Internationally acclaimed novelist Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a hard-hitting and gut-wrenching tale of the Mexican drug wars, hit the stands late last month and is currently #17 on the New York Times best seller list. A sequel to his best-selling novel of the cartels, The Power of the Dog, Winslow’s latest effort is a true-to-life, ripped-from-the-headlines story of power, greed, corruption, brutality, revenge, and justice set in the past decade of spiraling prohibition-related violence in Mexico.
Roughly 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006, and another 20,000 or so have simply vanished. That blood-drenched history is the spindle from which Winslow unspools his story, featuring a veteran DEA agent locked in a decades-long feud with the head of the world’s most powerful cartel. It’s a grim, nail-biting crime thriller.
But Winslow, who also authored 2012’s Savages, another fictional treatment of the cartels turned into an Oliver Stone movie, isn’t just writing for the sake of selling books. He has used the publication of The Cartel to pen op-eds calling the war on drugs a counterproductive failure and publish a full-page ad in the Washington Post telling Congress and the president “It’s Time to Legalize Drugs.”
On Friday, Winslow traveled to Houston to sit down for an interview with Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network for the network’s Cultural Baggage radio program. Here’s the interview:
DEAN BECKER: Hello, dear listeners, this is Dean Becker and I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Well folks, I’ve been enjoying this new book, it’s a powerful indictment of this war on drugs, it’s written by the author Don Winslow, the name of the book is The Cartel, and we have him with us today. Mr. Winslow, your book is a powerful indictment of the futility of this drug war, and first off, I just want to thank you, sir.
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, sir, for that kind comment, and I appreciate it.
DEAN BECKER: Now, with the release of this book you also took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post decrying that futility and calling for the powers that be to take another look at the results of this drug war, and once again, I commend you, sir.
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you. You know, I felt it was important to do something like that. At the end of the day, I’m a novelist and I write fiction, and I’m an entertainer, at the same time we’re dealing with obviously serious issues that have had serious consequences on so many people in the United States, but of course particularly in Mexico. And so I just thought that I should try to do something.
DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, The Cartel, this new book, it’s a follow-up to The Power of the Dog, and I think much of your similar or previous writings, and it continues the story of Agent Keller and a couple of others from that first book, but it’s more, it’s much more, and would you please just kind of give us a summary of your new book, The Cartel.
DON WINSLOW: Well, yes, thank you. The Cartel as you said is a follow-up to a book I did ten years ago called The Power of the Dog, which follows a DEA agent named Art Keller, who arrives in Mexico in the 70s full of idealism, and is over the years sort of schooled out of that by reality. But, he ends up in a vendetta with a drug lord, if you will, named Adan Barrera. And, so The Cartel continues that story. But, you know, it’s not a book I really wanted to write, Dean. I really fought against writing it for a long time, but as things spiraled out of control in Mexico, you know, far beyond our worst nightmares, really, and I thought, well, I’ll try a in fictional sense, you know, to crime readers, to try to explain what was going on down there.
DEAN BECKER: Well, a few years back I took a one-day junket into Ciudad Juarez, and the machine gun nests in the city park, cops on every street corner — I didn’t see the violence myself, but it was palpable, it was, it was, just — scary, for lack of a better word. Your thoughts, sir.
DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, the estimates vary of course, but during this era something like 100,000 Mexican people were killed, 22,000 missing. Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana, and the Frontera Chica, and the Texas border — you know, all became battlegrounds in a multi-fronted war, cartel versus cartel. The military versus the cartels, the military versus the police, certain police forces versus other forces, and of course, you know, many, too many, innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire.
DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, you state in your acknowledgements that The Cartel draws deeply on real events, and I see many of them, I’ve been following the war in Mexico for several years, and it just seems that, you know, it made it more compelling to be based on a true story, so to speak.
DON WINSLOW:I’m an historian by training and inclination, and so I usually like to keep my stories pretty, pretty close to the bone. But I think that in a way, novelists can do things that journalists aren’t allowed to. You know, we’re allowed to imagine the inner life of characters, we’re allowed to make up dialogue that perhaps brings out some of these events in a maybe more visceral way to readers who might not, you know, pick up a piece of journalism on this subject. And so, I like that combination between fiction and reality, and as long as I sort of keep their thoughts and their emotions fairly realistic, I think the novel can work well for that.
DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, back in 2012, with my group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, I rode across the country with Javier Sicilia and about a hundred family members of those butchered in Mexico on the Caravan for Peace, and most of them were women who had these horrible stories that made me cry every night, I’ll be honest with you. And your book includes the stories of some of these women, and the pain and misery they endure as well.
DON WINSLOW: As you know when you deal with this topic, it’s all too easy to lose your faith in humanity. But, in researching the stories and writing the stories about some of these women, it’s awe-inspiring. You know? There’s no other word for it. The courage and the moral fortitude, and I think in the video I saw of the Caravan, the word grace is used, and I think that that might be absolutely the perfect word to describe these women, who have lost so much and have moved ahead and have moved on and tragically, you know, too often at the cost of their own lives.
DEAN BECKER: It seems that media everywhere is starting to recognize this futility of the drug war, and is starting to expose it for what it is, and that is hopeless.
DON WINSLOW: We’ve been doing the same thing for coming on now 45 years, and not only is it not working, it’s made things worse. Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, cheaper than ever, and again, it’s had a hideous effect on American society in terms of the number of people we imprison, in terms of the alienation of our police forces with our inner city communities. I think the militarization of police really began with the war on drugs, and of course, it’s had the worst effect on the people of Central America, particularly Mexico. So, if something after 45 years has not improved a situation, but made things worse, then I think it’s time that we looked at different solutions.
DEAN BECKER: Indeed.
DON WINSLOW: And I think that that’s pretty obvious, really.
DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. If you will allow me, I want to read just a paragraph here from your book, this is from Alvarado. He states: “You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? The country was falling apart, violence getting worse every day. The only way to end the chaos was to pick the most likely winner and help him win, and you North Americans despise us for it. At the same time you send the billions of dollars and the weapons that fuel the violence. You blame us for selling the product that you buy. It’s absurd, John.”
DON WINSLOW: I don’t know how to respond to my own writing. I think it’s the truth. Couple of thoughts: You know, we’re very good up here at wagging the finger of corruption at Mexico. Is there corruption in Mexico? Of course, and I write a lot about it. I’m not alone in that. But as that passage indicated, what we don’t understand is that police and journalists and average citizens are not offered the choice: take the money or leave it. They’re offered the choice: take the money or we kill you. And very often, or we kill your family.And you know, the so-called Mexican drug war is one of the most tragic misnomers of the last half century. It’s not the Mexican drug problem; it’s the American drug problem. We’re, we’re the buyers, and it’s the simultaneous appetite, American appetite for drugs and prohibition of them that creates the power of the cartels and that shields this violence. And, if I were on the other side of the border looking north, I’d talk about corruption, I would ask what kind of corruption exists in American society that makes you Americans the largest drug market in the world? At a rate of five times your population.
DEAN BECKER: And the world’s leading jailer.
DON WINSLOW: The world’s leading jailer. Not only the world’s leading jailer, Dean. In the history of the world we have the largest prison population.
DEAN BECKER: Kind of tied in with your action to do that full-page ad in the Washington Post, I tried last summer to wake up our nation’s leaders with release of my book. We hand-delivered a copy of my book to the president, his cabinet, every senator, representative, all nine Supreme justices, and we mailed a copy to all fifty governors, to pretty much little avail. And I’m hoping that your book lights a bigger bonfire on their conscience.
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, I hope so too. You know, I deliberately put that ad in the Washington Post in order to do it in Congress’s home town, hoping that that paper would arrive on their desks with their coffee. I think that ad was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, I don’t remember, it’s been a little bit of a blur, you know, I’m out on a book tour. But, I’ve not heard from a single politician. Who I have heard from? Cops.
DEAN BECKER: What was their response?
DON WINSLOW: Agreeing with it.
DEAN BECKER: Well, that’s good to hear. I mean, it puzzles me that the evidence is so glaring, we can cut down on death, disease, crime, and addiction were to legalize and control it for adults, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not at the presidential level.
DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, I think, Dean, for so many years it’s been the fourth rail of American politics. You know, you start talking about a sane drug policy and your opponent then starts talking about you being soft on crime, and, you know, oh he wants our kids to have access to dope. Which of course they do now, because it’s not working. What I would like is some politician to stand up and talk back with the facts. The numbers are there, the solid data are there. If you want to talk about being soft on crime, I would say that the fact that 60 percent of rapes and 40 percent of murders now go unsolved, because we’re so focused on busting drugs. To me, that’s soft on crime. And I think police want to go back to doing real police work.
DEAN BECKER: I’m with you, sir. Now, it seems like every week I see another headline about another bust of a quote top narco-trafficker, but the fact is, it’s just a chance for another corn farmer to get down off the tractor and attempt to become a billionaire, isn’t it?
DON WINSLOW: Listen, it’s never worked. We have tried to attack the drug organization pyramid from the bottom, the street-level kids selling crack on the corner, to the middle, the traffickers coming across the border, to the top, going after these top drug lords. None of these strategies work because the amount of money they can make is so great that there is always someone willing to step into any of those roles. So, you know, there was great celebration when for instance Chapo Guzman was captured. That’s fine, I have no tears for Chapo Guzman, I’m glad he’s in prison, I have no tears for any of these drug lords who’ve been killed by the police. However, it makes no difference. Nothing was disrupted, nothing was even slowed down. The drugs just keep coming. The strategy does not work. And as long as we approach this as a law enforcement problem or god help us a military problem, we’re, the same thing is going to on and on and on.
DEAN BECKER: You know, a couple of portions of the book touched me deeply. One was about the old farmer, Don Pedro, and his battle for his ranch with the Zetas. That one made me cry, I’m an old man, I’m sorry, and it just made me think of, you know, these bandits, these rapscallions, what they’re up to, the Zetas. Would you talk about that situation?
DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, that is based on a real incident. It was impossible to resist writing about it, but, you know, I think there are two parts to your question, so let me take the first one first. Back in, you know, 2010, ’11, and ’12, various cartels were forcing people off their land because either it was strategically located along the border or just because they could. The Zetas that you mentioned were looking for land for training camps and secret bases, and they were all-powerful, or so they thought, and they could just go tell people, get out. In northern Chihuahua, along the Texas border, the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting the Juarez Cartel, and they were literally colonizing the area. They were telling, you know, people in that area, in the Juarez Valley that had been there for generations, to get out, and moving Sinaloans in, almost like colonists, in order to secure that area. Who’s on first now? Without a doubt the Sinaloa Cartel. They’re the dominant cartel in Mexico now. They basically won the war. There’s a sort of an upstart cartel, the new generation Jalisco Cartel, and we’re in a bit of a lull, but that’s about to collapse. You know, over the past month or so violence has drastically increased again in the Tijuana area. So, stay tuned.
DEAN BECKER: Your book references some of the videos that get circulated by the cartels, showing their commitment to outdoing each other in the way they torture and kill members of the opposite cartel. I saw one of those that, where one cartel had grabbed the wives and girlfriends of another cartel. They pulled out axes and chainsaws, and built piles of arms…
DON WINSLOW: That sounds familiar, that video.
DEAN BECKER: Oh god. And, my Spanish was not good enough to understand all they said, but it was a strong message, for sure.
DON WINSLOW: You know, lately we’ve been as a nation very absorbed with ISIS, and those videos, and they took that page out of the cartel playbook. What you’re looking at is basically terrorism in Mexico. And, you know, the cartels are in the territory business, they need to control territory, and to do that, they need to control the population. And they do it through a variety of methods, but one of them is terror. And, and when they put out videos like that, they are really saying to the people, you don’t want this to be you. The Spanish that is being spoken in many of these videos is to get these people to confess their roles in the rival cartel, sometimes to confess their crimes because these videos are also a means of propaganda, and a means of the cartels justifying, or attempting to justify, the horrors that they commit, in a very similar way to the ISIS videos. The really sad aspect, or more tragic aspect of these videos, is that they’re used as tools of recruitment. Particularly young people, both men and women, see these videos, and see them as demonstrations of power. And I think that there are few things more seductive to people who see themselves as powerless than to see power, and just as the ISIS sadistic videos have been great recruiting tools for ISIS, the videos that you alluded to have been recruiting tools to the cartels.
DEAN BECKER: The hundred thousand dead, approximately, the 20,000 missing, the tens of thousands of children without parents — it’s just so enormous, and yet somehow it’s ignored. That doesn’t count in the US’s drug war equation.
DON WINSLOW: The modern day Mexican drug war, the contemporary period that we’re looking at, coincides almost exactly with the post-911 era. And I think that the United States has been, and it’s understandable, Dean, because of 911, because of the lives lost, because we’ve had people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our soldiers dying and wounded, we have been obsessed with, and most of our attention has gone to the Middle East. That, that’s understandable, I think. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s good, but I think that, that people can only absorb so much violence and sorrow and tragedy. I think though that the other part of the equation is that, that we don’t want to look at it down there. It’s something we don’t want to see because I think on some level we are aware of the role that we play in it, and our own responsibility for it, and I think that that can be a hard mirror to look into. And sometimes people, and particularly our politicians, frankly, would rather look away.
DEAN BECKER: It kind of draws a parallel with the cops busting somebody and accusing them of being the cause of the problem here in the US — if they weren’t buying drugs then these other situations would not occur. But the same could be said about the US and as you stated earlier, our addiction to these drugs coming through Mexico.
DON WINSLOW: I think we are addicted to the drugs. Now obviously, we have a population in the United States that is literally addicted to drugs. The percentage of that never changes very much over the years. There are some spikes with certain drugs at certain times, but the level of drug addicts remains about the same, that’s sort of one topic. The other topic is recreational drug users, and they need to look at their responsibility. I can’t understand for instance why a person who would be so concerned about buying free trade coffee or fair trade coffee would then think nothing of buying marijuana that has blood all over it. You know? I don’t understand people who go out and protest against big business but then will come back and buy a product that’s been shipped to them by a cartel that tortures and slaughters and rapes. This makes no kind of moral sense to me. So, in my perfect world, all drugs would be legal and no one would use them. But certainly, in the time until the United States straightens out its drug laws, until we’ve stopped forcing the hands of these sadistic criminals, I’d love to see a movement where particularly young people in America boycotted these drugs, the way they boycott other products.
DEAN BECKER: The book was a follow-up to Power of the Dog, and it seems that there may be, as you mentioned earlier, a need for another book in this series, if Los Pinos and the White House continue to believe this drug war to be necessary.
DON WINSLOW: It’s my fondest hope and prayer that there’s no need for a third book. I would love it if Los Pinos and the White House took me out of this business. I don’t have plans to write another drug book, you know, next or for a few years, but then I’m really hoping at that point when I look around this landscape that we have come to some sort of sanity, and some sort of wiser policy, and that there’s no need for a third book.
DEAN BECKER: Well, me too. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and deep prayer in that regard. Well, Don, here’s hoping we can continue this discussion again soon and that just maybe, the politicians will read your book and pull their heads out soon. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you’d like to share with the listeners, Mr. Don Winslow?
DON WINSLOW: I have a website, DonWinslow.com, and, you know, always happy to hear from anybody. I have been very encouraged over the past two weeks by the number of police officers and DEA people that have contacted me. And I think there is a little momentum right now. You know, yesterday the United Methodist Church came out calling for war, an end to the war on drugs, addressing Congress. So I think that there might be a little bit of a groundswell, and I’m going to choose to go with that optimism.
DEAN BECKER: Once again, I want to thank Don Winslow, author of The Cartel.