Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Reviews: The Cartel

The Cartel 
by Don Winslow
Don Winslow is among other things the author of such books as The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Power of The Dog. The last title was a favorite mystery/drama/crime book. Even mentioning that it is a crime novel probably gives you the wrong idea. The Power of the Dog is a novel that simultaneously offers an intimate look at the lives of some very broken, dangerous and obsessive people on both sides of the law and a panoramic view of the drug trade originating from south of the border, primarily Mexico. It weaved in some allusions to the real life Iran Contra and the CIA Freeway Ricky Ross scandals. The US government used domestic and foreign organized crime elements to pursue more important goals than drug interdiction. 

The novel's dominant theme was the mutual hate relationship between top Mexican drug kingpin Adan Barrera and American DEA agent Art Keller. Barrera's people tortured and murdered Keller's partner. Barrera's hothead brother is killed. Finally, through familial deceit and betrayal, Art lures Adan across the border into the US, where he is swiftly arrested and later convicted, receiving 12 consecutive federal life sentences. The Cartel picks up the story shortly afterwards. Art is deeply disappointed that his superiors won't look deeply into Adan's financial and political connections. The US government doesn't seem to care that much of the financial and military aid it provides to Mexico and Colombia disappears into private hands or is used to repress political or labor union movements. 

So Art has semi-retired from the DEA. He lives as a monk. Art is also half-Mexican. His mother comes from Adan's home state. Adan is languishing in prison when he learns that his only child, a sickly daughter, has died. He insists upon going to the funeral. In order to make this happen Adan agrees to provide information about some top Mexican organized crime/cartel members. This information is too good to pass up. The White House/DOJ/DEA/CIA/FBI can't say no to this request. 

This is especially the case as Adan is not even asking for release from prison. Adan wants to serve out his time in a Mexican prison, something everyone thinks is insane since as a snitch or dedo, his life there won't be worth much. But a deal is a deal. 
One of Adan's primary characteristics is that with few exceptions he's always the smartest man in the room. The people he's informed on were his bitter enemies. Within top cartel circles Adan's act isn't seen as contemptible and dishonest but rather canny and worthwhile. Of course it helps that Adan's a boss. The Mexican prison he's sent to is run by Diego Tapia, a cartel boss in his own right and Adan's first cousin. 

In short time Adan "escapes" from prison and starts rebuilding his power, ruthlessly eliminating anyone and anything in his way. Art is invited back to the DEA to consult with Mexican law enforcement and prosecutors looking to arrest Adan. There are politics, nationalist resentment and corruption to complicate Art's job. And Art won't be content to sit on the sidelines and provide intelligence or advice, especially when he's unsure just whom to trust.

Although the Art: Adan conflict is central to this book's decade long story, The Cartel is in some respects almost a Dickensian love letter to Mexico, its good, bad and ugly. There are a lot of characters in this story all of whom have parts to play. One of the scariest things in this book (and in real life) is the fact that the cartels have supposedly corrupted nearly every important institution in Mexican society. The most dangerous and vicious group associated with the cartels is not in fact Adan's Sinaloa group but an organization calling themselves The Zetas. The Zetas are at their core a group of former military and intelligence officers and soldiers, who after doing stints as bodyguards and enforcers for some cartels, decide to go into business for themselves. Their tactics, drawn from counter-insurgency training, set new lows in fear and savagery. 

But there is also resistance from unlikely sources. A baker goes on a hunger strike, almost killing herself, in order to force the army to release her son. A woman who was savagely mutilated years ago may have the key that allows Art to split Adan's organization. A genteel newspaper editor insists upon calling it like he sees it even after threats and multiple attempts on his life. An impoverished writer with divorce and child support issues struggles with the morality of taking money. A beautiful doctor puts her life on the line by showing the torture and abuse the army metes out. Some police officers still go to work after one cartel or the other lists them by name and promises to kill them. This is not an idle threat. 

The Cartel has a lot of mordant and even slapstick humor. The man who later became known as "Crazy Eddie" is an initially low key Mexican-American mid level drug dealer (and former Texas high school football star) who runs afoul of the Zetas. The Zetas forced Eddie to watch as they slowly murdered his best friend. The Zetas didn't consider Crazy Eddie a threat, and so let him live to tell the tale. The Zetas later regret that. As his nickname indicates Eddie becomes a dangerous war leader for his group. His internal dialogue is among the funniest as he is thoroughly sex-obsessed. Eddie has a sixth sense about betrayal which often serves him well. And compared to the lunatics he works for or fights against, Eddie is almost decent. I liked his sense of self-preservation, which is almost always present. Even when he's looking down a woman's top, silently estimating her waist:hip ratio or wondering about her bedroom skills, Eddie always has one eye on the nearest exit.

This book doesn't glorify the cartels or the police or army or prosecutors who battle them or more often take money from them. The only people who truly come off well are the small people who are trying to get through life in one piece. Compared to some of his more monstrous colleagues, Adan Barrera isn't personally that dangerous. He's polite, respects women and often avoids violence if he can help it. But like any other CEO he's not the one getting his hands dirty. If Adan gives the order to corrupt a media organization and murder those who refuse bribes, that order is carried out. Art never forgets Adan's evil even as his own lust for vengeance takes him into some moral quagmires. Art is not really a nice guy. He's a man who tries to keep the wickedness inside of him chained and leashed but increasingly wonders why.

Although this book is a sequel it gloriously stands alone. You don't need to have read The Power Of The Dog to enjoy The Cartel. As one character muses this isn't really about a drug war. It's the war of the haves against the have nots. You should read this book. It's a tale which will have you furiously turning pages to learn what happened next and just as furiously turning pages backwards to see how a throwaway line or character five chapters back is essential to what's happening now. There are some authors who quite aside from their skills at constructing a novel are just wonderful storytellers. Winslow is such a writer. So much of the story (The Zetas, the religiously inspired atavistic savagery, the threats to journalists and writers, the corruption of the Army) is taken from real life. 

But Winslow also gives voice to a Mexico that is often forgotten in the drug war stereotypes. This is the Mexico of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, Fidel Sanchez and several other intellectuals, political leaders and artists who have lent their voices, talents and occasionally their lives to the struggle for beauty, decency and humanity. Winslow dedicated this book to various murdered journalists. Read it.
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