FIRST, a word of warning: the violent imagery in Ioan Grillo’s account of Central America’s ‘drug war’ is deeply shocking.
The author paints a dark picture of a blood-soaked world where narcotics gangs maintain their power with crafted displays of human butchery — decapitated heads are piled in town squares, execution ‘games’ are filmed and uploaded online, grenades are thrown into crowds of partying children, and, grotesquely, victim’s faces are hacked off and sewn onto footballs which are then sent to their families.
The death toll, in Mexico alone, now hovers around 40,000.
Grillo is an English journalist who has made a speciality of reporting from the frontline of the war against narcotics.
With these two books, El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels and Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, he digs deep into the psychology of the gangs that have turned parts of Mexico, Brazil, and Jamaica into war zones.
Yet despite the scale of the violence, this is, as the author points out, “a bizarre conflict which can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time”.
Millions of tourists sun themselves on the beaches of Cancun in Mexico, Brazil hosts thousands of visitors for an Olympic games, and in Jamaica, Trenchtown, a setting for regular gun battles, is visited by busloads of Bob Marley fans every year. All remain oblivious to the violence around them.
For Grillo, Mexico and its cartels are at the heart of the region’s drug industry.
Poppy cultivation developed deep roots in the country after the plant was brought to the Sinaloa region of the west coast with Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century.
After a vicious, racially-driven war, Mexicans appropriated the trade and started supplying the opium dens of the United States.
This was the way it remained for decades, with Mexicans acting as smugglers and small-time dealers, so that by the 1990s they had been sidelined by Colombian gangs who became the big players.
In the middle of the decade everything changed. When Pablo Escobar was shot dead in 1993, the Mexican drug lords grabbed the opportunity to become the new kids on the block.
The high-grade weapons they needed were easily available across the American border thanks to lax US gun laws.
The leading gang at the time were the Zetas, a group which went so far as to advertise for members — soldiers and policemen were particularly welcome — and to this day the lines between police and gangs are blurred in many parts of Mexico.
As the Zeta’s took control the corpses piled up, but, despite the bloodshed, in a country where opium production can pull entire communities out of poverty local gang leaders came to be seen as heroes and protectors of the poor.
The gangs are now embedded in Mexican society. Today, El Narco is an amorphous movement, a drug culture that acts as an opposition to the government, an insurgency fighting the president and his American-backed war on drugs.
Narcotics manufacture and distribution is a way of life – the gangsters have even begotten a genre of music known as ‘narcocorridos’, and a fashion style, ‘buchidos’.
El Narco doesn’t stay hidden in the subculture — some gangsters, keen on bling and status symbols, decorate their guns with gold leaf.
In some places the gangs have even spawned religious devotion. One particularly violent group branded themselves as the ‘Knights Templar’, developing the rituals and trappings of a sect. Members were baptised on joining, and their leader, Nazario Moreno, aka El Mas Loco, meaning ‘The Maddest One’, is now worshipped as a saint by many of the poor.
During raids on gangs’ compounds, police have seized statues and prayer books dedi
cated to the memory of the brutal ‘Saint Nazario’, who was shot dead in 2010. As Grillo says, anthropologists would take years to dissect the relationship between Mexican Catholicism, the financing of the drug trade, and the celebrity status of the gang lords.
Of Grillo’s two books, El Narco is the more incisive — first-hand research over 10 years, in which the author sometimes put his life at risk, and a tight focus on Mexico alone, make for an account which is vivid, disturbing, and sometimes brutal.
With Gangster Warlords he casts his net wider, to Brazil, Jamaica, and Texas, where the war on drugs has taken on a shape all its own.
In the southern US he meets ‘Robert’, an elderly, arthritic American drug smuggler, whose business model stretches back to 1969’s ‘summer of love’ when drugs became de rigeur and fortunes were made.
It’s an old-fashioned, almost quaint story, that has long since been overtaken by the realities of the conflict to the south.
In the favelas, or ghettos, of Brazil, a gang calling themselves the ‘Red Commandos’ operate within a stone’s throw of the once-glamorous Copacabana beach, creating no-go areas for the police and where ‘Brazil Funk’, singing the praises of drug bosses, has become the dominant musical genre.
In recent times, so intense has been the combat between gangs and the police, that the favelas became the setting for the Call of Duty 2 video game. For police officers, however, it’s no game, with 87 having being killed since 2014.
Every latin American country has its own version of the drugs industry.
In Honduras, the Maras cartel is organised into regional cliques which control the countryside, with gang bosses also sitting on local councils and ruling over towns and cities.
Through drugs, loan sharking, and pimping prostitutes, these men have used their wealth to buy their way into positions of power.
However, as Grillo explains, life as a cartel leader can be short and end brutally — violent internal coups are common.
Of all the author’s stop-offs on his tour of latin America’s narcotic heartlands, Jamaica seems the most incongruous.
Two million tourists visit its beaches every year, many confined within holiday compounds, others enjoying the reggae music at Montego Bay, and all kept away from the depths of the Kingston ghettos, where a cartel known as the ‘Posse’ battle the police for control.
In 2010, flights had to be diverted from the country’s main airport because of inter-gang gunfire.
Despite what he has seen and the endemic nature of the drugs industry in central America, Grillo has little sympathy for the so-called ‘war on drugs’.
Declared by Mexico’s President Calderón in 2006, and backed by the forces of the American DEA, the policy of attacking the gangs and burning the poppy fields has done little except alienate the poorest communities and driven them into the arms of gang leaders who revel in the role of protectors of the people.
Instead, he argues the case for cutting off their supply of high-grade weaponry, guns which they purchase in the United States and smuggle south across the Rio Grande. It is, he says, America’s lax gun laws that arm the cartels.
While the case for gun control is unanswerable, the case for legalisation of certain drugs is more contentious.
Removing the source of the cartels’ power by easing laws on drug use is a strong argument, whether it will ever be politically acceptable is doubtful.
In these vivid and engrossing books, Ioan Grillo proves himself a master of reportage, exploring territory few journalists have tread before him, and exposing the homicidal and hypocritical nature of America’s battlefields.