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Anabel Hernández's 'Narcoland' Is a Definitive Work on Cartel History

Behind the rhetoric of the drug war and the feverish promises of politicians lies an incredible network of corruption that has turned one of the world's most notorious criminals into one of its most powerful men.

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers

Publisher: Verso
Length: 304 pages
Author: Anabel Hernández
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-09

Since 2006, more than 80,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war. The majority of these deaths fell under the presidency of Felipe Calderón, who left office in December 2012. What Anabel Hernández uncovers in Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers is a complicated genealogy of Mexico's drug war that recreates the events and trends that have led to one of longest, bloodiest conflicts in the last century. Alternating between strict examination of evidence and savvy interviews with informants, Hernández's is a definitive work on cartel history.

At the outset of Narcoland, we meet infamous cartel boss Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo. Head of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzmán is more than just another gangster. Forbes magazine named him the world's most powerful drug trafficker in 2012, calling him the "CEO of the Sinaloa cartel". A consummate journalist, Hernández wants to know more than just how El Chapo runs business. She devotes her resources to understanding how he can run business in a country that is purportedly conducting a massive war against drugs and drug cartels.

The starting point for this exploration, and indeed much of Narcoland, is Guzmán's 2001 escape from maximum security Puente Grande prison. The drug lord had been captured in Guatemela in 1993, convicted of multiple drug trafficking and bribery charges, and then transferred to the Jalisco federal prison in 1995. How he simply disappeared one day from his cell became the object of much speculation in the Mexican press. While newspapers reported that Guzmán had escaped in a laundry cart, Hernández eschews these tall tales and demonstrates the collusion of high-ranking government officials in the escape.

Corruption is everywhere in Narcoland from this moment forward. Instead of following a strict chronological structure, Hernández opts to relate key moments in cartel history to contemporary developments in the war on drugs. For instance, some of the book's most shocking early passages detail a high degree of cooperation between the CIA and the early cartels. Hernández has secured and analyzed documents proving that CIA operatives and government officials brokered deals to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking so long as donations were made to the Contra cause in Nicaragua. She then ties these early relationships to modern-day legacies that have allowed the cartels to thrive.

It's this brand of blatant political manipulation that Hernández drags into the light time and again in Narcoland. She demonstrates the essential selfishness of all those involved in a system so corrupt that it becomes difficult to disentangle the gangsters from the elected politicians. It becomes clear throughout the book that the cartels and violence are hardly just Mexico's problem. Aside from the reality of who drug smugglers are supplying drugs to, readers are also forced to look at how entire communities and countries (in the case of Nicaragua) became metaphorical sandboxes for North American leaders hell-bent on conducting a futile war.

The War on Drugs as Economic Mechanism

Drug wars in both Mexico and the US have been touted as a solid solution for the growth of the drug trade and the immense destruction it leaves in its wake. Yet these so-called wars have seemed to do the exact opposite, and that's where Hernández focuses her inquiry. She doesn't just ask how so many years and so much money have been devoted to a losing cause, either. She secures the documents that lay the process bare and explains them to readers, however terrifying looking at those inner mechanisms of power may become. Yet it is essential to look at these relationships because they are the lens through which readers can see how cartels operate as a sector of the legitimate economy.

In his forward to the book, journalist Roberto Saviano writes that "it is not the mafia that has transformed itself into a modern capitalist enterprise—it is capitalism that has transformed itself into a mafia." He goes on to write that the "rules of drug trafficking" illustrated in the book are "also the rules of capitalism", making it clear that Hernández's analysis should be read first and foremost from an economic standpoint. Whether she is considering El Chapo's rise to power or how the Sinaloa cartel effectively emerged as the victors in the drug war, Hernández succinctly presents documents and interviews that allow the reader to examine truth from all its angles.

In so doing, Hernández does a stellar job of staying focused on the genealogy she is narrating. Some of the strongest points in the book are those that clearly demonstrate paradigm shifts in cartel dynamics that have had long-lasting, and often devastating, consequences. Recounting the murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, she explains that "in those days everyone knew that you frightened policemen or you bribed them, but you didn't kill them. Especially not if they were gringos. Today the rules have changed in Mexico. Everyone's fair game, even US Government employees." These lightning-fast changes seem always to provide to fruitful location from which to examine shifts in drug war power relations.

Behind each of these major shifts there's always some sort of government cooperation, proving Hernández's early thesis that El Chapo Guzmán isn't an enemy of the Mexican government at all but one of its greatest products. In examining Guzmán, Hernández is able to fetter out an entire web of drug war connections. And so an incredible subterranean network of power relationships becomes the unwitting subject of Narcoland. Every page offers a well-documented argument for how a certain political and economic reality came into being. Examining how power has been deployed across that network in order to create a drug war that is anything but is a daunting task, but Hernández accomplishes it here, laying solid groundwork for future scholarship in cartel history.


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