I shouldn’t be reviewing this book or recommending it to our readers. As an editor for a travel site and managing editor for The People’s Guide to Mexico, one of my goals is to, you know, encourage people to go to Mexico. It’s my job to say that your fears about Mexico are overblown, that the media is mongering fear, that our vision of modern Mexico is skewed by the press, that vast portions of Mexico are still safe, that as a tourist you don’t have much to worry about. In short, it’s my job to downplay the problem. And this book does the exact opposite.
British journalist Ioan Grillo has been reporting on Latin America since 2001 and has worked for an impressive roster of big league news purveyors, including CNN, Reuters, and Time. This work has put him on the proverbial front lines of Mexico’s drug war, where he’s talked to victims, big league gangsters, and everyone in-between. El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency is packed with interviews that present a fascinating and terrifying history of Mexico’s narco culture. Grillo profiles minor assassins and major players, traces the current cartels to their inception, critiques US and Mexican drug policy, dissects the origin of the term cartel, explains how and why Mexicans superseded Colombians as lords of cocaine, and presents a chilling look at the complex web of criminal organizations that now threaten quality of life in Mexico. He also gives a run-down on the hydra-like Zeta cartel and delves into the religious aspect of Michoacan’s La Familia, which is real fucking scary.
For the most part, Grillo’s writing is tight. The book jumps from atrocity to atrocity with alarming frequency, which is disturbing but makes for a fast-paced read. Overall, I was impressed with Grillo’s depth of knowledge. I liked his attitude about Mexico. I sometimes found the tone a little alarmist, but the book never drifts into the realm of the condescending, the smarmy, or the pretentious. (Common territory for foreigners writing about Mexico)
So yeah, I recommend this book. Even though it makes the situation in Mexico seem scary to the nth degree. Does Grillo change my opinion about cartel violence? Yes and no. His analysis of the Zetas would give anyone pause, and I feel much better informed about the intricacies of cartel activity. But the book doesn’t make me scared to go to Mexico, for the same reasons I’ve always outlined. Nothing in El Narco challenges my assertion that cartel violence is extremely area-specific and rarely affects gringos. So I can still parrot my usual refrain: Yes, by all means go to Mexico. Explore the ruins, explore a colonial city, enjoy a cerveza as the sun sets over the sea…But if you’re looking for beach reading, you may want to look elsewhere.