Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin AmericaBloomsbury Press, 2016, 384 pp., $28
“Alive they took them. Alive we want them.”
—Protesters against disappearance of 43 student-teachers in MexicoOn September 26, 2014, a group of about eighty militant first-year students from a dirt-poor, all-male public teaching school (normal rural) in Ayotzinapa, a tiny village in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, traveled through town on two of the school’s buses to shut down key highway toll booths. It was part of a week-long hazing ritual, which was to culminate in a trip to Mexico City to attend a national protest commemorating the horrific student massacres of 1968. But the students never reached their destination. Instead of honoring what had been, up to that point, Mexico’s greatest national tragedy, they became victims of a deep and shameful criminal conspiracy themselves.The crime occurred in the gritty town of Iguala, also located in Guerrero, where the students were hoping to commandeer additional buses for their pilgrimage to the nation’s capital. According to subsequent reports, on this fateful evening Iguala’s local police stopped the two buses and started shooting, killing two students. The remaining youths attempted to flee, but 44 did not make it. Some observers recalled seeing the abducted students being stuffed into three vans a few hours later by municipal police officers.The following day, authorities discovered one Ayotzinapa youth’s body, his eyes gouged out and the skin removed from his face. Forty-three other students disappeared without a trace, leaving foreign forensic experts to analyze ashes and examine mass graves in the hunt for answers. The evidence began to implicate Iguala’s mayor, his wife, and local police, through their connection to the local criminal organization, Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors. Guerrero is Mexico’s most violent state, yet even by this standard Iguala—population150,000—is considered a “fearful territory” (in the words of redoubtable Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto) of daytime shootouts and a horrific Honduras-like murder rate, thanks to the United Warriors and the other equally heinous gangs at war with them.Why this one savage episode more than any number of others sparked such an outcry is hard to decipher. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets across the country, burning effigies of President Enrique Peña Nieto and demanding answers of an elected government it views as responsible for the students’ disappearance—a government whose corruption and inability to establish rule of law led to a national tragedy. As Guillermoprieto describes it, the Mexican state security apparatus had “discover[ed] yet again just how completely the enforcement of law and order has slipped from its grasp.” Unfortunately, the disappearance of the 43 desperately marginalized normalistas is only one example of the wanton violence laying waste to Latin America. The bloodshed is so extreme that it seems like a never-ending horror film, made scarier by the fact that it is, indeed, real.Like a parasite, the species of criminal organization commonly called a gang keeps its host, the state, alive just enough to feed off of it. Latin American gangsters everywhere from Brazil to the Caribbean to the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) take advantage of the vulnerability of the states they operate in, becoming shadow powers that manipulate the incompetent, or even complicit, shells of state institutions. The majority of the top ten cities in the world with the highest homicide rates are located in Latin America (San Pedro Sula, Honduras has the dubious honor of holding the top spot), almost exclusively due to the impunity enjoyed by the region’s criminal organizations, primarily those with ties to the illicit drug trade.But before drawing comparisons to other infamous crime syndicates, ideological rebellions, or terrorist groups around the world, it is important to note what is distinct about Latin America’s situation in recent years. The gangs have no interest in dominating the “hearts and minds” of the people, nor do they want the responsibilities of actual governance, unless it comes with the opportunity to pad their own wallets as well. As Berkeley scholar Nils Gilman wrote in this magazine, the cartels instead aim to “carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action.” Constructing roads or funding schools just detracts from the gangs’ main goal of making money via the narcotics trade and extortion.Instead, they play the role of a spoiler. Thriving in a conflict that is not quite a civil war, but much bigger than typical criminal violence, these groups terrorize governments and societies, using corruption, extortion, and machine guns as their weapons of choice. Chillingly, many of the political and socioeconomic factors that facilitated their growth are common outside of Latin America as well. Such a model of criminal behavior could be easily replicated elsewhere in the world.In his gripping new book Gangster Warlords, Mexico City-based British journalist Ioan Grillo brings the reader into the brutal underworld of the Western Hemisphere’s most notorious criminal organizations. He outlines the genesis and modus operandi of four major groups: Brazil’s Red Command, Jamaica’s Shower Posse, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in the Northern Triangle, and Mexico’s narco cartels. Condensing the history of four very distinct organizations operating in different parts of the region into a handful of chapters is an ambitious task, and although he occasionally simplifies history to keep the narrative moving forward, Grillo is successful in weaving together crime stories that so often go untold.Turning first to Brazil’s infamous and well-studied favelas, Grillo describes in harrowing detail how socioeconomic marginalization and weak law enforcement interacted with the narcotics trade to produce one of South and Central Americas’ most violent entities. For those whose exposure to Brazilian favelas might consist only of having seen City of God when it was up for the Foreign Film Oscar in 2004, Gangster Warlords provides a thorough primer on the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, an organization likely unfamiliar to the American reader. Grillo interviews the group’s founder William da Silva Lima, also known as “the Teacher,” in his comfortable home in Rio de Janeiro. Motivated by a deep hatred for Brazilian police officers and in possession of a rap sheet that begins in his teens, the Teacher found himself on the brutal prison island of Ilha Grande in 1979. As Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1970s imprisoned the “common criminals” of the Brazilian favelas alongside leftist guerrillas and political prisoners in horrific jails, the two groups built alliances and shared resistance tactics. Feeling mightily aggrieved when the “elite” political prisoners were released and reintegrated into Brazilian society, the remaining prisoners formed the Red Command, establishing codes of conduct and setting themselves up for a future of continued crime.Once back on the streets, members of the Red Command quickly entered the world of cocaine trafficking, justifying their participation in the drug trade by arguing that cocaine was “a vice of wealthy Brazilians that gave the poor an income.” This claim falls in line with the “social bandit” (think Robin Hood) narrative propagated by many of Latin America’s criminal organizations. In the favelas, where the state fails to provide much of anything, the Red Command serves as the de facto administrator of social services. It functions as a militarized neighborhood watch program, public works department, and drug distributor all rolled into one. Whether paving roads as the Teacher did in the favela of Antares or donating to local charities, Brazil’s gangster warlords give back to the community—though of course with the ulterior motive of buying the silence and cooperation of residents. The Red Command even hosts baile funk dance parties for the whole community that feature songs about the group, which are often accompanied by a spray of celebratory gunshots. Even with all this social involvement and the Red Command’s alternative system of justice for wayward members, the organization does not seek to overthrow or replace the Brazilian state writ large. It just wants to appease residents and keep the government and law enforcement out of its way.Indeed, the Red Command’s biggest enemy is not a rival gang; it is the Brazilian police. The Teacher labels the conflict a war, citing the police as the true aggressors in the favelas. In 2008, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state began “pacification” efforts in Rio’s favelas, sending Police Pacifying Units, or UPPs, to infiltrate the favelas and reestablish control. Despite the strategy’s success in certain areas of the city, many more neighborhoods are still gang territory. With Brazilian police responsible for 2,000 deaths per year (and with reports of officers smoking marijuana on the job and shooting at unarmed civilians), it is no surprise that residents of the favelas place no trust in law enforcement.Brazil’s violence, exemplified both by the favelas of Rio and the quickly forgotten terrorist attacks in the heart of São Paulo in 2006, has an established pattern. As Grillo explains, “the government is oppressive, the commando uses violence, and the government gives concessions. It’s a vicious cycle.”This strained government-gangster dynamic has developed in the Caribbean as well. In Jamaica, gangs that enjoy a similar level of impunity coalesced out of a political street war; in the ghettos, dons oversee voting “turf” for the country’s major parties. Since the country achieved independence in 1962, gangsters have worked to strong-arm votes for the politicians who support them in turn. Bolstered in recent decades by the drug trade, however, the gangs are now too big and aggressive for the state to control.Grillo’s central character in the Jamaica saga is Christopher Michael Coke—also known as “Dudus” or the “President”—the leader of the Shower Posse, the country’s largest drug-trafficking organization. Based in the Kingston ghetto of Tivoli Gardens, Dudus controlled everything—the drug trade, extortion rackets, local jobs, music production, and, as in the case of the Red Command, his own alternative justice system for those who broke his rules. Unlike the other criminal organizations examined in Gangster Warlords, the gangsters of Jamaica operate out in the open within their tight-knit (and barricaded) “garrisons” of neighborhoods. This, in turn, puts the entire neighborhood at risk when police invade the area and start shooting.Such was the case in 2010, when Jamaican soldiers and gangsters engaged in a days-long series of shootouts on the streets of Kingston. Seventy-six civilians were shot in the conflict; walls across the city were spattered in blood, leaving one Parliament-appointed official to call Tivoli Gardens “a war zone” where “frightened and traumatized residents…cowered in fear.”If the Jamaican government could not control Dudus, another entity hoped it would be luckier: U.S. law enforcement. As the Shower Posse kept expanding into the United States, becoming the street corner kings of cocaine sales, U.S. authorities collected heaps of evidence to use against the don, sending him to jail on conspiracy charges in 2012. While the Jamaican state did not have the power to take back control from the “President,” Uncle Sam’s institutional muscle did.For perspective, over the past three years slightly under 50,000 people were murdered in the Northern Triangle, making it the most violent region in the world. Over this same span, the three countries achieved convictions in 2,295 cases, or 5 percent of all homicides. The reality is actually quite simple: thousands of citizens know that little if anything protects them from this pervasive violence. While the recent influx of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing to the United States briefly cast a spotlight on the Northern Triangle’s violence, the street gangs terrorizing Central America are still unfamiliar to many Americans.Children and teens flee not only to avoid becoming casualties of the violence, but also to avoid getting roped into the gangs themselves. Like their contemporaries in the region, gangs in the Northern Triangle recruit young, as demonstrated by Grillo’s profile of a young man with the alias “Montana.” Beginning at age 14 with his first kill for the Maras—of a rival drug dealer for a mere $45 dollars—Montana finally became a full-fledged gang member at 17, after seven kills. As with a drug addiction, he says, “you want to kill again just to get that buzz.” Grillo also interviews a Mara “elder” by the name of Lagrima, or Tear, in a Honduran jail. Only 35 years old, Lagrima fell in with the Maras as a young teenager in neighboring El Salvador, joining a clique whose leaders had previously lived in the United States. After shooting a rival gang member point-blank as an initiation test, Lagrima eventually became a clique boss himself, helping the organization expand into his native Honduras. Uniquely among the gangs, the Maras have expanded successfully into rural areas, small villages, and across borders without the hefty financial support of the narcotics trade. This in itself, Grillo believes, makes them difficult to destroy, which in turn perpetuates the divide between the citizens and the government they cannot count on to protect them.Grillo’s final case study of Mexico shows off his investigative and analytical chops. He has spent the past 14 years in Mexico as a journalist, building the connections and expertise that give this study greater depth than the others. As in his 2012 blockbuster El Narco, Grillo boldly interviews the grittiest of characters in Mexico’s ongoing drug war, from members of the cartels to leaders of the autodefensa groups of Michoacán to Americans working in narcotics trafficking.Readers who have already devoured El Narco will find a handful of passages in Gangster Warlords that echo Grillo’s previous assessment of the twisted appeal of Mexican narcocultura. Though the gangs lack the strong political ideology of the romanticized Latin American renegades of yore (such as Ché Guevara), the leaders within the new organizations have been virtually canonized. Most notable among these is Nazario Moreno, or the “The Maddest One,” founder of the Knights Templar. Shrouded by a cult of mystery (and, according to legend, dying not once but twice), Nazario turned the Knights Templar into one of the most violent entities in the country, leading his followers with a quasi-evangelical message and a “hodgepodge of ideas” curated from The Godfather, Braveheart, and The Art of War.Though based in Mexico City, Grillo is on the scene of some of the most infamous recent events around the country, such as the paramilitary autodefensas’ penetration into the territory of the Knights Templar drug cartel. During this operation, he meets shadowy figures like Manuel, a former member of the Knights Templar who now works for the vigilante autodefensas. Manuel, whose perfect English gives away the years he spent living in the States, went from cooking meth with the Templarios to fighting against them, a switch he made in order to survive after the vigilantes took over his town. “I flipped,” he said. “I had no choice. Now I’m scared the Knights Templar are going to kill this whole fucking town for turning against them.”Grillo also interviews Father Gregorio López, a notable priest from the same star-crossed Guerrero pueblo of Ayotzinapa, known for his resistance of the Templarios. Protected by a bulletproof vest and a belief in liberation theology, Padre Goyo, as he was affectionately known, gave voice to a community terrorized by cartel violence, thereby serving as a better advocate and protector of the people than the Mexican state. The priest told Grillo, “I don’t have a pact with any cartel, or even the self-defense squads…My only pact is with Christ.” (Unmentioned in the book, despite its 2016 publication date, is the fact that on December 21, 2014 Guerreros Unidos gunmen seized the 39-year-old Padre Goyo near the seminary in Guerrero where he worked. His body was recovered a few days later with a gunshot to the head. It was the fourth murder of a Catholic Church official in Mexico that year.)How is it that Mexico, despite its “transition to democracy,” proved to be ground zero for Latin America’s violent criminal organizations and drug cartels? For all of its failings, the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party’s (or PRI) 71-year “perfect dictatorship,” which promoted social and political stability at a time when the rest of Latin America was engulfed in Marxist revolution or ruled by rightist dictatorships, succeeded at keeping the cartels under control. Following a political shift, however, many of Mexico’s key institutions, such as the police and judiciary, became vulnerable, and the cartels began to co-opt low-paid officials. “For decades, it was the state extorting gangsters,” quips Grillo, but now the tables have turned and cartel gangsters have the upper hand. Nothing the Mexican state tries seems to go right; knocking out an organization’s kingpin just creates a power vacuum, and a bloody competition to fill it. The state’s 2014 plan to fight the cartels by backing a cartel of their own, Los Viagras, which was born out of the autodefensa vigilante groups, only created more of a mess.To return to Grillo’s thesis, gangsters all across the region have exploited the weakened institutions meant to rein them in. Alarmingly enough, many groups grew out of the penitentiary system or were strengthened during their members’ prison stints, using group identity to foster a sense of purpose and secure a means of protection in the violent and decrepit correctional facilities of Latin America. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, prisoners in El Salvador receive frequent visits from associates and prostitutes, and some even carry firearms. Even from behind bars, members continue calling the shots, literally, for organizations on the outside. Guards have little control or leverage over their inmate populations; instead of punishing criminals or preventing more crime, the prisons have actually become the gangs’ headquarters.Nor does the violence stay contained in Central or South America; it has already found its way to the United States. As policymakers trudge up and down Capitol Hill, members of Mara offshoots run prostitution rings, sell drugs, and extort fellow Central American migrants less than ten miles away in the Maryland suburbs of Langley Park and Takoma Park. Even though the Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a Transnational Criminal Organization in 2012, Maryland continues to look more and more like “Mara-yland.” Nor are the Maras the only gang to make it in America; with the exception of Brazil’s Red Command, the other groups examined by Grillo also have noticeable presences on the street corners of U.S. cities and, surprisingly enough, some of the leafy suburbs as well. Jamaica’s Shower Posse dominated crack cocaine sales all across the country in the 1980s, and Mexican cartel bosses have safe houses full of cash and cocaine in some of the wealthiest suburbs of Texas and California. Lest we forget, MS-13 was born on the street corners of Los Angeles, right here in the good ol’ USA, in the midst of a conflict between rival Latin American gangs.Undoubtedly, these groups benefit from keeping a lower profile in the United State than they do back at home; a crackdown on their organizations here would significantly reduce their earnings in the narcotics trade. International traffickers have learned that they cannot get away with as much violence in the United States, yet can still “carry out wanton murder back in their countries.” While the supply chains of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin have made their way into the United States (and across the pond to Europe, as Grillo points out), the rule of law and government institutions are strong enough to hold narcotics organizations and their leaders accountable (and, unlike Mexico recently, keep them in prison). This is not the case, however, in many other parts of the world; in countries where citizens’ trust in government is already low, and where corruption and the relative weakness of institutions is already part of the political culture, criminal organizations could adopt the tactics of Latin America’s gangs to devastating effect.The region, and the world, needs solutions. As Gangster Warlords demonstrates, it is difficult to forget the stories and statistics once you’ve read them: more than 50,000 murders in Mexico since 2006, the ghoulish facial tattoos of the MS-13 members who brutally initiate preteens into their violent clique, the disappearance of the 43 normalistas in Iguala. Neglecting to break the criminal networks has implications not only for millions of innocent people in Latin America, but for the United States and the rest of the world as well. Grillo is paying attention. Why aren’t we?