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El Narco, By Ioan Grillo


There have been more than 34,000 casualties in the Mexican drug war of the past decade. For a criminal conspiracy, the numbers beggar belief. It has been too easy for the world to step back and blame endemic Mexican violence and the American appetite for drugs.

In his recent Amexica, Ed Vulliamy provided a brilliant, detailed account of operations on the ground. Now Ioan Grillo steps back to take the longer view. How did we get here, given that "Mexico is not Somalia but an advanced country with a trillion-dollar economy and 11 billionaires in the Forbes list"?

In 2000, Mexico was coming out of its long embrace with the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party which had ruled for more than 70 years. More democratic presidents promised a fresh approach. But in 2006, President Calderón, with US encouragement, declared the "war on drugs" and a low-level problem escalated exponentially. Criminals who had once been drug smugglers turned into death squads. Schools were attacked. Families were massacred in revenge killings. Severed heads were rolled onto dance floors as messages to would-be opponents.

Grillo has achieved extraordinary access to gangsters and police (often the same people). He shows how the Mexican drugs business originally began on the west coast in Sinaloa, where conditions for growing opium poppies and marijuana were ideal, as immigrant Chinese labourers discovered in the 19th century. Mexicans expropriated their business, with accompanying ethnic violence, and by the 1960s were feeding their US neighbours' growing demand.

Nixon launched a campaign to eradicate the crops. All this achieved was the creation of a new market in Colombia. Central America became one large, extended narco-state.

Even in the carnage there are some moments of black humour. One DEA agent had set up a sting in Panama for several tons of cocaine, which he was going to ship to the US for one of the cartels. It had taken him months to be accepted by the gangsters. Then the movie of Miami Vice opened in Panama. The plot had Crockett and Tubbs using precisely the same technique: "If the gangsters saw it, the DEA agent thought, he was dead."