El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency
© 2012 Ioan Grillo
El Paso, Texas, can boast one of the lowest metropolitan crime rates in the United States. Immediately opposite it on the Rio Grande, however, Ciudad Juarez, has until recently been regarded as North America’s murder capital. Juarenses are not exceptionally violent people. but their city is one of the battlegrounds in a decade-long melee for money. El Narco, the product of a journalist who has reported on Mexico for years, covers the origins and growth of drug-trafficking gangs in this country so far from God and so close to the United States. Grillo’s review of the guerra contra los drogas reveals how far-reaching the cartel wars are, not only creating a horrific bodycount, but eroding the legitimacy of government and civil order, and creating subcultures obsessed with death.
In the beginning, Mexico’s narcotics farmers were surprisingly like Appalachian hill people, who found corn liquor a lot is easier to make money off of than corn. Like America’s hill people, they were organized by familial clans and sometimes competed for territory. Prohibition in both the United States and Mexico led, in due time, to organized groups superseding the clans in many respects, but not until the end of Mexico’s one-party state did the cartels run wild. From 1929 to 1994, the ‘institutional revolutionary party’ held complete command in Mexico, with control so complete that Grillo maintains throughout the book that Mexican democracy only began in 1994. When they finally ceded power, however, their systems for maintaining order — corrupt as they were — disappeared with them, and ever since Mexico’s leaders have been trying to fill the vacuum.
I don’t live anywhere near the US-Mexican border, but in an age of global news it’s hard to miss occasional stories of massacres. The most bloody violence pools around the main routes northward, as Mexico’s gangs are not only moving their own goods but transporting merchandise from South America. Because the industry is so lucrative, it’s highly attractive to men and women from economically depressed areas, despite the violence. Gangland allure works its usual magic, as disadvantaged people are drawn to the spectre of wealth, influence, and the aura of being a tough guy. That aura is aggrandized by the Mexican tradition of corridos, ballads that tell stories and celebrate or mourn the lives of their subjects. Cartel smugglers and gunmen have become the heroes of a growing library of narcocorridos, celebrated as poor men who have made it rich by defying the man. Considering how much of Mexico’s local and state governments in the contested areas are compromised by the cartels — sometimes local police work directly for the gangs — one wonders how much of the man there is to defy. Certainly the federal government and army are doing their best, but the narcos are creating their own variants of Mexican culture: one cartel seems to have its own cult, and another psuedo-catholic cult is centered on the worship of a female Death Angel. As the cartels branch out into other areas of crime, like extorting protection money and kidnapping for ransom, Grillo warns that what Mexico is facing is less than a prolonged spat of gang fighting, and more like a Syrianesque insurgency.
As Grillo documents, Mexico has tried valiantly to crush the narcos through sheer force, targeting leaders and using the movement of money to trap them. Grillo believes that prohibition ultimately creates the financial incentive fueling these gangs, but there’s little grounds for hope that drug prohibition in the US will end anytime soon: while many states are giving up on marijuana, the present attorney general is an implacable supporter of the drug war police state. And even if a miracle happened, how long would it take for Mexico to recover from this poison that has been seeping into its soil for twenty years?
Disturbing but gripping reading.