I’ve long avoided books about El Chapo, Mexican drug cartels, and other similar subjects because I think most US citizens have an outlandish view of how the drug trade actually works. In the brief encounters with Mexican drug cartels in fiction, the gangsters are portrayed as overly-tattooed, desperately violent and almost amoral. While there are, of course, shades of that in real life, it also shows a cartoonish image as an avatar for the average North American citizen’s inability to grapple with how its racist drug war policies impact both the home front and Mexico respectively.
However, having read (and enjoyed) Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I figured it was time to educate myself on who El Chapo is, what the Sinaloa Cartel is (or was) and how this all works. I picked a good book to do it. Like me, Noah Horowitz is not interested in the racial mythos that white US folk have largely created around it. Instead, he portrays the people involved from the lowest dealers up to El Chapo itself as part of an infrastructure going back decades that now hums with efficiency because of North America’s insatiable appetite for drugs.
Yet his book is not a tale of victims of circumstance. Although Hurowitz is honest about the living conditions in Sinaloa and how they easily draw folks like Joaquín Guzman Loera to drug trafficking, he talks about the violence on the path to power and how it impacts Mexico’s culture and society. He’s brutally honest that all parties are culpable and yet those who hold power should be more accountable.
The details of how El Chapo gained his empire are fascinating, and well-presented but if the book has a weakness, its covering his rise, which is barely glanced over. This is likely due to a paucity of information but I still would’ve appreciated more on how this poor dirt farmer became one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, all the while living on the run with his peasant instincts and creative head for business. Aside from that though, this is a readable, easily digested, well-researched account of both El Chapo’s life and the world that made him (and continues to make our relationship with Mexico volatile).