Review: Narconomics - How To Run A Drug Cartel


Narconomics, written by Tom Wainwright, is an unusual and important read about drug cartels and the evolution of organised crime in the 21st century. At times, listening to the audiobook, I found myself chuckling. Wainwright, refreshingly, does not take himself too seriously which is an impressive achievement considering the perpetual cycle of violence and suffering the “War on Drugs” has generated and horror stories commonly associated with drug trafficking for decades. However, much like any organisation, transnational criminal organisations suffer from very human problems and not all leaders and gangsters are not necessarily masterminds of their trade.

Human resourcing can be a nightmare (loyalty is short-supply, mules are regualarly caught, men and women do stupid selfies of their crimes and are not always subtle) while settling scores within an organisation can be a frustrating bureaucratic process. Public relations, collusion and fostering good relations with governments and communities to create Pax Mafiosa can be undone by competition in the market. The advent of the Internet means cartels have to reach out to their communities through effective digital marketing and diversify into new markets (migrants) or invest in off-shore sites to run their business without inferences and regulations. Social media and media has become as much a tool of brand cultivation as its has terror.

The conclusion is simple; the drug wars (surprise, surprise) were neither lost nor won. It is a costly economic cycle for some and benefits those who profit from narco-trafficking, securitisation and militarisation state securities across the United States and governments across Latin America. Violence and displacement often means foreign governments and criminal corporations can access the resource-rich regions of Latin America without being stopped by either national governments or local activists, journalists and human rights defenders (who are typically “disappeared”, forced to flee or murdered). These powers play off one another and have mutual benefits in continuing the drug wars.

Those fighting it (heroic and/or cruel), the military, security and police forces expending lives, blood and money to eradicate and contain transnational organised crime are Sisyphus. Their methods — essentially endlessly rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill to have it roll back down to the bottom every time — are largely in vain. Lopping off the head of an organisation does not work and leads to splintered, perpetual conflict. Prisons are recruitment grounds for gangs and mobsters and offer a safe haven in which criminals can do business and deal with rivals. The ruthless nature of prisons, particularly in Latin America, encourages criminality and a system of violence. People thrown into prison, much like would-be jihadists in the Middle East, come out radicalised and more deadly than before, nurtured in an atmosphere of criminal craftsmanship.

As Wainwright argues, the strategy and tactics of government do not make economic sense. Cocoa crops are burned but it is the livelihoods of the farmers which are destroyed not those of the cartel. The criminals demand greater efficiency and tax farmers more heavily, while the government offers no incentives to those using lands to cultivate marijuana and cocaine to switch to legal crops. Moreover, not only are the wrong lives destroyed, targeting the source of supply for drugs is the equivalent of attempting to increase the price of paint to stop a painter from drawing. Cocaine remains cheap at its source despite it values rising by 30,000% when it crosses into European and U.S territories. The wrong part of a drugs journey to the addict is targeted.

Authors will have covered this before, and there are certainly economic arguments which suggest that the ‘War on Drugs’ go beyond narco-trafficking and extend into resources in a Capitalist Age (avocado, oil, iron ore, timber, and coffee), local and regional politics and the stark failures of neo-liberalism. Wainwright simplifies the economic arguments which make for a magnificent introduction to the drug trade and by cross-comparing the bloody business with Wallmart, McDonalds and other corporate enterprises and entrepreneurial. Los Zetas is the McDonalds of the criminal world, a franchise which has rooted into tentacles into every city in Mexico and Latin America. The Cali Cartel in Colombia founded Rodríguez Orejuela brothers acted as an executive board and was dubbed ‘Cocaine Inc.’ by Time Magazine, not dissimilar to ‘Los Zetas Inc.’

To understand drug trafficking is to understand modern economics. The only way the cartels can function is, contrary to popular culture, not by being an outcast in the economic system, but by being a fundamental part of it. Narconomics is pure capitalism in its most exploitative, brutal form. The sooner the public is educated about this, the sooner reforms can be made which will solve the global health crisis caused by drugs and in-turn the horrifying human rights violations and atrocities it generates.


Narconomics is a good introduction to the nature of the drug trafficking business and the multiple flaws of the “War on Drugs”. It is written in a digestible, enjoyable form and is accessible.