scorecardresearch Skip to main content

The scourge of Mexican drug cartels

None of the ideas coming from the GOP presidential candidates hold much promise in successfully fighting the fentanyl drug trade.

Peso Pluma performed during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 12 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Narcomantas have become common in Mexico’s drug war and are part of a so-called narcomedia, or the different informal ways that Mexican drug cartels send public announcements. Narcomantas are bedsheets or cloth banners hand-painted with criminal or threatening messages. Sometimes they’re left hanging from bridges, sometimes they are accompanied by dead bodies. Regardless, they’re grisly displays of terror.

This week, an incident with a few narcomantas in Tijuana illustrates just how prevalent the shadow of the cartel state is in Mexico. And it shows the boldness and immunity the cartels enjoy. The cartels are a power that face no serious accountability from the Mexican government.


On Tuesday, Peso Pluma, one of the biggest Mexican artists right now, was targeted with at least three messages posted in the border city where he’s scheduled to hold a concert next month. “This is for you Peso Pluma,” a narcomanta read in Spanish. “Do not perform on Oct. 14 or else it will be your last show because of your disrespectful loose tongue.” It was signed “CJNG,” or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of the most powerful and ruthless criminal groups in Mexico.

The death threats reportedly prompted Peso Pluma to postpone his shows scheduled for this week in the United States. But why did the cartel target the Mexican artist? It apparently has something to do with another form of narcomedia: the narcocorrido, which is the style of Peso Pluma’s “Siempre Pendientes.” On Sunday, the 24-year-old performed the drug ballad, which is allegedly about notorious Sinaloa cartel drug boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, at a music festival in Mexico City.

Apparently the Jalisco cartel did not like Peso Pluma glorifying its old nemesis, El Chapo, who is currently jailed in an American supermax prison. Some might conclude that Peso Pluma made himself a target of the cartels by engaging in “narcomarketing,” i.e., highlighting drug lords’ deeds through his music.


Peso Pluma’s newfound success, among Latinos in the United States as well as in Mexico and beyond, is fascinating because some of his songs merge the old genre of Mexican regional music — corridos, in which a story about a hero or a bandit is narrated through song — with trap, the hip-hop subgenre. The result is corridos tumbados, or trap corridos, a new variant of the Mexican regional genre that Peso Pluma has made incredibly popular globally.

While one person has been arrested in connection with the narcomantas, Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero expressed concern about public safety. “Singers such as ... Peso Pluma make apologies for crime, so there are certain groups that get upset,” the mayor said. While that may be true, it’s worth defending Peso Pluma’s right to freedom of expression as an artist. And is it really fair to blame him and hold him accountable for the alleged actions of a criminal group?

What about focusing on the actual drug cartels, which are largely responsible for the fentanyl drug crisis in the United States? Illicit fentanyl — a huge driver of synthetic opioid overdoses — is mostly coming from Mexico. But it’s not smuggled by migrants, as some politicians would like us to believe; about 90 percent of fentanyl seizures happen in legal ports of entry.


Sadly, debating solutions to the fentanyl crisis has become an intractable endeavor. Take the discussion that’s happening among Republican presidential candidates. The top contenders are endorsing the unprecedented notion of using American troops to fight the Mexican cartels, which is really as ludicrous as it sounds. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would send US special forces to take out fentanyl labs in Mexico “on day one.”

Most of the GOP candidates are also in favor of designating the criminal drug groups as foreign terrorist organizations, a largely symbolic and risky measure because the designation can be misused to persecute migrants, for example. Then there are some Republican politicians who use the “Colombia model” — a 15-year, $10 billion initiative that consisted of a wide range of American military and economic aid — as an example to follow, completely ignoring that the two drug wars are dissimilar and that that model had mixed results.

“If anything, the fentanyl problem is even more daunting,” the Cato Institute’s Justin Logan and Daniel Raisbeck wrote this week in a thorough historical examination in Foreign Policy. “Cocaine is much more expensive and difficult to produce than fentanyl. … Even if Mexico stopped producing any fentanyl, there is little reason to believe US supply would evaporate.”

With the postponement of Peso Pluma’s American shows this week, it would seem as if he’s been silenced — at least for now. I expect the opposite to happen among the Republican presidential hopefuls and their tiring discourse around Mexican drug cartels. Their ill-advised rhetoric and policy proposals are only going to get louder.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.