Narco-tourism in Mexico City
A drung ganster's siezed gun in Mexico Cityâs non-public El Museo de Enervantes, The Museum of Narcotics. (Jennifer Schmidt/PRI's The World).
Mexico City’s El Museo de Enervantes (The Museum of Narcotics) has chronicled Mexico’s tumultuous war against drug cartels since 1985.
Display cases feature weapons seized from drug traffickers. Among numerous jewel-studded firearms lies a gold plated handgun with an embossed portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Also on display is a diamond encrusted cell phone that once belonged to Daniel Pérez Rojas, one of the founders of the notoriously violent Zetas cartel. The museum's exhibits show how drugs have been used since ancient times, how poppy is grown today in narco camps, how heroin is produced in drug labs, and how narcotics are smuggled inside everything from donuts and encyclopaedias to propane tanks and stuffed animals. Near the exit, a plaque commemorates more than 600 Mexican soldiers who have died fighting the cartels over the last 30 years.
El Museo de Enervantes is perhaps one of the most fascinating museums in the world - but you can't go there. Operated by the Ministry of Defence, this "secret museum" is not open to the public. It is intended for military use only -- primarily in the training of new soldiers.
Drug-related violence makes headlines in Mexico every day, motivating governments around the world to issue travel warnings for the country. Since the drug war's impact is present in everyday Mexican life, some travellers seek a better understanding of the history and current affairs surrounding this issue. Those curious visitors have only to turn to Mexico City's flourishing arts scene, within which there have emerged entire genres dedicated to capturing stories about the drug trade.
From the street to the canvas
Gildalorena Martinez, Omar Rodriguez Graham and Rigoberto Gonzalez are a few of the Mexican artists who have been inspired by the violence resulting from narcotics trafficking. In 2010 alone, 15,273 deaths were associated with the drug market. As a result, murder is the subject of many paintings by both Martinez and Graham.
While Martinez and Graham are modern artists, Gonzalez uses a 17th Century Baroque style to paint scenes of violence along the Mexico-US border. Photographs in newspapers of executions and beheadings, Gonzalez told Borderzine, reminded him of the Roman Catholic paintings of that time period.
Currently, an exhibition called Mexico al Filo" (Mexico to the Edge) can be viewed at El Aire Centro de Arte in the Álvaro Obregón area of Mexico City. This exhibit of abstract yet graphic sculptures and paintings is a stark commentary on drug violence by resident artist Emiliano Gironella. Perhaps most powerful are his acrylic sculptures. One shows a man snorting cocaine. Another shows two hands - one holding a gun, the other holding a decapitated skull. As Gironella told the AFP, he wanted to convey that drug trafficking has turned Mexico into a "country without a head". The disturbing images of Mexico al Filo -- recently prominently featured at the Universidad Iberoamericana -- can be viewed at Gironella's website.
Another place to find art documenting drug culture is the street itself. Street artist Watchavato, for example, tags the walls of Mexico City with stencil prints of Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of drug dealers. Malverde, believed to have been a sympathetic bandit killed by the authorities, is revered as a Robin Hood figure in the drug world. (One of the many shrines to this unlikely saint is even displayed in the military's El Museo de Enervantes.) Watchavato's stickers, prints and paintings, which also depict AK-47s, flashy cars and other by-products of narcotrafficking, can be seen throughout Mexico's capital.
A soundtrack for the drug trade
Narcocorridos are the popular drug ballads populating radio airwaves throughout Mexico. Their mix of explicit lyrics, accordions, tubas and 12-string acoustic guitars make for an odd cross between gangsta rap and polka-esque folk music. Some of these songs stir up controversy by glorifying the drug trade, while others play out more like Greek tragedies, the protagonists realizing their own fatal flaws all too late. These pop songs are undeniably popular, reaching Mexican communities in North America as well.
El Komander is one of the poster singers for the narcocorrido genre. Clad in cowboy clothes emblematic of drug traffickers, he is a frequent performer in Mexico City. This month, he can be seen in San Lorenzo Tezonco in Iztapalapa on 21 May, according to his Myspace page.
The silver-plated screen
Narcocinema has also surfaced as a genre unto itself. It is an industry of alternative films which, despite generally going straight to DVD, have become very popular in regions of Mexico and the US plagued by drug violence, according to the BBC. Most of these low-budget movies are based on true stories of Mexican drug barons. El Pozolero, for example, tells the story of Santiago Meza Lopez (nicknamed "El Pozolero", or "The Stew Maker"), who confessed in 2009 to dissolving 300 dead bodies in tubs of acid.
Some of these movies even have suspected ties to the drug cartels themselves. Drug lord Edgar Valdez, for one, admitted to financing a narco biopic about his life. The movie was subsequently used by authorities to aid in narcotics investigations.
For a different look at narco-culture, more traditional films are also starting to shed light on the drug game. Last year, El Infierno (Hell) became one of the first mainstream movies to deal with the topic. El Infierno is a dark comedy that doesn't so much glorify the drug world as it does satirize the politics surrounding it. In addition, the Mexico City based Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía often promotes independent Mexican dramas and comedies addressing drug-related topics from police corruption to poverty to crime families.
The ultimate dramatization
Narcocultura has also made its way into soap operas. Narco novelas, or drug-related soaps, tend to focus on female characters, likely because they target a female audience, NPR conjectures. La Reina del Sur (Queen of the South), for instance, is a popular narco novela airing on Telemundo. Based on a novel by former war correspondent Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez, it has been the first soap to focus on a female drug lord. Another popular novela, Muñecas de la Mafia (Mafia Dolls), follows the women who date and marry drug dealers in Mexico and Colombia.
The artists who critique drug trafficking and the pop producers who seem to glorify it actually do have something in common, though it may not seem that way at first. They both document the dichotomous nature of "narcocultura", the drug culture born from a world dominated by powerful, dangerous drug cartels. This is exactly what El Museo de Enervantes documents as well, with its collection of bling next to a remembrance of the deceased.
As artist Omar Rodriguez Graham told ABC News, "The violence in Mexico is something that permeates all aspects of culture. You can't escape it."
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.