The best books about drug trafficking

7 authors have picked their favorite books about drug trafficking and why they recommend each book.

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Who am I?

I became passionate about the Mexico/US border question after meeting someone who is now a close friend, a Mexican academic who introduced me to some of the issues. She helped me write Saint Death as a way to explore the politics of ultra-capitalism, in the form of multinational business, and the action of drug cartels.


I wrote...

Saint Death

By Marcus Sedgwick,

Book cover of Saint Death

What is my book about?

Anapra is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the Mexican city of Juarez – twenty metres outside town lies a fence, and beyond it, America – the dangerous goal of many a migrant. Faustino is one such trying to escape from the gang he’s been working for. He’s dipped into a pile of dollars he was supposed to be hiding and now he’s on the run. He and his friend, Arturo, have only 36 hours to replace the missing money, or they’re both as good as dead.

Watching over them is Saint Death. Saint Death (or Santa Muerte) – she of pure bone and charcoal-black eye, she of absolute loyalty and neutral morality, holy patron to rich and poor, to prostitute and narco-lord, criminal and police-chief. A folk saint, a rebel angel, a sinister guardian.

Hello, Transcriber

By Hannah Morrissey,

Book cover of Hello, Transcriber

I was immediately drawn into the frozen, gritty, Gotham-esque Midwestern city of Black Harbor, which aspiring author and police transcriber Hazel Greenlee now calls home. This moody mystery is a richly drawn account of Hazel’s life as she gets pulled into investigator Nikolai Kole’s orbit and his search for elusive drug dealer Candy Man. The streets of Black Harbor aren’t safe, nor is the rusted bridge where Hazel goes to contemplate her life, and they make the ideal backdrop for a story about secrets, trust, and taking risks.


Who am I?

Atmosphere can play a critical role in crime fiction, and I always find the most satisfying and memorable stories convey a strong sense of place. My own mysteries are set in the Thousand Islands, where many residents live in island homes built by gilded age titans of industry, and this setting is integral to Death in the Family and the entire Shana Merchant series. For twenty years I’ve been a regular visitor to the area, which extends from Upstate New York to Ontario, Canada. The human dangers in my books may be imagined, but the remote and rugged nature of the region always contributes to my contemporary, Agatha Christie-style plots. 


I wrote...

Death in the Family

By Tessa Wegert,

Book cover of Death in the Family

What is my book about?

Thirteen months ago, former NYPD detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Now hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she's taken a job in her fiancé's sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.

But as a nor'easter bears down on her new territory, Shana and fellow New York State investigator Tim Wellington receive a call about a man missing on a private island. Shana and Tim travel to the isolated island owned by the wealthy Sinclair family to question the witnesses, and discover that murder is a family affair.

Writing My Wrongs

By Shaka Senghor,

Book cover of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

Shaka Senghor is a friend and a personal inspiration of mine. This book is dear to me, not only because it’s the story of my friend, but also because, in many ways, it’s the story of my life as well. Shaka taught me so many valuable lessons in this book: the importance of writing down your goals, of having a plan, of overcoming the fear of failure. And it was just the beginning of all the flourishing I’ve seen Shaka do, and all the flourishing he has inspired from me.

While many books on my list will make you sad, angry, or both, I think this one will make you feel hopeful. It definitely did for me.


Who am I?

I am a victim of the Criminal Industrial Complex. Before being sentenced to life in prison at 17, I lived in neighborhoods that were overpoliced and violent, I went to schools that were underfunded and didn’t have the resources to support my education, and the crack epidemic and subsequent War on Drugs did irreparable damage to my family. The systems discussed in these books are the ones that fundamentally changed the course of my life. In the long run, I was able to succeed despite these systems. Read these books and understand the many odds that are stacked against so many members of our society. People just like me.


I wrote...

The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose

By Chris Wilson, Bret Witter,

Book cover of The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose

What is my book about?

Growing up in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood, Chris Wilson was so afraid for his life he wouldn't leave the house without a gun. One night, defending himself, he killed a man. At eighteen, he was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole.

But what should have been the end of his story became the beginning. Deciding to make something of his life, Chris embarked on a journey of self-improvement–reading, working out, learning languages, even starting a business. He wrote his Master Plan: a list of all he expected to accomplish or acquire. He worked his plan every day for years, and in his mid-thirties, he did the impossible: he convinced a judge to reduce his sentence and became a free man. 

Street Pharm

By Allison van Diepen,

Book cover of Street Pharm

Street Pharm is a dark, cultural, and realistic look into Tyrone's life as a teenage drug dealer.  A raw and urban story of a teen who inherits a life of crime because of the situation he was born into and the harsh awakening that comes with it. An intense and page-turning read that had me glued till the very end.


Who am I?

I am a multicultural published author from California. I attended different schools growing up, reading classic literature that I couldn't relate to, resulting in becoming a reluctant reader. I didn't live in historical time periods. My skin was a lighter shade of brown. In my world, I met kids from diverse backgrounds, who spoke slang and had personal hardships. Where were the books like that? That's why I wrote Graffiti Girl. To share a realistic, multicultural approach so the reluctant reader could have characters they could see themselves in. That's why I chose these books, in no specific order, that share contemporary, urban stories involving people of different cultures, who face unique hardships.


I wrote...

Graffiti Girl

By Kelly Parra,

Book cover of Graffiti Girl

What is my book about?

Raised by her single mom in a struggling California neighborhood, Angel Rodriguez channels her hopes and dreams into her paintings. But when her entry for a community mural doesn’t rate, she’s heartbroken. Even with artist Nathan Ramos taking an interest in Angel's art, she’s determined to find her own place in the art world.

That’s when Miguel Badalin introduces her to an underground world of graf tags and turf wars. Soon she’s running with Miguel’s crew and emerging as the artist she always dreamed to be. But Nathan and Miguel are bitter enemies, and choosing between them and their wildly different approaches to art means that Angel must decide what matters most before the artist inside of her can truly break free.

El Narco

By Ioan Grillo,

Book cover of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency

A work of intrepid journalism and sizzling writing, Grillo’s El Narco is the result of upwards of a decade following the mercurial, terrifying evolution of Mexico’s drug cartels. I’ve taught this book to my Davidson College students studying Latin American politics and they repeatedly tell me that it is their favorite book they tackle in the course. 


Who am I?

Over my two decades as a scholar of American foreign policy and international politics, I had multiple opportunities to serve as a Latin America foreign policy aide. Given that Latin America plays a central role in the U.S.-hatched modern war on drugs, much of my policymaking was directly or indirectly tied to drug policy. I thus wrote Drugs and Thugs above all to make sure that I had a good sense of the history of this seemingly eternal conflict, one that is “fought” as much at home as abroad. 


I wrote...

Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

By Russell C. Crandall,

Book cover of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

What is my book about?

How can the United States chart a path forward in the war on drugs? In Drugs and Thugs, Russell Crandall uncovers the full history of this war that has lasted more than a century. As a scholar and a high-level national security advisor to both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he provides an essential view of the economic, political, and human impacts of U.S. drug policies. Backed by extensive research, lucid and unbiased analysis of policy, and his own personal experiences, Crandall takes readers from Afghanistan to Colombia, to Peru and Mexico, to Miami International Airport, and the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez to trace the complex social networks that make up the drug trade and drug consumption. 

American Junkie

By Tom Hansen,

Book cover of American Junkie

American Junkie is a brutally honest tour de force you will never forget! The life of a young and intelligent musician with the promise of success in the 1990s Seattle Grunge scene slowly morphs into the sad reality of a man slipping into addiction and melancholy. In this memoir, Hansen struggles, but does find that his humanity is tied up in more than just addiction. Hansen was a gentleman heroin dealer, not a thug or bully. He mixed with celebrities and those unseen ghosts of the street that end up unnamed and forgotten. He had a code of ethics he lived by. Cleverly written in intimate second-person narrative voice, I loved this book because as you read, you are at once a part of Hansen’s story and in the end, you feel moved by his honesty and the unsparing way he shares the details of his life. When his final…


Who am I?

When I think of who I am, as a writer and a human being, I remember the words of prolific Portland poet Dan Rapheal, who wrote the foreword to my book of poetry, Blue Reverie in Smoke: “...the reader must look carefully to get a full picture of the poet herself—tender, no nonsense, quietly observing and juggernauting to make things as she thinks they should be.” I’ve never forgotten Dan’s astute appraisal of me, and it surprised me. It seems that's how I’ve always beensomeone who quietly observes, never unmoved by what I see, just trying to make sense of it, sometimes successful in that endeavor, and oftentimes, not successful at all. 


I wrote...

Talionic Night in Portland: A Love Story

By Theresa Griffin Kennedy,

Book cover of Talionic Night in Portland: A Love Story

What is my book about?

Talionic Night in Portland: A Love Story, released in 2021, is a dark, sometimes comical book about sex. It is a graphic and riveting account of how people come to grips with, or express, the long-repressed rage of childhood sexual abuse and how that rage can present itself later in life in various ways. Class, gender roles, and dark humor are given equal focus in this explicit and often disturbing first novel about love gone awry in the City of Roses. 

King Suckerman

By George P. Pelecanos,

Book cover of King Suckerman

A lot of people know George Pelecanos from his work as a TV writer, but long before he contributed to The Wire and The Deuce, he was turning out great mysteries, most of them set in his hometown of Washington, D.C. These are smart, sociological thrillers that teach you a lot about life on the city's mean streets. What sets books like King Suckerman apart for me is how much they teach you about the way popular music—heard from car radios, boom boxes, and record store systems—defines people's lives. For me, one of the book's many highlights is a fierce exchange between a guy who, based on Jimi Hendrix's funky playing in Band of Gypsys thinks the guitarist should be filed under soul rather than rock because that was the direction he was going and a friend who responds, "What you think you are, man, the Amazing Kreskin... gonna…


Who am I?

My earliest filmgoing memory is of a bad guy getting pushed down the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. That shocking scene has stayed with me, leading me into a lifetime of exploring the dark visions of crime stories. It was only natural that my love of rock music, and in its interaction with other media would draw me to mystery writers whose books were fueled by their love of rock, blues and pop. "If not for music and movies, I wouldn't be a novelist," George Pelecanos once told me. "They have influenced me more than any author. I want to shout about it." Me too.


I wrote...

T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

By Lloyd Sachs,

Book cover of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

What is my book about?

T Bone Burnett offers the first critical appreciation of Burnett’s wide-ranging contributions to American music, his passionate advocacy for analog sound, and the striking contradictions that define his maverick artistry. Lloyd Sachs highlights all the important aspects of Burnett’s musical pursuits, from his early days as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and his collaboration with the playwright Sam Shepard to the music he recently composed for the TV shows Nashville and True Detective and his production of the all-star album Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. Sachs also underscores Burnett’s brilliance as a singer-songwriter in his own right. T Bone Burnett reveals how this consummate music maker has exerted a powerful influence on American music and culture across four decades.

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