Narratives on drug cartels: When violence becomes a business expense

By Alexia Nader
Flickr / Day Donaldson via CC 2.0

Flickr / Day Donaldson via CC 2.0

Drug trafficking cartels have achieved near-mythic status in our American public imagination, and for good reason: Fictional portrayals like Breaking Bad, Traffic, or Scarface, make for terrific entertainment. Their side effects also compound the notoriety by briefly raising a dim awareness about the subject matter, and for the glorification of the drug trafficking industry. However, the problem isn’t confined to Hollywood – journalistic portrayals have played no small part in the same project. Reportage of the drug trade goes through trends, though some seem more obviously attached to myth-making than others.

The most obvious example of the practice comes from Sean Penn’s feature article in the January 2016 issue of Rolling Stone. His piece, “El Chapo Speaks: A Secret Visit with the Most Wanted Man in the World,” taps into familiar formats and techniques. He packages melodrama and soap opera clichés vis-à-vis its Mexican main character, Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. He pairs this along with a Heart of Darkness-type spin on the traditional reporting narrative, in which Penn and his fellow reporters ruggedly power through bad weather and police checkpoints to secure an interview with the elusive Guzmán.

But when journalism explicitly sets out to counter such romanticized tales of the drug trade in popular culture, it ends up enacting its own form of distortion of the industry as a subject in ways both less obvious and more fascinating for their complexity. Two recent books, both written by veteran British journalists and released this year in the United States, use distinct lenses to examine drug cartels. In Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, Tom Wainwright, the Britain editor of The Economist, interprets the current state of the Latin American drug trade through economics. He presents the industry as a result of rational, profit-driven decision-making by various groups of interested parties. All political decisions appear solely in the light of the economic forces that, as Wainwright conjectures, went into them in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, former Guardian and BBC correspondent Misha Glenny takes a different approach. Glenny travels through the favela of Rocinha, alternating between ethnographic and literary lenses as he examines the reign of Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious drug bosses. While the distinct frameworks of these books provide important and useful windows into underreported aspects of drug trafficking, they also hobble the books in one crucial way: by casting each of the leaders in the trade as an Everyman just doing his job, these narratives divorce their subjects from their own individual agency. As a result, it often feels like the authors have absolved their drug trafficking subjects of responsibility for the violence that their organizations have caused. Such absolution paints the drug trade in nearly amoral strokes, which makes for a good thriller, but a poor recourse for understanding the human ravages of the drug trade in Latin America.

Sean Penn said he wanted to write an article about drug policy. He ended up writing a celebrity gossip piece about his meeting with El Chapo, the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. “Perhaps the right word is gringada,” Francisco Goldman wrote of Penn’s piece in The New Yorker, “a derogatory Mexican term applied to Hollywood movies that seem typically formulaic, sentimental, nationalistic and patriotic, usually idiotic, cynical and annoying in one way or another.”

Because Penn was new to journalism, his article came under more intense fire than it might have had the author been firmly in the journalist tribe. But the criticism was not unfounded. The narcissism of its narration was certainly grating. More importantly, Penn presumed that he could speak to the policy of the war on drugs by interviewing a leader of a cartel not about his policies, but about his personal life and beliefs. The article’s blitheness derived in part from the representational shortcuts Penn thought he could get away with and still communicate insight about a situation as complex as drug trafficking.

For example, the piece is predicated on a vaguely fractal aura that surrounds leaders of all type of organizations, suggesting that their personal actions, views, and histories can stand in for the policies of their organizations, and that their portrait somehow represents their organization or industry as a whole. Penn’s reflection on his project midway through the piece exemplifies his tendency to romanticize his subject. In response to Guzmán’s comment that he doesn’t want Penn to portray him as a nun (innocent and cloistered, presumably), Penn writes, “This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore. His presence conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say silver, and others lead.” (Sure.)

Penn presumed that he could speak to the policy of the war on drugs by interviewing a leader of a cartel not about his policies, but about his personal life and beliefs.

To be fair, Penn did not get the idea to wax mystical about drug trafficking out of nowhere. Many popular portrayals of the drug trade— think Breaking Bad—show the industry to be governed by the emotional whims of the leaders of various cartels, who act with both a sense of rugged individualism (the cartel leader as a kind of Mexican cowboy) and benevolent despotism to the impoverished and besieged people of their territories. Even the nicknames of cartel leaders are often included along with their full—bureaucratic—names in news reports. It’s “El Chapo” who speaks out, not Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.

But the Sinaloa cartel has been ripe for the public’s imagination long before Penn’s journalistic caper, and ironically, it helped give birth to the trend of analyzing cartels as if they were legitimate businesses. “Cocaine Incorporated,” a 2012 New York Times Magazine piece, described Guzmán’s rise in the Sinaloa cartel in terms that contrasted starkly with the melodramatic characterizations typically attached to drug trafficking stories at the time and were largely new to the press. In the piece, Patrick Radden Keefe wrote about the Sinaloa cartel’s diversification and vertical integration, about the challenges of a cocaine smuggling being a “capital-intensive business,” and even about the cartel’s market share. Guzmán, as head of the cartel, was profiled much like a Fortune 500 CEO.

“As a mirror image of a legal commodities business, the cartel brings to mind that old line about Ginger Rogers doing all the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backward and in heels,” Keefe wrote. A couple years later, another New York Times article from February 2014 quoted an expert on transnational crime who compared the Sinaloa cartel to McDonald’s; later that year, Fast Company published an article entitled “3 Business Lessons From The Sinaloa Drug Cartel.” Sub-head? “Innovate like a syndicate.”

This is the mantle that Narconomics inherits. Tom Wainwright tells us in his introduction that he will interpret his reporting through the lens of an economist peering at “what [drug trafficking] most closely resembled: a global, highly organized business.” The subsequent chapters present various business challenges and management areas: the supply chain, competition, human resources, public relations, franchising, intellectual property, distribution networks, and market diversification. The thread pulling the reader through the reporting is not a single subject (Wainwright discusses a variety of cartels and gangs), or a geographical area, or even the development of an idea. Rather, it’s the constant subversion of our expectations of danger.

Wainwright takes us to a coca field in Bolivia and compares it to corn fields; the violence in Juarez is part of a public relations strategy; journalist intimidation in Mexico is like “native advertising.” Wainwright downplays the aura of violence and the chaos that regularly surrounds descriptions of the industry. When it does appear, it isn’t senseless or personal; it’s simply the unfortunate consequence of necessary operational strategies when groups can’t enforce contracts through legitimate means. That, or it’s a public relations tactic.

If the international drug business is completely modernized as Wainwright describes it, then the leadership is, too. A cartel-controlled territory isn’t a fiefdom ruled by the head despot, but one that is subject to a modern management structure. Everything from deeming what social services to give to the poor inhabitants to recruiting new members is handed by a team of middle managers. Wainwright strips the members of cartel leadership of their glamour, replacing this characterization with one in perhaps equally broad strokes: that of the faceless, resigned, and ultimately impotent middle manager. He writes about his many interviews with these members:

Whenever I met [the people who run the industry] in person, their boasts and complaints tended to remind me of nothing so much as those of corporate managers…Time and again, the most ruthless outlaws described to me the same mundane problems that blight the lives of other entrepreneurs: managing personnel, navigating government regulations, finding reliable suppliers, and dealing with competitors.

This all might read a little too like Freakonomics to you, and Wainwright seems to be aware of the pitfall. It may be why he emphasizes the agenda behind framing his subjects the way he does at several points in the book. He wants to demonstrate that the policy of many governments, particularly the United States, to decrease drug trafficking actually ignores the basic economic mechanisms at work in the industry and renders any anti-trafficking policy ineffective. “This book is a business manual for drug lords,” he writes in the introduction. “But it is also a blueprint for how to defeat them.” His solution: comprehensively legalize drugs.

Wainwright takes us to a coca field in Bolivia and compares it to corn fields; the violence in Juarez is part of a public relations strategy; journalist intimidation in Mexico is like “native advertising.”

But between that radical option and doing nothing lie some of his best insights. For example, his chapter on how competition between rival trafficking groups for scarce resources leads to bursts of violence sheds light on the self-defeating nature of some of our border policies. Policies to tighten security at the Mexican-American border have led to increased violence in Mexico’s border regions, as rival groups fight for control of access points. This violence pushes more desperate Mexicans living in these regions to attempt the perilous journey to safety in the United States.

The downside of Wainwright’s rhetorical move of making a dangerous and criminal industry appear legitimate, is that it ends up making the subject seem benign. Yet common wisdom—and news of regular streams of murders in Mexico and other Latin American countries—tell us that it’s not. What’s missing in Narconomics, to an extent, is a sense of the stakes.

Wainwright largely speaks to the middle managers of many sides of the deeply international industry—a head of a coca growers’ union in Bolivia, or a political scientist in the Dominican Republic who has founded a new type of prison to combat drug recruitment in his country, or the Security Minister of Honduras, whose claim to power in curbing drug trafficking in the country is quickly undercut by Wainwright himself. Right after his subject states that “in no municipality of Honduras has the state lost its authority,” the author cites US State Department statistics about the surge in drug trafficking after the country’s 2009 coup. While it’s true that focusing on such characters sheds light on often underreported slices of the drug trade, it’s unclear whether those slices are inherently worth the ink. Such reportorial attention depends on whether middle managers can express anything that seems particularly informative or urgent. A middle manager by definition sits at a remove from both high-level decision-making and ground-level implementation, and therefore invites doubt about whether a journalist, even one as insightful as Wainwright, can get the goods from them (so to speak). And in fact, when interviewing his most prominently featured drug trafficking source, a Salvadoran gangster named Old Lin (in a prison visiting room, no less), Wainwright fails to glean information specific enough to make us care about this story. Wainwright tells us Old Lin is “well into public relations mode,” saying he made a truce with a rival gang “to rehabilitate the country’s youth.” Though accounts beyond Narconomics indicate that there is indeed much to be rehabilitated, it’s hard not to wish that Wainwright had made more of an effort to bring in his own ground-level reporting to convey the extent of the industry’s human cost.

The missing stories are those of people on the ground level of the industry: the foot soldiers and the victims. Wainwright just assumes we know that his middle managers cause scores of deaths, and are the enforcers of a mafia-like system of rule in countries like Mexico. The closest he gets to capturing the human scale is a few paragraphs recounting the story of Rosa: a resident of a neighborhood that has been overrun by violent robberies, a cleaning lady, and a person about to hire a gang to perform multiple hits in her neighborhood. Wainwright informs us, “in between mopping floors and making blueberry pancakes, she is plotting a murder.” Her story, of how she wants to pay her local cartel men to kill of a roving group of bandits terrorizing her neighborhood, is told with a striking lack of empathy for the kind of terrible circumstances that would push a person to order multiple murders. At the end of the woman’s tale, Wainwright writes, “Dark purple patches have soaked into my napkin from the blueberry pancakes, which suddenly don’t seem so appetizing. I make my excuses and head home, wondering what my own cleaning lady gets up to in her spare time.” At best, the comparison feels thin; at worst, it exploits and co-opts Rosa’s plight to feed into his own fears instead. If we aren’t encouraged to feel for Rosa as Rosa and those who live with the terror caused by Wainwright’s so-called incorporated cartels, why would it matter that there is a method behind the madness of drug trafficking? Wainwright’s drug trafficker subjects would be middle managers, and not just rhetorically speaking.

The murky moral waters of being a drug trafficking middle manager is in Misha Glenny’s purview. Nemesis is partly a sociological study of the conditions of the Rocinha favela that shaped the worldview of a man who became a crime boss, his protagonist Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known as Nem. Glenny appears to have spent a long time doing ground-up reporting, of which he creates an informal history of the Rocinha social order: how Rocinha’s inhabitants, many of whom work as foot soldiers for drug traffickers, twist their lives around and with the business of the bosses. “[The story] also tells us about how men and women survive, and even prosper, in the most adverse conditions. How they negotiate the thin line separating life from death,” Glenny writes.

Glenny’s portrayal of the relationship between the drug-trafficking boss and the everyday person living in his domain, is perhaps more complicated than the one laid out by Wainwright, who largely defines it in terms of basic PR for the boss. In Glenny’s narrative, the relationship is dialectical—Lopes’ success as a drug trafficker is predicated on his control over the favela through intimidation, occasional violence, and mafia-style handouts. But the vagaries of the favela, the instability inherent in working with people who were once your childhood friends, or operating under the surveillance of a Greek chorus of residents peeking out of their houses or chatting in front of the corner store, ultimately exert equal control over Lopes.

What kind of person chooses to be part of such a dynamic, Glenny seems to be asking. His answer comes in the form of a character sketch: Lopes grew up as part of that Greek chorus. He lived in a slum dwelling in Rocinha with his mother, who was a housekeeper in the home of a wealthy family, his father, who worked at a bar, and a half-brother. He always felt that his favela was going to be his world, but he knew that many people in the favela had it worse than he did. As a young man, he had a non-criminal job as a delivery truck driver. But when his daughter turned gravely ill, Lopes turned to crime to get earn to take care of his family. Glenny sympathizes, and writes:

He has never engaged with drugs, never taken them, and has no intention of doing so. He is revolted by the associated violence, which has been a backdrop to his life…But he sees no way out of his financial predicament.

Before Lopes signs up to the be a henchman for the standing boss, Luciano Barbosa da Silva, he journeys to one of the favela’s upper zones where the boss’s office looks out over the hill at his domain below. This journey, it seems, is meant to dramatize the symbolic importance of Lopes’ conversion to a life of crime. But instead it points us to a central tension running throughout the rest of the book: How much should Glenny portray Lopes’ life as molded by his circumstances, thus excusing his subject for the decisions he made first to join the gang and then to become its leader?

The hints are in Glenny’s description of the geography of Lopes’ journey. Nemesis opens with a map, designed to clarify the limitations of the favela, the nature and human geography that hems it in, defines it. Later in the story, Glenny explains why understanding this is crucial to understanding Rocinha and thus Lopes’ story. Not only are the favelas of Rio de Janeiro isolated from their geographical location on the steep slopes of hills, but they are isolated in the minds of the city’s middle class who “succeed in living their lives by erasing the favelas from their conscious minds.” Glenny makes it clear that “as a consequence, the identification of people from the favelas with their own particular community has always been more intense than is the case in other cities.” Charting Lopes’ path up the hill, Glenny explicates the significance of every bend in the road. Of a literal fork in the road, Glenny writes:

Take a right and the path soon swings round towards the southwest along the sheer side of the Two Brothers mountain, eventually reaching the commercial district at the bottom—and normality. Take a left and you cross into the traditional stronghold of the drugs trade. Men, women and children may appear to be dozing or chatting idly, but most are observing strangers heading towards Lulu’s office.

Glenny shows us what we need to see to understand Lopes’ intimacy with the territory over which he will lord by the middle of the story. He has a personal, emotional relationship to the winding streets of the favela. As such, we know from this point on that his time as a manager of the drug trade will not be framed as a sum of rational decisions.

When you are a product of your circumstances your actions are not wholly yours, which means you don’t bear the full weight of responsibility for them.

Lopes quickly rose in da Silva’s crew, and we soon see him transformed into don of Rocinha, the link to a strategically important favela in the Amigos dos Amigos cartel’s supply chain. At this point, Glenny’s sympathy for his subject moves to the fore.

Though Glenny largely paints his subject as a victim of circumstance, he also seems to want to prove his subject wasn’t just another don. It’s critical for Glenny that Lopes wasn’t just reacting to his situation, that he somehow managed to transcend it, and determine his own narrative. Glenny points out that Lopes used many of the logistical skills he had learned in his prior non-criminal job to impose order on his organization. Glenny also interviewed favela inhabitants who attested to a better life under Lopes than under previous dons. Rocinha experienced a brief economic boom and gained international recognitions when rapper Ja Rule gave a concert in the area. Lopes adopts the language of a legitimate mayor when he says to Glenny about the concert, “I wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that this community was essentially a safe place, not some lawless outpost where every second person was carrying a gun.”

Nevertheless, when Lopes ultimately falls—and is publicly humiliated and arrested—we still don’t think an innocent man has been put in prison, despite Glenny’s efforts. The pivotal moment of his fall crystallizes the moral responsibility of Lopes’ story clearly for us—that is, readers a world away from the favela. Lopes’ armed gang takes a tourist hostage at The Hotel Intercontinental in the upscale neighborhood of São Conrado, which borders Rocinha. Glenny comments that the events leading up to the hostage situation seem determined, “almost as though the gods have decided to start playing with [Lopes].” But out of the context of the favela, the violence of Lopes’ organization is thrown into stark relief. Though Glenny tried to paint Lopes as a victim of circumstance, at this point, it’s impossible to ignore Lopes’ responsibility for the ensuing violence that Glenny recounts: “a barrage of bullets” in the open air causing panic in São Conrado, and police and civilian injuries; a seemingly senseless kidnapping of a Belgian tourist who happened to emerge from the elevator of the Hotel Intercontinental at the wrong time, was confronted by four men with “pistols, semi-automatics, or grenades” and quickly ended up with a gun pointed at his neck.

In Glenny’s mix of literary and sociological characterization, the question of moral responsibility relates to the issue of transcendence. When you are a product of your circumstances your actions are not wholly yours, which means you don’t bear the full weight of responsibility for them. So if Lopes had in fact managed to transcend his circumstances as Glenny tries to suggest, then he would be guilty of the sins involved in being a drug lord; if Lopes had not managed to transcend his circumstances, then it’s unclear why he should be judged by a different rubric than any other drug lord. Because of the way Glenny has structured the moral terms of his narrative, it’s crucial that we know whether or not Lopes has ultimately transcended his circumstances. But Glenny never clarifies. This might be because the author is truly ambivalent about how much of a victim or hero he finds Lopes to be. Regardless, Glenny’s authorial choice of adhering to that ambivalence leaves him unable to comprehensively examine the question of Lopes’ moral responsibility.

Stories don’t work the same way as policy prescriptions. This seems obvious enough and yet, for journalists committed to social change, navigating the contradictory worlds of narration and prescription often proves to be difficult. Among the many issues that pervade drug trafficking policy, violence seems paramount. Recognizing and showing that cartel leaders are human, like their victims, leaves some room to account for context and circumstance, but it must be complemented by an equally strong sense of human agency and accountability. Only then does the question of responsibility for that violence start to have any weight. So while Penn attempted to write an article about the implications of the drug trade, his impressionistic authorship and single-minded focus on the individual Guzmán, which came at the expense of the wider context of that individual’s actions, made it impossible for him to speak to anything more than what he saw in the moment.

Similarly, though he tries to make an argument about what should change in the United States’ policy towards drug trafficking, Wainwright fails by making the leadership of the cartels he covers faceless. This lets drug traffickers off too easy. He places much of the moral burden for solving the drug trafficking problem on the governments of developed countries: the blood of innocent people murdered by cartels is on your hands, United States, he seems to be saying, for not doing anything to stem the demand for drugs. But cartel leaders do not just represent organizations; they are also made up of individuals who make decisions for which they are then personally responsible.

Glenny comes closest to resolving this conundrum more than either of the two other authors, yet his focus limits the question of moral responsibility to the one neighborhood where his subject lived and had a largely positive legacy as a community leader. At the point in Glenny’s story where blood stemming from Lopes’ decisions is literally spilled outside the favela, he can’t decide whether to blame or forgive his subject. At this late point in the narrative, it’s unfortunate that Glenny didn’t provide a sturdier moral framework from the beginning.

These absences of moral frameworks necessarily flatten the sphere of drug trafficking. Because when writing about drug trafficking, the moral framework, the very thing that lets readers become implicated in the subject, is more important than a tidy story—regardless of whether that story is in the pop-economic or the literary journalism vein. In a way, you cannot write meaningfully about drug trafficking without dipping your story in blood.

Alexia NaderAlexia Nader is a writer and the managing editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.

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