The Cartel by Don Winslow (Narrated by Ray Porter)

The Cartel_Don Winslow.jpg

Publisher: Blackstone Audio | Release Date: June 23, 2015 | Runtime: 23 hours and 24 minutes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing a review for a work like The Cartel is intimidating. Don Winslow presents an epic narrative of the War on Drugs, populated with rich characters, an immensely strong sense of place and time. The events that carry us from one scene to the next, from one character to the next, are all beautifully constructed and pack an emotional wallop. It’s a supremely intelligent work of crime fiction, but the simple fact of the matter is that The Cartel is so good it’s actually surprisingly difficult to express all the various ways for which it deserves praise.

Winslow knows his stuff, and that knowledge appears on each and every page, living within each of this book’s broad cast of characters. It’s clear that Winslow has done his homework, and the plot points of The Cartel are backed-up with plenty of factual research that bleeds seamlessly into the narrative, informing every aspect of the book. It’s both provocative and frighteningly impactful.

Writing about the Mexican drug cartels and the US response requires a firm commitment to honesty, arguably now more than ever, and the relationship that exists between Mexico and America is a deeply, deeply complicated web, one that is frustrating at the best of times, and violently brutal at the worst. At one point, a character sums up these complexities in the most succinctly, and devastatingly accurate, way possible: America hates Mexico for selling it the drugs it buys and consumes. If ever a relationship could be both parasitical and symbiotic, it is that of the drug cartels and the various drug enforcement agencies and governments that war against and feed off one another. The War on Drugs itself is an ouroboros, infinitely consuming its own tail.

The War on Drugs is a grand idea, but the reality of it is far, far different than the governmental public relations talking points. In The Cartel, it’s a war that draws in and insinuates itself amongst the people, the police, government, oil industries, the press, and terrorists. Mexico is, of course, the focal point, with cocaine and heroin pouring unstoppably across the border, but it’s an issue that ranges far wider than merely this one country.

Following his arrest, Adan Barrera is sentenced to prison and extradited back to Mexico. But even behind bars, the former head of the Barrera drug cartel is still able to buy influence and allies that will allow him his eventual escape from prison to reestablish his dominance at the head of the various syndicates of the Mexican drug cartel. Hunting Barrera, again, is DEA Agent Art Keller. Keller’s choices in The Power of the Dog have made him a wanted man, and Barrera has put a multimillion dollar bounty on his head. Keller knows its either him or Barrera, and so he finds himself drawn back to the border, back to Mexico, back to the cartels.

Winslow spares readers none of the pain that lingers in the fallout of these two men’s lives, actions, and consequences. The Cartel is a brutal, bloody, vicious read, with scenes of torture and violence regularly punctuating the narrative. As Mexico falls deeper into the control of rival drug gangs and the violence between Barrera and the burgeoning Zeta cartel escalates, Winslow paints a grim, almost apocalyptic picture of hopeless ruthlessness. Police are murdered, busloads of innocent civilians are captured, raped, and executed. Journalists are hunted. Politicians are forced into exile or slaughtered in the streets. DEA agents are gunned down on the side of the road. Rival gang members are abducted and set on fire, or beheaded, or dismembered with their body parts littered around town as a warning to others.

And Winslow makes you feel every inch of it. Over the course of this audiobook’s 23 1/2 hours, we become intimately familiar with the central players in his densely populated crime drama. Winslow grandly manipulates our sense of empathy, to the point that we feel even for some of the drug kingpins and gang members who meet terrible ends. How odd is it that we see some of these character perform such contemptible and grisly acts, but at the moment of their demise we actually feel a twinge of sadness, if only because they’re not as bad as the crazed leaders of the Zetas?

That, too, becomes a powerful point of The Cartel. The more we fight against the tide of drugs, the more the violence escalates. There is no clean exit from Mexico and the powerful drug cartels that ruin it, no easy solution to the war, not a single magic cure-all that will fix everything, regardless of what politicians on either side of the border promise. We are all the cartel, each and everyone one of us, and the only thing we ever succeed in is making the war worse. Action and reaction, until we are forced to compromise our morals, our sense of basic human decency, into making peace with the lesser of two evils, all so the war can go on… and on… and on…