The Cartel by Don Winslow

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The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow’s first depiction of America’s war on drugs, changed perceptions of its author when it was published in 2005. Winslow was already an established writer stateside and a winner of the Edgar Award, but became an international success thanks to The Dog. Epic in scale and ambition, it told the story of 30 years of drug trafficking and law enforcement predominantly through the eyes of two men – DEA agent Art Keller, and the man he would eventually put behind bars, Cartel king Adan Barrera.

Such was the undertaking writing The Power of the Dog that The Cartel, its sequel, is a story Winslow thought he would never write. We reckon it’s going to be one of the top books of summer 2015, but the story begins in 2004. Barrera is in American custody thanks to Keller’s efforts in the first book. The latter is living in seclusion, keeping bees in a monastery, a burnt-out wreck. The only thing which can pull Keller back into play would be Barrera’s escape, and that’s exactly what happens.

In The Power of the Dog, Barrera’s incredible foresight and planning allowed him to pull the cartels together under his leadership of El Federacion. At the beginning of The Cartel he shows the same aptitude when he does the thing the Americans want most but think least likely – he turns snitch. Doing this gives him the chance to make a trade: his information in return for a sentence in a Mexican prison. Barrera’s plan while serving time is for the Americans to sweep up his competition on the outside. Later he will escape from the Mexican jail, fill the power vacuum and have his Sinaloa cartel in charge once again.

The story which follows is based upon, and follows very closely, real life events. Keller forms one third of what becomes known as the Barrera Co-ordinating Committee, and represents the DEA. Alongside him sit a prosecutor Luis Aguilar, and a policeman called Gerardo Vera. The three of them will be responsible for the joint American and Mexican battle with against cartels, though in truth Keller is really only interested in Barrera. Vera’s men will make the arrests, and Aguilar will prosecute them. That’s the plan, at least, but the vast array of forces against them, the interdepartmental squabbles within the US, and the endemic political and law enforcement corruption within Mexico mean the team moves from a counter-insurgency model (make friends where possible, arrest others) to a counter-terrorism one (targeted assassinations).

The escalating violence, cartel against cartel, but also against politicians, journalists, law enforcement, and most desperately innocent Mexican civilians was the reason behind Winslow’s decision to write The Cartel. Winslow has talked before about the line he treads between making the violence visceral and shocking but not pornographic. You will have your own view on where that line is, but I don’t think he crosses it once in The Cartel. The violence really is shocking – beheadings, immolation, torture – but the worst of it happens off page, and rather than being exploitative, is in fact necessary to tell the story he has chosen properly.

The narrative shifts countries, indeed continents, as people die, as new alliances are formed, and the depth of Winslow’s research and his ability to produce a story out of the chaos are impressive. They are not though the highlights of this book. What engages the most are the individual human stories Winslow weaves into his grand tapestry. There is Magda, who grows from being Barrera’s girlfriend to his equal, becoming a trusted advisor and an independent business woman, who has to deal with being pushed to one side as Barrera enters into a marriage of convenience with a young bride. Then there is Chuy, an excitable young kid who by the end of the book has become the dead-eyed ‘Jesus the Killer’, kicking a football made from the scalps of his victims patched together. Also Pablo, a compromised journalist forced to weigh the safety of his family against the fate of his city, and left with no good choices.

Winslow shies away from sermons and tub-thumping, willing to let the facts talk for themselves. Readers will have to make their own minds up about the war on drugs after reading The Cartel, because The Cartel demands to be read.

If you like James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane or Don DeLillo, you’ll enjoy Don Winslow too. You can read our interview with him here.

William Heinemann

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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