In May 2010 a state of emergency was declared in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Schools and businesses were closed as armed vigilantes were seen patrolling the ghetto streets. In Tivoli Gardens, a west Kingston housing estate, gang members stockpiled weapons to prevent the arrest of their leader Dudus (Michael Christopher) Coke, revered locally as a Robin Hood figure but reviled in the US as a master of drug cartels.
Ioan Grillo’s exploration of the drug trade in the Caribbean, Central and South America, a follow-up to El Narco (2011), charts the rise of new-look drug barons such as Dudus, who see themselves partly as combatants in a war zone, partly as an alternative state-within-a-state. The power wielded by Dudus over the people of Kingston evolved in the face of their oppression by the police and military. With state provision inadequate, Dudus had settled local disputes, set up ghetto schools and employment schemes. In short, he provided public services that the Jamaican government did not, and still does not. Thus one of the world’s “most dangerous narcotics kingpins” (in the words of the US Justice Department) was, for the inhabitants of Tivoli Gardens, a benefactor of sorts.
In a journalist’s pedestrian prose (“Mexico seemed to have gotten numb to murder”), Grillo chronicles the depredations wrought in the 21st century by capitalist narco-laundering. Cartels are now so deeply ingrained in the political fabric of the US-Mexican border, he suggests, that not a single bar or shop remains “un-narcotised”. To live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s second largest border city, calls for special qualities of endurance.
Some 90 per cent of the cocaine currently consumed by Americans is thought to come across Mexico’s frontier. Run by a computer-literate management, the frontier cartels kill reporters, women, magistrates and police – anyone who dares to obstruct their business. The total of those murdered in Mexico in 2015 alone reached 7,428. Grillo, a British-born resident of Mexico City, portrays a nation that has lost its moral bearings.
In Brazil, as elsewhere in Latin America, one can pass from enclaves of immense wealth to utter desolation in a matter of seconds. In the hills above Rio de Janeiro lie the drug-blighted shack dumps known as favelas. Grillo’s investigations into the cokehead brokers, dealers and professional killers who manage the supply and demand of cocaine involves him in a degree of danger. On at least one occasion he is mistaken for a US government nark; El Narco, his exposé of Mexican drug trafficking, was no less harum-scarum.
Though Gangster Warlords lacks the locker-room snooping and legwork that made El Narco such a visceral masterwork, it remains an absorbing work of reportage. Throughout, Grillo turns an appalled eye on the methods used to grow, stock, transport and protect shipments of narcotics. In order to understand cocaine, he intimates, you have to understand Mexico. Corrupt Mexican policemen are now mixed up in the transborder drug killings which, says Grillo, have become increasingly lurid. Bodies are no longer quietly dumped in the desert; they are displayed for all to see, and in some cases flayed or decapitated.
In place of the old Cold War certainties of “good against evil”, Latin America today offers no such clarity and seems only to mix crime and war together. Disconcertingly, the drug lords and their foot soldiers are often deified by the poor. A sainted, black-hooded reaper figure known as Nazario is worshipped alongside the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s first indigenous saint. The quasi-religious Nazario is named after the real-life Mexican crystal meth trafficker Nazario Moreno, who headed the bizarrely named Knights Templar Cartel until he died in a shoot-out with the police in 2014. Wretchedly, the rural dispossessed worship Nazario as if he were one of their own. Grillo argues that their baroque hybrid of Catholic and Meso-American Indian belief accords well with the narco-traffickers’ cult of death.
Not all traffickers die a martyr’s death at the hands of the police. On June 22 2010, after a five-week manhunt, Dudus was arrested at a roadblock in Kingston. With him in the car was a well-known evangelical reverend. They were on their way to the American Embassy where the reverend was going to turn Dudus in at his own request (he had not trusted the Jamaican police to keep him alive). Bizarrely, Dudus was wearing a woman’s wig and in possession of a second (pink) wig, along with a pair of women’s sunglasses. By this disguise he had sought to throw off police detection. In Jamaica, as in narco-territories elsewhere, drug dons wear exactly what they like.
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