Review: Gangster Warlords - Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America


Seasoned journalist Ioan Grillo takes the reader deep into the crime wars currently ripping apart societies in Latin America. The introduction leaves one appalled, yet compelled to read on. The gruesome reality of the conflict ripping Mexico apart is thrust into the imagination as the term narcofosas (ornarco-grave) carves itself onto your conscious. Searching for the term narcofosas in the Google Engine reveals the depth and depravity of the drug wars in Mexico and beyond.

The crime wars in Latin America have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and sparked a major refugee crisis,scarcely covered in the detail the Syrian War has been. The costs on communities and individuals alike is shocking, the brutality on display as cliques and narco kingpins ruthlessly fight for control over cocaine, marijuana, meth, heroin and other narcotics are chilling.

Pulled into a world of terrifying and violent cruelty, the personal stories of kingpins, victims, police, agents and gangsters take the reader deep into the worlds these men, women and children inhabit. It makes for compelling reading as we are taken from the most murderous cities on the planet in Honduras and El Salvador to the streets of Los Angeles and right to the heart of the surreal (almost alien) piping hot landscape of Michoacan where a narco-saint dealing in meth rules the roost.

However, there are occasional editing errors which occasionally disrupt the flow of the writing. It would also have been more interesting if the author had been able to weave the roles of the Central Intelligence Agency, the banking system and global capital into the narrative and their important roles in fuelling the various drug and crime wars gripping the region. Similarly, it would have been fascinating to have heard the author’s opinion on the current state of Colombia’s extended conflict (particularly after the interview of a Colombian sicario in his other book El Narco) which has dragged into the 21st century.

Nonetheless, the quality of the writing lies in Grillo’s ability to explain a series of complex and overlapping crisis in Latin America in a simplified manner. For an overarching introduction to the actors driving conflict in the region whether it be state-actors; the warring Mexican death-squads and vigilantes; the rivalry between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18; the gangster warlords dotting Jamaica; or the hyper-violent favela conflicts between Rio de Janerio’s CORE and the Red Commando, this is the book to start with.

Matthew C.K Williams