A Tucson artist uses experiences from his bi-national, bi-cultural life in his 'Narco Nation' works

In "La Migra," one of the more-dynamic creations of Tucson artist Ignacio, who uses only his first name, a four-wheel-drive vehicle blasts through a mud bog with bundles of drugs flying out the back, and several law-enforcement vehicles in hot pursuit.

In the real world, a brief news item describes a drug-trafficking apprehension in which the suspect threw bricks of marijuana out the windows of his truck while hurtling across the desert at 110 mph before crashing and surrendering. The desperate driver was an agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That's right—the perpetrator was la migra.

Truth is stranger than fiction—and art.

But the truth is not strange to Ignacio, whose work is informed by a bi-national, bi-cultural life in the heart of Narco Nation, his term for the U.S.-Mexico border region at the epicenter of the transnational illegal drug trade. He grew up with intimate knowledge of its profits and perils, as it enriched some members of his community—and destroyed others. He watched it consume his sister and, tragically, break her mind.

In an interview, Ignacio stressed the difficulty of talking openly about his history, the stereotyping and scapegoating that his story invites, and the ignorance and bigotry that drive such narrow and judgmental attitudes.

His passion for art likely saved him from a fate similar to that of his sister. He eventually built a career as an accomplished muralist that included impressive, large-scale works in private homes. His Narco Nation concept has been brewing for a long time, but until recently, he wasn't comfortable sharing it widely.

Ignacio's reticence is ironic, considering the authoritative volumes spoken by his strikingly stylized giclées. In one of my favorites, "Santa Muerte"—a patron saint in the narco culture—gazes balefully from hollowed cavities in her skinny skull, her arms spread wide to hold out scales piled high with cocaine, and her long robe detailed with spiders whose abdomens and segmented legs are shaped by revolver chambers and bullets.

Other works juxtapose the insatiable hunger and seemingly endless cash of gringo drug consumers with the destructive, corrupting force they exert on Mexican culture. Although all of Ignacio's Narco Nation works are created digitally, at times, they incorporate the painted look of his murals, or the texture of burlap used to haul drug loads across the border. Some originals are embellished with detailed metalwork, including bullets and clips.

There is plenty of humor and irony in Ignacio's work, too. "I looked for inspiration when I started with Narco Nation, but there was nothing," he explained. "There was some Mexican stuff, but it was really focused on the gore and violence. I'm more of an entertainer." And, I would add, he's an exceptionally compelling and insightful satirist who deftly exposes the hypocrisy, distortions and duplicity of the senseless American jihad known as the Drug War.

In cautiously rolling out this work now, Ignacio hopes to tap into and contribute to a growing public consciousness. At a recent talk on the University of Arizona campus, an overflow audience listened raptly as journalists John Gibler (To Die in Mexico: Dispatches From Inside the Drug War) and Diego Osorno (El Cartel de Sinaloa) delivered a sobering presentation rich with details that illuminate hidden truths and shatter official myths.

Consider the scandal du jour, the "Fast and Furious" sting operation in which U.S. agencies secretly facilitated the purchase and transmittal of thousands of weapons from U.S. gun dealers to Mexican drug cartels. It may seem like an isolated instance of bad judgment, corruption or incompetence, but it's really a perfectly logical dynamic of a vast industry that annually generates somewhere between $350 billion and $500 billion—a massive, global current of cash that actually kept some banks afloat during the 2008 financial crisis.

A high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel has testified that his organization received from U.S. and Mexican authorities guarantees of immunity and all the weapons it would need to crush its competitors—an ongoing initiative that's resulted in an incredible escalation of violence in Mexico over the past few years.

It's quite possible that "Fast and Furious" was not a sting at all, but was intended to aid the Sinaloans in their efforts to recapture the quieter "good ol' days" when they enjoyed a virtual monopoly.

Nothing is ever as it seems, as Ignacio is fond of saying. You can check out his work at, or in person on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 7 to 10 p.m., at Studio One, 197 E. Toole Ave.