The Cartel
A Novel
Don Winslow
The dedication for Don Winslow's novel The Cartel is nearly two pages long: a listing of the names of a hundred and thirty-one journalists who were "murdered or 'disappeared' in Mexico during the period covered in this novel," between 2004 and 2012.

The Cartel is an epic, stunning, unflinchingly violent volume which chronicles the barbarism and futility of the War on Drugs. It's filled with reality-based characters and events. The release of the book, which begins with the audacious prison break of a powerful cartel boss, almost coincided with the real life escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, from the high-security Altiplano Federal Penitentiary.

The Cartel's drug lord is Adan Barrera, but based on his description, his temperament, the trajectory of his criminal career --- even the women he was involved with --- there's little doubt that his character is based on Guzman. Winslow introduced Barrera, along with his American DEA nemesis, Arturo (Art) Keller, in his 2006 The Power of the Dog, an equally immaculately documented novel covering the first 30 years of the war, the establishment of the massive U.S. anti-drug bureaucracy and the emergence of the Sinaloa cartel. It, too, is an epic tale, awash in greed, murder and betrayal, but the battles and violence seemed to have been played out on a lesser scale than during the period covered in this sequel. The groups that were mere trafficking gangs in The Power of the Dog have become, Keller thinks, "little states and the bosses politicians sending other men to war.

The Cartel reflects this grim latter-day shift from traditional gangsterism to the tactics of global terrorism. The new book's cartels have their own private, monstrously media-savvy armies that reflect the basic thinking of Al Qaeda. As one of Winslow's characters puts it: "What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it?"

The depths of depravity of these small-time thugs and monsters who carry out the orders of the cartel bosses are illustrated here in sickening, alarming, unflinching detail with its beheadings, dismemberments and general savagery. The narrative thread leading us through this killing field is the cat-and-mouse battle played out between the two principal characters, the ambivalent DEA agent Art Keller and his nemesis, the reflective Mexican drug lord Adan Barrera. These seasoned, hard-bitten men are obsessed with each other, perhaps reflecting the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

When Barrera escapes from prison, Keller is drawn back into the hunt to bring him to justice. Keller is a loner and a dogged field agent who will not rest until he has put an end to the criminal career of his long-time enemy.

    The son of an Anglo father who didn't want a half-Mexican kid, he always had one foot in each world, but never both feet in either. Raised in San Diego's Barrio Logan, he had to fight for his half-gringo side; at UCLA, he had to prove he wasn't there on an affirmative action pass.

Always an outsider, he says he's

    his own blues song, a Tom Waits loser, a Kerouac saint, a Springsteen hero ... a fugitive, a sharecropper, a hobo, a cowboy...

Barrera, the former "Lord of the Skies," has a few admirable traits: his loyalty to his family, his pragmatism, his courteousness. But once out of prison he's ruthless and unswerving in his battle to regain his old empire and take his place as the first among equals in the cartels. Like Guzmán, Barrera patronizes restaurants by strolling in and having his men confiscate the other diners' phones, locking the place down until he finishes eating. Afterward, he picks up everyone's check.

Winslow deftly introduces a raft of supporting characters and scenarios to guide us through the byzantine web of shifting allegiances, betrayals, plot and machinations and vendettas that is the landscape of the rival cartels.

There's Magda, the clever ex-beauty queen who parlays her affair with Barrera into full-fledged narco status. Eddie Ruiz, a former Texas high-school football star whose placid life as a small-time dealer gets sucked into the nihilistic vortex of the murderous clash between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. Chuy, "Baby Jesus", a Chicano runaway trained to kill by sicarios at age eleven and rendered half-feral by a fathomless series of traumas.

He came under the thrall of La Familia Michoacana, a cartel that, despite its penchant for decapitation and torture, had pretensions to piety and a certain rough chivalry. The cartel's spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno González, wrote a "bible" of inspirational sayings and admonitions, which members of La Familia were expected to carry with them.

The true villain of The Cartel, Heriberto Ochoa, the boss of the Zetas --- his character based on Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano --- is grandiose, bloodthirsty, one whose followers massacre busloads of migrant workers on the slightest pretext.

In Winslow's universe, there is U.S. and Mexican government corruption, institutional incompetence and no shortage of greed. Graft has so comprehensively penetrated the state that at one point the drug wars involved the local police fighting their federal counterparts, each side on the payroll of a different cartel.

The apparatus that has delivered all of Winslow's characters to this place is an immense, complex network of competing national interests, cowardly government agencies, clueless lawmakers, stupid policies, corrupt officials, and big business, the whole machine fueled by the desire for money, power, and dope to smoke, coke to snort, heroin to shoot and meth to consume

Despite the numbing bleakness of The Cartel, there are glimmers of hope and the obvious affection Winslow holds for Mexico. At the heart of the book are such women as Keller's girlfriend Marisol, a doctor dedicated to stanching Mexico's blood flow; the baker who goes on hunger strike to demand the army releases her innocent son. And the courageous women of Juárez who defend their broken city, organize to take political power on town councils and demand action from the Mexican government to stop the violence despite the fate of their predecessors.

Equally sympathetic are the group of journalists from the daily paper in Juárez, who somehow maintain the notions of journalism and truth, no matter how wounded and perilous their city becomes. The publisher is an uncompromising patrician whose walking-cane is a sign of the two assassination attempts he has survived. Pablo Mora, a native of Ciudad Juárez, who once documented the city's street life, but found himself increasingly recording its daily carnage. Then there's Carlos, the photographer, a hopeless womanizer; and Ana, a feisty political reporter who throws great parties and does "a rather good imitation of the Chihuahua state governor."

Pablo Mora rails against the drug-fueled killings:

    This my city of Avenida 16 Septiembre, the Victoria Theater, cobblestone streets, the bullring, La Central, La Fogata, more bookstores than El Paso, the university, the ballet, garapinados, pan dulce, the mission, the plaza, the Kentucky Bar, Fred's --- now it's known for these idiotic thugs.

Later, at one of Ana's parties, with his colleagues, artists, poets and writers, Pablo is inspired to oration, invokes no fewer than thirty-nine writers, poets, architects, painters, sculptors and other notables of Mexican art and culture . . . ending with the disgusted observation that

    now the famous are the narcos, sociopathic murderers whose sole contribution to the culture has been the narcocorridas sung by no-talent sycophants.

    Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts and jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens . . . is now known as a slaughter ground. And for what? So North Americans can get high.

"The so-called Mexican drug problem isn't the Mexican drug problem," Agent Keller declares: "It's the American drug problem." And Adan Barrera later echoes this, asking,

    Do you think anyone is serious about the so-called war on drugs? . . . A few cops on the street, perhaps --- some low-to-middle crusaders like yourself, maybe --- but at the top levels? Government and business?

Winslow has written eloquently about how America's so-called war on drugs has been a one trillion dollar catastrophe, and it's hard to think of it any other way as you read The Cartel. The USA's illegal involvement in covert operations in the region, and the levels of corruption in both the Mexican and American government organizations, are astonishing and depressing. The cartels effectively own Mexico now, and four decades of US military and government involvement have only strengthened their power.

§   §   §

The Cartel is sometimes a hard book to read but it is essential reading nonetheless. It's a bit of a paradox that Winslow's smooth and consistently illuminating prose serves a narrative than can only appall the average reader --- but that's the fallout when you craft, as Winslow has, a brilliant piece of fiction about this nightmare world that flourishes in the bright light of day.

--- Warren Sharpe
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH