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Narco Narratives Beyond Netflix

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As people in Latin America well know, the drug war and bloody consequences it has wrought on society have been present for decades—and books have been telling the story for a while now too. But never have the drug cartels fuelled the public's imagination so thoroughly as they have since Narcos aired on Netflix, with El Chapo following in its footsteps. 

Curious readers will discover that these powerful and terrible forces have influenced non-fiction and fiction alike for decades, from journalistic investigations such as Anabel Hernández's Narcoland, to a detective series by Elmer Mendoza, or a beautifully written novel such as Jennifer Clements' Prayers for the Stolen about the everyday reality of the abduction of girls by Mexican drug cartels. The twelve books listed here, that will hopefully engage hearts and minds, reflect the pain and violence that are unfortunately part of daily life for many in Latin America. 


Cover photo courtesy Visual.ly

A Narco History

The term "Mexican Drug War" is misleading, implying that the ongoing bloodbath is an internal Mexican affair. Written by two award-winning authors, one American and the other Mexican, A Narco History examines the U.S. role in creating and sustaining the carnage, from buying drugs to selling weapons to Mexico's cartels. The policies that spawned the drug war have proven disastrous for both countries. A Narco History reviews the interlocking twentieth-century histories that have produced this twenty-first century calamity, and proposes how to end it.

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Narcoland

Investigative reporter Anabel Hernández spent five years researching Narcoland, which, once published, became the subject of intense national controversy, with its author receiving death threats. Hernández explains in meticulous detail how Mexico became a base for the mega cartels of Latin America and one of the most violent places on the planet. She names names—not just the narcos, but also the politicians, functionaries, judges and entrepreneurs who have collaborated with them, revealing the all-pervasive corruption of Mexico's government and business elite. 

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The Power of the Dog

Published in 2005, Don Winslow's thriller The Power of the Dog is the first of two sagas that take the reader deep into the drug trade. Art Keller, an obsessive DEA agent, is chasing the Barrera brothers, heirs to a drug empire. Other characters include Nora Hayden, a high-class hooker, and Father Parada, a powerful and incorruptible Catholic priest. All are trapped in the world of the Mexican drug federation, but also in the cynical and corrupt grip of the Mexican and US governments.

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The Cartel

Set in 2004, The Cartel picks up where Winslow left off with The Power of the Dog. DEA agent Art Keller has now been fighting the war on drugs for thirty years and is locked in a blood feud against Adan Barrera, the head of the world's most powerful cartel. The Cartel is a story of power, corruption, revenge, honor, and sacrifice, as Keller tries to face down the devil without losing his soul.

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Dreamland

Author and journalist Sam Quinones spent ten years as a freelancer living in Mexico. Dreamland, much like Denis Villeneuve's film, Sicario, which is more about the US and the DEA rather than actual drug cartels, focuses on the industry's end user—consumers in the US. The opiate epidemic in the US is highlighted via Quinones' cast of characters that includes pharma pioneers, young Mexican entrepreneurs, narcotics investigators, survivors, and parents.

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The Colombian Mule

Massimo Carlotto brings narco trafficking between Colombia and Italy together in this "Mediterranean noir". When the police catch Arias Cuevas trying to carry a shipment of cocaine into Italy, intended for a shady art smuggler, it sets into motion a series of bloody events. Meanwhile, la Tía, a ruthless figure in the Colombian drug trade, is determined to move her operation to Italy, where cocaine has become all the rage among the professional classes. 

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Prayers for the Stolen

Jennifer Clement spent over ten years listening to women who were affected by violence in Mexico while she was researching and writing about women in the drug culture.
Her beautifully written Prayers for the Stolen, in her words, "is a novel about Ladydi Garcia Martínez. She is part of a community, like so many in rural Mexico, that has been decimated by drug traffickers, government agricultural policies, and illegal immigration. Her home is a village near the once glamorous port of Acapulco. Her story, although inspired by truth, is fiction." 

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Zerozerozero

By the author of the ground-breaking Gomorrah, an account of the Neapolitan mafia, ZeroZeroZero explores the inner workings of the global cocaine trade, which has become a global corporate entity with complex money-laundering operations that allow it to function, often with the help of the world's biggest banks. Saviano tracks the shift in the cocaine trade's axis of power from Colombia to Mexico, and relates how the Latin American cartels and gangs have forged alliances with crime syndicates across the globe. 

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The Sound of Things Falling

Fear and violence are omnipresent in Juan Gabriel Vásquez's elegant exploration of his country's darkest corners. When Antonio Yammara meets Ricardo Laverde in a seedy billiard hall in Bogotá, he realizes that the ex-pilot has a secret. One day Laverde receives a mysterious, unmarked cassette, and shortly afterwards, he is shot dead on a street corner. Yammara's investigation into what happened leads the reader back to the early 1960s, and marijuana smuggling; a time before the cocaine trade trapped Colombia in a living nightmare.

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The Queen of the South

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for his  swashbuckling historical thrillers, embarks on new territory here with this 2004 (2002 in Spanish) story of Teresa Mendoza, whose boyfriend, a Mexican narco trafficker, is assassinated in Sinaloa. Mendoza, realizing she might be next, flees to the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the Moroccan coast, where she meets another drug trafficker... 

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Gangster Warlords

A journalist and writer based in Mexico City, Ioan Grillo has covered Latin America since 2001, and gained access to every level of the cartel chain-of-command in what he calls the new battlefields of the Americas. He describes the new criminal kingpin: part CEO, part terrorist, and part rock star, unleashing guerrilla attacks, strong-arming governments and taking over much of the world's trade in narcotics, guns, and humans. Grillo provides a new and disturbing understanding of a war that has spiralled out of control in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

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The Acid Test

The Acid Test is Mexican novelist Elmer Mendoza’s third novel starring the world-weary detective Edgar "Lefty" Mendieta. In this book, Mendieta is investigating the murder of a Brazilian stripper, Mayra Cabral de Melo, who he was perhaps in love with. Mendieta is working in Culiacán, a city at the heart of the Mexican drug trade, where a drug war breaks out, involving cartels and the government. Homicides are a dime a dozen and go unsolved. To preserve his sanity, Mendieta focuses on his murder case, while mayhem continues all around him. 

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.