Edgar Valdez Villarreal
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
Texas-born fugitive Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "the Barbie," center, smiles during his presentation to the press after his arrest in Mexico City. "Narco Polo'' is the new fashion trend sweeping lower-class neighborhoods in Mexico.
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updated 6/10/2011 11:29:52 PM ET 2011-06-11T03:29:52

"Narco Polo" is the new fashion trend sweeping lower-class neighborhoods in Mexico, inspired by seven high-ranking drug traffickers who were arrested over a three-month stretch wearing open-neck, short-sleeved jerseys with the familiar horseman-with-a-stick emblem.

The polo shirts are becoming ubiquitous in street vendors' stalls from the drug-war-ravaged state of Tamaulipas to the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, Sinaloa.

Demand is so high that a Mexico City street vendor named Felipe stocks several colors, and names them after the drug lord who was wearing that color at the time of his arrest.

"This is the 'J.J'," he says, pointing to a blue one, "and this is 'La Barbie,'" indicating a green number. That was a reference to Jose Jorge ("J.J.") Balderas, who allegedly dealt drugs and shot soccer star Salvador Cabanas in the head, and to U.S.-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, "La Barbie."

Despite their Ralph Lauren labels, the shirts on sale on Mexico City streets for 160 pesos ($13.50) are clearly pirated goods, sold by unlicensed vendors like Felipe who don't want their full names used for fear of attracting police attention.

But some of Felipe's customers have their first names embroidered on the back of the shirts, a service he offers for an extra fee, as a sort of dare.

It's probably not the demographic that designers at Ralph Lauren were thinking of for their polo shirts. The company did not respond to several requests for comment about the shirts' popularity in Mexican criminal circles.

The shirt La Barbie wore when captured appeared to be the only potentially authentic one of the bunch. The rest of the drug traffickers appeared to be wearing cheap knockoffs of the $98 to $145 Ralph Lauren "Big Pony" jerseys.

'You can't say anything to me'
The shirt is becoming so pervasive that it provoked public grumbling from Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez.

"Now you see how these shirts like La Barbie's have become the fashion," said Lopez Valdez. While he didn't suggest an outright ban, he told a local radio station that "I think we have to close off everything that promotes criminal behavior."

He complained that the fad glorifies traffickers.

Image: Suspect Victor Valdez, known as "El Gordo Varilla" (The Big Stick) is being presented to the media in Cuernavaca
Reuters
Victor Valdez, known as "El Gordo Varilla", in Cuernavaca in May 2011. The suspected drug boss is wearing one of the Lauren-style shirts now popular in lower-class neighborhoods in Mexico.

"Many young people want to emulate them as idols in some way ... and they want to be drug traffickers. And there are a lot of young girls who want to be the girlfriends of drug traffickers."

But it may not be sheer adulation; wearing the shirts may also be a way for youths to thumb their noses at authority, a time-honored pastime among young people around the world.

"To the police, it's a message that says 'I could be a drug trafficker and walk right in front of you and you can't say anything to me because I'm just wearing a shirt,'" said Oscar Galicia Castillo, a psychologist at the IberoAmerican University who studies prison inmates. "Many youths are also using it as a way of making fun of snobbish status markers."

For Pedro, who sells snacks at a stand on a downtown Mexico City street, his light blue polo shirt just represents an indefinable sense of cool. He said the shirts had become all the rage in his tough neighborhood of Tepito, and that his wife bought him one as a surprise.

"It looks good. It gives you class," he said. He declined to give his last name, saying police had recently caught him selling cigarettes to minors.

In some rough barrios, a shirt that conveys a vague sense of menace and a "don't mess with me" attitude may be helpful.

"The guys who buy them want people to think they're tough," said Cesar, a counterfeit-shirt vendor who said most of the customers at his downtown Mexico City stall are young males. "It's about putting on a look."

All about standing out
For at least two decades, Mexicans have fretted about youths emulating drug traffickers, from the days when narcos favored the designs of Versace and exotic-leather boots, or marijuana-leaf insignia on belt buckles, shirts and baseball caps. But such trends remained largely regional, and were derided as tacky.

But the new fashion trend has been helped along by a new, more urbane and sophisticated generation of drug traffickers, who dress more like Mexico's wealthier classes.

In 2010, Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of drug lord Vicente "El Mayo" Zambada, was arrested in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood, wearing a preppy ensemble of sports coat, designer jeans and striped cotton shirt.

Vicente Carrillo Leyva, the son of another drug lord, was collared around the same time wearing a jogging suit emblazoned with the name "Abercrombie."

Media coverage also can promote the trend. Newly captured capos are paraded before television cameras wearing the latest narco-fashion, often with beautiful girlfriends at their sides. Authorities allow some, like J.J., to sit down for interviews looking self-assured, fit and unrepentant.

"My business improved. Everybody wanted to work with me," Balderas said of the notoriety he achieved while a wanted man.

It wouldn't be the first time designers have faced an unexpected market. Uber-preppy designer Tommy Hilfiger's clothes became a must-have item for inner-city youths a few years ago.

For Galicia Castillo, the psychologist, it's all about standing out, identifying oneself as a member of a certain sector of a crowded world, probably much the same reason people shell out $145 for the original: "That's why I wear it, so that everyone will look at me, will see that I can afford this. And I could be a narco, so don't mess with me."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Mexico's drug cartel bosses

  • The nefarious drug lords of Mexico's underworld have emerged as the world's most wanted criminals.

    They're savage, rich and ingenious in their ability to move massive shipments of narcotics into the United States and worldwide. They manage trafficking organizations like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and one kingpin was even listed as No. 41 on the Forbes list of the 500 most powerful people in the world.

    The following are key players in Mexico's drug wars.

    (Source: Msnbc.com research, The Associated Press and Reuters)

  • Shorty

    Image: Joaquin Guzman
    Damian Dovarganes  /  AP FILE
    Joaquín Guzmán.

    Name: Joaquín Guzmán Loera
    Nickname: El Chapo (Shorty)
    Cartel: Sinaloa
    Born: April, 4, 1957
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: The billionaire drug lord is Mexico's most wanted criminal on both sides of the border. The 5-foot-6-inch Guzmán is known for his use of sophisticated tunnels to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the United States in the early 1990s. He escaped a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart in 2001. Since, he's been blamed for igniting bloody turf wars throughout Mexico. In November 2010, Guzmán was listed at 60th among the 68 most powerful people in the world by Forbes Magazine.
    Personal affairs: Guzmán married an 18-year-old beauty queen in 2007. A year later, his  22-year-old son, Edgar, died in a shootout with rivals. The grieving father ordered 50,000 red roses for the burial.

  • Sidekick

    Telemundo
    Ismael Zambada García

    Name: Ismael Zambada García
    Nickname: El Mayo
    Cartel: Sinaloa
    Born: Jan. 1, 1948
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Zambada, a former furniture worker and farmer, is Joaquín Guzmán's partner and like his narco buddy, a fugitive from the law in Mexico and the United States. He's notorious for having plastic surgery and disguising himself as he travels throughout Mexico. Of course, he lives under a false identity. Zambada has been involved in drug trafficking for more than 30 years. There's no sign of his retiring.
    All in the family: Trafficking is deeply embedded in the family DNA. His wife, Rosario Niebla Cardoza, three sons and four daughters help dad with extensive narcotics distribution and money laundering. Both his brother and son have been arrested in Mexico.

  • Executioner

    Telemundo
    Heriberto Lazcano

    Name: Heriberto Lazcano
    Nickname: The Executioner, El Lazca, El Verdugo, Z-3
    Cartel: Los Zetas
    Born: Dec. 25, 1974
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Lazcano deserted the Mexican army's special forces in the late 1990s to join the enforcers for the Zetas cartel, which takes its name from a police radio code in which "Z" means "commander." He is now considered its leader. The gang's break with a former ally, the Gulf cartel, ramped up violence in 2010 in parts of Mexico, where the Zetas have been blamed for slaughtering police officers, politicians, scores of migrants and the family of a fallen marine in retaliation for his involvement in bringing down a drug lord. Lazcano and his extremely loyal bodyguards are constantly on the move to avoid capture.
    Catholic ties: The 36-year-old drug lord was born in a poor farming town near Tezontle, a town now populated with opulent homes and a new Catholic church in honor of Pope John Paul II, which Lazcano reportedly funded. The Archdiocese of Mexico says it was aware and has since distanced itself from the chapel.

  • Brother

    Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
    Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes

    Name: Vicente Carrillo Fuentes
    Nickname: Viceroy
    Cartel: Juarez
    Born: Oct. 16, 1962
    Bounty:$5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Fuentes inherited the Juarez cartel from his brother, Amando Carrillo Fuentes, who was known as the "Lord of the Skies" because of his private fleet of Boeing 727 jets used to traffic cocaine. After his brother's death during plastic surgery, Vicente ramped up the violence by creating a group of bloodthirsty killers, including corrupt police officers, known as La Linea. They're known to decapitate rivals, especially members of the Sinaloa cartel, and dump their mutilated corpses in public to instill fear. This cartel, backed by the Zetas, works closely with a U.S. prison gang, the Barrio Azteca, to carry out murders. Federal authorities blame the Juarez cartel for hundreds of deaths and disappearances, since the cartel took over the trafficking corridor in 1993, The El Paso Times reported.
    Mystery man: Little is known of Fuentes, expect he is the third of six brothers and has six sisters.

  • Ex-cop

    Telemundo
    Jorge Eduardo Costilla

    Name: Jorge Eduardo Costilla
    Nickname: El Coss
    Cartel: Gulf
    Born: Aug. 1, 1971
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: A former Matamoros police officer, Costilla heads a cartel that allegedly grew out of bootleggers during the American Prohibition. He has been charged in the U.S. with 12 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering and is also wanted for assaulting federal officers with Kalashnikov rifles. He used to work closely with the Zetas cartel but now is at the forefront of a war to annihilate them.

  • Meth man

    Name: Nazario Moreno González
    Nickname: El Mas Loco, El Chayo
    Cartel: La Familia Michoacana
    Born: March 8, 1970, in Guanajuatillo, Michoacan
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: González specializes in trafficking crystal methamphetamine. He was raised a Catholic but converted to Jehovah's Witnesses. He requires each of his gangsters to carry his own Bible, which is compulsory reading. He invokes principles of divine justice when setting out to defeat his enemies and is a fan of the "Godfather" trilogy and the film "Braveheart."

  • Strongman

    Name: Héctor Beltrán Leyva
    Nickname: El Ingeniero, El H
    Cartel: Beltrán Leyva Cartel
    Born: Feb. 15, 1965
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: He and his five brothers trafficked tons of marijuana, cocaine and heroine across the border. The brothers broke ties with the Sinaloa network in 2008 after brother Arturo Beltrán Leyva was arrested by Mexican special forces. The brothers blamed faction boss Joaquín Guzmán for the capture. Arturo was gunned down a year later by Mexican marines.

    In 2004, officials in New York and the District of Colombia indicted Beltrán Leyva on trafficking charges.

Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape

Video: Inside Mexico’s Drug War, Part 1

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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