A new book by journalist Ioan Grillo on Latin American organized crime offers a fascinating tour of four distinct criminal organizations, providing insightful context and firsthand accounts to better understand the region’s “crime wars.”
In his most recent book, “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America,” Ioan Grillo explores “the move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood.” (Read book excerpt here)
The key question driving Grillo’s inquiry into how crime and violence have evolved in Latin America since the end of the Cold War is, “Why are the Americas awash in blood at the dawn of the twenty-first century?”
To answer this question, Grillo — a friend of InSight Crime and contributor to our website in the past — has several explanations. These include the collapse of military dictatorships and guerrilla forces in the region, which left behind stockpiles of weapons and soldiers searching for work. Additionally, the region’s emerging democracies have been plagued by weakness and corruption, failing to establish working justice systems and the rule of law.
These conditions created space for criminal entrepreneurs to emerge, which in turn have evolved beyond mere drug traffickers to become a “weird hybrid of criminal CEO, gangster rock star, and paramilitary general.” Grillo attempts to make better sense of these hybrid criminal organizations “by tracking a path through the new battlefields of the Americas.”
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To this end, “Gangster Warlords” devotes four lengthy chapters to specific case studies that represent “different styles of characters and organizations in the region.” These include the Red Command in Brazil, the Shower Posse in Jamaica, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) in Central America, and the Knights Templar in Mexico.
The intent of the four case studies chosen is to demonstrate that the simultaneous emergence of “crime militias” in different countries “is no coincidence” but “a regional trend, a product of historical circumstances.”
Nonetheless, before diving into the case studies, Grillo touches on a pertinent debate. This revolves around the discussion of how we are to understand Latin America’s post-Cold War conflicts, and in turn how governments should respond.
That is, the region’s “crime wars” are not traditional wars or declared armed conflicts, but are rather a “blurring of crime and war.” Within “this mix of crime and war,” Grillo states, “gangster gunmen are often more effective in achieving their aims than are larger government forces in achieving theirs.”
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Grillo holds that these criminal organizations base their power on the control of fiefdoms, and threaten the state’s fundamental nature “not by trying to completely take it over but by capturing parts of it and weakening it.” In certain areas, these criminal groups “chip into the state’s monopoly on violence — or, more precisely, the monopoly on waging war and carrying out justice.” However, unlike insurgent or terrorist groups, criminals in Latin America are primarily motivated by financial incentives, not political or social objectives.
Accordingly, Grillo is interested in “how these gangsters wield power, how they wage war, how they operate as political and fighting forces,” as well as the drivers behind “insane levels of violence” and how it can be stopped.
Grillo’s search for answers to these questions leads to a captivating tour through some of the most dangerous and crime-ridden areas of Latin America. An excellent writer and storyteller, Grillo seamlessly combines fascinating interviews with criminals, police officers, and other stakeholders in the region with theoretical concepts and historical context.
The result is an engaging and nuanced discussion of the multiplicity of aspects, organizations, and individuals connected to the rise of criminality in Latin America.
From Brazil’s favelas to Jamaica’s garrison communities to his on-the-ground reporting during the heyday of Mexico’s vigilante movement in Michoacán, Grillo speaks with influential and experienced criminal players in the region.
These are people — from original members of Brazil’s Red Command and associates of Jamaica’s infamous Christopher Michael “Dudus” Coke — who witnessed firsthand the evolution of crime in their respective communities. Their insights bring life and immense value to Grillo’s analysis, allowing the reader to understand the perspectives of regional criminal actors and the reasoning or self-justifications for their behavior.
In the case studies of the selected criminal organizations, Grillo identifies several parallels in how Latin American criminal groups operate.
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Primarily, Grillo holds these disparate groups are united in their attempts to control fiefdoms and fight this new type of conflict. As a result, Grillo finds it more instructive to view gunmen in the region more as militias, rather than just gangbangers.
Here, Grillo introduces the concept of “gangster warlord,” which he finds a better term to explain hybrid criminal leaders in the region, such as Jamaica’s “Dudus” Coke or the Zetas’ Heriberto Lazcano. That is, while these men are still gangsters running rackets, they are more than simple drug traffickers, commanding militias to rule their fiefs, “guard the borders of their domains, kill enemy gunmen who enter, collect extortion ‘taxes,’ conduct trials, strong-arm politicians, and carry out social work.” These gangster warlords, however, control selective aspects of their country’s territory, leaving the provision of electricity and other services to the government.
To counter the activities of Latin America’s “gangster warlords,” Grillo contends governments must come to an understanding of what the problem truly is, even though it may be painful to admit criminals do challenge the state and its monopoly on violence. As such, Grillo ends with recommendations for three areas where governments should seek to improve their activities: drug policy reform, building justice systems, and transforming ghettos. While the recommendations are nothing revolutionary, they are pragmatic, reasonable conclusions derived from Grillo’s years of work in Latin America, and give “Gangster Warlords” a much-needed note of optimism looking forward.
Overall, “Gangster Warlords” is an excellent work that incorporates a macro-level view of political and socioeconomic trends with local conditions to provide a more comprehensive picture of Latin America’s criminal surge following the Cold War. Those looking to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions giving rise to criminal groups in Latin America, and to how to conceive of and respond to the region’s “gangster warlords” and criminal militias, will find it a valuable resource.