HomeNewsAnalysisNarconomics Applies Economic Toolbox to Organized Crime

Narconomics Applies Economic Toolbox to Organized Crime


A recent book by The Economist's former Mexico correspondent manages to deliver tons of information about the illegal drug trade in entertaining style but falls short of the author's higher goal of providing a "blue print" for how to defeat the drug lords.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel hints in its subtitle at the scope of Tom Wainwright's ambition. Detailing the inner workings of underground organizations whose members typically are retired through prison sentences or shootouts is no easy task. Providing a recipe for defeating them, as Wainwright claims in the final words of his introduction, is aiming high indeed.

In pursing these objectives, the author employs the eye of an economist to identify assorted phenomena affecting organized crime across the Western Hemisphere. His topics run the gamut, offering pertinent observations about Mexican traffickers' diversification into migrant smuggling, criminal groups' struggles to acquire to a reliable labor pool, and a somewhat less convincing account of the Zetas dabbling in a franchise models.

Wainwright, who served as the magazine's Mexico correspondent from 2010 until 2013, invested a substantial amount of reporting time into this book, and it shows. He has a gift for finding interesting people and telling entertaining anecdotes. From the drunken Dominican cops shouting invective at their waiter to the El Salvador gang leader ruminating on the famous mara truce from a local prison, Wainwright leaves readers with a myriad of indelible images. The result is a book that is fun and easy read, features uncommon to this genre.

His narrative talents lighten the load when Wainwright digs into the catalog of academic and government research he describes over the course of the book's nearly 300 pages. Though the reading is drier in these data-heavy sections, they deliver much of the book's analytical heft.

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Content aside, much what makes the book enjoyable to read lies in the friendly and authoritative tone that Wainwright employs, which will be familiar to readers of his magazine. But when Wainwright mixes up his facts, his assumption of authority seems unearned, and calls into question some of his more sweeping conclusions.

He mistakenly writes that the homicide rate in Michoacán and Veracruz rivals that of the most violent, northern states. And Wainwright implies that the Juárez Cartel was behind the murder of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's son and his brother. The Beltrán Leyva Organization and an alliance of the Tijuana and Gulf Cartels, respectively, are widely recognized to be the authors of those killings.


Another occasionally frustrating element of the book is Wainwright's insistence on drawing standard economic parallels to every aspect of organize crime captures his attention. The analogies often come across as forced and detract from his otherwise skillful storytelling, making his arguments needlessly convoluted.

The book includes, for instance, an exposition on law enforcement being the underworld's competition regulators. The idea is a stretch, and does little to expand our appreciation of how the police affect or participate in criminal dynamics. Wainwright delivers a truly fascinating discussion of the circumstances in which cartels absorb the state's legitimacy, which is unfortunately obscured by a lengthy and flimsy comparison of organized crime's public outreach to social responsibility practices in the corporate world.

Perhaps these sections were unavoidable given the book's title and basic thesis: that a properly economics-conscious approach could allow the West to win the war on drugs. But the book would have been more convincing if he had dialed down the deluge of economic similes.

Wainwright's overarching goals in writing Narconomics are not entirely original. Many people have employed a variety of authorial tactics in quite a number of different media in an effort to lift the vail on the drug trafficking organizations of Mexico and Colombia. Noteworthy examples include the telenovela El Cártel de los Sapos, the book Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts, the New York Times Magazine article "How a Mexican Drug Cartel Makes Its Billions: Cocaine Incorporated," and the RAND Corporation study "Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico." That is not to mention the collected works of Alejandro Hope and Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, among others.

Collectively, these and other works of art and analysis give us an idea of how the larger criminal groups organize their operations. But they ultimately give us little more than a glimpse, which is a reflection of the fundamental difficulty of the task. Shedding light on groups of murderous businessmen and women who market contraband and have good reason to remain in the shadows is some trick.

So has Narconomics achieved what these works have not quite managed? Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the answer is no. But measuring the book by its own other-worldly promises seems unduly harsh. Wainwright's opus has abundant virtues and is a worthy addition to the annals of organized crime literature.

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