El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency
Published by Bloomsbury ($29.99)
El Narco is essential reading for those wishing to understand how a violent criminal insurgency can take root in an advanced country with a trillion-dollar economy with several world-class companies and eleven billionaires. But this is not a book for the faint hearted.
Ioan Grillo's spell-binding account of the drug cartel fuelled violence that threatens to engulf Mexico brings you uncomfortably close to the rivers of blood in which its citizens are drowning. Provocatively, disturbingly close to an endless round of limb hackings, decapitations, mass kidnappings and massacres that rival war crimes. Turn away if you must, as he describes the sewing of a murder victim’s face onto a soccer ball. Throw your hands in the air, as many do, in incomprehension at his reports of industrial scale kidnappings, tortures and massacres.
But as Grillo sheets home in this gripping narrative, turning away from the violence will not prevent its insidious expansion. Comprehend it we must. For the Mexican Drug War is a case study in the way brutal mafia capitalism has morphed into a criminal insurgency, the like of which is spreading "like bushfire" in the Americas. In the globalised world, he argues, "mafia capitalists and criminal insurgents have become the new dictators and the new rebels." Moreover, El Narco Inc, as he describes the cluster of diverse paramilitary groups controlling drug trafficking in the various regions of Mexico, is well on the way to realising its very large international ambitions. Already active in Guatemala, Columbia and even the US, Mexican cartels boast tentacles in Africa, Australia and Azerbaijan, and are known to illegally procure meth precursors from around the world including China, India, Syria, Iran and Egypt.
Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City, has been reporting on Latin America for over a decade, and has, through his extraordinary access to cartel insiders as well police, politicians, and the military, managed to put a human face on El Narco. Albeit a disturbing one. He fetched up in Mexico in 2000, the day before former cowboy-boot wearing Mexican President Vicente Fox was sworn into office, ending seventy-one years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. This momentous transition to democracy, he argues, marked a seismic shift in Mexico's political order, and is inextricably linked to the exponential growth of the Mexican drug cartels. Indeed this is one of the key themes of El Narco, which calls for a major strategic re-think on both sides of the border, and looks at how the failures both of America's war on drugs and Mexico's own political and economic turmoil have actually triggered this insurgency.
While many pundits cite the beginnings of the Mexican Drug War as the moment President Filipe Calderon assumed office and declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006, Grillo locates first wave of cartel warfare to a turf dispute between the Zetas, Mexico’s most bloody thirsty gang, and the Sinaloa cartel in the Texas border city of Nuevo Laredo, in 2004. This turf war spread rapidly across Mexico as other cartels joined the fray and saw the introduction of paramilitary hit squads, widespread attacks on police and mass kidnappings. But when Calderon took power in 2006 and sent out the military to restore order, the cartels, far from backing down, actually took on the government. In the first four years of Calderon’s administration a staggering 34,000 people were killed in the conflict, with cartel gunmen murdering more than 2,500 public servants. A murder rate that, Grillo dryly suggests, “is more deadly to government than Hamas, ETA, or the IRA in three decades of armed struggle.”
Acutely aware that the word “insurgency” is one that sends officials in both the US and Mexico into panic and denial, Grillo makes it clear he has spent the last decade looking for a truth beyond the reigning conventional wisdom about the Mexican drug war, and explodes many of the myths that have accrued to it on both sides of the border. He digs deep into the history of drug trafficking between the US and Mexico to locate a shadowy narcotics realm that has existed in the terrain of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental for over a century, then traces its cultural and economic evolution across the decades, its exponential 60’s expansion and subsequent transformation into El Narco in the 2000’s, a ghostly, faceless form that kills indiscriminately and makes a conservatively estimated $US 30 billion every year smuggling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth into the US. Even now, no one can put an accurate figure on this trade, which ‘disappears like cosmic mist in the global economy.’
Grillo is nothing if not fastidious in tracing narco dollars, citing one drugs bust that revealed that one fifth of every ten dollars paid by addicts for a batch of crystal meth in Nebraska went to China to pay for raw ingredients, one to Las Vegas to buy chips, another ends up in the building of a narco mansion in Mexico’s Sinaloa region, a fourth in a Mexico City mansion while the fifth goes to pay for “El Narco’s second biggest product after drugs-murder” But he also follows the weapons trail, and turns over the evidence that reveals that tens of thousands of guns go from American stores, a bone of contention between Mexico and the US for decades. Not that American stores are the only source of the “insane abundance” of weaponry in the hands of Mexico’s cartels who also steal from the Mexican security forces and from the military in surrounding countries.
Indeed its hard to find an evidentiary stone that Grillo doesn’t overturn in his mapping of the labyrinthine workings of El Narco. From the large scale, top-down police and military collusion of the PRI era to the more random, insidious corruption that bedevils Mexican public institutions today, along with the surreal narcocultura that is enshrined in narco corridos, or drug ballads, narco cinema, a fashion style called buchones, a narco cemetery and even a narco religion, Grillo drills down to the hidden contours of an industry that never sleeps. An industry so immense, so productive, that despite massive drug seizures by US customs and an ongoing war with the government and each other, the Mexican cartels are not only trafficking the same amount of drugs into the US, but expanding into new territories. And says Grillo, “that doesn’t bode well for peace.”