Monday, April 18, 2016
'Narconomics' Applies Economic
Toolbox to Organized Crime
By Patrick Corcoran
A recent book by The Economist's former Mexico correspondent manages to deliver tons of information about the illegal drug trade in entertaining style, but falls short
of the author's higher goal of providing a "blue print" for how to defeat the drug lords.
Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel hints in its subtitle at the scope of Tom Wainwright's ambition. Detailing the inner workings of underground organizations
whose members typically are retired through prison sentences or shootouts is no easy task. Providing a recipe for defeating
them, as Wainwright claims in the final words of his introduction, is aiming high indeed.
In pursing these objectives, the author employs the eye of an economist to identify assorted phenomena affecting organized
crime across the Western Hemisphere. His topics run the gamut, offering pertinent observations about Mexican traffickers'
diversification into migrant smuggling, criminal groups' struggles to acquire to a reliable labor pool, and a somewhat
less convincing account of the Zetas dabbling in a franchise model.
Wainwright, who served as the magazine's Mexico correspondent from 2010 until 2013, invested a substantial amount of reporting time into this book, and it shows. He has
a gift for finding interesting people and telling entertaining anecdotes. From the drunken Dominican cops shouting invective
at their waiter to the El Salvador gang leader ruminating on the famous mara truce from a local prison, Wainwright leaves readers with a myriad of
indelible images. The result is a book that is fun and easy read, features uncommon to this genre.
His narrative talents lighten the load when Wainwright digs into the catalog of academic and government research he
describes over the course of the book's nearly 300 pages. Though the reading is drier in these data-heavy sections, they
deliver much of the book's analytical heft.
See also: Legalization - The Gorilla in the Room
Content aside, much what makes the book enjoyable to read lies in the friendly and
authoritative tone that Wainwright employs, which will be familiar to readers of his magazine. But when Wainwright mixes
up his facts, his assumption of authority seems unearned and calls into question some of his more sweeping conclusions.
He mistakenly writes that the homicide rate in Michoacán and Veracruz rivals that of the most violent northern
states. And Wainwright implies that the Juárez Cartel was behind the murder of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's son and his brother. The Beltrán Leyva Organization and an alliance of the Tijuana and Gulf
Cartels, respectively, are widely recognized to be the authors of those killings.
occasionally frustrating element of the book is Wainwright's insistence on drawing standard economic parallels to every
aspect of organize crime captures his attention. The analogies often come across as forced and detract from his otherwise
skillful storytelling, making his arguments needlessly convoluted.
The book includes,
for instance, an exposition on law enforcement being the underworld's competition regulators. The idea is a stretch, and
does little to expand our appreciation of how the police affect or participate in criminal dynamics. Wainwright delivers a
truly fascinating discussion of the circumstances in which cartels absorb the state's legitimacy, which is unfortunately
obscured by a lengthy and flimsy comparison of organized crime's public outreach to social responsibility practices in
the corporate world.
Perhaps these sections were unavoidable given the book's title
and basic thesis: that a proper economics-conscious approach could allow the West to win the war on drugs. But the book would
have been more convincing if he had dialed down the deluge of economic similes.
overarching goals in writing Narconomics are not entirely original. Many people have employed a variety of authorial tactics
in quite a number of different media in an effort to lift the vail on the drug trafficking organizations of Mexico and Colombia. Noteworthy examples include the telenovela El Cártel de los Sapos, the book Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts, the New York Times Magazine article "How a Mexican Drug Cartel Makes Its Billions: Cocaine Incorporated," and the RAND Corporation study "Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico." That is not to mention the collected works of Alejandro Hope and Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, among others.
Collectively, these and other works of art and analysis give us an idea of how the larger criminal groups organize their
operations. But they ultimately give us little more than a glimpse, which is a reflection of the fundamental difficulty of
the task. Shedding light on groups of murderous businessmen and women who market contraband and have good reason to remain in the shadows is some trick.
So has Narconomics
achieved what these works have not quite managed? Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the answer is no. But measuring
the book by its own other-worldly promises seems unduly harsh. Wainwright's opus has abundant virtues and is a worthy
addition to the annals of organized crime literature.
"Narconomics Applies Economic Toolbox to Organized Crime," by Patrick Corcoran, was first published in InSight Crime on Apr. 13, 2016 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective
is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA
from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has worked for InSight Crime since 2011.