There's a 23-year-old kid in a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico who goes by the nickname Montana. In his cell, he has a poster of the Al Pacino movie gangster he's named after. But Montana isn't your average Scarface wannabe. According to journalist Ioan Grillo, he committed his first murder at age 13 and has supposedly killed another 30-plus people in the following decade he spent working for the Mara Salvatrucha gang before being locked up. And Montana isn't an isolated example of a present-day criminal mimicking and even one-upping the lives of infamous real-life and fictitious gangsters.
In his new book Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and The New Politics of Latin America, Grillo makes it clear that gang members like Montana, cartel leaders, sicarios, and powerful members of crime organizations exist all over Latin America and the Caribbean—not just Mexico. From the Shower Posse gang in Jamaica and the Comando Vermelho syndicate in Brazil, to the gangs running rampant throughout Central America, there is ample evidence that giant crime networks are thriving all around the world today. And these cartels and gangs are run by a modern type of criminal Grillo describes as "part CEO, part terrorist, and part rock star"—violent Pablo Escobar-types who make pop culture villains look soft.
To write the book, Grillo embedded himself in the front lines of cities where gangs, cartels, and police are facing off and killing one another (as well as civilians) by the thousands. The British reporter interviewed former sicarios in Mexican prisons, rode shotgun with police through Venezuelan slums, and investigated crime lords in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and shantytowns of Kingston. In his research, Grillo realized a new breed of criminal kingpin was becoming the norm right in front of his eyes: One with deep pockets, a heavily armed militia at his back, and a cocky swagger that often results in impulsive power flexing whenever the mood strikes. To these gangster warlords, life has become a video game or gangster movie where every pop culture cliche has come to pass.
Grillo previously penned El Narco, which profiled how Mexican cartels rose to power in the mid-aughts. Gangster Warlords is a step-up for the writer, documenting a very grim reality that's unfolding in real time. VICE spoke to Grillo via Skype from his base in Mexico City to talk about his new book and gain insight about what's going on in the narco arenas down south.
VICE: You have reported extensively from Mexico on that country's drug cartels and violence, but when did you start researching what's going on in other nearby countries?
Ioan Grillo: I've found from the 15 years I've been in Mexico reporting on cartel violence that you get connections to other places. When you realize that there are similar and even worse situations in many places around Latin America and the Caribbean, you can follow the trail of dominos between the Mexican cartels to Honduran gangsters to Colombian gangsters. You can follow guns that travel from the United States and Mexico all the way to the Caribbean. You have these physical connections that you find, but also you see the similarities of the situations. It's not a coincidence that suddenly you have cartel-related violence in Mexico killing 17,000 people a year, and organized crime violence is killing tens of thousands in Brazil and Honduras, too.
That really led me to look at the bigger picture. I'd already been down in the slums of Colombia and very quickly came to an understanding that the cartel is the authority there, the shadow power in these ghettos. The same thing is happening in Mexico. But then you start seeing other parallels, like in Jamaica where the areas between different ghettos have been cleared out. If you go to Honduras, you'll see the same thing has happened, where the gangs are forcing people out of areas to create buffer zones between their territories. You find these similarities and you start to see a clearer picture of what these gangster warlords are like and what they have become [throughout all of Latin America].
Do you think a lot of these crime groups and gangster warlords are influenced by or are part of the legacy of Pablo Escobar and what he did in Colombia in the 1980s?
Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel built a model. He was a man ahead of his time in that sense. He tapped into the cocaine dollars and made more money than you or I could possibly imagine. Pablo dominated the cocaine market, but now it's spread right across the continent and is growing. Brazil is the number two market in the world for consumption of cocaine after the United States. Right now they are number one for consuming crack cocaine. In Brazil, you go to these favelas and they have a table and they sit there selling drugs. When you have these poor countries with young men that have very little job opportunities living in these slums and the cartels offer them drugs, money, women—all of these things—these [cartel leaders] very quickly recruit their own private armies.
Who are some of the more notorious gangster warlords you cover in the book?
Dudus Coke, aka the President, a Jamaican drug trafficker who is now incarcerated, is one. Bunny Wailer, the big reggae artist, had a song called "Don't Touch the President" about him. Coke was a rock star, CEO-type who did a lot of charity work that he took to incredible levels. In the song, Bunny Wailer sings, "Sometimes out of evil, come the poor good/Can't you see the progress in the neighborhood." It's like he's saying from the evil of drug money comes good. At the same time, he was also moving a lot of cocaine to the UK and United States. He had women moving the cocaine in condoms in their vaginas. There would be like 30 of them on a plane. The [police] might bust one or two, but there would still be 28 or 29 who got through.
Another figure that I look at is Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno, who led both La Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar cartel in Mexico. He wrote his own religious text called Pensamientos, meaning "My Thoughts," and he became venerated as a saint—even beyond rock star status. When people misguidedly thought he'd been killed, they actually prayed to the guy. How can people be praying to a man who is trafficking crystal meth? I went to the area where he's from. He believed that people who drank Coca Cola were rich because he grew up poor and drank water from the river, but this guy took over his entire area.
Did you notice pop culture's influence on any of these criminals and crime figures?
I went into a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico where a gang leader had a pool table in his cell and a disco sound system for parties. On his wall he had a life size poster of Al Pacino as Scarface. I interviewed this young Mara Salvatrucha gang member and his nickname was Montana. This is a guy, 23 years old, who's killed 30 people and started killing when he was 13. He described to me all of his murders and all the craziness behind his incredibly violent life.
In Jamaica, the criminals and kingpins are called Dons. I was interviewing this older guy from the Shower Posse gang in hopes of finding out why. He told me that they started calling themselves Don's after Don Corleone when The Godfather came out.
In Honduras, I asked when these guys got so violent and someone told me it was after they saw the movie Blood In, Blood Out dubbed into Spanish. The young gangsters all know that movie by heart.
How do we stop all the gang and cartel violence? Did you come to any solutions through your research?
We can't prohibit singers from talking about drug traffickers or Hollywood from making movies. Watching movies or listening to records isn't the problem. Law enforcement is part of the problem. The police and the soldiers are part of that violence. I don't want to blame everything on them, but they are clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In America, it's a big deal right now about police officers killing African Americans, but right across Latin America and the Caribbean police officers are killing at a level way, way higher than the United States.
What do you mean?
I just came back from Venezuela and you should see the police there. Some estimate that the police killed over 1,000 people in 2014 . That's in a country with 30 million. In the United States, that would be like killing over 10,000 people. In Jamaica, the police are very aggressive and heavily armed—they come into the ghettoes real gung ho. The police commit one in every four murders there. In Mexico, we have seen extraordinary things like the police working with the cartels, kidnapping, killing students, murdering innocents. The police are part of the problem. Often they are corrupt and make money off the criminals, and can get away with murder. But on the other side, the police are also facing extraordinarily violent and heavily armed criminals and gangs.
So the fight between the two is super complex.
It's a mess on both sides. These criminal kingpins have this crazy role in society where they head these big business empires and organizations. They're attacking policemen, throwing grenades at people in squares, all these crazy violent acts. But they are also a part of popular culture. We have soap operas and songs being made about them. We are looking at who these figures are, what do they mean to society, how do they challenge the government? It's weird how this relates to and plays out in popular culture, especially right now with all these TV series like Narcos. We are reliving Pablo Escobar [on TV] while this stuff is still happening out in the world.
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