Ever watch ‘Breaking Bad’ and think: “what do these random drug cartel references mean?” Yep, I knew it. I got your back.
Background Information on the series ‘Breaking Bad’
Walter White has just learned that he has terminal lung cancer. With his expectant wife—Skylar, his teenaged son—Walter Jr.—coping with cerebral palsy, and his job as a high school chemistry teacher—Walter, or ‘Walt’ as he is called, begins to cook meth under the pretense that when he dies, his family will be able to use the money he earns from cooking meth to live comfortably without him. In Season 3 of Breaking Bad, where I begin my textual analysis on the presence of drug cartels in the series, Walt’s career as a meth producer precedes him. The D.E.A. is heavy on Walt’s heels, although the D.E.A. only know him under the guise of ‘Heisenberg’. In addition, Walt is wanted dead by the Juarez Cartel—a drug trafficking gang based on the border of Texas and Mexico—as he is competition and is believed to have killed a Juarez Cartel kingpin—Tuco. To avenge Tuco’s death, his cousins—Marco and Leonel (but I’ll refer to them as the Cousins), respectively—and also members of the Juarez Cartel, are sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico (where Walt and his family live) to kill Walt.
Meaning behind symbols
‘No Mas’, the first episode of Season 3 introduces ‘the cousins’. They are members of the Juarez cartel sent to New Mexico to kill Walt. Their endeavor begins with a stop at a community shrine for Santa Muerte, Saint Death. The cousins, along with other members of the community, crawl to the shrine on their hands and knees, only rising to enter the shrine. Inside, the cousins light a black candle, and post a hand-drawn picture of Walt to the shrine, titled ‘Heisenberg’.
What is Santa Muerte’s place in drug cartel culture? Santa Muerte, brings to mind the expression having a face only a mother could love because she is accepting of all peoples who worship her, those in her grace include: “Mexico’s narcos, prostitutes, prisoners, poor, gays, transvestites and others on the margins of Mexico’s Drug War-ravaged, poverty-stricken society” (Lomax). The Saint is said to grant “many wishes, in many different areas of life. All you have to do is ask, light the right color of candle to her and then make a sacrifice” (Lomax). Recalling the Cousins from “Breaking Bad”, who light a black candle before posting a picture of Walt to the shrine—what can be said for their actions? The black candle they light invokes their desire to Santa Muerte to kill an enemy: “the supposedly death-dealing black candle…can be used to wreak vengeance and downfall on your enemies” (Lomax). Black candles accompanying images of Santa Muerte are also a useful determinant of cartel affiliation for law enforcement: “Police say that black candles are found far more often in the private shrines of drug dealers and assassins than they are at Santa Muerte’s increasingly common public altars” (Lomax). The act of making a sacrifice to Santa Muerte can be as simple as offering her some cigarettes, fruit, alcohol, or water: “lots of water: She is still ‘the Parched One’ to some degree. She’s a skeleton…She’s always thirsty” (Lomax). For cartel members, who presumably seek more from Santa Muerte than the average follower, the sacrifice can manifest in the form of a body count:
“In 2008, police found 11 charred heads near a Santa Muerte shrine in the Yucatán tended by the Zetas drug cartel. Earlier this year, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Chris Diaz testified that during a wiretapping operation, he heard a Zeta heavy boast of sacrificing two teenaged rivals to Santa Muerte by slicing open their bellies and offering the blood of one as a toast to La Flaka. Also this year , on the side of a highway not far from Monterrey, police found the handless, footless and headless torsos of 49 men and women, many of which bore Santa Muerte tattoos” (Lomax).
Cartel members are not the only ones making human sacrifices though, in 2012 an impoverished family in Nacozari, Mexico was accused of running a cult when they “sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte” (Larios) in hopes that the Saint would help them find money.
Santa Muerte does more than grant wishes of ill will: she is also considered a “protector of life in a [drug war] that has claimed 35,000 souls since 2008, with the number rising every year” (Lomax) thus explaining her gaining popularity among non-narcos. By both, protecting and neglecting, the Saint represents a fear, threat, and reality within Mexico—becoming another ‘claimed soul’ in relation to the drug war. An interview conducted with a 10-year correspondent in Mexico, Ioan Grillo, revealed a problem among those who work in the news media about the raising death toll due to Mexico’s war on drugs:
The Execution Meters: “First the mainstream media, like, brought the level of violence to attention, to national and then to international attention. Because at first, the Mexican government wasn’t giving out the numbers of how many people were dying in these drug related killings [nor have they begun to give out these data]…It was newspaper reporters going out and arriving at these scenes, and through scanners, through following this and arriving–they started these things– with people [who were killed as a result of the drug war]…And they started arriving at thousands and 1,500 a year until it’s hitting like 6,000 a year. But it was the media that created the focus. So it created the realization of what was happening” (Grillo) [emphasis mine].
The Execution meters are important in our understanding of Santa Muerte because it adds context to the very real threat of death in Mexico.
In the third episode of Season 3, ‘I.F.T.’, a business associate, Mike, is leaving Walt’s home. As Mike drives away he passes over a large chalk drawing of a scythe in front of Walt’s house. Left by the Cousins, the scythe seems to inform Walt that he is being pursued. The scythe ties back in with Santa Muerte as she is said to always be carrying a scythe. What is radically clear about Walt’s demise, given the background on Santa Muerte, is some cult-worshipping murdering narcos are angling to be the ones who make it happen. That is what can be learned from the symbolism of a Santa Muerte shrine, and a chalk drawing of a scythe. Perhaps in American culture, these symbols could not be considered news icons but surely in Mexico, where Santa Muerte has been gaining a record number of followers within the past 10 years (Lomax), narco or otherwise, a report featuring Santa Muerte as a ‘stock photo’ to the words of a news anchor or journalist would conjure the meaning of death, acceptance, and drug culture.
As discussed, the symbols depicted in ‘Breaking Bad’ are relevant to drug cartel culture but how are these symbols relevant to the viewers who consume this information in the form of entertainment? George Gerbner and Larry Gross present interesting concepts on media effects in “Living With Television: The Violence Profile”. Gerbner presents his theory of cultivation like this:“How many of us have ever been in an operating room, a criminal courtroom, a police station or jail, a corporate board room, or a movie studio?” (244 Gerbner). To add to that, how many of us have been in a meth-cooking lab or in an altar for Santa Muerte surrounded by black lit candles, for that matter? Because most people have not had these kinds of experiences, Gerbner argues that the viewer, through consumption of entertainment media that depicts these scenes, learns about these exotic scenes from the entertainment: “However contrived television plots are, viewers assume that they take place against the backdrop of the real world…it offers to the unsuspecting viewer a continuous stream of ‘facts’ and impressions about the way of the world, about the constancies and vagaries of human nature, and about the consequences of actions” (244 Gerbner). Thus although the viewer can distinguish the dramatization present in the plot, they believe that these backgrounds they encounter are akin to the real thing.
Interestingly enough, I did find an instance where Gerbner’s theory proved to be correct. In a scene with the Cousins, in the first episode of Season 3, a young Mexican migrant incessantly brags to the Cousins about how he used to paint cars for drug traffickers in Mexico. He notices the Cousins are wearing nice, leather boots and when he takes a closer look at the boots he notices that both cousins have silver skulls at the tips of their boots. Instantly the young migrant begins to keep to himself, giving the impression that he suddenly realized that the Cousins were cartel members. Assuming that this was another clue into drug cartel culture as presented by ‘Breaking Bad’, I searched—for quite a long time—online for any significance of silver skulls in relation to drug cartels. The only results returned were of fan-fiction websites and forums on ‘Breaking Bad’. I read through some forums to see if they perhaps cited any reports about silver skulls in relation to drug cartels. They did not have any evidence, other than the show, to suggest that the skulls had some connection to a drug cartel but they all seemed to believe that—in reality—the silver skull signifies a connection. For instance, here is one forum thread I found where the participants were discussing the silver skull: “Unless I’m mistaken all we saw was the silver skull, which is evidently a symbol of ‘the cartel’” (Skull Brain).
Note: Gilligan’s research methods for ‘Breaking Bad’
In an interview Gilligan claims “As the series has progressed we’ve talked to the D.E.A. a lot, so we got a lot of information from law enforcement” in terms of research, and “My writers and I…took a former [drug] dealer—a really high-level [drug] dealer—to lunch [once]” (Gilligan).
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Bennett, W L. “News icons and the mainstreaming of social change.” Journal of Communication 45.3 (1995): 20-23. Communication Abstracts. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Gerbner, George, and Larry Gross. “Living With Television: The Violence Profile.” Journal of Communication 26.2 (1976): 242-44. Print.
Gilligan, Vince, and Michelle MacLauren, prod. Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan Talk. IBG Inc., 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0_UWilobVg>.
Grillo, Ioan. Personal interview. 17 Nov. 2012.
Larios, Felipe, and Adriana G. Licon. “Mexico Santa Muerte Murders: Nacozari ‘Death Saint’ Cult Sacrifices Lead Police To Investigate Family.” Huffington Post 1 Apr. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/mexico-santa-muerte-murders-family-investigated-cult-killings_n_1395176.html>.
Lomax, John N. “Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War.” Houston Press. Houston Press, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.houstonpress.com/2012-09-13/news/santa-muerte/>.
Skull Brain. N.p., 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://skullbrain.org/bb/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=19000&start=275>.