Eight days into my university exchange in Mexico City, I caught a direct glimpse into Mexican activism. The turnstiles at Etiopia station were blockaded by a small group protesting the death of ‘Ruben’.
With a premature grip on the Mexican accent, I made a mental note of his name and would search the news later that evening. Its stridence lay in its setting. Why a small metro station in a central, residential borough of a bustling metropolis?
Kiosks soon lined their shelves with covers of Ruben Espinoza. Espinoza was a photojournalist, a native of Veracruz who had fled his home state to the capital, to evade the claws of its mayor, Javier Duarte.
He was tortured and murdered alongside four other women in the Narvarte neighbourhood on July 31, 2015.
For all the apprehension around an exchange in a notoriously violent nation, the statistics are always staggering. This year alone, between January and September, 21200 people have lost their lives to violence.
From an outsider’s perspective, there is one cultural element in Mexico that I could never understand or accept: la Nota Roja.
La Nota Roja takes its name from the Porfiriato era. In Guadalajara, in the late 19th century, orders of executions were ratified with a red stamp. The symbol became synonymous with violence and danger.
Running parallel to la prensa amarilla, la Nota Roja devours its autonomy, free from censorship to display the cruel, unrelenting crime of Mexican society. The spectrum of front-page news spares no spoils, from decapitation to body-bags on the riverbanks.
The exposure, to the untrained eye, must only exacerbate the issue. However, la Nota Roja benefits from a generous readership. Priced at an average of 3 pesos [around 15p], in 2014 La Prensa and El Metro had a circulation of 244,299 and 146,531 respectively.
This begs the question, does la Nota Roja exploit or enlighten the violence epidemic?
La Nota Roja evolved with technology. Photography replaced artisan adaptations and gave a gruesome depiction of reality.
Raul Alvarez writes: “these stories were a perfect way to keep people both terrified and entertained”. Alvarez adds: “it fed one of the lowest instincts of human beings, feeling enticed by the forbidden and the unpleasant”.
Politicians have condemned the coverage, believing it creates the perception of imminent danger, when statistically, cases are more marginal.
In effect, La Nota Roja finds itself as a precursor to the modern day Emmy-driven epidemic of narcoculture on the silver screen. Latin America has become the backdrop to spectacles such as Netflix’s Narcos and Ingobernable, through to Tom Cruise’s American Made and the box-office blunder The Infiltrator, featuring Bryan Cranston.
Film and television is exporting a well-worn fetish of a barbaric Latin America, one that commercialises the upheaval of a civil society.
Francisco Bautista conducted a study in Nicaragua on the effects of La Nota Roja in popular culture.
His study recorded the following results:
- Deteriorating social sensitivity and human compassion: provokes indifference to another’s pain, struggles and tragedy.
- Spikes in arms sales: this resonates with the United States. Gun sales were at record highs with the constant threat of mass shootings and a Second Amendment repeal. Rather than push for stringent reform, many opt for self defence.
- Government trust falls: communities not only feel exposed to the external threat but some are also faced with a moral conflict: Who is their real guardian in society? Coercive cartels or invertebrate state institutions?
- Promotes authoritarian solutions outside of the law: Felipe Calderon used his mandate to enforce a full scale operation against cartels. The decision arguably raised the homicide rate, with US weaponry entering the market.
With heightening awareness and diminishing sensitivity, there is a firm case to suggest marketing violence for profit is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To normalise the notion of a violent vacuum of power, society may simply accept it as fact, and refute the possibility of eliminating it.
Bravery behind the lens
On the other hand, La Nota Roja’s critique is also its defence. Its realism and discomfort sheds light on scandal. Journalists risk their lives to litter the front pages with unsettling images of the society they serve.
Prior to Espinosa’s murder, he was frequently threatened for scratching the surface. He received death threats for publishing an unflattering image of now flagrant fugitive Javier Duarte.
Trisha Ziff interviewed Enrique Metinides, a pioneer of La Nota Roja, famous for iconic images over the 20th century. In the press conferences surrounding a selected portfolio of Metinides’s work, 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, Ziff provided a perspective that I cannot seem to shift.
“What happens in the U.S is hypocritical. There is a lot of violence and their culture tries to hide it. In Mexico, there is also violence, but here it’s visible, because its covered in the newspapers. Meanwhile in the United States, children are killed at school and there are no images, it doesn’t exist”.
The popular culture we consume can cause us to align a nation with an innate issue. Latin America is consistently perceived as violent, and rightly so, but people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Ultimately, popular culture will only reflect politics. Violence cannot be solved with lenient lawmakers – 78% of Mexicans disapprove of Pena Nieto’s handling of crime and drug trafficking.
La Nota Roja will always appear obscene and obtuse. The visceral images will always repulse us in a sane society. Yet, the work of individuals like Ruben Espinosa and many other journalists on social movements are acts of courage, that force the reflection on violence that the United States so desperately needs.