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Review: Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole

July 21, 2014
Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

I’ve just got around to reading Down the Rabbit Hole, the semi-surrealist debut novella by Tapatio author Juan Pablo Villalobos. This charming but slightly disturbing short story is narrated by the precocious young son of a Mexican drug lord who is desperate to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

The title is an obvious nod to Alice and Wonderland and the protagonist, Tochtli, is clearly as lonely and bored as Alice was, only his “wonderland” is a remote palace in the realist but still quite surreal context of Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Tochtli, who only knows “about 13 or 14 people” – plus another 10 or so dead people, but they don’t count, he says – lives with his paranoid father and is homeschooled by his minders. The tragicomic novella details his quaint obsession with hats, the French, samurai warriors and that elusive Liberian pygmy hippopotamus of his dreams, while also throwing in dark references to Mexico’s machismo culture and the nightmarish world of the drug war.

Combining elements of magic realism and narco-literature, Villalobos presents the world through an observant but naive set of eyes and illustrates the psychological damage that is being heaped not only on the narrator, but on an entire country that is becoming desensitized to violence. However, most of the gory or serious moments (aside from one great tragedy that comes late in the book) are offset by humor, as young Tochtli frequently misses the point to great comic effect.

“Mexico is a disastrous country,” he proclaims amid widespread reports of beheadings and mutilations. “It’s such a disastrous country that you can’t get hold of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Actually, that’s what you call being a third-world country.” (On a side note, Down the Rabbit Hole also supports my personal belief that pozole, a popular Mexican soup, is “ridiculous,” as Tochtli puts it, “because it’s got cooked lettuce in it … Lettuce is for salads and sandwiches.”)

The first book by Villalobos – who was born in Guadalajara and later moved to Barcelona and then Brazil – Down the Rabbit Hole was released in 2011 and became an instant critical success. It was nominated for The Guardian’s First Book Award and has been translated from Spanish into English, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Romanian. If you’re into Latin American literature it is well worth picking up a copy.

Guest post: What is behind Mexico’s low conviction rate?

July 15, 2014

The early release of Guadalajara Cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero last year highlighted the weakness of Mexico’s criminal justice system.

And now for something completely different: a guest post by freelance writer and legal expert Daphne Holmes.

Mexico continues to make daily headlines due to the rising violence and social unrest present in the country. Drug cartels rule certain regions with an iron fist, leading to corruption, extortion and over-the-top violence tied to drug trafficking. And the lucrative trade targets U.S. markets, so border issues continue to simmer as many Mexicans take flight to the United States to avoid the most dangerous border territories.

At the same time, Mexico is emerging as an economic force in North America, having partnered with the United States and Canada in a bid to further prosperity in the region. With competitive wage structures and growing production capabilities, Mexico is well-positioned for growth in manufacturing and other economic sectors.  Unfortunately, lingering social mismanagement stands in the way of progress, including Mexico’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

Historically characterized by corruption and tainted leadership, Mexico’s law enforcement agencies and justice system continue to deliver incredibly low conviction rates, when compared to other systems found across the globe.

During the past few decades, the Mexican economy has undergone major transformation, including the privatization of many former state-owned resources under former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. His reforms limited state involvement in industries the government once controlled, like mining, communications and banking. Shedding public jobs and empowering trade through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has bolstered the state’s middle class, yet longstanding obstacles continue to thwart progress.

Corruption and organized crime run rampant across Mexican society, flourishing in a country known for low conviction rates for criminals. And while progressive social change bodes well for its citizens, Mexico is among the worst performers in the world when it comes to providing security and justice for its residents.  During Felipe Calderon’s term, for example, Mexico’s war on drugs claimed about 80,000 casualties, with thousands of citizens also reported missing during the same period.

Mexican cartels dominate drug trafficking from South America to the United States, cashing in on an industry that gives them almost unlimited power within Mexico. Aside from drug trafficking, the cartels also engage in smuggling of black-market goods, extortion, prostitution and kidnapping for ransom.  The widespread influence of the competing cartels and the violent acts they commit make offenders hard to prosecute. Their deep pockets enable them to bribe officials at every level of government and justice, and they are not afraid to kill those attempting to hold them accountable.

Some estimates calculate the number of murder convictions at around 20 percent, while various sources identify overall criminal convictions between two and ten percent of those charged with crimes.  As a result, profiting from criminal enterprise carries very little risk of incarceration – even for those who are caught red-handed.

Even if the optimistic numbers put-forth by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) are correct, placing the number of convictions for drug crimes at closer to 30%, it is still a stark contrast to U.S. justice, which convicts 90% of drug offenders.

In addition to corruption and other obstacles to effective prosecution in Mexico, only a relatively small number of crimes are even reported, further eroding the statistical efficacy of the state’s broken justice system.

A sweeping reform of Mexico’s judicial system was passed by the legislature in 2008 and continues to be implemented across the country. As a result of the changes to judicial process and prosecutorial methods, some regions report greater efficiency within the system (editor’s note: on the other hand, states such as Jalisco lag way behind schedule and in certain parts of the country criminals have found it easier to escape justice because prosecutors are insufficiently prepared for the new legal standards), which can only help increase the number of criminals held accountable for their misdeeds. Increased extradition to the United States for high-profile offenders is another approach proving effective for punishing criminals.

Low conviction rates in Mexico are symptomatic of a justice system ill-equipped to handle the influx of criminals in the country. In addition to ineffective justice infrastructure, law enforcement and judicial personnel are highly corrupt and easily influenced by bribes and intimidation. To make matters worse, the small percentage of crimes reported in Mexico further empowers criminal enterprises to conduct illicit business with impunity.

Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from and you can reach her at

Mexican cartels building drones to traffic drugs into the US

July 10, 2014
Mexican drug cartels have been using drones to traffic drugs since 2010.

Mexican drug cartels have been using drones to traffic drugs since 2010.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has been operating unnamed aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Mexican territory for years, but now the tables have turned. A slew of recent reports confirm that Mexican drug cartels have begun manufacturing their own drones to smuggle narcotics across the border into the United States.

Mexico’s mega-rich drug trafficking organizations are constantly devising innovative means of outfoxing CBP agents to ensure that their illicit products reach the lucrative market north of the Rio Grande. Shipments are no longer simply hidden in vehicles, flown by light aircraft or ferried via speedboat; they are also fired over the border by customized cannons and shipped in clandestine, custom-built submarines.

One of the most inventive traffickers in recent memory was Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Federation kingpin who was arrested in February. Guzman devised the first sophisticated tunnels that ran beneath the border in the early 1990s; he shipped drugs via Fedex, stuffed cocaine inside bananas and cucumbers and in cans of jalapeños, and even used catapults to fling bales of marijuana over the border.

Mexico’s most dominant cartel, the Sinaloa Federation has always been quick to grasp the potential of new technology and it has now begun to replace traditional drug “mules” – as those who make the border crossings are known – with a low-risk automated alternative: drones.

Drug traffickers are known to have used foreign-built drones since at least 2010, when Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat (SSP) first acknowledged criminal use of ultra-lightweight UAVs to smuggle cocaine into the United States. SSP Undersecretary Francisco Gonzalez said that the planes weighed about 100 pounds and each could transport 100 kilograms of cocaine per trip. Purchased in Colombia for $1,700, each kilo of cocaine would be worth $8,000 in Mexico and could sell for $30,000 in the United States, Gonzalez explained, meaning that traffickers could earn $2 million for every successful voyage.

The frequency of ultra-lightweight drone voyages began to increase in 2011, with most flights occurring at night into central Arizona, Mexican newspaper El Universal reported, citing the U.S. National Guard. Upon landing and being relieved of their cargo, these ultra-lightweight drones were abandoned, a writer using the pseudonym Juan Doe noted in his Drugs, Guns and Politics in Mexico blog last year, although El Universal suggested that they would often drop off shipments without actually landing.

Since 2012, U.S. law enforcement agencies have reportedly recovered around 150 drones laden with two tons of cocaine and other narcotics, but until the end of last year the cartels were always believed to have used Israeli-built drones that they had imported into Mexico. However, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sources have now confirmed that cartels have been building larger, more robust drones capable of transporting heavier loads since at least the start of this year, El Universal reported.

“Cartels are adaptive in their use of technology. And drones are a technology becoming more and more available,” Peter Singer, a UAV security and intelligence expert at the Brookings Institute, told Vice last month. “They will match new means to their old ends. The key questions for them as to whether they use drones more and more will be how they allow the cartel to evade surveillance or capture, and lower costs compared to traditional methods.”

'Narco submarines' are one of many methods of transportation that drug cartels have devised.

‘Narco submarines’ are one of many methods of transportation that drug cartels have devised.

Doe claimed that a drug trafficker told him that the drones were being produced at aircraft assembly plants in Mexico City’s upmarket Santa Fe district and near Queretaro’s Bombardier factory. El Universal then confirmed that Mexican and the U.S. authorities have information that cartels are manufacturing drones in both those cities and in Guadalajara and the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

Working from U.S., European and Israeli designs, Mexican aeronautical engineers are reportedly being paid two or three times their usual salaries to develop drones that meet the cartels’ needs. The drones must have fold-up wings so that they can be recovered quickly and easily transported in trucks, Doe noted. Compared to the ultra-lightweight UAVs, he explained that the “narcodrones” – as they have become known – are less easily swayed by weather and require less remote piloting as they can accurately deliver cargo using GPS technology.

Utilizing drones offers cartels several obvious advantages. It eliminates the risk of cartel operatives being arrested and imprisoned, and reduces the number of face-to-face exchanges in the entire trafficking process. This limits the information that any trafficker could provide authorities if captured, interrogated or persuaded to turn informant. Unlike the ultra-lightweight UAVs, the customized drones are also designed for repeated use and can be utilized to fly cash back from the United States and into the traffickers’ hands.

Homemade drones are also more cost-effective than building submarines to traffic drugs. Citing his cartel source, Doe said drones are “a lot easier and less expensive than running a drug submarine – but the submarines carry a much more substantial narcotics load than the drones do. However, you can build and operate two dozen drone aircraft for the price of one submarine.”

This means traffickers could send decoy drones or deploy entire fleets of drones at once, making it almost impossible for U.S. law enforcement agents to prevent all of the shipments from coming through.

Postcards from home: Mexico in the UK

July 7, 2014

Mexican jazz fusion band Troker performing at Glastonbury Festival for the second consecutive year.

Apologies for the recent radio silence. I spent the last two weeks in England, hence the lack of updates. I’m now back in Guadalajara so normal service will be resumed shortly once the World Cup is over.

While I was at home I attended Glastonbury Festival, the world’s greatest live music event. Among my personal highlights were Friday-night headliners The Arcade Fire, Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, Bristol-based trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack and reggae legends The Wailers.

I also watched Mexican jazz fusion band Troker perform at the festival for the second consecutive year. The band from Guadalajara drew a larger crowd than last year as they showcased tunes from their brand new album Crimen Sonoro. After their gig on the West Holts Stage, trumpet player Gil Cervantes and saxophonist Arturo “Tiburon” Santillanes also joined London’s sample-proficient duo Public Service Broadcasting for their live set.

Once Glastonbury was over I happened to stumble across a Zapatista mural on the streets of Brighton. The mural was of iconic pipe-smoker Subcomandante Marcos, who appeared to step down as spokesperson for the Zapatista movement earlier this summer.


Mural of Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos in Brighton, England.

While street art dedicated to indigenous Mexican rebels may seem incongruous in a southern English seaside town, it is not entirely surprising given that Brighton is arguably the most liberal city in the country. The UK’s gay capital, it is also the only constituency represented in Parliament by the Green Party. The Zapatistas have long enjoyed support from certain pockets of Europe and Brighton is probably foremost of all the places in England where people might sympathize with their movement.

Mexico’s fatal public transport flaws

June 18, 2014
Passengers in Guadalajara complain of high prices, poor service and unsafe conditions.

Passengers in Guadalajara complain of high prices, poor service and unsafe conditions.

With almost half the population living in poverty, public buses are the only viable means of transport for many Mexicans. But serious concerns have arisen over the safety, quality and cost of public transport in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city, where bus drivers complain of exploitation and the number of bus-related deaths is alarmingly high.

Twenty-five people were killed in accidents involving public transport in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state, from January through May 2014.

There are no national records, but the Jalisco Attorney General’s Office says that from 2007 to 2013 there were 317 fatalities involving public transport in Guadalajara alone. Of the 224 bus drivers charged with causing these deaths, 82 were convicted.

“It’s a very grave problem,” Oscar Mora Esquivias, legal director of public transport in Jalisco, told Al Jazeera. “Public transport was not necessarily responsible” for every fatality, Mora stressed, but he admitted that most of Guadalajara’s 5,300 buses are dated and do not meet international standards…   Click here to read this feature in full over at Al Jazeera.

Mexican jazz-rock combo Troker return to the UK

June 17, 2014
Troker performing at Guadalajara's Barramericano.

Troker performing at Guadalajara’s Barramericano last week.

A year on from making their triumphant Glastonbury Festival debut, Mexican jazz fusion band Troker return to the United Kingdom this week to showcase their eclectic and infectious new album, Crimen Sonoro.

A decade into their career, this six-piece band from Guadalajara have just enjoyed their most successful year to date, despite still refusing to sign a formal contract with any record label. After playing three gigs at Glastonbury last year they embarked on their first ever European tour and then went on to perform at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March.

While many Latino bands are confined to success in Spanish-speaking countries, Troker’s heady mix of free jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop and mariachi music is entirely instrumental, meaning there is no language barrier for foreign audiences to overcome.

With immediately infectious tunes and an energetic live show, Troker proved the perfect act for Glastonbury’s fourth biggest venue, the West Holts Stage, which typically hosts a diverse mix of hip-hop, jazz, reggae, dub, soul and world music artists. Such was the impact of their midday debut performance in 2013 that the West Holts promoters quickly broke protocol by inviting them to return for a second consecutive year.

This time around the band will benefit from being given an hour-long, mid-afternoon set that will be broadcast by the BBC. They also have ten new tracks to draw on from their third full-length album, Crimen Sonoro, which the band describes as “our best work to date”.

Before disembarking on their imminent “Tequila Groove” European tour – which will also see the band play in London, Bristol, France, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia – Troker debuted some of their new material before a dozen or so journalists at Barramericano, a small live venue in Guadalajara.

“We really focused on creating songs that would sound good live and complement our older material. They’re songs with a lot of energy,” said bassist Samo Gonzalez. “There are a lot of Mexican touches, you’ll hear mariachi trumpets, but that’s just something that came out naturally in the music because of our roots.”

Spanish for “Sound Crime,” Crimen Sonoro embraces a harder, darker sound that its 2010 predecessor El Rey del Camino. This, the band and those around them feel, is the record that they have been working towards for 10 years.

“Troker have achieved what they’ve always wanted: to sound like Troker. Now jazz, rock, funk, psychedelia and even kitsch are all living and partying together in a full, exotic mansion thanks to the magic of these six musicians,” says producer Gerry Rosado of the new record. On top of all those influences, the band said they even drew additional inspiration from dubstep after being exposed to the genre on their first visit to the UK.


Troker made their Glastonbury Festival debut on the West Holts Stage in 2013.

There has always been a strong visual element to Troker’s work and this album is effectively a soundtrack for a forthcoming graphic novel of the same name, with each song representing a different chapter. The key themes? “Love, heartbreak, murder and revenge,” Gonzalez said. “We’re really happy with the artwork, the production and the sound of the record,” he added.

Anyone who saw the band during last year’s brief UK tour may recognise the lead single Principe Charro, which combines a hip-hop groove with screaming horns and wild mariachi flourishes. Other highlights include Femme Fatal – think a funked up version of a classic film noire score – and the sublime Arsenic Lips, which flirts openly with ’90s G-funk and retro ’80s synths that sound straight out of the Scarface soundtrack.

Claroscuro is another treat, with its military drums and DJ Shadow-esque textures, while second single Tequila Death succeeds in distilling virtually all of Troker’s divergent influences into one spicy Mexican cocktail. After riding in on a muscular Queens of the Stone Age-like bassline, the track waltzes through fierce guitar licks, a stunning sax-versus-trumpet faceoff and some accomplished scratching by DJ Zero. At this point live performances see four sixths of the band take up the percussion, while the DJ and bass player lay down a heavy hip-hop instrumental.

Crimen Sonoro is available now on iTunes, but to experience these tunes at their fullest it is well worth catching Troker at their best this summer: live on stage.

Troker’s Tequila Groove Tour

20th JunePaper Dress Vintage, Shoreditch, London

22nd June – The Windmill, London

26th June – The Canteen, Bristol

27th June – West Holts Stage, Glastonbury Festival

1st July – Jazz Fest Wien, Vienna, Austria

2nd July – Lent Festival, Maribor, Slovenia

4th July – Estival Jazz, Lugano, Switzerland

6th July – Arges Summer Concert Series, Arges, France

For more information follow @TrokerOfficial or like Troker on Facebook.

Infographic: How big is the drug trade?

June 11, 2014

The good people at Top Criminal Justice Schools have sent me another infographic, this time illustrating the size of the illegal drug trade. Some of the figures are truly staggering.

Drug Trade



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