Review

'A Narco History' explores Mexico's drug violence — and U.S. culpability

'A Narco History' is a primer on why Mexico has exploded into violence

To many Americans, Mexico's drug violence of the last decade has been as mystifying as our southern neighbor itself.

In a once-peaceful country, newspapers have run monthly tallies of decapitations. A minimum-wage Tijuana cartel employee known as the Soupmaker dissolves corpses in acid baths. Novelists have been rendered impotent by headlines more pornographically macabre than anything an artist could invent. Corridos — traditional songs telling tales of doomed, brave men doing battle with power — have become commercials for the most savage and ignorant.

Today, the cartel wars continue, with some areas quiet (Ciudad Juárez) while others (Michoacán, Tamaulipas) continue to roil.

In the United States, all this has mainly served to confirm long-held ideas, many quite justified, of Mexico's slim hold on the rule of law. That's too bad, for it ought to have prompted a more introspective response.

"A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the 'Mexican Drug War'" by Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa and U.S. historian Mike Wallace makes a strong bid to change that.

The authors do a wonderful job explaining how Mexico's ordeal grew out of the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, a nationwide Tammany Hall that suffocated the best in the country while exalting the most inert, before Mexicans voted it out of power in 2000. (It has since returned to the presidency but without the political monopoly it once enjoyed.)

Boullosa and Wallace connect the savagery as well to our war on drugs. Their binational tale includes U.S. drug prohibitions, Americans' appetite for illegal dope and our childlike refusal to do anything serious to limit the flow of arms south, even as those guns and bullets have daily bathed Mexico in blood.

Their overview — a century of history in a few hundred pages — emerges ornate in detail yet refreshingly concise.

I say this though I disagree with some of their most important conclusions.

The authors blame NAFTA for creating large pools of underemployed young Mexican farm workers who became fodder for the drug war.

NAFTA has both harmed and energized Mexican agriculture — it all depends on what you grow and where you live. But the treaty did not bring mass unemployment nor mass migration to the United States. Both have been around for quite some time.

Moreover, NAFTA hasn't damaged Mexican agriculture any more than PRI paternalism, the ejido — communal farms known for their inertia and dependence on state beneficence — or the roiling that the banking sector has taken since it was nationalized in 1982, then privatized (badly) a decade later.

Boullosa and Wallace reserve their harshest critiques for former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (2006-12), repeatedly referring to the drug war as "his war."

This is a common view, but I don't agree. Feuding psychopaths started this war and kept it going, feeding on their own machismo and abetted by decades of Mexican government protection as well as America's appetite for dope and an unceasing flow of weapons from the north.

Their Colombia-like savagery spread wildly across Mexico for two years — as the authors correctly detail — before Calderon took office in December 2006. The violence revealed how unarmed the country was after years of one-party rule, particularly at the local level. Municipal and state police were compromised, unfunded and incompetent. Federal police forces were thin and corrupt.

The authors invoke Donald H. Rumsfeld's famous phrase "you go to war with the Army you have" to suggest that Calderon, like Rumsfeld, had options. They're silent on what Calderon should have done apart from heeding calls to "return to a socially responsible economy" — something Mexico has had in name only.

Calderon faced real furies overrunning domestic territory, not threats half a world away. What country can enter the global economy with that on its streets?

Calderon, I believe, emerged, more as the hero in a tragic Mexican corrido. A president weakened by his country's turn to democracy, his fate was to go up against the one-party state's worst spawn with the dull weapons he had been bequeathed — "the Army you have" indeed. Hard to see how he could do anything else with a half-dozen regions aflame, heads on stakes and police chiefs killed hours after taking office. As in any corrido, his actions were as preordained as they were doomed.

The authors insist that "[h]ad Calderon not lifted a finger, the mortality count would almost certainly have been but a fraction of that generated by his own intervention." That is a dubious claim. Would a country used to imperial presidents have supported a man who let the furies run wild? I think not.

Things did get much worse; an Army makes a poor and sometimes abusive police force. But the real savagery came from the narcos, who endlessly formed alliances, then turned on one another. In a particularly strong chapter, the authors explain how the most ferocious violence — taking place roughly from 2008 to 2010 — fed on new hatreds flowing from the rupture of the Sinaloa cartel.

Calderon's gravest mistake was not to use the drug war to begin strengthening local government, since its weakness, along with the central government's bloated, inept power, allowed narcos to grow from hillbillies into national security threats.

He was, however, the first Mexican president to face the country's cancers: the narcos but more importantly the absence of the rule of law. It seems uncharitable and I think less nuanced than the rest of "A Narco History" to blame him. He would deserve history's greater imprecations had he done less.

That said, Boullosa and Wallace provide what all Americans need these days: a primer on why our southern neighbor has exploded and what we, and they, had to do with it.

Quinones' latest book of narrative nonfiction is "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic."

A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the "Mexican Drug War"

Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace
OR Books: 258 pp., $17 paper

MORE FROM BOOKS:

Get ready to be obsessed by these 29 page-turners

27 nonfiction books you'll want to read -- and share -- this summer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
53°