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Festival of Books: The drug trade

April 21, 2012 |  4:31 pm

Last year, 22,000 people died in Mexican drug wars. "Very little attention has been given to this daily killing in Mexico. Beheadings, mass burials, and bodies boiled in vats of acid are no longer headlines," said Los Angeles Times editor Davan Maharaj, moderator of the L.A. Times Festival of Books panel "South of the Border: The Drug Trade." But in their books, the three authors on the panel are telling those stories -- and explaining the complex economic and political factors behind them.

Ioan Grillo, author of "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," explained that since 2008, violence has escalated dramatically. "You have certain flash points around the country," he said. "Alongside it a power coming from these armed groups; criminal cartels ... are the only people offering job opportunities." What's more, "a lot of journalists are not going into those places, so they're becoming black holes of information."

Charles Bowden, author of "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields," talked about how the city of Juarez, which has been a locus of violence, has seen its business and citizens empty out. "It doesn't take a lot to terrorize most people," he said, adding: "Narcos are moving to El Paso -- they move there and they commute [to Juarez] to murder."

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

Bowden and Grillo are journalists who have spent much time in Mexico covering these stories. A slightly different point of view came from Hipolito Acosta, a retired Immigration and Naturalization Service officer -- the most decorated officer in the history of INS, in fact. "Criminals know no boundaries," he said; rather, boundaries were his business. His book is "The Shadow Catcher."

The panel focused on presenting the issues as they understand them -- and occasionally making jokes. "Juarez is becoming an entire city that's based on crime," said Bowden, detailing a number of the city's problems. "I'll say one more thing, then go back to drinking water," he rumbled, looking at the bottle in his hand. "Didn't have any vodka." The audience laughed.

All agreed the issue with violence isn't the volume but rather the population it reaches. "You have to kill Americans -- that's the  only thing we care about," Bowden said. In Mexico, Grillo said, "Everyone's so freaked out because they're terrorizing the rich and the middle class."

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

After the discussion, most audience questions focused on whether legalizing drugs in the United States might undermine the economic rewards of criminal drug cartels in Mexico and farther south. Bowden, a liberal, said, "I'm in favor of legalizing drugs. But it won't end the violence." Acosta drew a rosy, somewhat ridiculous picture of criminals changing over to orderly legal franchise arrangements, eliciting laughter. "It's not not going to happen," he said grimly.

Grillo added a bit of perspective. "Al Capone's largest massacre was of seven people"; a Mexican cartel massacred 72 people in one day.

None of the authors saw an obvious way forward, but one thing was clear: Paying attention to these stories is probably a good first step.

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Photo: The scene of a killing in Juarez, Mexico, in 2009, one of six that day in the city. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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