By Robert Anglen
February 21, 2019
We are the cartel.
This simple, angry declaration forms the connective tissue of Don Winslow's searing trilogy chronicling decades in the drug-war.
America's voracious appetite for drugs is the rocket fuel powering an economic engine of misery, violence and death. You may not snort, shoot or smoke, but you're complicit in the industrialized-addiction market of prisons, pharmaceuticals, finance and politics.
It's the point Winslow drives home with a sledgehammer of rage in "The Border," the eerily prescient and scathing climax to what is quite simply the most important crime saga in modern literature.
"The Border" officially hits shelves Tuesday, Feb. 26. But Winslow will launch his national book tour from Scottsdale on Monday, with a signing and discussion at the Poisoned Pen bookstore.
If Dostoevsky slung dope, he might have written the fierce morality tale that Winslow began with "The Power of the Dog" in 2005 and followed with "The Cartel" in 2015 (a sequel he swore he would never write).
Winslow's fiction has always been contemporaneous, immediate. Truth compacted into narrative by way of meticulous research.
The massacre of 19 women and children in a Baja beach town that served as the jumping off point for "The Power of the Dog" was based on actual events. As were the decapitations, dismemberments, gang rapes, tortures, executions, overdoses and two unforgettable scenes — one involving a bridge, the other a soccer ball — that followed.
Winslow synthesizes news reports into cohesive storylines. Not for exploitation, but for explanation. He wants to make sense out of horror. Give it context.
And he does it without forgetting the blood price real people have paid — journalists, law enforcement officers, ranchers, politicians, users. As he did in "The Cartel," Winslow opens "The Border" with a list of the dead; journalists murdered for telling the truth of the drug war.
But never before has Winslow served as a kind of cultural soothsayer the way he does in "The Border." And that is saying something. This is the guy who wrote a fictional account about the head of the Sinaloa cartel "escaping" (buying his way out) from a Mexican prison a month before drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman did it in real life.
This time it feels as if Winslow is breaking news, scenes seemingly play out in real time: Partisan politics that have turned the Mexican-American border into a wedge issue; the migrant caravan; the separation of children from their parents; the cartel's transition to heroin from coke; a president who commands by Twitter (so closely modeled on Donald Trump that they share the same tweets).
"The Border" offers dozens of story arcs. We follow an undercover cop in New York City, an inmate forging new allegiances among prison gangs, the up-and-coming kingpins who play tough in emulation of their fathers with terrible results and the Wall Street hedge fund manager coerced into flipping.
Harrowing, but with hope
But the most haunting and beautifully rendered scenes take us deep into Guatemala City slums, where a 10-year-old boy ekes out a living fighting other denizens for trash treasures at the dump. When the deadly street gangs tap him for servitude (at the threat of his mother's rape), the boy escapes on La Bestia,the migrant train that carves its way through Central America and into Mexico. It's a harrowing journey, but not without hope.
The book's primary set piece is once more taken from real-life events, the disappearance of 43 students during a 2014 protest at a teaching college in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Officially, the students are missing, their remains never found.
Winslow borrows accounts from investigative journalists who say the students were murdered by federal and state police after they commandeered a bus that was being used to transport $2 million dollars worth of heroin for the cartel: Their bodies were incinerated, pieces scattered in a river.
"The Border" spans five years beginning in 2012. It opens where "The Cartel" left off, with defrocked DEA agent Art Keller walking out of a Guatemalan jungle and away from a massacre he helped orchestrate (again).
It's a devil's bargain. To end the sectarian violence that made Mexico into an abattoir (100,000 dead), Keller devised a scheme to take out the heads of the warring cartels. In so doing, he created a vacuum of power that the next generation of cartel leaders will fight to fill. And fight they do.
Keller is nobody's fool. He accepts what he's done and wants nothing more than to retreat to a Mexican town near ravaged Juarez and live out his days with Marisol Cisneros, a former politician who was brutalized for opposing the drug lords.
But the drug-war isn't done with Keller. The cartels are taking notice of America's new love affair with opiates and have decided to undercut the pharmaceutical market with cheaper, more powerful drugs: heroin with a fentanyl twist. Almost overnight, cartels abandon marijuana and cocaine and shift focus to poppy fields.
A politician offers Keller a chance to assuage his guilt, an assignment not on the front lines of the drug war but as a general heading the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Jump to Washington DC.
Keller takes his brief seriously. He puts in motion a two-pronged plan to trace the heroin pipeline from street dealers in New York City to suppliers in Mexico while simultaneously targeting the banks and investment firms laundering drug money. Drugs come north, money goes south.
That puts him on a collision course with TV-reality star turned presidential candidate John Dennison and his son, real estate investor Jason Lerner. While Dennison vilifies Mexicans as "bad hombres" (yes, that verbiage makes it into the book), Lerner desperately tries to salvage a highly leveraged New York City plaza development.
Dennision stokes his base with rhetoric while Lerner turns to Mexican lenders to create a syndicate of investors and launder a hundred million dollars for the cartel.
It's impossible to ignore the parallels to Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And agree with it or not, it makes for heady political fiction, for which Winslow is fearlessly unapologetic.
Winslow in the past year has waged a one-man Twitter war against Trump over his border policies, with near daily Tweets criticizing the administration. Winslow's position after 20 years researching and writing about the drug war: The Wall is a stunt that won't stop the flow of drugs into America. Walls have gates, he says.
"The Border" could easily have been called "The Wall." It is to Winslow's credit that he opted for something less divisive, interpretative. Walls are fixed in place, solid barriers. Borders are ephemeral, laws scratched in sand, moral boundaries we choose to cross.
Each of the books in Winslow's drug-war saga has a different focus. "The Power of the Dog" was about interdiction. It offered a front-line perspective, from the burning of poppy fields in the 1970s to the early days of the cartels and the crack epidemic that made kingpins out of cocaine cowboys.
"The Cartel" documented the toll of the drug wars. More than anything, it was about consequences of failed policies. Visceral and terrifying, it offered an experience through the eyes of victims on both sides of the border.
"The Border" puts politics front and center. As equally unforgiving as its predecessors, it puts the onus square on the shoulders of the American public and asks you to consider some hard truths about addiction.
Part two of the book opens with a chapter called "The Acela," which should be considered essential reading, if not required reading, for every American. It's here that Winslow diagrams the intersection of drugs and money and lays it out with a simple equation.
Keller is on a train blowing through a landscape of urban decay; closed mills, abandoned buildings, graffiti-tagged billboards.
"It's tempting to think the root causes of the heroin epidemic are in Mexico...but the real source is right here and in scores of smaller cities and towns."Opiates are a response to pain.
"Physical pain, emotional, economic pain.
"He's looking at all three.
"The Heroin Trifecta."
What: Join Arizona Republic reporter Robert Anglen with author Don Winslow, who will discuss and sign his new book, 'The Border'
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb.. 25.
Where: The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd, Scottsdale
Admission: Free, $28.99 for the book
Details: 480-947-2974, poisonedpenevents.com.
RELATED: An interview with Don Winslow