Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel; Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America

In This Review

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel
By Tom Wainwright
PublicAffairs, 2016
288 pp.
Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America
By Ioan Grillo
Bloomsbury Press, 2016
384 pp.

Wainwright, an editor at The Economist, astutely applies the logics of corporate strategy and market forces to better understand the resilience of the global trade in illicit narcotics. Costly law enforcement efforts to suppress the drug trade fail, he persuasively argues, when they ignore basic economic forces. Narconomics reminded me of my own frustrations when I served on the U.S. National Security Council during the Clinton administration. I asked the intelligence community for a report on the narcotics industry that relied on the tools of economic analysis, treating drug organizations primarily as economic actors. “Can’t do it,” a senior official in the intelligence community told me. “We anticipate that our political overseers won’t much like the results.” It seemed that the skittish Clinton White House was less interested in really understanding the problem than in tough-on-drugs stories that would counter Republican critics. Two decades later, Wainwright’s findings are instructive. When consumer demand for narcotics is strong, efforts to restrict supply are likely to fail. It’s more cost effective to get someone off drugs than to bulk up police forces. And countering global criminal networks requires international cooperation. Wainwright comments favorably on Colorado’s experiment with controlled marijuana decriminalization, New Zealand’s authorization of a limited number of lower-risk recreational narcotics, and job-training programs that the government of the Dominican Republic has offered for those convicted of drug trafficking. 

Grillo, another British journalist, digs deep into the gruesome businesses of four “gangster warlords” operating in Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Mexico. In vivid detail, he describes the lethal cocktail of rational calculation, intimidating violence, and philanthropy through which these criminal organizations ensure their survival. But he is careful not to exaggerate their political power. “They are a shadow power rather than a shadow government,” Grillo writes. “They want a weak and corrupt government, which they can live off, like a tapeworm feeds off a host.” Like Wainwright, Grillo is contemptuous of the entrenched Washington bureaucracy and its ossified, ineffectual counter-narcotic policies—which neither President Barack Obama nor the presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have dared to directly confront. Along with many others who have studied and experienced the endless drug wars and the dreadful tolls they take on slums in developing countries, Grillo advocates selective drug legalization combined with more spending on prevention and rehabilitation in “consumer communities” in the United States and other rich countries. Meanwhile, he urges governments on the supply side of the drug trade to scale up their efforts to reform and strengthen law enforcement and to put in place carefully targeted, community-based antipoverty programs. 

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