On 11 December 2006, barely a week after his inauguration as Mexican President, Felipe Calderón sent 7,000 troops and police to the western state of Michoacán to destroy marijuana plantations and search out traffickers. This was the first deployment of a ‘war on drugs’ that soon escalated dramatically: within two months, a total of 30,000 security personnel had been sent into 8 of the country’s 32 states, mostly in the north of the country. Four years later, Calderón’s war can only be classed as a murderous catastrophe: a staggering 40,000 people have died, over 6,000 of them in the first half of 2011 alone—equivalent to a casualty rate of more than 30 a day—and yet the flow of drugs and weapons continues unabated, and the tide of killings, kidnappings and extortion has spread still further.

While the overall statistics are shocking enough, it is perhaps the relentless succession of one horror after another that has the most numbing effect. How to make sense of such incidents as the discovery this spring of as many as 360 bodies in mass graves in Tamaulipas and Durango, or the mutilated corpses that have on several occasions been left hanging from bridges or dumped by roadsides, accompanied by banners bearing messages from the killers to the authorities? Narco-violence has long been present in Mexico, but only began to reach its present pathological levels in 2008, a year after Calderón’s offensive, when the number of drug-related homicides suddenly doubled. Since then, it has often seemed to defy analysis because it has become so much a part of Mexican reality, pervading the language and the culture. From newsstands to detective novels, from the airwaves to the internet, it is a source of fear and anger, or even in some cases of celebration: there are numerous songs—dubbed narcocorridos—narrating the deeds of capos and assassins as if they were folk heroes on a par with Villa or Zapata.

The Mexican drug war has also spawned a growing literature attempting to describe the ongoing disaster. Both within the country and outside it, journalistic accounts tend to dominate. These vary in quality: some are superficial and sensationalist—Malcolm Beith’s The Last Narco (2010) is perhaps the leading offender—while others are infused with a self-regarding lyricism, as with Charles Bowden’s numerous books on Ciudad Juárez (‘fear has been my pale rider’, he writes in Murder City, 2010). There is also some decent reportage. In English, Ed Vulliamy’s Amexica (2010) focuses principally on the border zone. In Spanish, reporters such as Héctor de Mauleón (Marca de sangre, 2010), Julio Scherer García (Historias de muerte y corrupción, 2011) and others have investigated closely key figures and developments of the last decade or so; while El México narco (2009), collecting articles by the staff of Proceso magazine, gives a state-by-state portrait of the disorders currently gripping the country. But most of these writers have tended to hew close to the surface of events, the better to outline the complex web of alliances and betrayals between the various cartels. Circumstantial description has generally stood in for analysis of the deeper structures that gave birth to the drug trade in Mexico and made possible its expansion. Above all, though the existing narco-literature occasionally mentions corruption, it mostly appears as a secondary detail rather than a systemic, enabling factor. Many of the books currently available on the subject shy away from scrutinizing, let alone attacking, the politicians, policemen, bankers and ‘legitimate’ businessmen who made the rise of the narcos possible.

Anabel Hernández’s Los señores del narco is all the more striking against this backdrop. Its author is one of Mexico’s best-known investigative journalists. Born in 1972 in Mexico City, Hernández began her career as a reporter in 1993 for the recently established liberal paper La Reforma. Since the mid-90s she has written for two other mainstream dailies—Milenio and El Universal—before switching, in 2006, to the new online outlet Reporte Índigo. She gained national prominence in 2001 with her exposure of pharaonic spending on housekeeping at the presidential palace, Los Pinos; the scandal was dubbed ‘Towelgate’, and brought the downfall of several presidential staff. Her three previous books to date—La familia presidencial (2005), Fin de fiesta en Los Pinos (2006) and Los cómplices del presidente (2008)—have also focused on corruption at the summit of power, under both Fox and Calderón.

The product of five years of investigative work, Los señores del narco has a much broader focus, covering not just Calderón’s war but its long pre-history. Throughout, Hernández stresses the complicity of the authorities and the country’s business elite. Her title sums up her key argument: Mexico’s drug lords ‘would not have got very far without the connivance of businessmen, politicians and policemen, those people who every day exercise power from within a false halo of legality . . . They are all the lords of the narco.’ At every turn, Hernández names names—not just the narcos and their immediate accomplices, but also the politicians, policemen, functionaries, judges and entrepreneurs who have collaborated with them. The book is copiously documented and carefully sourced; the text includes reproductions of pages from official files of both the Mexican and us authorities, along with witness statements of many key informants. The sheer accumulation of detail, combined with a switch-back chronology, can at times be bewildering; scandalously, the publishers, an imprint of Random House Mondadori, have not seen fit to equip the book with an index, even after seven printings.

Los señores del narco has certainly made an impression in Mexico, selling over 50,000 copies. More ominously, its author has apparently received death threats—issued, she claims, by Genaro García Luna, Calderón’s Secretary of Public Security and leading official in the drug war. Now in his mid-40s, he has spent most of his career within the country’s intelligence service, cisen; in the book he is described as deeply complicit with the Sinaloa cartel. According to Hernández, the entire drug war is a sham, a militarized smokescreen behind which the government is steadily advancing the interests of one cartel at the expense of the others. The picture the book presents, then, is still bleaker than that suggested by the raw statistics: the drug war is not simply a futile bloodbath, it is a colossally cynical deception.

Over a century ago, the dictator Porfirio Díaz famously exclaimed: ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States.’ The phrase is especially apt in the realm of drugs, since it is massive us consumption that has made Mexico such important and valuable territory—above all the region near its 2000-mile-long northern frontier. Border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, symbiotically linked to their counterparts on the American side—San Diego, El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville—have long been the conduits for contraband of various kinds. These crossing-points are the most crucial plazas, or territories, of the drug trade. But in many ways the matrix of the narcos lies a little further south, in a sparsely populated, mountainous zone spanning the three states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. It was here that, in the 19th century, Mexican farmers began to cultivate opium poppies brought in from China; by the mid-20th, much of the local peasantry had begun to farm the poppies and marijuana alongside the meagre crops from which they just about fed themselves. In Mexico as elsewhere in the world, drug production and rural poverty are deeply intertwined. It is from this harsh rural milieu that most of today’s drug lords emerged: first working in the fields as children—there were no schools for miles around—then accompanying their fathers to market, before eventually joining the trade higher up the value chain. Hernández notes that in the western Sierra Madre, the situation has changed little since the youth of the present-day narcos.