Good stuff but very intense. I happened on this just browsing Audible – I’ve read Don Winslow in the past but something is different here – this is not a B-level surfer-detective story. This is fictionalized true crime – horrific true crime. And it’s really kind of scary when you sit back from the narrative and realize that this is going on not on the border but it’s expanding.
The Cartel is a kind of sequel to Winslow’s The Power of the Dog (2006) which I haven’t read but really want to now – later. (heh) That book deals with the origins of the Mexican drug gangs – up to the 1970s. In The Cartel Winslow deals with the younger generation of drug lords as they take over with increased violence and greed. He also deals with the confused and ineffective US response.
One of the two major characters is a Drug Enforcement Agency/CIA cop/detective named Art Keller. Keller, also a major player in The Power of the Dog, is divorced and obsessed with getting his man, Adán Barrera – he calls it a case of “Moby Dick.” As The Cartel opens Keller is in hiding as a bee-keeper in Abaque, New Mexico. One day he is visited by either the FBI or the CIA or someone so he splits with his gun. Shortly after he reads about the escape of Adán Barerra, a huge drug king, and knows he can, has to, track him down.
The other major player is Adán Barerra, modeled on a combination of various real drug lords especially Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – the guy who escaped from prison again on July 15 of this year (2015): See PBS for details of escape: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/tracing-escape-route-mexicos-notorious-drug-lord/
There are also chapters focusing on a fictional journalist for the largest Juarez newspaper, Pablo Mora. (the book is dedicated to 3 pages of the names journalists who died or disappeared during the timeframe of the novel.) Other kinds of characters are developed – a prostitute, a rival drug lord, another journalist, a doctor and her friend, Barerra’s girlfriend, more to show how all of society is affected and interpersonal relationships suffer because of gangland activity.
The pages of this chronologically ordered book are full of a multitude of varied episodes, but the main story thread is two-fold, first there’s the personal battle between Keller and Barerra and second there’s Barerra’s fight for top drug lord of the entire border.
In alternating chapters we follow Keller and the gang lords for the 8 years between 2004 and 2012. There are violent confrontations, proclamations of brotherhood, betrayal, sex, family feuds as the gangs fight for control of the cities on the US border and the lucrative US trade as well as their own glory. The money involved is incredible and the corruption runs through the gangs and law enforcement hierarchy to the very top echelons of Mexican politics. And the American side is not entirely clean either.
Eddie Ruiz, based on Texas high school jock-turned drug lord Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal; Chuy Barajos, based on media friendly hit man Rosalio Reta; and Pablo Mora, a reporter in Ciudad Juárez See My San Antonio 8/8/15
The setting is mostly in border cities of Northern Mexico, Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and smaller towns inland. The people there try to live normal lives while the gangs take over everything, while people die. As all this unfolds it feels in some ways as though Winslow has produced a sort of love story to Mexico.
It’s written like a non-fiction in many places, but that may be because it’s a fictionalized true crime book. In other places it’s strictly a novel – a good novel whose characters and the setting really come alive. The reader cares about Keller and some others. The whole makes for a broadly comprehensive and detailed story. The fiction is as good as the “based-on” material – with sympathetic characters and side-plots developed.
According to other reviews as well as the way it reads, Winslow has done extensive research, 10 years worth, and he covers the history of the drug cartels in Mexico in depth. All he added was a little story of an escaped drug lord (based on someone I’m sure) and those who are after him.
There is a general theme – a message if you will. The US has lost the war on drugs – it’s useless to try to fight a force which has millions of dollars for weapons and cares nothing for human life. These guys are terrorists and ISIS has taken note of their methods. There is enough money in the hands of the drug lords to buy the army, the police, the land-owners, the journalists and more. And if money doesn’t buy them the lives of their children will. All this to maintain the illegality of drugs? Not worth it, says Winslow. – (I don’t quite agree but I see his point.)
Ray Porter does an excellent job of reading – keeps the tension high without going over the top – does the voices nicely, good pace. Warning – listening to this for hour after hour, and it’s 23+ hours long, can be really tiring because of the intensity, but it’s also incredibly compelling – good luck.