The Underground Empire, Where Crime and Governments Embrace by James Mills (Doubleday: $22.95)
Like "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," this 1,152-page magnum opus is a chronicle of unabated power, greed and cruelty.
"The Underground Empire," however, could have been much tighter. The book does not pick up momentum until one-third through, when the first-person account of a drug dealer's enforcer begins.
The enforcer takes us into the exotic world of Alberto Sicilia Falcon, a Cuban marijuana and coke dealer who lives in a fortress in Mexico. He's presented as a violent bisexual, whose alleged lovers include a bullfighter who wants to start a revolution, a devil-worshipping shoe manufacturer who works for the CIA, and the 11-year-old son of a junkie.
An Interwoven Tale
Falcon's story is intercut with that of a Chinese warlord in Thailand who is one of Asia's "Kings of Kings" in the dope trade, and a nice American boy who went from selling novelties to wholesaling marijuana and cocaine on a worldwide scale. James Mills also devotes a great deal of space to the lives of his good guys, the cops in Centac, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration offshoot that targeted major conspirators.
Based on five years of research by Mills, the book provides excellent details on the day-to-day lives of drug wholesalers. But so much has been written about drugs before that the revelations are just not as intriguing as they would have been 10 years ago.
In previous works, such as "Report to the Commissioner" or "On the Edge," Mills presented a lean, dry prose. Here, he weakens the narrative with cliched overwriting.
"His enormous wealth and ambition propelled him into a world he could not see or comprehend, a world beyond crime itself, a world as violent, merciless, and unpredictable as the forces of nature," Mills writes.
"Some barely perceptible dissonance in the harmony of natural forces, whatever it is that makes small animals scurry for cover just before the earth splits, told Straus to consider his future."
Animal References Abound
The book, in fact, is a veritable menagerie of animal references, metaphors and similes:
"The eyes looked like small dark animals sizing me up for a meal."
"Dennis . . . faces the girl, a hungry shark suddenly offered meat."
"But he likes him the way you'd like a pet leopard."
Most of all, Mills is dogged by repeated canine imagery:
"Medina grabbed Falcon, shook him like a dog. . . ."
"He was to the tousle-haired bodyguard as a Doberman is to a Pekingese."
". . . ripping them (conspiracies) apart like a terrier killing rats."
Mills' subtitle, "Where Crime and Governments Embrace," indicates the area in which his book aims to go beyond earlier treatments of the drug trade. There have been, recently, new allegations of drug trade involvement on the part of political leaders in states friendly to the United States--Gen. Manuel A. Noriega of Panama, for example. Mills' book aims to provide an in-depth look at how in such cases reasons of state can prevent the real prosecution of the "war on drugs" that each successive American President seems to declare.
This is a subject of genuine importance. Judge Terry Smerling estimated in The Times Monday that half of the workload of the criminal-justice system is drug-related. Political alliances that would prevent a serious attack on so immense a public problem may be alliances we should reconsider.
The larger-than-life nature of this subject matter, however, demands a restrained prose style to emphasize that the writer is not exaggerating, that his central characters are in fact as bizarre as he says they are and that their political reach is as great as he says it is. Mills' intrusive presentation and melodramatic tone will make readers question his perceptions on both counts.