“The Cartel” by Don Winslow (Knopf, 623 pages, $27.95)
Mexico was once my favored vacation land. I loved the tropical scenery, the exotic cuisine, and it was cheap. I also felt safe there. But I stopped going in the late 1990s because the Mexican drug cartels were unleashing waves of unabated violence
Don Winslow’s book “The Cartel” brings Mexico’s agony into tight focus. A decade ago Winslow published a novel based on the history of our drug war with Mexico. That book was “The Power of the Dog,” and it provides the back story for the main characters in this new book.
“The Cartel” covers the years 2004-12. As the novel opens Adan Barrera, the most powerful of the drug lords is in a prison in San Diego. This prisoner doesn’t look very intimidating: Winslow notes that “looking at him, it’s hard to credit that he has ordered hundreds of killings over his life, that he was a multibillionaire, more powerful than the presidents of many countries.” Barrera is the head of the Sinaloa cartel.
Barrera’s nemesis, the man who put him in jail, is the former DEA agent Art Keller. Keller had lured him out of Mexico to San Diego. Barrera now plots his revenge. Long ago the two men had been friends. Barrera is about to be transferred to a Mexican prison. Meanwhile Keller has vanished. Nobody seems to know what happened to him.
Fortunately Winslow’s novel is about more than this deadly contest between two men. There are other characters fleshing out this story. There’s a young boy who becomes contract killer for the Zetas, another cartel which is fighting the Sinaloans for territory. There’s a newspaper reporter in the most violent place in Mexico, the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
If you followed the news this past week, then you probably heard that the Sinaloan drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has just escaped again from a Mexican prison. Winslow’s Sinaloan drug lord character is based upon the real Guzman. How was that for timing?
Last month Winslow did an interview for the Arizona Republic. He was asked, “Who is the cartel?” He answered: “I think we are all the cartel. I think our criminal justice system is the cartel. Our banking system is the cartel. The way we treat people that they therefore need to get high, that’s the cartel. That machine grinding on and on to produce money and power. And it is violent in so many ways. And I think every time we buy, especially recreational drugs, we become part of the cartel. We are the partners.”
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at email@example.com.