Review: El-Narco - The Bloody Rise of the Mexican Cartels


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On January 5th, 2017, Foreign Policy placed Mexico in the top ten conflicts to watch in 2017. Ioan Grillo’s El Narco unpacks how Mexico reached this point, and it is a perfect introduction for those new to the country’s drug war and the factors which are driving the conflict.

After reading the author’s most recent publication Gangster Warlords, which offered an good overarching narrative of the drug wars and criminal violence cutting deep into Latin America’s socio-political fabric, El Narco provided an excellent analysis of the Mexican Drug War.

From the ethnic cleansing of Mexico’s Chinese communities and dealers funneling opium into the United States of America through to the Harrison Narcotic Act enacted by U.S Congress (1914) to Operation Condor and the initiation of the farcical “War on Drugs” under President Richard Nixon, the road to Mexico’s current turmoil and lawlessness is well-researched and explained by the author. In detail, the causes are broken down systematically

The current conflict simmering in the 1990s began to escalate in the reign of President Vicente Fox. This undercurrent of violence exploded in 2006 with then newly-elected President Felipe Caledron declaring war on transnational criminal organisations across Mexico. Initially successful in decapitating the transnational criminal organisations (TOCs), the short-term accomplishments of utilising the military led to prolonged conflict between the military, corrupt cops, competing gangs, emerging TOCs such as Los Zetas, militias, and paramilitary death-squads. “When you chop wood, chips fly,” and the main cliques fighting over Mexico’s resources have splintered and fractured into different factions and groups.

How many have died and disappeared is unknown, however Open Society Justice Initiative have suggested crimes against humanity have been committed by Los Zetas and the Mexican Government in the bloodbath. It is estimated that 150,000 (if not more) men, women and children have died since 2006, 25,000 (if not more) have disappeared while the conflict has sparked a refugee crisis where Mexican civilians and migrants from across the region have been slaughtered and traded by the various TCOs. El Narco is a journey deep into Mexico’s very own Heart of Darkness.

Impunity and corruption, a historic issue in Mexico, are rampant while the cases of torture, kidnappings and disappearances have largely been left unaddressed by the authorities to the fury of the Mexican people. Narcofosas(narco-graves) dot the countryside and sicarios (assassins) and death-squads dismember, kill and decapitate each other and the innocent. Worst still, the narcotics trade is flourishing and Mexican TCOs are in overdrive, dealing in migrant smuggling, kidnap, extortion, oil smuggling and even exploiting the West’s insatiable desire for not simply narcotics, but avocados. The TCOs diversification into other areas of the economy seem to confirm that the term ‘Mexican Drug War’ may now be an oversimplification, particularly if one reads Anabel Hernandez’s best-seller Narcolands where the state and criminal organisations across Mexico seem to be indistinguishable. The greatest tragedy of the Mexican Drug War is that is has created new conflicts, alongside the grisly battle for the narco-economy of Mexico.

Hernandez’s investigative magnum opus and the endless list of names of state officials implicated in drug trafficking and using the state machine to harness the multi-billion dollar trade clarifies the corruption at the heart of the Mexican state. However, one can get lost in the multitude of names and dense writing. In Grillo’s El Narco, the straight-forward writing eases the reader into the story and is able to simply communicate complex issues.

The book ends with the curtain being drawn on President Calderon’s blood-stained terms in office and the beginning of President Pena Nieto’s rule. Little has changed since his inauguration as the country’s homicide rates remain tragically high. With distrust of the state at an all-time high, armed vigilante groups have taken the law into their own hands to fight the Mexican TCOs, regional cartels and local sicarios. For a more thorough understanding of these groups emerging, Part V of Gangster Warlords gives a fascinating breakdown of this battle as vigilantes played a central role in bringing down El Más Loqo (The Maddest One) or Nazario Moreno, the self-proclaimed narco-saint and leader of the Knights Templars in the state of Michoacán.

Mexico is going through its bloodiest phase in recent history and the ‘narco-insurgency’ (a term coined by Grillo) alongside government corruption, incompetence and its historical ties to mafia (which have penetrated the highest echelons of power, the military and the federal and judicial police), and U.S foreign policy have all catalysed this terrible violence. The world needs to start paying attention to Mexico’s conflict and the wider conflicts in Latin America.


Matthew C.K Williams