The Ascent of Narco Noir: A Literary Game Changer

“Journalists won’t be able to write my true story, nor will the politicians or my family.” – Pablo Escobar, Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar by Virginia Vallejo

Meet narco noir, the new category muscling to the top of the mystery mountain, fueled by drug cartel violence, layers of corruption, and the jagged line between justice and revenge.

Narco noir is rising fast and hitting hard with gritty tales ripped from today’s headlines. Real events and real people are recast through the lens of fiction, but narco noir authors have the street cred to write with an insider’s grip on authenticity.

Forget the traditional whodunit format and serial killers with mommy issues. Mexican and Colombian cartels live here, along with the cops and federales who fight them—and occasionally join them—as well as those caught in the crossfire of the never-ending war on drugs. Narco noir is dark, troubled, complex, and breaks the rules when it comes to tidy endings.

Fellow noir categories like Nordic noir offer crime-fighters such as Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Tartan noir stories set in Scotland—as well as Irish crime-fiction counterparts—are equally popular, with such favorites as Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.

These novels have one thing in common: they are fiction.

Narco noir is about to change all that.

A New Breed of Suspense

Narco noir fiction is a by-product of the drug war that has irrevocably altered the political and societal landscape in Mexico, Colombia, and Central America. With a few exceptions, narco noir authors walked the walk themselves as federal agents, cops, or journalists at the front lines of the drug war. The result is a compelling mix of fiction, reporting, and exposé, as well as memorable characters on both sides of the law, painted in shades of gray.

And blood red.

 

Setting the Stage

 

Pablo Escobar's mugshot.
By Colombian National Police – Colombia National Registry; Colombian National Police, Public Domain.

Pablo Escobar shot and bombed his way through Colombia in the 1980s and early ‘90s as he catered to the world’s appetite for narcotic drugs. Politicians, the judiciary, and law enforcement were either bought or cowed by the Cali and Medellin cartels and their ilk. Pablo Escobar was thought to have killed nearly 3,000 people himself. Colombia became synonymous with narco-terrorism.

 

After Escobar was gunned down in 1993 and the Colombian cartels began to fracture, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and other Mexican cartel leaders filled the vacuum. Violence escalated as rival cartels fought for bigger territories and prime smuggling routes. Words like “Zetas” and “Sinaloa” entered our vocabularies.

Since 2006, when the government of then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón ordered out the military to counter the cartels, tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed or “disappeared,” although precise numbers are elusive. According to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the number of organized crime-related homicides could be as high as 150,000. Yet in 2015, the PBS news show Frontline quoted Mexican government data showing 164,000 victims of homicide between 2007 and 2014.

Violence and corruption have risen hand-in-hand as cartels and gangs fight for the right to service the United States, the world’s biggest client for illegal drugs. Canada and Europe, though still playing catch-up, are not far behind.

The life of a drug smuggler is fraught with danger from both rivals and law enforcement—and sometimes their own gang or cartel. Yet for all the danger, extreme wealth beckons—the kind that buys wild excess, untold luxury, and the allegiance of local cops and politicians. In countries like Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, where jobs are scarce, poverty is widespread, and social classes are rigid, the drug trade promises a lifestyle otherwise far out of reach.

The average citizen in those countries has a ringside seat for the war on drugs. They are inundated with titillating stories and graphic images of the drug war. Cartel exploits explode onto the pages of local Mexican papers, and the Mexican tabloids show in lurid photographic detail the gore wrought by the narco-traffickers’ exploits. Musicians sing narcocorridos in praise of drug lords, and candles are lit for Santa Muerte, the forbidden saint of death that has become a talisman for both drug traffickers and law enforcement.

 

Not Your Father’s Noir

Narco noir novels span the divide between crime fiction—where criminals are the main characters—and procedurals, which are driven by those playing for the opposition—the likes of law officers, private detectives, or even the “everyman” caught up in a desperate situation. Narco noir conflicts are born from a central drug-trafficking dynamic, with any number of plot threads. Money and power are up for grabs. Illicit drugs are the golden treasure. Will they be sold, or will they be seized? Who will be betrayed? Who will snitch? Who will survive?

This fiction is packing heat, both literally and figuratively. Narco noir borrows heavily from contemporary history as well as insider knowledge of cartel smuggling operations and law enforcement techniques. As a result, the imagery of narco noir is frequently graphic and disturbing, with depictions of cartel threats, bribes, tortures, and killings. The landscape ranges from jungle meth labs to killing fields to military war rooms. Few characters survive unscathed, either physically or emotionally.

Primarily written in English, narco noir is peppered with Spanish words and essential cultural details from Mexico and Colombia. Readers are introduced to terms like sicario (assassin) and plaza (smuggling territory).

The breakdown in civil authority invariably provides an unsettling backdrop. Legendary Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II, in a 1991 interview with Ilan Stavans, reprinted in the latter’s book Antiheroes, responded to the comment that “Mexico is a country where there is so much corruption that justice is obliterated,” saying, “Criminality forms part of the system and is incorporated into it in a logical and coherent manner. Hence the solution is also part of the crime.”

More recently, journalist Damien Cave, in a review of Sam Hawken’s novel Dead Women of Juarez for Slate magazine, wrote:

Classic Mexico, I thought when I read the scene: where there is so much understood that never gets said; where avoidance trumps confrontation … [An] investigator in Juárez once told me when I asked why so few cases lead to convictions: “del plato a la boca, la sopa se cae.” From the bowl to the mouth, the soup falls.

 

In other words, somewhere along the way, the system breaks down.

Narco Noir Timeline

Cover of Un asesino solitario (The Lone Murderer) by Élmer Mendoza.
Cover of Un asesino solitario (The Lone Murderer) by Élmer Mendoza.

A relatively young branch of fiction, narco noir traces its roots to Mexican author Élmer Mendoza, back when it was still called narcoliterature. Mendoza, from the same area in the state of Sinaloa as El Chapo, appeared on Mexico’s literary scene with a series of short stories in 1978. He won rave reviews with A Lone Murderer in 1999 and was described by a Mexican critic as “the first narrator who reflects correctly the drug culture in our country.”

Fast-forward to Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Queen of the South, a 2005 thriller inspired by real-life female narco-trafficker Sandra Avila Beltran, known as La Reina del Pacifico. Perez-Reverte worked as a war correspondent for both print and television for over two decades, and his gripping page-turner gave rise to a hugely popular small-screen series—in Spanish starring Kate del Castillo and in English with Alice Braga.

Also in 2005, journalist and former private investigator Don Winslow published the hardcore Power of the Dog, priming audiences with character types that would soon become the essential narco noir cast: federal agents, narco-traffickers, cartel killers, corrupt local officials, mediating Catholic priests, and a few hookers thrown in for spice, to be both used and abused.

In 2010, Winslow followed up Power of the Dog with Savages, a quirky tale in which American 20-somethings run afoul of a Mexican cartel, which became an Oliver Stone movie. It is Winslow’s 2015 novel The Cartel, however, that forms the sequel to Power of the Dog and may be the best-known example of narco noir.

In The Cartel, the reader is pulled deep into the lives of cartel families and their incessant and paranoid political intrigue. There is an unflinching portrayal of the atrocities that cartel gangbangers inflict on each other. The bestial nature of the violence destroys minds and souls. Key characters in The Cartel mirror true people, including the late Mexican physician and mayor María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the anonymous researcher behind the daring Blog del Narco website, and El Chapo himself, along with his teenaged beauty-queen wife.

Texas historian Sam Hawken stunned readers in 2011 with Dead Women of Juárez. Based on the true unsolved disappearances of hundreds of female maquiladoras (factory workers) in and around the border city of Juárez, Hawken led the reader inside the breakdown of Mexican officialdom. Tequila Sunset (2012) and Missing (2014) were equally powerful narratives.

Cover of <i>The Cartel</i> by Don Winslow.
Cover of The Cartel by Don Winslow.

The loss of civil authority also played out in the brutally wrenching novels The Plaza (2012) and Cartel Rising (2013) by former journalist and law enforcement officer Guillermo Paxton. The second novel, published after Paxton was kidnapped in Mexico in an effort to prevent him from exposing cartel activity, pitted law enforcement officers on either side of the border against each other in a shockingly authentic and desperately personal story. At the same time, Christopher Irvin’s Federales, which was republished in 2018, was a fictional retelling of the 2012 kidnapping and murder of María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar.

While wrapping up a 30-year career with the CIA, Carmen Amato launched the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series in 2013 with Cliff Diver. Emilia Cruz is the first female police detective in Acapulco grappling with drug cartels, official corruption, and Mexico’s culture of machismo.

Amato, who supervised employees across the Western Hemisphere and retired as head of a national intelligence tradecraft school, tackles the drug violence that landed Acapulco on the top of the 2017 list of Mexico’s most deadly cities and led federal and state authorities in 2018 to disarm the city’s police force in response to accusations of infiltration by organized gangs.

The most recent book in the Detective Emilia Cruz series, 43 Missing, was inspired by the 2014 mass disappearances of students from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college while in the city of Iguala, not far from Acapulco. It was a finalist for Best Procedural of 2017 from the Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference.

Detective Emilia Cruz’s polar opposite is Layla Navarro, the anti-heroine of former journalist, expat, and Mexico travel writer Jeanine Kitchel’s fresh take on a Queen of the South-type character. Introduced in 2018’s Wheels Up: A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival—the first book in a planned trilogy—Layla Navarro inherits the throne of Mexico’s most powerful cartel when her drug lord uncle is recaptured. As a narca newcomer, Layla must navigate the minefield of Mexican machismo and fight off gangsters and corrupt officials to both stay alive and manage the family business.

 

Noir and Non-Fiction

Narco noir fiction has grown—both in volume and popularity—in lockstep with a growing body of important non-fiction chronicling counterdrug efforts and the lives of Colombian and Mexican kingpins. From reportage in The New Yorker magazine by authors Francisco Goldman and Alma Guillermoprieto to the memoir by Pablo Escobar’s one-time mistress Virginia Vallejo, non-fiction provides an unflinching window into the brutal and blood-soaked war on drugs.

Journalists have led the way, including Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco and Gangster Warlords. The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden―also the author of Black Hawk Down―take us deep into Narcolandia.

Exposing cartel activities comes with a price, however. In Midnight in Mexico, prize-winning journalist Alfredo Corchado recounts threats to his life. Anabel Hernandez, former Mexico City journalist and author of Massacre in Mexico (2018) and Narco Land (2013), exposed Mexican corruption at the highest levels and was forced into hiding. Former federal agent Andrew Hogan, author of the true account Hunting El Chapo (2018), likewise does not reveal his whereabouts.

 

Blurred Lines

Promo photo for Netflix's Narcos.
Promo photo for Netflix’s Narcos.

The line between narco noir fiction and its non-fiction brother is often blurred. But nowhere is the line so hazy as on film. Indeed, the popularity of narco noir has been propelled as much by Netflix as by readers.

It’s intriguing to the viewer (or reader) to see the gangsters dominating today’s headlines. Thanks to Netflix and Showtime, they see them depicted in full color on a TV screen in their living room (though please, the networks beg, not at primetime).

While both versions of Queen of the South continue to attract new fans, Narcos, a fictionalized account of Colombian cartels in their heyday, debuted in 2015 on Netflix with eye-popping and hyper-violent portrayals of drug kingpins, notably Pablo Escobar. Narcos moved the action to Mexico, and in September 2017, a tragedy straight out of a script occurred when location scout Carlos Munoz Portal was killed on the job in a rural area north of Mexico City.

Pablo Escobar was the subject of the 2018 movie Loving Pablo, featuring Penelope Cruz as mistress Virginia Vallejo and Javier Bardem as the drug lord. Ironically, as her memoir attests, Escobar wanted Vallejo to write a biopic film about his life.

A film legacy was also important to El Chapo Guzmán, as revealed in Sean Penn’s 2015 interview with the drug lord for Rolling Stone magazine, published while Guzmán was in hiding and before his January 2016 capture. In New York, during his 2018 trial on 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder, and money laundering, his lawyer claimed that Guzmán hoped to get a book and biopic movie deal out of the meeting with Penn, which was brokered by Queen of the South star Kate del Castillo.

El Chapo in US custody after his extradition from Mexico.
“El Chapo in US custody after his extradition from Mexico” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de los Estados Unidos – Ted Psahos – Public Domain.

On the big screen in 2015, Sicario—starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro—gave new life to the meme of an FBI agent in the midst of the drug war waged on the U.S.-Mexican border. In the recent sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, both U.S. federal agents and Mexican criminals exploit the breakdown of civil authority.

More narco noir is coming to the screen. Mezcalero, based on T.E. Wilson’s novels about transgender private detective Ernesto Sanchez, is in development as a Canadian and Mexican eight-part miniseries. Carmen Amato recently inked a deal for the Detective Emilia Cruz series with RAZE, the television production arm of Latin World Entertainment. In addition, Andrew Hogan’s non-fiction Hunting El Chapo has been acquired by Sony Pictures.

 

Hollywood Heritage

In Mexico, the lives of drug lords were first idolized in narcocorridos, songs extolling narco exploits. Many Mexican musicians got famous by turning the exploits of a drug lord into a ballad, but like all things narco-related, the sword cuts both ways. A singer or songwriter can end up dead if a narco doesn’t like the way they’re portrayed in the song.

But music aside, what we’re seeing today with narco noir is not dissimilar to what happened in the U.S. with books and movies about the mafia. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the private investigator genre was created by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain with novels including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Double Indemnity. Movies based on the books dominated theatres after World War II, although it was French critic Nino Frank who coined the term “film noir” in 1946.

This genre morphed into mafia movies. Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather led the way, becoming a family saga movie franchise starring Marlon Brando. As the news media fed an eager audience with the murderous exploits of Long Island crime families and Las Vegas racketeering, down-and-dirty movies like Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas took us to the streets of the mob’s “made men.”

The small screen came next. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos and a New Jersey native, reportedly based parts of his series on real-life local mafia bosses. The series became a national phenomenon.

 

Grit or Glory?

As narco noir fiction becomes increasingly popular with readers and viewers, we wonder why we’re so fascinated with drug lords and shady cops.

Is it the age-old construct of cops and robbers, albeit with higher stakes and murkier allegiances?

Is it the display of naked power? The fascinating lessons in manipulation and ruthlessness?

Or maybe we are drawn to these stories because they are authentic. Many are so true to life that readers try and guess which real criminal inspired the fictional one.

In narco noir, both sides of the law live crazy, coke-and-blood-filled lives steeped in paranoia. Death is a constant companion. Motives and risks, vulnerabilities and rare heroics, are revealed but never sugar-coated.

For most of us, these stories are light-years away from our own reality, yet we know they have been shaped by the truth.

Where will it lead? Probably to more and better narco noir novels, with more authors pulling on their own experiences. The news will continue to provide plots of drug smuggling and widespread corruption, such as El Chapo Guzmán’s assertion during his trial that he paid off most of Mexico City, including outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Everyone wants a hero (or heroine). But maybe in today’s complicated world, an antihero or two is all we get.


About the Authors:

Members of the dynamic Mexico Writers group on Facebook, Carmen Amato and Jeanine Kitchel first collaborated on the travel essay collection The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. They write crime fiction, however, from opposite ends of the cops-and-cartel spectrum.

***

Following a 30 year career with the Central Intelligence Agency, Carmen Amato created the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, which pits the first female police detective in Acapulco against Mexico’s cartels, corruption, and culture of machismo. The series was recently awarded the Poisoned Cup for Outstanding Series by the CrimeMasters of America. 43 Missing, the latest book in the series, was a 2018 Silver Falchion Award finalist for Best Procedural. Visit Carmen’s website at CarmenAmato.net to get a free copy of the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.

***

Jeanine Kitchel’s love of Mexico led her to a fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast where she bought land, built a house, and opened a bookstore. A former journalist, she wrote travel articles for newspapers and Mexico websites before branching into fiction.

In Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, Latina protagonist Layla Navarro rises to the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel after her drug lord uncle is recaptured. Challenged by enemies from without and within, she’s determined to retain her dominant position in Mexico’s criminal world—if she can stay alive. Book two in the trilogy, Layla’s Law, is in the works. Check JeanineKitchel.com for details.

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