Book review: Narcoland, By Anabel Hernández

The stark truth of a sham 'war'

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The Independent Culture

Anabel Hernández’s Los Señores del Narco was explosive when it was published in Mexico in 2010. The investigation into the country’s drug cartels and their links with the highest echelons of Mexican government sold 100,000 copies (a huge number for Mexico).

It led to Hernández, a journalist, receiving death threats; the National Human Rights Commission assigning her two full-time bodyguards; and her family being threatened by gunmen in January 2011. In a country where 56 journalists have been killed since Mexico began its “War on Drugs” in 2006, such threats are taken very seriously. 

A product of five years’ investigative reporting, Hernández’s meticulously researched explanation of the links between the Sinaloa cartel, the world’s biggest criminal organisation, and Mexico’s leadership makes for jaw-dropping reading.

One stand-out instance is her blow-by-blow account of the operation to free one of the world’s most powerful drug lords, Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, from Puente Grande prison in 2001. Contrary to the official line, that he escaped from the prison, Hernández writes that the event was carefully planned, he was given a police uniform as a disguise, and allowed to walk free – after sipping a celebratory drink of rum and cola.

More than 100,000 people are believed to have been killed in Mexico’s drug war, with a further 20,000 missing. But the estimates of the cost vary wildly, making Hernández’s weighty fact-driven narrative both refreshing and unnerving. That is not to say that she holds back on the sensational movie-style details of violence and excess which grab attention. But by naming names, and describing events in minute detail, Hernández is careful to remind her readers that this is reality, and people live and die by the repercussions of the drug industry.

The English translation of her work can be clunky at times, but Hernández’s passion for exposing corruption is still evident.

She describes Mexico as a “mafiocracy” – one that began with the government’s protection of the old Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s and continues with the protection of El Chapo’s Sinaloa syndicate today.

“Many of the politicians and businessmen that you will come across in the pages of this book are not mere spectres of the past,” Hernández writes.

“They are figures who still hold positions of power. As long as they remain in place, Mexico will continue to be Narcoland.”