By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.
Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.
Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.
In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.
Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.
But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.
We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”
Vivia Font & Christina Nieves in “Song for the Disappeared”
This new 90-minute play promised to dramatize several of my painful reads of the past year regarding the vulnerability of people caught, often through no fault of their own, in the ultra-violent wars of the Mexican narco-cartels. These issues have been painfully explored in both fiction (The Cartel) and non-fiction (Down by the River) exposés reviewed here.
Song for the Disappeared, by Tanya Saracho, probes the problem of fractured loyalties and the inability of even the wealthy to distance themselves from the consequences of operating within a totally broken system. The family patriarch is an honorable man, apparently, but his uprightness provides him and his family no protection; his recently returned daughter has pursued her literary aims, but only her naiveté allowed her to believe her novel about a narcotraficante family would be regarded as fiction; her ex-fiancé, now the father’s only trusted aide, has turned to religion for protection; and the father’s young wife, viewed by the others as a complete airhead, has her own demons.
When the play begins, the family heir Javier has disappeared. The family reunites at its remote Texas ranch, where everyone’s vulnerabilities are exposed, and no one is sure how to proceed or what will come next. Their struggles are symbolized in the actions of the younger daughter, slightly deranged and struggling to save the smallest and most vulnerable creatures she finds. Meanwhile, the wild dogs circle every more closely.
The all-Latino cast in the Passage Theatre production does a fine job. Even in Passage’s tiny venue, it is an engaging theatrical event, directed by Alex Correia. On stage until October 25.
(graphic by Christopher Dombres, creative commons license)
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.
“Silence Makes Me Furious” (photo: Knight Foundation, creative commons license)
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.
“Your Fight is My Fight” (photo: Eneas De Troya)
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.