Don Winslow on Reluctantly Writing Again About Mexico's Drug Cartels

In 2006, after years of in-depth research into the origins of the Mexican drug trade, novelist Don Winslow published Power of the Dog, a saga similar to Tolstoy's War and Peace except with Mexicans instead of Russians and no peace.

Four years after Dog came the hugely successful The Savages, which depicted a Laguna Beach marijuana cultivator, his ex-Navy SEAL pal and their mutual girlfriend; the trio run afoul of a Mexican cartel when they refuse a business offer. (The book led to a 2012 Oliver Stone movie starring Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta).

Fortunately for fans of Winslow's highly-inventive, torn-from-the-Blog-del-Narco account of south of the border carnage, Winslow has just come out with The Cartel, a Dog sequel that chronicles the bloodiest years of the Mexican war on drugs, which has killed well more than 50,000 people since 2006, including dozens of journalists Winslow lists by name in the front of the book.

We recently caught up with Winslow to talk about the true tales behind The Cartel, which comes out in bookstores today.


OC Weekly: Why is it that I'm reading The Cartel and am actually starting to like this cartel godfather Adan Barrera, who is probably responsible for more bloodshed than anyone in the book?

I don't know, why is that, Nick? (Laughs). Look, you know how this goes: it's just not good enough to stand outside and say, “Bad guy, bad guy.” I think [Barrera] does a lot of bad things but you need to see the world from his eyes and point of view. We need some contrast between these cartel people, because there are shades of gray and shades of evil. The Mexican government agrees and seems to have sided with the Sinaloa cartel.

Barrera reminds me of the real life Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was rumored to be protected for years by the Mexican government while the armed forces went after all his rivals. I could tell you were thinking of Chapo when Barrera escapes from the Puenta Grande prison by literally walking out the front door during a party.

Absolutely, I drew from that. I don't buy that myth that Chapo escaped from prison in a laundry cart. He was going in and out. When you look at real life, Chapo is driving the action of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the western hemisphere since the American Civil War. I was sitting on the sidelines not thinking about writing this book but watching these events unfold down the road.

Things are so different now than when I wrote Dog, the violence that has happened is unprecedented. The spectacle has become a means to itself. I think ISIS has taken the technique from the cartels of using spectacle and social media as a front. I think they realized that in order to win the war against the other cartels and the government, they needed propaganda and terrorism through media.

There also seems to be a spectacle in how the US and Mexican governments turn these cartel bosses into celebrities so that each time they arrest or kill one of them we can herald it as a major victory in the war on drugs, even though it usually only makes the violence worse.

It goes on and on. I'm not convinced that any major cartel figure has ever been arrested without the complicity of another cartel figure. The Zetas, many of them originally trained in the US to be anti-drug soldiers. This stuff comes back to haunt us. We share intelligence with our Mexican counterparts; I don't know if we're ever sure where that intelligence winds up. With their police and special forces? Or does it get leaked to the cartel?

Ever since Chapo's capture last year, it seems like the violence has gone down, but reading the Mexican drug war blogs it seems clear the government is simply making it harder to report on what's happening. Plus as you lament in your author's note, there are fewer journalists around to write about it.

I think the recent Mexican administration certainly wants to downplay the coverage, and there has been a lull in the violence for two other reasons. One is that they picked a winner–Chapo–and that winner won. And like any war there is a certain exhaustion at a certain time. Having said that, there have been 100 murders in Tijuana in recent days.

Yeah, unfortunately, you've obviously had no shortage of real life stories to pluck for this book.

My god yes; it was the reverse problem. There was so much of it, and as a historian, I am tempted to write it all. But as a novelist, I know I can't, and I have to have structure. It's quite a long book, sadly. It's a matter of finding which incidents led to other incidents, you could see patterns. At first it looks random.

I created a chronology of virtually every day in the drug war from 2001 to 2014. Then I stepped back from that chronology. I saw larger events, some meta and some simply personal, that led to conflicts and changes in alliances and that kind of thing.

Didn't you once say you'd never write about the cartels again after Power of the Dog?

I was very reluctant to write this book. I came into it kicking and screaming. But at the end of the day, I didn't think I should be sitting on the sidelines as a writer about this. A lot of Americans just don't know what has happened there and why. I'm not a crusader, I'm not a journalist. I'm a novelist, and I had to write this story.

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Email: ns****@oc******.com. Twitter: @NickSchou. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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