Of the 45,000 deaths
thus far, says Grillo,
“each involves a real family,
a real story, real history.”
Ioan Grillo, author of the new book about the Mexican drug wars — “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” — has been covering Mexico for over 10 years for magazines and newspapers. He talked about his experiences covering Mexico Monday night at the Half King in Chelsea.
It was such a good talk and people asked such good questions that I decided to make use of the notes I always take at these things and write a bit about Grillo’s presentation. Though Half King is a pub/restaurant, things quiet down considerably when someone like Grillo steps up to the microphone. And because the mike didn’t work last night, people listened more attentively and more quietly than usual.
In 2004/05 when the violence in Mexicao started to get bad, the Houston Chronicle told Grillo he should “cover it like a war.” He began by getting to know addicts and he started to see the horrific transformation of Mexico through their eyes. “When I first got to Mexico in 2000,” he said, “it was a time of burgeoning democracy.” In a few years time, he said, tragic changes resulted in what he now calls a “low-intensity war.”
A single massacre in Mexico resulted in the deaths of 72 people. And killings take place every day. By comparison, the most Al Capone ever killed was 7 people — in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Of the 45,000 deaths thus far, says Grillo, “each involves a real family, a real story, real history.” The implications remain bad for most of the country. “Society operates quasi-normally, with electricity and schools running and yet you have this extraordinary thing running through all of it.” Franchises entrench themselves within a community and grow from there, enlisting locals and corrupting ongoing events.
Grillo says this kind of thing could happen in any number of countries with similar conditions, such as a weak government amid powerful organized crime. Brazil, parts of Africa and Jamaica are a few of the vulnerable places he mentioned.
The people of Mexico, says Grillo, are used by the drug cartels’ “machines of murder.” For payment of 1,000 pesos, or $85, they’ll take a human life. The head of the police in Mexico City used his own key to get into his home, where he encountered assassins who shot him dead. Police from his own force had been co-opted by the cartel and gave the assassins access. “Your best defense as a journalist,” he says, “is not to piss anybody off.” Five people who contributed information for the book have been murdered. Even the elite and the political class feel scared, but they are divided among themselves and cannot find common ground from which to attack the problem. The cartels now run massive kidnapping schemes as well.
At the end of his talk, Grillo listed three major areas of reform:
1. Realistically assess current policy and be realistic about future policy. The war on drugs isn’t working. The ludicrous UN motto: “A drug-free world. We can make it happen.” There is now a considerable drug trade within Mexico. As for the United States, both the US and Mexico have a role in this. 90% of the cocaine in this country comes from Mexico, for example. And, says Grillo, “It’s impossible to shut down the border.”
2. Rehabilitate communities within Mexico. Nothing comes into the impoverished communities. Imagine what good 1,000 social workers could do, says Grillo. “We’ve found that kids just doing art in class discover a worth in themselves and want to make a choice about how their life goes.”
3. Build a unified police force throughout all of Mexico. Right now police operate independently from town to town.