Review: Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics Book Cover Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel [2016] – ★★★★1/2 

The title should not frighten anyone because this non-fiction book will not involve any difficult finance theories or the like. In this book, Tom Wainwright looks at the functioning of a drug cartel from the point of view of an ordinary business. If we view drug operations through the same prism that we use to evaluate an ordinary company then maybe it will be possible to devise solutions that will actually reduce mobsters’ business and stop the reach of their operations. Wainwright embarks on his own exciting investigative work to show us how a drug cartel, like any other legal business, seeks to control the supply side, diversify, multiply its offshore locations to reduce its cost, as well as makes movements into the domain of the Internet to reach a wider pool of customers. Interesting comparisons are made with McDonalds, Walmart, Coca-Cola and Amazon, and, in light of these, Wainwright proposes unorthodox solutions to change policies to better tackle the issue. A dramatic and interesting picture emerges of the situation and functioning of drug cartels in the world. 

The author’s main argument is very simple – drug cartels function like any other business and the sooner policy-makers and enforcement agencies recognise this, the sooner the issue of crime operating on a global scale will be resolved. More efficient policies and actions may be devised to tackle the difficult problem if one realises that there is no use suppressing the supply side, economising on early interventions and preventative measures, and forsaking a global approach in favour of local initiative.

To “prove” his argument, Wainwright goes on his own investigative journey to many dangerous places, showing how drugs move from their production origin, for example, on coca plantations in Bolivia, to them being sold for a price that much more than quadrupled on the streets of major European cities. Drawing comparisons with legal businesses, the author shows how Mexican cartels and their franchising can be equated with the operation and success of McDonalds, and how the control of supply chains by Colombian cocaine manufacturers can be compared to business operations of Walmart. Drug cartels also look to diversify, as Coca-Cola and Disney tried to do, sometimes with variable success. Wainwright further shows how prisons function as schools for criminals (hence, better jails disrupt drug cartel operations), and touches on the illustrious crime sprees of such big names in the global drug business as Pablo Escobar, “El Chapo” Guzman and George Jung.

Cartels also use media and advertising like any other business to “soften” their image and reach many people, trying to gain some public acceptance (“drug lords have [also] used philanthropy to acquire an almost saintly status”, writes Wainwright, [2016: 104]), and the author further illustrates how the law lags behind innovations in drug compositions which means that there are always “legal” substances on the market that should really be banned. Finally, Wainwright touches upon the ever-growing power of the Internet, which revolutionises not only how legal businesses do their business but also how drug cartels operate, and brings attention to the issue of doctors sometimes being unwitting conspirators in getting their patients closer to being addicted to illegal substances (by overprescribing pain medication), benefiting drug cartels in a long-run.

One of the great things about this book is that the author not only explains his “thesis” in a clear way, but also provides recommendations and solutions that stem directly from the realisation that drug cartels operate like any other business. Some of his recommendations may be counter-intuitive, but since no existing policy against drug cartels had a complete and undeniable success so far and, taking into account the fact that drug cartels are adaptable and their methods are ever changing, it may really be the time to finally rethink the policy and go for an unorthodox solution to the problem. Wainwright writes that it is by reshaping the market, rather than by shutting it down completely, that the results will be achieved: “unless there is a radical change in strategy, business conditions for the mafia will remain promising” [Wainwright, 2016:  286].

Narconomics is an insightful book, but some of its sources could have been more credible (there are some anecdotal evidence), and there could have been less repetition. Wainwright’s ultimate suggestion on how to improve the situation regarding drug operations in the world is also a bit unrealistic.

Wainwright’s book is interesting, persuasive and easy to read, sometimes making very eye-opening observations on the nature of drug cartel operations. This may really be the book about drug cartels you never knew you wanted to read. 


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