The T-shirts have colorful images of wanted drug traffickers, machine guns and even “bullet” holes pierced by lasers.
They are part of a disturbing new fashion that has been made popular by Mexican musicians whose “narco corridos” tell the stories of drug lords.
The leading designer of these clothes is Eleno Serna, whose Chula Vista-based Antrax Clothing sells to a young clientele in the United States, Mexico and even Canada. Business is booming.
Serna dresses the musical groups that make up a movement called Movimiento Alterado and their fans.
The groups include El Komander, Los Buchones de Culiacán, Clika los Necios and Fuerza de Tijuana. Many of their songs capture the extreme violence of drug trafficking and its lifestyle.
Serna, 25, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Mexicali, explained how this fashion was born.
“It all began with a shirt with a ‘pechera,’” he said, referring to a bullet-proof vest used by the military or guerrilla.
He had designed some shirts for a group called Fuerza de Tijuana, which at that time had not yet hit the big time with the Movimiento Alterado.
During one of the group’s concerts, a star musician in the movement, Alfredo Ríos, who goes by “El Komander,” saw the designs and was fascinated by the military-style vests.
Ríos summoned Serna and asked him to make him some. The singer’s fans immediately began to emulate his way of dressing.
Just a year after launching it, Antrax clothing is selling as fast Serna’s shop can make it.
The vests are adorned with jewelry, metal studs, vinyl, embroidery, images of grenades, bazookas or skulls, or a personalized design.
They run between $250 and $800, and all are custom-ordered.
The T-shirts cost $35 to $45. The one that’s called “El Baleado,” loosely “The man who was shot,” has holes in the fabric that are made by a laser and have patches to cover them up.
The shirt called “El Padrino” (The Godfather) has an image of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a co-leader of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most wanted traffickers on both sides of the border.
The DEA is offering a $5 million reward for his arrest.
When asked about this design, Serna only replied with the slogan that appears on the shirt in Spanish: “The humble great rancher now a millionaire.”
The story is a commonly told one about drug lords: That they had impoverished childhoods, worked tirelessly to support their families and made a fortune.
Seventeen-year-old Larry García lives in Chula Vista and wears Antrax clothing. The first item he bought was the “El Padrino” T-shirt.
“When people see it, many don’t know who it is, and think it’s Santo Malverde,” the teen said, referring to a folk hero in Sinaloa state. “I tell them who it is and what he does and they ask me if I’m afraid when I wear it.”
The teen said he’s not scared and even wears the shirt to party in Tijuana. He said he wears it “to call attention,” seemingly without considering the violence traffickers such as Zambada have unleashed on Mexico.
Experts say that 40,000 people have died in drug-related violence across that country in the last five years, with more than 2,300 in Tijuana alone from 2008 to 2010.
Antrax Clothing has two Facebook pages with nearly 5,000 “friends” in each one, with new followers being added daily.
It’s difficult to know how many people wear clothing that shows drug traffickers but there’s no denying there’s an interest in it: A simple search on the Internet for “Antrax Clothing” yields more than 106,000 entries.
The clothing has become known mainly through social media, the musicians who wear it and the company’s Web site, where people from Chiapas to New York and even Canada have placed their orders, Serna said.
He is planning to expand his product line, designing pants, caps, sneakers and accessories. And in response to a demand from his Facebook followers, he is planning a women’s line.
“I was going to make this line more peaceful, but the women like things strong,” said Serna, smiling. “They like to wear a big grenade in front or an (AK-47) and we’re going to do what they ask.”
Desireé Carrera, 23, is looking forward to buying Antrax clothes.
“I like the vests for women,” said the San Diego resident. “In fact, my cousin has a pink one that Eleno made.”
A leading sociologist, José Manuel Valenzuela Arce, of the College of the Northern Border, said the drug culture in Mexico is reflected in many aspects of life, including what people wear.
He said that this fashion emerged in the 1980s, with a style known as “Chalino,” referring to a norteño musician named Rosalino Sánchez, “the king of the corridos,” who was shot to death in 1992 in Sinaloa state.
That fashion evolved as “narcojuniors” or the sons of drug traffickers rose to prominence. They wore name brands such as Ed Hardy, Christian Audigier, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.
Now a third phase has begun that’s directly related to the musicians of the extreme “narco corridos” in the Movimiento Alterado.
“More and more we see the adoption of military elements,” Valenzuela said. “It’s not just guns but machine guns and grenades.”
Serna sees his creations in a different light.
“It’s not violence that we want to give people, it’s only art,” the designer said. “We try to put it on a T-shirt and have people look good and like it.”
A choice in clothing or a taste in a certain type of music does not necessarily suggest an affinity with any of the figures being portrayed, the sociologist said, but it does show a certain level of rejection of society.
“There’s a social inconformity with certain political and justice figures,” he said.
However, the people making those choices don’t necessarily agree with what the traffickers are doing, he noted.
That seems to be borne out by Antrax customers like Winser Acosta.
“Many people think that we are worshipping the traffickers,” Acosta said. “It’s not that but rather that the whole world expresses itself one way, we express ourselves another way.”
New designers in San Diego County have begun to offer clothing depicting infamous drug traffickers.
For his part, Serna plans to open soon a second store in Chula Vista to kee up with demand.