OPINION: Did Grillo grill the President?

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Dec 13 2016 12:12 AM

As this editorial cartoon from the 1920s shows, triads and the illegal drug trade involve not just corruption, but coercion. As we enter the sixth month of the War on Drugs, we should get to know a foreigner whose words have become quite influential in how it’s carried out.

That foreigner is someone I’ve mentioned previously here (see The blueprint for the 'War on Drugs' and Lies, damned lies, and drug statistics) and who quite recently met his number one fan, the President. His name is Ioan Grillo, and he’s from Britain but has long lived in, and reported from, Mexico. 

He’s published a couple of widely-reviewed, and generally favorably-reviewed books, on Narcopolitics (Enrique Krauze, writing in the The New York Review of Books: Grillo writes with “intelligent restraint, great courage”).  

Steve Coll, in The New Yorker, reviewing Grillo’s Narcos, summed it up as “full of vivid front-line reporting; diverse interviews; a sense of history; a touch of social science; clarifying statistics; and realistic reviews of what might be done to improve things, none of it easy. It is essential reading.” Ian Thomson in The Telegraph, reviewing Gangster Warlords calls it, “an absorbing work of reportage.”

Both of Grillo’s books make for fascinating, frightening, and provocative reading. The President has repeatedly mentioned Grillo and his work as a source of his own information and an influence on his decision to embark on the War on Drugs.

Now an author writes but cannot control what people see in his or her works, much less what readers do as a result of reading. By all accounts, Grillo handled his hour-plus-long meeting with the President quite diplomatically. As he put it, the President is a"very interesting character." He added that "I asked him about the colorful language, the times when he used curse words about journalists or about politicians and he was open to talking about this," although "I was cautious because I had seen videos where he'd been asked difficult questions. He wasn't as aggressive. He was very open, very calm. He gave a very thorough interview."

We can only wait and see what the result of his interview with the President will reveal. While a tweet from a Filipina reader got Grillo to notice the President, it was the Philippine Embassy in Mexico City that contacted Grillo and arranged for his visit. However, he did not travel on the Philippine government dime –leaving him free to write what he sees fit, when he sees fit.

But what we can do is pick up his books because first, they will help us understand the President and second, they will help us understand where the President and Grillo differ when it comes to the narcotics trade and how governments handle them. A passage by Grillo himself provides an example of what I mean:, This is from Gangster Warlords:

“In searching for the solution, it helps to come to terms with what the problem really is. Governments find it uncomfortable to admit that cartels and commandos clearly challenge the nature of the state and its monopoly on waging war and administering justice. The fact that gangsters have won genuine support in some marginalized communities is also a painful truth.

“The twenty-first century has thrown up a world where irregular forces with scattered cells of combatants provide an immense challenge for democratic governments. Light infantry weapons are everywhere, and it is easy for criminal gunmen to communicate and move money. Governments find their tanks, warships, and bombers are useless against the ragtag criminal militias. They often choose stalemates as the best option.”

Reading it, you can understand where the President is coming from; but you can discern, too, where the President may have gone away with an entirely different perspective than that of Grillo. 

A couple of things are surprising. First, the recommendation of Grillo that treating drugs as a public health problem is essential. He even suggests decriminalizing marijuana and explains how some countries have come to realize you cannot stuff your jails full of occasional drug users while tying up resources that could be used to go after syndicates. 

How these syndicates function –how they opportunistically challenge the authorities to intimidate them into leaving them alone, but which do not, unlike revolutionary governments, try to set up permanent, independent territories—makes for fascinating reading, too. 

As Misha Glenny, reviewing Grillo’s second book, Gangster Warlords in the New York Times summarizes it, “As Grillo unfolds the complex and often gruesome stories of the drug trade, it becomes clear that this terror is comprehensible. It is the result of ossified policies — chief among them the so-called War on Drugs — that are wholly inappropriate for a globalized world. Grillo and his compatriot, Tom Wainwright, an editor at The Economist and the author of “Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel,” belong to a growing band of writers who seek out the testimony of criminals in order to better understand the rational calculation that often underpins the violence. The economic weight of transnational organized crime — not to mention its devastating political and social impact — is so considerable that without this testimony, we simply cannot grasp what is going on.” 

Perhaps my favorite review, by Robert Bunker, of Grillo’s work is well worth quoting at length. It helps put Grillo’s work about South America in the context of developments here at home:

“Grillo sees these crime militias as shadow powers—rather than alternative governments or emerging state forms—which are seeking impunity of action and nothing more. This perception is of interest because theoretical debates are being conducted between this view and the one that believes de facto control of a town or region at some point creates alternate criminal governance even if this was not the cartel or gang leaders’ original intent. The author then goes on to compare what is essentially the criminal insurgency construct—first developed by John Sullivan—with that of more ideologically derived insurgency linked to Islamic radicalism or Maoism which seeks to create a parallel state. One component of such alternative governance is the takeover of local schools and their curriculum for ideological indoctrination.. This direct approach is in contrast to the indirect approach conducted by crime militias who by their very nature also environmentally modify the ‘civilization’ of their territories. In this instance, they re-socialize those populations within them to narcocultura (narco culture) or maracultura (gang culture) patterns of human social interactions and values.” 

Since this War is now a permanent part of our lives, why not pick up one of his volumes. One day, we’ll see if Grillo grilled the President. Until then, we could learn from someone who not only did dangeorus journalism, but put a lot of though into proposing solutions that go beyond mass exterminations.


Aside from his website, you can follow the author on Twitter. Two interviews of his provide a good introduction, one in NPR, the other in Borderland Beat. He has several extensive interviews up in YouTube.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.