'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

MEXICO CITY — Their violence is legendary, their bloody techniques are designed to inflict pain and horror and their widespread trafficking of narcotics has caused untold misery and deaths across America and around the world.

Yet, the allure of drug cartels and the larger-than-life drug lords who run them is undeniable for many in the U.S. and Mexico.

The evidence plays daily in theaters and on streaming services, where shows such as “Narcos: Mexico,” “El Chapo,” “Breaking Bad,” “Queen of the South,” “El Señor de los Cielos” captivate audiences.

But why?

Power, drug lords, sex, guns, blood and fear combine into a potent mix that has proven attractive to millions of people worldwide, experts say.

“I think humans, in general, are fascinated by death and dying because it’s the most traumatic thing that could ever happen in our lives,” said Howard Campbell, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“With Narcos series, you have murders all the time, so I think it is connected to that, and if it bleeds, it leads, because this sort of morbid thing, seems to be a fundamental human characteristic to find blood and death somehow deeply fascinating.”

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'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

Narcos movies and series have changed throughout the years, from Mafia stories such as “Scarface” and “The Godfather,” to real-life stories of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.

One of the most and popular Netflix series related to drug trafficking is “Narcos: Mexico,” the third season of a story that shows the rise of the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s and the scandalous killing of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.

The series has been in the Top 10 shows for weeks, according to data provided by Video On Demand charts and streaming ratings worldwide.

Whether that allure is enough to serve as a recruiting tool for cartels, which are constantly trying to enlist new pawns, is more difficult to say.

“We need to understand that the industry creates these products based on what people want,” said Alejandra León Olvera, an anthropologist at Spain’s University of Murcia who studies narcoculture, a growing subculture resulting from the strong presence of drug cartels.

“It’s complex to say that a narco-series is going to encourage people to join a drug cartel. In Mexico, there are people who indeed live in this context, there are other social conditions that make people join, but viewers are very critical when watching this content.”

Cartel impact:Violence in Mexico forces people to flee their homes, leaving ghost towns behind

In Colombia, research and studies have tried to determine the effect on people’s attitudes and demeanor from watching drug cartel content.

“People change their way to speak, sometimes how they dress, narco-series has brought a new language to the table,” said Ainhoa Vasquez, who has a literature doctorate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

“Still, it is superficial; there’s no change in people’s behavior for watching this content. They won’t become more violent.”

Professor Campbell from UTEP believes mafia and drug trafficking shows carry special influence with young males “who find this kind of thing glamorous.”

“So you have a lot of copycat behavior in the inner-city United States and probably over throughout Latin America of young men that want to be like the people in the gang movies or the narco movies.”

Still, Campbell believes most people who watch the shows are sophisticated enough to realize “this is not a good way to live.”

The morality of crime dramas

It’s called morbid curiosity — a shared interest in death or violence that people sometimes feel and fill with violent content.

“I think we all have a slightly morbid side; we like to see violence and blood; when there is an accident, you see all the people getting close to the accident,” Vasquez, the academy researcher, said.

“It is reflected on the screen; that’s why people like it, but it’s pretty natural among human beings.”

But the larger question is whether entertainment productions glorify violence and romanticize drug lords. Vasquez doesn’t think so.

“They are constantly reinforcing that whoever gets into drugs not only as a drug dealer but as a consumer, faces many dangers,” she said. “It shows the consequences and the harm that drugs do to users.”

Luis Zelkowicz, head writer of “Lord of the Skies,” a successful series about the most powerful drug trafficker of his time, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, said as a communicator, he was extremely cautious.

'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

“All the writers and all of us who work in this industry have to be responsible because we write in a world where there is especially in Mexico a good percentage of the youth population that sees drug trafficking as a solution to their problems and way of life,” Zelkowicz said.

“You watch all the 700 episodes of our series, and you will never see that it’s being shown as a happy life, quite the opposite.”

‘Narcos also cry’

Zelkowicz said the shows’ writers “spent eight years thinking like criminals.”

“I told my team that our premise was ‘narcos also cry,’ we based our investigation on those elements, we worked with people involved in the business, with people affected, victims of this huge social evil of drug trafficking,” he said.

The series aired in April 2013 and ended in 2020, and was distributed by Telemundo International.

“People not only felt that they were entertaining themselves, but they were also learning about something,” Zelkowicz said. “I believe that the narco series is nothing else but the new version of gangster series and movies. The new gangsters are the narcos.

'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

“People are morbid, and there’s a public for this content, but the audience also gets tired of violence, they know when they got enough. It happened to me, after eight years thinking like criminals I needed a change, and that’s why we decided to stop.”

‘Criticism of a criminal state’

The dramas also feature corrupted politicians playing a leading role. Without them, the drug trafficking chains wouldn’t succeed.

“In these series, there is a lot of criticism of drug traffickers, consumers and victims but also governments as perpetrators, it shows the inability that Latin American governments have had to stop trafficking because there is a lot of money involved,” said Vásquez, the academy researcher.

“You see this criticism of a criminal state because we could not even say that is an absent state; it’s a criminal state like the narco-state where they are all involved with the drug issue.”

According to a report from Transparency International, more than 58% of the people interviewed in Mexico in 2019 think that police, members of parliament and government officials are involved in corruption.

The “Lord of the Skies” series took on America’s fentanyl crisis in the last season. The drug overdose crisis has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

“I think it’s important to show how terrible drug trafficking is, and we had it very clear that we were also making a complaint to the world,” Zelkowicz said.

Mexico’s reality

It’s not a secret that the most powerful drug cartels worldwide are based in Mexico. Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel are the two most dominant and dangerous, according to DEA’s reports.

It’s also no secret that violence in Mexico has been on the rise for years, with no substantial change during the past administrations.

But is Mexico really like in the movies?

Mexico has a 121 million population, a stable economy, indigenous culture and rich history. It has the favorite vacation spots for Americans — even with the rise of travel advisories.

Mexicans may watch narco-series with a different perspective than Americans.

'Fascinated by death': Why Americans can't get enough of drug cartel dramas like 'Narcos'

“I think for Americans, it can be more just pure entertainment without any connection to reality. And that’s one important point. Whereas for Mexicans, they can say, ‘I know about this because they killed a friend,'” Campbell said.

“The American audience is a bit more distanced, although a lot of them now are impacted by drug trafficking too because Americans are involved in it, consuming drugs.”

According to Campbell, Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” series is an exaggeration of the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico.

“It’s true that it is a very harmful thing that’s led to tens of thousands of people dying and the corruption of the political system has a profound impact on everyday lives, but in a lot of Mexico, life goes on without drug traffickers necessarily affecting people directly,” Campbell said.

“It’s a huge country, its economy is much bigger than drug trafficking, and there are many other problems and issues that concern people besides narcos and drug trafficking.”

Karol Suárez is a contributing writer to The Courier Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @KarolSuarez_.

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