British journalist Grillo (El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, 2011) risks life and limb to interview gangsters, police, and victims of violence in this harrowing account of Latin American crime syndicates.
The author focuses on four criminal hotspots: Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and Central America. In each, he describes the impoverished landscape and blood-soaked history of the region, explaining the origins of certain crime networks and the national trauma they have wrought. Grillo has an impressive eye for detail: he writes vividly about pet dogs in Honduran prisons, the piecemeal construction of Jamaican garrisons, and the exact smell of a Mexican mass grave. The author’s prose style is levelheaded, but given the warlords’ fondness for kidnapping and even beheading journalists, the book drips with suspense. Slowly, Grillo makes his case that gangsters have become de facto leaders and celebrities, as powerful as any security force, and the war on drugs has proven a catastrophic failure. But he also appreciates the difficulty of governing such anarchic countries. “There are certainly some corrupt politicians who should not be in power,” he writes. “But in the crime wars, the solution is not as simple as toppling a president. After they are gone, you will still be left with billions of drug dollars, corrupt police, and ineffective courts.” Grillo also has a soft spot for many of the people he met, even trained killers. After describing vicious gun battles in the streets of Jamaica’s capital, he adds, “crime aside, I find the people of West Kingston to be warm and open, as in the ghettos from Brazil to Mexico. Like many other outsiders who have trekked into these areas, I’m touched by the people’s generosity of spirit.” Grillo dedicates his final chapter to practical solutions, distinguishing himself from lesser journalists content to sensationalize crime and leave it at that.
A striking exploration of the horrors of mass violence in the Western Hemisphere, with the author offering hope that radical policies could provide positive change.