It is by now surely beyond doubt that those governments committed to fighting the war on drugs — and on paper that’s all of them — face a total rout. To understand the scale of the defeat, all you need to know is that Barack Obama and David Cameron have both been unable to deny that they were once users.
The US spends more than a billion dollars a year on international narcotics control and as a result, as a US official in Colombia once told me, has forced up the price of a gram of cocaine in New York by just a few dollars. That must have put drugs beyond the reach of a few potential consumers. But it seems a very modest achievement for a government programme that has enjoyed such sustained, cross-party support for decades.
While the benefits of the war on drugs are hard to measure, the negative impacts are more obvious. Anabel Hernández has both investigated and documented the corrosive effect of the illegal trade in Mexico, where violence related to the drugs industry has killed tens of thousands. She describes how small-time drugs producers and smugglers in the 1970s managed to become some of the richest people on earth, buying off policemen, military officers, senior civil servants and national-level politicians.
Whole governmental institutions in Mexico have become so closely entwined with the producers that it’s impossible to tell whose side officials are on. National heroes, decorated for challenging the producers, turn out to be villains, and politicians claiming to be on the side of law are revealed to be little more than employees of the cartels.
Much of Narcoland deals with the biggest boss of them all, Joaquin El Chapo (‘Shorty’) Guzman Loera, once listed by Forbes as the world’s 55th most powerful man. The largely uneducated eldest son of a violent father, Guzman’s power has matched that of successive Mexican presidents, some of whom he apparently bribed into submission.
In charting Guzman’s ascent, Hernández describes hair-raising set pieces such as the gathering Guzman convened in 2001 to bring together more than 25 heavily armed and distinctly edgy drugs barons in the city of Cuernavaca. The meeting established the Federation, a sort of CBI of the Mexican drug world, which provides leading producers with a forum to discuss their joint concerns.
Hernández has a well-researched and detailed description of Guzman’s extraordinary career. However, other passages of Narcoland are less convincing. In the first pages of the book Hernández, discussing the damage to health caused by the pesticides used to increase the drug crop, states that many of the children who have been used to harvest the crops have died. Maybe. But the deeper one gets into Narcoland, the more one wants clearer sourcing for such claims.
One chapter, for example, deals with the Iran-Contra scandal. Interestingly, Hernández argues that the most damaging long-term aspect of the whole affair was the help it gave to the Mexican drugs cartels.
The US, she argues, turned a blind eye towards various well-known drugs-smugglers in return for their assistance in helping supply the Contras with arms. Known traffickers, she states, were hired to fly south with weapons and other supplies. That much is widely accepted. But she goes on to describe the deals done by various dodgy double agents and informers who, under CIA management allowed, or even enabled, the smuggling of drugs into the US.
Again, it may have been so. And yet after reading the text closely I am not clear which of these detailed claims — and there is lots of detail — are fascinating possibilities and which are established certainties.
But maybe that misses the point. While many Mexican journalists are in the pay of the drugs cartels and most are too frightened to challenge them, a few have taken an honourable and extremely dangerous decision to expose the trade whenever and wherever they can. All too often those journalists have paid with their lives.
While many Mexican politicians and officials merely pretend to fight the drugs producers, Anabel Hernández has taken a genuine stand in favour of the rule of law and decency in her society. Even if her book is less than perfect, it is in itself an important statement. She deserves our respect and admiration for making it.
Owen Bennett-Jones is a former BBC foreign correspondent, and the author of a thriller, Target Britain.