Benjamins or Bullets: How Mexico Became a Narco-Democracy

"Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers" by Anabel Hernández "The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail" by Óscar Martínez Reviewed by Marcela Valdes Columbia Journalism Review. November 1, 2013.

This is how it used to work: In the 1970s farmers would pay Mexican officials for permission to plant hectares of marijuana or poppy. “Once the fields had been sown,” an anonymous source tells Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, “they stuck little colored flags on them, according to the arrangement. This meant that when the [government] helicopters flew over, instead of fumigating them they would water them.”

Drug traffickers also paid fees to store their harvest in warehouses, and again to smuggle the drugs over the border into the United States. Through such under-the-table “taxes,” which amounted to about $60 a kilo, the Mexican government fattened its coffers while controlling the production and movement of drugs within its borders.

Today the servant has become the master. Cartels dominate not only large portions of Mexico’s government, but also much of the country’s civil society. Their payroll includes not just army personnel, police officers, intelligence agents, prison guards, business owners, and politicians, but also soda vendors, tortilla sellers, and gas-station attendants. Under their rule, fear has reached legendary proportions throughout Mexico. A man in Ciudad Juárez tells journalist Óscar Martínez that he’s afraid to use public bathrooms because he doesn’t want to find decapitated heads. “It sounds at first like he’s paranoid, or crazy,” Martínez writes, “but it’s happened to him twice.”

How did the Mexican government lose control of its traffickers? An answer can be found in two new books: Hernández’s Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers and Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Together they provide a top-down, bottom-up view of how Mexican cartels have consolidated and corporatized in the past two decades. As the cartels have integrated vertically, destroyed their competition, and diversified their interests, their business has grown more efficient—and so has their cruelty. In fact, a short version of Hernández’ book might run like this: Government officials thought they were training sheep; instead they were raising wolves.

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