Saturday, December 3, 2011

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo

Bloomsbury Press, 2011
321 pp.

"In a globalized world, mafia capitalists and criminal insurgents have become the new dictators and the new rebels. Welcome to the twenty-first century."

I have this rather personal (and odd) fascination with understanding the whole drug cartel scene in Mexico, and it all stems from time spent there.  Once in 2006 we were visiting Acapulco and just after we left there, there was a major shootout in the streets where we'd previously been riding around in a hired car.  Then just this past year, we were looking forward to a great time riding horses along the palm-lined beaches of Mazatlan (one of our favorite things to do), when a series of shootings and other violent episodes made us decide maybe that wasn't such a good place to be.  Off we went to Cabo instead and discovered that the drug-related violence is there as well. It's everywhere -- resort areas, main streets, nightclubs, and I've often wondered why the government doesn't do something about it.  After all, especially in areas along the ocean, tourist dollars are such a huge contribution to the country's economy, and it seems like the government is shooting itself in the foot by not taking action.  Whereas we used to love to go to Mexico, we look elsewhere now when thinking of a vacation.  And my husband and I can't be the only people thinking like this. But now, after reading this book by Ioan Grillo, I have more of an insight into what's going on and why little seems to be getting done in cleaning things up there.  El Narco is a compelling book; one well worth every second spent reading it. I couldn't put it down.

Ioan Grillo, journalist and author of El Narco has based his book not only on comprehensive and  impeccable research, but on firsthand accounts, his own observations and often hair-raising interviews. The roadmap for understanding this book is completely laid out in the first chapter as Grillo examines

a) the transformation of groups responsible for drug smuggling who have in the last decade or so become more militarized into "paramilitary death squads" responsible for "tens of thousands" of deaths, as well as the effects on ordinary people in Mexico;
b) the rise of  these groups as a dangerous "criminal insurgency," one that threatens to become a civil war along the US/Mexico border;
c) the combined effects of the lack of success of the US war on drugs and Mexico's own political and economic issues in creating this insurgency; and
d) possible solutions based on what Grillo calls a "drastic rethinking of strategies" that should not depend on US military involvement

But before launching into the meat of the book, Grillo first examines the concept of "El Narco." He notes that in Mexico, El Narco is the collective term used for traffickers, but in reality the term also designates an entire culture in its own right, spawning its own music, co-opting religious icons and religions, its own clothing styles, etc., all based on the drug trafficker as local hero.  It is an entire movement based in the "drug underworld,"  and as Grillo notes, the threat of El Narco and figuring out possible solutions is best understood by following its development.

As the book proceeds, it follows the above-listed guideline to provide an incredible look at how the traffic in drugs in Mexico went from a few people who dominated the poppy/opium/narcotics market to a major insurgency and an all-out war which threatens to explode into unprecedented violence and a very real threat.

The author examines US policy which basically created the birth of "El Narco," as anti-drug legislation as far back as 1914 created a black market for Mexican drugs that Americans were all to keen to exploit, and which were easy to get along the border.   He goes into the formation and rise of the cartels, examining the connections between the rise of the cartels' power and the end of the Colombian primacy over the cocaine trade.  Grillo also presents information that clearly links the upsurge in drug violence and the end of the seventy-one year rule of the more authoritarian PRI  (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party), and the upsetting of the system of payoffs and control that helped to keep violence in check during that party's time in office.  When the more democratic system of government came to take power in Mexico,  former police forces under the chiefs or caciques of local territories and former army personnel saw many in their number being arrested for human rights abuses or corruption, and many of these people began to come over to the newly-formed, paramilitary Zetas, who at first served as a militia for the Gulf Cartel, and rose to prominence on their own through new tactics of terrorization and control. There are also links between the efforts of the US government in its war against drugs and the new democratic regime that helped create the modern-day situation in Mexico.  Grillo also posits that the dramatic upsurge in violence and current drug wars really began in  2004, when the Sinaloa Cartel tried to take over the Gulf Cartel traffic.  The group ran up against the Zetas and their new, most brutal brand of control, including beheadings, mass killings, and other nasty intimidation techniques.  The Zetas' tactics served as example to other drug lords of how to take care of their enemies; add to that Calderon's all-out assault on drug trafficking and other factors, and there's a very flammable mix that has led to the current situation. Of course, it's much more complicated...this is just a very rough outline of a central part of Grillo's research and findings.

The book also goes on to explore Narco-culture (an amazing section, by the way), and moves on to discuss the very real problems and threats inherent in this current insurgency. As the author notes, there are currently seven major cartels in Mexico, and when their leaders are taken out, the violence escalates as members fight each other for the leadership positions. The police are working for rival cartels as protection and are firing on each other. And even with the US backing the Mexican government in the war on drugs, drugs are still pouring over the border. The traffickers are expanding along the border and murder rates are at an all-time high.  In answer to all of these issues and more, Grillo comes up with his own ideas about a solution, one that the US government probably won't be in a hurry to implement, but it's one that makes a great deal of sense.  

This is one of those books that you need to read slowly and thoroughly, as politics and anti-drug policies both in Mexico and the US are tangled and rather complicated, but the author does an excellent job in making every aspect very clear.  But the very best parts of this book are found in the stories of the ordinary people who for whatever reason got sucked up into the world of El Narco, even peripherally.  There's the personal experiences he captures of the courageous newspaper reporters, the families of those killed in the deadly violence of the drug wars, former gang members, "sicarios" or assassins, and many other people. The brilliance of this book lies largely in Grillo's ability to get into the world of El Narco firsthand, creating a very human story, one which deals with a current threat that seriously needs to be addressed. 

While sometimes the information in some of the chapters sort of veer off topic and the timelines get a bit muddled, my only other criticism of this book is with some of the author's wording.  For example, the phrase "severed craniums" is mentioned several times, and it took me a while to decide he must be talking about severed heads, because why would anyone wait for a body to decompose then cut the cranium off of the skeleton?  But these are niggling complaints, and these little things didn't interfere with my reading at all. 

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who's even remotely interested in the topic.  I noticed that while looking at reviews on Amazon, someone calls this book "conspiratorial," "left-wing" and "Anti-American." Don't believe it.  The book is frightening in its implications, because it's all too real, but the facts are well presented and thoroughly researched. Grillo's own insights and personal contributions even convey some humor to break up what is an incredibly serious situations, and he's been covering Mexico and other parts of Latin America for years and is therefore most credible.  This is probably my favorite nonfiction read of the year.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

12 Who Don't Agree, by Valery Panyushkin

Europa Editions, 2011
originally published as 12 nesolasnych,  2008
translated by Marian Schwartz
259 pp

" live by your conscience, as the saying goes, you protest when you need to protest and you don't bow or grovel before the powerful. And one day you see that you have taught your little girl to protest."
Before I start on my thoughts about this book, I would like to thank Europa Editions for publishing it. Otherwise, I may never have picked it up and that would have been a shame. Keep it up, find more stories like this one, and carry on. Please!

In 12 Who Don't Agree, Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin gathers together the individual stories of  several Russian dissidents, linked together in various ways, especially as participants in the March of the Dissidents of 2007.  The first of these protest marches  was in held in Petersburg, and was only one of a series of planned events prior to the presidential election of 2008.  Their intention was to call attention to their opposition to the social, political and economic policies of then president Vladimir Putin.  During the first march, which was considered a "success" by its organizers (including Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world-chess champion),  the authorities called out the OMON (a police special forces unit), who reacted with violence against some of the protestors, but before the march was over, according to one observer, a "crowd of 10,000 had broken through the police cordons onto Nevsky Prospect... a human river as far as the eye could see, ... friends and comrades in arms free, strong, and dissenting."  While much of the violence was officially blamed on the organizers, provocateurs hired by the regime took their place in the crowds, holding signs and stirring up trouble to make the protestors look bad.  And all of this after the fall of the Wall and the end of totalitarian rule. Supposedly.

Panyushkin's book offers the experiences of eleven people, who for their own reasons were affected by, or became victims of gradually worsening government policies and repressions.  For example, there's Marina Litvinovich, who worked at the Fund for Effective Politics, where she read and summarized the news each day.  By reading between the lines and by putting together all of the various information campaigns, she discovered how things really worked.  Eventually she figured out that she could help influence the "secret course of events," and began putting together a summary which ultimately became "Information Threats and Ways to Resolve Them," where she would give advice. Her job: navigating between the the personal interests of officials and the country's interests. She began attending meetings between her boss, Gleb Pavlovsky (who had once betrayed a comrade to the KGB on the basis of his "forbidden books") and Yeltsin's chief of staff Voloshin, offering advice on how to handle official publicity.  She drew up lists of topics for directors to cover on Ukranian television and even directed Putin's public appearances once he became the president.  And this is where the trouble began. During the Kursk incident of 2000, Putin was on vacation as men trapped in the sub were clanging out SOS signals against the sides and their wives and mothers waited for someone to do something.  Marina's advice was to go the see the families and offer some moral support.  But this tactic backfired -- instead of his presence offering assurance, they turned on him publicly, in the face of reporters.  This incident led to a change in policy: the president would from then on maintain silence during any disaster. When the hostage situation developed in the Dubrovka Theater in  Moscow  in 2002, Marina discovered she was no longer needed, especially after the Russian forces dealt with the situation by piping in some unknown chemical agent to subdue the militants but managed to kill over a hundred innocent people as well.   To handle the information situation, the NTV, the last independent political channel which  actually covered the Dubrovka incident, got a new director, and information began to yield to propaganda.  Her career was basically over, and she ran several campaigns (PR and political), but as she began to understand why it was that all of her clients were failing, that behind it all were the politics and underhanded policies of those in charge of the country, she'd had enough, and began to manage the campaign of dissident Garry Kasparov.

And then there was Beslan, 2004, and the terrorist occupation of a school where over three hundred teachers, parents and children were taken hostage, many of them killed as government forces launched an assault on the school.  That incident killed trust in the regime for a resident, Vissarim Aseyev, a deputy of the district legislative assembly. Vissarim (Visa) was the first civilian on the scene after hearing gunshots from the direction of the school. He worked tirelessly to help any of the families who had lost children or other relatives, and did what any human being would do in the situation. But he reached his breaking point during a protest by a grieving group of women calling itself the Mothers of Beslan along the highway.  They stood there with signs, demanding, among other things, an international investigation into the circumstances of the terrorist action and the response of the government, and they figured that the investigation such as it was was being conducted so that no one in authority would end up being held responsible for the deaths of their children.  It was cold outside; the women were freezing, and Aseyev, being a good citizen and understanding their grief, called a friend to have a tent sent over along with food and hot tea from different cafes. Soon others began to join the protest, but it was still on a small scale.  On day three, after being warned that the protest was illegal, the Deputy General Prosecutor, a "representative of Federal Power" came by and starting yelling at the moms to stop. Stating that it was "indecent" for the mourning women to be standing there holding signs, he also berated the men who had joined them, saying that if they wanted to sort things out, to go make war on the nearby people of Ingushetia.  Aseyev couldn't believe his ears -- was this official actually proposing a war? Things only got worse.  He was called to the Beslan prosecutor's office, who told him that he needed to take responsibility for this illegal protest, or his friend who had supplied the tent would get into trouble.  Criminal charges would also be brought against him.  As the author notes, "Now he was truly opposed to the state."

There are nine more stories along these lines, all of them dealing with the gradual erosion of freedoms, human rights violations, threats, and other events that made these protests necessary as these individuals (and others)  began to realize  that "...we had returned to the Soviet Union, to a life we knew. When, no matter who you were, you could not have any effect on the regime or rise to power."   These narratives also deal with the government's efforts to crack down on any form of public protest, as well as  measures taken to edge out any real political opposition to the Kremlin, including censorship of opposition viewpoints and changes in the election laws.  Did you know, for example, that in Russia, it's illegal to have more than one person picketing at a time? Add another person and you're violating the law, with jail time as a result. And did you know that there are people  hired by the Kremlin to come up and stand with a solitary picketer, which ends the picket and makes the picketer a criminal?  And now that another round of elections are coming up, and Putin is planning to run, well, the world should be watching.  And then what happens with the protests come to a halt altogether? 

If you are politically inclined or are interested in the state of human rights around the globe, this is a definite must-read that gets well beyond news stories we listen to with only half an ear (if at all, since it's not about us).  The book starts out a bit slowly, but as Panyushkin gets through the intrigue, the political plays, injustices and protection of oligarchical interests of the government,  he also gets into the hearts and minds of these eleven people as they try to find a vehicle for expression and change. He often exercises humor that doesn't belie the seriousness of what he's saying.  Sometimes the narrative gets a bit bogged down and I found myself going to the internet for dates, etc.,  but for the most part, it's easy to read and to understand.  And with what's happening around the globe, it's timely.  Definitely and most highly recommended.

Also posted at The Europa Challenge Blog

Monday, October 10, 2011

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King

Crown Publishing, 2011
432 pp.

"The journeys begin and end at the rue Le Sueur."

First, a thank you to Crown for the ARC of this book, and an apology for taking so long to get to it.    This one definitely will get a second read and I'm buying a copy, so if anyone reading this wants the ARC gratis, it's yours. Be the first to leave a comment and it will be on its way to you this week.

On March 11, 1944, the air on the rue Le Sueur was filled with thick black smoke, smelling of "burnt caramel, burnt rubber, or a burnt roast of poor quality." The smoke had been coming out of a townhouse at number 21, and had been going for five days, but on that day, the heat made the smoke worse than it had ever been.  When firemen came to investigate, they came upon a horrible sight in the basement, to which  they had traced the origins of the smell.  They found piles of bones, arms and legs strewn about, and an overwhelming odor of decomposing and burnt flesh. But there were even more horrors in store for Georges-Victor Massu, the Commissiare of the Brigade Criminelle when he arrived -- the townhouse's courtyard hid a pit filled with "decomposing bodies of varying stages," whose numbers the Commissaire could only guess at.  One of the people joining the crowd before Massu's arrival identified himself as the owner's brother, and entered into a strange conversation with  the patrolmen at the scene:

" 'Are you good Frenchmen?' the man asked.
'What kind of question is that?'
'Then listen carefully. What you see there are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.' Discreetly he asked if the authorities had been notified...
'That's a serious mistake,' the man said. 'My life is at stake, as are the the lives of several of my friends who serve our cause'."

He went on to say that he was the leader of an organization in the French Resistance, that he had three hundred secret files and identification cards of other members of the Resistance, and that he needed to destroy them before the Germans could get them. Rather than detaining the man, the patrolman let him go.  Later, when he saw a picture of the owner of 21 rue Le Sueur, he was shocked to discover that this was the man he had talking to all along.  But that March night, the man vanished into the darkness, and became the focus of a manhunt that took several bizarre twists and turns as it progressed.

Death in the City of Light is the story of one of the most abominable yet unknown (at least to me) serial killers of the twentieth century, Dr. Marcel Petiot, a predator in every sense of the word. Some years prior to the discoveries at rue Le Sueur, authorities had already dealt with Petiot, who had been involved in the narcotics trade and fraud, and he came up on their radar when people associated with him began disappearing.  He had served as a mayor and a coroner, his careers ending in scandal.  Claiming to be part of a Resistance group that helped people leave Paris, Petiot had offered his services, at a rather hefty cost,  to assist Jews (among others) to get out of Paris, into France's Free Zone, and ultimately out of the country.  His activities captured the attention of two sections of the  Gestapo:  military security (IV E-3) got involved because of the escape of German soliders who would rather desert than face the possibility of  going to the Eastern Front, and the section involved in the Final Solution (B IV) was also interested due to the escape of Jews from Paris.   He was ultimately was picked up during a sting operation,  tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo, but  strangely, via a ransom paid by this brother, Petiot was released from Gestapo custody just two short months prior to the discovery at rue Le Sueur.  Ransoming prisoners of the Third Reich was nothing new; the author discusses how even Jews deemed "low security risks" could be ransomed at the right price, but considering that two divisions of the Gestapo were investigating Petiot's organization, and the nature of his crimes, the question of why he was released is a big one, and serves as part of the foundation for the major question posed in this book:  who did Petiot really work for? Was he, as he claimed, a member of the French Resistance, helping people to their freedom and helping "fellow patriots escape the vengeance of the Germans,"  or was he actually working for the Gestapo? Or did he work for neither -- was there something else going on? The author lays out the probabilities for each scenario and ultimately comes up with his own conclusions. 

The author has done some very credible research, even gaining unprecedented access to police archives and files about Petiot that still remain classified.  His coverage of this most evil man is set against the backdrop of Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and includes background about the political and cultural life of Paris, the criminal underground of the city, and the hardships endured by Parisians during that time. He also takes the reader through the Liberation of Paris and the aftereffects of arrests, trials and executions of persons known to be collaborators.  The most active part of the case and the book as well, however,  is Petiot's trial, a lively judicial farce that allowed the defendant to hurl insults, allegations against the prosecutor, the civil attorneys, the police and witnesses and to make his own case through even the most damning of testimony while trying to gain sympathy from audience.  His defense: he killed only "Germans, notorious collaborators, Gestapo and agents provocateurs," but then how does one explain away a nine-year old Jewish child? The Epilogue allows King the opportunity to put forth his own theories about the case, and he uses one obscure but amazing source in particular from a survivor of the escape network as a basis for part of his hypothesis.

While most of the focus is naturally on Petiot, King's work also follows the work and career of Georges-Victor Massu, who was a friend of Georges Simenon and part of a composite model for Simenon's character Maigret.  After working so hard on the case, Massu was ultimately arrested as a collaborator after the liberation of Paris and never got the opportunity to question Petiot, even though he'd laid most of the groundwork for his arrest.  The evidence uncovered by this man should have led to an open-and-shut case at trial; sadly, because of legal maneuverings, Petiot's outbursts and other factors, Massu's hard work was largely glossed over, important points were missed or not picked up during questioning, and as the trial progressed, it was a toss up as to whether Petiot would walk or be found guilty. The forensics specialists' work is also among the pleasures of this book.

Death in the City of Light is an interesting book that presents a series of complex questions that may never be completely answered, but King has done a wonderful job tying together several threads of detail to produce a story that is so bizarre and so twisted that it could only be real. I highly recommend it. I'm not big on true crime, but this is so different than anything I've read, and it appeals to the historian in me.

I've noticed in several reviews that people have compared this book to Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, but don't even go there, and it's really unfair to make that comparison.  People have also written that the book was boring and unengaging; I found it to be the opposite. My only problem with this book is that in the ARC there are no maps or photos, and these would have been very helpful.  But all in all, what a bizarre case this was -- and King's writing, his attention to detail and his ability to sift through untold hours of research made this an interesting and very enjoyable read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson

Crown/Random House, 2011
434 pp

"With a few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treament somewhere."
George S. Messersmith, America's consul general for Germany

As everyone knows, Erik Larson is a talented writer who manages to capture a slice of history and retell it in a most compelling way.  His book Isaac's Storm is actually my favorite of all of his books, although the preferred book by most Larson fans is The Devil in the White City.  And now he brings us In the Garden of Beasts, focusing on Germany in 1933-37 as Hitler begins to brutally consolidate his power. While any number of books have been written about this time period, this one is a bit different: we see events from the points of view of William E. Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany and his daughter Martha, giving his readers as usual a more personal connection to events beyond what has been written down in history textbooks. Even if you've never read a history of this period, or if you're not a history buff in general, you'll find In the Garden of Beasts to be compelling. 

William Dodd became the ambassador to Germany under FDR, who had previously offered the post to others who refused to accept it.  Dodd, an academic who was much more at home with teaching and writing his history of the Old South, had some close friends in Washington, and he soon came to FDR's attention.  First offered a post in Holland or Belgium, Dodd refused, but when the call came with the offer of a post in Germany, Dodd reconsidered. What Roosevelt wanted was "an American liberal  in Germany as a standing example,"  but the US government was really interested in ensuring that Hitler's regime would repay its 1.2 billion-dollar debt owed to American creditors.  Larson shows how based on this economic bottom line, Dodd was not allowed to rock the diplomatic boat, for fear that Hitler would refuse to pay.  Sadly, as events were to play out, Dodd was probably the least suitable candidate for this job. In the overall picture, he didn't too much while in office there, and Larson spends a great deal of time on discussing Dodd's reluctance in the diplomatic arena as well as the growing feelings by his peers that Larson needed to be recalled.  They also criticized his daughter, Martha, who even in the face of brutality, proclaimed her admiration for the Nazis. Martha had several lovers (one of them the first head of the Gestapo and one a known Soviet spy), and her affairs were known not only among American diplomatic circles, but among the Nazis as well.  As events occur, one after the other, culminating in the Night of the Long Knives,  Dodd at first refuses to acknowledge the dangers posed by Hitler's regime, and didn't take Hitler, Göring and Goebbels seriously -- he viewed them  as "inept and dangerous adolescents -- '16 year olds' -- who found themselves confronting an accumulation of daunting troubles."  It takes a long time, but eventually the ambassador begins to come around and see the truth of what is happening all around him. Sadly, his warnings were largely ignored by officials in Washington.   Although there were other Americans in Germany who knew from the outset that Hitler was a force to be reckoned with, they were largely ignored as well, even with evidence pointing to the mistreatment of the Jewish population. 

In and around the story of the Dodds, Larson encapsulates the lives of  Hitler and his henchmen; some of the stories are absolutely surreal.  The weirdest has to be that of Göring, who invited a few members of the diplomatic corps to his home an hour north of Berlin. There not only did the guests get to see their host in different outfits and get a look at his new bison enclosure, but they were treated to a rather bizarre spectacle in the mausoleum into which Goring was going to re-inter his dead wife on the summer solstice.  Hitler would be there for the event, as well as "legions of men from the army, SS and SA."  Larson also focuses on the building tensions and paranoia that came to encompass all of Germany as these men slowly clamped down on any sources of possible dissent.  His coverage of The Night of the Long Knives is so well done that the atmosphere of fear and darkness becomes palpable. 

What strikes me about this book is that none of what was happening in Germany raised any real red flags to the U.S. government, although it should have.  America was in the throes of  isolationist sentiment; there were pressing issues at home with the Depression, and of course, the Jewish question  was a hot enough potato in the US. Even among Jews here, the American Jewish Congress wanted to boycott German goods; the American Jewish Committee feared that if the US made too much of an issue out of the treatment of Jews in Germany, things would be made even worse.  And of course, let us not forget a tide of anti-Semitism  that existed at the time.  Even when Hitler made it publicly known that he intended to rearm Germany, and basically blew off the Treaty of Versailles, no one took it seriously.  As William Shirer notes, quoted in In the Garden of Beasts,

"That the allies at this time could easily have overwhelmed Germany is as certain as it is that such an action would have brought the end of the Third Reich in the very year of its birth..." but Hitler "knew the mettle of his foreign adversaries as expertly and uncannily as he had sized up that of his opponents at home."

Just think of what could have been avoided.

Although the firsthand accounts of Dodd and his daughter Martha are obviously invaluable resources to what was really going on at this time, and even though they are the lens, the witnesses to history, through which Larson tells the story, I didn't really care for either one of these people very much, Martha especially.  But in and around their stories comes some of the best unfolding of this period of history that I've ever come across.  Larson's book will wow even people who aren't regular history buffs, and it's one of those books that once you pick it up you have to prepare to do nothing while you're reading.