Chronicle Reviews: Two Books on Mexican Drug War, One on Border

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: Ruben Aguilar and Jorge Castaneda, "El Narco: La Guerra Fallida [The Failed War] (2009, Punto de lectura, 140 pp., $10.00 PB); George W. Grayson, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" (2010, Transaction Publishers, 339 pp., $35.95 HB); Tim Grayson, "Midnight on the Line: The Secret Life of the US-Mexico Border (2010, St. Martin's Press, 304 pp., $25.95 HB)

On the streets of Mexican cities, a deadly, multi-sided war, complete with horrific exemplary violence -- among competing drug cartels, between the cartels and the Mexican state, and sometimes between different elements of the Mexican state -- rages on, the body count rising by the day, if not the hour. The cartels -- Frankenstein monsters birthed by drug prohibition, swollen with profits from supplying our insatiable demand for their forbidden goods -- not only fight the Mexican state, but also insinuate their way into it, and into Mexican society at large, buying with their immense wealth what they cannot command with their bullets.

This is commanding attention not only in Mexico, but also here north of the border, where the drugs are consumed and the cash handed over, where the fear looms that the violence will leak across the border. Despite the hyperventilating cries of some paranoid nativists, that has mostly not been the case, but if the violence hasn't arrived it's not because the cartels haven't extended their tentacles into Gringolandia. They are here, from San Antonio to Sacramento to Sioux Falls, doing business, and business is -- as always -- good.

Throw in some festering anti-immigrant (read: Mexican) sentiment, Congress's failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform, and some zealotry from the land of Sheriff Joe, and Mexico and the border are commanding a lot of attention. That's being reflected in the publishing world. Over the past two or three years, I've reviewed a handful of titles about Mexico and the border (and read more), and now we have three more contributions -- one an academic study of the cartels by a leading American Mexicanist; one a polemic against President Calderon's drug war by a Mexican journalist and a former Mexican foreign minister; and one a journalist's look at the world of smuggling, of both drugs and people, and counter-smuggling along the 1,700 mile border.

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George Grayson's "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" is an extremely thorough and comprehensive history and analysis of the rise of the cartels in the context of the weaknesses of the Mexican state. If you can't tell your Carillo Fuentes from your Arellano Felix, if you're not sure if it's the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, if you keep getting "La Barbie" mixed up with "El Chapo," Grayson will save you. He's got all the cartel players and all their nicknames -- and they all have them -- he's got all the busts and the shootouts, he's got what is so far the definitive history of the cartels and Mexico's response to them.

But Grayson is a political scientist, and that means we also get a history lesson on Mexican politics and culture, which for Grayson is largely a history of authoritarian institutions (the Catholic Church, the "perfect dictatorship" of the PRI), which the cartels imitate in their internal structures. Under the PRI, which ruled until Vicente Fox's PAN won the presidency in 2000, drug cartels existed, but in a modus vivendi with elements of the state. It was the political earthquake that shook loose the PRI that also unleashed the cartel wars, as old arrangements no longer served and new ones had to be forged. The ramping up of the drug war, first under Fox, and then under his successor, has only worsened the situation.

Grayson doesn't see any easy way out. It is "extremely difficult -- probably impossible," he writes, to eradicate the cartels, even with heightened law enforcement measures on both sides of the border. Raking in billions of dollars a year and employing nearly half a million Mexicans (and no doubt, some Americans, too), the cartels may just be, in a phrase, too big to fail. Just like the Mexican state, in Grayson's opinion. It may be corrupted, it may be suborned, but it goes on.

Although Grayson certainly plays it close to the vest, in the end he denounces the drug war. "Few public policies have compromised public health and undermined fundamental civil liberties for so long and to such a degree as the war on drugs," he writes.

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One gets the feeling that Jorge Castaneda, coauthor along with Ruben Aguilar of "Narco: La Guerra Fallida" (sorry, it's only available in Spanish), would like to be part of that Mexican state again. The former foreign minister has for years publicly suggested that it is time to talk about drug legalization, and "Narco" feels like part of a campaign to position himself for a run at office in 2012 or a post in whatever government emerges after elections that year. It is a polemic aimed directly at President Calderon's drug policies.

Castaneda and Aguilar set out to systematically demolish the reasons cited for ramping up the drug war, and do a pretty thorough job of it. (Although not everyone agrees with them. I saw Castaneda roundly berated at a Mexico City conference earlier this year for arguing that drug use in Mexico was not a significant problem, one of the central claims in the book.) Guns coming into Mexico from the US are not the cause of the violence, they also argue, and a full-blown confrontation with the cartels is not the way to go.

Instead, they propose increasing public security and reducing the "collateral damage" from drug prohibition and the drug wars by concentrating police on street crime and selectively targeting the most egregious drug offenders. The others? Perhaps a modus vivendi can be reached, if not at the national level, perhaps at the state or local level, as long appeared to be the case in Sinaloa. Decriminalization is another response, although not without the US joining in at the same time, lest Mexico become a drug tourism destination. And harm reduction measures should be applied. But "Narco" is ultimately a call for ending drug prohibition -- and a marker for Castaneda in forthcoming political moves.

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Of course, all those Mexican-controlled drugs have to get here somehow, which means they have to cross the US-Mexican border, and Reuters reporter Tim Gaynor's "Midnight on the Line" has got that covered. This is a fast-paced, entertaining, and insightful look at the contraband traffic -- both drugs and people -- across the border and the people who try to stop it. Gaynor works both sides of the border, talking to coyotes in Tijuana, showing up in a dusty Sonora border town and following the illegal immigrant's harrowing journey through the searing deserts of Arizona, and interviewing all kinds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol folks, as well as other officials on this side.

Gaynor demonstrates with some verve the continuous, perpetual struggle between contrabandistas and the US authorities (or, like the Minutemen he interviews, volunteers) who struggle to choke off that traffic. He tracks for sign with Indian scouts on an Arizona reservation that has in recent years become a smuggling hotspot, he rides horseback and in a Blackhawk helicopter with the Border Patrol and tags along with one of its SWAT teams, he learns about the drones patrolling high overhead and the tunnels being bored far beneath the ground. And he introduces us to the people involved on both sides.

Gaynor concludes arguing -- no doubt much to the consternation of the "secure the border" crowd -- that the border is tighter than ever, and that the steady increase in federal officers there this decade has had an impact. But, he notes, this success has perverse results. Tightening the border has been "a market maker for ruthless and profit-hungry coyotes and drug traffickers, for whom smuggling has never been more profitable," he writes. And so it goes.

Gaynor's book is no doubt the easiest read, Castaneda's is more a marker of a political position than anything, and Grayson's belongs in the library as a desk reference for anyone really serious about following the cartels and Mexican politics. Happy reading.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Another great drug war book- THE PLAZA

I don't know if you have this on your list, but it should be. When I picked up THE PLAZA I couldn't stop reading it. The author is from Juarez and wrote a fictional piece based on what was going on around him and it made the drug war come to life for me because I felt the despair of the people that live in Juarez, a city that has changed almost overnight into a war zone. Back in the eighties my Army buddies and I used to go to Juarez to party all the time but now anyone who goes is in danger and for the people that live there-well, what can they do? Move away? I recommend this book to all who wish to see firsthand how the drug war really affects people.

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