BOOK REVIEW: Cocaine Coast by Nacho Carretero

Cocaine Coast: A Luis Bustos Graphic NovelCocaine Coast: A Luis Bustos Graphic Novel by Nacho Carretero


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Out: September 28, 2021

This is a graphic novelization of a journalistic account of smuggling in Galicia, a jagged coastal region of rocky inlets to the north of Portugal. This region’s entrance into smuggling began not with illicit drugs, but rather with cigarettes that were bootlegged to evade taxation. However, it wasn’t long before it was discovered that this supply chain could be exploited for illegal drugs, notably Columbian cocaine. The Columbian cartels would become a major player in the region and Galicia would become the single biggest entry point for cocaine into Europe.

This mix of graphic novel and journalism is a bit strange, but it does have its advantages. For example, maps and drawings of the coast offer a sense of how geography played into smuggling operations. The art combines a gritty style optimal to the narco- world, but with some beautiful layouts. And, the art does a good job of conveying the changing time periods, as this book covers decades of activity.

I found the book intriguing, with many insights into the hidden world of narcotics smuggling in a location that is famed for its natural beauty. There is a prose appendix that is also compelling. It discusses the response to the book (by criminals, police, and the general public, alike) and what impact that response had (and / or didn’t have) on smuggling in the region. If you’re curious about the business of narcotics trafficking, you’ll likely find this an interesting read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Taboos and Transgressions ed. by Luanne Smith, Kerry Neville, and Devi S. Laskar

Taboos and Transgressions: Stories of WrongdoingsTaboos and Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoings by Luanne Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This anthology collects twenty-four gritty stories of familial dysfunction, lives in poverty, and various forms of wrongdoing. While there is a common theme and all the stories are situated in a realist context, there is a rich variety among the stories. A few are sparse and obscure, but most fit within the usual page range and level of story development for magazine published short stories. But there is considerable diversity to the “wrongdoing” of the story, ranging from subjective peccadillos to outright felonies, with the protagonist sometimes being the perpetrator but other times being victims or witnesses. Most, if not all, of the anthologized stories have been previously published.

Among my personal favorites were: “The God Box” (Michael Gaspeny,) “The Tao of Good Families” (Soniah Kamal,) “I Still Like Pink” (Francine Rodriguez,) “She Sheds Her Skin” (Kyle Ingrid Johnson,) and “Goatmartie” (J.C. Sasser.) That said, your preferences may vary, and the most famous authors with included pieces are probably Kim Addonizio (“True Crime”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Gargoyle.”)

While the title might suggest erotica or even pornography, the included stories are literary fiction and, while some mention happenings that are properly taboo, few really revolve around those activities. There is some prostitution and unsubstantiated allegations of bestiality, but readers need not be concerned that there is anything sexually or violently graphic among the stories. (Certainly, no more than one would read in Philip Roth or Erica Jong.)

If you enjoy gritty, realist short stories, this collection offers a fine and diverse selection of such works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Narconomics by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug CartelNarconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Narconomics” is about how drug cartels are taking pages from the playbooks of big businesses like Walmart and Coca-cola. In cases like diversifying into new markets or deciding to collude with a competitor, this might not seem surprising. However, it may come as a shock to find out about the franchising and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practices of drug cartels. Other than being outside access to the justice system, and thus resorting to violence to achieve what contracts, mediators, and courts would do for other businesses, the drug business it turns out is very much a business.

 

Along the way a secondary story emerges that is just as interesting and even more important. It’s the story of how the drug war makes no sense from the standpoint of economic logic. Destroying fields in South America only makes for poorer farmers because their monopsonistic (i.e. single buyer) market pushes the cost of lost crops back onto them. And because raw product is such a tiny portion of retail price, their destruction has almost no effect on prices at the user end. Furthermore, as more US and European states legalize marijuana, it seems that this will have more of an effect at putting cartels out of business and ending their reign of violence than all the arms shipments and foreign aid for drug enforcement ever had.

 

The book consists of ten chapters, each of which addresses an area of business practices that have been taken up by the drug cartels. Chapter one is about supply chains, and in the case of cocaine there is a rather long one. The raw product is grown in South America and must be infiltrated into the US—usually through Mexico. (For a while there was a prominent Caribbean route, but it was shut down—at least for a while.) This is where we learn about how the cartels adapt to eradicated crops, as well as how the product is marked up at various stages of the operation.

 

Chapter 2 is about the decision to compete versus collude. We mostly read about the competition, because in a lawless market competition equals violence. However, over time cartels have been increasingly willing to agree on distribution of territory. Although, there are also clever means to compete unique to criminal enterprises, such as engaging in violence in someone else’s territory to cause the police to crack down there—thus making it harder for said opposition.

 

Chapter 3 is about human resources, and the different approaches used to handle problems in this domain. In the movies, a drug cartel employee who fouled up always gets a bullet to the brain, but it seems that this isn’t always the case—though it certainly happens. Different countries and regions have differing labor mobility. In some cases, there is no labor mobility. (i.e. if one has a gang’s symbols tattooed all over one’s body, one can’t interview with a rival gang and Aetna sure as hell isn’t going to hire you.)

 

Chapter 4 is about public relations and giving to the public. One doesn’t think about drug lords engaging in CSR, but in some cases they may be more consistent with it than mainstream businesses. The cartels face an ongoing risk of people informing on them, and at least some of those people can do so without their identities becoming known. Violence is often used to solve problems in this domain, but it can’t do it all. That’s why drug lords build churches and schools, and often become beloved in the process.

 

Chapter 5 explores “offshoring” in the drug world. This may seem strange, but drug cartels, too, chase low-cost labor. But it’s not just about lowering costs, it’s also about finding a suitable regulatory environment—which in the cartel’s case means a slack one. An interesting point is made that all the statistics on doing business are still relevant to the drug business, but often in reverse. That is, if Toyota is putting in a plant, it wants a place with low corruption, but if the Sinaloa want to put in a facility–the easier the bribery the better.

 

Chapter 6 describes how franchising has come to be applied to drug cartels—famously the Zetas. The franchiser provides such goods as better weaponry in exchange for a cut of profits. Of course, there’s always a difference in incentives between franchisers and franchisees when it comes to delimiting territory, and this doesn’t always work out as well for drug dealers as it does for McDonald’s franchisees.

 

While the bulk of the book focuses on cocaine and marijuana, Chapter 7 is different in that most of it deals with the wave of synthetic drugs that has popped up. The topic is innovating around regulation, and so it’s certainly apropos to look at these drugs. If you’re not familiar, there are many synthetic drugs that are usually sold as potpourri or the like. Once they’re outlawed, the formula is tweaked a little. In a way, these “legal highs” may be the most dangerous because no one knows what effect they’ll have when they put the out on the street.

 

In chapter 8 we learn that the drug world hasn’t missed the online retail phenomena. Using special web browsers, individuals are able to make transactions that are not so difficult to trace. In an intriguing twist, the online market may foster more trust and higher quality product than the conventional street corner seller ever did.

 

Chapter 9 examines how drug traffickers diversify—most notably into human trafficking. Exploiting their knowledge of how to get things across the border, they become “coyotes.”

 

The last chapter investigates the effect of legalization, and it focuses heavily upon the effects that Denver’s legalizing marijuana has had in Denver, in the rest of the country, and on the cartels. Wainwright paints a balanced picture that shows that not everything is perfect with legalization. E.g. he presents a couple of cases of people who ingested pot-laced food products intended for several servings, and did crazy stuff. However, the bottom line is that legalization (and the regulation and taxation that comes with it) seems to be the way to go if you want to really hurt the cartels and stem the tide of violence, as well as to reduce the number of people showing up at the ER having ingested some substance of unknown chemical composition.

 

There is an extensive conclusion, about the length of one of the chapters that delves into the many ways our approach to eliminating drug use is ill-advised and dangerous. This connects together a number of the key points made throughout the chapter.

 

I found this book fascinating. Wainwright does some excellent investigative reporting—at no minor risk to life and limb. If you’re interested in issues of business and economics, you’ll love this book. If you’re not into business and economics, you’ll find this book to be an intriguing and palatable way to take on those subjects.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Coroner’s Lunch uses a popular and intriguing technique of setting a crime novel in an unconventional landscape. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels (most famously Gorky Park), James Church’s Inspector O novels (e.g. A Corpse in the Koryo), or Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō samurai detective novels, Cotterill’s book places a protagonist staunchly devoted to the truth into a sea of ideologues who value appearances more than facts and who will do anything to maintain their precarious grasp on power.

This approach appeals for a couple of reasons. First, it maintains a line of tension in terms of the world against the protagonist on top of whatever other plot conflicts may exist (criminal against investigator.) It also allows us to recognize the virtues that we find appealing amid a people that we think are a world apart.

While crime fiction is plot driven, this particular variant requires strong character development. We must have a lead character that stands out against the bleak landscape of the authoritarian regime that employs him. However, at the same time, the character mustn’t stand out by being bold and defiant in the manner we might expect of a crime novel set in New York City. Such a character is unbelievable amid totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, North Korea, feudal Japan, or—in Cotterill’s case—Laos, circa 1975. We can’t believe such a character wouldn’t be killed by leaders who have people summarily executed on a regular basis. So the character must be clever, adroit at manipulating the system, and a quiet anti-ideologue.

Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun largely fits the mold, but is a little more irreverent than usual. The old doctor is drafted into being Laos’ national coroner because most of the educated class has fled the country–this despite the fact that Paiboun’s medical expertise is not in forensics. The ultimate source of his bold demeanor is that he is an old man, and he figures that there’s not much that they can do to him. If he were to be executed he wouldn’t lose much longevity over his natural lifespan, and if they sent him to camp, it wouldn’t be as foreboding as the places he has once been. Additionally, he has a highly placed friend, and—beyond that–they can’t replace him in short order. Making Paiboun disappear as Communist regimes were known to do is not an option. Still Siri is clever and does know how to ride the line without tipping across it.

The plot revolves around two crimes. The first is the death of the wife of a high-ranking Party official. The second is the discovery of three Vietnamese government agents in a lake in rural Laos. Both of these cases are high-profile and create incentives to keep truth from coming out.

One element of Cotterill’s novel that is outside the mold for this type of book involves supernatural activities. It seems that–like The Sixth Sense’s Macualay Culkin—Dr. Paiboun sees dead people. Perhaps this device was added to set the novel apart from others in the aforementioned class. For me, this approach seemed superfluous and disadvantageous. Siri’s “gift” kind of detracts from his strength of character because it’s not so much his brilliant mind that is solving murders as the victims giving him hints.

I will say that this supernatural element is introduced in a great way and that it could have been used throughout the novel to a much better effect. When the dead people first visit him, it’s in the form of a dream. At first we don’t know whether his subconscious worked out the solution or whether there is something supernatural going on. However, the author adds a manipulation of the material world so that we know this is supposed to have really happened and later this becomes abundantly clear. I think it would have been better to maintain the ambiguity. People reach solutions to difficult problems through sleep all the time, but we don’t live in a world in which the physical is manipulated supernaturally. Not that there is anything wrong with supernatural fiction (I read a lot of it.) However, crime fiction works best in a realistic world, as does historical fiction. This novel straddles those two genres, and throwing in supernatural events muddles the setting a bit.

Overall, I thought the book was well-written and the main character was humorous and intriguing. If you liked the kind of books I mentioned in the first paragraph, I believe you’ll like adding this to the mix.

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9 Self-Defence Tips for Women

Today is a day of protest in Bangalore to decry sexual assaults on women and children. It seems like an apropos time to offer some advice on self-defense.

1.) NEVER GET INTO A VEHICLE or allow yourself to be taken to another location:

This is line in the sand #1.  He’s telling you to get in the vehicle because he wants to do something that he’s scared to do at the present location. That means your chances if you scream, run, fight, or some combination of the above are better than if you get in the car. A thief wants your money/possessions and then wants to put as much distance between you and he as possible. Don’t believe anything a thug tells you about why he wants to take you somewhere–no matter what kind of soothing tone he may use. He means to do you harm at the end of that ride.

2.) Never allow your freedom of movement to be restrained:

Line in the sand #2. The same logic applies. He wants to bind or handcuff you because he’s scared to do what he wants to do with an unrestrained victim. Your chances are better if you scream, run, fight, or all of the above than if you allow yourself to be hogtied.

3.) If you remember nothing else from this post, remember points 1 and 2. 

Source: www.clutterclearcoach.com

Source: clutterclearcoach.com

4.) 2 ways a cluttered purse can be perilous:

First, if you decide to carry some form of weapon (e.g. pepper-spay or a stun-gun) or the ineloquently named “rape-whistle”, it will do you less than no good if you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously. (Why less than no good? Because your eyes will be on your bag, instead of on the threat.)

Second, see point 5, below.

5.) How to be robbed, a primer:

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Never fight over money or possessions, they can be replaced, you can’t!” That’s sound advice. However, you must keep in mind that violent criminals use “gimme your money” as a ploy. They wait until your eyes go down and then they pounce with much more ominous intent.  This is the second way a cluttered purse can be perilous. If you start looking through your purse, you’re at risk. Pitch the whole purse, let them find it. If they don’t go for it, then it’s time to flee or fight.

What’s the “proper way” to be robbed? You throw the money in the robber’s direction (preferably between his feet and behind him) and then you run the other direction. If he’s a robber, he’ll grab the money and hightail it in the opposite direction from you. If he chases you, then it’s time to be ready to fight for your life.

IMG_40726.) Choose classes wisely:

There are a lot of offerings of self-defense and martial arts classes. The first thing to know is the difference between self-defense and martial arts classes. Self-defense classes will teach you a few basic, easily remembered techniques to get out of the grasp of an unsophisticated attacker so that you can run. If you know that you don’t have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning to protect yourself, this is the type of class you should pursue. You probably won’t learn what you need to get safely away from an athletic psychopath, but–fortunately–such individuals are rather rare. I’d recommend this type of training periodically even for women with no interest in martial arts.

There are many different primary objectives one may see in various martial arts, including: sport, entertainment, sustaining a historical lineage, or preserving historical / cultural events and ways. While self-defense is one of several objectives of almost all martial arts, it’s the primary objective that will shape the martial art and its relevance to you. Sporting martial arts will get you in fighting shape and teach you to take a hit and keep moving, but may leave you with systematic vulnerabilities around the rules of the game.

For example, if punches to the head aren’t allowed, you won’t learn to defend yourself from the head punches that a real world attacker won’t hesitate to employ. If fighting on the ground isn’t allowed, then you’ll miss out on some beneficial training. Also, in a sport you may spend a lot of time punching with a closed fist. This is great if: a.) you’ve built up bone density with bag work and exercises, b.) your hand is wrapped tightly, and c.) you have a padded glove on. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll break one of the tiny bones in your hand on the attacker’s thick, bony skull–and it may distract you enough to lose advantage. This isn’t to imply such a martial won’t prepare you better than the next woman (and better than an attacker, for that matter), but you should only do it if you’re interested in the sport as well as in defending yourself.

Martial arts for entertainment may have you spending a lot of time practicing complex, spinning, aerial maneuvers that you cannot count on being useful against an attacker on the street. Again, if you enjoy this kind of martial art for its own sake, I’m not suggesting you should abandon it or that it isn’t benefiting you at all from a defensive standpoint.

Historical martial arts often offer the advantages of being combat-oriented and not rule constrained, but you may spend a lot of time working with archaic weapons and may not practice sparring or free-form fighting–which, I would argue, is essential to being ready to defend yourself. Again, these arts are awesome, but you need to be aware of what you are studying and what it’s value is to you.

Questions to ask:

a.) Can I watch a class? I’ve heard clever explanations for why this isn’t necessary for such-and-such martial art, but if they won’t let you watch a class, I’d move on to the next place. The observation class allows you to see whether that art is right for you and whether the teacher is skilled and professional.  Now, don’t expect a school to keep allowing you to show up and watch, but one class should give you enough idea. You may want to ask ahead to make sure it’s a fairly typical class. Some martial art schools occasionally have atypical classes to communicate some ancillary information to students which isn’t at all that useful in a day-to-day sense. (Alternatively, some schools have classes that are rigidly identical from one session to the next.)

b and c.) Will you teach me how to stay on my feet?  and Will you teach me how to fight on the ground? The ideal answers to both is “yes.” If they answer the first question by saying, “All fights go to the ground, we teach you how to get down and control the situation.” You have some sort of submission sport school that would likely make you tough as nails. However, there’s a reason there are weight classes in those sports. You don’t want to default to the ground voluntarily with someone who outweighs you by 60 pounds and who can bench press your body weight two or three times over.

That being said, if the answer to the second question is, “No. Going to the ground is ridiculous,” you might want to move on to the next school. To summarize, you want a school that will teach you how to stay on your feet so you can get away, but, also, you want a school that’ll prepare you for the worst case scenarios.

d.) Do you do sparring, randori, rolling (as in ground-fighting free-form training), or other free-form training? Note: In most martial arts, you’ll need to spend some time learning basics before you get into sparring (and that’s a good thing, in my view.) However, if the school doesn’t do any of that type of training at any level, it probably won’t prepare you for what you are likely to face. There are some old school martial arts that only do form and technique training, but with no “unstructured” training.

My final word on looking for a school: Don’t be scared off by the students looking haggard, sweaty, and mildly gimpy by the end of class. Such a school will prepare you much better than one in which the students look pristine going home.

7.) Drill with any weapon you carry:

Believe it or not, I once saw a professional law enforcement officer who accidentally sprayed himself full in the face with pepper-spray. (Among my varied and sundry past occupations was a stint in law enforcement.) No weapon is a magic talisman that you can put in your bag and expect to have it ward off evil.

8.) Don’t expect the Hollywood plop:

Squirting an attacker with pepper-spray, shocking them with a stun gun, or even shooting them with a handgun will not necessarily immediately and definitively incapacitate them. They may keep coming, hopefully impaired, but possibly just angered. There is an old samurai saying that goes, “Even in victory, cinch tight your helmet cords.” This means, even when it looks like your attacker is down for the count, maintain caution.

9.) Remember items 1 and 2, NEVER GET IN THE CAR and NEVER LET YOURSELF BE TIED UP.

BOOK REVIEW: Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.

Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.

Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.

Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.

The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.

The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.

We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.

While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)

That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:

First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.

Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.

Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.

If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.

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