When Oswaldo Zavala talks about the US-Mexico drug trade, he does so with a desperation common to those who study it. Zavala, who was born in Ciudad Juárez and is an associate professor at CUNY Graduate Center, understands that most people may never read any of his ideas, published mostly in academia, and may also never take the time to investigate narcotráfico as much as he does. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to counter popular depictions of the US-Mexico drug trade whenever he can. Spend enough time with him, talk about the drug trade long enough, and, more likely than not, you’ll come to realize that most of what you know about it is a myth.
I met Zavala recently at Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village to talk about 2666, a posthumous, sprawling novel written by Robert Bolaño, the Chilean novelist many consider to be the greatest Latin American writer since Jorge Luis Borges. Divided into five parts, 2666 centers around Santa Teresa, a fictionalized Mexican city based on Ciudad Juárez. Published in the years before the 2006-12 surge in the city’s murder rate – when more than 100,000 people died – the novel connects five interrelated stories that riff on a central theme of violence. At its heart is an investigation into the femicide occurring in Santa Teresa, killings which were inspired by Ciudad Juárez’s own decade-long history of unsolved murders of women. Bolaño’s realistic depiction of narcos in 2666 gave Zavala a way to pick apart what he calls “narcocultura”— a string of sensationalist novels, telenovelas, music, and movies that imagine the narcos’ powers too broadly.
Like Bolaño, whom he met one day in Paris, Zavala thinks narcos are misunderstood. The charismatic anti-hero – like Netflix’s Pablo Escobar – a macho man who keeps the state under his thumb, is written to entertain. There are more powerful criminals than Pablo, and they’re being overlooked because they seem ordinary. These men don’t carry around gold-plated AKs. Instead of showing chest, they button up, trading in snake-skin cowboy boots for freshly-shined Oxfords. They’re not caricatures of evil portrayed in movies like Sicario. Instead, he argues, the true jefes, those responsible for all the violence and in charge of the drug trade, are the politicians and businessmen of Mexico, who corrupt from the inside. “The myth is to believe that El Chapo, an uneducated farmer from Sinaloa, rules the world,” he told me. “I want people who hold real power to be in the most critical light.”
“The myth is to believe that El Chapo, an uneducated farmer from Sinaloa, rules the world.”
At the cafe, before we begin talking about 2666 and his own new book, La Modernidad Insufrible, Zavala tells me that the previous day he got a migraine so bad he was left bedridden. He considers these migraines to be a form of self-preservation, a way of forcing him to slow down and reflect. It makes you wonder about his health: is he too busy for his own good? There’s a natural authority in him that belies his age. He’s able to race through a long list of names and ideas, writers and philosophies to bolster any given argument. He speaks English just as confidently as Spanish and seems willing to learn any language it takes to make sure you’re not missing his point. After enough time, you get the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret, pointing out a little-known truth of the drug trade that you shouldn’t have missed. It’s an idea that very few people believe, one that goes against nearly all the books, movies, and stories written before. But when he says it, nothing else seems plausible.
I talked with Zavala about the drug trade and about how the novel 2666 depicts narcos. This interview has been edited and condensed from that conversation.
Bolaño wrote 2666 in Spain as he was dying. He didn’t finish it completely, but it’s still considered a masterpiece — nowhere else is his brilliance so obvious. It depressed me to read him: here was clear evidence of genius, here were levels of poetry and story that I could never reach.
It can depress me too in that same way, but I also feel very lucky to have read it. 2666 was a daring novel. It must have been a crazy thing to write. Imagine writing page 990 while knowing, as Bolaño did, that you’re fatally ill and that you don’t have much time. You’d want to spend time with your children, but the world is closing in on you. I don’t think most living writers in the 21st century would be capable of writing it. Not only because 2666 is an amazing piece of work, but also because of what it takes to write this when you’re dying. Think of all the time you’re neglecting your family. I have two children. I don’t think I could do it. I’d imagine that I’d want to spend every single second with my family, not writing a book — even if it’s a masterpiece. Writing it entails a commitment to art, to literature, to telling something about the world that you’re certain only you can tell. It required a tremendous sacrifice of time and love for Bolaño. It’s amazing to me, and it comes perfectly embedded in the actual writing.
What made Bolaño want to sacrifice so much to write it?
I think Bolaño was hoping to intervene with 2666, to bring forth his own take on not only the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez but also our own entire understanding of violence from slavery in the US to World War II. 2666 moves around the US, Latin America, and Europe as a way to pose the challenge to writers. “Will you take care of it all?,” Lotte asks Archimboldi at the end of the novel. What are you going to do about evil? Are you just going to write your stories, or are you going to intervene somehow? There’s a clear, direct challenge to intellectuals, writers, and readers to embrace a political, ethical attitude toward reality, meaning do not read this simply for fun, try to face the questions Bolaño’s putting forth: what are you to going to do about violence, about prejudice, about injustice, what are you going to do about the horrors of the 20th and now the 21st century? He doesn’t want you to end the novel entertained or rested or distracted by the writing but to end it forming a clear political, ethical consciousness.
Politicians aren’t being corrupted by the narcos. Politicians assimilate narcos within official power.
What political, ethical consciousness is Bolaño putting forth? What political meaning do you think a reader can find in 2666?
Bolaño understood that drug trafficking in Mexico is not a matter of drug cartels threatening the Mexican state, meaning the government, but a matter of the state controlling the drug organizations. These organizations are built into the state, and many times they are indistinguishable from the state, not because these drug organizations buy the state and corrupt it from the outside as many people believe, but because the state contains the drug trafficking. Without the state, these drug organizations wouldn’t exist. We tend to believe the opposite: drug organizations come and penetrate and corrupt politicians, creating a narco-state. I think that’s an absurdity. The state, especially the Mexican state that’s been powerful historically and still very powerful today, has always been the superior force. So politicians aren’t being corrupted by the narcos. Politicians assimilate narcos within official power.
What are the literary tools that Bolaño uses to show us this?
One example is how he characterizes drug traffickers. There’s not a single character in 2666 who resembles the typical drug lord or narco trafficker that shows up in most other Mexican novels, ones like La reina del sur. There’s not a single drug trafficker who’s exotic or powerful. None of them display money or are violent bandits living outside civil society, challenging everybody, subduing police officers. None of that. Drug traffickers in Bolaño’s novels are either completely familiar to society or fully integrated into society — businessmen, politicians, people inside civil society, never outside.
They’re harder to pin down because they look and seem just like us. Evil is invisible, more ambiguous.
Yes, they’re invisible because most people wouldn’t suspect Bolaño’s narcos to be drug traffickers. If you imagine a drug trafficker, you tend to imagine somebody who looks like a criminal, not businessmen like 2666’s Pedro Rengifo, who has a lot of money and owns a milk company, a lechería, while distributing drugs. The drug trade is only a part of what these businessmen do.
[In real life] evil is invisible, more ambiguous.
Drugs traffickers are the most visible faces, easier to blame.
Sure, they’re people who have a name and a face that we all want to condemn. They’re the only ones visible in the clandestine economy of drugs. But it’s also an economy that necessitates police and traffic schemes. For drugs to come across the border they need a way in. That usually involves bribing the police, Border Patrol, the military. And even when they get in, the drugs still need to continue to the cities of mass consumption like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. The drugs don’t just evaporate and suddenly show up in New York. There are larger schemes and traffic routes within the U.S. And nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to talk about how is it that you can get high in New York when there’s mass surveillance done by the NSA and others. We all want to talk about the drug lords in Mexico. We want to talk about El Chapo, a guy who didn’t finish elementary school, who doesn’t even know how to send a video message from his cell phone, but suddenly he’s the guy we need to blame. It’s absurd. My agenda is to say that we’re choosing the wrong criminals.
So how do telenovelas like ‘La reina del sur’ get it wrong? Are they trusting what they read in newspapers? Is most of what we read there untrustworthy?
Yes, exactly, because most of what we know comes directly from the state. Most of the working knowledge journalists transmit to us comes from the state. Official sources have been effective in imposing a meaning and a sense of understanding about drug organizations. Just look at the simple fact that we all believe in cartels and that cartels are fighting for the plaza, for control of their territory, and that they’re immensely powerful and that they’re skilled and have intelligence capabilities that surpasses state intelligence agencies such as the NSA, or Centro de Investigación y Seguridad (CISEN) in Mexico. We believe this because it comes from the state. It didn’t come from original work of journalists in the field validating this information. It all comes from the state. Journalists apply official knowledge to what they see. They’re already conditioned by the state. The state has been successful in dominating and subduing our critical understanding of the drug trade.
Considering the history of violence committed to journalists in Mexico, would you say you’re afraid? You’re giving people a closer view to the truth than most other writers and journalists.
No, I’m not afraid at all. What I’m doing has to do more with conceptualizing power, violence, and drug trafficking in a more general way. When you do that, power doesn’t care because it’s told in a limited way. I write for academia for the most part. And when I write journalistically — for Proceso magazine, for instance — I don’t get in trouble because I don’t name names, even though I say important things about violence. It’s not that I shy away from accusing anybody in particular. It’s just that I don’t know that much. If I named names, then I would be in danger.
“Most of the working knowledge journalists transmit to us comes from the state.”
Bolaño also contradicts this official narrative. How was he able to look past it?
What Bolaño did that I think is very original and innovative is that he broke away from this official narrative intuitively. I think a lot has to do with being outside, being in exile, living in Spain, and taking a distance from what was going on. I don’t think he had the literature to understand it completely. He didn’t have the right tools when he was finishing 2666 in 2001-02. He didn’t have access to the right books, ones written by people who are working critically on this issue. These books are fairly difficult to obtain, many of them written by sociologists whose books don’t circulate beyond Mexico. And, back then, many of the journalists who were challenging this official narrative weren’t well-known. Sociologists like Luis Astorga from UNAM and Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo from Colegio de México. Journalists like Ignacio Alvarado and Julian Cardona from Juárez, who are both brave and valiant. They truly challenge this official imaginary of drug cartels. But there are just a handful of people who truly understand the drug trade — against a vast majority of consensus. It’s amazing that Bolaño was able to conceive a different narrative all alone in Spain — simply by reading newspaper articles. The guy must have had a tremendous critical imagination to break from this official narrative. He tells a different story. In 2666, drug traffickers are businessmen, men who are the closest intimate friends of policemen and politicians in Santa Teresa, as he calls Ciudad Juárez. The drug trade is never a matter of drug cartels fighting for territory. The drug lords who appear in Santa Teresa are respected businessmen like Pedro Rengifo, compadre of Pedro Negrete who’s the chief of police. They’re completely inside the state, inside the government structures, inside the business elites. As opposed to the vast number of Mexican novels, telenovelas, and movies that show drug cartels fighting and killing each other, depicting narcos as terrible and able to subdue police and politicians, able to create a narco-state. The word narco-state pisses me off. It’s circulated everywhere. Is Mexico a narco-state? It’s a stupid question. Of course, it’s not a narco-state. It’s a fucking powerful state. It’s an evil, terrible political machine, not a narco machine. It’s a political machine that, among many other fucked things that it does, has control of the drug trade. To the point that it has made the drug trade its political servant, and it has given it political use and value. This idea that drug lords control Mexico only favors the state. If you believe that, then you’re doing a favor to the governing elites of Mexico who are the actual rulers of this shit that they unleashed.