'Cartel' Author Spins A Grand Tale Of Mexico's Drug Wars
Novelist Don Winslow has spent 10 years immersed in the Mexican drug wars. He has studied all the players, from the lowly traffickers to the kingpins who head up the cartels. One of the characters in his new novel, The Cartel, is based on drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, who escaped from a Mexican prison over the weekend.
Winslow points out that El Chapo is a rich and powerful man who likely had help from both inside and outside the prison. This was his second escape, and the previous one was followed by a surge in drug violence.
"He got out and tried to reassemble a mega cartel and really take over the border territories," Winslow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So, in effect, he touched off the war that went on for 10 years and cost 100,000 lives."
Winslow began looking into Mexico's drug wars in 1998, after reading a newspaper article about the massacre of 19 people in a Mexican town he sometimes visited. That research eventually led to his novel, The Power of the Dog, which traces the origins of the drug wars to the 1970s.
In The Cartel, Winslow focuses on the more recent violence, which, he says, comes from "a new generation of cartel leaders that are more violent, more sadistic" than their predecessors. "Whereas back in the day, the cartels used to try to hide their crimes, now they announce them on social media."
On El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel
This is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill, to have killed, and a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There's a reason why they didn't extradite him to the United States — principally because he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories. Don't think he wouldn't do it and don't think that certain people in Mexico are terrified of Chapo Guzmán talking to American federal prosecutors. ...
Chapo has been around, a player, since the late 1970s, so he survived the big DEA onslaught in the '70s. He survived a major war against the Tijuana cartel. He was responsible, probably, for killing a Roman Catholic cardinal. But in this latter phase, it's when Chapo escaped from prison the first time in 2001, he got out and tried to reassemble a mega cartel and really take over the border territories in Juarez, Laredo and Tijuana, so, in effect, he touched off the war that went on for 10 years and cost 100,000 lives.
On the new generation of cartel leaders and how they are similar to the self-proclaimed Islamic State
It's not like the cartels are like ISIS; ISIS is like the cartels. Ten years before ISIS was releasing beheading videos the cartels were doing it. They're very sophisticated. They know that they need, not only to control the action on the ground, but also the narrative, [to] control the story. I think ISIS is just taking a page from their playbook. ... The problem, similarly to ISIS, is they use these videos as recruiting tools. They're attractive to people who feel themselves to be powerless, they see these examples of ultimate power and it's quite attractive to them.
On dedicating the book to the journalists who were killed or abducted by cartels
It's one of the, ironically, great untold stories of this period. ... The cartels decided that they needed to control the narrative. They did that through social media, through the Internet and Twitter and all those things. But they also did it by attacking journalists. They bribed journalists, and journalists who couldn't be bribed or who wouldn't do what they said, they killed, and it's a real tragedy. I'm not a journalist — again, I'm a novelist. I write thrillers. I write entertainment. At the same time, though, as a writer, I do feel some kind of kinship with those journalists. And as an American writing about Mexico in a fictional sense ... it's much safer for me than, obviously, it was for those people. I felt that I should acknowledge them and honor them and do it by name.
On how America's drug problem relates to Mexico's drug problem
We are the largest drug market in the world. We're 5 percent of the world's population — we consume 25 percent of the world's illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. ... At the end of the day, they'll run out of products. It's the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there's no recourse to law, there's only recourse to violence. That's created the cartels. It's our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.
On how marijuana is farmed with slave labor
I don't want to harsh anybody's high, I wouldn't tell an adult what he or she should do; however, I think that we ought to know the provenance of these drugs that we're taking ... and know that there's a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you're having.
What you have now in the immigrant community are more Central Americans than Mexicans and they make this long and dangerous journey up through Central America up through Mexico to get to the American border. A lot of them don't make it. They are kidnapped by the cartels, often murdered, the men, on suspicion that they might join a rival cartel and might be used by a rival cartel. The women and the girls are very often taken and forced into farm labor and/or prostitution. So I don't want to harsh anybody's high, I wouldn't tell an adult what he or she should do, however, I think that we ought to know the provenance of these drugs that we're taking (I say "we," I don't do any drugs), and know that there's a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you're having.
On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking
Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what's happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they've been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they've almost stopped growing it now, because they can't compete with the American quality and the American market. ... I'm not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they're telling us is it's down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.
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