The title is perhaps a little prepossessing. The cover picture is of a tattooed member of a Central American gang. It seems as though the book might be overly colourful, exploiting the reader’s curiosity in a morbid world. This impression is misleading. In practice, Grillo’s book is a sober, measured account not only of the terrible consequences of the drugs industry, but also its machinations, its day to day working, its history and its appeal.
The book looks at four different societies that have evolved as a result of the drugs industry. These case studies are located in Rio, Michoacan in Mexico, Jamaica and the Central American states of Honduras and El Salvador. Grillo goes and talks to the generals and the foot-soldiers from these societies. He excavates their history, anthropology and theology. The economics look after themselves. As he points out, the drugs business isn’t like any other. Its profits are off the scale. They permit the development of alternative societies within national boundaries, societies that have their own judiciary, social services and infrastructure. In some favelas in Rio, for example, the Red Commando installed sewage systems. These bodies, funded by drugs money, step in where the state will not, and have a transformative effect, for better and for worse.
The most alarming aspect of Gangster Warlords, and its greatest achievement, is the way it succeeds in revealing the normalisation of these gangster societies, a normalisation which is sometimes accepted by the state and sometimes opposed. The lesson is that it is not at all unlikely that a group which achieves economic power through their control of the drugs trade (in this instance) can then impose their will on the geographic territory they occupy. Civil society is never as strong as it aspires to be. The author stresses that these groups are taking advantage of states which are either weak (Honduras, Jamaica) or have clear points of weakness (the favelas in Rio, the rural Mexican states). However, it isn’t hard to envisage a more fragmented, less unified world, where this kind of weakness could begin to emerge within societies which are currently considered far more stable. Above all, the book reveals the impact of poverty on the formation and development of strong anti-establishment structures. All the stories that Grillo relates have their roots in the existence of an underclass, where desperation drives people to adopt a criminal lifestyle, cognisant of the risks.
Gangster Warlords is an exceptional, courageous work of journalism. Grillo goes to the places few other writers reach. He brings back first hand accounts of how and why the criminal industry flourishes. An industry which is entirely constructed around western consumerism. In centuries to come one hopes people will look back on the abuse that the absurd dugs system unleashes with the same horror that people look back on slavery now. Rich societies prohibit pleasure, which generates an illegal trade that eviscerates those places that produce the drugs that people consume illegally to obtain pleasure in the rich societies that prohibit pleasure…