Anabel Hernández’s breakthrough book chronicles the rise of Mexico’s most prominent drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The book was published in Mexico as Los Señores del Narco in 2010 and became a bestseller overnight. Translated by Verso as Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers in 2013, the book has been positively received in the United States as well. Spanning three decades and tracing cartel links across the Western Hemisphere, the book is a compelling work of investigative journalism, providing an extensive history of the Sinaloa Cartel from its beginning as a marijuana growing clique in the 1980s, to the ascension of its boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, to one of Forbes magazine’s “most influential people in the world.”
Soon after the book’s release Hernández began to receive death threats because she exposed and documented what many people had suspected, that the political establishment of both major political parties were in bed with narcotraffickers. Her book also caused a stir since it was released four years into Mexico’s disastrous “war on drugs,” the centerpiece of Felipe Calderón’s government. Unfortunately, the intimidation and killing of journalists have become common in Mexico, and the cooperation between the government and the cartels relies on silence from the media. But Narcoland does not refrain from naming names.
The book opens with El Chapo Guzmán tied up like a pig in the back of a raggedy pick-up truck across the border in Guatemala. He was trying to escape Mexican authorities after they had charged him with the murder of the archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. Of course, El Chapo had not killed the archbishop. Guzmán didn’t know it then, but he had been framed by his bosses and by the Mexican government. In one of many revelations, Hernández proves that it was the Mexican government that had killed the archbishop. The state wanted him dead because he was arming rebel groups. El Chapo had been framed and he remained in jail from 1993 until his escape in 2001.
Delving deep into the history of drug cartels, Hernández traces the rise of Mexican cartels as the Colombian cartels are losing their trafficking routes into the United States. The Mexican cartels, still small but growing powerful, strike gold when they are approached by their most powerful patron, the United States government. Through the 1980s and ’90s, the American CIA coordinated the operation of several drug trafficking routes with the help of Mexican cartels, using a fleet of private jets to ship cocaine into the United States and return loaded with weapons for the counterrevolutionary contras in Nicaragua—a right-wing guerrilla force seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government. Hernández also reveals that the CIA was training right-wing Guatemalan paramilitaries at a ranch owned by the drug lord Rafael Caro-Quintero in the state of Veracruz.
Besides a genealogy of the Sinaloa cartel and the role of the CIA, the main purpose of the book is to document how Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán became the most powerful drug lord in the world. There are several chapters meticulously tracing the bribes El Chapo paid from inside the maximum-security prison of Puente Grande in Guadalajara. Disproving the official account of El Chapo’s escape from prison, Hernández reveals that El Chapo did not escape in a laundry cart but in fact walked out of Puente Grande with the full awareness and protection of Mexican authorities. Once out of prison, he was able to consolidate his power with the help of the Mexican government, especially during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, of the PAN (National Action Party) responsible for launching “the war on drugs” in Mexico.
Packed full of details and hair-raising stories, it is not an easy read, and the clunky translation doesn’t help. The book was written with a Mexican audience in mind and culturally-specific idioms get lost in translation. There are other more substantial problems with the book. Hernández takes a moralistic antidrug stance, and the underlying assumption is that all we need are good, upright politicians and authorities to put Mexico on the right track. She also reflects glaring prejudices, such as her contempt for poorly educated people—especially drug lords. This is a common bias, particularly of the urban middle classes in Mexico. It is unfortunate since Hernández herself has reported widely on the abject poverty of farming communities that supply the cartels.
Earlier this year El Chapo was captured and the Sinaloa cartel came under new management. These developments do not make the book any less useful; on the contrary, it is more relevant. Recent reports have shed new light on the involvement of the US government with Mexican drug cartels. In 2013, for example, an investigation by Proceso revealed that the 1985 murder of the DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was not carried out by the drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, but by CIA agents working in Guadalajara at the time. While working in Mexico in the 1980s, Camarena discovered that the CIA was working with Mexican drug cartels to arm and finance the contras. In the interview with Proceso, former DEA agent Hector Berrellez revealed that Camarena was killed by the Cuban national and CIA agent Felix Ismael Rodriguez—the same man who captured Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.
Another recent investigation by the Mexican newspaper El Universal revealed that the US government had an agreement to finance and arm the Sinaloa cartel in exchange for information used to take down its rivals. In a meeting that took place on Mexican soil, presumably without permission of Mexican authorities, the DEA, the FBI, and attorneys from the US Department of Justice met with leading figures of the Sinaloa cartel to strike a deal. The report by El Universal also reveals that the US government armed the Sinaloa cartel through the Arizona field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) from 2006–2011.
These events, like those chronicled in Hernández’s book, reveal that both the Mexican and the US governments have never been interested in combating drug trafficking or drug cartels. On the contrary, both governments protect and use the cartels for their own purposes. Of course, this isn’t news for those who have followed drug war politics since the 1980s, and many would shrug at the revelations in Hernández’s book. However, Narcoland has really struck a cord in Mexico. As British journalist George Orwell once said, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. Let’s hope that this book inspires a revolutionary response.