Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Cartel by Don Winslow

This is a huge book in every way—for its effects on people’s thinking and actions, in its implications for drug policy worldwide, and in the scope of its historical documentation. It is very up to date. In the remarkable interview at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore published online by Slate magazine (07.13.15), Winslow describes the genesis of this book and his writing process.

For writers, this downloadable Soundcloud podcast is a must-listen for how one approaches a critically relevant subject with large amounts of historical data. For U.S. residents, this is a must-listen for its implications on recreational drug use, U.S. spending on the drug war, and Winslow's take on U.S. policy on drugs. It is worth noting that no government official contacted Winslow when the book came out, though he got plenty of response from cops--supporting him. Winslow didn’t want to write this book but he gradually came to realize he “felt like a deserter from a war” and that he could no longer turn his face away from, and neglect to speak of the violence against the innocent residents of Mexico.
“If I were south of the border, looking north, I would have questions about corruption.” [Winslow @ Politics & Prose]
Winslow’s fictional account of the drug wars in Mexico and the United States is the longest and most important of his work to date, and it is sensational in every way. Winslow has long been recognized for his ability to catch a fascinating slice of the California community, a subset of surfers relaxing into their ‘fun in the sun’ lifestyles. In this huge, sprawling duo of novels, first The Power of the Dog followed by The Cartel, we have a much more sustained effort of imagination, research, and writerly skill that aligns so closely with headlines, a reader might be forgiven for mistaking Winslow as an intimate of the Mexican drug wars. It is also a song of praise for the journalists who risked everything to cover the story. Winslow used news reports to fictionalize events in a way that gets at the motivations and the darkness and corruption on both sides of the border. This is fiction, but what fiction!
“You do not revenge a murder by killing. You revenge it by living.”
The story itself revolves around the fictional DEA cut-out Art Keller, and the head of the Sonoran [Sinaloan] cartel, Ad├ín Barrera [Joaquin Guzman]. They had been pursuing one another for years and when Barrera escaped jail in the United States to return to his drug kingdom in Mexico, Keller came out of hiding to find him and bring him to justice. Winslow ties in actual years of drug trafficking over the U.S. southern border with a very intimate portrait of both men and their organizations. A reader will be familiar with many of the gruesome violence recounted here—so violent it doesn’t seem believable—and will be grateful to Winslow for making it personal.
“Americans take their strength from victory. Mexican strength derives from their ability to suffer loss.”
Winslow does not fail to highlight the role of women in communities throughout Mexico, demonstrating for protection by the police and army. Women often went on record about attacks against their families in a brazen attempt to shame the leaders and the cartels and to show a kind of solidarity with their community. “I have no way of accounting for that kind of courage, for that kind of moral backbone, for that kind of grace,” says Winslow [Slate]. This is a novel about the extremes of human depravity, corruption…and goodness.
“There is such a thing as evil…[and] the world holds horrors…”
Winslow’s deep immersion in research for America’s border war on drugs has led him to hold an opinion and to become a public spokesperson for a point of view on how we are managing: “things are worse than ever before.” The cartels are now advertising their violence, like ISIS, in order to spur recruitment and in order to intimidate. In the last section of this book, the cartels move from narcotrafficking to narcoterrorism, the two phenomena borrowing from one another.

In an interview in Esquire with Tom Junod, Winslow talks about his thinking on whether or not the legalization of marijuana in the United States will tamp down the cartel’s power in Mexico:
"Look, here's my stance, if that's what you're asking for. I think all drugs should be legal and I wish nobody used any of them. I have no problem with people smoking a little dope. But it always amazes me where people who are so persnickety about buying fair trade coffee, and farm-to-table beef, and about where their chicken was raised, think nothing of buying marijuana, which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths, and in a lot of cases harvested by slave labor. So I don't want to harsh anyone's buzz, but I think that's something that we need to look at because we really are in so many ways responsible for the violence in Mexico through our schizophrenic attitude toward drugs, including marijuana. We spent billions of dollars trying to keep it out and we spend billions of dollars buying it—and it's that conflict that allows the cartels to survive. So as marijuana is legalized, the cartels are getting ready for that in terms of trying to go legit. But on the other hand, you have to understand that the cartel's product is not the drug. The cartel's product is control of the trafficking routes. It doesn't matter what the item is, whether it's marijuana or coke or meth or heroin or blue jeans or bottled water, their product is the plazas, it's the neighborhoods, it's the ability to control those trade routes, okay? So, once marijuana becomes actually legal and starts to grow more in the United States and there's no problem getting it across the border up from Mexico, there will be other products. Because the product doesn't matter."
Winslow points out that the “product” now is, in fact, stronger opiates like cheap heroin. Regarding ‘corruption’ on this side of the border, Winslow cites our incarceration problem and how that relates to racism. Drugs weren’t regulated until black people got in on the action. Then we went after them with a vengeance. Winslow sounds Pynchon-esque in his insistence that we think.

This novel doesn’t seem to be getting the critical attention it deserves. It doesn’t look, feel, or sound like a genre novel, except in its pace. If it is not on the lists of important novels published this year, it should be--should have been--in contention for the major prizes. It is a terrific work of imagination that targets important societal issues, is based on historical events, and it challenges us to do better, in our drug habits and in our spending on drug wars. What more can a reader ask from literature?

I listened to the Blackstone audio production of this book, read by Ray Porter. It is a primo listening experience, but I had a look at the book, and that’s good also. Get either, or both. You can’t go wrong here. Buy yourself and your friends a Christmas present you will never forget. Inform yourselves.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. What this analysis of the 30 year "war on drugs" and the crimes of the "cartels" (in the US, we'd call them good business-people) misses is that most all marijuana is now harvested locally for medical marijuana. The days of pot "trafficked" from Mexico are quickly ending.

    1. Yes, in his talks, Winslow mentions this and says that the cartel is a distribution network, and it can distribute anything, like heroin. And that is exactly what they are doing.