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Mexico battles proliferation of drug language

By MARK STEVENSON/None
April 14, 2011 at 3:01 a.m.
Updated April 13, 2011 at 11:14 p.m.


MEXICO CITY (AP) - There are a half dozen words for drug cartel informants, and double that for drug war dead. "Narco" has become a general prefix. The trend has people worrying that Mexico is developing a kind of offhand jargon that anesthetizes people by making escalating violence seem routine.

Some experts, however, say slang and euphemisms can help people deal with the horrors around them.

Slang for those killed in Mexico's bloody drug war depends on how the victims are found. "Encobijados" are bodies wrapped in a blanket. "Encajuelados" are those stuffed in a car trunk. "Encintados" are suffocated in packing tape.

"Narco" is strewn through everyday speech. "Narco-fosas" are pits where cartels dump victims. "Narco-mantas" are the banners strung by gangs from highway overpasses with threatening messages. "Narco-tienditas" are small drug-dealing locations also sometimes known as "picaderos," if heroin is sold there.

Contract killings are "jobs," kidnap-murders are "pickups," and "settling of accounts" means drug-dealer killings by rival gangs.

"I think they had a falcon on me," Jaime Rodriguez, the mayor of a suburb of the northern city of Monterrey, said after several dozen gunmen ambushed his convoy, killing one of his bodyguards and wounding several others.

He meant a "halcon," a kind of cartel informant, often a taxi driver, who follows targets around.

Informants who stand around on street corners have a different name - "posts" or "stakes." And there are "ventanas," or "windows" - informants who walk around, marking houses of intended targets with advertising fliers or graffiti.

Some Mexicans are so terrorized by the especially brutal Zetas gang that they refer to the cartel in hushed tones as "The Last Letter," or merely "The Letter."

It's not unlike Sicilians adopting "Cosa Nostra," or "Our Thing," the harmless name that the Mafia created for its syndicate of crime and violence.

Anti-crime activists like Isabel Miranda Wallace view such language as a dangerous kind of avoidance, leaving little room for outrage at the violence engulfing Mexico.

"Calling it a 'pickup' takes away from the seriousness of it," said Wallace, who led a successful decade-long fight to bring her son's kidnappers to justice, though his body still has not been found. "You become inured to the pain and suffering of these images."

But having a word for a horrific event can make it easier to handle, counters Ricardo Ainslie, a University of Texas professor who has studied the psychological effects of violence in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.

"Language helps you absorb things that are overwhelming ... people need the language because it structures the experience," Ainslie said, noting that residents of Juarez often refer to cartel victims as "muertitos" - literally "little dead ones."

"There's something kind of normalizing about the language," he said. "You've got this tension, and one of the ways you handle it is by trivializing it."

Talk about the drug war has become a central issue in Mexico, where the government frequently complains the country is unfairly portrayed as crime-ridden, and has even launched an official campaign to "Speak Well of Mexico."

Officials usually avoid even the term "drug cartels," and instead refer to them as "organized crime," perhaps more accurate now that much of the gangs' income comes from extortion and kidnapping.

But sensitive to the human cost of the drug war - more than 34,000 people killed in the first four years of the offensive - officials go to pains to emphasize that the violence originates with cartel gunmen, not the police and soldiers fighting them.

In April, the government officially changed the name of its public database of drug war deaths from "Homicides Presumably Related to Organized Crime" to "Death Presumably Related to Criminal Rivalries."

The media are also beginning to watch their language. A voluntary agreement signed in late March by Mexico's most powerful broadcasters and many newspapers says news stories should "avoid using the terminology used by criminals."

The accord did not give any specific list of words to avoid.

Prominent newspapers such as Reforma and La Jornada chose not to sign the agreement, and some media figures such as columnist and author Guadalupe Loaeza say they won't be bound by what she calls "self-censorship."

"It is absurd, it's a puritanical measure," said Loaeza. The world of drug cartels and drug violence "is our reality, and it has to be written about."

The language dilemma is part of a larger debate on how to cover a drug war whose images are becoming more and more gruesome.

Cartel postings on YouTube have become part of daily life, showing people being tortured by the gangs for information. Among them was a policeman who revealed a prison scandal in which the warden allowed members of a gang to leave their cells to commit murders and then return.

In January, a major TV station interviewed alleged drug cartel operator Jose Jorge Balderas, known by his initials "J.J.", hours after he was arrested in connection with the bar shooting of Paraguayan soccer star Salvador Cabanas, who played in Mexico.

Dressed in a Polo shirt, Balderas appeared handsome, comfortable, sly, relaxed and reasonable, bragging about how well his drug business was doing.

"When they sit him there in a normal shirt, like he was a movie star, they're glorifying him," said Wallace, the anti-crime activist. "We don't want to become apologists for criminals, or create false idols for young people."

And drug gangs may have exceeded the ability of word coiners as images spread showing the killers' latest practice: victims whose faces have been skinned and hung on posts or sewn to soccer balls.

There is still no word to describe that.

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