Pubdate: Tue, 18 Aug 2015
Source: Chico Enterprise-Record (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Chico Enterprise-Record
Note: Letters from newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority
Author: Esther Cepeda


Don Winslow's epic new novel, "The Cartel," about Mexican drug lord 
Adan Barrera's desperate moves to stay on top of a quickly changing 
political and competitive landscape, couldn't have been released at a 
better time.

The book, which begins with a Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman-esque prison 
break, came out mere weeks before the real Guzman, the head of the 
Sinaloa cartel, disappeared from a Mexican prison cell through a tunnel.

This wasn't solely coincidental - "The Cartel," along with Winslow's 
2005 novel "The Power of the Dog," is well-researched and chronicles 
the recent history of the Mexican drug cartels from 1975 to 2004.

Having recently visited Ciudad Juarez on a reporting trip to evaluate 
its nascent rebound from a drug-war nadir when it was known as a 
murder capital of the world, I couldn't help but dig into Winslow's 
fierce portrayal of the lives of those attempting to survive the horror.

Winslow once called his reporting on the drug war "a little tour of 
hell each day," and it's fair to say this latest novel offers a 
little tour of hell on practically every page - begging the question 
of why anyone would want to read it.

Well, love.

Not love-interest storylines, though there are a few of those - 
between war-traumatized Mexican journalists, between the American 
agent out to take down the drug lord and an ultra-patriotic Mexican 
national, and even between the principal kingpin himself and the 
three important women in his life. But the big heartthrob here is the 
author's love for Mexico.

Not since James A. Michener's "Mexico" have I read a book by an 
American so desperately intoxicated with furious love for the Tierra Azteca.

In addition to lush descriptions of places, smells, scenery and taste 
sensations, Winslow's characters spout their adoration for their 
country with unmitigated passion.

Pablo Mora, a journalist and native of Ciudad Juarez, rails against 
the drug-fueled killings: "This my city of Avenida 16 Septiembre, the 
Victoria Theater, cobblestone streets, the bullring, La Central, La 
Fogata, more bookstores than El Paso, the university, the ballet, 
garapinados, pan dulce, the mission, the plaza, the Kentucky Bar, 
Fred's - now it's known for these idiotic thugs." Advertisement

Pablo goes on a rant invoking no fewer than 39 writers, poets, 
architects, painters, sculptors and other notables of art and 
culture, ending with the disgusted observation that "now the names 
are 'famous' narcos - no more than sociopathic murderers whose sole 
contribution to the culture has been the narcocorridas sung by 
no-talent sycophants. Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, 
deserts and jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens ... 
is now known as a slaughter ground. And for what? So North Americans 
can get high."

In Winslow's universe, there is U.S. and Mexican government 
corruption, institutional incompetence and no shortage of greed. But 
there's also no question about what is at the root of the problem.

"Just across the bridge is the gigantic marketplace, the insatiable 
consumer machine that drives the violence here. North Americans smoke 
the dope, snort the coke, shoot the heroin, do the meth, and then 
have the nerve to point south (down, of course, on the map), and wag 
their fingers at the 'Mexican drug problem' and Mexican corruption. 
It's not the 'Mexican drug problem,' Pablo thinks now, it's the North 
American drug problem."

What a problem it is. The depths of depravity of the small-time thugs 
and monsters who carry out the orders of the cartel bosses are 
illustrated here in sickening, alarming detail.

At the beginning of the story, our protagonist DEA agent, Art Keller, 
declares that in the drug trade, "There's no seller without a buyer. 
The solution isn't in Mexico and never will be."

Winslow's task is not to advance policy proposals but to entertain 
and inform, and he does a stunningly marvelous job of taking us 
within the Mexican side of the drug wars. But if the solution lies 
here in the U.S., I sure hope he has another few books in him to help 
us figure out what it is.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom