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Summer reading: Latin America edition

Looking for some summer reading? FP's got you covered. In coming weeks, we'll feature reading lists from some of the top thinkers and experts on the topics they have made their own. Today's list -- a collection of the best English books about Latin America -- comes from Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington: 

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat

It's not surprising Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's take on a dictator novel, a popular Latin American genre, is superb. Blending fiction and history, Vargas Llosa offers shrewd insights into how Rafael Trujillo, or El Jefe -- the boss, was able to extend his rule of the Dominican Republic for three decades. The novel was published in 2000, a decade after Vargas Llosa himself lost as a candidate to Alberto Fujmori in Peru's presidential elections. 

Sally Bowen, The Fujimori File: Peru and its President, 1990-2000

Fujimori's election as Peru's president in 1990 was the most stunning political upset in recent Latin American history.  Through meticulous research, Bowen, a British journalist who worked for the Financial Times, draws a vivid portrait of the "man who came from nowhere," as she put it.  Bowen later wrote a fine biography of Fujimori's right-hand man,  The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos.

"The Fall of Fujimori" (Documentary Film, Directed by Ellen Perry)

After watching this documentary, it is not hard to understand why Alberto Fujimori enjoyed high approval levels during most of his decade-long presidency and why his daughter Keiko, a congresswoman, is a serious contender for next April's presidential elections.  This prospect is striking in light of her father's regime -- one marked by human rights abuses and spectacular corruption for which Fujimori is now serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez, "The Two Faces of Hugo Chávez" (essay)

Garcia Márquez's short essay, written after a flight from Havana to Caracas accompanied by Hugo Chávez at the start of the Venezuelan president's rule in February 1999, contains some of the most perceptive observations about Chávez ever written. The concluding lines are remarkably prescient:  "I was struck by the impression that I had traveled and talked delightfully with two opposite men -- one who good luck had given the opportunity to save his nation. And the other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot."

Cristian Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President

There have already been many Chávez biographies and there are doubtless many more to come, but unfortunately most tend to be either hagiographies or hatchet jobs. This one, by contrast, is a judicious and measured treatment of Chávez by two young Venezuelan journalists who did extensive research and succeed in shedding light on his complex personality and what drives him. It nicely shows how particular events shaped Chávez, and it depicts how he, in turn, is shaping his country's and the region's history.

Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait

No Latin American leader has drawn as much attention as Fidel Castro.  There have been many biographies, some of them quite good, but this one by longtime Latin American journalist Tad Szulc particularly stands out. Szulc, who covered the Cuban Revolution for the New York Times, had extraordinary access to Castro and to Cuban government archives. Though the book is a bit dated (it was written in 1985), it contains incomparably rich material and captures the many contradictions of this larger-than-life figure who remains the subject of endless fascination.    

Heraldo Muñoz, The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet

Chilean intellectual and diplomat Herald Munoz has written what he calls a "political memoir" on the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. After two decades of a center-left coalition in power and the recent shift to a conservative government in Chile, Pinochet's legacy is still hotly debated. Munoz does not pretend to be unbiased, but he makes a cogent argument that Pinochet's repression was terribly costly and that the foundation for the country's recent economic success could only have been achieved in a democracy.  

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Blog del Narco gets the drug war scoop

Score another one for new media: an anonymous, twenty-something blogger has become Mexico's go-to for information on the country's deadly drug war. Blog del Narco, launched in March, includes postings from both drug traffickers (such as warnings and even a beheading) and law enforcement (crime scenes accessible only to the police and military). In one case, Blog del Narco helped lead to a major arrest, when a video posted detailed a prison warden's system of setting inmates free at night to carry out drug cartel murders.

The AP tracked down this mysterious blogger, who revealed that he is a student in northern Mexico majoring in computer security. When he launched the blog, he intended it to be a hobby, but has grown faster than his wildest expectations, now receiving 3 million hits weekly. The blogger also uses Facebook and Twitter.

Since late 2006, over 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. The country has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists: at least 30 have been killed or have disappeared since 2006 and many news organizations have been attacked with bombs and gunfire. Many journalists engage in self-censorship to avoid crossing the increasingly brazen cartels that attempt to control the press. On August 7, hundreds of journalists marched in Mexico City to protest escalating violence against their peers.

This helps explain why Blog del Narco, now an essential resource for Mexicans concerned about which streets to avoid during shootouts, engages in intense anonymity.

The AP listed some examples of recent posts:

  • A video of a man being decapitated. While media only reported police finding a beheaded body, the video shows the man confessing to working for drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villareal, who is locked in a fight with both the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartels;
  • The prison warden affair, which unfolded in a video of masked members of the Zetas drug gang interrogating a police officer, who reveals that inmates allied with the Sinaloa cartel are given guns and cars and sent off to commit murders. At the end of the video the officer is shot to death;
  • Links to Facebook pages of alleged traffickers and their children, weapons, cars and lavish parties;
  • Photos of Mexican pop music stars at a birthday party for an alleged drug dealer's teenage daughter in the border state of Coahuila, across from Texas.