Mexican pro wrestlers keep drug-trafficking culture out of the lucha libre ring

The "narco" lifestyle has penetrated almost every aspect of Mexican culture. But Mexican professional wrestling, known as lucha libre, avoids themes tied to drug trafficking.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 9:57 PM

It is another rowdy fight night at the Arena Mexico as burly combatants in bikini briefs and colorful masks are flung from the ring amid a rain of insults from the crowd.

Mexican professional wrestling, known as lucha libre, is pure entertainment. Like its steroidal cousin to the north, it is as funny as it is phony, but the Mexican style is less talk, more aerials.

"The Mexicans are not as good of fakers as the Americans, but they're better acrobats," said Jorge Chabat, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, world-renowned expert on drug trafficking cartels and lifelong lucha libre fanatico.

We are here to enjoy the matches and to ponder a mystery: While "narcocultura" - the trappings and legends of dope-smuggling, gun-toting millionaire hillbillies such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman - has penetrated every other element of Mexican pop culture, from movies and music to TV and religion, the masked lucha libre characters and their corny good-vs.-evil story lines have remained untouched.

"Perhaps the reason is that lucha is more innocent," said Sandra Granados, press deputy for the World Council of Lucha Libre, one of the main promoters.

But Chabat said: "It is probably because the government has told them they cannot. And I can understand why. I can't imagine a wrestling character called 'El Traficante' in the ring, or 'El Super Narco,' or 'the Assassin.' I can't imagine they would allow it."

Chabat is sitting in the good seats, on the "good guy" side of the arena. In Mexican wrestling, there are two archetypes: "tecnicos," who play fair, use a classical wrestling style and serve as a general moral force in the universe, and the "rudos," the boo-hiss heels who cheat, double-team and hit below the belt.

It is not too complicated. The tecnicos have names such as Strongman, Angel de Oro and Mistico, the most popular luchador in Mexico today. The rudos, meanwhile, include Virus, Mephisto and Charly Manson.

"The government would be very concerned, very anxious," Chabat said of the possibility of fighters portraying drug lords. "The lucha is a very powerful weapon in the popular culture.

"I really don't know how the public would react to a character representing the narcos. I don't know if they would cheer for them or boo them. They don't want to turn these guys into superheroes. What if the audiences really applaud?"

Narcocultura has deeply penetrated Mexican music, in hip-hop, rap and especially the "narcocorridas," the ballads of the rise (and fall) of drug lords heralded as wily Robin Hoods outfoxing a corrupt or incompetent government and living the high life. Narco-ballads are so popular that authorities have tried to ban them from radio and stop popular performers from singing them.

Narcocultura is on display in popular literature and best-selling exposes, in Mexican soap operas and films. One of the most popular Mexican movies last year was "El Infierno" ("Hell"), a tragicomic farce on the narcos filmed in the style of the Coen brothers.

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