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October 13, 2013 8:04 pm
Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, by Anabel Hernández, (Verso, RRP£16.99)
Before dawn on August 9, the gates of a notorious Mexican prison where drug lords have lived like royalty swung open. Out stepped “The Prince”.
Freed on a technicality 12 years early, after 28 years in jail in connection with the kidnap and murder of a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Rafael Caro Quintero vanished. Mexico’s red-faced government said it was not told about his release; the drug kingpin was not pursued.
The episode sounds straight out of the chilling pages of Anabel Hernández’s book Narcoland, newly published in English, which recounts in meticulous detail the alleged connivance between drug barons and security officials which she claims in 2001 enabled Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán – labelled by Washington “the world’s most powerful drugs trafficker” – to flee the same Puente Grande jail.
Except that it happened in August, on the watch of Enrique Peña Nieto, the president who since taking office last December has pointedly swerved debate away from the failed six-year war on drugs of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, that cost as many as 80,000 lives, on to ambitious economic reforms to transform Mexico.
History repeating itself? Not quite. But Narcoland, with its explosive descriptions of decades of corruption permeating the upper echelons of government, leaves an extremely bad taste in the reader’s mouth about the state of Mexico’s perennially corrupt institutions – and begs the question: how much has changed?
Hernández comes across as a courageous and indignant investigator (she entered journalism after her father was kidnapped and killed and police demanded bribes to take up the case). For Narcoland, she spent five years combing police, court and US papers, securing access to informers and sources and pursuing often fruitless requests for official files. The result is a searing indictment of a war on drugs she believes was a sham from the start. “In fact,” she writes, “what Mexico has experienced in the last decade is not a ‘war on drug traffickers’, but a war between drug traffickers, with the government taking sides for the Sinaloa Cartel”.
That cartel’s leader – Mexico’s most wanted criminal – is Guzmán, a man credited with controlling as much as half the illicit drugs delivered into the US every year and apparently so used to impunity despite ostensibly being on the run that he held a lavish wedding party in 2007.
Hernández challenges the lore that he was spirited out of the maximum security Puente Grande in a laundry cart. Reconstructing events with sworn statements and unpublished files, she concludes he was ushered out, disguised as a policeman, by high-ranking officials.
Her book is not always an effortless read: it’s all too easy to get bogged down in detail, or lost among the identities and aliases of drug barons who are famous in Mexico but little known abroad. For that reason it might be wise to tackle it after a more general introduction to the subject, such as Ioan Grillo’s commendable El Narco .
But Narcoland is more political – fingering both Vicente Fox, president from 2000 to 2006 and now an advocate of legalising drugs, and his successor, Mr Calderón, for complicity with drug lords. Though published in 2010 in Mexico (the book has sold nearly 100,000 copies), such allegations are likely to garner fresh attention in English. In any event, her cameo of Mr Calderón playing paintball – “that game where nobody actually dies like they do in real life” – at his official residence with his tainted but untouchable secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna, is squirm-inducing.
Narcoland portrays a grim “theatre where nothing is what it seems”, where one top official is given a hero’s send-off even though “everything indicates that [he] was not killed for his valiant stand against the drug trade, but because he betrayed the drug barons he had been protecting”.
Hernández lives under armed guard and death threats; headless animals have been dumped on her doorstep. Two powerful cartel capos have been apprehended in the past two months but she believes it is too early to say how much Mr Peña Nieto will clean Mexico up.
Narcoland comes as Uruguay is on its way to becoming the first country to legalise the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana, following in the smoke rings of the US states of Washington and Colorado.
Decriminalising cannabis will not turn countries into narco-states. Corruption can. With Hernández’s tales of a rotten cadre of political and establishment figures still wielding power, Mexico’s challenge is to avoid the government changing but Narcoland staying the same.
The writer is the FT’s Mexico correspondent
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