Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers – Book Review

If there is a sacred cow grazing in the fertile pasture of Mexican writing about the drug war, Los Señores del Narco is it. Written by investigative journalist Anabel Hernández and published in Mexico in 2010, it will come out this fall in English as Narcoland.

Reviewed: Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers, by Anabel Hernández, Verso. Forthcoming: September 2013. (Epub edition).

If there is a sacred cow grazing in the fertile pasture of Mexican writing about the drug war, Los Señores del Narco is it. Written by investigative journalist Anabel Hernández and published in Mexico in 2010, it will come out this fall in English as Narcoland with Verso.

Backed up by secret files obtained by the author, high-level interviews conducted over a five-year period, and access to deeply involved informants, Hernández sets out a version of the drug war that has become an increasingly popular interpretation of the events that have transformed Mexico over the past years.

After former president Felipe Calderón declared a war on drug traffickers in December 2006, the army and federal police were deployed throughout the country on the premise of combatting narcotrafficking. Over the same six years, the murder rate spiked, and at least 120,000 people were murdered, as well as over 27,000 disappeared. Since 2007, the US and Mexico have tightened security cooperation, and Washington stepped up anti-drug funding to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative.

Dense, sprawling and detailed, Narcoland is a worthwhile read, though the narrow, sometimes moralistic bent of Hernández’ analysis can result in an oversimplification of the actors – and victims – of this war. Her version of events implicates high-level officials in acts of corruption and complicity that have favored one particular drug trafficking organization: the Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

“During its so-called war on drugs, the Calderón government dealt some much-publicized blows to members of the Sinaloa cartel, in an attempt to distract public attention away from the many clues to its complicity with that organization,” writes Hernández. Regardless, she writes, the government only went after mid-level players and “never struck at the heart of the cartel: its top leaders and its core business.” Narcoland explains how to this day, the Mexico City airport remains the “main artery” of the Sinaloa Cartel’s trafficking activities, with the government failing to act on intelligence that the group is operating from there.

There’s no doubt that Hernández is a brave journalist, one who names names even when the players are powerful political, police and military figures. There are plenty of goodies in Narcoland, details of interest for anyone seeking to better understand what has taken place over the last six or seven years in Mexico.

For example, Hernández looks at the role of Banamex, a Mexican bank, and its role in money laundering. She examines how anti-kidnapping police were in fact coordinating kidnappings and ransom payments. And she meticulously tracks how many of today’s cartel members were once police and military officers.

The book opens by re-examining El Chapo’s escape from Puente Grande prison in January 2001, discarding rumors that he escaped from the jail in a laundry cart.

Instead, she writes, “Dressed in a [Federal Preventative Police – PFP] Uniform, his face concealed by a regulation police helmet and mask, Joaquín Guzmán walked out of prison surrounded by a group of PFP officers.” Here, with the exception of taking a tone that sometimes drifts towards moralizing, she convincingly demonstrates a network of complicity among prison officials and police in the escape.

Hernández also reveals the underside of the killing of journalist Manuel Buendía in 1984, connecting his death to information he had about the CIA’s role in drug trafficking.

According to a DEA report cited by Hernández, Buendía got information that  “Guatemalan guerrillas were training at a ranch owned by Rafael Caro-Quintero in Vera Cruz [sic] state. The operations/training at the camp were conducted by the American CIA, using the [DFS – Mexican Directorate of Federal Security] as a cover, in the event any questions were raised…”[1]

Lawrence Victor Harrison, alias Torre Blanca, was a US citizen who worked as a short wave radio technician for various drug barons through the late 1980s and the 1990s. Harrison told investigators “…DFS representatives oversaw the training camp and allowed traffickers to move drugs through Mexico to the United States.” When Mexican police attempted to enter the ranch, 19 officers were killed.

Being privy to this and other information linking the CIA to drugs and arms trafficking turned out to be deadly. Forty days after going to the DFS head for advice on how to proceed, writes Hernández, Buendía was killed by the security officers from the same organization he had sought advice from, as was his source. A third individual “who had given Buendía information about CIA arms smuggling allegedly suffered a bomb attack while traveling in Costa Rica,” according to the DEA report. According to Hernandez, this report “confirms that it was the CIA that really operated the drugs smuggling and the secret landing strips that were used.”

Narcoland generally maintains that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is an upstanding organization, which sometimes enters into relationships with questionable figures, primarily Genaro Garcia Luna, the head of Public Security during Felipe Calderón’s term. In fact, the author credits a DEA agent with confirming her “growing conviction” that it was crucial to investigate and report on the activities of El Chapo and the drug trade in Mexico.

In spite of such insights, there are a handful of cringe-worthy proclamations in Narcoland, which take away from an otherwise carefully-investigated and written examination of the Calderón government’s drug war.

Here’s one example, with reference to narco leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada: “He boasts of having at least five other sets of wives and children, otherwise he could hardly call himself a narco.” Hernández claims Guzmán is “obsessed” with sex and that his appetite for junk food is “insatiable,” that Los Zetas are “drug traffickers, kidnappers, and evil through and through,” and that Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias La Barbie, was a “born killer.” She also compares Zeta founder Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano to the Roman Emperor Nero.

One section of the book, entitled “Inside a drug baron’s head,” is heavy on conjectures about kingpins’ “weakness for drugs and drink” and their alleged fetishization of higher education.

These extrapolations about drug traffickers create a framework where instead of coming out of particular social and political circumstances, the men involved in high level trafficking are no longer considered regular men, but evil monsters. This draws readers away from an analysis of the conflict based on documents and interviews, and towards a soap opera version of events rooted in conceptions of good vs. evil. This dichotomy serves to obscure how enforced poverty and the lack of education and work opportunities are crucial factors in explaining the swelling ranks of men and women willing to carry out criminal activity. These structural factors have been exaggerated by free market policies, bank bailouts and austerity programs, in particular since the 1980s. To gloss over these issues and focus on how narco-bosses are inherently bad people does little to help readers understand the social and economic terrain of drug trafficking in Mexico.

To the detriment of Narcoland, Hernández leans on the shaky theory that drug violence has spilled over from Mexico into Central America and that there is the potential for spillover violence from Mexico into the US.

This weakness in her analysis is partly linked to the fact that the US role in funding the war in Mexico through the Merida Initiative is confined to a single footnote in the text. Had she included a more thorough examination of the US role in Mexico, and the correlation between that involvement and rising violence, she may have been more able to explain the reasons why drug violence has also risen in Central America. The United States government has admitted that it is their anti-drugs programs that move drug violence from place to place. “Just as Plan Colombia helped push the focus of criminal activity and presence north to Mexico, so has the impact of the Merida Initiative pushed the same activities into Central America itself,” said William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The idea that drug violence randomly “spills over” from one place to another is, quite simply, naïve.

Additionally, the notion that drug violence has spilled over the US border US has been disproven time and again by statistics collected in US counties all along the line. A 2013 report carried out by the Government Accountability Office, found “violent and property crimes were lower in 2011 than in 2004” in the counties along the southwest border with Mexico.

But by far the biggest weakness of Narcoland is the insinuation that the killings of innocents are those that take place by accident. As Hernández writes, “In [the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Guerrero and Morelos], body parts from one side or the other turn up on an almost daily basis – not to mention the many innocent individuals who perish in the crossfire.”

This is an unfortunate and untruthful assertion, which ignores the fact that few killings are ever investigated. This lack of justice and legal inquiry often makes determining the activities of the dead little more than guesswork. In the rare cases where there have been investigations into who the dead are (including those who were tortured, who turned up in mass graves, and/or whose bodies were disfigured after death), authorities often determine that the victims were migrants, day laborers, farmers, or people not knowingly involved in the drug trade. These are not victims who caught in the “cross fire,” rather, they were assassinated in planned events, sometimes after kidnapping or extortion attempts.

The massacre in La Libertad, Guatemala in May of 2011, the massacre in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon the following May, and the multiple massacres in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010 and 2011, are gruesome examples of how civilians are being killed and massacred, and how those killings are linked to the violence and impunity stemming from the drug war. All four of the above mentioned massacres were blamed on Los Zetas, and investigations into the intellectual authors of these horrendous acts have gone nowhere.

In Juárez, during the worst of the violence, “General Jorge Juarez, in charge of the mission in Ciudad Juarez and the rest of Chihuahua State at the time, told reporters they should stop writing about ‘one more death’ and instead print that there was ‘one less criminal.’” This attitude, which justifies the killings carried out by state forces or other armed groups, is shockingly prevalent among military, police and even civilian officials in Mexico.

Though Hernández’ aim is to discredit the strategy of the Calderón government’s drug war, and uncover the rampant corruption in the political, legal and police and military system, she also implies that the majority of the people killed over Calderón’s term were involved in criminal activities. In doing so, she reinforces one of the most problematic aspects of government propaganda with relation to the war.

Dawn Paley is an investigative journalist from Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website at, or follow her on twitter @dawn_.


[1] It is far more likely that the Guatemalans allegedly being trained were not guerrillas but Contra or counterinsurgent (paramilitary) forces. Otherwise, the CIA would have been training the same guerrillas that the US was funding a genocidal war to destroy in Guatemala.