Saturday, May 14, 2016

Cocaine, Corruption and The Cartel: Don Winslow's Epic Novel

The drug wars that have engulfed much of Mexico for the last two decades have been filled with stories of atrocities, with the conflict not only victimizing members of the waring cartels, but also thousands of innocent bystanders, journalists and law enforcement. While this "total war" on Mexican society was at its worst, the Mexican government stood idly by if not complicit or on the take of the powerful cartels.

Despite this general knowledge, however, I remained quite ignorant in terms of how extensive the pain caused by the drug wars was causing. It's one of the reasons I decided to pick up Don Winslow's The Cartel, an epic 600+ page tome about the more recent years of what could justly be called the Mexican civil war. The Cartel is the second book in a series, the first being The Power of the Dog, which was released in 2005. I was reticent to pick up The Cartel without having read first book but had been assured that it could be read on its own.

The Cartel follows the intertwining stories of Art Keller, a DEA agent, and Adán Barrera, the patron and head of the Sinaloa Cartel that is the largest player in the Mexican drug trade. The Cartel opens up with Barrera being arrested after Keller has tricked him to enter to United States. Barrera engineers a plea deal that allows him to serve his sentence in Mexico, where his money and influence make his time in prison as if it were a resort before finally managing to pay off the right officials to allow an escape.

So begins the next phase of the civil war as Barrera tries to reclaim his hegemony, slowly taking out competing drug lords and paying off government officials to secure control of various zones of trade, reaching his influence to the highest offices of the Mexican state. Yet he pushes too far and unleashes a horrid backlash of Los Zetas, a sadistic group of urban soldiers willing to kill off powerful police and army officials or any journalist or community activist eager to expose their actions.

Winslow has performed some really meticulous research to write this book, using fictionalized characters to tell an ostensibly true story of what has happened in Mexico for the last two decades. He engulfs us in the violent terror campaigns that have secured the drug routes for the various cartels and lays blame for it at everyone's doorstep, be it the government officials in Mexico who have financially benefited from the drug trade, the American government whose interventions often serve to benefit one cartel over another, or the Western consumer whose taste for cocaine fuels the war and supplies it with endless cash and weapons.

So to get to the point, this book was AMAZING! Go pick up this book and get lost in it. Winslow is a writer that spares no detail yet does not bog one down in it as he takes you through the intertwining story lines, lets you understand/fear/love/hate the number of protagonists who tell different parts of the story, and then crushes you when tragedy necessitates itself.

This is a must read and I look forward to going back and reading the "prequel" in the near future.

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