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What Popular Culture Gets Wrong about “El Chapo”

Almost one hundred years after his death, Villa’s image enjoys the allure of a romantic Robin Hood in Latin American imagination.”

Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was recently sentenced to life imprisonment by a federal court in New York. El Chapo had previously escaped from Mexican prisons, but it is unlikely he will be able to escape from an American prison. Yet he will hardly be lost into oblivion. He has a thriving clothing brand that uses his image extensively, and along with Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, even in prison, his persona will be fascinating to many in the years to come.

Glamorized criminals are nothing new in the United States. Charles Manson received thousands of fan letters. But for the most part, people who wrote to Manson were the alienated or mentally unwell. Not so with El Chapo. He is glamorized, not only by people on the outskirts of society, but by many regular folks in Latin America and increasingly, by sectors of the political Left in the United States.

These liberals may have a point. The drug problem goes beyond one single guy. Sentencing El Chapo to life in prison will certainly not free Ohio of its opioid epidemic. El Chapo is a scapegoat, and his sentencing will only temporarily solve the problem. Another Mexican drug lord will simply walk in and fill the void. Liberals are indeed onto something when they claim that the “War on Drugs,” if not a failure, at least requires a different approach. In its current state, this effort focuses too much on the supply side, when, in fact, greater efforts on the demand side would probably achieve better results. Instead of becoming obsessed with drug dealers, policy-makers need to consider why people consume drugs in the first place (unemployment, alienation, broken homes, etc.).

Sadly, too many liberals want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While the War on Drugs certainly would benefit from some important reforms, I am afraid liberals have not given enough thought to the real implications of legalization. Sure, cannabis and LSD could perhaps be sold in local regulated shops. But, things like cocaine and heroin are incredibly destructive, and it seems to me that, for now, they are too dangerous to be out in the market. I do not think liberals are truly aware of how powerful and addictive these drugs really are. I once was very libertarian on this issue, but now, being a professor of Behavioral Science to medical students, I am fully aware of the dangers of substance abuse; and despite all its shortcomings, I think the War on Drugs is still the lesser evil.

Be that as it may, though the point made by liberals is well taken, and even if for the sake of argument, we assume that the War on Drugs is a waste of time and money, I still believe that leftists both in North America and Latin America have some soul-searching to do. For many decades now, the Latin American Left has romanticized characters that bear some resemblance to El Chapo. Very much as Pablo Escobar, El Chapo does have some sympathizers, especially in their regions of origin. How did Escobar and El Chapo manage to do this? The answer is by presenting themselves as some sort of modern Robin Hood in local communities. They donated to some charities, they built some schools, and so on.

In fact, whereas the Robin Hood prototype disappeared from Europe by the end of the Middle Ages, in Latin America it persists to this day, with considerable support from the Left. Consider, for example, Doroteo Arango, aka Pancho Villa. Although not as popular with Latin leftists as, say, Che Guevara, Villa is still an icon of revolutionary ideals in Latin America. The fact that he stood up to the gringos and even crossed the border defying the Empire on its own soil, certainly endears him to romantic revolutionaries south of the Rio Grande.

Very much as El Chapo, Villa came from a poor family; his mother was raped by her patron. During the chaos of the Mexican revolution, Villa formed a group of bandits. At first, he did try to become a Latin Robin Hood, by taking away from the rich and giving to the poor. Yet, very soon, he stopped the pretense, and he became what he always aspired to be: a big shot in the land-owning business, unwilling to distribute his own estates with his impoverished countrymen. Just like El Chapo, he kept his campesino empire with an iron fist, until he himself was shot down by a rival gangster. Almost one hundred years after his death, Villa’s image enjoys the allure of a romantic Robin Hood in Latin American imagination.

This romanticizing of bandits is not exclusively a Latin American phenomenon. In the Anglosphere, leftists also seem to be captivated by the likes of Villa. For example, Eric Hobsbawm, the famed British Marxist historian, wrote a very influential book entitled Bandits. This book purports to explain how figures such as Robin Hood, Jesse James or Pancho Villa arise. In his argument, bandits appear in times of oppression—and invariably from the oppressed classes. So Hobsbawm never explicitly approves of them, but as a Marxist, he does flirt with the “it’s-not-their-fault” idea.

El Chapo was a brutal man, so it is hard to feel any sympathy whatsoever for him. Unlike Villa, Rob Roy or King David (yes, he was a bandit before being king), El Chapo never pretended much to be a defender of the oppressed. But this indifference towards the poor has not stopped some leftists from, if not lionizing him, at least trying to portray him in more friendly terms. Take, for example, Sean Penn’s infamous interview with El Chapo while he was a fugitive in Mexico. Penn has a history of associating with leftist dictators and strongmen in Latin America (Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez). As part of his anti-system stand, Penn believed he would make a meaningful statement by having an interview with El Chapo, which was then published in Rolling Stone. He argued that meeting El Chapo would, “open the conversation on the war on drugs.” The result, of course, was nothing of the kind. It just gave a platform for a brutal criminal to try to morally excuse himself, with very cheap arguments.

Penn’s naïveté is symptomatic of how problematic the Left’s relationship with criminals is. Yes, a conversation on the War on Drugs must be opened. Yes, the War on Drugs needs to focus more on the demand side than on the supply side. But to present drug lords as some sort of victims, is to send the wrong message. Marijuana-smoking hippies who purport to defend the oppressed in the Third World, need to understand that that cannabis joint they are so fond of was likely produced by laborers in slavery-like conditions, controlled by psychopaths like El Chapo. Sure, the drug problem is much bigger than just one guy; but to think that Pablo Escobar or El Chapo are not moral monsters because they are simply the product of the evils of capitalism, is also part of the problem.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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