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Review of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” by Ioan Grillo


Surely, by now, you’ve seen one of the horrible headlines. Bodies were found in Sinaloa. Or authorities suspect hundreds of tons of drugs were snuck across the border. Or there was yet another shootout between Mexican Marines and Zetas gunmen, and this time the cartel gunmen had an anti-aircraft cannon. The facts behind those stories, the cartels, people, and stories behind them, are what El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency is about.

I’ll admit, the drug war is an issue that I find quite interesting, as you probably gathered from my review of Narconomics and my discussion of why drug legalization might be needed, given that prohibition of substances has been impossible since the Garden of Eden.

But El Narco is a special book because it is different than the others, for reasons I’ll discuss in my summary and review of it. Not all of those differences are better than other books, but they do separate if from the pack. Through the stories he chooses to tell and how he tells them, Ioan Grillo, a British journalist that moved to Mexico in the 1990s to report on the drug war, is able to construct a unique narrative about the drug war that drives home the brutality and personal nature of it.

Summary of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo

In El Narco, Grillo does something that few other authors about drug-war related topics do; he makes it personal, but widely so. Rather than just focus on one kingpin in Columbia or Sinaloa, one particularly earnest DEA agent, the views of an American or Mexican bureaucrat, Grillo interviewed all types of people and filled the book with their stories.

The introduction, for example, tells the tale of a former cartel hitman who found salvation through Jesus Christ in prison and turned away from his life of brutality and murder. Grillo informs the reader of the many heinous crimes that hitman, Gonzalo, committed, but also shares how he realized the error of his ways and turned towards Christianity.

Then, Grillo jumps to the roots of the drug war; opium poppies that Chinese immigrants brought to the New World when they migrated here in vast numbers in the late 1800s. Not only did they bring their labor, they also brought a plant that made a highly effective, but also highly addictive medicine- morphine. That choice spawned the entire drug war.

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Part I of “El Narco“: The History of the Mexican Cartels

The first chapter of Part I, “Poppies,” sets the format of El Narco. Grillo gives a broad description of how that drug transformed Sinaloa, then delves into the personal lives and stories of Mexico’s first drug smugglers, the American agency and bureaucrat who outlawed drugs like cocaine and opium during the Wilson Administration, and how those stories transformed the region. Banditos, smugglers, farmers, and special agents all had a role to play, much like today.

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From there, Grillo moves into the subject that most of El Narco is about; the modern drug war and its various aspects. In Part I, “History,” Grillo tells the stories of how the first cartels in Mexico formed, how they became so powerful, and how, as they fractured and splintered after the arrest of Miguel Felix, the founder of the famous Sinaloa cartel, drug smugglers gradually became warlords.

To tell those stories, Grillo follows the pattern set in the first chapter; he gives a broad overview and then tells the personal stories of individuals involved in every aspect of the drug war in Mexico.

For example, he shows how the Calderon administration’s military-centric approach to the cartels spawned a massive cycle of violence, where cartel hitmen would regularly fire hundreds of 7.62mm AK-47 into police cruisers and pickup trucks and Mexican Marines and federales would launch massive raids to capture or kill cartel hitmen and kingpins. He tells the stories of civilians caught in the crossfire as Mexican military personal fired into cartel-owned buildings and cartel thugs hurled back dozens of grenades and he tells the stories of combatants on both sides of a drug-focused civil war that has killed tens of thousands and even led to armed gunmen fighting alongside and across the American border, making it a crucial national security concern.

Even more importantly, Grillo shows in El Narco how the splintering of the cartels turned them into armed groups that resemble private armies. In his view, as more and more cartels broke away from the main Sinaloa cartel, they were then forced to battle over territory. To best their competitors, they turned to high-end weaponry and leeching away military personnel. The infamous Los Zetas cartel, for example, pioneered the use of heavily armed squads of former special forces troops.

sinaloa cartel in el narco
The fracturing of the Sinaloa Cartel spawned horrific violence

But they don’t just rely on those troops, they also rely on child soldiers growing up in slums of cities like Juarez. The only high paying job is to kill for the cartels, so teenagers, recruited by other children in their neighborhood, take up arms for their chosen cartel and battle it out on street corners every day, turning cinderblock-dominated street blocks in Juarez into scenes reminiscent of Stalingrad.

To craft that narrative, Grillo relies on his interviews with cops, hitmen, child soldiers, and horrified civilians.

Part II: The Anatomy of a Cartel

From there, Grillo transitions to describing the anatomy of the Mexican cartels in Part II of El Narco. He uses the stories of smugglers and border agents to describe how they traffic their product to America, tells the tales of cops and gunmen why murder is such an integral part of life in a cartel and how the cartels use training camps and murder fields to blood in their child soldiers and mercenaries, the songs and stories of rappers and bands that have written commissioned songs for kingpins and solidified the violent nature of cartels, and relates how faith, whether in the form of a twisted version of Christianity or belief in the goddess of death, relates to cartel culture.

But there is one piece of Part II, the final chapter, that is particularly interesting and important. That is the chapter on whether the cartels and their war with the Mexican government is an insurgency. US politicians, from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, have, at times, labeled them as such. Members of the Mexican government is hesitant to do so, given the implications of having a powerful insurgency in their nation.

However, it looks like Clinton and Trump were right, at least in Grillo’s view in El Narco. The cartels hold and control territory. They’ve taken over the functions of the state in some areas. In many cases, albeit not all, they outgun the state’s forces and can defeat them in battle, as we saw when Mexican soldiers tried to capture El Chapo’s son (note: that occurred after El Narco was written).

And, most worryingly, the cartels can often act with impunity; they can extort, murder, and traffic their illegal product without any interference from the Mexican state. While they might not have a particular ideology they subscribe to, they do seem to be a new type of insurgency; a criminal insurgency that wants to weaken or destroy the state not because of ideology, but because of profit.

Part III: The Destiny of the Drug War

Finally, Grillo gives his view on where the drug war is going and how it could turn how. He describes the intractable problem of corruption in the Mexican Army and police forces, the diversification of the cartels towards other criminal activities like smuggling humans and extorting Mexico’s middle class, and how the global expansion of the cartels has changed things.

Like the previous parts of El Narco, this section also relies heavily on interviews used to support broad narratives about the drug war and policing.

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My Opinion on El Narco: A Great Book, Albeit One not Without Its Flaws

The Good:

Overall, I thought El Narco was excellent. In most sections, Grillo’s experience as a reporter shines through and he gives the reader the facts without too much commentary.

And those facts and stories are both incredibly interesting and gut-wrenchingly terrifying. His description in Part III of how the cartels are moving into America is particularly frightening, especially when the implications of having transnational biker gangs and armed forces that are connected to the cartels are considered. They even have hitmen on their payroll that operate in many cities along the border!

Cartel gunmen like the ones described in El Narco
Cartel gunmen like the ones described in El Narco

Relatedly, I found Grillo’s method of writing and storytelling particularly effective. Normally, I don’t enjoy reading books that rely heavily on the stories of individuals rather than on broad narratives and research reports or other books to support those narratives. But, in El Narco, it works. Because the drug war is so fragmented and personal, the stories that Grillo chose to use are quite effective and enable him to give a holistic depiction of the drug war in Mexico. I found the stories of the hitmen and child soldiers particularly informative and novel, as most stories are told by the good guys, such as DEA agents, who don’t have to worry as much about giving their perspective.

Furthermore, the personal nature of El Narco helps Grillo drive home the brutality of the drug war. Hearing about the grenade battles between Mexican cops and Zetas or Gulf Cartel gunmen is far more interested when told by people who were there for those battles than when reported in a sterile fashion by a government agency or news station. And when he tells stories of cartels hacking of heads and limbs, the fact that those stories come from real people makes them all the more sickening and engrossing; it’s important to remember that real people do those things, not phantom enemies and monsters.

So, generally, El Narco is excellent. It will teach you about the brutality of the drug war and how it is being fought and experienced by people on all sides of the subject.

The Bad:

However, there were a few aspects of El Narco that I thought were problematic.

The first was the casual nature of some of Grillo’s reporting on violence. For example, he refers to bullets as “caps,” so when describing dead cops or civilians, he says they’re “full of caps.” He’s a reporter, not a gangster. Bullets are bullets, not caps. There are other examples of him using casual language when describing horrible subjects, but that was the most egregious. Perhaps it isn’t too much of a problem, but it did always draw my attention away from whatever subject he was trying to describe and, for that reason, detracted from the book.

The other problem is that sometimes, when giving his take on potential solutions for the crisis, he doesn’t think through everything he recommends. The best example of that is the role that American guns play in the conflict. He is right in saying that they undoubtedly play a part, but doesn’t give a reasonable solution. His perspective is that America, or, more specifically, American gun culture, is entirely to blame and America needs to limit what guns can be bought and sold.

Gun control never works. Whether a Texas gunshop can sell real AR-15s or the useless California versions makes no difference; the cartels will get the weapons they need because they have no compulsions about breaking the law. He blames our right to keep and bear arms, but doesn’t consider the possibility of encouraging the Mexican government to make it easier for law-abiding Mexican citizens to own weapons and defend themselves. In my opinion, that is the solution for violent crime. Perhaps if some of the innocent victims of cartel violence were armed they would have been able to fight off their attackers. No solution can be all-encompassing, but Grillo seems to have thought little about alternatives.

Similarly, when describing drug legalization in El Narco, Grillo is not particularly imaginative. He says it might work and describes some of the benefits and problems, but only really focuses on marijuana. Why not also cocaine and other hard drugs? How would legalization of those impact cartels? His description of drug legalization is better than his sections on gun control, but still leaves much to be desired.

Those problems are relatively minor; they relate to a very small fraction of El Narco. But, they are problems nonetheless and are flaws in Grillo’s otherwise excellent book.

Conclusion: Read El Narco

I think that most Americans would be better off if they read El Narco, despite its flaws.

For one, it drives home the brutality of the drug war and the suffering inflicted on innocent people, especially Mexican civilians, because of it. Perhaps if more people understood the violent nature of the cartels, they would be less willing to continually buy drugs and send that money to armed groups that are using the money to massacre police officers and send child soldiers into battle.

el narco: los zetas
Money spent on drugs supports these Los Zetas gunmen

Unlike some other conservatives, I have no philosophical problem with drug use. But I do have a problem with sending money to insurgent groups that massacre civilians and law enforcement officers. Maybe reading a book like El Narco that details the horrific crimes of the cartels would turn Americans away from drug use, or towards pushing to legalize drugs so that law-abiding companies can make them rather than gangs of criminals and sadists.

If you have time, read El Narco and recommend it to someone you know. It’s a book about an important subject that America needs to approach in a realistic light, especially now that Biden is letting in thousands of migrants that might have cartel ties.

By: Gen Z Conservative