Don Winslow will discuss his new novel “The Cartel” at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 25 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque. The publisher is Alfred A. Knopf; $27.95. 616 pages.

Review by David Steinberg

Winslow has written a powerful, terrifying novel of epic proportions about 21st century Mexico. The word “Cartel” in the title may be singular  but the book is about multiple, warring drug cartels. It’s an important and mesmerizing book about the rampant drug-fueled violence in Mexico’s cities, villages and countryside.

Winslow has captured how Mexico’s compromised government officials, its cartel jefes and its ordinary people attempt to survive the constant killings triggered by cartels competing for dominance of the drug trade. It’s a trade in which most of the drugs consumed by Americans.

It’s bloody stuff. Gunmen kill gunmen. Bad guys slaughter innocent women and children. Desperados and civilians alike are beheaded.

And yet it is a book about how courageous people suffer in the face of terror, loss, chaos and death that have been destroying the fabric of Mexican society. Much of that destruction is presented through the lens of Ciudad Juarez, its courageous newspaper owner and crime reporter. Readers familiar with U.S.-Mexico border news will recall the book’s reference to the killing of Juarez teens at a birthday party several years ago.

At the heart of the novel is the ongoing cat-and-mouse story of two men out to kill each other – Adan Barrera, the head of a powerful Mexican cartel, and Art Keller, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who’s been in deep cover in Mexico for years. Each is the cat to the other’s mouse.

Winslow brings the reader into the private lives many characters. There is Keller and his romance with the physician Marisol who bravely treats scared villagers not far from Ciudad Juarez.

There is Barrera’s business/personal relations with his mistress, Magda, a wise, independent link between Barrera and his Colombian suppliers. There is his marriage to a beautiful teenager, Eva, to solidify his cartel and to find a male heir to his business.

There is Crazy Eddie Ruiz, a cartel power who’s fed up with surreptitiously moving from safe house to safe house. As Winslow describes Ruiz’s life:  “A homeless man with twenty luxury houses.”

There is Chuy, a heartless pre-teen cartel-trained killer for hire.

There is Don Pedro, who briefly but valiantly defends his hacienda against a gunmen who demand his land.

The characters may be fiction but many events, crimes and hidden trafficking operations are based on actual occurrences.

(I found this relevant. A June 21 New York Times article brings to mind a reference in the book to China producing and supplying methamphetamine ingredients. The article says China is “a major player in the global supply chain for synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine. … China is now the source of a majority  of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine by Mexican drug traffickers, who produce 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States,” according to the DEA.)

What follows are author Don Winslow’s responses to questions I submitted to him:

DS: What was the motivation to write this epic?

DW: At first I didn’t want to write it at all.  I had spent over five years researching and writing its predecessor, “The Power of the Dog,” and after that I thought I was done with the subject of drug trafficking.  But as the situation in Mexico got worse and worse, as the violence escalated, I started to ask myself why.  What had happened to cause this change into an entirely new realm of craziness and violence?  So I started to do research, without really admitting to myself (or anyone else) that I was going to write a book. As I researched, I started to see patterns, reasons behind the headlines. So I finally decided to write the book.  I thought that together, “Dog” and “The Cartel” could tell, at least in fiction, the story of forty-five years of the drug wars in Mexico.


DS: Did you spend time in Mexico researching the book and did you have access to police, military and narcotraficantes?


DW: Over the course of writing these two books, I have spent time in Mexico, and, yes, I’ve been able to talk with all kinds of people, although not so much the military. The huge difference in writing “The Cartel” was that the cartels themselves, rather than trying to hide what they did, put it out on social media, as means of intimidation, propaganda and recruitment. It was surreal, but it meant that you could ‘follow’ events in a whole different way. Reality merged with reality tv in the most nightmarish kind of way. The other element of my research was historical reading.  I found that I really couldn’t comprehend some of the developments without an understanding of Aztec culture, Mayan culture, The Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa, landholding patterns, that sort of thing. Everything happens for a reason, everything has a precedent.


–Do you think the “War on Drugs” will continue grinding on without end?

If nothing changes, nothing changes.  As long as we continue to use drugs at the same time that we ban them, we’ll have a war on drugs.  The conflict is inherent. We seem to making some progress on marijuana. As you know, a number of states allow medical marijuana and several state have legalized small amounts entirely – although federal law still makes it a crime. Legalization, which seems inevitable now, will help. But marijuana is only part of the story.  It seems unlikely to me that we’ll ever legalize or decriminalize heroin, cocaine or meth.  So the cartels will continue to profit from those substances and the associated violence will continue. I’m not optimistic.


If millions of American tax dollars are wasted annually fighting that war, what would you suggest to better use those funds?


Anything. Actually, it’s tens of billions, not millions. The money we spend fighting the war does more harm than good, so we’d actually be better off if we just flushed it down the drain. On a more positive note, there are a lot of things we could do – fix our schools, invest in the inner cities, provide more treatment for addicts, grow the economy – things that would actually address the root causes of the drug problem.  Do we think, for instance, that the heroin epidemic is at its worst in northeastern rustbelt cities that have lost their jobs? Don’t we see the relationship? But instead of developing our economy, we waste money on an endless cycle of busts and imprisonments.


DS: Do you think Mexico is headed on a downward spiral in which the narcos will one day openly run the country?


DW: No, I don’t think it will get to that point, but we have to acknowledge that the narcos are a major power in Mexico, controlling somewhere between 8-12% of the Mexican economy.  That’s real power. And in certain areas of the country, the narcos are in charge, not the government. There seems to be a little bit of a lull right now in the violence, mostly because the Sinaloa cartel has taken preeminence – some say with the collusion or at least passive acceptance of the government, who might see them as the least worst option. I can’t say I entirely blame the government if that’s true – after 100,000 deaths, they would do anything to lessen the violence.  Having said that, there have been over 100 killings recently in the Tijuana and Baja area, so we’ll just have to see.



DS: I live in Albuquerque, about two miles from “the Big I,” the intersection of Interstate 25 and Interstate 40. If truckloads of well-hidden drugs up from Mexico rumble east on 40 or north on 25 past that intersection, is it already too late to stop the massive drug flow into the rest of the country?


DW: Well, there’s a reason Route 40 is called ‘Cocaine Alley’.  And you’re dead on, the drugs come north out of Juarez, through El Paso and up the 25.  Once it hits the 40, it’s pretty much gone, although various state patrols do what they can.  Our best estimate is that we interdict somewhere between 10-15% of drugs coming across the border, but once it’s on the highways, it’s probably a lower percentage.  The 40 is really the drug arterial to the big cities of the northeast.