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Book Review: El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo

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Forty-odd years ago, I spent some time tearing around the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora on a motorcycle. Whenever I stopped, I drank in tabernas, ate in comedors, and occasionally smoked mota with the locals.

Had I never done those things, I’d never believe the stories author Ioan Grillo tells me in his fine book, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (New York: Bloomsbury Press; 321pp, 2011). For those unlike me, those who never saw Mexico as it was under the malgobierno of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), stories that come out of today’s México must read like graphic horror novels or (worse) stuff from a meth-addled gangbanger’s version of Rotten Dot Com. Having read and listened to news out of Mexico these last 10 years or so, even I thought movies by guys like Roberto Rodrigues and Quentin Tarantino were laughably overstated. Well, Ioan Grillo has convinced me that the wild men of Hollywood aren’t nearly as wild as cocaine cowboys like La Familia and Los Zetas.

Mr. Grillo knows his turf. He’s lived and worked as a journalist in Mexico since Y2K at least, and spent most of that time in pursuit of one or another Mexican drug mafia. While chasing stories, Mr. Grillo has done things and gone places I would never do or dare, primarily because my own Mexico adventures (mild as they were) taught me better. Reading El Narco, I can’t help but wonder if Grillo will live to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If he lives or if he doesn’t, let me rush now to say he is a better man than I am.

El Narco is a book that has long needed writing. It is tough, straightforward, kick-in-the-nuts reportage by a man who is determined to ignore all the ideological gibberish and see for himself what’s really going on in Mexico. Turns out that what’s really going on is really ugly stuff, which accounts for the fact that this is a really ugly book full of really ugly facts related by a terse, insightful writer who knows how to shape a powerful and compelling story into a powerful and compelling argument.

Mr. Grillo’s bad news spans 291 pages of text that are neatly organized into 16 coherent and lucid chapters. The chapters build steadily toward a conclusion that — so far from recommending a solution — strains toward reasons for hope while it pleads for sanity. Human nature, history, politics, and the drug war being what they are, readers are left staring at the fact that hope and sanity may lie somewhere beyond our reach. Grillo’s tale of woe is amply sourced: it features 13 pages of endnotes, a useful index, and a short essay that recommends books for further reading.

Solomon sez: El Narco is a bold narrative that tells what the wisest among us must rush to fix before all of us are forced to endure it. Don’t miss this read.

(Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for the opportunity to read this book.)

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