Esther Cepeda: ‘The Cartel’ is a love letter to Mexico

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Esther J. Cepeda
August 15, 2015

CHICAGO -- 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 estadounidense—an American—so desperately intoxicated with furious love for the Tierra Azteca.

In addition to lush descriptions of places, smells, scenery, tastes and temperature 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.”

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.”

And 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, unflinching detail.

The courageous women of Juarez who defend their broken city, organize to take political power on town councils and demand action from the Mexican government to stop the violence are just as vividly and realistically depicted.

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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