The Cartel represents a return to familiar territory for the prolific Don Winslow, a former private investigator turned cult-crime novelist. Winslow revisits the lead characters from his 2005 opus, The Power of the Dog, and he picks up the story where he left off, with narcotics agents down along the borderline of California, Texas, and Mexico, and in the drug cartel headquarters and plazas of Culiacán and Matamoros in Mexico, where the power, the aura, and the brutality of the Mexican drug cartels exists virtually unchecked.
The Cartel, like its predecessor, is a long, sprawling novel, and its fictional characters are set amid real-world scenarios. In his acknowledgements section, Winslow curates a fine selection of nonfiction journalistic works about the Mexican drug wars that he consulted in his research for the book, and the author’s research shows on nearly every page of The Cartel. By securely grounding his fiction in fact, Winslow achieves a level of emotional truth and illustrates the hard challenges and brutal ironies of the decades-old dope war in a way that few works of nonfiction can match. Although it is a sequel, The Cartel can be read on its own, as Winslow deftly summarizes the events and characters of The Power of the Dog that provide the backdrop for action in The Cartel’s opening sequences. DEA Agent Art Keller is back, and so is Keller’s long-time nemesis, Adán Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, which Barrera has reformed and rebranded as El Federación. Both men are noticeably older, possibly wiser, and definitely driven by a relentless obsession to destroy each other.
At the novel’s beginning, cartel Boss Barrera is in a San Diego federal detention center, but he manages to buy his way back to a prison in Culiacán from which he can oversee his narco-trafficking empire. Barrera regards drug trafficking as nothing more than a big business with “a thousand details that require supervision,” including supply routes, money management, equipment purchases, accounting problems, and, of course, “security,” a clinical euphemism for execution and assassination. In the opening chapters, Barrera and his lieutenants arrange an escape for the drug kingpin, and Barerra promptly puts a $2 million bounty on the head of the man who put him in prison — Agent Keller. Keller, in turn, decides his best defense is to come out of self-imposed retirement and return to the field to help track down Barrera. What follows is an elaborate and high-stakes cat-and-mouse game played out on both sides of the border.
In the hyper-violent world depicted by the The Cartel, the so-called War on Drugs has slipped its bonds and let loose the dogs of a new and even larger war — a Dope War being fought among the competing drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) themselves as they jockey for territory and power all over Mexico and Central America and leave dead bodies and shattered lives in their wake. The losers in this game abound, and even the victory that is achieved in the final pages of the novel has a pyrrhic quality to it. Keller, a veteran DEA Agent who has followed the action for 30 years, describes the growth of the DTOs and the law enforcement efforts to stop it that surge with a trenchant observation: “You start, Keller thinks, by trying to cut out a cancer, and instead you help it to metastasize, spread from Sinaloa throughout the whole country.”
Winslow skillfully documents the raging spread of this cancer in The Cartel. And he does something more: He uses his novel to illustrate its lasting impact both on the institutions and on the individuals who are involved and infected with the disease. If you care about the nature of crime and justice in today’s America and the steep price that the men and women on the front lines of the War on Drugs pay to preserve the law and maintain a semblance of order, then pick up The Cartel and spend some time with the author’s dark vision. In an age when many people seem to only want to inhabit a virtual world, Winslow uses his narrative powers to record and illuminate a very real world, and that is a quality much to be admired.