Tuesday, December 20, 2011


The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars
By Sylvia Longmire
St. Martin's Press 246 pgs
Submitted by St. Martin's Press
Rating: Yeah....Okay + 1/2

As an introduction to the subject of Mexico's drug wars, Cartel does a good job. It tells you who they are, what they do, and how they do it. The book reads like a textbook and the data is impeccable. It comes alive at times with anecdotes but otherwise is pretty dry. The author, Sylvia Longmire, was an analyst for drug trafficking and border violence for the state of California, which is why Cartel sounds as if it was written by an analyst. I don't recommend it for someone who has been following the news and National Geographic or lives in a border state (I live in Texas and know a few people who have relatives in Mexico) because you won't learn anything you don't already know. But for beginners it is ideal.

The book begins with a short history of cartels in Mexico from their beginnings to the present day, names such as El Chapo, Arellano, Fuentes, Sinaloa and Los Zetas. Once upon a time a man named Gallardo was the king of the cartel. Then he broke up his own monopoly and created Baby Bell cartels with his people in charge. Seems to me that someone should have foreseen that the result would be competition, and that competition would lead to fights over smuggling corridors in the future. There was a time when the Mexican cartels followed the same creed as the Mafia in this country (not that the Mafia is a good thing.) They negotiated, family members were strictly off limits, violence against law enforcement was to be avoided and necessary violence was kept in-house. Sort of an honor among thieves thing. No more. The cartels in Mexico have flipped their lids. They kidnap, torture, kill and extort. Their victims are everybody. To make matters even worse, law enforcement in Mexico, from the local beat cop to the attorney general, are notoriously corrupt, paid off by the cartels to at best look the other way, and at worst perform an execution or two themselves.

And now these atrocities happen here. Phoenix has had such an increase in kidnappings that they have formed a special task force. Arms trafficking is a growing problem especially in Arizona and Texas which have the most lenient state laws. Straw buyers visit gun shops and shows and purchase several firearms that they then deliver to the guy who will take the guns across the border. This is important because, believe it or not, guns are not easy to buy in Mexico. Serial number searches have proven the link between US firearms and deaths in Mexico and in this country.

The cartels are a business like any other, and as such look for efficiencies. One of these is using US public lands such as national parks to grow marijuana. This way they don't have to try and run the product across the border and risk detection. Two or three employees of the cartel will scout a location; set up camp, which can include generators, irrigation pipes, trip-wires, etc. They are armed and will live with and protect the crop from planting through harvest and processing. Our park rangers and law enforcement are up against much more dangerous criminals than have historically been encountered in our parks. So this is another way that the drug war is spreading north from our border.

Presidents of Mexico and their administrations have failed miserably in the past to crack down on the cartels. But in 2006 Felipe Calderon was elected president and he immediately announced a new policy. He would bring the fight to the cartels with the Mexican Army. He deployed thousands of soldiers, then he fired large numbers of state and local law enforcement for corruption. New officers are hired only after they pass a lie detector test. Judicial reforms have been implemented to make the process transparent to encourage in the public more faith in the system. President Calderon has also floated novel legislation to ease up on criminal penalties for users in the hopes that the drug prices would drop and become less lucrative for the cartels. The jury is still out.

The author puts forward a few strategies and tactics to lessen the flow of drugs into the United States and lessen the danger of the fallout of Mexico's drug wars. She says we need to learn to manage a war that we can't win. We should send more money to the right places, increase use of the National Guard, change some of our own drug and gun laws, etc. Those last two will realistically never be done.

President Calderon has about a billion strikes against him and those strikes are dollar bills. Consider what he's up against. Cartel chiefs have been listed in Forbes magazine's list of the world's top billionaires and Forbes world's most powerful people. Check out El Chapo Which brings up an interesting point. The truth is that the cartels incomes are larger than Mexico's defense budget. Larger. More money than the government. There's an event coming up in 2012 in Mexico which I cannot stress enough the significance. Mexico elects a new president next year. I'll be watching with great interest because cartel influence will make or break the next presidency.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Informationist

A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel
By Taylor Stevens
Random House 324 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: Read This Book!+ (this is a 4.5 of 5 for readers insisting on a rational rating system)

The Informationist is stunning. It roars like a freight train and sneaks like a cat through 3 continents and some half-dozen countries. There are mercenaries and missionaries, diplomats and gangsters in uniform, Texas oil tycoons and presidents, sacrifice and avarice, revenge and justice.

Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe. We very seldom get to meet a female character in any genre who breaks the rules, all of them. Her past is shady, her future precarious. She reminds me of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon on estrogen and without the ethical ruminating. She is a brilliant chameleon and physically fearless. She's got skills. Munroe is fierce.   

Munroe's specialty is information. Governments and corporations need information and hire her to get it and they pay handsomely. Information on elections, coupes, espionage both national and business, trade secrets, you name it. Everyone wants the inside skinny for a leg up on the competition. Mainly this boils down to money. Information = money.

The information Munroe is hired to find is the whereabouts of the daughter of a Texas oil tycoon, Richard Burbank of Titan Oil. His daughter Emily went missing in Africa 4 years ago. Munroe grew up in Africa and understands that returning to the scene of her past could be problematic. Add Miles Bradford to the mix. He is a former (?) mercenary Burbank sends along to keep an eye on Munroe. Add to the mix Francisco Beyard, a gunrunner (among other things) from her African past who loves her and is a little angry that she disappeared 9 years ago. Hint: Munroe had to get "out of Africa." Ha ha. Sorry. I find very little to quibble about in The Informationist. In fact only one thing: Miles Bradford seemed to be superfluous a good deal of the time. However this doesn't weigh down the plot in any way.

The Informationist is Taylor Stevens first book and I am so excited to be able to read more. Her next Vanessa Michael Munroe novel, The Innocent, will hit stores this month. Even better, she is currently working on the third story. I confidently and strongly recommend this one. Ms. Stevens has created something special here and I, for one, am grateful. You will be too.

(FYI Taylor Stevens is a Texas author. Yay!)

For more on the author: http://www.taylorstevensbooks.com/author.php

For the publisher: http://www.randomhouse.com/

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


By Tom Franklin
Harper Collins, 192 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: Read This Book!

Poachers is a collection of 11 short stories. I have gone back to my roots with this one. I "discovered" American regional short fiction 20 years ago and my favorite region is the south. It's all so very Gothic. Spanish moss and kudzu, Appalachia and Gulf coast, alligator and Thoroughbred, Pentecostal and voodoo priestess, plantation and slave quarter. One gets the idea that the primeval is alive and lurking in Mississippi. The juxtapositions of the South are mind-boggling and Tom Franklin captures them superbly. Mr. Franklin is a talent on the same plane with the late Larry Brown, and both are heirs to Faulkner.

These are my favorite stories:

The Ballad of Duane Juarez is about the dissolution of an older brother who has to rely on (or mooch off of) his younger brother's life. These are some of the things Duane accepts and/or takes from his brother Ned: food, drink, rent, Playboy, girls, jobs, electricity. According to Duane he married for love and Ned married for money. Duane's wife divorced him and so the love went away and their was still no money. Ned is still married and still has money so he tries to "help" his big brother Duane. I get the idea Ned sort of likes this arrangement. He doesn't seem to be intentionally belittling, but his off-hand remarks could be seen as casually cruel, as he tosses crumbs to Duane in the form of day-labor assignments. Some of the things that Ned has Duane do for him include: mowing grass, raking leaves, washing his car, cleaning houses, killing cats. Yep, killing cats. Ned's wife Nina feeds a bunch of stray cats and they won't go away. Ned hates the cats and pays Duane to capture them, take them off and shoot them. We find out how Duane feels about the people in his life when he takes the cats off to be summarily executed and starts naming them. This story is not a story with a plot, but is a character study. We get to peer around inside Duane's head, and he needs a good therapist.

Poachers is the story of the 3 Gates brothers living in the backwoods of Alabama, who make their living as poachers. There's apparently nothing they won't kill and sell. This includes: fish, deer, dogs, rabbits, possums, turtle, fox. The brothers sell and barter (sometimes for moonshine, white lightnin, bad idea) the fruits of their hunt to regular customers in a netherworld that you have to see to believe, some of these places are so isolated they are accessible only by river; no electricity, no phone, no plumbing. The boys have been on their own since their father shot himself when the youngest brother was 12. He was despairing his wife's death in childbirth and the stillborn baby. So he buried them in the backyard. There is no law here.

The boys live in a ragged cabin deep in the woods; have never gone to school; can't read or write; don't bathe; eat with their hands; have no social skills; never go to town. What they understand is the instinctual. This is Deliverance, second generation. This is the sort of thing that makes the hair on my neck stand at attention. You know what creeps me out? These people have to introduce new blood every so often and so what woman do they kidnap for their nefarious purposes? Eew.

OK, anyway, the Gateses seem to be successfully skirting the edge of the cliff until the day they murder a game warden who caught them with a telephone rig in the bottom of their boat and tried to arrest them. Then they fell off the cliff. A few days later the body of the game warden is found. The sheriff calls the state wildlife commission to report the death and talks to a legendary warden by the name of Frank David, who is ascribed supernatural powers, happens to have been the dead warden's teacher and mentor. When the Gates brothers start showing up dead one by one, the sheriff knows Warden David's handiwork but cannot build a case, prove anything or even find him. 

An old shopkeeper named Kirxy had known their father and has spent years trying to help the brothers. He tried to house them, feed them, send them to school, to no avail. He had to finally return them to their cabin because his wife was as freaked out as I am, see? So when Kent, the oldest brother, and Neil, the middle brother, are murdered Kirxy tries to protect Dan, the youngest. We are given a few hints in the story that it may yet be possible to save Dan. Maybe.

So please read this book. It will not appeal to everyone but I'd like to encourage you to venture out of your comfort zone. I love the short story form but I didn't know that until I ventured.