Close-up account of the international drug trade, seen from the point of view of its foot soldiers.
Drawing on her dissertation research, anthropologist Angel-Ajani leads readers into the minor hell of Italy’s Rebibbia Prison, erstwhile home of some hundreds of Africans implicated in drug smuggling. The author examines two of them closely. One is a Liberian woman named Mary who, though well-educated, chose not to ask many questions when pushed into her role as a mule—and probably wisely, for, once caught, her vengeful handler held her children as ransom until she repaid him for the loss. The other, far more formidable, is a Ugandan woman who, outwardly friendly, gives Tony Soprano a run for his money—and who, as the story progresses, tries to turn her putative friendship with the author to nefarious ends. As Angel-Ajani acknowledges, a pool of two informants is small—and, in fact, she interviewed many other men and women—but both Mary and Pauline are metonyms for larger, more troubling trends. Africa once did not figure heavily in the international narcotics trade, but increasingly it is falling into the sway of the Latin American cartel, with the danger that African—and particularly West African—nations might “succumb to the same kind of open warfare between the state and criminal gangs” as is now evident in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American countries. African women are increasingly involved in this trade, as the author’s interviews make clear. Some, like Pauline, do so as “a quick, though dangerous, way to have a more expansive life,” though more often because few other doors are open to them economically. In the struggle to feed their families, the niceties of law necessarily fall by the wayside.
Competent but too anecdotal; a stronger grounding in the facts and figures of the illicit drug market would have given this talky narrative more context.