Every so often in this business of following Mexico's drug war, I come across an analyst or writer who really gets it. Don't get me wrong; there are dozens of academics, journalists, analysts, politicians, law enforcement agents, etc. who have a really good handle on the situation in Mexico. But many times, because of what their job entails, they have a limited view of the big picture, or some of the more in-depth, nuanced issues. I've been reading Ioan Grillo's work for some time, and he really gets it; a fact made obvious in his first book, El Narco.
The first several chapters are dedicated to the rise of today's major cartels. It's a fascinating history lesson, interspersed with some really cool stories about different big personalities involved in the development of cocaine smuggling in Mexico, and why certain cartels started fighting each other in the first place. I definitely learned quite a bit; like the fact that opium poppies were first introduced into Mexico by the Chinese in the late 1800s, and the first man to orchestrate cocaine smuggling in Mexico was Honduran, not Mexican.
Politics in Mexico isn't an easy river to navigate, but Grillo does an admirable job explaining the role the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) played in negotiating and playing along with the cartels, and how the transition to real democracy in 2000 dramatically altered that delicate balance. My only criticism of this first section of El Narco is that it switches back and forth between political history and narco history - ostensibly to follow a chronological path - and sometimes there aren't adequate transitions between the two. This sometimes leaves the subject material in conflict with what the reader might think the theme of the chapter is (based on the chapter title), which can be a bit disconcerting. If you can disregard that, there's no way you can avoid learning something really neat about the drug war's history here.
Most people who write about the modern drug war in Mexico point to 2006 as its start. Grillo points out that it's a convenient historical marker because that's when Calderón took office, and as such, began his aggressive anti-narco campaign that supposedly let all hell break loose. Grillo proposes that the modern drug war actually began towards the end of former President Vicente Fox's term in 2004, when the first major battle over Nuevo Laredo broke out between the Sinaloa Federation and then-Gulf enforcers Los Zetas. He contends that Los Zetas were engaging in brutal paramilitary tactics, like beheadings, dismemberments, and grenade attacks, that had not traditionally been used by other TCOs. When the rest of the drug lords and their subordinates started seeing what Los Zetas were doing to intimidate others, they started to do the same, and the war went downhill from there. Of course, Calderón's all-out war didn't help matters, but it was more of the transition from PRI rule to "normal" democracy in 2000 that dumped out the gas can. Los Zetas threw the match, and Calderón added some kindling.
Since the book is written in a past-present-future format, the second section is an overview of the activities TCOs are involved in. He covers the details of drug movements across the border, different methods the TCOs use to murder and intimidate their rivals and various other victims, and also delves into some of the cultural aspects of the drug war - Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde, and narcocorridos.
In the final section, Grillo delves into drug war policies on both sides of the border, and how TCOs are morphing and expanding in order to keep drug profits coming in. He also tackles the controversies of drug legalization, the use of the term "insurgency," and the current extent (and potential) of US military involvement in Mexico. His recommendations are brief and in no particular order, but they're logical, and he clearly explains why he thinks each change is necessary.
One of the things I like the best in El Narco is the way Grillo brings to life (if in a macabre fashion) the business-like cruelty and psychosis of so many narcos. For example, in one passage, he's talking to an assassin about how new recruits are trained. The assassin explains that the "newbies" often take more than ten minutes to cut off a hand or arm, and make a mess in the process; the pros can do it cleanly in 3-4 minutes, largely because many of them used to be butchers. In another passage, he describes a video he saw of a blindfolded 13 year-old hostage, naked and trembling, begging his parents to pay the narcos the ransom they were demanding for his release.
I can't lie about my bias here; I'm a fan of El Narco and thus Ioan Grillo because I agree with about 99% of what he says. It's hard to give huge props to a book that is considered direct competition to Cartel, but I can't help it. Actually, I prefer to consider it a companion book, rather than competition. Remember, Grillo is a seasoned journalist and I'm an analyst. While the general content and message of our books is similar, our approaches and the way we lay out the information is different.
This is what I love about the community of writers who follow the drug war; we're just happy to get good information out to people who really need to know what's happening south of the border. Grillo is good at relating stories and the personal experiences of people he interviews, and this makes El Narco immensely readable. There's no jargon or charts or tons of statistics to wade through. However, one of my few criticisms (and I may have brought this up earlier) is that I'm not a huge fan of the way the information flows in the chapters themselves. While the book follows a chronological format, the information in the chapters themselves could be organized better to make it flow even more smoothly.
Bottom line, this is a book you really need to read when it comes out in late October (available now for pre-order on Amazon). I had a hard time putting it down; like I said, it's immensely readable, with some great stories and fascinating history and factual tidbits about the drug war. If you're even remotely a fan of my work or viewpoints on the drug war, you'll quickly become a fan of Grillo's and El Narco - I certainly did.