Review: El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency

I recently wrote a term paper on the links between the rise of illegal drug cultivation and increasing neoliberalization in Mexico. (Oh, grad school.) It was a complex and completely engrossing subject, and the more I read about it, the more I shared this knowledge with my parents over the phone. (For instance, a Mexican campesino can receive 10,000 pesos for one kg of opium versus 4 pesos for a kg of corn, and illegal drug cultivation potentially employs 300,000 campesinos.)


Knowing of my interest in the cartels of Mexico, my dad gave me El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency for Christmas.  Written by Ioan Grillo, a veteran journalist based in Mexico City, the book strives to answer the questions, “Who is el narco? Where did he come from? What does he want? And how has he changed the political, economic, and social atmospheres in Mexico and the U.S.?”

For the most part, I thought Grillo did an admirable job of tackling those questions. Looking at the current cartel situation in Mexico through the framework of an insurgency, rather than just a criminal network, was eye-opening for me–as was Grillo’s explanation for why both Mexico and the international community hesitate to use those terms. Descriptions of cartel recruiting tactics (get them while they’re young and poor) and assassination techniques were among the more heart-breaking sections of the book.

Among the most interesting chapters for me were those that covered how religion and popular culture in Mexico had changed in reaction to narcotrafficking. While it makes sense that people will turn to both of those areas in times of extreme violence and fear, I had never really connected them to the influence of drug cartels, until Grillo made those connections for me. The rise of Santa Muerte (the Holy Death) and corridos (ballads) exalting drug culture are a direction reflection of the pervasiveness of el narco, and a testament to how difficult it is to ever truly win the War on Drugs.

One quibble: I reacted very negatively to Grillo’s occasionally lighthearted tone. For example, he would often refer to the severed heads of cartel murder victims as “craniums.” Which, okay, I get that it’s a synonym for “heads,” but it was honestly distracting and perhaps a bit dehumanizing. There were also some odd little quips sometimes tossed at the ends of paragraphs. I understand that some gallows humor must be necessary if you are going to keep your sanity while writing about drug cartels, but it felt misplaced in what was otherwise a serious and well-researched text.

Finding books in English about Mexican narcotrafficking is tough, and finding unbiased or thorough ones is even tougher.   Anyone who is interested in learning about the history and evolution of Mexican drug cartels would be hard-pressed to find a more up-to-date and thoughtful treatment than El Narco.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars out of five

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