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.)
“The Cartel,” Winslow’s sixteenth novel, takes place between 2004 and 2012, mostly in Mexico. The point of view skitters among a half-dozen or so characters—all narcos, apart from the novel’s ostensible hero, D.E.A. agent Arturo (Art) Keller—as each pursues his or her own interests through a byzantine web of allegiances, double crosses, devious stratagems, vendettas, and regime changes. The cartels that were mere trafficking gangs in “The Power of the Dog” have become, Keller thinks, “little states and the bosses politicians sending other men to war.” Some of those men are putatively public servants, but graft has so comprehensively penetrated the state that at one point the drug wars take the surreal form of local police fighting their federal counterparts, each side on the payroll of a different cartel. The view that the novel affords is panoramic, and the carnage—drawn from life, or, more precisely, death—is numbing; in 2010, Ciudad Juárez saw an average of 8.5 killings per day, making it the murder capital of the world.
All of Winslow’s novels have been crime fiction, but their stylistic range betrays a restive sensibility. An early series featured the often comic and occasionally globe-trotting adventures of the private detective Neal Carey. Then Winslow, who typically works on two books at once, began bouncing around from the sober epic mode of “The Power of the Dog” to a series of genial mysteries solved by the San Diego surfer-detective Boone Daniels and a pair of sleek thrillers, “Savages” and its prequel, “The Kings of Cool,” which trip giddily from toasted Southern California patois to Baja California nightmare. “Savages” (adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone, in 2012), with a languidly stuttering prose style that practically giggles at itself, cemented Winslow’s reputation. It’s the story of two young Laguna Beach partners in pot cultivation—Ben, a talented botanist who’s into Buddhism and alternative energy, and Chon, a former Navy SEAL who takes a dark view of just about everything—and their shared girlfriend, O, a quipping beach bunny with a taste for acronyms. According to O, her mother, nicknamed Paqu (Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), hated having given birth to her:
“She popped me and bought a treadmill on the way home from the hospital.”
Yah, yah, yah, because Paqu is totally SOC R&B.
South Orange County Rich and Beautiful.
Blonde hair, blue eyes, chiseled nose, and BRMCB—Best Rack Money Can Buy (you have real boobs in the 949 you’re, like, Amish)—the extra Lincoln wasn’t going to sit well or long on her hips.
“Savages” and “The Kings of Cool” read like a tale spun out over a long afternoon by someone prone on a couch. “The Power of the Dog” and “The Cartel” seem like the work of another writer entirely—say, a guy with salt-and-pepper temples and an off-the-rack suit, hovering over his bourbon on the next barstool. He’s telling you everything you did and didn’t want to know about what went on and still goes on south of the border in the feeding of North America’s insatiable appetite for pot, heroin, cocaine, and meth. You can’t be sure how much of it is true; Narcolandia is ballad country, a realm of legend and rumor. But none of it is a laughing matter.
Scratch that. Some of “The Power of the Dog” is funny. Winslow can do a comic mid-level Italian gangster as well as most guys. But that novel was written before the slaughter and chaos of the cartel wars reached hallucinatory proportions. Winslow’s subject rose up and challenged him to a rematch. Los Zetas, regarded by many as the most fearsome manifestation of the cartels, isn’t even mentioned in “The Power of the Dog”; in “The Cartel,” the group gets a full history, from its inception, as the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, to its eventual takeover of drug-trafficking operations, and on to its more recent expansion into kidnapping, extortion, and the illegal siphoning and sale of oil and natural gas.
The narrative spine of “The Cartel” is carried over from “The Power of the Dog”: Art Keller’s long hunt for a Sinaloan drug lord named Adan Barrera. Barrera is locked up in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego by the end of “The Power of the Dog,” but in “The Cartel” he gets himself transferred to a Mexican prison, where he engineers a life of relative luxury and, eventually, an escape. Keller, having destroyed his family and his personal life in his relentless pursuit of Barrera throughout the first novel, has retired to a monastery in New Mexico, where he keeps bees—the preferred late-life hobby of fictional detectives since Sherlock Holmes. Barrera has put a two-million-dollar bounty on Keller’s head, forcing him on the lam and then, reluctantly, back into the D.E.A.
Thriller heroes tend to fall into two categories, each an idealized projection of the (male) reader’s ego. The first is too good to be true: smarter, braver, and more competent than both the bad guys and the various institutional forces that interfere with his doing what he knows, unerringly, to be best. He’s also potently attractive to women. The second is your basic cable-TV antihero, driven to deeds he deplores by the greater evils of the world, evils that he alone can fully comprehend. This leaves him haunted and alone, although just as potently attractive to women. Winslow’s heroes tend to dwell amid these conventions: Boone Daniels’s sole flaw consists of being so laid-back that he cares more about good friends and doing the right thing than about money, power, or ambition—which is, as shortcomings go, equivalent to the “weaknesses” that candidates offer up in job interviews.
Keller is a brooder. His obsession with Barrera—triggered in “The Power of the Dog” when one of the drug lord’s henchmen tortures his partner to death—has consumed his personality, providing him with the wrecked past so obligatory to his type. He likens himself to “Ahab chasing the great white whale,” but his quest is operational rather than metaphysical; Keller makes the novel go. Winslow gives him a romance with an idealistic doctor, but when Keller tells another character that he reads the novels of Roberto Bolaño and Luis Urrea it’s impossible to picture; surely he winks out of existence when his services are not required by the plot? Keller is not so much a character as a vector, a direction through the unspooling mess of corruption, betrayal, and butchery that harrowed Mexico between 2004 and 2012.
Barrera is also a familiar figure in some respects, a descendant of Mario Puzo’s shrewd and courtly Don Corleone, whose prudence, honor, and decorum evoke admiration in spite of his deeds. (It also helps the image of such men that they rarely do their own wet work.) Much of “The Cartel” hews closely to the reported facts of Mexican cartel history. Sometimes Winslow changes little more than a few proper names. Barrera himself is clearly patterned on Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán Loera, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel and a man once deemed by the U.S. Treasury Department to be the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. Like Barrera, Guzmán escaped from a high-security prison; had a long-time mistress who became a cartel operative in her own right until she was murdered by Los Zetas; was involved in a shoot-out that killed a Catholic archbishop (in “The Power of the Dog,” it’s a cardinal); and bribed officials to help him defeat rival cartels and escape captivity. Like Guzmán, Barrera patronizes restaurants by strolling in and having his men confiscate the other diners’ phones, locking the place down until he finishes eating. Afterward, he picks up everyone’s check.
But where Guzmán was something of a hick, barely literate for all his criminal genius, Barrera is suave and tasteful. He disdains the “gaudy, ostentatious displays” favored by the typical “nouveau-riche narcos,” such as diamond-encrusted firearms. In redecorating a family ranch to receive him after his prison break, Barrera opts for “the classic lines of old Sinaloa, while still making sure that the house revealed the proper level of wealth and power.” He would prefer not to live in a mansion, he tells his mistress, “but there are expectations.” Where Guzmán had a love life that was complex enough to fuel several telenovelas—a tangle of mistresses, wives, ex-wives, and short-term paid companions—Barrera spurns the squads of prostitutes deployed at every cartel bash and is a dignified serial monogamist until he agrees to a political marriage with the teen-age daughter of another narco. Above all, Barrera’s violence is always pragmatic. The true villain of “The Cartel,” Heriberto Ochoa, the original Zeta—loosely based on Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano—is a grandiose and bloodthirsty fiend whose followers massacre busloads of migrant workers on the slightest pretext. (Lazcano himself was rumored to feed his enemies to his pet lions and tigers.)
Much is made in “The Cartel” of how Keller’s ruthless fixation on Barrera turns him into a version of the very thing he hates. However true this formulation might be, it’s still a cliché. In truth, Keller isn’t particularly interesting, and Barrera is not much better, but they really don’t need to be. Supporting characters are Winslow’s forte, from Magda, the clever ex-beauty queen who parlays her affair with Barrera into full-fledged narco status, to Eddie Ruiz, a former Texas high-school football star whose placid life as a small-time dealer gets sucked into the nihilistic vortex of the clash between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. Best of all, in the middle of the novel Winslow turns his attention to a passel of journalists working in Ciudad Juárez when the cartels were at their peak, and it’s as if he’d opened a window and let in some air. These people—a nebbishy chronicler of Juárez’s street life, a skirt-chasing photographer, a scrappy female reporter who throws fun parties and does “a rather good imitation of the Chihuahua state governor”—feel conscripted from life, not films or books. “The Cartel” opens with a dedication listing the names of a hundred and thirty-one journalists who were “murdered or ‘disappeared’ in Mexico during the period covered in this novel,” so you can tell where this is going.
If the two main characters of “The Cartel” are a little thin, they do their job, delivering the reader into the ongoing disaster that is the war on drugs. The appeal of “The Godfather” was, in part, procedural, as it explained how to conduct a hit or hunker down during a Mob battle, but Winslow’s cartel novels describe how impossible it seems to stop any of it, no matter how much you want to, and no matter how powerful you may be. The characters find themselves forming alliances with their bitterest enemies and betraying their friends in order to fend off consequences that are even worse. Barrera believes that he can’t leave the narco life (otherwise his rivals will assassinate his extended family), and Keller figures that if he doesn’t die in the saddle he’ll just end up hanging out in a Tucson condo until he gets “the bad biopsy,” a prospect he finds even more unbearable. The most fatalistic of the narcos pray to a skeletal saint, Santa Muerte, and boast of drinking human blood in her honor.
The machinery that has delivered all of Winslow’s characters to this place is a vast, interlocking system of competing national interests, ass-covering government agencies, delusional lawmakers, stupid policies, a shortsighted public, corrupt officials, and big business, the whole mass of it driven by the desire for money, power, and chemically induced ecstasy. This machinery has its own perverse majesty, despite Winslow’s well-founded outrage that it has been allowed to grind on and on and on. He has catalogued every part of it: how this piston pushed that crank to rotate this wheel—you don’t write crime fiction, after all, if you’re not fascinated by the operations of crime. Yet the cartel wars escalated from the usual criminal pursuit of self-interest into something extraordinary, something monstrous, a ghost in the machine whose precise origin cannot be traced. Keller calls it “pure evil,” and so does Eddie, who flips on his co-conspirators when things get too freaky. “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit,” he tells Keller. “It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” He has a point.