Monday, 12 August 2013

A searing, riveting portrait of the Mexican Drug War in El Narco

From The Week of August 5th, 2013

Nations have narratives, a collection of facts and theories, stories and biases, that coalesce, over decades, into a fundamental mythology that is programmed into most, if not all, of its citizens. For successful nations, this is a largely positive outcome, primarily because it re-enforces those ennobled traits that have purportedly empowered them to the top of the heap. Yes, this comes at the expense of absolute truth, but this is a relatively small price to pay for having such a high bar set for subsequent generations. However, for nations who haven't enjoyed such success, this same mechanism re-enforces a sense of chaos and failure, a toxic stew that embitters all but the most pure of heart.

All of this belief is predicated on the notion that these mythologies are accurate, that they have tangible meaning for those alive today, but what if they don't? What if the fates of nations are determined less by the individual actions of those involved, but by a combination of environmental and circumstantial factors now centuries in the past? For failing states, such a train would be hard to turn around, especially in our modern world in which results are expected to be immediate. And yet, what else is there but to try? Ioan Grillo, here, documents just such an attempt.

For generations, Mexico has been a nation teetering on the brink of catastrophe. For much of its history, these crises were political in nature, as powerful men drew upon the destructiveness of armies to exert their will upon a country troubled by the noxious legacy of Spanish conquest. More recently, though, particularly as Mexico has made the slow, stuttering transition to democracy, these existential challenges have shifted into the much more complicated arenas of economics and social policy which possess contradictions and dilemmas that not even successful nations have ironed out. Unstable currencies, corrupted police forces and concentrated wealth have all taken their toll. And yet, combined, it is difficult to imagine them causing as much damage as Mexico's position on illegal drugs.

Unwisely taking its cue from the United States, Mexico has attempted to prohibit the sale of marijuana and narcotics in its country. But unlike the US, where stable judiciaries and largely honorable police forces keep the trade largely confined to ghettos and dark street corners, Mexico has been overwhelmed on three fronts: by a warmer climate agreeable to plantation of such crops, by widespread poverty that guarantees a steady supply of desperate souls who turn their hands to cultivating them, and by its proximity to South-American nations from which these drugs can profitably flow north and into the United States. Together, this mixed bag of incentives and misfortune has plunged Mexico into a war with a powerful group of highly trained, borderline psychotic, and profoundly motivated insurgents who will stop at nothing, not even butchery, to maintain their hold over an unfathomably profitable trade.

In El Narco, Mr. Grillo investigates these cartels. And by interviewing both its members and its victims, he creates a deeply moving portrait of Mexican life that has been transformed by thirty years of growing strife and deepening social divisions that are ripping the country apart. Seeing before them the most enticing of dangling carrots, the cartels have seized upon a means of acquiring wealth and power that is as old as civilization. And yet, through his narration of the unimaginable cruelty and depravity of their crimes, the author convinces us that the Mexican cartels are newer, more nightmarish beasts that have been nourished not only by Mexico's troubled present, but by its turbulent past in which infighting and discord prevented it from joining the United States in the league of thriving nations.

But while the cartels understandably occupy the core of this work, El Narco's most revelatory and wrenching passages are reserved for those who have had their lives shattered by them. From families forced to participate because of the sheer, dumb randomness of living in the wrong part of Mexico, to innocents who have been caught up and gunned down in the crossfire between the cartels and the Mexican army, and even to the men and women who have been raped and killed as a result of this terrible war, El Narco is a shattering demonstration of the randomness of life, of its preciousness, and of how quickly it can be snatched away. Granted, most of us do not need reminders of the fitfulness of the spark of life, and yet, it is something entirely else to see the blood and the pain spilled out over these 320 pages, to comprehend the twin cancers of grief and nihilism that grow from it. Their stories are impossible to turn away from.

There are no policy positions here. Mr. Grillo certainly seems sympathetic to those who argue for legalization, but how could he not? For while, to us, this may be an academic debate, albeit one steeped in bias and political ideology, prohibition is, for him, a remedy for a bloodbath. Legalization would undoubtedly de-fund the cartels to an extraordinary degree. And that the US has pressured Mexico not to do this out of its own cowardly self-interest, and that Mexico has itself not summoned the courage to do it on its own, is nothing less than a crime against humanity, an unwillingness to acknowledge the terrible cost of preventing people from doing as they choose so long as they do not harm anyone else in the doing. Other than this, though, Mr. Grillo chooses not to editorialize on guns, politics, or culture which, though consequential, seem almost shallow compared to the human stories that fill these pages.

Searing and mesmerizing... An absolute must-read... (5/5 Stars)

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