Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Cartel. Don Winslow. A review

The Cartel 

average reading from
From the acclaimed author of The Power of the Dog—and continuing the gripping, harrowing story of the Mexican-American drug wars that fueled it—an electrifying new novel that spans a deadly decade and brings this tale of greed and corruption, revenge and justice, heroism and deceit into the present moment.
It's 2004. El Federación, the most powerful drug organization in the world, has been exploded and the Mexican drug trade has settled out into several cartels that exist in a state of tenuous accord. The patron of El Federación, Adán Barrera, is in solitary in a San Diego prison. Art Keller, the DEA agent who put him there—and killed his two brothers—is living at a New Mexican monastery, tending bees, the solitude and simple truths of the place a powerful antedote to his former "life of lies." But when Barrera negotiates a deal that lets him serve out his time in a Mexican prison, a series of events is set off that undermines whatever accord existed between the cartels, and a war of unprecedented scale and viciousness erupts. And with Berrera back in the world that he once owned and will do whatever he can to own again, Keller plunges back in the game, playing, as he always did, by his own rules. What ensues is an all-out war with players—honest and corrupt, victim and perp—on every level of society on both sides of the border. But it is also Keller's personal war on drugs, his own addiction, and the question that hovers above every move he makes: is he looking for justice or for revenge?

Kindle Edition640 pages
Published June 23rd 2015 by Knopf (first published May 22nd 2015)
original title
The Cartel
edition language

A good read. Worth the time.
Most (about 70%) of this novel draws on true facts and real events - those countless horrific reports from the ongoing bloodbath of the narco-war in Mexico. It IS a novel, and Winslow applies literary licence to shift events in time and place, and to create amalgam characters based on the biography of real ones. (e.g. Don Buho the editor in Juarez is based on Jesus Blancornelas who founded Zeta Seminario in Tijuana) He also invents characters and incidents that allow him to push the novel more toward the "sensationalist" and "unbelievability" zones- notably his heroic (anti-hero?) DEA agent Arthur Keller (the protagonist in the earlier novel The Power of the Dog) and he describes exaggerated vision of the paramilitary power and extent of plazas controlled of a real cartel of former soldiers known as Los Zetas. Another overly exaggerated character is Eddie Ruiz - based on the totally unbelievable and exaggerated life of an American nicknamed La Barbie. It seems (to these Canadian eyes) that Winslow cannot but help portray Americans more heroic, intelligent and brave than they really deserve. 
The plot is driven by a long-standing blood feud between the heroic (but flawed) DEA agent Art Keller and the imaginary drug lord is who is the amalgam of two real life capos (Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ramon Arellano Felix). Of course, El Chapo is more well-known than Arellano Felix and many people have simply reduced Winslow's character to the Chapo part.
The emergence of a powerful paramilitary presence in Mexico (Los Zetas) drives the plot line and requires the re-emergence of a heroic agent to save the US failing battles against the dominant cartel (headed by the amalgam capo Adan Herrera) and a rising insurgent paramilitary power in the north east of Mexico (and eventually Juarez and Chihuahua). Of course, Keller presents all of this from the point of view of a mission impossible anti-hero who becomes involved in creating and manipulating intrigues only because he is willing to bend rules and engage in shady (torture,execution) behaviour.
In the overall scheme of things in the real world, the drug war in Mexico has gone relatively unnoticed and has never received the same international attention as other incidents that have resulted in much less bloodshed. In fact, there have been more victims of violence and death in Mexico than in the current Syrian and ISIS conflict.
Because of this relative obscurity, many readers might come to believe that most of the events in this book were "created and invented" by the author. They would be wrong - most of the events that Winslow described really happened. In fact, Winslow's mastery of those facts is quite impressive and it is clear that he has done a great deal of research and is familiar with the reality of drugs and the failed drug war in Mexico. There was a family of bakers who were harassed and driven out of Mexico, there was a casino that was set on fire, there were migrants captured and tortured, there was a person who specialized in dissolving bodies, there were and are child killers (sicarios), there is government complicity, there are police forces working for various factions, there are connections to the 'ndrangheta, there were more than 80,000 direct casualties (it's much higher), and there are gruesome executions and beheadings, and there are brutally explicit web sites used for propaganda and creating fear, and there were feuds and battles between allies that had violent endings (e.g. the Execution of El Barbas in Cuernavaca). The majority of facts in the book are true or based on true events.
In spite of the true facts that are the basis of the book, I am also fearful that this "fictional account" will create new misconceptions and create new fallacies about several aspects of the ongoing drug war. The book is based on facts, but it IS NOT true and simply wrong in many important respects. Here are a few "facts" that should NOT be taken away by the reader.
The DEA and Homeland are anything but heroic. The role of Art Keller represents over heated heroic nonsense. The DEA (and Homeland) are monitoring Mexico through EPIC and other border agencies, but the fact is that the war on drugs does not have James Bond/Tom Cruise super-heroes who are all knowing and capable of the levels of manipulation and intelligence of this imaginary hero.
The portrayal of Adan Herrera is drawn from some terrific Spanish language sources (especially Anabel Hernandez), but he is also romanticized and his biographical portrait in this book is really muddled by including biographical background of El Chapo Guzman's "competitor" from the Arellano Felix family and the Tijuana Cartel. Also, the real power behind the Sinaloa cartel (El Mayo Zambada) is not included in this novel, even though it appears to me that Don Winslow has also borrowed some of the "qualities" of Ismael Zambada (El Mayo) and attached them to Adan and his new father-in-law Nacho.
The power of los Zetas (the paramilitary force) is real, but it is also incredibly exaggerated and enhanced for dramatic licence. Once again, there are several "real events" (including descriptions of encounters provided in Spanish language reports by Ricardo Ravelo). But Winslow does far beyond the reality in describing their territorial influence and reach. Those exaggerated powers are important for Winslow because of the ending he had in mind for the ending - and he needed the dramatic licence of making los Zetas more powerful in order for this to happen. In the real world, Los Zetas had peaked and began to lose their real power and influence when Z-3 (Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano) was killed. The leaders after Z-3 were brutal thugs, but not wise enough or clever enough to do all of the things that Winslow has them do.
And neither are all of the men and women who profit from the drug trade obvious or evil psychopaths, sociopaths or malicious immoral murderers. Many (most?) who profit from the drug war "walk among us as moral" and appear to be no different than you or I. Winslow hints at this, but his overwhelming emphasis is on the psychopathy of drug dealers (e.g. Crazy Eddy, Z-1, Z-40) and this outweighs the more "subtle themes" that are described in passing..

Winslow also introduces "lines of thought" and ideas that are not well documented, but are undoubtedly truthful. For instance, towards the end of the book he introduces the idea that Los Zetas (and the CDG) have an interest in the gas and oil fields south of Big Bend. The things he writes are undoubtedly true (Diego Enrique Osorno writes about this) and such things have complicated the parameters of the "war on drugs". But, Winslow introduces these ideas in passing - just as he stays away from any plot complications (and truthful events) that would be caused by considering the national politics of Mexico. Such things are mentioned only in passing and not in ways that would take away from the focus on "a heroic character" fighting the good battle against evil people.

Sometimes the truth and reality are too painful and we shut down the details to protect ourselves from seeing the awful consequences. Fiction can tell the same story and leave us with a general picture of the "facts" that is more palatable and yet leave us with a general sense that we understand the truth. One earlier novel (Arturo Perez-Revete's the Queen of the South) raised international awareness about Mexico even though it incorporated even fewer "true incidents" than does Winslow's book. 
It has already received a lot of attention, and Winslow's book will do a lot to raise the awareness of the violence in Mexico, but I sincerely hope that it does not leave the impression that it has told all of the truth and provided a true picture of what went on and what is going on in Mexico as a result of America's misplaced war on drugs. I am happy to see that Winslow has been speaking out publicly (CNN) about the war on drugs and has been emphasizing some of the realities of the misplaced war on drugs that has roots back to the ideological views of Harry Ainslinger. Kudos to him for doing so.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Mexico's vigilante state: An Al Jazeera English report

Mexico's Vigilante State

Correspondent Teresa Bo takes viewers to the troubled state of Michoacán for an immersive examination of the autodefensa movement.  With tension between the vigilantes and the government increasing this week, a tenuous disarmament deadline looming, and new allegations of cartel affiliations...I think the story will shed some light on how things have been unfolding on the ground.

If you are unable to watch the video at the above link, try accessing it at 

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Mexican Drug Scene After the fall of El Chapo and the rout of Los Templarios

Rise in Street Crime? Changes in Drug Use?
Do we really know who —or, if anyone— is running the Sinaloa cartel since the surprising arrest of El Chapo Guzman on February 22? And can we know whether the "autodefensa" surge in Michoacan is a citizen uprising headed by good and trustworth leaders who decided they "don't want to take it any more"— or whether it has been a clever maneuver to take-over a drug plaza by a criminal group masquerading as heroes?
Clearly, there is a continuing “manipulation and readjustment” at the leadership level of Mexico's criminal chains, but there is not enough concrete intelligence to arrive at a definitive conclusions about power-struggles in Sinaloa and Michoacán; even less is known about plazas in Edomex, Jalisco and Guerrero. In these last few weeks before Easter 2014, many regions of Mexico might now be described using the same words that Javier Valdez Cardenas used to describe "la Perla Tapatia". His new book (Con una Granada en La Boca) reports the observations of an El Chapo lugarteniente following the death of his boss El Nacho Coronel:
"Todos contra todos, es tierra de nadie. La gente que hemos tenido acá, los parientes de Nacho Coronel, todo se nos vino abajo. Los mataron, los detuvieron, y los otros, los mas recientes, se nos han volteado. Y ahí están todos los cartels y organizaciones nuevas, disputándose la plaza."
"Everyone against everyone, it's a no man's land. The people that we had there, those linked to Nacho Coronel, all have been taken down. They killed them, they captured them, and the others, the most recent arrivals have thrown us aside. And all of the cartels are there and the new organizations – all fighting for the plaza".
The fact is, we do not know who is in charge of the Sinaloa cartel or who may be giving the orders. Neither do we know who has the advantage and control in Michoacan. We know that at least six groups are competing for the plaza in Edomex ( — but can't be certain which is dominant.
However, there have been developing trends indicating a shift in the drug market — in particular, reports of major differences in the "product" that is shipped and consumed both in the USA and within Mexico.
Miroff describes an increasing heroin use, and perhaps a weaker marijuana market for Mexican "mota" in the US. Perhaps this is one consequence of El Chapo's take-down — Marijuana is a “stable cash-crop” and “income staple” of the Sinaloa Cartel (primarily shipped through the tunnels of Arizona from Nogales to Agua Prieta), and marijuana supplies the payroll for much of El Chapo Guzman’s organization. Marijuana shipments may have been disrupted —in response to the changing demand in the market (unlikely), to a new competition within the US markets taking advantage of "legalization", or perhaps as a result of confusion and uncertainty within the Sinaloa distribution network.
There is also evidence a shifting consumer market within Mexico according to Proceso (#1953 —Manzanillo, más caliente que nunca ). Proceso attributes an increase in domestic consumption of synthetic drug to the plaza battles between Los Templarios and the Cartel Nueva Generacion de Jalisco. This report reports that the port city of Manzanillo has now "heated up" ever since the Cartel de Jalisco Nuevo Generacion (CJNG) decided to focus the internal Mexican synthetic drug market.
Any adjustments at the "top of leadership level chain" and the long-term changes in the distribution patterns and consumer tastes should become clearer over time. But what is even more chaotic and difficult to control are the changes affecting the bottom end of the drug underworld. The crime on the street will remain unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous until the adjustments at the top reach a new equilibrium.
The chaos at the street level and in the lower echelons of the drug trade is becoming more evident and has been described in a few Spanish language reports. The payroll (la nomina) of several organizations has been severely disrupted, and as a result the entry level apprentices and hangers-on  — "los halcones”,“enforcer squadrons”, and "goon enforcers" are not assured of a regular "sueldo"  (bi-weekly payments) nor can expect "bonuses" for jobs well executed. The result —rising trends in petty crime (robberies, car-jacking, strong-armed extortion, and kidnapping. The widely publicized attack on a Noroeste Director may be one example of this fall-out (e.g. ). Proceso edition #1953 also has a report describing the rise in extortion, robbery, car theft and other street crimes throughout Tamaulipas suggesting that it is the bottom feeders of the cartels who have been left without a steady source of income (En Tamaulipas, violent recaída)
It will take time to understand how things have resettled at the leadership level, but in the short term I expect to see a significant increase in called routine street crime and random violence. Without a stable leadership who are firmly in control, thousands and thousands of young hoodlums have no expectation of a regular salary. Many Mexican communities can expect increases kidnapping, extortion and robbery. And I expect that this will happen in the cities that have been previously been safe and described as "sanctuary cities".
We must remember that "capos" and high level operators employed "squadrons" of lower-level thugs to "keep the lid-on" local communities and gave them directives to sanction petty crime. And in some cases (Tamaulipas and Nuevo Laredo), they used these lower-echelon thugs to create confusion and public mayhem. Many who have have written about this, but one of the most detailed descriptions is found in Javier Valdez's new book where one chapter focuses on a member of one of these lower end "squadrons": Valdez describes the criminal life of Juan, a low-level enforcer whose primary task was to "sanction" anyone who perpetrated a crime on ordinary citizens in Culiacan. Juan describes one assignment where he was ordered to hunt down, torture and kill three young guys who kidnapped someone. Juan and three companions— all under 20 years old — carried out their task with a brutal efficiency that included feeding one of the kidnappers to a crocodile and dousing the partially eaten victim with cocaine. Valdez asks Juan if he feels bad about this, but he reports that feels no remorse or moral quandary. His only concern was whether he would be receive his regularly bi-weekly payment in the coming week.
Unfortunately, routine street crime is likely to increase over the next few months during this period of leadership instability and it is ordinary citizen who will suffer the consequences.  And in the absence of "capos" in clear control, there will be no-one to defend the ordinary man or woman — and they never had confidence in the police. The fact is, the police are more likely to join in and exploit them if they believe that there is no "chief of the plaza" watching them.

April 7, 2014

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Narco Cultura" the Documentary

November 25, 2013

I  was fortunate to have seen "Narco Cultura" when it screened at the Toronto International Festival (HotDocs).

Its wider release has been greeted with a number of reviews (traditional print and blogs), and I believe that many (if not most) offer a rather shallow interpretation of this wonderful documentary. Some write about "Narco Cultura" by comparing it to their personal and inaccurate understanding of the drug war and the violence it has unleashed. 

Some reviews appear to compare this documentary to fictional myths promulgated in popular culture: It is a documentary, and "Narco Cultura" should not be judged against fictional tales like Breaking Bad— oreven worse, to the superficial and sensationalistic tropes inserted willy nilly throughout "The Bridge".  "Narcocultura" is not an old news story that has been reported elsewhere as suggested by a New York Times review ( ). Fictional accounts of the drug war in Mexico and its bloody consequences should never be used to dismiss the more accurate portrayal of real lives that are portrayed in this documentary. The biographies of everyone in Narcocultura are tragic, and few - if any— of the those in this documentary will achieve the redemption of a fictional Walter White.

Several reviews have zeroed in on the unrealistic narco corrido dreams that motivate Edgar Quintero and pay little attention to other dimensions of "culture" and/or subculture that are captured by Schwartz's camera throughout this documentary. Although Edgar's simplistic dreams are focused on achieving fame for his band "Los BuKnas de Culiacán", the documentary is NOT intended to be a definitive exploration of the cultural relevance of the narco-corrido genre. In fact, Edgar Quintero is not hoping that he will achieve success and gain riches within the traditional narco corrido stream —but is enamoured with an alternate (and more explicitly violent) version of this music known as corridos alterados popularized by musicians such as el Komander. Edgar Quintero is a sad and modern day imitiation of Don Quixote when he undertakes an unrealistic and improbable search to tilt at windmills - or at least to wildly unleash the firepower of an AK-47 or AR-15 in the hills outside of Culiacán. Anyone who wants to know more about narco-corridos would be better off looking for Elijah Wald's terrific book and its companion CD ( ). And for that matter, anyone interested in Sinaloense cultural phenomena can seek out a lengthy article that I did a few years ago about the cultural relevance of Jesus Malverde. ( ) (please excuse the shameless self promotion)

Edgar Quintero is not representative of young men in Mexico - he is a marginalized young American with little hope of success in and fame, and a man is driven by far-fetched dreams of riches and wealth to be gained as a "pop idol". Schwartz's documentary should not get sidetracked by debates about the negative or positive impact of narco-corridos, but rather it should raise more questions about the powerlessness and marginalization of young men (and women) trapped in the "interstices" defined by economic and geographical boundaries without the benefit of clear cultural or moral guidelines about right or wrong.

Richi Soto IS representative of the young man in Mexico. He is educated, connected to his community, sincere in his desire to make his country a better place, and working in a job that would be bring him a great deal more respect and provide an honourable living if it were north of "la linea". Instead, Richi risks his life every day that he punches the time-clock, and is trapped in a cycle of ground-hog days and interminable waiting for his never-appearing Godot. He retrieves corposes that will never be tabulated because of a government that suppresses information to convince the world that things aren't so bad in Mexico, and brings back human remains whose identity and family ties are inconsequential to his superiors.  Richi is a man trying to do his best and he works hard everyday, but he is also someone who moves ahead only because he is afraid to stand-still.The devil, the cartels, the army and the police are too close to his back for him to stop what he is doing. Richi's life and his daily world represents the real Mexico of Ciudad Juarez, and it is a world that is very remote from the sad and tragicomic vision of Mexico dancing about in the head of Edgar Quintero when he goes on his road trip to Culiacán to get a feel for authenticity.

The Narco Cultura in the documentary is not limited or bounded by the influence of narcocorridos, although music is an important manifestation of the "culture" that Shaul Schwartz traces in his documentary. The Narco Cultura of this documentry is much more complex and much more powerful - it is seen both in the distorted vision imagined by a marginalized Mexican American with no realistic sense of its power or consequences, while at the same time narco-cultura is expressed in the institutional incompetence and in daily power of rules, norms and values (Culture) that predetermine and limit the options of men and women like Richi Soto.

The parallel lives of these two young men from two realities divided by a border represents the narrative engine (without words) that drives this documentary forward. But we also observe the impact of violence on others and we see how codes of violence are ingrained in everyday life. I literally wanted to scream at the naive stupidity of high school girls who idolized musicians — and I honestly prayed that their comments represented little more than a passing infatuation not unlike my generation's screaming adolescents fainting in the presence of the Beatles. 

I could not suppress a tear in a scene near the end of the documentary where a dignified father patiently stood with his young daughter opposite a horrific scene of carnage and bloodshed.  He said that he wanted her to not look away and to see how this drug war had ripped apart a community that he obviously loves. That scene in its quiet presentation of reality brought back the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins 
"Spring and Fall - to a Young Child"
Margaret, are you grieving    Over Goldengrove unleaving?    Leaves, like the things of man, you    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?    Ah! as the heart grows older    It will come to such sights colder    By and by, nor spare a sigh    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;    And yet you will weep and know why.    Now no matter, child, the name:    Sorrow's springs are the same.    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed    What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:    It is the blight man was born for,    It is Margaret you mourn for.

Shaul Schartz's documentary patiently follows the lives of people on two sides of a great divide, and he quietly allows their lives to unfold  without the intrusion of commentary or super-imposed narrative. He leaves it up to the viewer to make their own interpretation. On our side of the border, some of us may weep for Mexico and its violence and think we know why while there will be others who will not spare a sigh. But on the other side, the dead remain uncounted, unnamed and as numerous as fallen leaves. On the other time there is no time for mourning, only the expectation that there will be sights much colder. 

It is the child in that scene that I mourned at the end of the documentary. Narco Cultura is to be seen and to be felt, and our search for answers and the reasons for this "blight man was born for" are to be discussed elsewhere.