Review | Gangster Warlords: Drugs Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America – Ioan Grillo

About the Book

In a ranch south of Texas, the man known as The Executioner dumps five hundred body parts in metal barrels. In Brazil’s biggest city, a mysterious prisoner orders hit-men to gun down forty-one police officers and prison guards in two days. In southern Mexico, a meth maker is venerated as a saint while enforcing Old Testament justice on his enemies.

A new kind of criminal kingpin has arisen: part CEO, part terrorist, and part rock star, unleashing guerrilla attacks, strong-arming governments, and taking over much of the world’s trade in narcotics, guns, and humans. What they do affects you now–from the gas in your car, to the gold in your jewelry, to the tens of thousands of Latin Americans calling for refugee status in the U.S. Gangster Warlords is the first definitive account of the crime wars now wracking Central and South America and the Caribbean, regions largely abandoned by the U.S. after the Cold War. Author of the critically acclaimed El Narco, Ioan Grillo has covered Latin America since 2001 and gained access to every level of the cartel chain of command in what he calls the new battlefields of the Americas. Moving between militia-controlled ghettos and the halls of top policy-makers, Grillo provides a disturbing new understanding of a war that has spiraled out of control–one that people across the political spectrum need to confront now.

359 pages (kindle)
Published on January 19, 2016
Buy the book

I think part of the problem with the world today is that we all know a lot of stuff but we don’t really understand the things we know. What I mean by this is, I know there is an issue with immigration and people flocking to the Southern border of the United States. I know that countries below the US have problems I can’t even wrap my head around, and I know it takes a certain kind of desperation I’ve never felt, to uproot an entire family and move them somewhere you’ve never been, and travel fueled by a vague hope that maybe up there, things will be different. 

I know the facts. 

I do not understand.

And I think this book, Gangster Warlords, really is my first big step in trying to understand the dynamics in areas that I know the talking points about, on a much more in depth, human level. Ioan Grillo is an investigative journalist who has been reporting largely on the drug trade in Latin America since 2001. He knows his way around the industry, and has a birds eye view of the conflicts that so many of us just don’t. He’s watched this new kind of criminal rise up, and he’s watched them transform the social and political landscape of various Latin American countries. He knows how to write about all of this in a way that some bumbkin like myself can understand it, and not just understand it, but internalize it in a way I might not otherwise be able to.

Grillo focuses on a few different regions, namely Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala, Brazil, and some others. Each of these areas is run a bit differently, but what binds the narrative together, really, is the business that drives them all: drugs. Specifically, cheap drugs that make a big profit once they make it north of the border, into the United States, where prices skyrocket. What goes for a dollar in a favela in Brazil, for example, will sell for $250 in New York. There are numerous factors that gave rise to this new kind of criminal organization, which he details nicely in the book.

“But as we look back on the last two decades, we can identify clear causes of the new conflicts. The collapse of military dictatorships and guerrilla armies left stockpiles of weapons and soldiers searching for a new payroll. Emerging democracies are plagued by weakness and corruption. A key element is the failure to build working justice systems. International policy focused on markets and elections but missed this third crucial element in making functional democracies: the rule of law. The omission has cost many lives.”

Essentially, these drug cartels and the wars they start and the turf they claim are all in on the business, so rather than just your typical criminal, you have an entire criminal class that has risen up and meshed CEO and gangster warlord together into this toxic stew that is tearing apart an entire region of the world, and leaving a bloody swath of destruction and sadness behind. Ultimately, this book shows the truth that there are no winners in war, regardless of what reasons that war is fought for.

The dynamic, however, was interesting to me, as many of these organizations have learned how to survive, or at least coexist, with the people who live on the land they claim as theirs. For example, in favelas in Brazil, the cartels will pay for things like roads, and electricity, protection and the like. In exchange, the people who live in their favela will not turn them over to the police when the police come knocking, and similar exchanges happen all over. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. The negative is that just about everyone takes part in the drugs. They are cheap and everywhere, and since there’s very few opportunities and you have to leave the favela to get a decent education and what have you, a lot of people end up working for the cartel/gang/whatever that is lording over their particular area, and most of them have seen firefights by the time they are in their teens. There aren’t enough opportunities elsewhere to make the easy money they find with the home crew worth the risk.

And with all this back and forth of loyalty and, in some cases, fear, it’s hard for officials to fight these criminals. Cartels, in essence, become their own law and their own police force. Their own mini-nations within nations and they can be nearly impossible to crack. How do you fight something that has become systemic? As the author succinctly puts it: 

“This creates another paradox of Latin America’s crime wars. Prisons are meant to stop gangsters from committing crimes. But they became their headquarters.”

There are also manifestos, where entire criminal organizations have books and pamphlets written detailing the rules and style of their particular organization. A sort of criminal code of ethics, if you will. This manifesto is often what attracts young people to the industry. It gives them a sense of belonging, a feel like they exist in an organization that has rules and stipulations, that has a code of conduct. In exchange, they are always busy doing something, they make lots of money, and they can basically get high whenever they want. 

This, of course, is not standard across all lines. Some organizations have no interest in maintaining roads, or protecting people. Some are more prone to marching people out to the middle of a field and dumping their bodies in a mysterious ditch somewhere. There are entire swaths cut across some areas, full of unnamed bodies. Parents who saw their children marched out for no real reason, knowing that they’d never see them again. The list of the missing, especially along certain cartel territories in Mexico, Honduras, el Salvatore and the like, are long indeed. 

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has been known as the murder capital of the world, and there’s a reason for that. For a long time, it was where a war was taking place. There are other regions of Mexico where cartels have gone to war, and lots of people died. The reason I point this out is because, to my mind, I haven’t ever really thought of this as an actual war. Violent? Battles? Gang fights? Sure, but I never really conceptualized any of this as a “war” in my head. However, with the way Gallo describes the scene, all it’s lacking is the official declaration. If these hotspots were declared war zones, the entire way people could help sort these issues out would change. It would give nations power that they do not currently have. So why don’t they? Well, there are reasons for that, too.

There are intricacies, and parts of the social equation that I’d never really thought about before. For example, how does one fully combat these drug issues, when drugs make so much money for people who would likely not have anything without them? How do you keep people from running drugs, when the United States is the biggest buyer, and we pay so much for what they offer? It’s a problem that goes both ways, and there are no easy solutions, because without demand, there would be no reason to supply. 

“Between the dawn of the new millennium and 2010, more than a million people across Latin America and the Caribbean were murdered. It’s a cocaine-fueled holocaust.”

What surprised me, mostly, was just how imbedded into the social structure of certain regions these organizations have become. In some areas, everyone is involved in some way, even if it’s just tangentially, because it’s literally impossible not to be connected somehow, and often, the only way to get away from all of it, is by running, which can put you in very real danger. Kids get conscripted as young as possible, which will keep parents in place. The government can be taking a piece of the pie. Loyalty may be a fraught topic, but sometimes it’s easier to just keep your head down and hope no one notices you. 

Gallo’s reporting is really state of the art, and he goes out on a whole lot of limbs and risks everything to get the interviews he gets. Sometimes they are with people who refuse to be identified, but in a few cases he sits down with the head guy of huge organizations, and interviews them about how they operate. Or he’ll talk to assassins, or just kids manning the proverbial gate. Just about anyone, and while I bet it was an absolutely terrifying thing to do, it paid off because it gives readers an insider’s view of a topic that is so complex, and so multilayered and deep. I felt, by the time I ended this book, that nothing is what it seems. While this is a dark subject, and it often portrays dark deeds, it really does a great job at showing just how much I don’t understand, and how little I actually know. 

I don’t have a clue.

We like to boil down immigration into good and bad, but this book shows that so much of what is pushing people north, is the very thing they are trying to get away from, and it’s all over up here, too. There are no easy answers, and there are none presented in these pages. The fact is, the cartels would not exist without the drugs the United States buys from them. I don’t have any solutions, but I did leave this book with a new understanding of just how two-sided this issue is. I fundamentally believe that we need more in-depth journalism like this to reach into the American consciousness. 

5/5 stars


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