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“A riveting story ... an incredibly brave journalist.” —NPR Morning Edition
“This is a book that you read twenty-five pages at a time and then take a break from, shaking your head in disbelief that everything it contains could really have occurred. That it did only makes Hernández’s undertaking all the more necessary.” —Barnes & Noble Review
“Rigorous, disturbing narrative of how drug cartels infiltrated Mexican society’s highest levels ... Essential reading for a serious understanding of how the war on drugs is destroying the social fabric of South American nations.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The most remarkable feature of Anabel Hernández’s brave and invaluable account of Mexico’s blood-drenched drug wars is that she survived long enough to write it.” —Sunday Times
“Braving the wrath of drug traffickers and government officials alike … Hernández has exposed the corruption at the heart of the drug war that has killed over 80,000 of her compatriots since 2006.” —Nation
“Anabel Hernández accuses the Mexican state of complicity with the cartels, and says the ‘war on drugs’ is a sham. She’s had headless animals left at her door and her family have been threatened by gunmen ... Narcoland became, and remains, a bestseller: more than 100,000 copies sold in Mexico. The success is impossible to overstate, a staggering figure for a nonfiction book in a country with indices of income and literacy incomparable to the American–European book-buying market.” —Ed Vulliamy, Observer
“Anabel Hernández exposes the most murderous drug organization in Mexico, the Mexican government. Of course, this level of corruption is only possible thanks to the moral and financial support of the leaders in Washington. Here’s the story the media never has the time to tell you.” —Charles Bowden author of Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields
“Jaw-dropping reading.” —Independent
“While many Mexican politicians and officials merely pretend to fight the drugs producers, Anabel Hernández has taken a genuine stand in favour of the rule of law and decency in her society. [Narcoland] is in itself an important statement. She deserves our respect and admiration for making it.” —Spectator
“A searing indictment of a war on drugs Hernández believes was a sham from the start.” —Financial Times
Reading like a cross between a splatter film, a forensics report, and a tutorial in investigative reporting, Anabel Hernández's Narcoland isn't exactly the sort of fare that's ideal for passing a pleasant evening. What it is though, for starters, is brave, given that Hernández 's own life is in jeopardy as a result of writing this exposé on Mexican drug cartels. For this is a book that doubles as civic gesture, documenting as it does a world of corruption that has produced 80,000 deaths since what was optimistically (and laughably) called a "war on drugs" kicked off in 2006.
Though there's no shortage of intrigue — and you'll be challenged to keep track of the murders, escapes, betrayals, beatings, double- dealings, frauds, and kidnappings that go down on every page — Hernández writes with a reporter's detachment, providing an occasional line of almost maternal shaming, a conscience that can't help but assert itself in this tour of a hell south of the border. It's hard to imagine finding another book with nearly this much blood in it, nor so much corruption. Everyone, it seems — from the drug traffickers to the government officials to the prison wardens to the judges — appears to be in somebody else's pocket.
The centerpiece of it all is Joaquin Loaera Guzmán, who goes by the sobriquet of El Chapo. Narcoland is his story more than anyone else's, a sort of bildungsroman gone horribly wrong. A billionaire with a third-grade education who features on Forbes's list of the world's richest men, El Chapo has lived such an outsized life that his saga needs little embellishment, and Hernández simply states one fact after another, unfurling a story that reads like some horrible mash-up of a flimflam artist's rap sheet, a saga of bloodletting straight out of the Hostel series, and a Marx Brothers chronicle of absurdity.
Before he rose to the pinnacle of his trade, El Chapo had to be busted out of prison, though one wonders how much better his life on the outside could be from his perspective. His time behind bars seems to have been worthy of a Mexican Caligula, with extravagant meals, an endless parade of women, and even sex- related contests with his fellow drug barons to see who could hold out the longest before reaching climax with the latest round of conquests. El Chapo's liberation took on the status of urban legend, with many people believing he had been smuggled out in a laundry cart, but instead Hernández provides us with a more deflating version of the events. Curtains hung over the trafficker's cell masked a simple costume change: El Chapo walked out of jail disguised as a prison guard.
It is with El Chapo's post-prison ascendancy that Narcoland is chiefly concerned, in large part because everything the drug lord is involved with begets some new kind of evil in the narrative. One wonders, exactly, if El Chapo is any more corrupt than a host of players that devolve and play their roles in the festering mess. With government corruption deeply embedded in its business model, there's a feeling that the drug trade is practically civic-sponsored, but there may be no more horrific element to Narcoland than its reporting on the bustling kidnapping trade. This is where the real nightmares kick in — fingers and ears being sent through the post with a kind of sadistic nonchalance that nearly defies belief. El Chapo, the man who has done so much to establish this culture of terror, is perpetually unfazed by any of this throughout his reign — perhaps the most unsettling detail of all.
Hernández 's prose is clipped, but a grim brand of poetry creeps into it not infrequently. "The language of blood is more direct and effective than any other," she writes, "all of its grammar contained in a single drop." And while a writer might disagree with such a conclusion, it's an arresting one regardless, all the more so here given that it doubles as an encapsulation of Narcoland itself. This is a book that you read twenty-five pages at a time and then take a break from, shaking your head in disbelief that everything it contains could really have occurred. That it did only makes Hernández 's undertaking all the more necessary.
Colin Fleming writes for The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review and publishes fiction with The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Boulevard, and Black Clock. His first book, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep, is forthcoming from Outpost19, with his second, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, to follow from Texas Review Press. He is at work on two novels: one about a piano prodigy who would rather be anything but, called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and another, told entirely in conversations, called Musings with Franklin, which is set in a bar in what may or may not be hell, where the regulars - - Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin — gather.
Reviewer: Colin Fleming