The Godfathers of "Narcoland"

By Tomas HachardNovember 15, 2013

The Godfathers of "Narcoland"

Narcoland by Anabel Hernández

THE INDICATOR OF A CORRUPT SOCIETY is often not how many criminals are on the streets but how easily they break out of jail.

Pablo Escobar knew this. In 1991, he willingly placed himself under arrest, safe in the knowledge that Colombia would not extradite him to the US after he did so. “I could not remain indifferent to the longings for peace of the vast majority of the Colombian people,” he said. The jail he went to, though, was not one suited to curtailing his drug empire or stopping the violence that came with it. In fact, he had built the facility himself, donning it “The Cathedral.” From behind bars, he continued to run his drug trade and lived with all the luxuries, which included, as recounted in an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, getting the Colombian national soccer team to come play a game of pickup with him.

Then, a year later, as easily as he came in, Escobar escaped, though a verb of such daring doesn’t really apply to what happened here. After the government tried to increase security at The Cathedral, Pablo walked out. “He and his brother Roberto” writes Mark Bowden in Killing Pablo “led a small group of his men uphill, past the camouflaged cabanas, cut a hole in the wire fence, and walked over the top of the hill — and right past soldiers either too friendly or too intimidated to stop them.” Afterward, in a celebratory piece of goading, Escobar offered to return to jail, so long as the government would let him go back to the Cathedral.

Anabel Hernández’s Narcoland, released in Spanish in 2010 and translated into English this year, focuses on Mexico rather than Escobar’s Colombia, detailing the corruption that has allowed her country to become overrun by unprecedented levels of drug violence in the past 10 years. The book begins, though, with a prison escape not unlike Escobar’s.

Hernández’s main subject, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, is the notorious leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and, as of 2011, the world’s most wanted man according to Forbes. In 1993, however, he was low on the rungs of Mexico’s drug trade. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the death of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who was killed in what was deemed at the time to be a shootout between Guzmán and two rival drug dealers, the Arellano Félix brothers. Seven years later, Guzmán escaped from the maximum security prison in which he was being held, Puente Grande, by hiding in a laundry cart. Or so the story goes.

One of Narcoland’s primary feats is its revelation of the truth about Guzmán’s time in prison. First, Hernández shows how Guzmán was framed for the murder of Cardinal Ocampo, an easy way for Guzmán’s boss, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, to get rid of a volatile member of his gang at the time. But more importantly, Hernández uses sworn statements and trial documents to demonstrate how on June 19, 2001, Guzmán didn’t pull off a masterly jailbreak. He may not have gone to jail as the head of a drug cartel like Escobar did. But as with Escobar, Guzmán’s escape was more akin to a release:

Dressed in a PFP uniform, his face concealed by a regulation police helmet and mask, Joaquín Guzmán walked out of the prison surrounded by a group of PFP officers. He was then driven a few miles in an official vehicle. At some point down the road, he got out of the car and into a helicopter which flew him to Nayarit. That was where the real legend of Joaquín Guzmán began.

The story that Hernández unfolds from there — one that centers on Guzmán but takes us deep into the world of others gangs like Los Zetas and the Gulf and Juarez Cartels as well  — shows the near-complete impunity from which criminals benefit in Mexico mostly due to government complicity.


After leaving Puente Grande, Guzmán, having developed relationships with important members of the Mexican government, proceeded to quickly become the leader of an ever-expanding Sinaloa cartel. The leaders of other cartels either joined him — as the Juarez group, among others, did — or became embroiled in a war against him. The catch, however, is that fighting Guzmán meant fighting the Mexican government. In Narcoland, Hernández shows how, beginning with Vicente Fox, elected in 2000, and continuing through to Felipe Calderon, Fox’s successor from 2006 to 2012 and the man behind Mexico’s infamous war on drugs, government efforts to tame the cartels conveniently targeted only Guzmán’s enemies.

This is how Guillermo Ramírez Peyro, a former assassin for the Juarez Cartel and informer to US immigration enforcement, describes it:

President Fox had decided to coordinate and consult with the Juárez Cartel. He [Fox] would attack the opposing cartels like those of Tijuana and the Gulf; then the Juárez Cartel could work without the government being on top of them.

Calderon’s war on drugs would continue the same strategy and so extend what Hernández writes is “the collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality.”

“These are the true godfathers of Narcoland,” she continues, “the true lords of the drug world.”

Narcoland is a book replete with similarly outraged passages, the kind that only someone directly affected by the drug wars could write. (Hernández’s father was a victim of the cartels’ violence). But the book is also a methodical work of journalism. It compiles many of the horrible stories and statistics we have heard of elsewhere — the military’s complicity in kidnappings, the horrid deaths and torture, the blighted futures faced by kids living in areas controlled by the cartels — while courageously naming names high up the chain of command — all the way up, in fact, to Genaro Garcia Luna and Calderon, the two main targets of her investigation.

It’s Garcia Luna who Hernández has particular distaste for. Coming up through the government ranks, Garcia Luna eventually became Calderon’s Secretary of Public Security, a post that put him at the center of the war on drugs. “Nobody could look him in the eye,” Hernández writes. “Nobody trusted him. He has been publicly questioned over his sudden personal wealth, including more than 40 million pesos’ worth ($2.8 million in 2010) of real estate in Mexico City and Morelos. He has so far been unable to explain how he grew so affluent on a civil servant’s salary.”

Meanwhile, the department Garcia Luna presided over was far from efficient. Hernández reports that, of Garcia Luna’s “sixteen closest collaborators [while he was Secretary of Public Security], twelve were killed, forced to resign, taken to court, or jailed. That’s over two thirds. The ones who were meant to be fighting the ‘war on drug trafficking’ were accused of being in league with the traffickers.”

It’s the kind of complicity and failure that plagued Calderon’s entire effort. “Of the 53,174 arrests made in the four years to 2010 [the first four years of Calderon’s presidency] for either involvement in organized crime or criminal association … only 941 were connected with El Chapo Guzmán’s cartel.” The collusion is clear, and if Hernández never entirely completes a case against Calderon for being directly responsible, his close relationship to Garcia Luna, against whom the evidence is much clearer, casts a mighty shadow over the former President.


One cannot understate Hernández’s courage in writing the book. Mexico is not a country benefitting from freedom of the press at the moment. Journalists are repeatedly targeted, intimidated, and killed for what they write; many newspapers have either stopped covering the violence or begun publishing stories without bylines. Since her book was published in Mexico, Hernández has been under full time police watch.

Such a sad fate for the country’s journalism industry is just part of how the drug wars have infused Mexican society almost entirely — the country’s justice system is incapable of prosecuting the criminals, their social programs can’t provide a way out of poverty that does not involve the drug trade, and as Hernández’s book makes abundantly clear, the political system is equally corrupted. Meanwhile, Narco Corridos, a genre of music that sets the glorified stories of cartel members to anthemic song, are growing ever more popular in the country. The phenomenon is documented by the upcoming documentary Narco Cultura, in which the Juarez journalist Sandra Rodriguez bluntly analyzes what the music’s growing influence means: “It’s a symptom of how defeated we are as a society.”

With such a context in mind, Narcoland’s account of government corruption risks affirming the growing feeling that Mexico’s problems are too engrained to allow for any solution. Yet Hernández does provide a historical context that helps us understand what has and hasn’t changed in the past 30 years to make the current situation seems so intractable.

What hasn’t changed is the government’s involvement in the drug trade. Prior to Fox’s election win in 2000 as leader of the National Action Party (PAN), Mexico was ruled for 71 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which holds office again today under President Enrique Peña Nieto. During their first several decades in power, the PRI’s attitude toward the drug trade was remarkably hands-on. Cartels were allowed to conduct their affairs so long as they paid the needed bribes and secured the necessary permissions from politicians both local and federal.

It wasn’t just the Mexican government who saw opportunity in working with the drug lords. Hernández also details how during the Iran-Contra affair, the US government used the cartels to covertly send supplies to Nicaragua. In exchange, the United States permitted the cartels to pass drugs across the border with ease.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rules of the game started changing. “The politicians wanted the drug money: they wanted it for themselves, for their private businesses, and for their political campaigns,” an informant tells Hernández. That might seem a subtle change in attitude, but it meant that political permission for drug dealing turned into direct involvement. “There was no longer any idea of keeping the drug trade separate from politics,” the informant continues. “And drug trafficking was now carried out, not just by the drug barons, but by politicians and public officials as well.” Eventually, such direct meddling by politicians turned into Calderon’s war on drugs, where the army came to serve as Guzmán’s militia.

What has quite obviously and tragically changed in the past four decades, however, is the level of violence, both in numbers and in brutality. The stories are chilling: one assassin has admitted to killing hundreds of people and dissolving their bodies in acid. The full totality of the problem, meanwhile, still isn’t known, precisely because no one seems to want to ascertain it. Some statistics — the 80,000 dead and 20,000 disappeared during Calderon’s presidency — have, by this point been repeated to the point of numbing their effect. But the problem goes far beyond what we know; it’s precisely all the information we don’t have that’s most alarming. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report indicated that only 997 investigations had been opened into the 35,000 drug war-related deaths from the previous four years. And of those 997, only 22 had resulted in any convictions. Government complicity may not be new, but given the current reality of the situation, it takes on a much darker dimension.


For Hernández, such abetment is wrong in principle, not degree. If there’s any problem with her book — apart from occasionally clunky writing, particularly at the book’s start, and an aggravating and confusing decision to continuously switch between her subject’s first names, last names, and nicknames — it’s that the vision she provides for how to fix Mexico’s mess is too unwilling to recognize that a full victory against the drug trade may never be possible.

Speaking at NYU earlier this fall, Hernández argued that neither the US nor the Mexican government had ever waged a “true” war on drugs, both in terms of consumption and distribution, a claim that indicates what kind of effort Hernández thinks is necessary to solve Mexico’s problems: a more forceful and all-encompassing attack on the drug trade, one that includes going after the businessmen and politicians whose money and consent helps support the violence.

In some senses, that goes against a growing trend toward considering alternate solutions, particularly legalization. Former President Fox is one of many who have recently clamored for such a move (he believes all drugs should be legalized), joining the Presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, who have both argued in favor of legalizing marijuana, as well as the government of Uruguay, which recently passed legislation to do just that.

Hernández hardly speaks of legalization in her book except to question Fox’s motives for holding such a position. And while speaking at NYU, she outright rejected the position. But it’s hard to read parts of her book and not think of what changes legalization might bring to the country. This is particularly true when Hernández’s informant describes the cooperation between the government and the cartels prior to the 1980s — a time of relative peace:

The drug traffickers paid a kind of “tax” to the federal government — sixty dollars per kilo. Twenty dollars were for the local army commander, twenty for the PJF [Federal Judicial Police], and another twenty for the DFS [the federal intelligence agency prior to 1985]. Inside the federal police, each regional coordinator took a cut of this money to pay for weapons, offices, equipment, and the wages of the assistants. These weren’t bribes, they were a tax authorized at the highest level … In particular, of the money charged by the PJF to the traffickers, half remained to cover the police’s own expenses, while the other half went to the attorney general’s office.

There’s no doubting that this is still corruption, perhaps of a kind that inevitably leads to the violence of the past two decades. But, as Gene Bolton of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs points out, one of the arguments for legalization is that “[Mexican] authorities are unable to compete financially with the drug cartels operating inside their borders when it comes to maintaining the ethic of public interest within their police forces.”

In other words, with so much money to be made from the drug trade, it’s inevitable that many in power will choose wealth over the law. As it stands now, though, the money stays in their pockets rather than benefitting the rest of society. In Mexico City, the municipal government recently introduced a measure to legalize marijuana, after which one of the assemblymen working on the legislation made the point: “We cannot hope for a drug-free world. But we can hope to limit the damage and take the profits away from organized crime.”

By taking the money, legalization, or at the very least something in that direction, has the potential of reducing violence and corruption just enough so that other, more long-term strategies can become feasible, including one that Hernández rightfully makes a case for in the book: policies that offer disenfranchised children opportunities apart from the aspiration of becoming “drug traffickers, hopefully with a fleet of SUVs and plenty of women.” In the midst of a war, social reforms like that can seem hard to fathom.

That said, there’s no point in pretending that legalization, whether only of marijuana or of harder drugs as well, would solve all of Mexico’s problems. As Hernández points out, the cartels rely on drugs for only part of their profits; much comes from extortion, kidnapping, piracy, and various other endeavors that would continue to bring violence upon the country, regardless of the final decision on drugs. Vanda Felbab Brown of the Brookings Institute similarly argues that:

Legalization is not a panacea. There are no shortcuts to improving Mexico’s law enforcement. Without a capable and accountable police that are responsive to the needs of the people from tackling street crime to suppressing organized crime and that are backed-up by an efficient, accessible, and transparent justice system, neither legal nor illegal economies will be well-managed by the state.

Yet it seems equally foolhardy to pretend that doubling down on a failed project like a war on drugs will bring heretofore unseen success. For one, the deeper you start looking into the problem in Mexico, the more you start running into a battle against human nature: the country has a particularly rampant problem with drug violence, but no country has ever managed to rid itself of that scourge completely; Mexico’s politicians may be particularly susceptible to corruption, but no country can completely prevent that temptation from appealing to some who hold power.


One particular moment in Narcoland highlights the deep-seated issues that run alongside the violence and drugs in Mexico. In recounting Guzmán’s wealth (Forbes put it at $1 billion) Hernández notes how it places him on par with some of the wealthiest businessmen in Mexico: the owners and main shareholders of media conglomerates and banks. Guzmán’s impunity, of course, results from his wealth, not from how he earns it. That fact is by no means lost on Hernández. She quotes the journalist Edgardo Buscaglia, for whom she has clear admiration, at length on that very point:

They [politicians] pretend that by sending in valiant soldiers or marines, the violence will decrease. But it won’t. Sending the troops or the police will only produce results if at the same time you’re dismantling the billion-dollar fortunes of the seven main criminal organizations in Mexico; if the criminals begin to worry that their companies and trust funds are being decommissioned, and that they no longer have the resources to finance more corruption and more violence.

But the problem of multibillionaires getting what they desire — even when it is to the severe detriment of the rest of the population — is not Mexico’s problem alone and certainly not one that a war on drugs alone can solve. The Scarface principle applies universally and to all occupations. Hernández is right that castrating the Cartels requires going after their finances. And legalization is not going to achieve that completely. For one thing, the United States would have to join the effort in lockstep. But it’s certainly a move in the right direction.

What’s beyond doubt, meanwhile, is the stark reality of present-day Mexico: notwithstanding the recent comments from President Peña Nieto about promoting new social programs to combat the violence, the country sits in a sadly similar place to where it was two decades ago. To realize how much that is true one need only look to Puente Grande, the prison Guzmán walked out of in 2001. On August 9, Rafael Caro Quintero, a long time cartel boss in jail for killing a DEA agent in 1985, was let out of the same jail. The details of his release, as Patrick Radden Keefe reported them for The New Yorker, are frustratingly familiar: “[Caro Quintero] was set free on a technicality, and walked out of the prison at 2 AM. As soon as U.S. officials learned of the release, they demanded that Mexico rearrest Caro Quintero. But by that time he had disappeared.” Like Guzmán and Escobar before him, Caro Quintero had found his freedom at last. 


Tomas Hachard's most recent article for LARB is "Carousel Country: Of Power Wars and Populism in Argentina."

LARB Contributor

Tomas Hachard is an Editorial Assistant for Guernica Magazine. He has written about art, politics, and himself for NPR, The Morning News, and The Millions, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @thachard.


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