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Heroin addicts in Tijuana, Mexico, some with Santa Muerte (Holy Death) tattoos, June 2009

With its terrible brutality and its death toll of nearly 60,000 lives in four years, the current Mexican drug war recalls two other periods of violence across the past two centuries of Mexican history: the War of Independence of 1810–1821 (and its long aftermath in the nineteenth century) and the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth, with their greater death tolls but equivalent ferocity. Politically motivated but expanding into a broader chaos, both of these previous outbreaks were stemmed by authoritarian governments, the first by the dictator Porfirio Díaz in the late nineteenth century, the second by the formation of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) in the 1930s, which created a powerful presidency, with a new candidate elevated every six years. It was a system that lasted till the end of the twentieth century. Such a solution from on high, from absolute authority, is no longer possible in the current, democratic Mexico.

The murder rate is statistically higher in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil, but in Mexico we are enduring a continual escalation of nearly unbelievable cruelty, with murder and torture a constant marked by decapitations, mutilations, kidnappings for profit, and mass executions. In the most afflicted areas, the criminal groups threaten to supplant local power with their displays of terror and volleys of bullets. In the era of YouTube and instant Internet news, it is a return to the past.

But it is not a sudden explosion, rather the result of a storm that has been gathering for decades, unforeseen and overwhelming. El Narco, by the English journalist Ioan Grillo, deals with the history and culture of this highly remunerative savagery. Its title is the term for the drug trade as well as for its individual agents, and Grillo presents a grim story and perceptive analyses clearly, with intelligent restraint, great courage, and a wealth of detail.

The roots of the drug trade go back to the end of the nineteenth century, in the west coast state of Sinaloa, over five hundred miles north of Mexico City. In what Grillo calls the Mexican Sicily, Chinese laborers, who had arrived to construct the new railroads, planted small fields of opium poppies in the fertile hills. By the 1930s local farmers had taken over these farms, persecuting, expelling, and often killing the Chinese.

Many of the major capos of El Narco were born in the 1950s in the hills of Sinaloa, like Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán, the son of a small grower of opium poppies and marijuana, who has earned a certain special fame as the only criminal on Forbes’ Billionaire List. By then, the cultivation of opium poppies had become a local tradition, practiced for generations and colloquially referred to as “the paste” (la goma). A Sinaloan baseball team boasted the name Los Gomeros.

A decisive moment came when, in 1976 and with American aid, the Mexican government sent planes and ten thousand soldiers to Sinaloa, destroying plantings and arresting hundreds of traffickers. Yet the real aim of the police and military was not to destroy the production and trafficking but rather to control it. According to reliable testimony collected in Los señores del narco (The Lords of the Drug Trade) by the Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, the initial arrangement consisted of collecting unofficial taxes from the producers and dealers, which were then used to combat the marginal leftist guerrillas of that era. And very soon, in a nondemocratic, intrinsically corrupt, and secretive “system,” as it came to be known, politicians, police, and the military began to see how drug profits (still far below present levels) could usefully grease many hands.

Hernández’s investigation into corruption complements Grillo’s more far-ranging book. She traces the collusion of government, law enforcement, and military figures with the narcos back at least to the 1970s. The señores to whom she refers are not only the narcos themselves but their accomplices in one government and government agency after another. Los señores del narco can be difficult to follow because of a somewhat disjointed structure and, more important, the lack of a very much needed index to guide us among its hundreds of names. Hernández’s information varies from insufficiently proven or unlikely assertions (especially about the highest reaches of the last two administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón) to a considerable quantity of reliable and valiant research, especially perceptive for the long years of PRI domination through the Carlos Salinas administration between 1988 and 1994. Her book has sold over 170,000 copies in Mexico and she now lives protected by bodyguards.

The 1980s were the years of the boom of cocaine in the US and an enormous surge in production, export, and cost-cutting on the US streets compensated by much greater sales, all of it initiated by the Colombian Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel. At the time, 90 percent of American consumption passed, by sea and air, from Colombia to Miami, with connections in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and money-laundering in Manuel Noriega’s Panama. In February 1985, the Americans were outraged by the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by narcos including a brother-in-law of Luis Eche-verría, the PRI president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976. Two important capos, sought as responsible, were captured and eventually extradited to the US.


But the trade also had received an unexpected boost from the activities of another US agency. In what came to be revealed as the Iran-contra affair, the Reagan government defied Congress and American public opinion, and the CIA became involved in the secret and complicated sale of arms to Iran (ostensibly the enemy of the US). As part of the intricate international cover-up, the Americans secretly collaborated with the narcos in moving significant shipments of cocaine through Honduras, with profits paying for the operations of the Nicaraguan contras.

Far closer and more substantial connections were being established between Mexican and Colombian drug dealers. As the DEA stepped up pressure on cocaine cultivation in Colombia and disrupted shipments of the product by sea, the Colombian narcos enlisted their Mexican counterparts to transport the drug overland to the US, for payment in cash.

Then, in a display of traditional Mexican diplomatic dexterity, this time by criminals, the Colombians were persuaded to make their payments to the Mexicans in cocaine, a deal they may have accepted in order to simplify and reduce their direct involvement. The Mexican cartels used the opportunity to take over much of the cocaine trade, extending their influence to the streets of the US. So much cocaine in transit flooded into Mexico that a portion (in contrast to earlier prohibitions among the narcos) was retained for domestic consumption. The result was a surge both in Mexican sales and addiction and in their consequent social problems: destroying lives and families, increasing corruption and recruitment, and encouraging (at the local level) the expansion of narco gangs into other areas of criminality, especially kidnappings for ransom and generalized extortion.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Castro executed several Cuban military officers accused of complicity in the drug trade. They may have been scapegoats. (Neither Grillo nor Hernández discusses the murky Cuban connection.) For whatever reasons, the Caribbean corridor basically closed down.

During the 1990s, President Salinas could still largely control the political, police, and military apparatus in dealing with the drug trade. Meanwhile, according to Grillo, his brother Raúl was piling up $500 million in Swiss bank accounts, from unexplained sources. After the signing of the NAFTA agreements of 1994, commerce, legal and illegal, swiftly grew between Mexico and the US. But the arrests of major traffickers under the administration of Ernesto Zedillo, between 1994 and 2000, seemed to indicate that the government still maintained a reasonable measure of control.

With the electoral defeat of the long-dominant PRI in 2000, Mexico became a democracy. The country now had a true division of powers, complete liberty of expression, free elections, and a law requiring transparency in the workings of the federal government. But there was one unexpected consequence. By ending the near-absolute control of the president, the new system strengthened local powers. The governors and mayors, the illegal force of the narcos and other criminal groups all became stronger. The stage was set for a tragic denouement.

In January 2001 the major Sinaloan capo “Shorty” Guzmán mysteriously escaped from a supposedly maximum-security prison. Hernández devotes much space to the details of the escape but is unconvincing in her attempt to trace the reasons for it all the way to figures close to President Vicente Fox. Yet she firmly establishes the complicity of lower-level prison officials, who were extravagantly paid to expedite Guzmán’s departure, and she offers fascinating details of Guzmán’s privileged circumstances in prison. He was able to rapidly convoke a summit meeting of the mostly Sinaloan narco bosses, his friends and relatives.

The result was an ephemeral “Federation” dedicated to “peace”—among narcos—and including what was now known as the Sinaloa cartel (headed by Guzmán and other confederates), the Juárez cartel directed by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the Beltrán Leyva group (cousins of “El Chapo” Guzman), and, from the state of Michoacán, a gang with a strange, Protestant fundamentalist ideology, La Familia Michoacana, who virtually created the large Mexican trade in methamphetamines, “hillbilly heroin,” a highly destructive drug then expanding its reach especially in the rural US. (Their hostile offshoot the Knights Templar—Caballeros Templarios—has been fighting its own barbaric local war with La Familia Michoacana and is now displacing them in Michoacán.)


The objective of the Federation was to present a united front against two powerful cartels: the Arellano Félix group in Tijuana and the Gulf cartel, headed by Osiel Cárdenas, whose ferocity is encapsuled in his nickname “Mata Amigos” (“Killer of Friends”). In 2002, Benjamín Arellano Félix was captured and extradited to the US, followed by the death of his brother Ramón, known for dissolving the bodies of his victims in acid. The Federation seemed to be consolidating itself and some believed that the government was favoring this older group, perhaps because it had more control over it.

But later in 2003, the Federation broke apart because of internal disputes. There were confrontations on two fronts: one was Ciudad Juárez, where the murder of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes (supposedly ordered by “El Chapo”) inflamed the already simmering mini-war between the Gulf cartel and the Federation. The other was in the city of Nuevo Laredo, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Gulf cartel. On assignment then for the Houston Chronicle, Ioan Grillo was there to report the story.

What he encountered was the bewildering rise of an originally small group of deserters from the Mexican army, who were hired by Osiel Cárdenas during the 1980s as enforcers for the Gulf cartel. They were elite troops trained in the United States, at sites like the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center of Fort Bragg, to fight against insurgents in Latin America. They called themselves the Zetas and would expand their numbers through recruiting first other deserters, then young men in the poorer areas of Mexico; finally they incorporated former Kaibiles, Guatemalan special forces well known for their horrific torture and murder of peasants and Indians during the Guatemalan civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. The group would eventually swell to ten thousand men. As Grillo notes, they thought more like mercenary soldiers than gangsters. Their objective was to control territory through terror—mass killings, decapitations and mutilations, propaganda displayed on crude banners, and a knowledgeable use of the Internet. They became adept at a whole range of criminal activities beyond trafficking in drugs.

Mike King

In January 2007, a few days after taking office during protests over his razor-thin victory, President Felipe Calderón declared a “War against the Narco” and ordered the army into his native state of Michoacán, to confront La Familia Michoacana. At first there were promising results with drug seizures and arrests. Then he decided to extend this “war,” not only for the safety of the public but also for political purposes: to achieve a legitimacy that many of the critics of his election denied him. But Calderón could not count, even remotely, on police forces or tactical military units like those of the US. His forces were often outgunned by the narcos; bringing in the Mexican army, a highly respected institution in Mexico, would eventually lead to cases of corruption and human rights abuses. According to polls, some 80 percent of Mexicans approved of using the military (without whose intervention there would have been no control over the narcos in the northern states). But many now feel that Calderón acted too swiftly, that he should have acquired much more information, planned a coherent strategy, and better focused the assaults on a trained and well-armed enemy. Grillo agrees with the critics: “Calderón may be honest,” he writes, “but he declared war on drug cartels with a rotten state apparatus, one that he could not fully control.”

The immediate result was a new narco summit conference and pact in August 2007, followed by the now usual breakup of the alliance. At the beginning of 2008 Mexico came to suffer the final intense catastrophe. A complicated gang war broke out, involving various cartels (linked to different local police contingents), as well as the Federal Police, navy assault forces, and units of the Mexican military.

From 2010 on, a number of gangs were decimated or weakened, to the benefit of the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas, who then faced off against each other in yet another merciless war. The two groups operate differently. The Sinaloa cartel, led by older figures like “El Chapo” and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, are concerned with the trafficking of drugs. The Zetas have much more varied interests. Led by the former soldier Heriberto Lazcano (“The Executioner”), who is thirty-eight years old, they have diversified into kidnappings for profit (of businessmen and professional people, but also of Mexican and Central American migrants), large-scale and systematic extortion, the corruption of local police who are often their allies against federal forces, and a truly enormous orgy of robbery from the pipelines of PEMEX, the state-owned oil company, amounting to $1 billion in lost revenue for the year 2011.

The Zetas have spread through a good portion of the country, like a dark stain of blood, from their origins in the northeast into states of the south and west. Grillo feels they are the greatest threat to the Mexican nation, a “narco-insurgence.” He is right about the danger they represent, but it seems wrong to call them an “insurgence.” In Colombia, for instance, one of the business connections of the narcos is with the FARC guerrillas. Nothing of the kind exists in Mexico. The Zetas are not interested in politics as such, or in directly governing, only in exploitation.

The purely historical portion of Grillo’s book is an account of forces competing (in concert or in deadly combat) for a roughly estimated market of $60 billion a year. About half, he estimates, goes directly to the narcos themselves. This murderous business found a propitious terrain in Mexico, not only because of its location on the border of the world’s most important drug market and arms exporter but because of the lack of opportunities that have attracted too many young Mexicans toward the criminal world. In one small but particularly chilling revelation, Grillo, while interviewing in the Ciudad Juárez prison, encounters a seventeen-year-old assassin for the local cartel, “El Frijol” (“The Bean”), and learns that the teenager’s fee for a murder was a mere $85 per victim.

Beyond the drug criminals themselves and their business of the “movement of narcotics…365 days a year,” El Narco has given rise to a culture of its own, partially based on the fact that Mexico—in contrast to many other countries of Latin America—has maintained an ancient familiarity with death. Today’s immensely popular narcocorridos—songs from the drug world—combine the Mexican traditions of reverence for the strong leader who is muy macho, fearless in the face of death, and for the “social bandit,” credited with resisting oppressive authority and favoring the poor at the expense of the rich, an image that some of the capos try to cultivate by distributing money in their communities.

Much of the story of the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century is enshrined in songs called corridos. Grillo provides a rapid but penetrating tour through this musical genre and its practitioners, for whom (as in so many aspects of the narco business) great rewards and great danger derive from the violent world they celebrate in their music. Sinaloa, the epicenter of narco culture, is the most important source and site of these ballads in rolling danceable rhythms, praising capos and bloody encounters. The capos like having corridos written about them and are willing to pay handsomely; the more famous the musician-composer, the more sumptuous the reward for his praise of narco success:

High-powered rifles,
Lots of money in my pockets…
They used to send me kilos,
Now they send me tons.

But there is always the danger that a particular ballad (especially one delivered on the turf of a rival) may be a performer’s swan song. “There is always the risk of dying,” says a musician linked with the Sinaloa cartel. “But it is better to be a star for a few years than live like a pauper for your whole life.”

Throughout Mexico, in the annual celebration of the Day of the Dead, the living gather at graves and invite their deceased relatives to share their food and songs and memories, to celebrate a continual union with the living. But the Day of the Dead takes place every day in the narco cemeteries of Sinaloa, the numbers of their lush and vulgar mausoleums, well described by Grillo, growing every year, with their Italian marble and their jewels inlaid in walls. Families may appear at any time honoring their dead gangster relatives with music and leisurely partying at the graveside.

And the violence has fostered religious devotion to figures like the bandit saint Jesús Malverde, portrayed as a mustached man in a white suit, and the worship of death itself, as a personified figure. A mythicized Robin Hood supposed to have lived during the reign of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, Jesús Malverde has long been venerated in Sinaloa but his cult has grown swiftly during the drug wars. He is not an official saint of the Church but, says Grillo, “priests do not rail hard against him either.” And the narcos love him, as they do a far more macabre figure, the elaborately costumed skeleton image of Santa Muerte (Holy Death), whose public worship has arisen and vastly expanded in less than a decade.

Mexican police sometimes identify mutilated bodies dumped in public as those of narcos because they show the tattooed image of Santa Muerte herself on their bodies. But her cult has drawn the veneration of many Mexicans with no connection to crime. Her power is the power of death (she carries the scythe of the grim reaper) and she is said to have over two million devotees in Mexico and other countries influenced by the Mexican narco culture. The official Church condemns the cult but her followers still consider themselves Catholic, while the narcos among them have taken her as their own goddess and often ask her protection before embarking on murder.

After the lame-duck presidency of Felipe Calderón comes to an end in December, the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, will mark the return to power of the PRI and claims to represent a reformed and invigorated party and to be most concerned with improving public safety. He has announced that he will appoint, as a principal adviser, the retired Colombian general Oscar Naranjo. With thirty-six years of experience, Naranjo is much respected and has had an important part in reducing the level of violence in his country. But he will have to deal with a fundamental problem. As compared to Colombia’s, Mexico’s various police forces lack public respect, a reputation for honesty (even if there are of course a number of honest officers), and traditions of professionalism. They are generally poorly paid and often inadequately trained and equipped, though a reformed, better-paid and -trained national police is already being developed (while more reliable local forces are also needed to deal with local problems).

But aside from increased funding and intelligence gathering, the new president will need a political consensus and social participation that will not be easy to achieve, given the lack of confidence inspired by the PRI’s well-known past arrangements with the narcos. And Mexico needs many other reforms, in matters like the slow and inefficient apparatus of justice, greater military control of its porous borders and reform of its corrupt penitentiaries, which are true universities of crime, not only for recruitment but as centers from which prisoners plan their activities and even extort money directly through telephone threats, to be collected by their allies outside the walls.

US experience in Colombia raises various questions relevant to Mexico. For one, can both extreme violence and the drug trade itself be fought at the same time? Colombia has had significant though limited success in fighting narco violence, but Colombian criminals continue to export huge quantities of cocaine, and they have extended their cultivation of coca into neighboring countries, especially Peru.

Many Mexicans are more concerned with violence than with curtailing the trade. Will they permit a greater collaboration with the law enforcement forces of the United States, as has Colombia? Much will depend on the state of public feeling and the skills of Mexican diplomacy, especially since the power of the US gun lobby has prevented any significant control over the flow of weaponry across the border.

Then there is the issue of legalizing drugs to cut the profits of the narcos. Grillo praises the various former Latin American presidents who have come out in favor of the legalization of marijuana and perhaps other drugs. Many Mexicans agree but there is little prospect, at present, that even marijuana will be fully decriminalized in the US despite the semilegalized use of medical marijuana in twenty states and Washington, D.C. In line with Hernández’s arguments in her final chapter, Mexicans would approve a much greater concentration on policing the flow of drug money, especially money-laundering by both US and Mexican banks.

All three of the major candidates for president in the July 1 election favored closer contact between the police of both countries. This cannot involve American troops or Mexico ceding sovereignty but would require Mexicans to overcome our traditional (and often valid) hesitancy about any presence of American power on Mexican soil. In addition to the strength and expansion of Mexican criminals in the US retail trade (and evidence of cartel marijuana farms on the northern side of the border), Grillo notes a further danger the US should consider:


Where an illegal drug trade worth billions exists, rebel groups are going to tap into it. Sometimes they can be allies of the United States, such as the contras or Northern Alliance; in other cases they can be enemies, such as Colombia’s FARC or the Taliban. One day this money could fall into the hands of even more dangerous adversaries.

In Mexico, organized grassroots opposition to present anti-narco policies can be found especially in the Movement for Peace led by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered by narcos, or such isolated instances as the resistance of the traditionally militant Indian community of Cherán in Michoacán, who have expelled their corrupt police force and now, in continual danger, patrol their own community against illegal loggers protected by local narcos. But the spread of the Mexican drug trade to Central and Latin America with connections in other continents is a worldwide danger. We will soon see what the new Mexican government can accomplish toward a long-term program, before it grows even further out of control and not only in Mexico.

—August 29, 2012