Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review of "Drug Lord" by Terrence E. Poppa

"Drug Lord" is a book by Terrence Poppa, a news reporter with the El Paso Herald-Post, and hence a keen and biased eye on the drug trafficking business based out of the Tex-Mex border. The book is published by the Cinco Puntos Press, a neo-independent publishing group based out of El Paso. In some sense, this is a book out of line with normal discourse by the mainstream media, but yet biased in its own sense.

The book details how the Plaza system and drug trafficking business works in Mexico. Basically, the impression one gets after reading this book is that the establishment is not against drug trafficking to the U.S. as long as the Judges, the police (which is subservient to the Judiciary unlike the Anglo-sphere where the police is subservient to the Executive), the military and the politicians get their "cut" from the drug trafficking chief in return for protection and umbrage. The drug trafficking chief in return barters this umbrage to raise finances to pay the dues by sub-leasing and charging anyone who ships drugs through his territory. It is a game of cat and mouse where the establishment is trying to figure out how much drugs go through its territory and hence figuring out how much is owed, whereas the drug trafficking chief and his minions are trying to hide so that they have to pay less.

This equilibrium lasts till the drug trafficking chief remains all powerful in enforcing his diktat on his minions and his "subjects." The moment he staggers around showing a perceived lack of control is the moment the search for a successor begins. Sometimes the search is a short stop to the next best in the pipeline -- who could have already greased the palms of the establishment while working as an underling to the chief. Sometimes it is a wait till Aurangzeb establishes himself and develops the balls to tell the establishment it is he who will be the next in line. Thus, the book is a tale of transfer of power from Domingo Aranda to Manuel Carrasco to Shorty Lopez to Pablo Acosta. It is a tale of rivalries between Aranda and Carrasco, Carrasco and Lopez, Fermin Arevalo and Acosta, and so on. It is a tale of honorary "gringo" drug conduits such as Sammy Garcia and after his departure, his wife Becky Garcia. It is also a tale of the freelancing Marc de Horo who is needed to keep the Acosta system in check. It is a tale of how Hispanic American citizens such as Pablo Acosta could and can still keep one leg on either side of the Rio Grande and still get away with it. Overall, if you liked Scarface or Goodfellas or would like to scratch the soft underbelly of the U.S., this is a book to get hold of.

The book does not go much into the politics of Mexico, which in itself is a very riveting affair. One remark that gets mentioned is the following: "The political system kept itself going by allowing opposition parties to form and compete for power, but it rigged elections so that the official party candidate always won. The aim was to burn up the energy and resources of opponents in fruitless campaigns yet gain the appearance of democratic legitimacy by holding elections." This is exactly the strategy of monopolies, whether it is Google (see Siva Vaidhyanathan's recent book) or Lee Kuan Yew's party in Singapore or the leftist/socialist regimes of different shades of red or the U.S. for that matter in terms of foreign policy.

In the Indian context where pure monopolies are a bit hard to spot (not because they do not exist, but only because we do not care to identify them as such), some lessons can be gleaned too. For example, whenever someone vigorously questions and tirades at the "establishment," the establishment makes the dissenter a part of the establishment. Once in, they get a free run over their pet projects and let the establishment run riot in its slumber. In some sense, what we now know as dogmatic religiosity got to where it is by using the same system, whether it is the various stripes of Abrahamism or our very own Hinduism as we know it today. The underlying motto in life is that it is irrational to expect a rational and intelligent individual to cultivate competition; it is rational to expect the said individual to diffuse crises to further their own holds onto the status quo. This should make one commensurately appreciate dramatic changes against the tides of wisdom and common-sense.

The book is also a tale of American double standards and how the Mexicans (Messkins if you want to be even more politically neutral in this war) think of the gringos in a broad palette. It tells you how the customs and border police (CBP) could not care less as long as the drug-trade violence was limited to the Mexicans and to the other side of the Rio Grande, how new and used cars from Texas and California end up in Mexico where they are used by everyone including the Police and the Press with noone caring as to who the cars originally belonged to, how the Mexicans think of the drug trade as a sweet comeuppance to losing Texas to the gringos, how the American politicians asked the CBP to shut up as long as the NAFTA was being pursued (it got signed in the early days of the Bill Clinton Presidency), etc. It also tells how illegal and unofficial trade has always been a part of the Tex-Mex border -- in the Prohibition era, it was bootleg liquor and sotol (a potent cactus moonshine), in the World War II era, it was the red light districts of Mexico, post-War period which saw the emergence of heroin, the anti-establishment phase in the U.S. that got hooked to marijuana-induced trance, the emergence of Mexico as a trans-shipment route for cocaine replacing Florida as the preferred trans-shipment route for Colombian drug traffickers, while the post-Plan Colombia phase has seen the emergence of coyotes and human trafficking.

In terms of lessons to be learned by Indians, especially in the light of the porous Indo-Bangladesh border, unless the system as a whole (from top to bottom) gets serious in preventing illegal human trafficking, someone will find it easy and profitable to subvert the checks and controls. In other words, from a game theoretic viewpoint, in contrast to a major engineering disaster which is built on the failure of multiple minor cogs in the wheel or a terrorist network that shows "small-world" behavior and can hence be breached by disrupting the hubs, illegal trade is built on the failure of only one critical cog which makes failure an inevitable possibility. Thus, like Southern California, New Mexico, parts of Texas, Arizona, etc. continue to turn Hispanic forcing the gringos to retreat to other gentrified surroundings far away, so too will West Bengal and Assam turn Islamist forcing the Hindus to flee the border districts. Unless, a game-changer is established.

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