Sitting across from crime novelist Don Winslow, I’m finding it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 61 with the scene I keep replaying in my head: a drug kingpin throwing two children off a bridge to send a message to a rival. I’ve had nightmares about this scene.
The kingpin is Adán Barrera, heir to a Mexico-based international drug syndicate and a main character in Winslow’s 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, which documented the birth of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its much-maligned war on drugs. In The Cartel, the hefty sequel that came out in June, Winslow revisits that war and America’s role in it, while Barrera revives his longtime enmity with DEA maverick Art Keller—the so-called “Border Lord”—and everyone from local dope boys to corrupt police officers to prostitutes-turned-traffickers gets caught up in their blood feud, or killed. Often both.
In the past 25 years, Winslow has written more than a dozen novels, many of them also focused on California, Mexico and the drug trade. The SoCal native specializes in thrillers whose breezy pacing and casual language belie the seriousness of their subject matter. In 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, a hapless prisoner is asked by the DEA to infiltrate the compound of a deceased drug lord with whom he happens to share a resemblance. In 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, a retired hit man tries to outrun his mob past and a lengthy list of would-be killers. In 2010’s Savages, two best friends and marijuana dealers are recruited by a cartel after their shared girlfriend is kidnapped and held for ransom.
While many of Winslow’s novels feature borderline likable, or least humanized, criminals, their humanity is seriously at odds with the serious nature of their crimes, especially when it comes to the drug trade. In Mexico alone, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the drug war; another 20,000 have disappeared. Winslow dedicated The Cartel to journalists who went missing while he was writing it. That 131-person list concludes ominously with: “There are others.”
“In the United States, we see these lurid headlines—43 Killed in Mexico; 28 Beheadings—but what we don’t see is the background to that, and what we especially don’t see is our own role in it,” Winslow says. “People blithely refer to ‘the Mexican drug problem,’ but it’s not the Mexican drug problem. It’s the American drug problem, the European drug problem.”
The Cartel feels like Winslow’s magnum opus—more robust, more information-packed, than its predecessors. He says the book is “pretty close to fact,” and its frequent pauses in action to outline Mexico’s history help put a Scorsese movie plot into a jarringly real context. Barrera is again the inauspicious moneyman-turned-ruthless kingpin, and Keller the morally conflicted DEA renegade—the Captain Ahab to Barrera’s white (powder) whale. They are both products of a decades-long American foreign policy that began by bolstering drug lords to fight communism; of corrupt Mexican police and military officials who have made it impossible to truly do battle with the cartels; of governments that would rather fight violence with violence than address the root causes of this high-stakes clusterfuck.
“We’re so intent on terrorism right now, which is thousands of miles and whole oceans away,” Winslow says. “Meanwhile, a hundred-thousand people have died in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Western Hemisphere since the American Civil War—and it’s right over there. People are dying for our recreation, our addictions. That’s the reality.”
The Cartel pinpoints what Winslow considers one of America’s largest hypocrisies in the war on drugs: our lack of effort to contend with addiction. “In San Diego County, unless you have blue-chip health insurance, there’s a two-year waiting list to get treatment,” he says. “If you’re a meth addict, the odds are, you’re not going to make it two years. You’re going to die, or commit a crime that puts you behind bars.” In an ironic bit of basic economics, Winslow points out that the cost of drug treatment is just a quarter of the cost of incarceration.
The Cartel illustrates plenty of other hypocrisies: Why do Americans act as though Islamic militants invented the social media behead-and-brag, when the cartels have been doing it for years? Why are we so focused on organic Chipotle burritos and naturally colored Kraft cheese when our pot brownies and coke bumps come at the expense of Mexican lives? Why are we spending billions of dollars fighting marijuana, cocaine and heroin when last year’s record number of opiate deaths were tied primarily to prescription painkillers?
“There’s never been a war on drugs,” says Winslow. “There's been a war on drugs likely to be sold by people of color."
While Winslow never intended to write a sequel to The Power of the Dog—"When it was first broached to me, I think I hung up the phone”—The Cartel feels like a natural and necessary successor. It’s a book meant to remind readers that, marijuana legalization efforts aside, the drug war isn’t over. We’re still fighting the old fights, still engaged in the schizophrenia of spending billions of dollars buying drugs, billions of dollars incarcerating people for using them and billions of dollars trying to keep them out of our country. Dog spanned 1975 to 2005, and The Cartel 2005 to 2015; it seems hard to imagine a world in which 2015 to 2025 won’t offer up a logical next chapter in the story of the Mexican cartels and their DEA nemeses (though when I broach the idea of a trilogy, Winslow feigns jumping out a window).
"I’d like to think this is the end of the story, but the drug wars are heating up again,” he says. “People go out and buy their weed, and while I don’t see anything wrong with the drug itself, I see the way it arrives to us: through murders, through slave labor, through women who have been gang-raped. We don’t seem to have a problem purchasing that…but we’ll boycott Starbucks."