Victims found dumped in Tijuana, Mexico
Narco-Economy: Review of Gangster Warlords Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2016. Hardback $28.00. 378pp.
The author, Ioan Grillo is a British journalist living in Mexico City who has been on the Latin American beat since 2001. He is the author of a previous book about the cartels El Narco Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Grillo 2016). The book is thankfully footnoted and has an index and even though it reads a bit like a detective story, it has incisive analysis and references academic work to back up the author’s own on the ground analysis interviewing drug lords, street dealers, community residents, police, and government officials in Brazil, Jamaica, the UK, USA, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. With some 15 years of experience the author gives an on the ground perspective on the rise of the Narco shadow state in the Americas. Fueled by demand in the USA, the UK, Europe and increasingly, in the countries in which the gangs and Cartels operate, Grillo describes the conditions in which the gangs and Cartels thrive. Not focusing on the consumer end, or the production of the drugs so much as the sociology of the gang and cartel networks, how they manage to survive and thrive in nations with less well developed infrastructures than in the developed world providing real life alternatives for the chronically under and unemployed youth of the barrios and favelas as well as the small towns in where they are located.
Without a doubt this is an issue of import and as I read the book I became engrossed with the tales of these alternative state-lets emerging in the collapsed world of the global economy. Not only has neoliberalism failed to deliver the goods, but it has been complicit in destroying the infrastructure that would provide an alternative to collapse. This is the Disaster Capitalism Naomi Klein wrote about in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine where she describes how the shock doctrine to curb inflation in Bolivia prescribed by Jeffrey Sachs in the 1980’s led directly to massive unemployment, and pushed thousands of Bolivians into the Cocaine trade with an estimated one in ten in the coca business by 1989 (Klein 2007, 188). The victory of neo-liberal economics forced upon the Bolivian people, in a coup-less victory unlike the previous model Pinochet’s Chile, where the democratically elected communist Allende was overthrown in a CIA backed coup (78-80). But the neoliberal connection to the rise of the drug trade is unfortunately not very evident in Ioan Grillo’s book which is long on narrative and folksy descriptions of the Narco commanders and foot soldiers but is short on background analysis. His book certainly raises alarms as to the extent of the problem, and he does spend some time describing the vigilante movement in Mexico that emerged to contest the Knights Templar of Nazario Moreno in lieu of an effective government which had essentially ceded control of vast regions of Michoacán and Guerrero provinces to the cartels (Grillo 298-300). But while mentioning the Zapatistas as inspiring indigenous people to rise up by their example of a successful resistance to the Mexican state in forming an autonomous region, he does not really seem to understand the import of the rising which he almost dismisses as not serious. “Their armed challenge lasted only twelve days before a bishop brokered a cease fire” (299). What Grillo does not mention was the timing of the rebellion to coincide with the initiation of the NAFTA trade agreement which has proven to be so devastating to small farmers in Mexico were every farmer who could follow the debates over NAFTA knew that in the early 1990’s Mexican corn sold for $224 a ton and US Iowa corn sold for $110 a ton on the border (Womack 1999, 22). Free trade would be the death of the Mexican small holder farmers and inevitably would lead to the flooding of the markets with cheap American corn. John Womack’s description of the EZLN upon the towns of Chiapas has a different ring. “On January 1, 1994, some 3000 booted, uniformed, masked, and well trained men and women, all armed, many with Stern Mark II’s, AK-47’s, M-6’s, and Uzis, moved out from numerous clandestine bases, concentrated in several units, and captured San Cristóbal, two towns not far north, six more eastward toward the cañadas, two of them in pitched battles, and many villages elsewhere in the region” (12). Developing the background in some detail of the policies of the Mexican government, and attempts on the part of the mostly indigenous peasant farmers to call attention to their plight including a major anti NAFTA protest on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the white oppressor in 1992 in which protest was largely peaceful (22), Womack unlike Grillo, explains the social, economic, and political context, including many supporting texts, including statements from the Zapatistas, with specific reference to symbolism of the January 1 rebellion as it related to the first day NAFTA went into effect (42).
Grillo mentions the traditions of the leftist guerrilla insurgencies of the 1970’s in Guerrero and to a lesser extent in Michoacán, noting the 1968 Tlatelolco Square massacre in passing, he treats the left in Mexico, as he did the revolutionary left in Brazil, and in Jamaica in an almost scornful manner, as merely the breeding ground for a more effective brand of gangster, writing of the Red Commando in Brazil, Grillo describes the leader he William da Silva Lima who “sees his crimes as political in a broader sense, and himself as a robber because he was born poor. This echoes the self-justification made by gangsters across the Americas (Grillo 2016, 64, 242). Simplistically noting that gang leaders tend to be readers and studious, as if that were the link that made gangs as powerful as they were (53). Grillo describes the M8 revolutionaries in Brazil dismissively describing Fernando Gabeira as the Green Party politician “photographed on Ipanema Beach wearing a purple women’s G-string…. [and] kidnapping the U.S. ambassador in MR8’s most notorious operation in 1969” (55). His description of the series of dictators who overthrew democratically elected governments, aided and abetted by the CIA as the result of a “moth bitten document with SECRET stamped on it” (51), as if the period was merely the result of US government paranoia. This dismissal of the period of the generals, the disappeared, the torture, and murder of leftists, unionists and others who merely attempted to express their civil rights, seems to play into the rather shallow content of the analysis overall. The author is constantly making pop cultural comparisons as he describes Williams as being like the Paul Newman character in the movie Cool Hand Luke, trivializes the oppression of the poor and turns the leader of the Red Commandos into a pop cartoonish figure, easily dismissed (44).
The recent murder of the indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres brings home the brazen level of violence in the nation of Honduras which has the highest per capita murder rate in the world (186). Co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH) which had participated in the opposition to the coup government in 2009 as part of the Refoundational Space resistance group (Webber and Gordon 2013, 46), Cáceres had more recently been active in opposing the building of a massive dam project by a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or DESA and had convinced several of its backers to withdraw funding from the dam project drawing the ire of DESA. The environmental activist had won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014 among other awards (Pestano 2016). The environment of impunity in Honduras has fueled the violence against environmental activists in a nation where some 111 had been murdered between 2002 and 2014 (Global Witness 2015, 16). The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights at the UN has called for an independent investigation due to the lack of credibility of the President Juan Orlando Hernández government efforts to investigate the murder of Cáceres and her fellow activist Nelson Garcia (OHCHR 2016). As Blitzer in his article of April 11, 2016, in The New Yorker, pointed out that the Honduran regime claims to have the support of the FBI in its investigation of the murder was not true and the investigations were being conducted by a private investigator from New York. The fallout has even affected the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton where protesters have accused her of being responsible for the death of Cáceres due to Clinton’s involvement as Secretary of State in the U.S. government position not to call the overthrow of the Liberal Zelaya government in 2009 a coup (Pestano 2016).
Webber and Gordon state, the 2009 coup represented a consolidation of the neo-liberal agenda fused with militarism across the region from Columbia to Mexico (Webber and Gordon 2013, 18). Their research indicates that as neo-liberalism kicked into high gear in the 1990s, after all threats from the leftist groups in neighboring states had been defeated or otherwise neutralized, the Conservatives and Liberals implemented reforms that resulted in the dispossession of peasants of much of the gains from previous land reforms. People headed for the urban slums and the United States as rural poverty reached some 70% in the late 1990s (26). Maquiladoras expanded and in the slums gangs gained a foothold so that the conservative government under President Maduro was able to expand the military in a “war on gangs” (23-25, 32-33). “Violent crime has increased dramatically in Latin America in the wake of neoliberal restructuring. Central America is at the leading edge of this phenomenon” (32). Corruption in the government of Honduras with extends to the highest levels of the police force as well as prominent politicians as they have been implicated in the murder of the former Honduran Drug Czar in 2009 (Arce 2016).
Skipping this entire history, Grillo in his synopsis on the recent history of the Central American states glosses over the 1980’s leftist insurgency in El Salvador, the Sandinista overthrow of the U.S. backed dictatorship in Nicaragua, the brutal dictatorships in Guatemala, and the strongman rule in Honduras where he mentions the U.S. campaign against the Sandinista government under the Reagan administration which used the air base at Palmerola in Honduras to arm and support the Contras (Grillo 2016, 188-189). While mentioning the CIA backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, his three paragraph history lesson is boiled down to another pop cultural representation the Oliver Stone movie Salvador (189). While giving factual information, that he must assume readers are familiar with due to the briefness of his background briefing, the constant pandering to the reader with pop references, indicates a journalistic bias that assumes the reader will be lost or bored, without entertaining cultural titbits. Where Grillo has an interesting use of pop culture is in his identification of certain gang names and symbols with pop culture such as the relationship between the El Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha with a movie starring Charlton Heston The Naked Jungle, translated in Spanish as ‘Cuando Ruge la Marabunta” which translates as “When the Ants Roar” thus the Maras are a group of friends who gather together like ants in a mutual protection society Grillo gets his information from an anthropologist Juan Martinez (189-200). While this and other rather trivial information, such as how the Maras were originally associated with heavy metal culture in Los Angeles, where the gang formed among refugee and immigrant youth in the 1980’s, such trivial is not a substitute for a deeper analysis of the background of the conditions in Central America (195-196). Revealing that the child immigrant wave of 2014 was a direct result of U.S. deportations of gang members in Los Angeles back to their countries of origin, does not tell the reader much about the underlying conditions there other than to say the wars of the 1980s led to a refugee population settling in Los Angeles (203-204). Facile arguments such as the gang members fought because they liked to, and as a way to establish a reputation among the gang, does not go far in explaining the persistence of the gangs or the economic drivers behind the attraction of the gangs (199).
Grillo does do a decent job in tracing the cultural roots of the gangs and the sociological attraction of being in a gang as a way to protect the recent immigrant youths in the potentially hostile streets of Los Angeles. A better analysis of the U.S. policy to deport plane loads of El Salvadoran gang members onto the impoverished streets of El Salvador after the 1992 truce between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the El Salvadorian government would have been useful. The short sighted U.S. policy, out of sight out of mind came back to haunt the U.S. with the exodus of the children in 2014 (185-186). Interesting factors also indicate that simply eliminating the gang wars with truces don’t necessarily work, as the short term results may be a dip in violence but quickly return to previous or higher levels (Katz and Amaya 2015). This would seem to indicate that the drivers for the violence is not a socially driven factor but has a strong economic driving force behind it and larger political dimensions that are not directly related to the immediate activities of individual gangs.
As the U.S. goes from one drug epidemic to another, with high grade heroin being the most popular in the news cycle of late (Ahmed 2015). The American appetite for drugs remains unabated and will not necessarily result in a decrease in the activities of the crime syndicates as drug legalization and harm reduction becomes increasingly the focus in the United States and other countries, witness the recent drug policy conference at the United Nations where the split between those who would double down on the punitive approach to drugs, were countered by the increasing view of the harm reduction parties who would reduce the violence resulting in something of an impasse (Glenza 2016). Clearly the policy of focusing on the war on drugs has been a disaster that has led to tine militarization of and occupation of poor communities around the world. If there was an intentional policy to oppress the poor around the world, the war on drugs could hardly have been improved upon. As neo-liberal practices have been increasingly causing disruption to traditional cultures and live styles around the world, there has been an increased disparity between the concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few, at the cost of social services in many countries, education, and traditional work opportunities, The results have been masses of young ambitious and desperate young men seeking out a path to follow their own aspirations to a better life. For thousands around the world and especially in Latin America that opportunity is in the cartels and the gangs.
Grillo describes the symptoms, and the personal stories of the actors, foot soldiers, tactical middle men and masterminds of this new world in which the alternative economy has emerged. His focus is on sensational descriptions with some background information for the casual reader with a focus on the criminal sociology of the gangs and cartels. The book was interesting in a tabloid journalistic sense, although having personal experience in the underground economy and with gang members the voyeuristic aspects of the book were not particularly interesting. Grillo does not propose particularly profound solutions but he is to be admired for his willingness to tread upon the paths local journalists have been reporting upon for years, describing the development of the underground economic and quasi-political response to the neo colonial and neo liberal policies of the wealthy elites of the world.
Ahmed, Azam. Aug. 29, 2015 Young Hands in Mexico Feed Growing U.S. Demand for Heroin. The New York Times. Accessed 2 April, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/world/americas/mexican-opium-production-rises- to-meet-heroin-demand-in-us.html?_r=0
Arce, Alberto. (April 22, 2016). Honduran Ex-Police Chief Says Government Faked Documents in Assassination Case. The New York Times. Accessed 24 April 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/world/americas/honduras-ramn-sabilln-pineda- police-antidrug-assassination.html?_r=0
Blitzer, Johnathan. (April 11, 2016).No Answers in the Murder of Berta Cáceres. The New Yorker. Accessed 22 April 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/no- answers-in-the-murder-of-berta-caceres
Glenza, Jessica (21 April 2016). Decriminalize all drugs, business and world leaders tell UN. The Guardian. Accessed 21 April 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/21/un-special -session-global-drug-policy- failure-critics-say
Global Witness (2015). How Many More? 2014’s deadly environment: the killing and intimidation of environmental and land activists, with a spotlight on Honduras. Global Witness Limited Accessed 22 April 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/
Katz, Charles Max and Amaya, Luis Enrique (2015) The gang truce as a form of violence intervention : implications for policy and practic. Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, San Salvador, El Salvador, América Central. ISBN 9789996149313 (E-Book, inglés, resumen)
Klein, Naomi. (2007). The Shock Doctrine The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
OHCHR. (22 April 2016). Honduras murders: UN Expert urges independent investigation into killings of rights defenders. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). Geneva. Accessed 22 April 2016. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19864&=E#st hash.pI5j67VO.dpuf
Pestano, Andrew V. (April 19, 2016). Why this protester is blaming Clinton for the murder of a Honduran activist. UPI. United Press International, Inc. Accessed 23 April 2016. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2016/04/19/Why-this-protester-is-blaming-Clinton- for-the-murder-of-a-Honduran-activist/8981460996811/
Webber, Jeffery R., and Todd Gordon. 2013. “Post-Coup Honduras: Latin America’s Corridor of Reaction.” Historical Materialism 21, no. 3: 16-56. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 24, 2016).
Womack, John Jr. (1999). Rebellion in Chiapas an historical reader. New York: The New Press.