HEADLINES RIPPED FROM A NEW NOVEL (AND VICE VERSA)
After it was released on June 23, Southern California writer Don Winslow’s new novel The Cartel had already gathered a string of head-explodingly good reviews.
“A magnum opus . . .” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. “Don Winslow is to the Mexican drug wars what James Ellroy is the L.A. Noir.”
“One of the best thriller writers on the planet. . . .” wrote Benjamin Percy for Esquire. “Winslow has written an epic, gritty south-of-the-border Godfather for our time.”
The rest of the reviews went on in that vein.
Yet all this critical enthusiasm did not put The Cartel on the best seller list. After all, what with its blood-drenched drug wars subject matter—it was not exactly the ideal upbeat beach read that vacationers were most likely to download to their iPads and Kindles.
Then on July 11, the news broke that the near mythic head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, Joaquin Guzmán, known as “El Chapo,” had escaped in an extravagantly dramatic fashion (and with lots of paid help) from Mexico’s most secure prison, Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1—more commonly called Altiplano.
For those of us who’d read The Cartel, the story the made headlines around he world was unnervingly familiar. On pages 67 and 68 of the novel, to be exact, Adan Barrera, the fictional head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of the book’s primary characters, escapes from one of Mexico’s highest security prisons (with lots of paid help). In addition, Winslow had disclosed during post-publication interviews that he’d based the Barrera character on Guzmán.
And now that more people are noticing the book, they seem also to be discovering that Winslow’s lengthy work of fiction contains not only a startling amount of disturbing truths about the narco drug wars, but also paints a stark, fact-laden picture of the costly failure of the USA’s 45-year war on drugs.
FIFTEEN YEARS OF RESEARCH ON A BOOK NO ONE INTENDED TO WRITE
Prior to The Cartel, Winslow had amassed an ardent cult following for his 16 mystery/thrillers set in and around the beaches of San Diego county—books like, The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages and The Dawn Patrol.
In 1998, however, while he was turning out surfing-related mysteries, Winslow—who lives in the San Diego area—got caught up in researching the drug war, which was growing increasingly macabre in its level of violence, some of which was occurring not far over the border from where Winslow and his family have a home. The result of the research was The Power of the Dog, published in 2005, which follows a Spanish-speaking DEA agent named Art Keller, and a rising star of the Mexican drug cartels named Anan Barrera, over a 30 year period.
After The Power of the Dog Winslow insisted he had no intention of writing about the drug war again. But it turned out he was unable to turn away from it either. His years of research for the 2005 book had given him knowledge, contacts and an emotional investment that he had trouble shaking. So for the next several years he continued to gather string, telling himself it was merely out of personal interest. Then the escalation of violence by the narcos convinced Winslow that he needed to do another book.
Enter The Cartel, which, while it still makes good use of many of the conventions of the thriller, is an ambitious work that–quite apart from its newly acquired best seller status—is arguably one of the year’s most important novels, even if, for some, it will be a hard one to read.
The Cartel, which weighs in at 640 pages, is filled with ghastly violence, none of it gratuitous. Instead, it reads like a deeply researched work of nonfiction that declines to pull its punches.
In fact, Winslow has said that, as bad as some of the incidents were that he portrayed in the book, that he didn’t write the worst of what he learned. There were times, he said “when I backed off…didn’t have the heart, or I thought [the incidents] were unbelievable, though I read them in two or three sources, but I didn’t think the reader could cope with it.”
Yet, by the book’s end, it isn’t the violence that lingers. Instead, it is Winslow’s portrayal of the terrible human cost of the drug wars to ordinary people with whom the reader can identify. For instance, Winslow introduces us to a group of journalists, writers and artists living in Juarez, to whom we become very attached–even as we watch as Juarez became the deadliest city in Mexico, as it in 2009.
We become similarly attached to other characters such as a woman physician who, after several unsatisfying years of catering to rich people in Mexico City, moves back to her hometown in the Juarez Valley to open a community clinic. There is her friend the famous woman baker, turned activist mayor and therapist-like advisor to the residents of the town in which the doctor has her clinic, located in the stretch of the Chihuahuan desert that became—in the novel as in life—the Valley of Death from 2009 to 2011. And there was the young woman who volunteered to be the town’s only police officer after the rest of the police had other been killed or had fled.
And so on.
After finishing the book, it was difficult not to want to google these unusually vivid characters to find out if they had real life counterparts. As it happens, in most cases, there was a counterpart that was close to what Winslow had written. Googling also caused one to learn that some of the people on whom Winslow based his characters were still alive. Others had been killed by the narcos.
THE NOVELIST TURNS ACTIVIST
Among the vivid impressions The Cartel leaves in its wake, is the fact that the cost of the war on drugs has been horrifically high, in terms of blood and treasure, on both the Mexican side of the fence and our own, and yet little or nothing has been accomplished. The Cartels are better organized than ever.
That impression is not accidental. It is precisely what Winslow intends.
After the publication of the book, Winslow went so far as to take out full page ads in several U.S. newspapers, including the NY Times, urging an end to the war on drugs.
Last Thursday, Winslow explained to Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour why he felt the need to place the ads.
And in an interview last Wednesday on NPR’s Fresh Air, host Terry Gross calls The Cartel a “grand tale of Mexico’s drug wars,” and talks to Winslow about a wide array of topics, including the real Guzman’s escape, and what Winslow thinks about the destructive futility of more than four decades of trying to shut down the cartels. Here are a couple of clips:
On El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel
This is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill, to have killed, and a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There’s a reason why they didn’t extradite him to the United States — principally because he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories.
On how America’s drug problem relates to Mexico’s drug problem
We are the largest drug market in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population — we consume 25 percent of the world’s illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. … At the end of the day, they’ll run out of products. It’s the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there’s no recourse to law, there’s only recourse to violence. That’s created the cartels. It’s our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.
On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking
Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what’s happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they’ve been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they’ve almost stopped growing it now, because they can’t compete with the American quality and the American market. … I’m not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they’re telling us is it’s down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.
You can listen to the rest of the interview below.
And then read the book. It’s well worth the ride.