By In the low budget action flick El Bazukaco 2 (Big Bazooka 2) the crazed-looking cartel killer pops his head out of the moving SUV on a Mexican road and fires a bazooka, blowing up an enemy gunman. The film was released in 2012 and became an instant hit for fans of the straight-to-DVD genre, known as narco peliculas. Meanwhile, on a real street in Mexico in 2014, a real crazed cartel killer stepped out of a house with a real bazooka. But before he could fire his load, an anti-cartel vigilante shot him dead, his limp finger resting on the trigger.

In Mexico’s drug war, reality and fiction have become intertwined as larger-than-life criminals run wild, while novels, soap operas, movies and even video games create a fantasy version of the conflict. This blur between a surreal drug war on the ground and a wealth of narco fiction reached world attention over the weekend when it emerged that actor Sean Penn drank tequila with drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in a mountain hideout before Guzman was recaptured on Friday. Penn’s story on the encounter, along with a video interview, was released Saturday by Rolling Stone to a media eruption. Mexican officials said the meeting helped them track down Guzman, who had escaped prison in a mile long tunnel that itself seemed stranger than fiction in July.

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