by Laura Miller
On September 6, 2006, a score of masked gunmen stormed into a night club in Uruapan, Michoacán, fired at the ceiling, and tossed five severed heads onto the white-tiled dance floor. Being narcotraficantes—members of one of the brutal drug cartels that effectively ruled large swaths of Mexico in the early years of this century—they also left a note. In towns along the border, boastful, taunting, and tendentious banners and placards, or narcomantas, were routinely hung up next to piles of corpses. This one read, “The Family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.”
The assassins, or sicarios, as they’re called in Mexico, were members of La Familia Michoacana, a cartel that, despite its penchant for decapitation and torture, had pretensions to piety and a certain rough chivalry. (Years later, remnants of La Familia reorganized as a group calling itself the Knights Templar.) The syndicate’s temporal and spiritual head, Nazario Moreno González, wrote a “bible” of inspirational sayings and admonitions, which members of La Familia were expected to carry with them. Also required reading in the cartel was the book from which Moreno González cribbed much of his pop philosophy, “Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul,” a paean to muscular Christianity by John Eldredge, an American evangelical who lives in Colorado Springs.
Most crime novelists, especially those reaching for a momentous effect, are obliged to turbocharge their villains. The perpetrator of the locked-room mystery is supernaturally ingenious, the serial killer far more baroquely sadistic than his real-life counterparts, the Mob boss too comprehensively powerful to be believed. Mexico’s criminal cartels have never presented such a problem to Don Winslow, who has written two extensively researched sagas about the war on drugs: “The Power of the Dog,” in 2006, and now “The Cartel” (Knopf). If anything, Winslow has had to tone down the truth and insert some orienting genre formula into the horror and absurdity of actual events. Winslow left the bizarre tidbit about the evangelical self-help book out of “The Cartel,” although parts of the novel are told from the perspective of a member of La Familia, a Chicano runaway trained to kill by sicarios at age eleven and rendered half-feral by a fathomless series of traumas. He’s the one who, in “The Cartel,” removes the five heads from rival cartel members and has them spilled across the dance floor. But the narcos’ reverence for a Holy Roller version of Robert Bly’s “Iron John” must have seemed just too weird to play. (As was, presumably, the 2011 contretemps between another cartel, Los Zetas, and the hacker collective Anonymous—a preposterous movie premise inexplicably graduated to reality.)