A month ago I didn’t know who author Don Winslow was or of the many novels he had written. A tweet by the Associated Press announced that Winslow was returning to the world of the Mexican drug trade in his latest novel The Cartel. Intrigued by the title and subject matter I figured I should give it a read. From the first chapter I quickly realized that The Cartel was unlike any other book I had ever read. Rarely do books combine fiction and truth in such mesmerizing fashion. Loosely based on Joaquin “EL Chapo” Guzman this book follows the ascent of Adan Barrera who in the novel is also the head of the Sinaloa cartel. Parallel to the rise of Barrera the book follows the career of DEA agent Art Keller who is on an obsessive vendetta to stop Barrera and the other cartels that he believes are bleeding Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
Immediately I was drawn into the world Don Winslow explores, one of corruption, violence, drug trafficking and the resilient individuals living within it. This book is filled with history on how modern cartels came to power and the tragic experiences of the youth recruited into said groups. Los Zetas and La Familia are brilliantly explored in their meteoric rises and psychopathic methods of power acquisition. The violence in this book is not exaggerated or used for dramatic effect, it is the brutal reality of everyday life in the cities of Mexico that increasingly are under the sole control of criminals. As I began reading The Cartel I heard whispers that this book was a sequel to Winslow’s novel The Power of the Dog. Since admitting that I should’ve purchased the first book before this one was out of the question, I finished the sequel and was floored by the experience all the same. The day after I finished it, I bought The Power of the Dog and finished it a few days later, I was hooked to say the least.
Where The Cartel focuses on the Drug trade in Latin America in the 2000s, the first novel The Power of the Dog starts in the 1970s and spans the entire Cold War and early 1990s. Latin America during the Cold War has always been a favorite topic of mine and the importance of the drug trade in this history has always been downplayed. Where the narrative typically is described through political terms the reality is that criminality on both sides is what reined during this era. The Power of the Dog explains how Adan Barrera and Art Keller grew to be mortal enemies as both begin this Drug War Iliad as novices in their professions. As the fictional characters begin their conflict, the surrounding Winslow places them in is immersed in truth. The historical actions of U.S intelligence agencies and Mexican government officials are seamlessly entwined in this story. While you may wish their behaviors in this story were fiction it becomes clear that the truth is vastly more unbelievable.
A heavy emphasis of the story is individuals directly in the drug trade whether as traffickers or police and military officials in charge of stopping them. What’s evident is there are few who clearly stand on one side of the line with many government officials playing duplicitous roles. The public persona of the government is a heavy hand against drugs, but privately their allegiances lie with those that line their pockets in cash every month. Corruption itself is not as clear as it may seem, many on the lower levels do it for pragmatic reasons. If a cartel approaches them and offers “money or lead” many make the wiser choice. As the criminals themselves both on the side of justice and the cartels are enthralling, to me the memorable characters were the civilians living among them.
In the two novels, the tragedy that faces civilians loomed as the shadow covering the entire narrative arc. The courage of the journalists, priests and community advocates that were unafraid to speak out against cartels and corrupt government officials is almost incomprehensible. The value of human life has become near extinct in Mexico and its southern neighbors; those who speak out know the price they could pay. In many cases retribution hits their family members first as a clear message to others who may choose to speak out in the future. Many know the price and the prevalence of torture and mutilations is an understood risk amongst activists. In the first novel, the priest was my favorite character and his fervent denouncement of corruption and violence was based on an actual priest in Mexico at the same time period depicted in the book. Church officials on the ground during the Cold War in Latin America faced retribution on all fronts including in the case of Catholicism, the Vatican itself. A truly astonishing account of the courage they displayed to protect their constituents. In the second novel my favorite character was a heavy drinking journalist who refused to leave Juarez in the midst of it’s bloodiest years. His story arc in The Cartel is as powerful as all the violent instances that gut punch you throughout the book. His last article in the book is as riveting a culmination of human sentiment as I’ve ever been fortunate to read.
Powerful would be too simplistic a word to describe what I felt reading these two novels. It is a saga that will place you on a path that traverses the entire scope of the emotional spectrum. One emotion that made an imprint on me was guilt, a feeling that I’ve accepted that the plight of Mexico and Latin America is the norm. It is naïve to think that these books can instill major change but with Mexico alone reporting 164,345 killed since 2007 an obvious change in mind set needs to occur. The stark truth is that Latin America has been cursed in its geographic proximity to the United States. Drugs will continue to move north and plague every nation in it’s route. The multi-billion dollar drug trade fuels corruption and a merciless violence that plays out on the civilian population. Even in all it’s depiction of brutality and tragedy the resiliency of the human spirit is admired throughout this two novel tale. Every day millions of Latin Americans face being the next victim of the Drug War whether at the hands of the government or the cartels that control their neighborhoods. The violent history of Latin America has yielded the deadliest homicide rates in the entire world. Just in the home countries of my parents of Honduras and El Salvador they currently stand 1st and 2nd in the world in deadliest homicide rate. A rate that surpassed even the deadliest levels seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, except in this case these two countries are only a stone throws away from the U.S. Whether these books attract you enough to read them or not the topic of Drug War will increasingly become difficult to avoid. There is a reason millions of immigrants pour into our countries to do work citizens won’t, it’s to have hope as drug violence has left countless without such back home.