Don Winslow's depiction of Mexico's drugs war is bloody, brutal and brilliant

The Cartel
by Don Winslow
William Heinemann, £13.99

Readers should be certain of one thing when picking up The Cartel: there will be blood, and plenty of it. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, to which this latest hefty tome is a sequel, charted 30 years of America’s War on Drugs from the 1970s onwards. Set mainly in Mexico, Winslow told a tale of violence and corruption on both sides of the border with an unflinching eye for unspeakable horror.

In The Cartel, two major characters have emerged from that carnage: a Mexican drugs baron named Adán Barrera and Drug Enforcement Administration agent Art Keller, with their ongoing pursuit of one another forming the central plot, which takes us from 2005 virtually up to the present day. After a brief stay in prison, Barrera undertakes a brutal crusade to wipe out his rivals and gain control of the states, cities and districts dotted along Mexico’s border with America. He also wants Keller’s head on a plate – and the feeling is mutual. Keller works with a series of Mexican law enforcement agencies (both corrupt and clean) in attempting to bring down his nemesis, and anyone else who gets in his way.

Into this narrative an array of supporting characters appear, including journalists, special forces operatives, religious fanatics, street-level gangsters, police, farmers, army officials and doctors, all with one thing in common: their lives have in some way been infected by the drugs trade.

Over 600 pages Winslow keeps a tight grip on an increasingly dense story. The web of alliances that are built up and broken on both sides of, and often across, the legal line remains clear to the reader throughout. The narrative runs at a furious pace and the action is peppered with set pieces. A young killer taking terrible revenge on the murderers of his pregnant girlfriend and Keller leading a helicopter raid on the Guatemalan jungle are just two of the many extraordinary scenes that play out.

This is fiction, but it is packed with factual detail about the past and the present of the War on Drugs. In the decade since The Power of the Dog came out, the Mexican government has gone to war with the cartels and an estimated 60,000 people have died in the ensuing havoc. The body count in Winslow’s new book reflects this grim statistic, and the vast majority of the crimes and characters written about here are based on real incidents, gangs and people. The Cartel is shocking and urgent, and made all the more so because so much of it is rooted in reality. It is also, in places, revelatory, particularly in its exploration of the militarisation of the War on Drugs and its depiction of the role played by a group of brave women across Mexican society who have taken it upon themselves to stand up to the traffickers and their allies.

Winslow is clearly enraged by the damage that has been wrought on Mexico. But despite this, The Cartel never feels like a worthy sermon and that, ultimately, is its crowning achievement. Everything is laid out for us, from the insane levels of violence and collusion to the bravery shown by some in the face of the mayhem. Winslow doesn’t spell out quite how angry he is; he doesn’t have to. His fury hits the reader with a force as every new bribe is revealed and every fresh body hits the floor.

Crime writing is too often viewed as a lesser craft than literary fiction. Like James Ellroy before him, Winslow has proved this to be a laughable idea. Both men have found a way of making beautiful, bloody art out of recent history. Ellroy does it by exploding stylistic fireworks. His pages fizz with clipped sentences and machine-gun rhythms. In The Cartel, Winslow’s prose is crisp and clear: a different but no less devastating beast.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (3/7/15).

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