Monday, February 13, 2012

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo: Nonfiction? No mames, wey!

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
Bloomsbury Press: New York, 2011.
ISBN: 968-1-60819211-3
Gringos, we’ve got a situation.  As in, our nearest neighbor that is not Canada is kind of in a big, big, world of mess right now.  And unfortunately, it’s partially our fault.  Mexico currently has an increasingly violent drug trafficking underground, which is frankly not getting any better.  I’ve never reviewed nonfiction before, but thought this would be an excellent foray into the field.  Why?  It’s timely, it’s more pressing than I think we Northerners realize (at least those of us further afield from the Mexican border), and I bought it because I work in a high school.  While I’d like to think my students are saintly, I went to high school too, and know that’s not the case, so I’d at least like to have something on the shelves to educate them about the bigger picture.  Ioan Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency is all of those things: timely, educational, thoughtful, and well crafted.  He covers the problem from all angles, looking at the history of the drug trade in Latin America, Mexican politics, the growth and evolution of regional trafficking gangs from small time farmer yahoo’s to big time militaristic and murderous operations, to potential solutions. 
El Narco isn’t just one gang; rather it’s a whole industry, and it has thrived and survived despite many efforts to the contrary.  I learned a lot in reading this book; for example, the USA won’t admit it, but SOMEONE was large scale supplying the US military with opiates to use a painkillers during World War 2, and that produced in Mexico and shipped north didn’t just disappear at the border… Nor was I aware that there is a whole film AND music industry pumping out Narco inspired songs and films.  While I knew about the increasing street violence, fear in the civilian population, and loss of faith by the Mexican people in their government’s ability to protect them, I was somehow less aware of the many rival factions and the scale at which they’ve become militarized. Frankly, it’s a little terrifying, especially when you factor in that these groups are now diversifying, expanding (Guatemala and Honduras are seeing an rise of the presence of these groups) and demanding tithes not just from small businesses, but  also from whole industries (oil, mining, etc.). 
Between the testimonies of former and current gang members, Mexican and United States officials, and civilians, this book presents a humanistic portrait of an often-barbaric industry.  It is compelling and frankly hard to put down (I don’t recommend reading it before bed…). I can’t stop thinking about it, and while I don’t think it will ever happen, I think Grillo makes a fairly compelling argument that legalizing the industry cuts their legs right out from under them and has been shown to eradicate violence.  Either way, it is a very thorough, readable, and thoughtfully informative look at a very timely issue.  This is a strong recommendation for all high school  and public libraries, and for older high school and adult readers. 
My one caveat?  There's no shame in admitting probably my favorite thing about nonfiction books are the illustration pages in the middle.  The pictures selected here are okay, but I couldn’t help but want to see pictures of some of the notorious drug lords, or the people that are interviewed, or...just a few more of everything!  Por ejemplo, I loved the images in a recent piece Damien Cave did for the New York Times about property in Mexico that belonged tobusted narcotraficantes, many of whom were mentioned in this book.  It’s truly haunting.  As is the second thing that comes up when you google el Narco; a blog in opposition to el Narco that tracks what's going on (you need to speak Spanish though, sorry).  In short, this is an issue that I now want to know more about.  Mission accomplished, Ioan Grillo!

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