El Chapo and the War on Drugs: 6 Books to Help You Dig In

The latest escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, has brought renewed attention to the war on drugs and the challenges facing Mexico—if perhaps not enough focus on America’s appetite for drugs, which certainly contributes to the problem. Whether you’re looking around nervously, worried that a narcotraficante is burrowing into your backyard, or whether you’re seeking understanding that goes deeper than scare headlines and cable news, these books will help.

Narco LandChasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari

A frank, often brutal examination of the origins and effects of the American war-on-drugs policy, which Hari credits with nearly singled-handedly creating the drug cartels. Everyone is portrayed with empathy, from drug dealers to drug addicts, law enforcement personnel, and civilians caught in the middle. Is there hope for the future? Perhaps, if we’re willing to use science to reevaluate long-held misapprehensions.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones

Telling the twin stories of Purdue Pharma’s decision to aggressively market OxyContin and efforts by Mexican drug traffickers to push black-tar heroin, journalist Quinones explores the fallout of heavy drug use in the U.S., weaving together the personal journeys of the addicted and their families, drug traffickers, and members of law enforcement, as he details the social, economic, and political forces at play.

The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War, by By Ricardo C. Ainslie

Just across the border from El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juarez has been at the center of a turf war between the two leading Mexican drug cartels since 2007; it also has been the focus of Mexico’s federal campaign against the cartels. Ainslie’s portrait of Juarez as a city under siege is unrelentingly grim, with astronomical rates of murders, kidnapping, and other forms of violence. An essential read, though, for those who seek to understand what life is like on the front lines of the war on drugs.

El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo

Journalist Grillo first became fascinated with the trade routes of narcotics as a teenager in Brighton, England, in the 1980s, when drugs started flooding his seaside town. Setting how to find the source, he eventually spent 10 years of reporting on the ground in Mexico, interviewing drug lords, drug addicts, drug survivors, gang members, smugglers, and agents from the ATF, DEA, and FBI. An excellently reported analysis of how Mexico came to control drug trafficking, how it spreads, and what can be done about it.

Narcoland: The Mexican Druglords and Their Godfathers, by Anabel Hernandez

A shocking, unsettling account of the rise and continued dominance of Mexico’s drug cartels by a widely respected investigative journalist who makes the claim that Mexico is already a “narco-state.” That is, the cartels have become thoroughly embedded into key sectors of Mexican society, including the military, the police forces, the courts, and both the local and federal legislatures.

The Takedown: A Suburban Mom, a Coal Miner’s Son, and the Unlikely Demise of Colombia’s Brutal Norte Valle Cartel, by Jeffrey Robinson

Readers interested in a more true-crime angle will be fascinated by this behind-the-scenes look at a narcotrafficking investigation. While other law-enforcement agencies focused on high-profile busts that yielded photos of piles of confiscated cocaine and weapons, the El Dorado Task Force of New York focused on money trails; in a partnership spanning16 years, U.S. Attorney Bonnie Klapper and federal agent Romedia “Rooney” Viola followed a trail from storefront money remitters to the top of the Norte Valle Cartel in Colombia.




About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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