Magazine article Newsweek

'The Cartel' Is Your Annual Reminder That the War on Drugs Isn't over; in Two Novels Spanning Four Decades, Don Winslow Goes Deep on the Real-World Conflict Consuming Mexico

Magazine article Newsweek

'The Cartel' Is Your Annual Reminder That the War on Drugs Isn't over; in Two Novels Spanning Four Decades, Don Winslow Goes Deep on the Real-World Conflict Consuming Mexico

Article excerpt

Byline: Kira Bindrim

Sitting across from crime novelist Don Winslow, I'm finding it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 61 with the scene I keep replaying in my head: a drug kingpin throwing two children off a bridge to send a message to a rival. I've had nightmares about this scene.

The kingpin is Adan Barrera, heir to a Mexico-based international drug syndicate and a main character in Winslow's 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, which documented the birth of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its much-maligned war on drugs. In The Cartel, the hefty sequel that came out in June, Winslow revisits that war and America's role in it, while Barrera revives his longtime enmity with DEA maverick Art Keller--the so-called "Border Lord"--and everyone from local dope boys to corrupt police officers to prostitutes-turned-traffickers gets caught up in their blood feud, or killed. Often both.

In the past 25 years, Winslow has written more than a dozen novels, many of them also focused on California, Mexico and the drug trade. The SoCal native specializes in thrillers whose breezy pacing and casual language belie the seriousness of their subject matter. In 1997's The Death and Life of Bobby Z, a hapless prisoner is asked by the DEA to infiltrate the compound of a deceased drug lord with whom he happens to share a resemblance. In 2006's The Winter of Frankie Machine, a retired hit man tries to outrun his mob past and a lengthy list of would-be killers. In 2010's Savages, two best friends and marijuana dealers are recruited by a cartel after their shared girlfriend is kidnapped and held for ransom.

While many of Winslow's novels feature borderline likable, or least humanized, criminals, their humanity is seriously at odds with the serious nature of their crimes, especially when it comes to the drug trade. In Mexico alone, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the drug war; another 20,000 have disappeared. Winslow dedicated The Cartel to journalists who went missing while he was writing it. That 131-person list concludes ominously with: "There are others."

"In the United States, we see these lurid headlines--43 Killed in Mexico; 28 Beheadings--but what we don't see is the background to that, and what we especially don't see is our own role in it," Winslow says. "People blithely refer to 'the Mexican drug problem,' but it's not the Mexican drug problem. It's the American drug problem, the European drug problem."

The Cartel feels like Winslow's magnum opus--more robust, more information-packed, than its predecessors. He says the book is "pretty close to fact," and its frequent pauses in action to outline Mexico's history help put a Scorsese movie plot into a jarringly real context. Barrera is again the inauspicious moneyman-turned-ruthless kingpin, and Keller the morally conflicted DEA renegade--the Captain Ahab to Barrera's white (powder) whale. They are both products of a decades-long American foreign policy that began by bolstering drug lords to fight communism; of corrupt Mexican police and military officials who have made it impossible to truly do battle with the cartels; of governments that would rather fight violence with violence than address the root causes of this high-stakes clusterfuck. …

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