A couple of months ago, the publicity folks at ZedBooks emailed me and asked if I'd be interested in reading and writing a review for Drug War Mexico prior to its publication. Well, never one to turn down a free book, and especially one on my subject of choice, I agreed.
"Mexico is a country in crisis. Capitalizing on weakened public institutions, widespread unemployment, a state of lawlessness, and the strengthening of links between Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, narcotrafficking in the country has flourished during the post-1982 neoliberal era. In fact, it has become Mexico's biggest source of revenue, as well as its most violent, with an astonishing 9,000 drug-related executions in 2009 alone. In response, Mexican president Felipe Calderón, armed with millions of dollars in military aid supplied by the US government, has attempted to launch a "crackdown," ostensibly to combat the power of organized crime. Despite this, human rights violations have increased, as has the murder rate, making Ciudad Juárez on the northern border the most dangerous city on the planet. Meanwhile, the supply of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine has continued to increase. And yet, both the Mexican and US governments pour money into a drug war fought by an army with a track record of violating human rights and having close links to the drug cartels. In this insightful and controversial book, Watt and Zepeda throw new light on the situation, contending that the "drug war" in Mexico is in fact the pretext for a bi-national strategy to bolster unpopular neoliberal policies, a weak yet authoritarian government and a radically unfair status quo."
Before I started reading Drug War Mexico, I thought it would be like a lot of other books that have come out in this genre of "narcobooks." Parts of it are, but make no mistake - this is designed to be a textbook for a college class (as its hardcover $116.95 sticker price makes clear). That doesn't mean there aren't several stretches from which the casual reader could benefit, but before dropping even the $24.95 for the paperback version (it doesn't come in eBook), you should know what you're getting yourself into.
The authors are both professors at the University of Sheffield, and certainly know what they're talking about. However, it's very clear that the two have VERY different writing styles, and of course specialize in different things. I had no trouble at all picking out which parts of the book were written by which author: Watt, the historian, has a more casual, readable style that explains sometimes convoluted histories and incidents in a manner that's clear and minimally confusing. Zepeda, the political economist....well, let's just say that wading through several sections of discussions on Mexico's political economy, neoliberalism, NAFTA, etc. made me want to poke my eyeballs with a fork. Needless to say, I skipped a few of these parts to get back to the drug war "meat," which was more Watt's territory.
Despite the book's stuttering nature between fascinating narcohistory and economic drudgery, there's a good bit to be learned. For me, the part of greatest value was contained in the first three chapters, where the history of the relationship between Mexican drug trafficking families and the PRI is explained in detail I've never seen before. It's incredibly interesting, and goes so much more into the relationships and interdependency between those two than other narcobooks I've read, which have mostly glossed over this issue.
I'm sure there's plenty of good information to be gleaned from the political economy sections as well, and especially if you're a student or researcher specifically looking for this kind of information. However, be forewarned that a good chunk of it is biased and accusatory. By now, I'm used to hearing that everything bad in Mexico and Latin America is the fault of the United States. Honestly, some of it is. But I have to draw the line when Zepeda pretty much claims that today's drug war in Mexico is largely a result of NAFTA and a change to neoliberal policies. I get it; increased unemployment and population displacement make for a great operating environment for TCOs. However, drug trafficking and associated violence in Mexico existed before NAFTA, and the increased violence is more a result of evolving TCO tactics and Mexican government strategies to fight them. Blame us for drug demand and drug prohibition; fine. But NAFTA? It was just too much of a stretch for me.
Bottom line, if you ask me if you should read this book, my answer is going to be, "It depends." If you're a casual reader looking for an easy-to-read overview of the drug war, no. If you're a student and want well-researched information on this specific aspect of the drug war (if largely biased, but what isn't these days?), then you should consider it. I do think this book will do better as required reading for college courses rather than a weekend or airplane page-turner.
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