"Fue el Estado" - Review: Narcolands & A Massacre in Mexico


Journalism is one of Mexico’s dangerous trades. It is one of the most risky places in the world to do the job. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mexico was second only to Syria in terms of the levels of violence gripping the country. This has been contested by Mexican political figures and officials, and many civilians. Comparing Mexico to Syria is a difficult endeavour. Entire cities and towns have not been levelled in Mexico, nor have Mexican civilians been starved, targeted by chemical weapons or bombed by Russian, Syrian and Western air forces as Syrian and Iraqi civilians have been. The manner in which the conflicts in both countries are waged are different. Nevertheless, a conflict of sorts is raging in Mexico. A quarter of a million people have died since Felipe Calderon and predecessor Vicente Fox nurtured and ignited the Mexican Drug War. In doing so, they have reignited or started new conflicts, which under the rubric of the ‘War on Drugs’ has allowed judicial, federal and state actors, and non-state actors including the mafia, to commit atrocities with impunity.

Anabel Hernandez’s Narcoland and A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students focuses on both the Mexican Drug War and other conflicts which have been reignited by it (for example the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, one of the darkest periods in the Mexico’s modern history). The Mexican Drug War has been an utter disaster for its people. Vast swathes of the country are controlled by the cartels and parts of the government are beset by corruption, accusations of human rights violations, and have committed crimes with impunity. Frequently, many officials, including the judicial and federal police, and members of the Armed Forces, have been accused of acting in collusion with the Mafia. Mexico is a narco state.

The details of the book are at times infuriating to navigate. An accompanying pen and book were necessary to navigate the text, particularly Narcoland. An average reader will find reading Hernandez’s work challenging and confusing at times, not because of the structure of the book, but because of the complexity of the Mexican Drug War, the sheer volume of individuals, state and non-state actors involved and the number of governmental agencies, sub-agencies and companies mired in corruption is an endless labyrinth. Narcoland requires the reader to rethink how they look at the conventional narratives of the ‘War on Drugs’. However, once Narcoland has been cracked, it is a thrilling and, at times, sobering read and highlights one of the world’s biggest threats: crony capitalism fused to deep-state politics where a web of individuals, businessmen, military and police and political figures operate with impunity. As Hernandez demonstrates, the lies and ties between the government and the mafia run deep, and go to the doors of the presidential palace.

In A Massacre in Mexico, the disappearance of forty-three students of the Normal Rural Teachers College from Ayotzinapa in Iguala, Guerrero is a microcosm of the violence and madness plaguing Mexico and the government’s complicity in driving state-sponsored terror. The official narratives espoused, are frequently in conflict with the reality of the events which unfolded on 26th September, 2014 and 27th September. Without historical context, which is included by Hernandez, the fate of the students of Ayotzinapa are difficult to comprehend. On its own A Massacre in Mexico is brilliant, accompanied by Narcoland, it is a masterful piece of journalism which counteracts the narrative of the state. As with Narcoland, A Massacre in Mexico is a difficult read, but it is much easier to digest then the former.

In Mexico, over 37,000 people have vanished including 6,600 children. The disappearance of the 43 is emblematic of this crisis where crimes are left unsolved and the truth of the crimes are either buried in a bureaucratic labyrinth or criminally and incompetently managed. One only needs to read The Daughters of Juarez, where the city experienced a horrific crime wave against women and girls (consisting of kidnappings, rape, mutilation, and murder) to paint a picture of the criminal silence and cover-up by Mexican politicians of atrocities and crimes which have been committed through incompetence, intimidation and fostering a environment of lawlessness.

Families of the missing go through hell and justice is found wanting. Those who challenge the state or dig for answers from criminal organisations or government agencies, activist or journalists, end up dead, receive death-threats or - like Hernandez - are forced to flee the country. The case of Ayotzinapa is one of thousands unaddressed from Juarez to Reynosa to Guerrero to Sinaloa to the migrant trail to the border of the United States (as detailed by Oscar Martinez in The Beast) and is fuelled by the dependence of segments of our societies on illegally distributed opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. A Massacre in Mexico, however, illustrates that the Mexican Drug War causes run deeper then the ‘War on Drugs’. Mexico’s war economy, strengthened by the drug trade is a powerful cause of violence, but political and social conflicts between the state and Mexico’s diverse communities are also at the forefront of the crisis. It is a crisis and conflict between the state and corporate power and ejidos (communities that owned and worked the land in common), normalistas and the comuneros.

As Hernandez demonstrates in Narcoland, the federals - at local, regional and state level – have targeted left-wing guerrillas and their supporters for a long time as seen by the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posdas by the head of the federal judicial police, Rodolfo Leon Aragon. Aragon had been appointed by Gen. Jorge Carrilo Olea, who had been appointed by President Salinas as General Coordinator for the Fight against Drug trafficking. Olea, in coordination with General Guillermo Alvarez Nahara (who had been a member of the White Brigade and had fought left wing guerrillas and movements such as the Revolutionary Armed Movement, the People's armed revolutionary front and The Peasants Brigade Against Injustice) conspired to kill the Cardinal due to supplying weapons to such groups. As Hernandez writes, ‘In those days it was more dangerous to be a guerrilla or a political dissident then a drug trafficker.’ The government mercilessly hunted down these people and kept the drug traffickers in check, charging them millions in political bribes so that they may benefit from the business. To plant your crops, you needed permission from the head of the designated military zone and a permit to store crops and warehouses and another permit to get drugs the border. Trucks used carry the drugs to the border were usually protected by federal police. The Mafia effectively paid the tax to the federal government and in exchange the Mexican army guarded plantations the police transported the drugs and the DFS (Federal Security Directive) contacted and controlled the traffickers.

The PGR [Attorny. Gen.'s office], which had links to Carrilo Fuentes through Javier Coello Trejo (the deputy attorney general) pinned the blame on El Guero and El Chapo, the future leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, for the Cardinal’s death in a shoot-out between El Chapo and his bitter rivals, the Arellano Fenix brothers. Joaquin Guzman (El Chapo) was set up by the PGR, but then subsequently received protection by the same department of government, because Guzman had been bribing Federico Ponce Rojas in the Initial Enquiries Department ($1.5 million a month according to Hernandez) so that the PGR, the federal judicial police in Sonora state and the state governor of Baja California would turn a blind eye to his cultivation of marijuana. The Cardinal’s assassination was planned by the president's Chief of Staff Cordoba, a meeting in which Olea was present. Guzman’s original confession under Dossier 1387 implicated the PGR, the Federal Judicial Police and the presidency in a trident of offences including corruption (Aragon received $10 million from the Arellano Fenix brothers), extrajudicial killing and the abuse of power. The original confession of Guzman was erased according to Olea and and new confession was forged by Leitca Gutierrez. The scandal was a question of national security as it would have led to the collapse of the presidency. Guzman was faced with the choice: change your story or die. His imprisonment was a relief for Carrilo Fuentes, Lord of the Skies, who regarded Guzman as a rogue in the Guadaljara Group.

The disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa when placed in historical context should not be a surprise given that the government and multiple presidencies have such close ties to the criminal underworld and use criminal organisations and gangsters to whitewash their own crimes. The case of the Cardinal extended into other scandals within the administration of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon, namely the fabricated ‘escape’ of Guzman from prison and the launch of the Mexican Drug War in full force. Under successive presidencies, the police became drug traffickers in their own rights, using other groups and gangs to meet their own ends. The decentralisation of state control over the traffickers and the splintering of the Guadaljara Group into several criminal organisations meant the drug war and control of drug trafficking spiralled out of control. Key figures such as Guzman, Gallardo and El Azul had to do contact with Pablo Escobar through the government. This coincided with the Iran Contra plan, as the CIA joined the narco trade as the vast sums of money generated by trafficking could fund anti-communist operations outside the oversight of Congress (who had prohibited a $24 million budget to fund guerrillas in Nicaragua)

The Iran Contra Plan, a counter attack against the Sadanistas, was planned by Pres. Reagan, George H.W Bush, head of the CIA, and Oliver North during the 1980s. The drug money was used to fund the Contras, which included support from from drug kingpins, Caro Quintero, Fonseca Carrilo and Felix Gallardo. The CIA, covered by the federal security directorate, trained Guatemalan guerrillas in Mexico. Many public officials and figures were on the payroll of the CIA to quell left wing guerrillas and Communists. According to the Tower Commission, the Walsh Commission, and the Kerry Commission, the State Department of the United States have been tacitly involved in drug trafficking to meet geopolitical objectives, a scandal which rocks the Reagan administration. It should have been the end of President. Reagan, however he survived and Bush went on to become president and Oliver North is currently the president of National Rifle Association.

The numerous sagas unpacked by Hernandez illustrate that this is a crisis which continues to this very day and many of the individuals involved in the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s scandals are still at large politically and economically. Furthermore, as A Massacre in Mexico demonstrates, these dark days may have returned in full force as the slaughter in Iguala exemplifies. In some ways they never ended and the world ignores Mexico’s violence at its own peril. Narcoland and A Massacre in Mexico are difficult reads, but they are necessary ones in order for us to comprehend the real threats around our world today. To understand Mexico's killing fields is to understand the nature of the world economy and the political, economic, and environmental disasters which follow it. Hernandez exposes this dark and cruel world and for that her life is now under threat.


Narcoland and A Massacre in Mexico are brutal reads and a glimpse into the dark forces within the Mexican government driving the country’s violence and expose the collusion of state actors with ultra-violent paramilitary groups and the mafia. Impunity, corruption, and death have followed and at great cost, activists and journalists are dying to shed light on the atrocities of the state actors. Detailed and damning indictments, Narcolands and A Massacre in Mexico must be digested (often with difficulty) to understand Mexico and the wider world’s ‘War on Drugs’, its catastrophic failure and how state agencies, rather than gangsters, are the predominant antagonists and benefactors of the conflicts. This is journalism at its absolute finest.

4.5/5 - Narcolands

4.5/5 - A Massacre in Mexico