Magazine article The Spectator

Get Shorty

Magazine article The Spectator

Get Shorty

Article excerpt

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers by Anabel Hernandez Verso, £16.99, pp. 304, ISBN 9781781680735 It is by now surely beyond doubt that those governments committed to fighting the war on drugs - and on paper that's all of them - face a total rout. To understand the scale of the defeat, all you need to know is that Barack Obama and David Cameron have both been unable to deny that they were once users.

The US spends more than a billion dollars a year on international narcotics control and as a result, as a US official in Colombia once told me, has forced up the price of a gram of cocaine in New York by just a few dollars.

That must have put drugs beyond the reach of a few potential consumers. But it seems a very modest achievement for a government programme that has enjoyed such sustained, cross-party support for decades.

While the benefits of the war on drugs are hard to measure, the negative impacts are more obvious. Anabel Hernandez has both investigated and documented the corrosive effect of the illegal trade in Mexico, where violence related to the drugs industry has killed tens of thousands. She describes how small-time drugs producers and smugglers in the 1970s managed to become some of the richest people on earth, buying off policemen, military officers, senior civil servants and national-level politicians.

Whole governmental institutions in Mexico have become so closely entwined with the producers that it's impossible to tell whose side officials are on. National heroes, decorated for challenging the producers, turn out to be villains, and politicians claiming to be on the side of law are revealed to be little more than employees of the cartels.

Much of Narcoland deals with the biggest boss of them all, Joaquin El Chapo ('Shorty') Guzman Loera, once listed by Forbes as the world's 55th most powerful man. The largely uneducated eldest son of a violent father, Guzman's power has matched that of successive Mexican presidents, some of whom he apparently bribed into submission.

In charting Guzman's ascent, Hernandez describes hair-raising set pieces such as the gathering Guzman convened in 2001 to bring together more than 25 heavily armed and distinctly edgy drugs barons in the city of Cuernavaca. …

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