“Americans spend more on illegal drugs than the people of any other nation on the planet.” — Ioan Grillo
“Ioan Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” describes a $30 billion-a-year entrenched business that has long tentacles reaching inside the US.
He asserts that this form of mafia capitalism “poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution” and may well prove a large problem for the US.
His proposed solution: legalizing these same drugs.
British journalist Grillo has spent long years reporting from Mexico.
Early on, he realized that reporting on the packaged comments of Mexican officials was very limiting, so he began probing deeper.
He contacted lawyers representing drug capos. He met up with American undercover agents (some ex-military from the rough streets).
He would rush to the heart-wrenching scenes of mass public murders exacted by those in the life. He interviewed numerous victims of drug violence.
He met up with peasant farmers growing coca and ganja. He chatted with young assassins in the slums.
He talked with incarcerated drug mules.
He used his contacts with Mexican journalists and academics studying the narco movement to gain access-and he saw the prices they paid (often in blood) for learning about and writing about “the movement.”
He opens El Narco with a jailhouse interview with a 38-year-old assassin, Gonzalo, who spent numerous years doing the ugly wetwork of drug cartels but had since become “born-again” in prison. His are the waking nightmares of a man who contributed to the mass bloodshed in his country.
Another assassin that the author meets is in his 20s. Asked if he thinks about those he is about to murder, he replies: “I keep focused and do my work. Before I go out, I pray to Jesus and clear my mind. I never take drugs or drink before a job as I need my five senses. When I come back, I will relax and smoke a spliff and listen to music.”
He knows that his work does not come with a retirement plan; his likely end will be to be disappeared when his usefulness is over because he will know too much.
He has traded away his freedom and future for designer-label clothes, motorbikes, and girlfriends.
The pay for a kill varies-with some getting paid just $85, “enough to eat some tacos and buy a few beers over the week,” writes Grillo.
The drift into the “El Narco” life seems casual enough. Young people drive up a carload of drugs to the US as mules. Others enter the life because it is glorified in narco artworks, narcocorridos (gangster songs which might mean prestige and contracts on the street), and narco-cinema (B-movies “packed with cocaine deals, scantily dressed women, crazy shoot-outs, and lots of big trucks burning through the desert”).
The movies are sometimes bankrolled by capos to launder money and to get their own exploits “immortalized” in film.
The luxury SUVs and Hummers, outrageous mansions, beautiful women, and even the cemeteries (with “magnificent monuments” to drug capos) provide a kind of allure.
One cemetery, Humaya Gardens, features mausoleums built of Italian marble and decorated with precious stones.
“Many cost above $100,000 to build-more than most Culiacžn homes. Inside are surreal biblical paintings next to photos of the deceased, normally in cowboy hats and often clasping guns. In some photos, they pose in fields of marijuana; in other tombs, small concrete planes indicate the buried Mafioso was a pilot (transporting the good stuff),” Grillo writes.
The recruitment by the drug cartels is done both personally and generally-the latter with blankets thrown over bridges: “‘The Zetas operations group wants you, soldier or ex-soldier,’ one banner said. ‘We offer you a good salary, food, and attention for your family.
Don’t suffer hunger and abuse anymore.’
Another said, ‘Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel.
We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice.’”
Known colloquially as “the movement,” organized crime has managed to change their surrounding culture-by creating even their own religious sects that justify the lifestyle and promise salvation. The narco religions mix Christianity or “morphed rituals of Caribbean Santeria, the folk saint Jesus Malverde, and the wildly popular Santa Muerte, or Holy Death” with “peasant rebel politics.” These belief systems are sparked with plenty of “wannabe messiahs.”
The seduction of the trifecta-money, power, and violence-drew not only those without power-but also many police, military, and politicians.
Meanwhile, with Mexico’s democratizing and its shift to a law-and-order president Felipe Calder˜n who came into office in late 2006 and declared war on the cartels, there has been a massive jump in drug violence.
The US, sensing an ally, promised aid-some $1.6 billion of hardware (transport aircraft and helicopters) and training over three years. (For all the drug enforcement collaboration, there are sharp tensions between the US and Mexico stemming from historical enmity from the Mexican-American War.)
However, in the next four years, there were 35,000 murders, “car bombs, grenade attacks on revelers, scores of political assassinations, a single massacre of seventy-two people, and an endless list of other atrocities.” Whole families were murdered. Drug cartels would practice encobijado-or wrapping up a corpse in sheets and dumping it into a public place with a threatening message. Others created their own unique style of torture to apply to kidnapped individuals before they were executed-with all of this depicted on snuff films.
The newspapers becoming blas¼ of the mass bloodshed, with some printing “execution meters” tallying the dead.
“In 2005, fifteen hundred murders bore the hallmarks of organized crime across the country. In 2006, there were two thousand,” observes Grillo.
“In 2008, this shot up to five hundred murders per month. The year saw an extraordinary rise in attacks on police and officials; and the conflict started to have a major impact on civilians, including the grenade attack on revelers during the 2008 Independence Day celebrations.
Prolonged firefights in residential areas and massacres of fifteen or more victims at a time became widespread.”
Anyone who represented government and the law enforcement structure could be targeted. (One of the cartel leaders whose son was murdered was said to have bought all the roses in the city because of his personal grief.) Journalists working in Mexico were practicing the most dangerous profession in the country.
Grillo went to many crime scenes with severed craniums left as signs of this escalating drug war and escalating terrorist tactics. Only 5 percent of murders in Mexico are solved.
At the heart of the challenge is the near-insatiable US demand for illicit recreational drugs. The social revolution of the 1960s created markets for illicit drugs when enabled individuals to “drop out.” The music of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
in 1967 in the Summer of Love affected a highly suggestible populace. This new market affected Mexico, Colombia, Morocco, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
By the late 1970s, some 40% of high school seniors had smoked weed.
US consumption of illegal drugs only escalated. “In 1966, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics said the most profitable drug in the United States was heroin and estimated its black market moved $600 million a year. By 1980, reports said the American drug market was worth over $100 billion a year.”
In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was founded by presidential Executive Order, and the trade in illegal drugs was thought to be solvable. There were spraying operations to destroy plants until it was found that these toxins remained on the plants that were processed into consumable drugs-and were ending up in American drug users.
The US used Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) laws to pursue the drug cartels and those who worked for them.
They helped gather intelligence against the cartels. However, theirs was not a united front. US intelligence agencies allied with right-wing rebels to fight left-wing guerrillas…and their allies made money from cocaine.
The corruption in the Mexican government and law enforcement structures weakened any unified offense against illicit drugs. In 2009, Južrez had the dubious title as “the most murderous city on the planet, overtaking Mogadishu, Baghdad, and Cape Town.”
Ironically, for all the fighting, the cartels were able to deliver about the same amount of drugs to users in the US.
Customs agents interdicted about the same amount of drugs using their best methods. “...Mexican drug cartels can still operate at full capacity while they fight bloody battles with each other and the government. In the drug business, it seems, a war economy functions perfectly well.
Gangsters can go on having downtown shoot-outs with soldiers, leaving piles of severed heads, and still be trucking the same quantity of dope,” writes Grillo. El Narco is an industry that runs 24/7/365.
The illicit drug industry functions so well in the US in part because many Americans make money off of it as transporters and dealers.
A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that American drug use rose from 8 to 8.7 percent in 2008 and 2009, and an estimated 21.8 million Americans were on “some mind-bending substance” in 2009.
What if the drug cartels start creating further incursions into the purview of government-such as stealing more oil from the Petr˜leos Mexicanos (Pemex)? Various nightmare scenarios abound. Would Mexico fall into a civil war with paramilitary squads? What if such challenges lead to Mexico becoming a failed state, with lawlessness and a lack of control of the border?
Worse yet, what if El Narco becomes a global power? Grillo observes that these cartels have pushed hard into weak Central American states, also in Peru and Argentina, and then into some African states.
El Narco has ties to the Russian mafia. They have ties to Liverpool, England. El Narco has a reach over the Rio Grande in the US.
Global political bodies like the United Nations push for the eradication and interdiction of illicit drugs and the criminalization of consumption. The health and productivity implications of illicit drug consumption are negative, with many spillover effects into society.
The author explains: “Advocating legalization of drugs is by no means saying that drugs are good.
Everyone agrees that heroin is a dastardly scourge. Reformers argue, however, that the best way to control narcotics is to get them in the open and regulate them. Meanwhile, the billions of dollars spent trying to prohibit narcotics could be spent on prevention campaigns and rehabilitation.”
He adds that there could be efforts to keep youth in school and on the straight-and-narrow.
Legalizing illicit drugs so they can be created and sold locally, with profits kept local, is supposed to undercut the value of such drugs and eliminate their smuggling.
Grillo admits s that such a proposal has long been seen as “a non-starter.” To legalize drugs may send mixed messages. It will be a kind of backtracking on decades of anti-illegal drug endeavors.
It would potentially give over power to the cartels, who may well morph into other forms of criminality. (One sign of this is their turn to extortion and kidnapping as money-making ventures.)
Shalin Hai-Jew works at Kansas State and resides in Manhattan.