Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel


Tom Wainwright, PublicAffairs, 278 pages, $26.99. In “Narconomics,” Tom Wainwright of the Economist brings a fine and balanced analytical mind to some very good research, undertaken largely in northern Mexico. By looking at the drug trade as a business, Wainwright is able to reveal much about why it wreaks such havoc in Central and South America. The issue of violence is not a random by-product of gangster culture. It is central to the industry, Wainwright observes, as the only way “to enforce contractual agreements.” To control or police a market like drugs, the cartel must be able to wield decisive violence or, at the very least, be able to project a credible threat of violence.

Occasionally, Wainwright shoehorns his interpretation to fit the conceit: To describe the police as a drug cartel’s “regulator,” for instance, misconstrues the role of law enforcement in a weak state. But he also makes an important and too often unnoticed link between marijuana legalization in states like Colorado and Washington and what could be a profound policy shift across the Western world. As long as the production of drugs took place far away, the impact on social stability in North America and Europe was negligible. Now much production of marijuana and, critically, synthetic drugs like MDMA takes place in cannabis grow-ops and labs next door. In the age of austerity, strapped police forces do not have the resources to keep up with this. “Attacking supply networks is ineffective,” Wainwright notes. “America has forgone Colombian-style crop eradication programs in favor of legalization.”