Mexico-based journalist profiles criminal organizations and their leaders in Latin America

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  • March 13, 2016

By Giovana Sanchez

While covering organized crime in Latin America, Mexico-based British journalist Ioan Grillo identified parallels in the mode of operation of the largest criminal organizations in the region – whether in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City or Kingston, Jamaica.

“They are complex, postmodern networks that mix gangs, mafias, death squads, religious cults and urban guerrillas,” Grillo wrote in his new book “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America,” recently released in the United States.

To try to understand these "hybrid" organizations, Grillo infiltrated four crime families: Comando Vermelho in Brazil, Shower Posse in Jamaica, Mara Salvatrucha in Central America and the Knights Templar in Mexico.

The result is a book that gives a regional understanding of the matter that affects many Latin American countries.

Grillo visited the University of Texas at Austin on April 13 to talk with students about his newest book. He was hosted by LLILAS Benson, the Latin American Studies and Collections at the university.

"You have people who are very specialized in Mexico or in Rio de Janeiro or Jamaica.” Grillo said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “And you see all these common links between organized crime [in these regions]."

This is Grillo's second book – the first, "El Narco," addressed the rise of Mexican cartels in the 2000s.

The journalist said that during the writing of the most recent book he was threatened and went through difficult situations.

"The fact of going and leaving places is obviously an advantage. A lot of times journalists who are targeted in Latin America by organized crime [...] it's something that is accumulative. They get on the radar of people, become a target," he said. "So when you go somewhere and there is a bad situation and you leave it helps. [...] I have had various threats over the years, some worse than others, one I had during the time I was writing the book in Michoacán, when a guy accused me of being a DA agent and said if he saw me again he would shoot me."

Grillo sees the issue of violence linked to drug trafficking as one of the main problems in Latin America - and that journalism has been very successful in reporting and informing what happens, despite the constant threats and violence suffered by reporters.

"There have been many great journalists covering organized crime right across Latin America and the Caribbean. Fantastic journalists,” Grillo said. “I think one of the successes of Latin America in the past 20 years has been journalism. If we look at the attempts in Latin America to build democracies – and the failure of politicians in many senses – I think journalism overall is a successful story. It’s been good stories of journalists informing people, taking risks, many in quite heroic circumstances."

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.