Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 84, September 2017.

This article offers an overview of the highly mediatized nature of the current phase of the Mexican narco wars, highlighting the existence of explicit videos released online by the cartels, which show executions and beheadings in gory detail. The article compares and analyses the ways in which violated and mutilated bodies from this conflict are then depicted in scenes from two Hollywood productions – the TV show Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gillian, 2008-2013) and Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) –, and in Mexican director Amat Escalante’s Heli (Best Director, Cannes 2013). The article draws from the theoretical concept of affect (as framed in Aldana-Reyes’ recent work on horror cinema, as well as Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects) and scholarship on leaked torture photographs (focusing on the Abu Ghraib scandal). This piece explores the aesthetic and ethical implications of adapting real life violence into onscreen text, particularly when depicting killings “South of the border”. It then explores the ways in which the shock value in narco videos communicates with the three texts abovementioned through processes of adaptation. The paper encourages discussion on the representation of current conflicts onscreen, and offers an alternative view of the narco war, grossly misrepresented by Hollywood.

The images show two men tearing a naked male body apart with an axe on a dirt road. The procedure is far from swift. Rather than a surgical operation, what unfolds can only be described as chaos. The cartel hitmen or sicarios bash the body time and time again, the bones and muscles resisting, the arms difficult to dislocate. The body twists and jerks with each blow, its human form almost unrecognisable. The victim is objectified as the road is splattered with blood. One of the hooded sicarios tries severing the right hand with a pocket knife. You can hear the executioners laughing as the torso is manhandled. Recorded with a mobile device, the online video’s low resolution and vertical format make it akin to snuff filmmaking, gore and torture porn (reminiscent of films such as Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980); Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh & Blood (Hideshi Hino, 1985); Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005) and Tom Six’s 2010 film The Human Centipede (First Sequence)) and found-footage horror (think of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1990); or Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s 2007 film [REC]). Upon watching it, one is overcome by the kind of jolts and affective responses, a mix of attraction and aversion, experienced when viewing a transgressive movie like A Serbian Film (Srdjan Spasojevic, 2010), which employs unspeakable “excesses that provoke, alienate and challenge viewers”.1 The video is titled “Vídeo donde Sicarios descuartizan a Taxista por Halcón en Guerrero” (or “Video where sicarios tear apart a taxi driver for being an informant in Guerrero:) and was uploaded in December 2016.2 As the victim becomes flesh, bones, pain and fluids one is ultimately overcome by disgust, “a rush of air that chokes, a rush of choking air”.3 As spectators, the carnage seems too unreal, too far-fetched to be true. The footage is nauseating because it highlights our own physical vulnerability, and the limitlessness of cruelty. It is also shocking because we recognise our own voyeuristic attraction to ruined bodies and death. The video depicts a real execution, however, and is easily accessible via the Blog del Narco, perhaps the most widely visited website dedicated to news, photographs and videos of the de facto civil war that has engulfed some regions of Mexico for the past few decades.

Mexican Narco Wars

This article offers a brief overview of the highly mediatized nature of the current phase of the Mexican narco wars, highlighting the existence of explicit videos released online by the cartels, which show executions and beheadings in gory detail. I argue that mutilated human bodies are first used as a discursive device that propagates criminal propaganda, and are then reappropriated by film and TV producers as a narrative tool, which raises ethical questions. The article compares and analyses the ways in which violated and mutilated bodies from this conflict are depicted in scenes from two Hollywood productions – the TV show Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gillian, 2008-2013) and Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) – and in Mexican director Amat Escalante’s Heli which won Best Director at Cannes in 2013. These three texts allow us to look at how distinct cultural industries – US quality television, the Hollywood conglomerate and the Mexican indie film industry – address the abuse of human bodies for propagandistic purposes. The article draws from the theoretical concept of affect (as framed in Aldana-Reyes’ recent work on horror cinema, as well as Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects) and scholarship on leaked torture photographs (focusing on the Abu Ghraib scandal). This piece explores the aesthetic and ethical implications of representing real life violence on the screen, particularly when depicting cartel killings. It then explores the ways in which the shock value in narco videos communicates with the three texts abovementioned. Cartel execution footage, such as the one described in the opening paragraph, is pitilessly explicit.

Blog del Narco: A Wikileaks for the Drug Wars

Blog del Narco was founded in 2010 and has been described by Campbell as a sort of Wikileaks for the narco wars.4 The anonymous founder claims that the platform fulfils the journalistic function of countering the gatekeeping naiveté of mainstream Mexican media, historically colluded with the federal government.5 One of the website’s main sections is titled “Videos Fuertes” (strong or extreme videos). Here, raw footage of interrogations, gunfights and executions is readily available. In other videos, sicarios play soccer with a severed head or interrogate a 17-year-old girl, an agent for a rival cartel, before decapitating her with a machete, her face covered in sweat and tears as she draws her last breath. Some of these videos are complemented with a brief editorial description or with a message released by the cartels upon the publication of the material, usually a threat directed to rival gangs. This type of footage can be described as narco-propaganda, “a form of psychological warfare and terrorism, designed to intimidate, dehumanize, and dominate”.6 These videos use the cinematic conventions of body horror, a genre in which human bodies are destroyed or degenerated through corporeal violence.

Narco videos are designed to inspire fear in adversaries through physical transgression, but are also watched by an eclectic online audience as evidenced by the “hundreds of comments by anonymous drug trafficker wannabees, gore video voyeurs, viewers concerned about the social decomposition of Mexico, some ‘real’ drug traffickers, and many young men who engage in macho posturing and morbid banter”.7 Blog del Narco allows us to bear witness to the atrocities of armed conflict, but also provides voyeuristic pleasure for some. Other platforms such as Borderland Beat (borderlandbeat.com), NarcoData (narcodata.mx) and Narco Violencia (narcoviolencia.com.mx) engage in similar watchdog and whistleblowing activities, and publish shocking images. In the past, drug cartels have used other online platforms such as MySpace, Hi5 and Second Life for organisation and promotion8 and currently own numerous Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts where they show off their lavish lifestyle (golden guns, luxury cars, over-the-top jewellery) and organise the distribution of their product.9 In the current social media ecology of the narco wars, human bodies are used to feed the snuff machine.

Narco Body Horror: Vocabularies of Death

Narco body horror videos usually show the humiliation and psychological maiming of the victim prior to the murderous act. Before the gun is fired or the machete strikes, the victim is stripped off their humanity through increasing levels of pain. Beheadings became customary among the cartels in 2006. At first, most decapitations happened in the state of Guerrero, in Southern Mexico, a land historically defined by inequality and postcolonial struggles.10 Nowadays decapitations are usual throughout the country. This brutal practice has targeted not only members of organised crime, as “beheading victims first included rival cartel members, police officers, and lawyers but quickly expanded to include journalists and eventually Mexican military troops”.11 Images of heads and headless bodies are published online and by the print yellow press, and have become part of the visual grammar of the narco wars. These crimes are also often referenced in Mexican popular culture, from films such as the brutalist tragicomedy El infierno (released as El Narco in various international markets; Luis Estrada, 2010) and the stylised drama Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011) to the much vilified narco corridos, troubadour-style songs where drug dealers are immortalised as heroes.

Even though a majority of narco body horror videos involve male victims, some feature women. The violated female body has been a notable facet of recent drug violence. Viciousness against women has been constant in the context of the narco wars, most notably in the border town of Juárez, where since 1993 hundreds of female corpses, often showing signs of torture and sexual abuse, have been found in the desert. Many victims are underage, as young as seven years old. These women are collectively known as “Las muertas de Juárez” or “The dead women of Juárez”. Numerous lines of investigation have been opened to try to solve these cases. A theory points towards the use of these women in the production of snuff films consumed by wealthy foreigners, which highlights the use of the human body for sadistic media consumption.12  Writer Sergio González Rodríguez, who spent years investigating the murders, as fictionalised in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666,13 claims that the crimes were committed by drug traffickers “complicit with individuals who enjoy political and economic power”.14 He argues that the victims were abducted and their bodies used for carnal and voyeuristic pleasure in safe houses where “they were raped, tortured, and murdered at stag parties or orgies”.15 Filmmakers South (Carlos Carrera, Backyard, 2009) and North of the border (Gregory Nava, Bordertown, 2006) have offered lukewarm fictional depictions of the feminicides.

Extreme narco videos also remind us of other instances in which leaked online material has showcased the objectification of the Other, the enemy, with important socio-political repercussions. The photographs of humiliated Iraqi prisoners taken by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, for instance, continue “to conjure the sight of US troops in the role of sadistic torturers”.16 The Abu Ghraib images are an example of how extreme visual material can dominate the sensorial memory of a conflict. The photograph of a hooded prisoner holding electric cables on a Crucifixion-like pose has acquired mythical, pious qualities, and is iconic of the Bush era war on terror. As McCosker points out, the Abu Ghraib images offered “an important vector between the front line and the home front”.17 Narco videos materialise the volatile front line of drug violence.

Decapitation videos and body horror are not exclusive to the Mexican drug wars. Mediatised mutilation is a common practice in regions that have historically experienced extreme violence. For example, the Islamic State and other jihadist extremist groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Phillipines18 have also released gory footage of executions. The most notable case is the decapitation of the American journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS in 2014.19 Internet execution videos are a leitmotif of global contemporary terrorist and criminal propaganda, and have been used as narrative tools in TV shows such as House of Cards US.20 There are clear stylistic differences between narco videos and ISIS propaganda, however. While narco videos are raw and unaltered, ISIS has employed professional video production techniques to shoot and edit gruesome public executions and other murderous acts. With an audiovisual tempo akin to music videos and Hollywood war cinema, and with aesthetic tropes of documentary, snuff and cinema vérité filmmaking, ISIS has released videos where their enemies are burnt alive, shot by children or drowned while locked in a cage.

Blog del Narco continues a longstanding tradition of online cultures of releasing images of traumatised bodies that inspire awe, voyeuristic titillation and disgust. An early precursor is rotten.com, launched in 1996, which is still active and shows sensationalist photographs of body horror and extreme sexual acts. Like other content that circulates freely on the Internet, such as raw battleground footage, narco violence videos are easily accessed, copied and disseminated, generating novel forms of audience engagement with body horror, as “new ways of providing access to the ‘real’ imply new ways of seeing”.21 These new networked ways of seeing are increasingly desensitised, a continuation of the “tele-intimacy with death and destruction”22 that according to Susan Sontag was introduced with the televised American War in Vietnam. The rough aesthetics of these photographs and videos, along with their gut-wrenching qualities, have permeated fictional depictions of the Mexican drug wars, pushing the boundaries of the stagging of onscreen violence. The reach and implications of these videos cannot be understated, as “the shockingly unique and disturbing new forms of narco-violence/terror that ceaselessly emerge transform the Mexican cultural imagination both because of their immediate impact and because of their viral transmission on the Internet and through word-of-mouth and folklore”.23

Onscreen Depictions of the Narco Wars

Illegal drug trafficking in the Mexico-US border has long been represented both by Hollywood and Latin American cultural industries. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), for instance, tells the story of Narcotics Officer Mike Vargas (a whitewashed role played by Charlton Heston) and his descent into the borderland underworld. Welles’ depiction of the liminal zone between lawlessness in Mexico and the rule of law in the United States, a trope that permeates most Hollywood representations of the conflict, marks the beginning of a now long history of US based productions that offer simplistic depictions of illegal narcotics trafficking. As Bunker and de Arimatéia da Cruz argue, most US films about the drug trade “typically focus on the simpler dynamics between the good guys (the authorities or nice drug dealers) and the bad guys (the narcos) with the good guys winning (Training Day, Savages), no one coming out on top (Traffic, No Country for Old Men), or both the good guy (Drug Wars) and the bad guy (Scareface, Not Forgotten) losing in the end”.24 Here, representation matters because these narratives perpetuate stereotypes and assign blame to the historical Other (in this case Mexicans and other people of colour), which permeates the social imaginary in the political context of the rise of the extreme right. The Trump administration, for example, has accentuated the image of Mexico as a violent country to support controversial policies such as the construction of a border wall between the US and its neighbour.25

Most Hollywood narratives of the border are generally unsophisticated and defined by a black and white moral framework. Non-Anglo dead and mutilated bodies are seldom depicted tragically, or the individual as a victim. Rather, murdered characters are shown as bad hombres26 who probably deserved to be killed. Wild West justice supersedes human rights. On the flipside, Anglo traffickers, drug users and corrupt authorities are often given a moral justification or undergo a process of redemption. In the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s modern-day western, No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), Mexican cartel members are nothing but a faceless mob of barbarians, while the white protagonist, although ultimately driven by greed, simply suffers a case of being in “the wrong place at the wrong time”. Similarly, in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), the earliest and perhaps most celebrated Hollywood film about the current phase of the cartel wars, the metropolitan areas of Tijuana and Mexico City are selectively shown as badlands stricken by poverty and populated by corrupt individuals.

In Mexico and other Latin American countries, mainly Colombia, drug trafficking has been the subject of soap operas or narco telenovelas such as La Reina del Sur (about a female drug lord and remade by USA Network in 2016), El patrón del mal (like series one and two of the Netlix show Narcos, it focuses on the rise and fall of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar) and El Señor de los Cielos (available on Netflix worldwide). These extravagant narratives cast a quasi-heroic light on drug lords and sicarios. The widely popular genre of narco cinema or video home has also depicted drug violence since the 1980s. These low-budget movies are released straight to video in Mexico and the United States, and about half are financed by the cartels.27 In the United States, these melodramatic movies are distributed in Hispanic enclaves and cater for diasporic communities for which the violent homeland is a distant and fascinating reality. Violence in these B-movies is almost comedic, involuntarily kitsch and cartoonish. The similar aesthetics of narco corrido music videos were imitated by the producers of Breaking Bad in the mock clip “Negro y Azul” (Black and Blue), a narco corrido by Los Cuates de Sinaloa that tells the story of Heisenberg aka Walter White. 28 Narcocorridos themselves have become the subject of documentaries like Narco Cultura (Shaul Schwarz, 2013) and even the first Spanish-language US based Netflix show, El Vato (created by Jorge Dorantes, 2016), which follows the rags-to-riches story of a Mexican singer trying to catch a break in the Hispanic market in Los Angeles, ruled by money launderers working for the cartels.

Mexican Narco Wars

El Pozolero (Alfonso O. Lara, 2009)

Low budget narco cinema has a quick production turnaround, and movies are hastily shot to mirror news stories in the sensationalist press. The movie El Pozolero (Alfonso O. Lara, 2009), for example, tells the real-life story of a man hired by the cartels to dissolve hundreds of corpses in acid, a case that was eagerly followed by the rating-hungry media.29 death and terrorist acts become banal in narco B-movies, a fun narrative trick that inundates the screen with the hypnotic allure of chaos. Rashotte describes these movies as follows:

Try to picture what The Young and the Restless might look like with Steven Seagal as head writer and you may get something like the Anglo equivalent in mind: shootouts, explosions, French kisses, roundhouse kicks, more explosions, boobage, hysterical sobbing, punch-outs, and finally, explosions; at center, the steel-eyed hero violently resisting (or maximising a stake in) the hematic vortex all has become. Imagine a Harlequin Romance sponsored by the NRA. Imagine a décima to the Lone Man crooned by a group of lonely men strumming their AK-47s under a corrugated yellow moon. Add to this (whatever the hell “this” is) the tortoise-and-hare narrative pace at which scenes of extended exposition rival quick shoot-’emups, and the Bollywoodesque regularity of musical interludes (in this case by celebrity corridistas) and it’s easy to appreciate why the first-time viewer may feel a bit disoriented. 30

The real-life conflict portrayed in these texts is far from simplistic, however, and involves multiple layers of Mexico’s social fabric. Even though filmmakers have for the most part failed to capture the complexities of narco culture, a buoyant literary scene has emerged and la literatura del narco or literatura del Norte has become a valuable genre.31 The war on drugs that started in the 1980s with the slow decline of the Colombian cartels and intensified during the Felipe Calderón presidency (2006-2012) has become a many-headed beast comprised of multiple fronts. The machinery of war has been fed by the arms trade flowing from the United States to Mexico, and by the failure of US authorities to curb drug consumption in their territory. Extreme narco-violence “emerged in this context of intra-cartel, inter-cartel, cartel vs. government (the military and various police forces), and government vs. civil society violence”.32 Some rightfully claim that certain regions of Mexico, such as the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Michoacán (depicted in the documentary Cartel Land; Matthew Heineman, 2015), are experiencing a failed State as governance is all but non-existent.33 For Campbell, “Mexican organized crime groups are a response to the failures and neglect of the neoliberal Mexican state”.34 Even though the cartel violence shown in extreme videos is ethically unjustifiable, awareness of the blatant social inequalities that are characteristic of voracious neoliberalism can help contextualise the conflict, dignify the victims and raise question about the use of transgressed human bodies for propagandistic and entertainment purposes.

Because the federal government has failed to provide basic services for large segments of the population, Mexican narcos are immortalised in popular lore as modern day Robin Hoods who distribute wealth in a more just, if unlawful, manner. The celebre Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, for example, has been the subject of movies and documentaries (Chapo: el escape del siglo (Axel Uriegas, 2016); El Chapo: CEO of Crime, 2013), as well as a 2017 quality TV show coproduced by Univisión and Netlix, El Chapo. He was apprehended because he reached out to actor Sean Penn (who wrote about the encounter in Rolling Stone)35 and Mexican star Kate del Castillo. El Chapo was allegedly interested in producing a biopic about his life.

Everyday Body Horror in Contemporary Mexico

Understanding the cultural and political complexity of the drug wars can shed light on the difficulty of depicting them onscreen. Due to the recent intensification of the government’s offensive against the cartels, these criminal groups have branched out into other cruel violations of human rights such as organ harvesting, sex trafficking, extortion and the kidnapping of Central American migrants. Mass graves have been found across the country. Cities that had been largely untouched by high-intensity drug violence, such as the capital Mexico City, where the main players of the film industry are based, have recently been witness to spectacular killings, real body horror events. In the financial district of Santa Fe, for example, human heads have been placed in front of corporate headquarters.36 In the affluent suburb of Interlomas, decapitated bodies have been hung upside down from bridges.37

Prior to the current wave of drug violence, there was a balkanisation of the cartels during the Vicente Fox presidency (2000-2006). The two cartels that controlled the flow of illegal narcotics from South America to the United States, and had expanded into a worldwide criminal network, the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf of Mexico) and El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel (in the Atlantic coast), split into various cells. One of these new cartels is Los Zetas, made up of former military personnel trained by the US Army to, ironically, fight drug trade. Los Zetas were first hired as mercenaries by the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel), but then exscinded to form their own organisation.38 Los Zetas members come mainly from the state of Oaxaca, a region rich in natural resources but rift with a violent history of corruption, guerrilla movements and colonial subjugation of indigenous groups. Williams has identified the formation of this group as a watershed moment in the history of Mexican criminal organisations, as the unwritten rules of engagement of drug violence (such as not targeting civilians or families) were disrupted.39 Los Zetas are also infamous for carrying out spectacular acts of violence, which involve beheadings and the dismemberment of their victims. Body parts are then often displayed in public spaces like shopping malls, highways and even dance floors.

For Los Zetas and other cartels, killing is as much about eliminating adversaries as it is about performing a role that exacerbates their power and dominance in a particular region or plaza. They do so by stressing their full control over their enemies’ bodies. The creative and cruel maiming of the human anatomy is a show of force of significant affective and visual impact when recorded for online audiences. The spectacular manners in which victims are executed and disposed of has originated a vocabulary that is used in real execution videos and fictional representation of the conflict such as narco B-movies. Some of these terms are:

† Decapitado: decapitation.

† Descuartizado: quartering of a body.

† Encajuelado: put body in car trunk.

† Encobijado: body wrapped in blanket.

† Entambado: body put in drum.

† Enteipado: eyes and mouth of corpse taped shut.

† Pozoleado (also Guisado): body in acid bath, looks like Mexican stew.[41. Bunker, Campbell and Bunker, p. 146.]

This list of murderous techniques evidences both the gravity of social decomposition in Mexico and the use of the human body as a tool for narco propaganda. Torture and mutilation in the narco wars have historical precedents. In fact, human sacrifices and ritualistic dismemberment were pre-Hispanic practices that in the Mexican postcolonial imaginary equal barbarism and an irrational fear of the indigenous.40 During colonial times, those who killed missionaries in Northern Mexico were decapitated by the authorities. As Lomnitz recalls: “Heads of criminals were routinely exhibited on pikes, as, at times, were other body parts, specially the hand and the arm”41 The staging of narco murders follow these discursive patterns.

The theatricality and cruelty in which narco killings are carried out has certainly been appealing to television and film producers, who have found entertainment value in these brutal and outlandish acts. Most films and television shows that use these horrific practices as a narrative tool take an uncritical stance, objectifying the victims and perpetuating reductionist arguments on the inevitability of violent death for those involved in criminal activities. The socio-political reality of Mexico, however, is much more intricate, as cartels have infiltrated financial, political and even religious spheres.42 Researchers have identified the presence of narcocultos, religious cults through which sicarios justify killings as a seemingly noble act in which human bodies are used as a conduct of spirituality. The two most notable narcocultos are the cult of the Santa Muerte (Holy Death), a derivative of Catholicism, and the worship of Jesus Malverde, a smuggler who became the patron saint of drug traffickers.43 In Michoacán, two cartels, Los Caballeros Templarios and La Familia Michoacana, operate like religious sects with a complex belief system complete with myths and ceremonies that often involve murder. Los Caballeros Templarios, for instance, have initiation rituals where cartel members are dressed in the medieval fashion of the Templar Knights and new recruits extract and eat human hearts.44 La Familia Michoacana is a far-right organisation with a belief system based in evangelical Christianity. These two cartels are notably cruel in their day to day operations. Satanic cults have also been associated with the cartels. It is rumoured, for example, that Los Zetas place their victims’ ashes in a pipe, mix it with cocaine, and smoke the remains.45 Narcocultos are also depicted in series three of the TV show Breaking Bad, when the cousins Leonel and Marco Salamanca join a group of people crawling towards an altar of La Santa Muerte to present an offering wishing for Walter White’s death.

Breaking Bad, Sicario and Heli: Affect and Body Horror

Given this background, an analysis of three particular scenes from a trio of recent productions depicting the drug war can shed light on how affect is triggered by images of sudden violent death, and how it is depicted onscreen through body horror. Affect is understood as “a term defining the physical process whereby the body is affected by an external prompting”.46 In two of these three cases, affect is present both in the action taking place on the screen, and in how we are positioned as spectators, which triggers aesthetic and ethical questions for producers and audiences. In screen culture affect, particularly horror and disgust, is formed by two layers: affected bodies represented on the screen, and the affected body of the spectator.

In recent popular culture, Breaking Bad (produced by AMC) is perhaps the most talked about text about the cartel wars, North and South of the border. The larger-than-life tale of Walter White, a cancer patient and chemistry teacher who becomes a main player in the New Mexico underworld, resonated with audiences worldwide due to the ambivalent moral positioning of the lead character. The show alternates between tragic and comedic tones, and between empathy and aversion towards Walter. The drug cartels, particularly the Juárez Cartel, cast a shadow over the main plot throughout the entire show. Given that Breaking Bad is notable for its high production values, it is worth pointing out that very little care was put into accurate Spanish accents and cultural idiosyncrasies of Northern Mexico (this is also the case in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic). Although seemingly unimportant to the development of the main plot, this oversight frames non-Anglo characters and bodies as dispensable.

Mexican Narco Wars

Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013)

In the seventh episode of series two, titled “Negro y Azul” and aired on April 29 2009, cartel man Tortuga (Turtle), played by Mexican-American icon and social activist Danny Trejo, is killed. Tortuga was an informant about to cut a deal with the authorities. During an operation, he is found dead by DEA agents and Mexican federal police or federales. His severed head is placed on his pet turtle, a macabre joke that is framed as entertainment.47 One of the DEA agents, Hank Shrader (Walter’s brother-in-law), identifies Tortuga through a set of binoculars as the reptile moves slowly through the desert, crowned by the human head. This shocking image has a quasi-religious, ritualistic air about it.  Like the photograph of the Abu Ghraib hooded prisoner, it echoes Judaeo-Christian imagery. It reminds us of the many depictions of the head of John the Baptist, served upon a platter to Salome, or Goliath’s head, severed by David. This narrative device also works as an example of what Lopez Cruz calls biological horror, an alternative to body horror, as it “finds strength in the way it goes against what is considered normal anatomy and function in biological species”.48 While Hank is visibly shocked and physically perturbed by the discovery, the Mexican federales gather around the ghastly chimera, joking and laughing at Hank and the severed head. Global North audiences are positioned in the place of the virtuous Hank, who has to stop himself from vomiting after facing the affective impact of disgust. For Brinkema, disgust “seems to be, far more than grief, an affect bound up with bodies, to implant itself without mediation on a skin or a consciousness, to have a direct target in the repulsed sensorium of its victim”.49 In this scene, disgust as affect turns Hank into the victim of repulsion, a most violent attack on the senses and the psyche. Like in horror cinema, disgust is triggered by the aesthetic of body horror which moves us to “the point at which our bodies may be moved by those we see on the screen”.50 As for the slaughtered Tortuga, he becomes a recipient of disgust, not compassion. As spectators, we are expected to share Hank’s visceral reaction as the American character enters the first circle of Mexico’s fictional hell and becomes victimised.

Mexican Narco Wars

Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013)

Other US films have shown similar affective responses to torture and grisly deaths “South of the border”. We can think, for instance, of Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), which features graphic torture scenes that draw from narco propaganda material. The operatic 2015 Hollywood production Sicario, directed by Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, shows a shock reaction to the gruesomeness of narco crime scenes, particularly hung, shot and decapitated bodies. The main character, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a female kidnappings expert working for the DEA, takes the position of the viewer as she searches the Internet for images of the cartel wars. As traumatised anonymous bodies parade on the laptop screen – bullet holes, blankets covering tortured human flesh, corpses hanging upside down from bridges like meat pendulums – Kate gasps in disbelief and disgust, shuts the laptop and reaches for her pack of cigarettes. Villeneuve is perhaps more critical than the producers of Breaking Bad because he acknowledges the disparity between Global North and Global South realities. This scene shows how US citizens can simply turn off and ignore uncomfortable situations in which they might have an ethical stake. Kate also tours the war-ravaged Ciudad Juárez (just across from the safest city in the United States, El Paso), watching hung corpses from the safety of an armoured vehicle, the windows and windshield acting as a screen on which the carnage is projected. Like in Breaking Bad, audiences witness Mexico’s de facto civil war through a white character’s subjectivity and virtuous American citizens embark on a Dantesque journey where Mexican cities are exclusively shown as violent slums.

Mexican Narco Wars

Mexican Narco Wars

Mexican Narco Wars

Mexican Narco Wars

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Mexican arthouse directors have offered alternative depictions of the cartel wars, following hyperrealism as an aesthetic mandate. This stylistic choice places them closer to real cartel execution videos. Notable among these directors is Gerardo Naranjo, who in Miss Bala (2011), explores the impact of cartel violence on young women. Documentary filmmaker Everardo González recently released La libertad del Diablo (The Devil’s Freedom, 2017), where he interviews executioners and victims of the narco wars, including children. His subjects wear a mask as they describe the act of killing and the experience of being tortured. Victims show other physical signs of abuse such as patches of heavily burnt skin. The mask is a subtle yet powerful aesthetic device that brings González’ documentary closer to slasher horror.

Mexican Narco Wars

La libertad del Diablo (Everardo González, 2017)

Amat Escalante’s Heli portrays the disruptive effect of criminality in everyday life in rural Mexico. Like his collaborator Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, 2007), Escalante employs non-actors and uses real settings in a realist approach to filmmaking. Heli is not a sudden and virulent attack on the senses, but rather a contemplative and silent collage of domestic scenes interrupted by the mercilessness of conflict. While Sicario positions the viewer in the place of a shocked spectator and Breaking Bad mocks the carnage of the drug wars by reducing it to affective disgust, Heli utilises a cinéma vérité style to depict torture and violent deaths in a quasi-clinical way. In one of the film’s climatic and most controversial scenes a man’s genitals are set on fire while he is hanging upside down and being humiliated by a group of sicarios. Escalante bears witness to this hideous act in a fly-on-the-wall, almost detached manner. The camera stands back as executioners and victim share the dehumanising intimacy of violent death. The scene is eerily devoid of drama and non-diegetic music. As the carnage unfolds, two teenagers play videogames: virtual and real violence juxtapose. The hitmen act monotonously, like slaughterhouse workers who kill on a daily basis.

Mexican Narco Wars

Mexican Narco Wars

Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013)

As critic Mark Kermode observed, Escalante’s matter-of-fact approach to violence – similar to Michael Haneke’s in terms of film’s like 2005’s Caché – makes his film even more unnerving. Upon the film’s release in the festival circuit, Kermode pointed out that “domesticity will become the film’s most disturbing element, as home-grown torture is enacted in the presence of children, their attention divided between the flickering images on the TV screen and the real-life beating of a man in whose violation and humiliation they are invited/forced to participate”.51 The affective mechanisms of Heli are not grounded in watching the Other being tortured and killed in a foreign and inhospitable land, but in recognising familiar settings of the home front suddenly turned into murder sites.

The consumption of real-life and fictional body horror derived from the narco wars prompts ethical questions for both producers and audiences. Most onscreen depictions of narco violence by Anglo filmmakers perpetuate the use of tortured bodies as sites of voyeuristic consumption without reflecting on the horror experienced by those directly affected by the ongoing conflict. Victims are stripped off their humanity as their bodies become mere props. We can analyse texts such as Breaking Bad, Sicario and Heli in terms of the ethical and critical stance they take in the face of real humanitarian crisis. Do these productions offer a complacent or an empathetic gaze?

On the other hand, viewers of both real and fictional executions can also question how they position themselves when witnessing death. As Aldana Reyes asks in regards to torture in the fictional film Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005): “Was I in some way responsible for the carnographic spectacles I had witnessed?”.52 We could ask the same question to the many Internet voyeurs who have witnessed narco-related executions online, in Mexico and abroad. Maybe what is required is to encourage discussion on the representation of current conflicts on film and television screens, and offer an alternative, more empathetic view of the narco war, grossly misrepresented by US cultural industries.

This article has been peer-reviewed.



  1. Shaun Kimber, “Transgressive Edge Play and Srpski Film/A Serbian Film,” Horror Studies 5.1 (2014): p.112.
  2. Accessible at: http://www.elblogdelnarco.com/2016/12/v%C3%ADdeo-donde-sicarios-descuartizan-a-taxista-por-halc%C3%B3n-en-guerrero-.html
  3. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 117
  4. Howard Campbell, “Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican ‘Drug War’ An Anthropological Perspective,” Latin American Perspectives 41.2 (2014): p. 68
  5. Ibid., p. 70
  6. Ibid. p. 64
  7. Ibid. p. 68-69
  8. Sarah Womer, and Robert J. Bunker, “Sureños gangs and Mexican cartel use of social networking sites,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21.1 (2010): 81-94.
  9. Justin Nix, Michael R. Smith, Matthew Petrocelli, Jeff Rojek, and Victor M. Manjarrez, “The Use of Social Media by Alleged Members of Mexican Cartels and Affiliated Drug Trafficking Organizations,” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 13.3 (2016): pp. 395-418.
  10. Pamela L Bunker, Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker, “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21.1 (2010): p. 149.
  11. Ibid
  12. Girish Gupt, “Mexico’s Disappeared Women,” New Statesman, 17 February 2011, http://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2011/02/ciudad-juarez-women-mexico
  13. Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2009)
  14. Sergio González Rodríguez, The Feminicide Machine (Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e), 2012), p. 71.
  15. Ibid. p. 72.
  16. Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, “The Abu Ghraib Torture photographs: News Frames, Visual Culture, and the Power of Images,” Journalism 9.1 (2008): p. 11.
  17. Anthony McCosker, Intensive Media: Aversive Affect and Visual Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 45.
  18. Associated Press, “German Hostage Beheaded in Philippines by Abu Sayyaf Extremists,” Time, 27 February 2017, http://time.com/4683659/philippines-abu-sayyaf-extremism/
  19. Chelsea J. Carter, “Video Shows ISIS Beheading U.S. Journalist James Foley,” CNN, 20 August 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/19/world/meast/isis-james-foley/
  20. Reiss Smith, “House of Cards season 5: Why Did ICO Kill Jim Miller? Recap of Series 4,” Express, 1 June 2017, http://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/811770/House-of-Cards-season-5-Jim-Miller-iCO-kill-recap-series-4-Netflix
  21. Sue Tait, “Pornographies of Violence? Internet Spectatorship on Body Horror,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.1 (2008): p. 92.
  22. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 18.
  23. Campbell, p. 69
  24. Robert J. Bunker, and José de Arimatéia da Cruz, “Cinematic representations of the Mexican Narco War,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26, no. 4 (2015): p. 714
  25. David Agren, “Is Mexico Really the Second-Deadliest Country in the World?,” The Guardian, 11 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/mexico-deadly-violence-international-institute-strategic-studies
  26. Vivian Salama, “Trump to Mexico: Take Care of ‘Bad Hombres’ or US Might,” AP News, 2 February 2017, https://apnews.com/0b3f5db59b2e4aa78cdbbf008f27fb49
  27. Ryan Rashotte, Narco Cinema: Sex, Drugs, and Banda Music in Mexico’s B-Filmography (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 4.
  28. AMC, “Negro y Azul”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DPGjjCBcAg
  29. Like numerous other narco cinema movies, El Pozolero has been uploaded to YouTube. In this clip, hitmen drop corpses into an acid bath: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ml1JvT2HMeI. Like in Hollywood action cinema,[30. Carl Boggs, and Tom Pollard, “Hollywood and the Spectacle of Terrorism,” New Political Science 28.3 (2006): 335-351.
  30. Rashotte, p. 2.
  31. Gerardo Castillo Carrillo, “La narconovela mexicana, desarrollo, posicionamiento y consolidación en el campo literario nacional,” Entrehojas: Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 6.1 (2016): 4
  32. Howard Campbell, and Tobin Hansen, “Is Narco‐Violence in Mexico Terrorism?,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 33.2 (2014): p. 159
  33. Campbell, p. 63
  34. Ibid.
  35. Sean Penn, “El Chapo Speaks,” Rolling Stone, January 9 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/el-chapo-speaks-20160109
  36. Staff writers, “Hallan en Santa Fe el cuerpo de un hombre decapitado,” Proceso, 26 August 2011, http://www.proceso.com.mx/279662/hallan-en-santa-fe-cuerpo-de-un-hombre-decapitado
  37. Notimex, “Hallan cuerpo colgado en puente de Interlomas, en Edomex,” Crónica, August 15 2011, http://www.cronica.com.mx/notas/2011/598745.html
  38. Chris Arsenault, “US-trained Cartel Terrorises Mexico,” Al Jazeera, 4 November 2010, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2010/10/20101019212440609775.html\
  39. Phil Williams, “El crimen organizado y la violencia en México: una perspectiva comparativa,” ISTOR: Revista de Historia International 11 (2010): 15-40.
  40. Jean Franco, Cruel Modernity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013) pp. 7-9.
  41. Claudio Lomintz, Death and the Idea of Mexico (New York: Zone Books, 2008) p. 279.
  42. Williams, p.15-40.
  43. Bunker, Campbell and Bunker, p. 163.
  44. Alberto Najar, “Los crueles rituales de iniciación del narco en México,” BBC Mundo, 21 April 2014, http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2014/04/140410_mexico_rituales_narcotrafico_templarios_an
  45. Bunker, Campbell and Bunker, p. 169.
  46. Xavier Aldana Reyes, Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 5.
  47. The scene has been uploaded to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0w9Pq1yhMc
  48. Ronald Allan Lopez Cruz, “Mutations and metamorphoses: Body horror is biological horror,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 40.4 (2012): p. 161.
  49. Brinkema, p. 134.
  50. Aldana Reyes, p. 3
  51. Mark Kermode, “Heli review – violent Mexican drugs drama with family dignity at its core,” The Guardian, 25 May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/25/heli-review-mexican-drugs-drama-ultraviolent
  52. Aldana Reyes, p. 1.