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El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo

January 1, 2013


If you need a global boogieman to keep you awake at night now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, I suggest the Mexican drug cartels. “El Narco” refers to the collective narco-industrial complex south of the U.S. border—growers, dealers, street thugs, hit squads, capos (kingpins), smugglers, rotten police and politicians on the take. But it also denotes a culture that has arisen around the trade, encapsulating music, movies, clothing and even religion. Here, Ioan Grillo gives a comprehensive look at the expansive Mexican drug war and all of its tentacles.

For decades, Mexico has been a grower and supplier of illegal drugs for the insatiable U.S. market, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s, when the U.S. government choked off Miami as a transfer point for incoming narcotics and the major Columbian drug cartels fell, that Mexico became a “trampoline” for drugs to bounce into the States. And it wasn’t until a decade later, when Mexico declared a “war on drugs” and attempted to crack down on the industry, that the country became a bloodbath. Since 2006, over 30,000 people have been murdered in Mexico. During parts of the Iraq War, the Mexican border city of Juarez beat out Baghdad as the world’s most dangerous city.

Mexico is controlled by a handful of powerful drug cartels: the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia (disbanded) and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel (disbanded), among others. Recent history indicates that elimination of one cartel often creates a power vacuum which, paradoxically, causes an escalation in violence while the other cartels compete for the open market share and territory. And as they compete, they try to one-up each other in their firepower and the gruesomeness of their tactics. Hence, the “war on drugs” has caused a decade in which the violence has skyrocketed. Paramilitary death squads armed with everything from .50-caliber machine guns (thanks to U.S. gun policy) to rocket-propelled grenades ambush Mexican police. Car bombs rip through innocent civilians on Mexican streets. Cartels assassinate police and kill their families. Kidnapping has become a standard tactic, as has decapitation. Videos of captors—sometimes rival cartel members, sometimes police officers—being brutally tortured and/or dismembered by knife, by machete, by chainsaw, are now commonplace. A bag of severed heads dumped onto the floor of a dance club. Body parts piled in a town square. Bodies hung from an overpass. A full bus is stopped by a cartel roadblock, all of its occupants “disappeared.” Another mass grave uncovered, this one with 177 bodies. Evidence indicates that most of the victims were killed by blunt force instruments like the sledgehammer found at the scene. It is as close to hell on earth as one can imagine. Apocalyptic.

Grillo has witnessed so much violence and death in his reporting that he says he is rarely shocked anymore. Yet he is haunted by one video. It is a “ransom video.” A cartel has kidnapped a 13-year-old boy and is demanding payment from his family. On the video, they savagely beat the boy while he pleads for his family to send the money.

The numbers are overwhelming, so large they become abstract. But the number that stuck with me as an indication of how dire the situation has become was this: $85. Grillo is interviewing a sicario, or hit man. When he asks the 18-year-old kid how much he earns per murder in Juarez, the man says that the going rate is about 1000 pesos per hit. That’s about $85 U.S.  $85 is the cost of a life in Mexico.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of El Narco is figuring out how to even think about it. What kind of problem is it? It has implications in drug policy, military policy, trade policy, emigration policy, human rights, gun laws, pop culture, drug culture, and policing tactics. Where do we even start to look for answers? El Narco employs the tactics of terrorism but is not ideological. It feels like an insurgency, but does not wish to overthrow the government. Most frightening, perhaps, is that it doesn’t even seem to be fundamentally connected to drugs. El Narco is motivated by money. That’s why kidnapping has taken root—what started as a terror tactic has become a business in itself. The cartels have expanded into anything lucrative: extortion, human trafficking, prostitution, oil and gas theft, even pirating DVDs. So even if the drugs are eliminated, that doesn’t guarantee the end of the cartels.

After a historical overview of El Narco and an exploration of the facets of the problem, Grillo turns to potential solutions, weighing the likely cost and success of each. Like many large-scale problems, bringing down the beast will take creativity and will power. It will most likely be a combination of tactics. A more unified, better-trained Mexican police force? More targeted hits on drug lords? Brokered cease-fires between cartels? Legalization or decriminalization of marijuana? A more equitable trade policy? A grass-roots anti-cartel movement from Mexicans desperate for peace?

Although Grillo interjects with a little too much editorializing for my taste, his in-depth research and courageous ground-level reporting (journalists are also a favorite target of the cartels) result in a book that presents one of the biggest looming threats to the U.S. We can’t pretend that the problem doesn’t exist or that building a taller border fence will keep it from crossing the Rio Grande. In truth, it already has. Although the violence has yet to explode in our cities the way it has in Mexico, officials have seen troubling evidence of cartel presence in cities across the country. And Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital in the U.S., a trend fueled by El Narco. Then there’s the most significant connection—the uncomfortable fact that U.S. money fuels the cartels. An estimated 90% of the illegal drugs consumed in the U.S. come from or through Mexico. Even the most casual drug user is likely a customer of El Narco, contributing to the violence. Grillo’s book encourages a needed awareness of this important truth, and a sobering look at the growing devil we’re fueling south of our border.

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