Latin America’s drug gangs – and their global threat (Book Review)

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Title: Gangster Warlords; Author: Ioan Grillo; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 385; Price: Rs.399

It may take an inexplicable atrocity to bring focus on a ‘war’ long-underway which doesn’t get global attention like other spots of blood-letting, say Iraq or Afghanistan. Such as the September 26, 2014 attack in Mexico where three students were killed and 43 abducted. Extensive searches failed to find any trace of them but unearthed scores of mass graves with victims of drug gangs running rampant in the country and region.

This – attributed to just one of Mexico’s many gangs – is just one of the harrowing and mind-numbing incidents that British journalist Ioan Grillo relates to graphically depict the havoc and social disruption in the “move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood”.

As the sordid stories bring out, these gang members are no less than IS and Taliban, in capacity for unconscionable, gratuitous and indiscriminate violence, but their depredations seem worse with when the main objective is just greed.

It doesn’t seem probable that all this could be going on so close to the borders of the US (and even spilling over there messily and bloodily) but the “War on Drugs” is something the superpower is fighting since the days of the Cold War – with as much lasting success as its later “War on Terror”.

Grillo, who has been covering Latin America since 2001 for a range of leading international media including TIME, Reuters, CNN, the AP, contends that the responsibility for the drug trade’s spread to blight new areas does not lie in only the huge demand from US and Europe for narcotics, but also US policies, like “War on Drugs”.

And the consequences are that “fighting between shady criminal gunmen and trigger-happy troops rages in many corners of the Americas”.

“In the favelas of Brazil, the crime ‘commandos’ are in close urban combat with police and rivals, a conflict that has killed even more than in Mexico (where the toll between 2007-14 was a whopping 83,000) – and which US Navy SEALS go to train in. Honduras became the most murderous country outside a declared war zone as Mara gangs displace thousands, some who flee to the United States as refugees. The ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, are the killing field of posses, along with one of the most homicidal police forces in the world.”

Grillo demonstrates that the emergence of these “crime militias simultaneously in different countries is no coincidence but shows a regional trend” and “while these conflicts are in separate countries, drugs, guns and gangsters float between them”.

What it makes it more perplexing is that the bloodshed “is not in the poorest, least developed region of the world” but “in industrialising societies with a growing middle class” and where “gleaming shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, and designer gyms, private schools and world-class universities” are coming up. And perhaps in light of a new world they are in, the new generation of gang kingpins are “no longer just drug traffickers, but a weird hybrid of criminal CEO, gangster rock star and paramilitary general”.

In this book, Grillo concentrates on four crime ‘families’ – the Red Commando in Brazil,the Shower Posse in Jamaica, the Mara Salvatrucha in Central America (chiefly El Salvador and Honduras) and the Knights Templar in Mexico, all “puzzling postmodern networks that mix gangs, mafias, death squads, religious cults, and urban guerrillas”.

In an adroit mix of reportage (including edgy encounters with some chilling, lethal specimens of the human race and frustrated, hapless policymakers), history (like spectacular mistakes by a range of governments in trying to punish political prisoners more by housing them with criminals in jails) and analysis (why Honduras was affected but not Nicaragua, Panama or Costa Rica), he brings out not only what threats these criminal gangs are in their own region but pose to the wider world – killings in US, riots in London – and his estimation of what steps are needed to counter the menace.

It may not make for very comforting reading but is definitely required reading to understand the interplay between crime and politics and the resulting human misery.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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