Review: Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez


NarcolandNarcoland by Anabel Hernandez (Verso, 2013)

Blurb: The definitive history and anatomy of the drug cartels and the “war on drugs” that has cost more than 50,000 lives in just five years, Narcoland explains in riveting detail how Mexico became a base for the megacartels of Latin America and one of the most violent places on the planet. At every turn, Hernández names names—not just the narcos, but also the politicians, functionaries, judges and entrepreneurs who have collaborated with them. In doing so, she reveals the stunning corruption of Mexico’s government and business elite.


In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration broke with previous U.S. foreign policy to embrace the Reagan Doctrine and actively support anti-communist resistance movements. In Central America, this took the form of backing the anti-Sandinista rebels, the Contras. The U.S. Congress had blocked funding of the Contra rebels, so the CIA turned to other money sources, one of which is alleged to have been the trafficking of narcotics from Colombia to the United States via Mexico. When the U.S. began covert operations to use drug money to fund anti-communist rebels, the organizations that controlled the drug routes into the U.S. gained a lot of influence and power and eventually developed into the cartels as we know them today. In Narcoland, Hernandez argues that the current Mexican Drug War is a direct result of those Reagan-era policies.

Hernandez traces the history of collusion between the drug cartels and government and police officials to expose the massive corruption that exists at virtually every level of Mexican business, politics, and law enforcement. The narcos had been around since the 1970s, and Hernandez describes the drug traffickers and the political and judicial systems then as being separate entities; the traffickers respected government authority, paid their “taxes,” and maintained a low profile, and government and police took their cut and turned a blind eye to the narcos’ activities. As the drug trade exploded in the shift from marijuana to cocaine and the profits rose exponentially, this separation began to fade, and no longer willing to simply turn a blind eye, politicians and law enforcement officials took an active role in drug trafficking. Rather than paying money into the system, the narcos were now buying favors directly from the individuals they worked with, and political campaigns were funded with drug money. Under Presidents Fox and Calderón, the author argues that the federal government chose sides, protecting the Sinaloa cartel in its struggle with the other cartels, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

For someone who is not familiar with the history of the various cartels and their major players, the level of detail can be overwhelming. Names are sometimes given in the English tradition (father’s surname) but sometimes are given in the Mexican tradition (father’s surname, mother’s surname) and it can be a bit confusing. Also, the author uses a lot of acronyms and it’s easy to get lost. There is a list of acronyms and a list of names at the end of the book—many times I wished I were reading a physical copy of the book and could flip to the back for easy reference (this is personal preference: I don’t find glossaries, indices, etc. to be user-friendly in ebooks, for the most part). But these are relatively minor quibbles.

This is a very thoroughly researched and documented book, and because it goes into the history of drug trafficking in Mexico and how the cartels gained so much power instead of simply presenting the situation as it exists today, it doesn’t just expose the corruption, it provides an explanation of its roots and how and why it became so widespread. Understanding the reasons is essential to finding a solution and bringing about major change.

This book was originally published in Mexico in 2010 under the title Los Señores del Narco. It’s been updated to be current through the end of the Calderón presidency in November 2012. Apparently Hernandez has received death threats and is always accompanied by bodyguards; I’m not at all surprised—though obviously I’m saddened and dismayed—to hear that after reading this book.


This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars


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