‘Narcoland’ delves into Mexico’s drug corruption


After 10 years of death-dealing, scorched-earth cartel warfare and twice the total body count of U.S. forces in Vietnam, it’s high time an American audience found out just what is happening down south of the Rio Grande. No single recent work on the subject peers more deeply than Anabel Hernández’s “Narcoland,” an investigative magnum opus by a Mexican journalist driven by purpose verging on despair.

Empirically devastating, Hernández’s book delves into the rusty filing cabinets of cold cases, shelved for making the people in power uncomfortable. Like a rogue detective in a noir mystery, she picks up on leads that were ignored, dusts off witness statements that implicated the police, army and political elite, and attempts to reconstruct the scenes of the crime on her own.

No book in print on the current situation in Mexico collates so many lost documents of abortive investigations or broadcasts so many whispers of insiders before they disappeared into witness protection, were assassinated, or walked away scot-free. An ambitious and daring sketch of the political nexus that ensures the Mexican system of narcotics delivery to the U.S., “Narcoland” has been a bestseller in Mexico for three years and has finally been translated and published in the U.S.


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In Verso’s translation by British journalist Iain Bruce, the original Spanish is pruned of certain details that would have called for more familiarity with Mexican politics, making the English version more accessible to readers new to the subject. The new foreword by Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano places “Narcoland” in a broader international discussion of organized crime in the 21st century.

As with the late Veronica Guerin, the threats to Hernández’s life have become inextricably a part of the story she’s reporting. Since the day this book was published in Mexico, she has lived with around-the-clock bodyguards.

That’s because Hernández names men in the highest circle of executive power who, she argues, backed up by evidence, are connected to drug cartels. That includes Genaro García Luna, President Felipe Calderón’s secretary of public safety, the field marshal for the president’s drug war, whom she links to Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

“Narcoland” is really three books in one. First, it traces the history of trafficking and organized crime to the 1970s, looking at how the Iran-Contra Affair changed the game forever; second, it debunks the legendary tale of Chapo Guzmán’s escape from a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart, retold through the testimony of whistle-blowers as a conspiracy of narco-politicians to unlock the cage and invite the drug lord to walk free; third, it details how transparently the Mexican state has entangled itself with organized crime and the drug trade, and questions what U.S. intelligence knows.

Hernández is a pitiless dissector of the received truths of official Mexico. She holds so little back in establishing her claims that what the reader is left feeling is more akin to a changed worldview than a history lesson.


McGahan reports on the politics of the drug war for various publications.

The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers

Anabel Hernández, translated by Iain Bruce
Verso: 304 pp., $26.95