On the Las Vegas Strip, three pairs of high heels and perfectly smooth ankles are exposed underneath a bathroom stall. Little sniffles can be heard outside the door above muffled EDM beats coming from the club. Meanwhile in Mexico, children pretend the soccer ball they’re kicking is a severed human head after witnessing decapitated cartel victims on full display in their community. These two realities may seem worlds apart but are connected by 3.5 grams of white powder in a little plastic baggie.
British freelance journalist Ioan Grillo is no stranger to surreal scenes like this. He’s reported on Mexican cartels and other gangsters since the new millennium. He’s written about mass graves, human smuggling and unrepentant killers for the New York Times, BBC, Time, CNN and other outlets, and in his two books El Narco and Gangster Warlords. Some of Grillo’s harrowing photographs are currently on display in the Mob Museum’s “Drug Cartel Violence In Mexico” exhibit alongside the work of Mexican photojournalist Fernando Brito.
“I’ve been living in Mexico for 17 years and it’s been a long process of covering this. God, it sounds crazy to say that—17 years,” he says.
During that time, more than 100,000 people have died due to cartel violence, a death toll comparable to civil wars.
“Over this time as well, there’s been an evolution both for myself and for many other journalists covering this,” he says. For instance, Grillo no longer reports on violent acts meant as propaganda or threats.
“Propaganda done by drug cartels is a bit like the propaganda done by Islamic radicals when they show videos of decapitations and these kinds of things,” he says. In the beginning, Grillo and other outlets did cover these acts but stopped to avoid perpetuating the message.
Grillo has never been bribed by a cartel member before nor has anyone tried to use him for a piece of propaganda. “What does happen is the cartels will contact local journalists with information, which can be saying there’s a dead body on this street,” Grillo says. This means they want the body to be seen. Other times the opposite is true. When cartels work with corrupt police or government workers, they want to avoid being seen.
Grillo says a colleague from Acapulco covered a murder where a message written on a piece of cardboard was displayed next to the body. His colleague did not report on the message. The cartels reached out to the reporter asking why he didn’t report what was written on the cardboard, and then killed more victims with the same message. The reporter was eventually forced to leave his home.
“Local media outlets have been most overwhelmingly targeted by organized crime and sometimes by politicians working with organized crime,” Grillo says. “There has been more than a hundred Mexican journalists who have been killed since 2000.”
Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist outside of countries at war, and interviewing strung-out assassins with AK-47s can be a precarious situation. Grillo was once accused of being an American DEA agent, an accusation that was followed by a threat of a bullet through his head.
“I try and keep my communication at a bit of an arm’s length,” he says.
To stay safe in the field when, say, covering the 250 skulls and decaying body parts found in a mass grave in Veracruz, Grillo is always working with someone in the community, be it a local reporter or a police officer. Even if the local police are corrupt, they are still good to have on your side, he says.
“I don’t really feel the use at all in having bodyguards,” Grillo says. “If you go in and try to be humble and respectful and say, ‘I’m a journalist and I’m covering this,’ it’s better than going in with big foreign-looking guys with bulletproof jackets, which is just simply more provocative.”
Despite the dangers and challenges that come with reporting on cartels, Grillo sees the value.
“I have continued to interview members of organized crime groups in Mexico and around Latin America because I do think there is a journalistic necessity to talk to these people to make sense of what is happening with this violence,” he says.
This year has been the most violent year in a decade in Mexico. There have been more than 20,800 murders in the first 10 months of 2017, a spine-chilling statistic. The strange irony behind this heightened violence is a direct effect of pressures from the government, which has actually diminished some cartels’ power.
“[The government] attacked drug cartels and the security forces in Mexico have killed or arrested thousands of members. Now some of the drug cartels are weaker than they were five years ago,” Grillo says.
However, this means the cartels have fragmented into smaller groups that are now fighting throughout the country.
“These smaller groups are run often by hitmen who are very violent and have only increased the level of killing,” he says.
And the more gangs there are, the more front lines between them, a topic Grillo covers in his latest story for U.S. News.
“If you look at one of the dynamics of organized crime, sometimes when you have monopolies it means there is less violence because they control the whole territory very well.”
An example of this is in Sinaloa, where kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was transporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine to the U.S. before he was extradited this year on January 20. Without Guzmán leading the Sinaloa Cartel there’s been fighting between his sons and his top lieutenants.
“When you take away the CEOs of these organizations, the people underneath them will fight amongst themselves,” Grillo says.
Grillo compares the conflict in Mexico to the Afghanistan war where the U.S. military is in a place where it cannot win but cannot pull out either.
“It’s a bit similar in Mexico for the Mexican government; they cannot win a war against drug cartels and they can’t stop fighting the war either,” he says. “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”
The United States’ $100 billion drug habit isn’t making things any easier. Las Vegas has always embraced its rascality, turning a blind eye and encouraging late nights supported by substances from south of the border. The culture makes buying special party favors for a girlfriend’s bachelorette party seem harmless enough, but the reality is far more grisly.
In Mexico, the cycle of violence continues. Cartels have diversified their portfolio and are fattening their wallets by other means than drugs alone. They’re involved with human smuggling, kidnapping, stealing oil, piracy, prostitution and even extorting avocados. “We shouldn’t just call them drug cartels; they’re crime cartels,” Grillo says.
Ioan Grillo is a member of the Mob Museum advisory council. The council is comprised of experts in law enforcement, journalism, intelligence, academia and the criminal justice system who provide insight the Museum’s mission, according to the museum’s website. “Drug Cartel Violence In Mexico” is on display through mid-January.