Lessons from the Narcosphere
by Carlos Alberto SanchezOctober 12, 2020
In A Sense of Brutality: Philosophy After Narco-Culture, I argue that the pervasive brutality of the narcosphere challenges us, philosophically and morally, to reconsider some of our most unassailable concepts, such as culture, violence, and personhood.
The idea is that in cultural spaces where the brutal treatment of others has been normalized, the world and everything in it appear as if infested with violence. In those spaces, brutal acts and events seem commonplace and are something one lives with—like constant bad weather or the persistent buzzing of flies. To know these cultural spaces is to know them as spaces of brutality—brutality is a culture’s identifying mark, what is unique to it, what that culture can say about itself, what it can sell. Brutality becomes, in this case, an export, a commodity produced in that specific culture. In the narco-culture, brutality is trafficked, exchanged, and ingested, much like cocaine and heroin.
Narco-culture is a brutality industry.
In Mexico, the state-sanctioned economic model is neoliberalism, a model perfectly suited for the exploitation of things, human bodies, and raw materials. Narco-culture has successfully adapted this model for the purposes of producing, transporting, and selling illicit drugs to an international market. However, it has also adapted and adopted the model to sell itself. It does this by fetishizing and commodifying illegality, vulnerability, and brutality and inserting these into the mechanisms of consumption as spectacle, thus “selling” the violence, death, and gore as its own unique products.
Theorist Sayak Valencia has called this adaption of neoliberalism, “gore capitalism.” Gore capitalism is the perversion of capitalism into an economy of violence and a marketplace for the exploitation of dead bodies. Gore—the spectacle of the bloodshed—is the commodity that is exchanged, that which is fetishized. In this way, narco-culture participates in gore capitalism when it engages in the production and dissemination of executions, beheadings, and mass murder through various media channels (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Netflix series, narco-corridos, etc.).
The narco-culture industry is thriving. There are currently no less than three Netflix series on El Chapo Guzman; narco-corridos are on continuous play on Spanish radio; El Blog del Narco, InSight Crime, and Borderland Beat bring the brutality of the narco-war to the internet, raw and gut-wrenchingly uncut; and, in academia, anthropologists and sociologists have cornered the “studies” market on all things narco (e.g., quantitative studies on the impact of narco violence on avocado and tomato harvests, oil production, journalism, the sex trade, drone use, etc.). There is no shortage of products or consumers.
Online, brutality as product is always ready for consumption, in manageable clips, with short summaries, and provenance. One may not know what one is looking for, but one knows what it is when one finds it. One is never prepared for the spectacle; a strong visceral reaction is evidence enough that what one is watching is not “normal.” It is disturbing yet captivating; one becomes grateful not to be in that circumstance, but also one is also not ungrateful that such a circumstance exists. A video shot by members of the Sinaloa Cartel shows the execution of a 14 or 15 year old boy. The cartel assassin says some words (ironically) condemning the violence of his state and pledging (again, ironically) to purge all bad actors from his territory. The camera pans to the boy, kneeling on the dirt, his arms tied behind his back, his eyes closed, perhaps praying, but certainly terrified. Silent. Suddenly, the assassin’s gun appears in frame and the gun kicks back as a shot is fired straight into the boy’s head. His hair jerks wildly for a split second and a piece his skull explodes form the impact. He falls dead to the ground. I feel sick. The camera pans out; there’s 7 or 8 more dead bodies around his.
I watched this murder unwittingly, as I scrolled through my social media timeline. I wasn’t expecting it, but it didn’t surprise me. I saw it and was immediately repulsed; yet I saw it again, in spite of any and all feelings of disgust and my moral outrage. This is me consuming brutality.
I will do nothing about the violence or the assassination; I am a consumer. The brutality will continue, and the videos will continue to be produced, so long as I (you) watch them. And watch them I (we) will. Against a natural instinct to avert our eyes, we will watch; we will consume, and in consuming, we are complicit with the next production, and, in effect, the assassination that shows up on the timeline. The same goes for the next Netflix series glorifying the narco way of life; the next article analyzing impunity and violence against journalists. The narcos are watching and reading, too; they are waiting to see what we like and what we don’t. And they’re ready, willing, and capable of satisfying demand.
The narcosphere does not conform to the rule of law. It’s a space of marginalization and objectification that considers people as use-objects in its economy. The commodification of human bodies allows for their brutalization, which in turn serves market interests and the demands of spectacle.
There’s a lesson here. Brutality in the narcosphere shows us a way to think about brutality toward black and brown bodies in our own culture. On the one hand, brutality against black and brown bodies is normalized by its persistence; on the other, media spectacle devours brutal acts against these bodies—while we (in the US) are not given the spectacle of mangled, decapitated bodies, the brutality is described in detail. We obsess over the descriptions, build narratives around them, and, ultimately, normalize them. Sayak Valencia suggests that a demand for “gore” necessitates more gore and more brutality. This is not to say that something like the normalization of police brutality causes more police brutality, only that more police brutality will desensitize.
In my book, I argue that the logic of brutality demands a primary dehumanization, or derealization, of persons, who can then be subject to violence and erasure. Narco-culture is brutal in this way, and those that exist within its horizon are always already (due to their essential vulnerability) possible victims of its death rituals. Those who may be sacrificed to its economic imperatives are its most vulnerable members, those whose existing social status as poor or dispossessed qualifies them for the narco game and who, with their death, make possible its perpetuation.