazar, Las culturas, 1994). It is not hard to understand why armed groups who supported a political project came to support the bellicose acts of narcos. It is inaccurate to explain it as opting for violence, or for atavistic violence. To understand the reason, you have to consider the economic transformations in each region,, the lack of social inclusion that these sectors experience, and examine the values attributed to the narco in each case: recognition, gratification of masculinity, prestige of owning material goods, or simply the necessity to belong.

 [21] For an analysis on this topic, see Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola, “Se vende Colombia, un país de delirio: el Mercado literario global y la narrative colombiana reciente,” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. 2007. 61 (1): 43-56. Print.

Works Cited
Abad Faciolince, Héctor. 2008. “Estética y narcotráfico.” Revista de estudios hispánicos 42, 3: 513

Alarcón, Cristian. 2004. Cuando me muero quiero que me toquen cumbia. Buenos Aires: Norma, 2004.

–––––––––––––. 2007. Si me querés, quereme transa. Buenos Aires: Norma.

González, Rolando. 2007. Sinaloa, una sociedad demediada. Culiacán: Difocur.

Jackson Lee, Dorian and César Taboada. 2010. “Entrevista a Cristian Alarcón” Pterodáctilo 9. Accessed December 10, 2011.

Lara, Fernando (et al.) 2009. Favela Studio. Investigations in informality. Michigan: Studio Toró.

Levinas, I. 1998. “Reality and its Shadow” in Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans. Alphonso Linguis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Universtiy Press.

Ludmer, Josefina. 1999. El cuerpo del delito. Un Manual. Buenos Aires: Perfil Libros.

Mendoza, Élmer. 1991. Cada respiro que tomas. Culiacán: DIFOCUR.

Rueda, María Helena. 2011. La violencia y sus huellas. Una mirada desde la narrativa colombiana. Madrid: Iberoamericana. Vervuert.

Salazar, Alonso. 1990. No nacimos pa´semilla. Bogotá: Planeta.

Salazar, Alonso and Jaramillo, A. 1992. Las subculturas del narcotráfico. Bogotá: Editorial Cinep.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Philippe Bourgois (eds.). 2004. Violence in War and Peace. Oxford: Blackwell.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Fresh Air. Philadelphia: National Public Radio. February 2, 2010. Radio.

Waquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.



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