On Ioan Grillo’s ‘Gangster Warlords.’

On Ioan Grillo’s ‘Gangster Warlords.’

During my income-less years spent researching & writing a novel, there wasn’t enough money to blow any on drugs.  While I was in California, though, my graduate school stipend had me feeling flush with cash — when you like to eat home-made bread and lentils there’s only so much you can spend on food, and when your big fashion shopping trip involves spelunking through the dumpsters during move-out week each year, you don’t drop much on clothes.

Plus, the attitude in Silicon Valley seems to be that, as long as you get your work done, doesn’t matter what else is going on.  Stoned at work?  If your work is good, nobody cares.  I fondly remember helping a friend’s bleary-eyed pot-head roommate do some Matlab coding for a project while we were both in a state of significant duress — that project worked & was widely celebrated & the dude had a star named after him.

A sorta dinky star, sure, and very far away, but, still.  His work will save a not insignificant number of lives.  Not too shabby for something he put together while often high.

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I have no idea which star is his.

Personally, I didn’t smoke much.  I like my lungs, and don’t like spending money (from my six years of grad student stipend, I socked away enough to live on for three or four years, which I figured would be plenty of time to finish my first book.  I undershot by about 50%), and, besides, pot just made me feel groggy.  Still, I spent a few hundred dollars on marijuana while I was living out there.

For about sixty bucks of that, I know that the stuff I bought was grown locally.  The rest was of unknown provenance.

A quick internet search has revealed that my few hundred bucks could buy somebody a discounted AK.

Oops.

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Image by brian.ch on Flickr.

I’ve written about the harms caused by U.S. drug policy a few times previously, but my focus is usually on our own nation’s incarceration crisis.  It’s blatantly unjust to lock up so many black & brown & poor white people for behavior that middle-class whites engage in just as often without risk of punishment.  I bought marijuana while I was living in California, but, as a rich white student, the biggest risk I faced was that my drugs might be confiscated and I’d be slapped with a fine.  With the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project I’ve put together packages for dudes who’re serving time for possession of drugs in the same ballpark as I’ve carried.

That’s not right.  It’s something that we can, and should, fix.  This injustice would be significantly diminished if drugs like marijuana and cocaine were legalized.

Indeed, now that huge numbers of middle class whites are succumbing to heroin addiction, there’s talk from politicians about responding to their plight with treatment, not incarceration.  Which is fine.  That’s good, and correct.  But it must be hard for the families of poor and minority addicts, who may have seen their loved ones incarcerated for years, to hear.  To have yet more evidence that you & yours are considered less precious by our government.

Our incarceration crisis is a big deal.  Millions of U.S. lives are damaged by the War on Drugs.

unnamedBut I’m grateful to Ioan Grillo for teaching me about the millions of South & Central American lives lost because of the U.S. War on Drugs.

Actually, “lost” is probably not the right word.  “Lives lost” makes them sound misplaced, like somebody slipped and bonked his or her head and died.  Maybe the phrase “brutally wrenched away” would better describe murders via gunshot and chainsaw torture and burning alive and being hacked to bits by machetes or dissolved in giant vats of acid.  Which, right.  Grillo’s book is very good.  His writing is lucid and forceful and he’s done excellent research.  But you should know that there are passages that are difficult to read.  Grillo describes a horrifying world.

It’s a world that I had misconceptions about.  For instance, I’ve been fascinated by microclimes — both actual and metaphorical — ever since living in California.  While biking to work, there were dips along the road accompanied by drastic shifts in temperature and humidity.  While driving to the grocery store, there was the stark, sudden border between wealthy Atherton with its perfect green lawns and leafy trees and gated communities and the area just north so poor that it’s been unincorporated from adjacent communities.

I hadn’t realized that drug cartels operate in battle-ravaged wastelands closely juxtaposed to areas that look just like my home.  From Grillo’s Gangster Warlords:

unnamed (1)          This bloodshed is not in the poorest, least developed region of the world.  It takes place in industrializing societies with a growing middle class.  Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to modernize, building gleaming shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, and designer gyms, private schools and world-class universities.  Millions of visitors sun themselves in top-notch resorts on the countries’ golden beaches.  This convinces some surprised visitors that the countries are on a quick path to the First World.  There is real growth taking place.

          At the same time, sprawling slums are home to ultraviolent gangs with links to politicians and businessmen.  The parallel universes of crime-ridden ghettos and leafy middle-class neighborhoods live side by side, sometimes meeting and clashing.

Grillo also provides a lucid explanation for the feedback loop that causes violence to escalate.  These passages carry added weight for U.S. readers because the same logic underlies the violence of our own impoverished communities.  With poverty and some initial degree of lawlessness, people often lose their trust in police.  And when people who can’t go to the police are harmed, either by violence or theft, their only recourse is to seek retribution through more violence of their own.

          One alarming development is the extent to which gangsters control their own justice systems.  From Mexican mountains to Jamaican ghettos, crime bosses try those accused of robbing and raping and sentence them to beatings, exile, or death.  It’s jungle law.  But many residents find it more effective than any justice the police and courts offer.

          Wielding such power, gangster warlords threaten the fundamental nature of the state, not by trying to completely take it over but by capturing parts of it and weakening it.  They chip into the state’s monopoly on violence — or, more precisely, the monopoly on waging war and carrying out justice.  When the state loses this it becomes less able to impose its will on many issues, including the most basic, such as collecting taxes and policing protests.  People lose faith in the government, as happened in the Mexican state of Guerrero after the Iguala massacre.  Some form vigilante militias to defend themselves.  Others burn town halls.  If governments lose more control in this way, it could have devastating consequences.

US_Navy_100304-N-7058E-086_Bales_of_cocaine_are_stacked_in_the_airborne_mission_zone_aboard_USS_Freedom_(LCS_1)_after_they_were_seized_from_a_go-fast_small_boat.jpg
The only problem with showing an image of bales of cocaine is that, really, these just look like bags.  There could be anything in there.  Ramen noodles, plastic ducks, you name it. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Ed Early/Released)

Despite covering a lot of bleak topics, Grillo’s book was surprisingly enjoyable to read.  It helps that he is such a charming, self-effacing guy.  During an interview, he winds up riding in a car with his interviewee and being handed an assault rifle, at which point he commences worrying that he’ll accidentally kill himself or his companions.  He mentions his fear when approaching certain murderous bigshots without making a big deal of his own courage.  And the similes he uses to explain his feelings are plain-spoken but illuminating.  Consider this description of the months he spent reporting on Mexico’s vigilante uprising against a major cartel:

          Covering Mexico’s vigilante movement was like watching an action movie in many ways.  It was full of larger than life characters, took dramatic twists, and had high-intensity action scenes.  Like good movies, there were inspiring heroes on a moral mission and despicable baddies, such as Nazario [large-scale ultra-violent meth trafficker with a Jesus complex], a big enough villain for any Hollywood set.  But like the best movies, it became morally hazy by the end, the heroes showing cracks, and finished leaving you with a mix of fear and hope of what might come next.

 . . .

          Yet, after two years, the problems of vigilantism were too big to deny.  One thing is holding up the ideal of armed struggle.  The other is seeing it in action.  It’s ugly.  As vigilantes drove out the cartel, they tortured and murdered.  In 2013 and 2014, police tallies count 1,894 people killed in Michoacan [a state about midway between Iowa and Wisconsin in terms of size and population], the victims of both sides.  The vigilante ranks also filled with the gangsters they were supposed to be fighting against.  And you wondered how much better off anyone had become.

Unfortunately, U.S. drug policy inflates the profits available to traffickers.  Even if major traffickers are killed or captured by the government or vigilantes, new criminals will likely take their place as long as those incredible profits are up for the taking.

Legalization would probably increase demand (but not by much, according that what little evidence we have), but it would also cause a major fall in price.  Without the lure of easy profits, there’d be less incentive for cartels to pursue horrific violence.  I don’t think I’m being overly Panglossian in assuming that more people are murderously greedy than sadistic.

I’d like to end this post with one more quotation from Grillo’s book.  This passage comes from a conversation he had with a dude who grew up in the U.S., was deported over a domestic violence charge, started working for a cartel, then left the cartel to join the vigilantes when it seemed clear that they were winning.

          “I flipped.  I had no choice.  Now I’m scared the Knights Templar [violent trafficking organization led by that dude with the Jesus complex] are going to kill this whole fucking town for turning against them.”

          However, Manuel hasn’t done too badly out of the uprising.  He has a brand-new truck that he “decommissioned” from a Knights Templar boss who fled town.  “It’s mine now,” says Manuel, who stands a head taller than his dozen comrades in the trench.

          Still, Manuel says he dreams of escaping Michoacan to return to the United States and his former life.  He wonders why I, as a Brit, would want to spend any time here.

          “I’d love to get out of here and go home.  Why would anyone choose to live in a place like this?”

Of course, Grillo doesn’t provide an answer.  That’s not his style.  But, because I’m grateful for the existence of his book, I’d like to hazard a guess.  Grillo chooses to live there because the War on Drugs in the U.S. and Britain causes huge numbers of people to be silently, senselessly murdered.  Without the efforts of courageous journalists like Grillo, those victims would have no voice.

On Boyhood (the film), specifically the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.

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Image by Jennifer Gensch on Flickr.

One quick remark before I launch into this essay: I typically type these while N is playing at the YMCA, so I had to take several screenshots of the film before coming here so I could consult them alongside my other notes.  But Apple’s built-in screencapture won’t function if the DVD player is open; I’d never realized.  I wasn’t pleased.  To me, this is analogous to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals with aversive agents.  Doing extra work to intentionally reduce the functionality of a product, in the absence of any safety rationale, seems like a waste of time at best.

Sure, pharmaceutical abuse is a huge problem in the U.S.  But I don’t think that adulterating painkillers with compounds that can cause suffering is the right solution.  If we as a people decided to spend more money on psychiatric interventions, then great!  But spending money to add poisons to medicine, in ways that might harm legitimate users, is pretty crummy.

Apple’s attempt to prevent copyright violation is obviously much less bad.  Nobody’s going to become physically ill.  Just, like me, mildly frustrated.

Luckily the proscription was easy to evade: there’s a brief guide on the website “High School Blows”  that explains how to work around this.  And, right, that is why I wanted to type this preamble to today’s essay.  Because having an active verb that means “to be bad” is great!  I love the simplicity of sentences this offers.  Noun, verb.  Bam!  Two words and you’re done.  You’ve conveyed “The aforementioned thing is a rotten thing.”  And, better yet, you’ve also done it in a way that, linguistically, reveals a measure of political or ideological subversion.  I happily used the verbs “suck” and “blow” this way for years.

I don’t anymore, though.  Writing a book… well, no… it wasn’t until I was re-writing the book several times over… I had to think carefully about each word I was using.  I tried to learn a lot more etymology.  And I’m not keen on the idea of using a word that means, roughly, “is bad because it likely performs oral sex on men.”  The original etymology (circa 1970) was homophobic, and by now oral sex is sufficiently common amongst heterosexuals in the U.S. that you could reasonably interpret these verbs as having a misogynistic subtext as well.  So I no longer use them.

But I really want an action verb that means this!  My current fallback is to say “is rotten” in conversation whenever my mind proffers the verb “sucks,” but this is much less powerful.  If anybody out there has a good word for “is bad,” I’d love to hear it… my casual banter has been suffering for years now!

Okay.  That’s the end of my little diatribe.  Now on to your regularly-scheduled essay, a review of eleven seconds from Boyhood.

CaptureThere’s no dialogue in the segment of Boyhood that I’m planning to review.  To me, that’s a benefit — I felt that much of the film suffered from the fact that the dialogue was realistic to the point of banality.  There are some movies which, by watching them enough times, help you reach a point where you no longer need original thought in order to “converse” with people; you can instead rattle off movie quotes as they seem appropriate (Repo Man comes to mind here, along with several Monty Python movies, several Coen brothers movies).  But there are others, including several that have received very good reviews recently, wherein the dialogue never seems to rise above what a compulsive eavesdropper is likely to hear around town on any given day.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, for instance, had few scenes in which the dialogue felt crisp.  That’s part of why I couldn’t feel invested, especially because the film mainly seemed to convey braggadocio from the director to his audience as regards his manipulation of Adéle Exarchopoulos.  As though the director were saying, this is a human being, sure, but I can make her do whatever I want.  If he wanted another close-up of her eating in order to reinforce a message about her voracious appetites, bam!, he got it.  A close-up of her crying, snot-snerking face puffy and spasming?  Bam!  A voyeuristic scene of her naked frame grinding her pubic bone into an S4-symmetry-operated proxy of herself?  Bam!  And sparkling dialogue only during the scene in which the director refers to his own stand-in as a genius for attempting to depict female desire.

Or, earlier, there was The Dreamers, wherein the dialogue only shimmered when the American exchange student was remarking upon coincidences between the size of a cigarette lighter and the dinner table (which was a great scene, to be fair — “I mean, it really fits anywhere.  Look.  See?  I was noticing that the more you look at everything, this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes” — but I felt that the movie’s dialogue never again rose to those heights).

In Boyhood, the only time I felt the dialogue was even trying to be fancy was at the end, when the psilocin-modulated collegians have a brief conversation that reflects back on the nature of the project: “It’s constant, the moment, it’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

But even this stab at philosophy falls short of, say, the brief dialogue during the credits of Boxtrolls (which, right, that is a brilliant scene.  Definitely worth seventy seconds of your life).

In fact, most pieces of the film seem to have been done better elsewhere.  For the father figure providing relationship advice I’d substitute Roger Dodger, for the kid interacting with his mother I’d substitute Transamerica, for a lot of the suburban strife and feeling out of place while a seemingly-ordinary childhood drags on I’d substitute David Sedaris’s early memoirs.

The only uniquely memorable set of dialogue, to me, was the speech given by Ethan Hawke in which he admitted that, nope, our world has no elves, but we have other creatures that would sound equally magical and bizarre if not for the fact that we know they exist.  That seemed like pretty good fathering and was a catchy set of lines.

And, sure, it was a very cool special effect to have a single actor play this role as the character ages over a decade, but a lot of the press I read about the film lauded it much more than other films with cool special effects.  In a way, that makes me think of the Matrix movies.  All three of them had cool effects, but I doubt many people ever re-watch the latter two: the cool effects are all those two movies have going for them.  Whereas the first actually has a soul beneath its shiny exterior.

With Boyhood, most of the film doesn’t seem impressive if you take away the special effect.

In fact, my favorite review of the movie as a whole was given to me by a running buddy: “While I was watching it, I kept thinking there was about to be a car accident.  But the accident never came.”  Even though he’d told me that, I too kept expecting a car accident; all those portentous remarks about seatbelts!  And drivers were rarely sober.

Immediately after I finished the film, I sent an email back to him: “Maybe the car wreck happens after the credits, when they’re driving back to campus.”  From the dialogue, it didn’t seem as though they had a sitter; maybe you’d argue that the woman sitting next to the protagonist at the end was not on psilocin because her eyes weren’t dilated, but the protagonist’s weren’t either for that scene.  Doesn’t seem like they loaded up an eyedropper with scopolamine for the verisimilitude.

Still, I was thrilled to be watching the movie for the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.  Those are great.  And, you know, maybe that’s enough.  Like, the first time I read Jack Kerouack’s On the Road I spent most of the book thinking it was nothing special… and then I reached this passage:

I was getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Denver Doll called me one night and said, “Well, Sal, guess who’s coming to Denver?”  I had no idea.  “He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine.  Dean bought a car and is coming out to join you.”  Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the West.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.  There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car.  Everything was up, the jig and all.  Behind him charred ruins smoked.  He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive.  We made hasty preparations for Dean.  News was that he was going to drive me to Mexico.

“Do you think he’ll let me come along?” asked Stan in awe.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said grimly.  We didn’t know what to expect.  “Where will he sleep?  What’s he going to eat?  Are there any girls for him?”  It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.

That last sentence is so incandescently beautiful that I forgave all the excesses that had come prior to it in the book: this beautiful sentence needed the book’s shambling heft to exist.  Without context it looses some of their power; I’m not even sure that passage will seem appropriately beautiful when slapped up on a website like this.  Likewise, it’s possible that the eleven seconds I loved of Boyhood could not have existed without the rest of the movie.

At this point in the film, the protagonist is driving across Texas to attend college: despite anything you may have read about the infantilization of modern college students, this marks his transition from boyhood into adulthood.  The song “Hero” by Family of the Year is playing.  Seems like an excellent choice of music; especially the line “…holding down a job to keep my girl around and maybe buy me some new strings…” just before he opens the passenger side door to his truck in order to retrieve his camera.  Indeed, it’s a scuffless Canon EOS in stark contrast to the battered Toyota he’s driving.  I think the combination of hearing that line and seeing his camera reveals a lot about the kid’s: like the singer, he’s been working in order to afford the tools needed to pursue his art.

In fact, this scene does more to reveal his personality than the vast bulk of the movie.  Lots of kids drink beers when their friends are drinking, lots of people rant about the way modern technology exploits evolutionary quirks of our brains, lots of people (unfortunately) are put in a position of rebelling against too-strict father figures while failing to make a real connection with a yearned-for, insufficiently-strict biological father.  But this scene displays a measure of loneliness and solitude in his pursuit of art, and it changes the way a viewer interprets his earlier dark room conversation when he claimed that he often spent whole weekends out shooting pictures.  This scene lends that statement credibility, and demonstrates what those weekends might have been like.

I do wish, if the kid was meant to be shown developing into an artist, that we’d more often seen him viewing photographs, rather than taking them.  To the best of my recollection, the only photographs taken by other people that he looks at are lingerie advertisements when he’s six, online pornography when he’s nine or ten, and then a picture of a cute pig on Facebook when he’s seventeen.  I think it sends a bad message about what the process of making art is like to exclusively show him producing art, never viewing it.  In my own life, I’d bet that I spend some seventy percent of my work time reading, at least two-fold more time than I spent writing.  And, sure, it’s unrealistic to expect a bildungsroman to serve as an instructional guide, but I still dream (I should probably be using the word bildungsfilm here instead, but to my anglicized ears that sounds less cool).

The protagonist begins his photography session by taking a picture of a perfectly boring rusted lamp, but by the time Family of the Year are singing about “secrets from our American dreams” he has moved on to a loftier goal: snapping a picture of the fire hydrant standing outside the Roadrunner Deli.

dvd 2.34.20This hydrant is red, with a chipping coat of paint and some yellow flecks vaguely reminiscent of scattered pollen covering its domed bonnet.  It’s a dry barrel hydrant, which surprised me; although I’ve never been to Texas, the impression I have is that the place is hot enough that it would freeze rarely, if at all.  The barrel itself is also much more slender than the squat, round hydrants present in most of the urban and suburban places I’ve lived.  I’m not sure if that is in any way related to the potential flow-rate of the hydrant; to the best of my knowledge, a solid-red hydrant with a coat of paint as old as this one’s appears to be does not indicate a sub-500 gallon per minute flow rate.  Modern hydrants, especially in more populated areas, generally have a bonnet color that doesn’t match the rest of the hydrant and signifies the water pressure it has access to.

And then, after Family of the Year portentously sings “baby needs some protection,” we see the image of the hydrant from the protagonist’s perspective.  It’s a fine image: the hydrant is posed at a jaunty angle in the center of the frame, as though it were ready to stroll forward along the path between scruffy cacti and desiccated tree stump.  The outlet cap is facing the viewer at an angle, the lower standpipe juts up out of the ground, the chain dangles down out of the viewer’s sight.  Its surroundings also give a sense of the loneliness of this place, although fire hydrant photographs can be deceptive that way: because most people capture hydrants in close-ups, they often appear removed from the bustle of life.

Then he leaves, off to college, and we next see him pulling into the parking lot of his dorm.  Walks through the hallway, the song fades into humming, ambient noise of incipient freshman gabbing rises and takes over the audio.

So, really, it’s only the eleven seconds when he was actively photographing a fire hydrant that filled me with joy.  But I think it’s fair to ask, is that enough?  Does one beautiful passage justify a book?  One beautiful scene justify an entire movie?

I don’t know.

Here, a treat!  A couple more hydrant photos!