Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama explains how drug trafficking and terrorist networks persist in the face of hostile government efforts to destroy them.[1] Kenney contends that the resilience of the Colombian drug trade stems in part from the ability of smuggling enterprises to alter their activities in response to information and experience, store this knowledge in practices and procedures, and select and retain routines that produce satisfactory, if not necessarily optimal, results.[2] In short, narcos learn, building skills and changing practices in simple but effective ways that make it difficult for law enforcers to stop them. By compelling traffickers to develop new innovations, law enforcers encourage them to diversify their experiential knowledge and cunning intelligence while developing linkages with paramilitary and guerrilla groups in Colombia and trafficking networks in other countries.[3]

Most important, Kenney shatters the “cartel myth,” or the misconception that the Colombian cocaine trade was run by a handful of massive, vertically integrated cartels (Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela) that restricted production and set international prices.[4] Instead, he demonstrates how drug trafficking in Colombia occurs in fluid social systems where flexible exchange networks expand and contract according to market opportunities and regulatory constraints.[5] He elucidates the historical roots of the modern drug trade, explaining how criminal entrepreneurs built their enterprises through personal contacts, resources, and repeated exchanges while drawing on social traditions, such as contraband smuggling, that extended far back into Colombia’s colonial past.[6] Moreover, traffickers decentralize decision-making authority and outsource their operations to a multitude of loosely connected criminal entities, from small farmers to coca processing labs, money launderers to exporters, and wholesalers to small distributors. Finally, Kenney contends that narcos will continue to outfox law enforcement because they must constantly innovate and adapt in order to survive. On the other hand, enforcement agencies face significant limitations in the degree to which they can decentralize their decision making and quicken information flows because they are beholden to the same standards of accountability and transparency that govern all U.S. government bureaucracies.[7]

Pablo Escobar Mug Shot

From Pablo to Osama makes an important contribution to the historiography of the international drug trade. Although a political scientist by training, Kenney builds upon the foundation laid down by Paul Gootenberg and Eduardo Saénz Rovner who first explained how Latin America’s historically well-established integration into international migration, commerce, and transportation networks, combined with political instability, judicial impunity, and government corruption facilitated the consolidation of drug trafficking networks in the region. Kenney’s book sheds light upon how these persistent conditions in Colombia enable traffickers to better learn and adapt ahead of their enemies. Moreover, traffickers in Colombia have established alliances with formidable, historical actors like the FARC and rightwing paramilitaries that continue to wage irregular warfare against the state and further complicate its efforts to control the drug trade.

Death of Pablo Escobar

Kenney is most persuasive when explaining the protean, fluid, and decentralized character of trafficking networks. His interviews with government informants and ex-kingpins in Miami prison facilities are nothing short of fascinating, providing a first hand account of how drug traffickers operate and adapt on the ground. He also comments upon the damning consequences of the “war on drugs,” particularly how it has created a counterdrug agencies and interagency enforcement networks in Colombia and the United States whose organizational prosperity depends in no small measure on maintaining the constancy of the threat posed by drug trafficking.[8] To preserve their institutional identity and protect their budgets, counterdrug agencies exploit the threat of drug trafficking, emphasizing the danger illicit drugs pose to the general public and highlighting their own efforts to dismantle smuggling networks in press releases and congressional hearings that celebrate their latest achievements in the war on drugs.[9]

Kenney is least persuasive in his comparative analysis of trafficking networks and terrorist systems. For instance, he claims that unlike terrorist groups, “trafficking enterprises generally do not seek to instill fear and dread in civilian populations, or to implement political change.”[10] However, in August 1989, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel achieved precisely that when it assassinated Luis Carlos Galán, a rising political star and Liberal candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Mexican cartels like the Zetas have many political interests at stake and are suspected of financing PRI candidates over the hawkish, antidrug policies of the conservative PAN party.  Further historical research should explore the political aspirations and motives of narcotraffickers.

[1] Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 23.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kenney, 27.

[7] Kenney, 216.

[8] Kenney, 218.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 9.

In his introduction to A Century of Revolution, series editor Greg Grandin urges historians to rethink Latin America’s revolutionary and counterrevolutionary twentieth-century. Grandin offers a number of programmatic suggestions to historians, including the need to acknowledge the adaptability and dynamism of counterrevolution.[1] In particular, he draws attention to how counterinsurgent terror in Latin America eliminated alternative development programs and ensured subordination to the economic and political neoliberal protocols of what became known as the Washington Consensus.[2] Several of the essays in this volume explore how counterinsurgent military regimes brokered Latin America’s “transition to democracy” and how their brutal “success” against leftist guerrillas and popular movements made possible the region’s radical free market policies.[3] Peter Winn, Gerardo Rénique, and Forrest Hylton all shed light upon these processes of counterrevolution and neoliberal expansion in Chile, Peru, and Colombia.

In “Furies of the Andes,” Peter Winn describes how Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government tried to pioneer a nonviolent road to democratic socialism between 1970 and 1973.[4] Despite provocations from the right, Allende steadfastly refused to arm his supporters against a mounting counterrevolution financed by the United States and carried out by the Chilean Right. As a result, the “Chilean Experiment” was violently overthrown in a military coup that installed the most repressive dictatorship in that nation’s history. The counterrevolution was both adaptable and dynamic. Not only did it begin before the 9/11 coup, it also cast a shadow over the Chilean Revolution from the beginning.[5] It promised to defend Christian civilization and the sacred right of private property against a godless, communist internal enemy.[6] The counterrevolutionaries offered a new vision for Chile’s future, but that vision called for the restoration and reinforcement of the ruling classes. The new Chile left no room for Allende’s supporters. As a result, the Pinochet regime ordered the mass detention and torture of tens of thousands of leftists, students, workers, peasants, and shantytown dwellers and the “disappearances” of some 3,000 Chileans. Winn argues that this strategy not only neutralized Allende’s base, but also ensured that popular opposition would never emerge in the future.[7] By suppressing popular memory of Allende, Pinochet paved the way for the new Chile, rapidly implementing capitalist “shock therapy” while tightening his grip over Chilean political and social life.

The siege of La Moneda, Santiago de Chile, 9/11/1973

Gerardo Rénique considers how the military’s suppression of the Sendero Luminoso and the democratic left between 1980 and 1992 made the expansion of neoliberal reforms in Peru possible. In his essay entitled “People’s War, Dirty War,” Rénique argues that both left and the right have conveniently blamed the Sendero Luminoso for the genesis and propagation of violence and terror that crippled Peruvian society in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, the nation’s political parties have drawn attention away from Peru’s exploitative and exclusionary social system while justifying state violence as “reactive” responses to left-wing provocation.[8] Furthermore, this perspective ignores how counterinsurgency created a situation in which the state used fear to normalize and further its own violence against both the Sendero Luminoso and the growing popular resistance to President Alberto Fujimori’s (1990-2000) neoliberal policies.[9] Rénique retraces Peru’s long and bloody road to neoliberalism, explaining how the Peruvian military fused together national development and security objectives during the mid-1960s. After suppressing the MIR guerrillas in 1966, military leaders presented themselves as agents of modernization and civilization while recasting leftist politics, both insurgent and democratic, as “Cuban contagions.”[10] Thus, Rénique argues that the Peruvian military waged “preventive defense” against both real and potential enemies.[11] As in Chile, the counterinsurgency profoundly shaped the political and cultural imagination of Peruvian society as memory of war and the privatizations of neoliberal reforms combined to undermine the appeals of the left.[12]Alternatives to the Washington Consensus were either eliminated outright or pushed to the margins of the Peruvian political landscape in the 1990s.

Finally, in Colombia, Forrest Hylton contends that counterinsurgency laid the foundations for not only capital accumulation and neoliberal reforms, but also state formation. Beginning in the late 1980s, counterinsurgency combined with economic neoliberalization to “re-feudalize” social relations in Medellin and successfully consolidate a state through an alliance of paramilitaries, organized crime, and neoliberals. While combating the leftist FARC and ELN, Hylton describes how the counterinsurgency oversaw and implemented Medellin’s successful transition from a declining manufacturing center to a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy anchored in the production and export of cocaine.[13] In the aftermath of Pablo Escobar’s murder and the dismantling of the Medellin Cartel, narcoparamilitaries sought to regain foreign investment in Medellin by “pacifying” the city, waging a dirty war against popular militias, organized labor, leftists, and other critics of the counterinsurgency and the neoliberal economic model. By precluding the emergence of a national popular bloc, narcoparamilitarism continues to rule Medellin. For Hylton, narcoparamilitarism represents “neoliberalism in extremis,” in which private economic-political power supplants the state in the form of a parastate that performs state functions but is opposed to democratic accountability.[14]

Carlos Castaño, AUC paramilitary leader

These essays highlight the dynamism and adaptability of counterrevolution, explaining how counterinsurgency “cleansed” Latin America of internal threats and anti-modern forces while paving the way toward neoliberal reform. In Chile, Peter Winn describes how Pinochet’s counterrevolution not only restored traditional hierarchies and vanquished an internal enemy, but also ensured that Allende’s Popular Unity would never re-emerge to derail Chile’s capitalist “shock therapy.” In Peru, Gerardo Rénique argues that the military justified its sweeping counterinsurgency as a necessary reaction to Cuban-style insurgents and used the dirty war to suppress the democratic opposition to the Washington Consensus in the 1990s. Finally, Forrest Hylton reveals how counterinsurgents in Colombia sought not only to an expedient end to a now five-decade-long civil war against Marxist guerrillas, but also to forcibly deregulate an economy fueled by cocaine dollars and defended by right-wing paramilitaries.

[1] Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 400.

[2] Grandin, “Introduction: Living in Revolutionary Time,” 30.

[3] Gilbert Joseph, “Latin America’s Long Cold War,” 409.

[4] Peter Winn, “Furies of the Andes: Violence and Terror in the Chilean Revolution and Counterrevolution,” 239.

[5] Winn, 259.

[6] Ibid, 269.

[7] Ibid, 268.

[8] Gerardo Rénique, “People’s War, Dirty War: Cold War Legacy and the End of History in Postwar Peru, 313.

[9] Rénique, 312.

[10] Ibid, 322-323.

[11] Ibid, 327.

[12] Ibid, 332.

[13] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellin, Colombia,” 339.

[14] Ibid, 361.

In Poverty of Rights, Brodwyn Fischer explores the formation of poor people’s citizenship rights in twentieth century Rio de Janeiro. While past historiography has considered the importance of legal relationships in poor people lives, Fischer advances an historical argument about the connections between law, poverty, and citizenship in modern urban Brazil. Although the Brazilian state under the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship created a wide array of political, social, and economic rights that gave working people hope in the possibilities of law and politics, it did not extend citizenship to Rio’s most impoverished urban slum dwellers.[1] As a result, Brazilian legal inequality and informality helped to create an urban underclass that built their lives with a patchwork of scanty rights and hard-won tolerance.[2] While informality allowed poor people to stay in the city, they have never been able to enjoy anything close to equal opportunity.[3]

Brodwyn Fischer traces the history of rights poverty in modern Rio de Janeiro in four parts that carefully explore the interactions between the urban poor and a particular field of Brazilian law in mid-twentieth century.[4] She first examines the long history of urban planning and regulatory law in Rio de Janeiro and considers how the city’s heterogeneous poor population was excluded from authorities’ modernizing visions, deprived of public resources, and obliged to create their own urban world in the suburbs, swamps, hills, and backyards of the “civilized city” that became Rio’s favelas.[5] She explains how onerous building codes were often circumvented by poor slum dwellers and opportunistic politicians, jurists, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats who exchanged legal tolerance of the favelas for the political backing of its residents. However, tolerance did not translate into rights of participation or permanence. Instead, poor peoples’ lack of rights only exacerbated their material poverty as they depended upon unofficial networks of patronage and clientelism for survival in Rio’s “illegal city.”

Fischer explains how the development of labor and social welfare laws during the Getúlio Vargas era perpetuated rights poverty in Rio. Although Vargas established entitlement programs for workers in the city’s industrial sector, he did not extend these same privileges to Rio’s most impoverished residents who were often oddjobbers, domestics, and street vendors. Social and economic citizenship were not birthrights, but rather were “privileges won through narrowly circumscribed forms of labor, morality, loyalty, and bureaucratic agility.”[6] Meanwhile, Vargas-era changes in the criminal and procedural codes, together with the rising importance of birth and marriage certificates and legalized property rights further obstructed slum dwellers’ claims to civil rights.[7] Poor people sought real permanence, justified by logics of history, need, and rights, but they could achieve only the indefinite tolerance forged from political convenience, logistical incapacity, and societal impasse.[8]

Brodwyn Fischer challenges historiography that links Brazil’s legacy of weak civil and political rights to a passive and powerless citizenry. Instead, Fischer explains how poverty’s of rights were woven fundamentally into Brazilian law’s twentieth-century expansion.[9] She contends that advances in the rule of law were accompanied by and depended to some degree upon the persistence of extralegal realms.[10] Informality became entrenched as a source of wealth and power and as a mechanism to ease potentially overwhelming social and political tensions.[11] Moreover, Fischer’s attention to urban planning, work, crime, and property suggests that Brazilian law was rife with socioeconomic assumptions, bureaucratic hurdles, and outright exclusions that together ensured that the vast majority of Rio’s poor would continue to live outside the sphere of citizenship.[12]

Although Fischer skillfully traces the causes and consequences of social inequality in modern urban Brazil, she tends to underestimate the degree to which race shaped poor peoples’ relationships with the state. Throughout her study of citywide arrest records, she omits arrests for traffic accidents, the so-called “numbers game,” and crimes against the popular economy, charges that were disproportionately leveled against darker-skinned Cariocas. An analysis of these arrests may have provided greater insight into how some groups of poor Cariocas were more deprived of their rights than others. Nevertheless, Fischer’s impressive collections of poor peoples’ letters to the Vargas regime, samba lyrics, and police reports shed light on a subject often overlooked by historians: the formation of urban slums and the reasons for their “de facto permanence.” Finally, Fischer’s book not only helps to explain poor peoples’ tenuous relationship with the state, but also sheds light upon the historical conditions that make Rio de Janeiro’s favelas breeding grounds for crime and violence. A Poverty of Rights thus provides the groundwork for a future historical inquiry into the formation of illicit economies, narcotrafficking networks, and youth gangs in Rio.

[1] Brodwyn Fischer, A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 312.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Fischer, 17.

[6] Ibid, 116.

[7] Fischer, 9.

[8] Fischer, 254.

[9] Ibid, 310.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 311.

[12] Ibid.

In The Cuban Connection, Eduardo Saénz Rovner rethinks how Cuba became a hotbed for drug trafficking, smuggling, and gambling and considers how these illicit activities shaped Cuban national identity from the early twentieth century through the rise of Fidel Castro. Prior scholarship largely attributed the growth of narcotrafficking in Cuba to its widespread poverty and close proximity to the United States. Saénz Rovner, however, explains how Cuba’s historically well-established integration into international migration, commerce, and transportation networks, combined with political instability, judicial impunity, and official corruption, facilitated the consolidation of drug trafficking on the island. Moreover, he refutes Cuba’s historical role as a “victim” of international drug trafficking, arguing instead that native Cubans, as well as immigrants living on the island, played active roles in the development of drug trafficking networks. Finally, he suggests that the “drug problem” fueled the Revolution’s anti-yanquí propaganda machine while also framing Washington’s efforts to topple the Castro government.

Saénz Rovner explains how an influx of Spanish immigration to Cuba and U.S. capital investment in the island’s sugar industry created a culture of social fluidity and economic growth that greatly expanded Cuba’s underground economy in the early twentieth century. Havana, with its cosmopolitan character, dynamic economy, and privileged geographic position, attracted both native and foreign-born drug traffickers who built sophisticated networks that linked Cuba to international chains of supply and demand. The 1940s and 1950s saw the expansion of cocaine and heroin trafficking within a triangle connecting the Andean region, Cuba, and the United States. These illegal drug networks operated in a manner that paralleled Cuba’s trade in legal goods and flourished under the umbrella of an economy tied closely to international commerce and to the infusion of people from abroad. Meanwhile, drugs were not only exported from Cuba, but were also consumed locally. Members of the elite favored cocaine, however, their privilege afforded them protection from authorities. On the other hand, police agents routinely arrested black and mulatto marijuana smokers and Chinese opium addicts and often prosecuted them to the fullest extent of Cuban law.

During Prohibition in the United States, Cuba became both a source of contraband alcohol for its northern neighbor and a popular tourist destination for North American tourists who flocked to its mafia-run hotels, casinos, and nightclubs. Mobsters did not introduce gambling, drinking, or even drug consumption to Cuba. Rather, casino construction coincided with Cuban government policies to stimulate tourism and compensate for the fluctuations in sugar prices on the international market. Saénz Rovner argues that the expansion of narcotrafficking in Cuba was not the result of mafia entrepreneurship, but instead reflected   political instability, a climate of permissiveness, and judicial impunity that mitigated the efforts of the Cuban government to suppress the drug trade. Finally, Saénz Rover considers how drug trafficking advanced political ends during the Cold War. While Henry Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) falsely accused Fidel Castro of promoting narcotrafficking, Cuban revolutionaries accused North Americans of having corrupted the island country by engaging in illicit activities in the pre-revolutionary era.

Saénz Rovner challenges historiography that ties drug trafficking in Cuba to local poverty and its physical proximity to the United States. Instead, he argues that Cuba’s relative prosperity and success in attracting international flows of both people and goods made the island nation an ideal hub for a transnational drug trafficking industry. Furthermore, he discredits recent works that allege Fulgencio Batista’s personal involvement in the drug trade, exploring how pressure from the United States in fact compelled Batista to pursue large-scale drug dealers. Saénz Rovner explains how drug traffickers took advantage of the deteriorating security situation in Cuba, slipping away as the Batista regime focused on quelling the civil war and suppressing political opposition.

 Saénz Rovner deftly traces not only the flows of narcotics and traffickers across borders, but also the international material and cultural connections that converged over Cuba to create illicit networks that linked the island nation to other regions of the world. As a result, Saénz Rover not only sheds light on drug trafficking in Cuba, but also highlights the multinational character of the “drug problem” by linking illicit industries in Cuba to those in North and South America, Europe, and beyond. But while Saénz Rovner provides a groundbreaking, transnational approach through which to explore narcotrafficking, his study of Cuba is hampered by several historical inaccuracies. In particular, he exaggerates the degree to which post-revolutionary trials and executions discouraged U.S. tourism to Cuba in the wake of the guerrillas’ victory, when in fact tourism had already been on the decline in the twilight of Batista’s rule. Finally, Saénz Rovner frequently mentions the activities of various drug traffickers and Mafiosos but does not provide a sufficient historical context so that the reader can understand the significance of these actors to the international drug trade.

Review- “Drug War Zone”

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Book Reviews

In Drug War Zone, Howard Campbell breaks new ground with an anthropological study of drug trafficking and anti-drug law enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. He coins the term “drug war zone” to refer to the cultural world of drug cartels and law enforcement agents who combat drug trafficking. The “DWZ” encompasses a transnational, fluid cultural space in which contending forces battle over the meaning, value, and control of drugs.[1]Zeroing in upon Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Campbell interviews a range of subjects on both sides of the border whose lives are intimately affected by recent drug violence including addicts, low-level drug runners, gang members, a drug kingpin, journalists, police officers, and DEA agents. He consciously avoids the term “War on Drugs,” contending instead that the DWZ is more akin to the shifting terrain where military and intelligence forces pursue terrorists or guerrilla groups. Drug traffickers, although well-organized, are generally covert actors, embedded in the civilian population, disappearing and eternally reemerging, global in scale, and constantly evolving and transforming their operations and identities.[2] In the age of NAFTA, maquiladoras, and free trade, Campbell argues that drug trafficking has become almost impossible to regulate. Most important, he underscores the mutually parasitic relationship between the drug traffickers who profit from the illegal status of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, and the “drug warriors,” bureaucracies, and prison-industrial complexes that justify their existence by reference to the “scourge” of drug traffickers.[3]

 Drug War Zone is a landmark study of anthropology and ethnography. Campbell  elucidates the nebulous, abstract, and shadowy cultures of drug trafficking and anti-narcotics law enforcement with meticulous primary research and deeply moving interviews with individuals affected by consumption in one place and violence in another. Drug War Zone speaks to a number of recent works completed by journalists and academics, including Elijah Wood’s Narcocorrido, Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama, Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance, and Curtis Marez’s Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. Like these works, Campbell underscores the capitalist nature of narcotrafficking, describing it as “a caricatured celebration of consumerism and wealth- narco-mansions, big trucks, expensive and tasteless clothing, gaudy jewelry- facilitated by neoliberalism and collusion with elements of the state.[4] Although traffickers certainly resist and defy law enforcement and bourgeois society, Campbell reveals how drug trade serves a critical component of the U.S. and Mexican economies.

Drug War Zone is a must read for those interested in current events on the U.S.-Mexico border, narcotrafficking, and the U.S. “War on Drugs.” Accessible, clearly argued, and thought provoking, Howard Campbell offers a balanced and deeply empathetic portrayal of the men, women, and children who are intimately affected by the drug trade. The book’s most significant contribution is its analysis of law enforcement strategies. Campbell explores the dual strategy of interdiction and deterrence, underscoring the Sisyphean challenge of simultaneously preventing illegal commerce while not impeding the legal flow of people and goods across borders. He explains how forces of NAFTA, global free trade, and the increased transnational movement of people and products enormously complicate the work of antidrug agents, who must systematically separate from these vast flows those substances and people deemed illegal or engaged in illegal activities.[5] Campbell’s book is a call to action for students of history, government, and political scientists. It urges academics, students, and citizens to rethink diplomacy and devise bold strategies for confronting drug trafficking that not only keep citizens on both sides of the border safe, but that also hold elected officials, military, police, and bureaucrats accountable to the public they represent and defend. It demands a shift away from interdiction, and toward curbing demand in the United States. Finally, it urges the rehabilitation and treatment of addicts instead of three-strike-laws that perpetuate criminality, abuse, and violence.

[1] Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2009), 6.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Campbell, 9.

[5] Ibid, 174.

Review- “Maras”

Posted: April 11, 2012 in Book Reviews

In Maras, a wide range of scholars comes together to trace the emergence of Central America’s “gang problem,” from its purported beginnings in the Pico Union housing projects and youth penitentiaries of 1980s Los Angeles to the urban war zones of 1990s San Salvador and Guatemala City. Seeking to dispel many of the sensationalized accounts of Mara Salvatrucha Trece (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (Mara 18) propagated and proliferated by tabloid journalists and opportunistic public officials, these essays underscore the social, political, and economic realities that contribute to soaring rates of urban violence and crime in Los Angeles, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and Managua.[1] They contextualize the emergence of maras alongside broader international phenomena like neoliberal reforms, narcotrafficking, immigration, and civil war while also drawing attention to local conditions that explain, for instance, why Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti, has largely avoided the gang problem that currently plagues its neighbors.

Most important, these researchers argue that heavy handed anti-crime policies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have only exacerbated corruption and gang violence. Former presidents like Antonio Saca of El Salvador, Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala, and Ricardo Maduro of Honduras exploited the moral panic surrounding gangs to push populist, draconian mano dura laws through the legislature that galvanized their political bases. Meanwhile, mass arrests of suspected mareros have only stratified gang hierarchies, intensified street warfare, and crystallized relationships between relatively autonomous MS-13 and Mara 18 cliques, while also bringing them into regular contact with drug traffickers and crime lords in overcrowded Central American prisons. Finally, these essays assess the effectiveness of the Plan Mérida Initiative signed by President George W. Bush, Felipe Calderón of Mexico, and Central American leaders in 2007 to promote regional security cooperation and collective efforts to identify and apprehend transnational gang members and narco-terrorists. So far, programs like the FBI administered Criminal History Information Program (CHIP), Central American Fingerprint Exploitation (CAFE), and Transnational Anti-Gang units (TAG) have stalled amid congressional spending cuts in foreign aid to Latin America and the reallocation of Plan Mérida funds to meet the urgent demands of the Mexican military in its hot war against drug cartels in Sinaloa and Juárez.

Maras is an urgent, original study that seeks the perspectives of researchers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology, political science, criminology, journalism, and anthropology. Its contributors are of both U.S. and Latin American origin, facilitating a critical dialogue on transnational youth gangs between the two academies. Moreover, essayists like Sonja Wolf, Elin Cecile Ranum, and José Miguel Cruz draw from the groundbreaking studies of the late social psychologist Fr. Ignacio Martín Baró, S.J., a Jesuit priest and researcher of youth violence who was murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989, as well as the early histories of gangs produced by historian Deborah Levenson and the Guatemala City based Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales (AVANCSO). Levenson’s preliminary study of gang violence in the Guatemalan capital entitled “Por Si Mismos” informs many of Maras findings, historicizing the gangs phenomenon by tracing its origins as far back as the 1954 coup and the reactionary authoritarianism and civil strife that followed.

Maras’ most provocative thesis contends that gang violence and organized crime in Central America and Los Angeles thrive in collusion with the state rather than in opposition to it.[2] José Miguel Cruz argues that gangs have transformed themselves in order to deal with the harsh conditions created by state and government anticrime sweeps, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.[3] Gangs in Central America became more violent and better organized because zero-tolerance policies and suspensions of due process compelled them to strengthen, as well as provided the opportunities and resources for gangs to expand through the spaces of illegality and the networks of crime broadened by shortsighted policymaking.[4] Anti-gang initiatives like Plan Escoba (2000) in Guatemala, Mano Dura (2003) in El Salvador, and Libertad Azúl (2005) in Honduras produced higher homicide rates. For instance, in El Salvador, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants increased from 37 to 56 between 2002 and 2006. In Guatemala, they climbed from 36 to 47, while in Honduras they remained constant in the mid-40s.[5] Meanwhile, gang activities now operate predominately within the overcrowded jail cells of Central America’s prisons, spaces of anarchy and violence where correctional officers and gang members interact openly and where crime lords contract incarcerated mareros to carry out assassinations of their opponents.

Moreover, these researchers temper the hyperbolic claims made by the state and media that liken maras to international crime syndicates such as the Mexican and Colombian cartels and even al-Qaeda. Miguel Cruz explains how MS-13 and Mara 18 are classified as organized crime not because they are involved in international drug-trafficking activities-several cliques certainly are-but first and foremost because they have been able to develop complex networks of protection rackets that enable their survival as groups.[6] In 2012, the key element of mara activities remains what is called la renta-namely, extortions. According to various sources, Central American gangs collect most of their money by extorting the local population, collecting “taxes” from individuals who wish to receive protection against threats or to avoid any harm perpetrated by the same members of the group.[7] Guatemalan gangs, for instance, collect around $4 million annually just in the suburb of Villanueva outside Guatemala City, while in El Salvador, according to the police, 70% of the extortions are committed by gangs who tax transport unions, convenience stores, and informal businesses on the street.

While Maras is an admirable first effort to provide much-needed scholarly insight into the gang phenomenon in Central America, this volume lacks historical perspective and framing. None of the contributors to this volume are historians. Admittedly, few historians outside of Deborah Levenson have tackled the subject due in part to the precarious and indeed perilous nature of conducting field research of violent crime organizations that exist on the fringes of Central American urban centers, lack identifiable leadership, operate in shadowy, illicit economies, and wield terrorist tactics against local populations and themselves. Nevertheless, further inquiries into the emergence of Central American maras demand the contributions of skilled and eager historians who can explain how, when, where, and why disaffected, impoverished youth formed criminal gangs in the first place. In particular, historical research should investigate the origins of the moral panic surrounding the so-called “gangs pandemic” that swept Los Angeles and Central American capital cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, paying particular attention to how state and media have scapegoated maras to deflect attention away from less visible but far more nefarious sources of violence in the Americas: grinding poverty, lack of government services, crippling unemployment, organized crime, police brutality, political corruption, and institutionalized violence.

[1] Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner, Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011).

[2] Enrique Desmond Arias, “State Power and Central American MarasA Cross-national Comparison,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau et al. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011), 123.

[3] José Miguel Cruz, “Government Responses and the Dark Side of Gang Supression,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau et al. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 151.

[6] Ibid, 152.

[7] Miguel Cruz, 152.