Over the past five years, the Mexican drug war has claimed the lives of an estimated 40,000 civilians and drug traffickers. British journalist Ioan Grillo describes it as "a bloodbath that has shocked the world."
In his new book, El Narco, Grillo takes a close look at the Mexican drug trade, starting with the term "el narco," which has come to represent the vast, often faceless criminal network of drug smugglers who cast a murderous shadow over the entire country.
"People struggle to really understand what this force is," Grillo tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "You talk about 'el narco' being behind 30 bodies on the street and 'el narco' threatening politicians, but who really are these people, and what really are they?"
He says when he first arrived in Mexico in 2001, traffickers used gangbangers to carry out their assassinations — but not anymore.
"Now they have fully fledged militias with AK-47s, [rocket-propelled grenades]," Grillo says, "and they have become something very fearsome and very dangerous within Mexico."
'El Narco' As Boss
Over the years, "el narco" has also become deeply embedded in Mexican society. In some communities, the local cartel serves as the biggest business and the biggest employer. According to Grillo, the violent Zetas cartel has even been known to post want ads.
"The Zetas put up adverts on the street on blankets with a phone number saying, 'Why are you going to work on a bus? Join us. We'll get you a good salary. If you're an ex-military guy, we'll give you a job,'" Grillo says.
And just as the wealthy might finance culture, so do the cartels. Though, according to Grillo, traffickers' contributions are often more about getting their own name out there.
"One way to do that is to pay somebody to write something about them," he says. "Now if you go to places where there is a big history of drug trafficking, like Sinaloa state, and you talk to these musicians, you will find that any one of them will have a price they charge to write a song, to compose a ballad about somebody."
A cartel's patronage can go a long way. Grillo says some Sinaloan communities call drug traffickers los valientes, Spanish for the brave.
Still, not every story of cartel patronage ends well. In his book, Grillo recounts hearing the story of the musician whom one low-level trafficker had commissioned to write a particularly catchy song about him. Grillo writes:
Soon everyone played it on his car stereo. "The crime bosses were like, 'Bring me the guy from that song. I want him to do the job for me.' So he rose through the ranks because of the song." "So what happened to him now?" I asked. "Oh, they killed him. He got too big. It was because of the song really."
The Business Side Of Trafficking
At the root of the current violence in Mexico is a lucrative drug trade that offers traffickers $50 for every dollar they invest.
"You can buy a kilo brick of cocaine in Colombia for $2,000. When you sell it at a gram level in the U.S., you can turn that into some $100,000," Grillo says. "That area of buying the cocaine from Colombia and selling it to Americans is the area dominated by Mexican cartels."
And those cartels have grown the trade to incredible proportions. In his book, Grillo describes a visit to a Mexican military base that was used to store drugs that had been confiscated from the cartels.
As we step inside, a cocktail of mystic toxic smells greets us. To the left, towers of cling-wrapped marijuana loom above our heads. To the right are huge sacks of cut-up ganja plants and enough seeds to give birth to a forest of psychedelic weed. Walking forward, we stumble into a pile of giant, blue metal saucepans ... The white sludge of raw methamphetamine fills the pan like a foul stew of ice and sour milk. In a corner, we catch sight of a much older Sinaloan product, black-tar heroin, which looks like jet-black Play-Doh, oozing out of yellow cans.
While no one knows the exact numbers, Grillo says the trade in such products is estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars.
'An Escape' In Ciudad Juarez
There's no question that Mexican society has been traumatized by the violence of the past five years; but through it all, some have found a way to cope.
Grillo says that in Ciudad Juarez — a town he describes as "the most murderous city on the planet" — people have started going to the opera.
"People are saying, 'Well this opera is an amazing chance for us to forget about this drug violence,' " Grillo says.
" 'While you hear the music, it won't make anything better or improve your life; but at least for those minutes of hearing the music you can find an escape and imagine things getting better.' "
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A bloodbath that has shocked the world is how British journalist Ioane Grillo describes the drug war raging across Mexico. Recent estimates suggests that some 40,000 people have been killed there over the last five years. That's higher than the 10-year death toll in Afghanistan. And Grillo says Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, is the most murderous city on the planet.
In his new book "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," Grillo examines all aspects of the Mexican drug trade, beginning with the term itself. El Narco, he says is the vast, often-faceless network of drug traffickers that cast some murderous shadow over all of Mexico.
IOANE GRILLO: People struggle to really understand what this force is. And all the time, you talk about El Narco being behind 30 bodies on the street, El Narco threatening politicians; but who really are these people and what really are they? When I first came to Mexico in 2001, traffickers used to have gangbangers still, you know, guys with shaved heads and tattoos working for them to carry out their assassinations.
Now they have fully-fledged militias with AK-47s, RPGs, and they've become something very fearsome and very dangerous within Mexico.
SHAPIRO: And you paint a picture of them as being very deeply embedded in Mexican society. Give us a sense of how far these tentacles reach throughout Mexico.
GRILLO: Well, in terms of the now that they reach into Mexican life, it is enormous. In some communities, they're the biggest corporation which offers work with two young people...
SHAPIRO: They put up one that's on the street, you say.
GRILLO: They have done. In certain cases, you've seen the drug trafficker organizations, like in one case, the Zetas put up adverts on the street on blankets with the phone number, saying, you know, why are you going to work on a bus? Join us, we'll get you a good salary. If you're an ex-military guy, you know, we'll give you a job.
SHAPIRO: Describe this cultural life that exists in the drug trafficking cartels.
GRILLO: Well, the drug trafficking cartels with their money often like to finance culture, just in the same way that wealthy people all over the world like to finance culture. Often for these drug traffickers, as they make their way through the ranks of the organizations, they like to try and get their name out there. One way to do that is to pay somebody to write something about them.
Now, if you go to places where there's a big history of drug trafficking, like Sinaloa state, and you talk to these musicians you will find that any one of them will have a price they charge to write a song, to compose a ballad about somebody. For many people, I mean inside these communities they often referred to drug traffickers as valientes, using the Spanish word valientes meaning brave ones.
And that is one reason why it's called hard to stop this because there is a sympathy for these people among large sections of population.
SHAPIRO: Could you read one passage that I think illuminates the power of these drug ballads? This is on page 178 of your book.
GRILLO: OK, this is from a guy, Conrado Lugo. OK.
(Reading) Conrado tells me the story of one low-level trafficker who paid to get a particularly catchy ballad made about him. Soon, everyone played it on his car stereo. The crime bosses were like, bring me the guy from that song. I want him to do the job for me. So he rose through the ranks because of the song.
(Reading) So what happened to him now, I asked? Oh, they killed them. He got too big. It was because of the song, really.
SHAPIRO: Give us a sense of the scale of this drug trade. How much money is there flowing through it and how much of a profit can be made?
GRILLO: Drugs carry on being one of the best businesses for anybody to get into. Take the example of cocaine. You can buy a kilo brick of cocaine in Colombia for $2,000. When you sell it at a ground-level in the U.S., you can turn that into some $100,000. Say, for every dollar you put in, you take $50 out. Now, that area of buying the cocaine from Colombia and selling it to Americans is the area dominated by Mexican cartels.
SHAPIRO: And just to give us a sense of the quantity that's crossing the border, could you read a passage from the book here? It's at page 135.
GRILLO: Sure. OK, in this particular passage, I described going into a military base in northwestern Mexico in the State of Sinaloa, where they had all of the seized drugs.
(Reading) As step inside, a cocktail of mystic toxic smells greet us. To the left, towers of cling-wrap marijuana loom above our heads. To the right are huge sacks of cut up ganja plant and enough seeds to give birth to a forest of psychedelic weed. Walking forward, we stumble into a pile of giant, blue metal saucepans. The white sludge of raw methamphetamine fills the pan like a foul stew of ice and sour milk.
(Reading) In a corner, we catch sight of a much older Sinaloan product, black-tar heroin, which looks like jet-black Play-Doh, oozing out of yellow cans.
I suggest here that the sky is absolutely incredible, all the drugs now. Obviously no one has the real numbers on the drug trade into the United States. But we think, you know, we know it's tens of billions of dollars. In 10 years, you're talking about a quarter of a trillion dollars.
SHAPIRO: What does the average Mexican citizen make of all of this? How do they relate to or cope with everything going on around them?
GRILLO: The Mexican society has been traumatized in the last three or four years by this violence. Communities really have been terrorized. But there was an interesting story recently about the opera in Ciudad Juarez. Despite this intense drug violence there's been a surge in opera in Ciudad Juarez. People have really started going to the opera in large numbers. And people are saying, well, this opera was an amazing chance for us to forget about this drug violence.
And that while you hear the music, it won't make anything better or improve your life. But for at least for those minutes of hearing the music, you can find an escape and imagine things getting better.
SHAPIRO: Ioane Grillo is author of "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency.
Thank you very much.
GRILLO: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
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And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.