‘Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America’ review

Ioan Grillo, the well-known expert on Latin American drug trafficking, gangs and violence starts off the book saying, “This book is about the move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood. But it starts in the United States. Latin American journalists complain that the US side of the equation is never examined. Where is the American narco?” The American politicians, media and Hollywood trash the image of Latin Americans with deceitful narratives. Drug is a demand and consumer driven business. The US consumers are happy to pay top dollars for suppliers from any country or domestic opioid manufacturing pharmaceutical companies. The US has not done anything meaningful to reduce consumption and demand. Instead, they had resorted to a war on drugs outside the US. This was started by President Nixon to divert attention away from the Vietnam war. The military-industrial complex and the spooks of US embraced the war on drugs enthusiastically to destabilize other countries, infiltrate the foreign security forces and sell arms.

Thousands of Latin Americans are killed every year with the guns trafficked illegally from the US to the Latin American countries. But when it comes to guns, the Americans use a wrong logic. They say “guns do not kill. It is the people who kill”. This same logic should apply to the drugs too. Drugs do not kill. It is the consumers who harm themselves by voluntarily, enthusiastically and happily consuming.

But unfortunately, Grillo does not go into the details of the US consumer market and elaborate how the drugs are delivered to consumers and money is collected. Instead he joins the American chorus of highlighting the crime and violence of drug lords and other criminal gangs in Latin America. He has covered the gangs of Brazil, Central America, Jamaica and Mexico. He brings out details of how the Brazilian and Central American gangs direct their criminal operations from prisons. In El Salvador, the government had arranged a cease fire between the rival gangs by bringing together their leaders in prison.

Grillo traces the origin of the Brazilian gangs such as Red Command and First Command to the time when the petty criminals were put in the same jails where the political prisoners were kept. The political prisoners had brainwashed the criminals who felt right in fighting against the social injustice in the country. While the rich people were getting richer, the poor and especially the blacks were condemned to struggle in the Favelas (slums) on the margins of the cities.

Grillo has brought out the fact that the criminal gangs in Central America were the consequence of the civil war in which the leftist guerillas fought against the US-supported right wing military dictators and their paramilitary death squads. The civil war had caused the migration of young people to the US. These young central Americans joined gangs and formed their own to survive in the gang-infested Los Angeles area. Later, the US deported these gangsters to Central America where they have been flourishing as groups such as Maras. The violence unleashed by the gangs make more Central Americans to flee to the US. It is a vicious circle in which the US plays the central part.

The US had distributed arms to the Contras who were formed by the CIA in Central America to fight against the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Afterwards, the ex-contras and the paramilitary death squads supported by the US got into the gang business of violence and crime.

Since Grillo is based in Mexico, he has given more information on the Mexican gangs who have taken control of certain parts of Mexico and bought off the local police and politicians. He has highlighted the cartel known as Knight Templars, who were lead by Nazario Moreno, known as El Más Loco—the Maddest One. He wrote a kind of holy book called as “Pensamientos” (Thoughts) which give Biblical parables, thoughts and advice. The narco Templars (Santos Nazarios ) worshipped the statuettes in the shrines built by their leader. The prayers went like this, “Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, Give us life”. Nazario also self-published his autobiography and distributed it to his followers. The 101 pages are fittingly titled “They Call Me The Maddest One.” Nazario portrays himself as a social bandit, subtitling his memoir “Diary of an Idealist.”

Grillo has concluded that the US war on drugs is a failure. This conclusion is now widely shared across the Americas, except by the vested interests like DEA, CIA and the military-industrial complex which profits from the war on drugs.

Grillo offers solutions to the drug and violence issues. He says the US and Latin American countries should legalize soft drugs. This has been done by Uruguay and 24 states of US as well as some European countries who have already legalized recreational drugs. Many Latin American countries are also planning to do so.

Secondly, Grillo has called for transformation of ghettos which breed gangs and violence. The city of Medellin has achieved commendable success in the outreach to the slums with metro transport, libraries and playgrounds. The slum dwellers have been made to feel as part of the mainstream. Gang violence has dramatically come down. Other Latin American cities can learn from this success story.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs