The Cartel

Don Winslow's crime novel The Cartel (2015) is the second installment in his Power of the Dog series and continues with the author's hard-hitting fiction-wrapped reportage of the Mexican/American drug war. It's as gripping as the first and seeped in crueler violence while relaying more of the terror inflicted by the cartels on everyday people and society at large. He also expands on the meaning of "cartel" to include law enforcement, users, politicians, news reporters, and essentially all of us.

I made the mistake of watching the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (2020) while reading Winslow's novel. The two share similar themes and character types. Felix Gallardo, in the TV series, aims to pacify and consolidate the Mexican plazas moving product across the U.S. border, whereas Adán Barrera in The Cartel (a fictional character whose father, Don Miguel Angel "Tio" Barrera, is based on the real-life Félix Gallardo) has lost grip on the plazas and so goes to war with them, especially the ruthless Los Zetas syndicate. Both series also follow DEA protagonists, with Art Keller in The Cartel the less plausible but more fleshed out, as an agent-turned-assassin. Revenge is a primary theme in the book, though Winslow tempers the vengeance so that good doesn't wholly prevail over evil, an outcome that would be hard to swallow considering this "war" still goes on.

It's a long read, a bit soft around the middle, but as much of a thrill ride as its predecessor, The Power of the Dog (2005). Winslow's journalistic style shines here (underpinned by the several years of research he put into the project). He's a master of perspective, altering the narrative voice and style to convey the individuality, inner thoughts, and motivations of characters. Overall the book is a brilliant, big piece of crime fiction rooted in actual events⁠—just don't read it and watch Narcos: Mexico at the same time.

Don Winslow

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