It’s hard to know where to start with a book like this. The Cartel, Don Winslow’s sequel to The Power of the Dog, continues his sprawling epic story of the Mexican Drug Wars and America’s own so-called War on Drugs, began by President Nixon back in the seventies.
The good thing about The Cartel is you don’t really have to read The Power of the Dog to follow it, but I’d still recommend reading the first volume for that sense of history. Don Winslow has spent almost fifteen years researching the drug wars and brings us their stories in fictionalized form. I can remember reading The Power of the Dog and then doing my own study of the Mexican Drug Wars and realizing how many incidents from real life Mr. Winslow uses to bolster his fiction.
Both books are well worth the effort.
The Cartel opens with Adán Berrara, the fictional version of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel leader who made news a month back by making a second escape from a Mexican maximum security prison, this time allegedly through a sophisticated tunnel leading directly to the shower section of his cell. (Don Winslow believes this is a cover story put out by the Mexican government, and judging from what I know, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.) Adán is also in prison, but in the US, awaiting trial for his many crimes. While there, his daughter dies from cystic lymphangioma, a deformation of the head, face, and throat that ultimately kills its victims. Her name is Gloria, and the other main character in these novels, DEA agent Art Keller, actually used her at the end of The Power of the Dog to capture Adán.
Gloria is everything to Adán, but the authorities won’t let him attend her funeral. So he tells his lawyer, a man with the sobriquet of Minimum Ben due to his ability to get minimum sentencing for his clients, that he’ll tell all the secrets about the drug cartels if they’ll only let him go to the funeral.
All of this sets into motion an elaborate plan that lands Adán back in a Mexican prison—Pente Grande Correctional Facility—and eventually leads to his freedom and regaining control of the Sinaloa cartel.
Art Keller, meanwhile, has retired from the DEA and is a beekeeper at a monastery in New Mexico. But when Tim Taylor, his old boss, comes by to inform him that Berrera has a two million dollar bounty on his head, he leaves the monastery so as not to endanger the monks there. Eventually, he’s pulled back into the DEA when Adán makes his escape by simply walking out of Pente Grande and flying away in a helicopter—the way Chapo Guzmán is said to have really escaped back in 2001, rather than being wheeled out in a laundry cart by a prison guard as we were initially told.
The Cartel covers the drug wars from 2004 to 2015, chronicling the rise of violence after Adán moves to make his Sinaloa cartel the supreme organization by killing the leader of the Gulf cartel, thus kicking off the Mexican Drug Wars. Most telling about this book is the page and a half of names, in small font, of journalists either murdered or “disappeared” during the time the story takes place. These are real life journalists, not their fictional counterparts, and Mr. Winslow has a fictional character named Pablo Mora who, along with his colleagues at a Juárez paper, stand in for these real reporters who lost their lives to the drug wars.
Just as it’s hard to know where to begin with a book like this, it’s also hard to know where to stop. I could go on and on praising this book and its prequel, but that would be overkill. Instead, I would leave off saying this: Go out, get both books, and read them. They’re big, they’re epic, and they’re worthy of space on your bookshelf, real or virtual.
Because I guarantee you’ll want to read them again.