Review: Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas – by Elijah Wald

narcocorrido

Whilst planning to do a university translation dissertation on some aspect of narcoculture I was drawn to this work (in English – also simultaneously released bilingually with a Spanish version) by American author and folk musician, Elijah Wald. Having been introduced and hooked on the sounds of Los Tigres Del Norte for years, the Narcocorrido is a music form that particularly interests me. The Spanish word ‘Correr’ = to run, gives way to the Corrido form of music, a Mexican musical ballad, originally historically done as the spoken word, but more recently with Mexican folk music of accordions, guitars and harps added. It is a form of Norteño / Ranchera / Mariachi music, very spicy in rhythm, with neatly rhyming lyrics, telling a popular story. A lively, popular music artform, where masculinity and hyper-masculinity can flourish. The traditional Corrido has been superseded by the Narcocorrido, which tells the stories of Mexican and Latin American drug lords and their conquests – their crossborder trafficking, their grisly assassinations, their lovelife, their organisations. The Corrido is an alternative form of news and corridistas may cover any political event, with some controversial writers documenting political scandals and guerrilla uprisings. Elijah Wald takes us on an interesting personal journey as he hitchhikes and buses across every conceivable region in Mexico and also dips into the Corrido communities of North America. We meet the stars of the genre, the well known celebrity figures, from Los Tigres Del Norte themselves and their most famous writers such as Jefe del Jefes, Teodoro Bello. The issues of assassinated star Chalino Sánchez were particularly interesting and displayed the true dangerous nature of these musicians and their controversial cultural work. We head from the Sinaloan narcocorrido heartland, up to Texas and onto rural Michoacan. Not only do we learn more of the drug trafficking inspirations and the gruesome Mexican drug war, but also we learn of other areas of Mexican culture, history and politics. Wald is a man of the people and the rural campesinos are never far from his heart. He is equally at home listening to corridista buskers on the bus aswell as being able to snort cocaine whilst partying with the stars. For me, the translations done by the author about the often unknown corridos are a true revelation and, being an apprentice translator, I particularly found this aspect of the book exciting. The book is a real adventure and I’d encourage any travel lover to get involved in the quint narrations and journeying. I think that this book will long be regarded as the definitive text on Narcocorridos and I look forward to reading more work by Elijah Wald. It has left me a large legacy of topics and material to research and I shall be busy well into the future covering issues raised by my reading of this most excellent, well written text.

Advertisements

Review: MI6 – Fifty Years of Special Operations – by Stephen Dorril

mi6

This detailed 800 page book covers fifty years of MI6, the UK’s foreign espionage service. From relatively humble beginnings during the second world war, MI6 grew to become a leading foe of Soviet Russia and its notorious KGB. The book documents in detail issues that affected the service from the beginning and I especially was enamoured by the division of early chapters covering each of the spheres of influence where MI6 were working in the aftermath of World War 2. The book amalgamates knowledge I have of this service from other reading and often due to its sheer volume, will analyse in depth details that were previously unknown. It often is critical of the service’s failures and sometimes questionable morality in its operations. The obvious exposure of the country by moles within MI6 such as Kim Philby were very damaging to our nation. It is clear that there was much frustration during the Cold War with a failure to penetrate the Soviet system properly. Also, as the years have moved on, the critical importance of US intelligence – the CIA and NSA – to UK intelligence services – becomes paramount. Our declining empire has meant that MI6 has had to do all it can to keep our position as a global power propped up in the world. There is a very good section on the often blunderous years of operations in the Middle East, culminating in the Suez crisis which was a clear debacle. Moving into the modern era (Book concludes just before second Gulf War) the author successfully identifies future directions for the service and there is interesting coverage of MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson, who has revealed his life as an operative in a controversial book. I enjoyed this large book and feel that it will be useful for reference in any further research I may do on intelligence services.

 

Review: Dirty Combat – Secret Wars and Serious Misadventures – by David Tomkins

dirty combat

David Tomkins has led an interesting life, to say the least. Our swashbuckling protagonist begins his autobiography as a tough safe-cracker, self-trained in explosives. His early adventures lead him to prison life where he swaps tales and picks up skills, leading to further crimes. Moving away from his gangster life, Tomkins utilises his explosive skills to full effect by becoming a mercenary. His military adventures take him across Africa, from Angola to Togo and into Rhodesia. Constantly under suspicion at airports from Special Branch and security services, Tomkins becomes a darling of the Press, a true life mercenary who engages in politics at the highest level. Merging his mercenary work with business interests he becomes an arms dealer, strutting around the world, negotiating some stranger-than-fiction deals with some rather salubrious characters. Eventually his mercenary work comes back tot he fore when he is recruited to fight out in Colombia, first arranging an international special forces brigade to attack the FARC and then later, employed by the Calí drug cartel he is delivered a project to assassinate the head of the rival Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar. Ultimately both the Colombian adventures do not achieve their mission goals and later end our hero up in US custody where he returns to the prison system, detailing the flaws of the US Justice system and ending the tale whiling out his time in jail before luckily being returned to his wife and family in the UK. The book is well written and is truly compelling. David Tomkins’ life is surely a worthy tale to be told and I can’t think of many more varied real life adventure stories out there.

Review: At The Devil’s Table – Inside the Fall of the Cali Cartel – the World’s Biggest Crime Syndicate – by William C. Rempel

at the devils table

Jorge Salcedo signed up to the Cali cartel in order to lead a mission to assassinate Pablo Escobar, head of the rival Medellín cartel and, in Jorge’s eyes, a clear and present danger to the people of Colombia. This ex Colombian army professional was a security expert and although the initial mission, with the aid of British mercenaries, was to fail, Jorge embarked on a flourishing career with his Cali cartel bosses, one that would end in betrayal and the fall of the biggest crime syndicate on the planet. Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela were the brothers at the head of the Cali cartel and Jorge would become part of their inner circle, as a trusted almost family member, in charge of Miguel’s day-to-day security and all the cartel business that that entailed. He would witness the trafficking operation that flooded the US market with Cocaine and would bear party to the intense violence that accompanied his boss’ position, gradually becoming an integral part of all operations. From learning how the sicarios operated, to engaging overseas in Nicaragua and the USA, to witnessing assassinations, Jorge would build up an essential insider’s knowledge of the cartel’s overall business. However, as time wore on, and it became clear that there would be no easy exit for him from the cartel, Jorge became disillusioned and ultimately sought to betray his boss. Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela became the most wanted criminal on the planet and when Jorge fell into the arms of the DEA, his knowledge of daily operations assisted the US and Colombian authorities in tracking down and successfully capturing the head of the syndicate. Jorge and his family fled into protective custody and the Cali cartel was permanently weakened by the ‘chopping off of the head’. This book, well researched clandestinely for over a decade, tells a bloodthirsty true tale of top level narco-trafficking, political corruption, and gang warfare. It is a true page-turner that will engage and grip you from start to finish.

Review: The Last Empire – The Final Days of the Soviet Union – by Serhii Plokhy

the last empire

When the Soviet Union ended and thus the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991, it was probably one of the biggest political events of my lifetime. This well-researched, detailed book, by Ukrainian author Serhii Plokhy, details the last 18 months of the Soviet Union’s existence. After USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced throughout the Soviet Empire, the changing landscape of the union meant many things. Communism was in its death throes and there was a rise of democracy and nationalism and independence movements amongst the various states and peoples that populated the USSR. American influence became more important and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to populist democracies and ceased to be part of the wider Soviet Empire, American pressure continues on the remaining state as the Baltics sought to continue the domino effect. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were supported in their independence by US president, George H.W. Bush and this undermined the Soviet Union as a whole. Rising stars such as Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and other stars of independence in the EuroAsian nations of the Soviet Bloc, all were coming to the forefront. After a critical putsch, a military / KGB coup in August 1991 that sealed Gorbachev in his Crimea Dacha, these rising stars clubbed together to put down the Conservative hardliners who threatened the President, the Union itself and the status quo of the democratic freedoms they were enjoying. The Coup failed by Gorbachev was left irreparably weak and afterwards, especially the opportunist Yeltsin, capitalised on the successes of their newfound power and ultimately broke apart into a series of independent nations and states, finally managing to seal the death of the Party Centre and Union Centre itself with their creation of the CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, that would inherit the remnants of the Soviet Union’s power system. The high point of this most excellent detailed political history of the Fall of the Soviet Union, was the detail of the August coup against Gorbachev. This Machiavellian power struggle was an amazing opening of doors and it is a surprise that the whole dismantling of the Empire didn’t erupt into a ‘Yugoslavia with Nukes’ scenario that many were fearing. The book focuses very much on the role of President Bush and his interactions with Gorbachev and later the founding fathers of the newly independent ex-Soviet nation states. It is an essential part of modern history to understand what happened to the Soviet Union and by studying this issue we can open the doors to understanding the present day troubles in the region, in particular Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the war with Ukraine. Definitely a book worth reading for an avid political historian.

Review: Cocaine Nation – How The White Trade Took Over The World – by Tom Feiling

cocaine nation

This is an enthralling, well-researched book, that reveals many unknown new facts about the global cocaine industry. The book opens with a chapter focussing on the USA, the biggest market for the Cocaine industry, where 66% of Cocaine users exist. We then enter into the producing and transit phase of the drug and examine Colombia, Mexico and the Caribbean in detail. Colombia has the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels, much responsible for the initial production of Cocaine. The role of the FARC, AUC and the Colombian Civil War is documented and the political difficulties with America’s Plan Colombia and the extreme bribery involved in Colombian political life. In Mexico, we see how the various cartels such as Sinaloa, Juárez, Gulf and Tijuana have gone to war, recruiting the services of such paramilitaries as Los Zetas. The Caribbean covers Jamaica in detail and also Cuba, Haiti and the various tax haven islands. In Jamaica we see how politics have heavily influenced the gang culture and the rise of the Shower Posse is documented. In all of the Western producer country sphere, the USA and its policies is never far from the forefront. The ‘War on Drugs’ in force from many successive administrations at the White House, often focuses on producer and transit countries and is totally supported by draconian United Nations international legislation. The European market, in particular the United Kingdom is the second largest market for Cocaine and some countries here have introduced decriminalisation. In places such as Holland and Portugal, drug use is not penalised. The author explores how users are affected by the drug and explores addiction, in particular the problems of crack cocaine. In the final part of the book we look at possible legalisation solutions although, despite Feiling’s enthusiasm for this to happen, I fear it will be many generations before this becomes politically possible. Perhaps with potential cannabis decriminalisation and legalisation on the agenda, it will open up the doors for other narcotics to follow suit? I enjoyed the book and it really does go into detail on what is an interesting subject and a truly global industry.

Review: Agent Storm – My Life Inside Al Qaeda – by Morten Storm

agent storm

This real life tale of espionage is fast-moving and thrilling. It is a real edge-of-the-seat tale of true grit, the lead character, Morten Storm, leading a bewildering double or even triple life, his journey a myriad tour of far-flung places and his work at the key cutting edge of the War on Terror. After a misspent youth in biker gangs and as a petty criminal, Danish protagonist Storm becomes radicalised and rapidly moves through the chain of command in the developing structure of Al Qaeda and its affiliates across the World. His rise within this world comes through devoted study in traditionalist schools in Yemen where he is enabled to make contact with the critical figures that allow this tale to develop. After a crisis of conscience where he could have easily slipped the other way, Morten realised that his path of jihad was wrong and defected to the West’s security services: Danish PET, British MI5 and mI6 and the American CIA. He begins a life as an agent and provides absolutely vital intelligence on many of the most high profile missions, including the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, scourge of the USA. The true aspects of this story make it stranger than fiction and the rapidly burning tale leads us on a rollercoaster journey of clandestine intelligence meets and very dangerous infiltrations of terrorist networks. What strikes me is how tightly knit the jihadist community is, how Morten seems to have had contact in some way or other with most of the key terrorists that have attacked or attempted to attack Western targets in the news stories of recent years. I loved the down-to-earth attitude of Morten as he reveals a passionate story where his personal sacrifice to the cause was immense. I wish him all the best in the dangerous life he must now lead, in the crosshairs of Al-Qaeda and outside of the protection of security services after becoming a whistleblower. An amazing five star read.