Into the war zone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


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

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, several world-class companies and 11 billionaires.

But this is not a book for the faint-hearted: Ioan Grillo's spellbinding account of the drug-cartel-fuelled violence that threatens to engulf Mexico brings the reader uncomfortably close to the rivers of blood in which its citizens are drowning. Provocatively, disturbingly close to an endless round of decapitations, limb hackings, 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 in incomprehension at his reports of industrial-scale kidnappings, tortures and massacres.

But as Grillo unfolds his gripping narrative, turning away from the violence will not prevent its escalation. Comprehend it we must, for the Mexican drug war is a case study in the way mafia capitalism has morphed into a criminal insurgency that is spreading 'like bushfire' in the Americas.

In the globalised world, Grillo 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 international ambitions. Already active in Guatemala, Colombia and even the US, Mexican cartels boast tentacles in Africa, Australia and Azerbaijan, and are known to illegally procure methamphetamine precursors from around the world - including in China, India, Syria, Iran and Egypt.

Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City, has been reporting on Latin America for more than a decade and has, through his extraordinary access to cartel insiders as well as police, politicians, and the military, managed to put a human face on El Narco.

And it's a disturbing one. He turned up in Mexico in 2000, the day before former cowboy-boot-wearing Mexican president Vicente Fox was sworn into office, ending 71 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.

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 both the failure of the US war on drugs and Mexico's own turmoil actually triggered this insurgency.

While many pundits cite the moment president Filipe Calderon assumed office and declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006 as the beginning of the Mexican drug war, Grillo locates the first wave of cartel warfare to a turf dispute between the Zetas, Mexico's most bloodthirsty 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, took him on. In the first four years of his administration a staggering 34,000 were killed, with cartel gunmen murdering more than 2,500 public servants - a murder rate that, Grillo says drily, '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 past decade looking for a truth beyond the conventional wisdom about this war, and explodes many of the myths that have built up around 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 more than a century, then traces its cultural and economic evolution across the decades, its exponential 1960s expansion and subsequent transformation this century into

El Narco: 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, he writes, no one can put an accurate figure on this trade, which 'disappears like cosmic mist in the global economy'.

Grillo traces the narco dollars, citing one drugs bust which revealed that US$5 out of every US$10 paid by addicts for crystal meth in Nebraska went to China to pay for raw ingredients, US$1 to Las Vegas to buy chips, another to the building of a narco mansion in Mexico's Sinaloa region, a fourth on a Mexico City mansion, and the fifth to pay for 'El Narco's second-biggest product after drugs: murder'.

He also follows the weapons trail, and turns over evidence that reveals tens of thousands of guns are bought from American stores, a bone of contention between Mexico and the US for decades. Not that American stores are the only source of the abundance of weaponry in the hands of Mexico's cartels: they also steal from the Mexican security forces and from the military in surrounding countries.

It is hard to find a stone left unturned in Grillo's 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 public institutions today, along with the narcocultura enshrined in narco corridos, or drug ballads, narco cinema, a fashion style called buchones, a narco cemetery and even a narco religion, he drills down to the hidden contours of an industry that never sleeps.

It's 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 as ever, but expanding into new territories. And, Grillo says, 'that doesn't bode well for peace'.