By Don Winslow, read by Ray Porter – Is there anyone who still thinks a little illegal drug use is a victimless crime? Who thinks the American “war on drugs” is actually accomplishing anything other than creating vast, lucrative criminal enterprises? Don Winslow’s much-publicized new thriller about the Mexican drug cartels will cure any such addictions to fantasy.
It’s clear that Winslow wanted to write an important book, possibly even a consequential one, and main character U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent Art Keller occasionally climbs on his soap box to tell us how bad things are. Those speeches are hardly necessary after the author’s detailing of the mayhem resulting from the turf wars between the Mexican drug cartels of 2004 to 2012 and the repeated U.S. missteps in fighting them. American initiatives have been undermanned, outgunned, and overconfident. Time and again, they have underestimated the strength and determination of their foes and the extent of their penetration in the highest levels of the military, the police, and the government.
At the opening of Winslow’s novel, Keller has retired from the DEA and lives incognito as a bee-keeper at a southern California monastery. Still he’s intrigued when his old boss tells him Adan Barrera—Keller’s arch-enemy imprisoned near San Diego—has started to talk. Barrera is the mastermind of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and one of his conditions for providing information is that he be transferred to a prison in Mexico. The Americans agree.
In the Mexican prison, Barrera lives like a king and before long escapes, pulling Keller into a frustrating and labyrinthine pursuit. (If you’ve read about the IRL escape last July of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin Guzman Lorea from Mexico’s only super-max prison, via a tunnel lit by fluorescent lights, provided with fresh air, and containing metal tracks for a small rail-car pulled by a motorcycle—a down-market version of the supertunnels the cartels use to smuggle drugs into the United States—this fictional escape is perfectly believable.)
When Barrera puts up a $2 million reward for Keller’s murder, the ex-DEA man is forced back into the arms of his former employer, and the hunt for Barrera, begun in his previous book, The Power of the Dog, renews. But there are distractions as the war intensifies among the cartels, each trying to control territory and the transit of drugs—cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin. It’s at this point that the “innocence” of smoking a little pot or doing a few lines of coke breaks down. Because the market for drugs currently illegal in the United States and Europe makes the profits so high, people can and do torture, burn, dismember, behead, rape, and murder their competitors and many innocent civilians to maintain those profits. Every day, day after day.
With Winslow’s book, you have 640 pages of torture, burning, dismemberment. You have the cooperating police and complicit Mexican army, the corrupt politicians, the pre-teen killers, the squads of sicarios (assassins), the brazen narcotraficantes, the intimidated officials, the killers who leave a Jack of Spades on each corpse. And, in all this, you must consider U.S. complicity both directly and indirectly—by our behavior and by deploying a drug policy that produces so much collateral damage.
In addition to Art Keller, portions of the story are told from the point of view of an admittedly not-very-courageous Ciudad Juarez newspaperman, Pablo, working with his feisty colleague Ana. They love and want to save their city, but it slips beyond journalism’s ability to prod action, as fear and graft overwhelm every sector, and reporters are threatened, bribed, and coerced into not reporting. (Winslow lists the names of 53 journalists murdered or “disappeared” during the period covered by his book and says, “There are more.”) And some is told from the point of view of a young boy who drifts into increasingly brutal killings, though no person whose pieces he leaves behind is more dead than he is.
If this sounds depressing and difficult, it is. And as Americans have become bored with the failures and setbacks and hypocrisies of the war on drugs, ever more so. For the people living in Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, this war never goes away and they live every day with the deadly consequences of our personal habits and public policies. How can we, in good conscience, look the other way?
Nevertheless, Winslow pulls together his many characters from the competing cartels, the silenced journalists, the ordinary citizens, and the military leaders to create a compelling story. La Familia Michoacana, The Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, the Sinaloans, the Juarez cartel, the South Pacific cartel. The gangs are all here, as is the Zetas’ IRL expansion into kidnapping and its efforts to horn in on the oil and natural gas supply. Yes, this is fiction, but of a “ripped from the headlines” variety with a powerful cumulative effect.
Keller is endlessly frustrated at how everything the United States has done to combat drugs in Mexico—including such failed ideas as “Operation Fast and Furious”—has made the situation more unstable, more violent. (You will recall that in that sorry episode, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives allowed straw purchases of guns they knew were headed to Mexico, in the hope that tracking them would lead to the higher echelons of the cartels. Instead the ATF lost track of some 2,000 guns, subsequently found at crime scenes in which hundreds of Mexican civilians have been injured or killed.)
If thriller writers typically try to ramp up the sadistic violence perpetrated by their villains, in order to persuade readers how evil they are, in The Cartel, Winslow didn’t need to go beyond what he could find in the daily newspaper. In a Crime Fiction Lover interview, he cited the “astonishing escalation” of drug-related atrocities between the time he wrote The Power of the Dog and more recent years. It’s of a piece with the chilling non-fiction reportage of the late Charles Bowden, in his amazing Down by the River.
This is a long book and a long audiobook—23 and a half hours–and has a huge cast of characters. Still, the excellent narration captured the American, Mexican, and Guatemalan voices so well that I had no trouble following the story. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because it was heartbreaking on so many levels; however, Winslow has done a great service by exposing the deep and bloody wound below the U.S. border in a way that is compelling and unforgettable, and I’m glad I read it.