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.