Forget Magical Realism-It’s The Narco Novel in Latin America

El País and Global Newsroom Americas have an articles on the boom in narco novels in Latin America. From countries like Mexico and Columbia and places like Puerto Rico, the narco novel is replacing the novel of the dictator and, instead, replacing it with stories of drug lords and the violence that comes with it.

“If we are talking about violence we are talking about narco violence,” says Cabiya while Élmer Mendoza notes that it is about the second most important business after arms trafficking: “It is not something exotic, but daily life.”

“Si hablamos de violencia hablamos de narco”, dice Cabiya mientras Élmer Mendoza apunta que se trata del segundo negocio más importante del mundo después del tráfico de armas: “No es algo exótico sino la realidad cotidiana”.

The story is all to familiar and the United States, unfortunately, is part of the problem. It seems problems never end and get recycled in fiction:

What the Paraguay of José Gaspar Rodrígues de Francia, the Dominican Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the Guatemalan Estrada Caberera or the Chilean Agusto Pinochet represented for he authors of the boom, today the leaders of the mafias from Medellín or Ciudad Juarez represent for their heirs. The capos of the drug traffickers have been substituted for the dictators en Latin American Literature. The military jeeps had given way to fleets of four by fours with tinted windows and the violence has stopped moving in the sense of vertical to colonize horizontally the entire society.

Lo que para los autores del boom representaron el paraguayo José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, el dominicano Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, el guatemalteco Estrada Cabrera o el chileno Augusto Pinochet lo representan hoy para sus herederos los jefes de las bandas mafiosas de Medellín o Ciudad Juárez. Los capos del narcotráfico han sustituido a los dictadores en la literatura latinoamericana. Los jeeps militares han dado paso a una flota de aparatosos cuatro por cuatro con cristales ahumados y la violencia ha dejado de moverse en sentido vertical para colonizar horizontalmente la sociedad entera.

The Global Newsroom Americas has a similar story in English. In both there is the notion that magical realism has out lived its usefulness, which probably over states the power of magical realism and plays into the stereotype of Latin American literature.  They do raise a valid point: when does art describe and when does it celebrate? Although they don’t make the connection the world of naro-corridos is the extreme end, where drug gangs and their members are celebrated in song. Much as gangster rap described the tough world of the streets then became a self reinforcing parody of themselves.

“Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers,” says Mexican writer and scholar, Jorge Volpi. Latin American writers “hurried to incorporate drug dealers into their texts, first as a backdrop then as the centre of the action.” The traffickers acquired an almost “mythic aura,” he said, speaking last year to an audience at the University of Rochester, USA. Stories tell of poverty stricken adolescents struggling up through the ranks of drug gangs, of young hit men, as portrayed in Colombian writer, Fernando Vallejo’s novel, La Virgin de los Sicarios, (Our Lady of the Assassins), of women more beautiful than any other and of the police; underpaid and almost always corrupt.


This style of fiction is a world away from the Latin American style of magical realism, with its tales of morality and fairy stories, seen in literature such as Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The contemporary novel finds its influence in westerns and films such as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction. And writers draw on what is happening around them. Dictators have fallen out of favour, says Volpi, what interests them now is, “the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging war against the state and their rivals.”


But for some members of the public it is not only the characters of narco-literature who are the bad guys, it’s the writers. Drug traffickers have gone mainstream. No longer are they just constrained to Mexican ballads. They are now regular stars not only in books but also in films and soap operas. And with this new found popularity comes concern. Groups such as, No more Narco books in Colombia and No more Violence nor Narco Books on Facebook, talk about social responsibility and the danger of glorifying violence and drug traffickers. Writing on, No more Narco Books, Series and Films, one member said, “With all the damage that drug trafficking has done us, television now wants to glorify it. They want to damage us with more and more violence.”