Drugs 'R' Us

Narcoland exposes corruption that fueled the rise of Mexican cartels

Nonfiction accounts explaining the shared interests and collusion between drug barons, U.S. agencies and the Mexican government seem to be published every few months. Yet not every book is written by an investigative journalist working under threats of death and under the constant protection of armed bodyguards.

Mexican newspaper reporter Anabel Hernández won't keep quiet. She has been quoted as saying "corruption grows through silence," so it makes sense she would raise a literary megaphone as loudly condemning as Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. The result of five years of gumshoeing (or in this case, powder-footing), Narcoland isolates and then assembles puzzle pieces that only now, 30 years after Iran-Contra, form a clear picture of how a bunch of illiterate peasants went on to become some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in the world—enough so to be recognized by Forbes magazine, anyway.

Hernández deserves recognition, too. For the most part, she's getting it. Narcoland is an explosive success in Mexico, selling 170,000 copies upon publication and earning her the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. When I'm lazy about it, I describe Hernández to my political junkie friends as the Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater, Dirty Wars) of the Latin American drug beat. But it doesn't express the balls it takes to show the doings of cartels and federal agencies.

Testicular fortitude aside, Narcoland (translated into English by Iain Bruce) never reaches the level of pop journalism. In the U.S., the book's publisher is Verso, a leftist press known for its "radical" stance. Engaging the prose, I can see why a mainstream house might've passed on it. Many passages, especially in the early chapters, present a blizzard of names and locations. Snow-blinded, I often found myself rereading the same three pages several times, making notes in the book's margins as if decoding a sensitive and complex amicus curiae. An example, from a paragraph chosen at random:

n March 7, 1999, José Alfredo Andrade Bojorges, a thirty-seven-year-old trial lawyer with a master's degree in criminology, gave public prosecutor Gerardo Vázquez a very different account to that of Carrillo Olea of how the Attorney General's Office (PGR) had learnt of El Chapo Guzmán's whereabouts.

torytelling instincts and narrative compression are subsumed under the weight of facts and specificity. Indeed, Hernández doesn't just name names; she provides all four monikers and throws in a person's age at that moment in time and what they had studied in graduate school. I'm not suggesting journalists be required to read a Tom Clancy (R.I.P.) thriller before sitting down to pen a muckraker. But it might help.

Of course, Narcoland is designed as a serious, lives-in-the-balance exposé, not a New York Times chart-topper from the Norman Mailer school of commercial journalism. In this way, Hernández succeeds marvelously. Her re-contextualized account of how Iran-Contra (and witless turncoat Oliver North) set the stage for the proliferation of drugs in the U.S. and for the bloodshed in Mexico (100,000 dead from cartel violence since 2006) is riveting. So is her rundown of CIA collusion with drug lords in financing the Contras to the tune of tens of millions, and her sickening description of dope-baron Guzmán's Viagra-fueled, rape-happy antics in, of all places, prison. (Really, don't read the section "El Chapo's women" after dinner.)

El Chapo is, for the most part, Narcoland's central figure. Hernández doesn't simply tag Guzmán as a born monster. She knows where he comes from—the cannabis and poppy fields of La Tuna, where, as a 6-year-old, instead of attending school he harvested poppies and picked marijuana with a razor blade and little food or water.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the way in which drug violence in Mexico has been persistently nurtured and tacitly approved. Hernández isn't timid about assigning that blame. While the prose quality isn't enough to recommend this book to everyone, I urge readers with an interest in learning about what went wrong and why during the last 10 years of compromised policies to pick it up. Those of us living near the violence are well served by the efforts of journalists like Hernández.

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers

By Anabel Hernández


$26.95; 366 pages