It should go without saying at this point that I read a lot about Mexico’s crime issues. Even when I’m not working directly on a project related to Mexico or its drug war I am still keeping abreast of the latest developments, largely because I think it’s something worth keeping track of, not just for general knowledge purposes, but for selfish reasons, as well. Those folks who think that things will simply keep on the way they’ve been going for the last six years are in for a big surprise when the violence that has engulfed Mexico finally makes its debut here. Some say it’s already happening.
Despite its provocative subtitle, Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars is actually not that much about how Mexican drug violence is threatening the United States. Instead it aims to educate about the full extent of the drug problem in Mexico, illustrating the very real dangers and then asking the reader to imagine what it would be like if even a tenth of what goes on south of the border were to go on in America. I have a pretty vivid imagination and I’ve got to tell you, I’m not liking the mental image I have.
Anyone who’s read El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency is not going to find much in Cartel that they haven’t already learned. In fact, if I were forced to recommend one over the other, I would probably push you toward El Narco because of the excellent way it lays out Mexico’s drug industry going back decades. Cartel concerns itself primarily with what is happening now and the major players involved, though I find it interesting that Longmire, a homeland security expert whose area is Mexico/Latin America, chooses not to focus on what it arguably the biggest and most influential of the cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel. Sure, it gets touched on, but El Narco went deep, deep, deep into the Sinaloa Cartel and with good reason: whither the Sinaloenses go, so goes the whole of Mexico’s narco industry.
Reading Cartel has its own satisfactions and I don’t want to sell it short. Anyone reading this book and only this book is going to come away conversant with the major issues and that’s probably the most important thing. Longmire has chosen to approach the Mexican threat in the way someone in her profession would, namely by delineating the problem and how it might affect the reader. She’s not an historian and does not make any pretense at being one, so I’m not going to fault her there.
From a personal standpoint, I found Cartel an engaging and satisfactory read because I pretty much knew everything that Longmire wrote about. It’s good to know that the research one has done is equal to the same task performed by a professional, and in some cases Longmire draws upon the exact same articles I used when researching various books of my own. Maybe this is just me patting myself on the back a little too hard, but it was a reaction I had and I feel obligated to mention it here.
One of the things I found interesting about both Longmire and Grillo’s books is that neither one of them really offers any solution to the problem they’re laying out. Grillo in particular was pretty gloomy about the prospects of the Mexicans or anyone when it comes to de-escalating the narco conflict. Longmire is not quite so downbeat in her assessment, but there’s nothing in the book that comes close to being a magic bullet in terms of resolving the situation.
That something should be done is pretty much a given in both their assessments. The current atmosphere in Mexico is one fraught with danger, from kidnapping to extortion to outright murder. No one can look at the numbers of the dead (50,000+ in six years) and honestly say that everything is going to be all right so long as we stay course. Clearly there has been some critical miscalculation by those in power and only when that ship is righted will Mexico know anything resembling peace.
One thing Grillo’s book does better than Longmire’s, and I mentioned this earlier, is placing the current problems in an historical context. To a certain extent nothing of what’s happening in Mexico is totally new, it’s only that the volume and intensity has been turned up to the nth degree. I think Longmire and Grillo are both doing a great service by shining their spotlights on Mexico’s plight, as even those who keep up with mainstream news reportage in the United States are probably not aware of just how bad it’s gotten. Not too long ago some high-ranking individuals in the United States were implying publicly that Mexico is a failed state, or close to being one, so out-of-control the chaos has become. Certainly one gets the impression from this book and Grillo’s that the drug-trafficking organizations are far better funded, equipped and manned than the Mexican government. It does not help that huge chunks of Mexican law enforcement, both of the civilian and military variety, are riddled with corruption, thereby turning resources against the very state they are meant to be serving.
One thing Longmire does well is get the data across in a clear and concise fashion. This is to be expected from someone with her background. This is not, as it was in Grillo’s book, a story to be told, but a situation on which the reader must be briefed. The end result of this is a book that seems a bit colder and more sterile than the other, though again I would rather people read this than not read it if only to broaden their perspective a bit more. Longmire’s book also has the advantage of containing more up-to-date information, though by the problematic pace of traditional publishing the immediacy has been robbed somewhat. Even if you were to have read Cartel when it was brand new you would still be reading news at least nine months old. Neither of these books is a substitute for reading current news reports.
If you’re at all interested in this topic, no matter what I’ve said about the relative merits of Grillo’s book, you should probably pick up a copy of Cartel. You will get a lot of information in a relatively compact book and you will have a greater appreciation for the mountain Mexican and American law enforcement have to climb. That’s all to the good.