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Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America
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Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America

by Ioan Grillo

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"Without this testimony, we simply cannot grasp what is going on . . . Americans would do well to read [Gangster Warlords]." --The New York Times Book Review

On a ranch south of Texas, the man known as The Executioner leaves five hundred body parts in metal barrels. In Brazil's biggest city, a mysterious prisoner orders hit men to gun down


"Without this testimony, we simply cannot grasp what is going on . . . Americans would do well to read [Gangster Warlords]." --The New York Times Book Review

On a ranch south of Texas, the man known as The Executioner leaves five hundred body parts in metal barrels. In Brazil's biggest city, a mysterious prisoner orders hit men to gun down forty-one police officers and prison guards in two days. In southwest Mexico, a meth maker is venerated as a saint while enforcing Old Testament justice on his enemies.

A new kind of criminal kingpin has arisen: a hybrid of CEO, terrorist, and part rock star, commanding guerrilla attacks, strong-arming governments, and taking over much of the world's trade in narcotics, guns, and humans. What they do affects you now--from the gas in your car, to the gold in your jewelry, to the tens of thousands of Latin Americans calling for refugee status in the United States. Gangster Warlords is the first definitive account of the crime wars unleashing humanitarian disaster in Central and South America and the Caribbean, regions largely abandoned by the United States after the Cold War. Author of the critically acclaimed El Narco, Ioan Grillo has covered Latin America since 2001 and gained access up the cartel chain of command in what he calls the new battlefields of the Americas. Moving between militia-controlled ghettos and the halls of top policymakers, Grillo provides a disturbing new understanding of a war that has spiraled out of control--and needs to be confronted now.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A vitally important book." —starred review, Library Journal

"A striking exploration of the horrors of mass violence in the Western Hemisphere, with the author offering hope that radical policies could provide positive change." —Kirkus Reviews

"Grillo's diligently researched story has as many colorful characters and as much dramatic plot as any good piece of fiction might, but his is the real deal . . . Gangster Warlords is journalism at its finest." —Shelf Awareness

"There has quite simply never been a book like this before . . . Taut and endlessly revelatory, Gangster Warlords is required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the drug wars taking place in Latin America today--and especially for any Americans who might imagine it’s just 'their' problem." —Scott Anderson, bestselling author of LAWRENCE IN ARABIA

"Grillo's new book is steely-eyed and sensitive reporting on the criminal kings at the front-lines of the continental catastrophe called the war on drugs." —Daniel Hernandez, author of DOWN & DELIRIOUS IN MEXICO CITY

"With El Narco, Mr. Grillo gave us an unprecedented glimpse into the vicious world of Mexican drug cartels. In Gangster Warlords, he masterfully expands the criminal landscape to include villains across Latin America and the Caribbean. The depth and detail he provides on fearsome organizations like the Red Commando in Brazil and the Shower Posse in Jamaica cast a much-needed spotlight on groups not regularly featured in US media. A sobering and fascinating look at deadly gangsters in often-neglected corners of our own hemisphere." —Sylvia Longmire, author of CARTEL and BORDER INSECURITY

"Something new and terrible is happening in the Americas. It has murdered a million people in ten years, and yet we don’t fully understand it. Until now. Combining hair-raising reporting with erudite analysis, Grillo has written an indispensable guide to the new world disorder." —Richard Grant, author of GOD'S MIDDLE FINGER

"The stories in Gangster Warlords offer a dramatic portrait of a region torn by poverty, dysfunctional politics and the bloody allure of crime. Grillo has written a riveting Latin American tragedy. If only it were fiction." —León Krauze, Univision

"Ioan Grillo captures the power and the horror of the Latin American drug cartels with unrivaled reporting and riveting writing. With Gangster Warlords, he once again proves his mastery of interweaving the broader context with vivid, on-the-ground journalism to provide readers with a street level view of a complex war fought without clear front lines." —Matthew Heineman, director of CARTEL LAND

Publishers Weekly
Investigative journalist Grillo (El Narco) presents a comprehensive, if grim, look at four major organized crime groups— Mexico’s Knights Templar, Central America’s Mara Salvatrucha, Jamaica’s Shower Posse, and Brazil’s Red Commando—and the men who run them. Few readers will be familiar with the cartels, despite the international scope of their reach and the bloody toll of their violence, which makes this account all the more shocking. Grillo describes the leaders as “a weird hybrid of criminal CEO, gangster rock star, and paramilitary general” and enlivens his characterizations with horrifying statistics: for example, between 2007 and 2014, more than 80,000 people were killed in Mexico by drug cartels and the police forces opposing them. Historical context, such as a survey of Jamaican political and criminal history in the last 50 years, gives depth to the narrative. Sadly, the logical solutions Grillo offers on drug policy reform, including “a huge overhaul in the police and justice systems” in Latin America, are not likely to be implemented anytime soon, so his attempt to end this otherwise harrowing account on hopeful note seems contrived. (Jan.)
Library Journal
★ 10/15/2015
Journalist Grillo (El Narco) defines gangster warlords as supervillains running drug rackets who also command militias to rule their spheres of operation in a mixture of crime and war. The violence of these newer crime groups of the Americas is staggering, with over one million murders between 2000 and 2010. Grillo traveled extensively to interview hundreds of people for their stories as he searched for structural and political causes that result in bloodshed. He offers testimonies on four criminal organizations: the Red Commando in Brazil, the Shower Posse in Jamaica, Central America's Mara Salvatrucha, and Mexico's Knights Templar. Grillo's theories emerge through narratives that include gangs, religious cults, and urban guerrillas. Possible resolutions are considered—reform drug policy (e.g., legalize marijuana, provide addiction treatment), build justice systems (effective courts, for example), transform ghettos (build roads, open schools, educate the young). VERDICT This is a vitally important book because, as the author writes, "how we as a society deal with this challenge could determine whether these gangster warlords are a blip in history or get even deeper into our communities and lives."—Krista Bush, Shelton, CT
Kirkus Reviews
British journalist Grillo (El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, 2011) risks life and limb to interview gangsters, police, and victims of violence in this harrowing account of Latin American crime syndicates. The author focuses on four criminal hotspots: Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and Central America. In each, he describes the impoverished landscape and blood-soaked history of the region, explaining the origins of certain crime networks and the national trauma they have wrought. Grillo has an impressive eye for detail: he writes vividly about pet dogs in Honduran prisons, the piecemeal construction of Jamaican garrisons, and the exact smell of a Mexican mass grave. The author's prose style is levelheaded, but given the warlords' fondness for kidnapping and even beheading journalists, the book drips with suspense. Slowly, Grillo makes his case that gangsters have become de facto leaders and celebrities, as powerful as any security force, and the war on drugs has proven a catastrophic failure. But he also appreciates the difficulty of governing such anarchic countries. "There are certainly some corrupt politicians who should not be in power," he writes. "But in the crime wars, the solution is not as simple as toppling a president. After they are gone, you will still be left with billions of drug dollars, corrupt police, and ineffective courts." Grillo also has a soft spot for many of the people he met, even trained killers. After describing vicious gun battles in the streets of Jamaica's capital, he adds, "crime aside, I find the people of West Kingston to be warm and open, as in the ghettos from Brazil to Mexico. Like many other outsiders who have trekked into these areas, I'm touched by the people's generosity of spirit." Grillo dedicates his final chapter to practical solutions, distinguishing himself from lesser journalists content to sensationalize crime and leave it at that. A striking exploration of the horrors of mass violence in the Western Hemisphere, with the author offering hope that radical policies could provide positive change.

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Bloomsbury USA
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Read an Excerpt

Gangster Warlords

Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America

By Ioan Grillo

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2015 Ioan Grillo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-379-2


This book is about the move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood. But it starts in the United States. Specifically, in a Barnes and Noble bookshop in a mall in El Paso, Texas.

I am sitting in the bookshop café, nursing my third cup of coffee and flicking through a pile of new books. As you do with new books, I am eyeing the photos, skimming the intros, and just feeling and smelling the paper. I am also waiting for a drug trafficker who has spent four decades delivering the products of Mexican gangsters to all corners of the United States.

The man I am waiting for is no criminal warlord controlling a fiefdom in Latin America. He's a white New Yorker with a university education. That is why I want to start the book here. Latin American journalists complain the U.S. side of the equation is never examined. Who are the partners of the cartels wreaking havoc south of the Rio Grande, they ask. Where is the American narco? Here, I found one.

A curious twist of fate led me to this meeting. A fellow Brit was cycling through the southwest United States on an extended holiday. Texas was nice, but he fancied something edgier, so he slipped over the border to Chihuahua, Mexico. Unwittingly, he entered one of the most violent spheres in the Mexican drug war, venturing into small towns to the west of Ciudad Juárez, at the time the world's most murderous city. He didn't do too badly, hanging out in cantinas and raising glasses with shady locals. Until gangsters held him in a house, threatened to cut his head off, and got him to call his wife in England and plead for a ransom payment.

Attacks on wealthy foreigners in Mexico are actually very rare, but there have been sporadic cases, some of them deadly. In this case, the thugs had jumped at an opportunity that fell in their lap. Thankfully, they released the Brit on receipt of the cash, and he made it home unscathed. He kept in contact with one of the people he had met on the border, an older man called Robert. While Robert knew the kidnappers, he apparently wasn't involved. He is the man I am going to meet now, one of the gangsters' U.S. connections.

The British cyclist had put us in touch, and I talked to Robert over e-mail and then phone to arrange the get-together. He lives on the Mexican side of the border in one of the Chihuahuan towns. But I told him I didn't want to go there after the kidnapping and suggested we meet in El Paso, a stone's throw from Juárez but one of the safest cities in the United States. In a Barnes and Noble bookshop. Who would hold you up in a Barnes and Noble?

As I finish my beverage, I spy Robert strolling toward me. He probably spotted me first. He is in his sixties, in jeans and a baseball cap, with sun-worn skin and a raspy voice. I get yet more coffee, and we chat. He's good company. Soon we decide we want something stronger and move on to a cowboy-themed bar in the mall where they serve local brews in ridiculous-size glasses. I hear Robert's tale as we sip from the flagons.

It goes back to 1968, when the United States was in the midst of the hippie movement and fighting its hottest Cold War battle in Vietnam; when dictatorships ruled most of Latin America, and a recently martyred Che Guevara inspired guerrillas across the continent. Robert is from upstate New York, but in 1968 he went to university in New Mexico. Here he had the fate of landing a roommate from El Paso who had a cousin in Ciudad Juárez. His roommate told him he could buy marijuana for forty dollars a kilo from his cousin. This lit a fuse in Robert's mind; he knew that back home in New York, this amount sold for three hundred dollars.

The basic business of importing is buying for a dollar and selling for two. But with drugs, Robert realized, he could buy for a dollar and sell for more than seven. And he didn't even need to advertise. This was after the summer of love, and American youngsters were desperate for ganja from wherever they could get it, feeding a mushrooming industry south of the border.

"I was young, I was broke, and I was hungry," Robert says. "Then marijuana came like a blessing ... We scraped our money together for the first load. When it came through, we bought another. Then another."

It is hard for most of us to fathom a business with a markup of 650 percent. You put in fifteen hundred bucks and you get back more than ten grand. You put in ten and get back seventy-five. And in two more deals you can be a multimillionaire. Narco finances turn economics inside out.

As Robert made regular drives back east with his car trunk stuffed with ganja, he could go through school without even having loans. "I was living like a rich kid, driving a nice car, living in a big place," he says.

When he graduated, he had a business to go into. He traveled to Chihuahua to buy bulk loads of marijuana and partied in Juárez discos with rising drug lords. He spread out his commerce to new horizons. He traveled to Mississippi and Alabama, where he sold to the Dixie Mafia, a network of villains in the Appalachian states. He went to San Francisco to sell to students on the lawns of Berkeley. He bought houses and nightclubs with suitcases of cash.

However, Robert's drug-dealing dream hit a wall in the late seventies when he got nabbed by agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA did what it calls a "buy and bust." An undercover agent pretended to be a dealer and asked for three hundred pounds of grass from Robert's partner. After police nabbed the partner in his car, they stormed Robert's luxury house, arrested him in his swimming trunks, and grabbed sacks of weed from the kitchen and garage.

This is the flip side of narco economics. Robert splurged on lawyers, got his assets seized, and served close to a decade in federal prison. Yet after he got out, he went back into the trade, moving ganja and a little cocaine with a new generation of Mexican traffickers. This time, he kept a lower profile, shifting smaller amounts to stay off the radar. He carried on past middle age, through marriages and divorces, booms and busts, through the end of the Cold War and the opening of democracy across the Americas. By the time he hit his sixties, he suffered from chronic asthma and heart disease. And he was still smuggling weed.

When Robert started trafficking drugs, his Mexican colleagues were a handful of growers and smugglers earning chump change. They needed Americans like him to get into the market. But over the decades, the narco trafficking networks grew into an industry that is worth tens of billions of dollars and stretches from Mexico into the Caribbean to Colombia to Brazil. Mexican gangsters transformed into cartels and established their own people stateside, often their family members. Two of their biggest distributors were the Chicago-born twin sons of a Durango heroin king. While Robert had been a big shot back in the day, he fell to the position of a small-time smuggler.

South of the border, the cartels spent their billions building armies of assassins who carry out massacres comparable to those in war zones and outgun police. They have diversified from drugs to a portfolio of crimes including extortion, kidnapping, theft of crude oil, and even wildcat mining. And they have grown to control the governments of entire cities and states in Latin America.

"Back in the old days, it was nothing like this," Robert says. "They were just smugglers. Now they prey on their communities. They have become too powerful. And many of the young guys working for them are crazy fucking killers who are high on crystal meth. You can't deal with these people."

I ask Robert if he feels guilty about pumping these organizations with cash year after year. They could never have gotten so big without working with Americans.

He looks into his glass for a while and sighs. "It is just business," he says. "They should have legalized many of these drugs a long time ago."

Some months after I interview him, Robert is arrested again, driving over the border with a trunk full of ganja. He is sixty-eight. He spends four months in prison, pleads guilty, and is given supervised release on time served and medical grounds. He tells the judge his trafficking career is over.

Flip from El Paso over the Rio Grande and fourteen hundred miles south onto a hillside in southern Mexico. I am in the mountains in the state of Guerrero, close to where traffickers grow marijuana and produce heroin. The fate of these hills is locked with that of smugglers in Texas and drug users across America by the pretty green and pink plants here. It's the domain of a cartel called Guerreros Unidos, or Warriors United, a small but deadly splinter of an older trafficking network. The hill is beautiful, thick with pine trees and bright orange flowers. Strange crickets jump on the earth, and exquisite butterflies arc through the air.

The smell of death is overwhelming. It's like walking into a butcher's shop stuffed with decaying meat; putrid, yet somehow a little sweet. While I would describe the smell as sickening, it's not noxious. It's a movie cliché that people throw up when they see or smell corpses. That doesn't happen in real life. Corpses don't make you physically nauseous. The sickness is deep down, more an emotional repulsion. It's the smell and sight of our own mortality.

The stench of rotting human flesh is all over this hill from a series of pits where police and soldiers are pulling out corpses. They are dank, maggot-ridden holes that the victims probably dug themselves. The corpses are charred, mutilated, decomposed.

In Mexico, they call this a narcofosa, or drug trafficking grave. But many of the victims here are neither drug traffickers nor police officers, nor in any way connected to the world of narcotics. They are shopkeepers, laborers, students who somehow ran afoul of the Warriors' criminal empire. The troops dig up thirty corpses on this site, near the town of Iguala. And it's just one of a series of narcofosas dotting these hills.

Residents in close-by shacks describe in hushed voices how the Warriors brought their victims here. They would come at night in convoys of pickups, openly holding Kalashnikov rifles to their terrified hostages. Often they were with police officers. The Warriors were alleged to control most of the Iguala police force as well as the town's mayor and his wife.

Some of the corpses have been here for months, but no one came searching — until an atrocity that made world headlines. On September 26, 2014, Iguala's police and their colleagues, the Warrior gunmen, attacked student teachers, killing three and abducting forty-three.

The global media finally learned where Iguala was. How could forty-three students disappear off the face of the earth? It sounded like Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnapping schoolchildren, but this was right next to the United States. Thousands of troops poured in, uncovering mass graves like the one that I am standing in. But they still couldn't find the students.

After more than a month, they followed the trail to a garbage dump ten miles away. Mexico's attorney general said the Warriors murdered the forty-three there, burning their corpses on a huge bonfire with wood, tires, and diesel and throwing the remains into the nearby river San Juan. Police found charred bones in a bag, which was allegedly in the river, and sent them to a laboratory in Austria. It confirmed that the DNA in a bone fragment matched that of one of the disappeared.

However, family members and many journalists refused to believe the government's account. Mexican prosecutors have a history of cover-ups that have left widespread distrust. An independent report by experts also rejected many of the official conclusions. The families demanded police keep searching for the other forty-two students and further investigate the web of corruption that led to this atrocity.

Mexico seemed to have gotten numb to murder. Between 2007 and 2014, drug cartels and the security forces fighting them had killed more than eighty-three thousand people, according to a count by Mexico's government intelligence agency. Some claimed it was many more. I covered massacres where nearby residents seemed eerily detached. When an individual goes through a traumatic experience, the gut reaction is to block it out. Communities do the same. People became weary of killers, cartels, and carnage. Victims become statistics.

Iguala changed that. The fact that the victims were students, the blatant police involvement, the inept government response — all shook the heart of Mexican society. Maybe the moment had just come. At the end of 2014, people took to the streets in hundreds of thousands to protest narco corruption and violence. The faces of the disappeared students filled posters on Mexico City walls and were held up in solidarity from Argentina to Austria to Australia. They were humans, not numbers.

The attacks and protests shattered an illusion called Mexico's Moment. It was a mirage conjured up by the team of President Enrique Peña Nieto and bought by some American pundits and media. It said that drug cartel violence wasn't really that bad, that we could sweep it aside and talk about an expanding Mexican middle class, spring break in Cancún, and iPad sales.

Iguala put violence back on the front page. It highlighted the problems that had been building up for years — of cartels that have become an alternate power controlling mayors and governors, of their tenuous links to federal security forces, of the international community failing to change a disastrous drug policy. It made many realize that the problems will not go away if we ignore them but only if we confront them and change things.

In a painful irony, the disappeared students in Iguala had planned to attend a march commemorating a massacre of students in Mexico in 1968. This takes us back to the height of the Cold War, the era of dictatorships and Guevara guerrillas (and when Robert first bought weed in Juárez). As Mexico was about to open the Olympics that year, soldiers shot dead at least forty-four people at a protest in Tlatelolco square in Mexico City. The Iguala attack on students created an agonizing equation:

46 years after soldiers killed

44 protesters,

46 students were murdered or disappeared

* * *

Despite this dark similarity, the atrocities reflect the different worlds of the Cold War in the twentieth century and the crime wars in the twenty-first. The Tlatelolco massacre was almost certainly orchestrated from the top. The one- party government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, dubbed the Perfect Dictatorship, was worried students would disrupt the first ever Olympics in Latin America. It massacred protesters to scare them off the streets. This was in line with authoritarian regimes across the continent in the era, fighting descent with bullets.

In contrast, Iguala reflected the brave and twisted new world of narco power. Mexico now has a multiparty democracy, and the supposed leftist opposition governed Iguala. But the real power was this mysterious cartel, smuggling drugs, controlling politicians, making alliances with security forces. It is a dark force of shady interests that we struggle to even see.

Whereas the motive for repressing protesters in the 1960s is clear, the Iguala attacks left many stupefied as to why a drug cartel would target students. The trainee teachers are known for disruptive protests and had commandeered buses from the local bus terminal. Were gangsters attacking students as a form of terror, working with corrupt authorities to clamp down on protests? Or did the students unwittingly take a bus in which the cartel had stashed a heroin shipment? Or in their paranoia, did the gunmen think the students worked with a rival cartel. Or were the corrupt police defending a public event of their narco mayor and his wife? Whatever the mechanics, the specter is of a town controlled by gangsters responding to a public order incident with mass murder.

As hundreds of thousands marched on the streets against the terror, protesters called Iguala a state crime, putting it alongside the massacres of dictators. It was a provocative point. There was no proof that President Peña Nieto was involved in the attack. But city police officers, who are agents of the state, were on the frontline of it. Journalists also raised questions about what soldiers and federal police were doing during the shooting. In other cases, federal agents have been convicted of working with drug traffickers in Mexico. It sparks a debate about the responsibility of government when chunks of state apparatus are captured by cartels.


Excerpted from Gangster Warlords by Ioan Grillo. Copyright © 2015 Ioan Grillo. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ioan Grillo has reported on Latin America since 2001 for international media including Time magazine, Reuters, CNN, the Associated Press, PBS NewsHour, the Houston Chronicle, CBC, and the Sunday Telegraph. His first book, El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, was translated into five languages and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Orwell Prize. A native of Britain, Grillo lives in Mexico City.

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