The Cartel

by Don Winslow

Hardcover, 2015

Status

Available

Collection

Publication

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2015]

Description

A drug lord's prison transfer to Mexico upsets a precarious balance of peace and forcing a DEA agent to come out of retirement to stop the ensuing violence.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ozzie65
For newer readers to my blog, some months back I reviewed the book that precedes this one called “Power of the Dog” also by Don Winslow. I gave it an unequivocal 5 stars and this one continues the story and receives the same 5 stars. I went and bought the book new, soft cover at the book store simply because I could not get the first book out of my head and talked about it to every reader I know.

This book picks up where the last left off. Adan Barerra, the powerful leader of the drug cartel that Art Keller decimated, has managed to finagle his way out of U.S. custody back to Mexico to serve his prison time there.

In the glorious vein of Lucky Luciano and Pablo Escobar, he begins rebuilding his cartel from behind bars. This includes setting up his cell as a luxurious 5 star suite and having prison authorities, government authorities and cartel members all on his payroll. He also manages to establish a private army and take a jailed beauty queen/drug smuggler as his mistress after the demise of his marriage.

Adan has only one other ambition besides re-establishing his drug empire. He has a $2 million dollar bounty on the head of DEA agent Art Keller. As for Art Keller, he knows Adan will try to be the kingpin again and he wants Adan dead too. Stalemate.

Throughout the border towns the funnels are controlled by a variety of dons who have filled the vacuum since Adan’s capture. An all-out war erupts between the new dons and the old to control the means of movement of drugs through the plazas and border cities throughout the rest of North America.

This time, we are treated to some new players. A group of activist journalists and writers based in Jaurez provide a running commentary on the carnage and represent the people caught in the middle of this all out bloodbath for control of the drug trade. Pablo, Ana and Oscar are our guides in this group.

Marisol is a physician, fighting to assist the broken and damaged as well as an activist who, by raising her profile and speaking out publicly, has also put a target on her back. She also provides us with a new love interest for Art. This is a good thing because I despaired for Art’s soul and humanity at the end of the first book.

As with the first book, the stakes are high and the violence is brutal and graphic but the storytelling is exceptionally high caliber. I am going out on a limb here but in my opinion, this could well be the next “Godfather”. It is that good. It might even be better. This makes “Scarface” look like a cartoon.

The alphabet agencies are all in play again and we get a better look at Mexican politics and military tactics as well as the paramilitary organizations the cartels control to enforce their dominance and protect their territories. The cost of the drug trade is very high and one weeps for the average citizen who lives in these areas and is forced to deal with domestic terrorism, human trafficking and crushing poverty on a day to day basis.

I have become a Don Winslow fanatic. Even as I write this review, I am planning on going by the bookstore tomorrow to pick up two more Winslow books and see what else this storyteller has up his sleeve. There are books I keep and books I pass on. Winslow’s have a permanent place on my shelves with a guillotine hanging over borrowers heads who do not return the books. You have been warned!!

Please, buy this man’s books so he will keep writing. It is a wonderful reading experience. 5 stars plus.
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LibraryThing member mikedraper
Don Winslow has created another edge of seat thriller with "The Cartel." I was totally captivated by the story and rate it among the best novels I've read this year.

In a story that seemed so true that much of the action could have been taken from the pages of the newspaper, DEA Agent, Art Keller is up against Adan Barrera, the head of El Federation, the most powerful cartel. Barrera murdered Keller's partner and betrayed Keller's friendship.

As I was reading the story, the news of El Chapo's escape from prison brought this story home with a wallop. In "The Cartel," Barrera, like El Chapo" breaks out of prison and resumes his active leadership of his cartel.

We see the other cartels in action in most parts of Mexico and their unstoppable rise to power.

Barrera and the leaders of the other cartels are utterly brutal. They think nothing of killing innocent women and children in horrendous manners. As their power grows, the cartels between to clash and a war between the crime families ensues. Neither the local police nor government forces seem able to stop their rise to power and the spread of their empires.

The characters are colorful and well drawn. Anyone picking up this massive novel and expecting an easy read will be disappointed. Instead, it is a powerful expose of the Mexican cartels and the manner in which they become so powerful. Art Keller is an excellent protagonist, true to life, with flaws but heroic.
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LibraryThing member Vicki_Weisfeld
Is there anyone who still thinks a little illegal drug use is a victimless crime? Who thinks the American “war on drugs” is actually accomplishing anything other than creating vast, lucrative criminal enterprises? Don Winslow’s much-publicized new thriller about the Mexican drug cartels will cure any such addictions to fantasy.
It’s clear that Winslow wanted to write an important book, possibly even a consequential one, and main character U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent Art Keller occasionally climbs on his soap box to tell us how bad things are. Those speeches are hardly necessary after the author’s detailing of the mayhem resulting from the turf wars between the Mexican drug cartels of 2004 to 2012 and the repeated U.S. missteps in fighting them. American initiatives have been undermanned, outgunned, and overconfident. Time and again, they have underestimated the strength and determination of their foes and the extent of their penetration in the highest levels of the military, the police, and the government.
At the opening of Winslow’s novel, Keller has retired from the DEA and lives incognito as a bee-keeper at a southern California monastery. Still he’s intrigued when his old boss tells him Adan Barrera—Keller’s arch-enemy imprisoned near San Diego—has started to talk. Barrera is the mastermind of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and one of his conditions for providing information is that he be transferred to a prison in Mexico. The Americans agree.
In the Mexican prison, Barrera lives like a king and before long escapes, pulling Keller into a frustrating and labyrinthine pursuit. (If you’ve read about the IRL escape last July of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin Guzman Lorea from Mexico’s only super-max prison, via a tunnel lit by fluorescent lights, provided with fresh air, and containing metal tracks for a small rail-car pulled by a motorcycle—a down-market version of the supertunnels the cartels use to smuggle drugs into the United States—this fictional escape is perfectly believable.)
When Barrera puts up a $2 million reward for Keller’s murder, the ex-DEA man is forced back into the arms of his former employer, and the hunt for Barrera, begun in his previous book, The Power of the Dog, renews. But there are distractions as the war intensifies among the cartels, each trying to control territory and the transit of drugs—cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin. It’s at this point that the “innocence” of smoking a little pot or doing a few lines of coke breaks down. Because the market for drugs currently illegal in the United States and Europe makes the profits so high, people can and do torture, burn, dismember, behead, rape, and murder their competitors and many innocent civilians to maintain those profits. Every day, day after day.
With Winslow’s book, you have 640 pages of torture, burning, dismemberment. You have the cooperating police and complicit Mexican army, the corrupt politicians, the pre-teen killers, the squads of sicarios (assassins), the brazen narcotraficantes, the intimidated officials, the killers who leave a Jack of Spades on each corpse. And, in all this, you must consider U.S. complicity both directly and indirectly—by our behavior and by deploying a drug policy that produces so much collateral damage.
In addition to Art Keller, portions of the story are told from the point of view of an admittedly not-very-courageous Ciudad Juarez newspaperman, Pablo, working with his feisty colleague Ana. They love and want to save their city, but it slips beyond journalism’s ability to prod action, as fear and graft overwhelm every sector, and reporters are threatened, bribed, and coerced into not reporting. (Winslow lists the names of 53 journalists murdered or “disappeared” during the period covered by his book and says, “There are more.”) And some is told from the point of view of a young boy who drifts into increasingly brutal killings, though no person whose pieces he leaves behind is more dead than he is.
If this sounds depressing and difficult, it is. And as Americans have become bored with the failures and setbacks and hypocrisies of the war on drugs, ever more so. For the people living in Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, this war never goes away and they live every day with the deadly consequences of our personal habits and public policies. How can we, in good conscience, look the other way?
Nevertheless, Winslow pulls together his many characters from the competing cartels, the journalists, the ordinary citizens, and the military leaders to create a compelling story. La Familia Michoacana, The Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, the Sinaloans, the Juarez cartel, the South Pacific cartel. The gangs are all here, as is the Zetas’ IRL expansion into kidnapping and its efforts to horn in on the oil and natural gas supply. Yes, this is fiction, but of a “ripped from the headlines” variety with a powerful cumulative effect.
Keller is endlessly frustrated at how everything the United States has done to combat drugs in Mexico—including such failed ideas as “Operation Fast and Furious”—has made the situation more unstable, more violent. (You will recall that in that sorry episode, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives allowed straw purchases of guns they knew were headed to Mexico, in the hope that tracking them would lead to the higher echelons of the cartels. Instead the ATF lost track of some 2,000 guns, subsequently found at crime scenes in which hundreds of Mexican civilians have been injured or killed.)
If thriller writers typically try to ramp up the sadistic violence perpetrated by their villains, in order to persuade readers how evil they are, in The Cartel, Winslow didn’t need to go beyond what he could find in the daily newspaper. In a Crime Fiction Lover interview, he cited the “astonishing escalation” of drug-related atrocities between the time he wrote The Power of the Dog and more recent years. It’s of a piece with the chilling non-fiction reportage of the late Charles Bowden, in his amazing Down by the River.
This is a long book and a long audiobook—23 and a half hours--and has a huge cast of characters. Still, the excellent narration captured the American, Mexican, and Guatemalan voices so well that I had no trouble following the story. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because it was heartbreaking on so many levels; however, Winslow has done a great service by exposing the deep and bloody wound below the U.S. border in a way that is compelling and unforgettable, and I’m glad I read it.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
613 pages, a long book. A very long book. What's it about ? drugs, war on drugs, US consumption of drugs, drug cartels, drug plazas (i.e. which cities your cartel controls (someone late in the book says that is what IT is all about, not drugs but control - this is someone with a corporate view of things) and then there are the drug killings, pick your favorite method: chainsaw, burning, hanging, decapitation, skinning, gunshot, grenade launcher, or some combination of all. With details. And most of the killings are in groups, eg, birthday parties, restaurants. Entire villages and towns are wiped out, to make a point.There are many, many ultraviolent killings, it just goes on and on and on.

So I have two views of this book. One is that it is overdone. The story could have been told in 400 pages, perhaps fewer. After a while you say to yourself, "OK, I get it. Enough already. Things are out of control down there, lots of corruption, everyone is taking a bribe or is killed." The second view is that Winslow knew exactly what he was doing, and wanted to put the reader through the torture of all the killings, because it really does go on and on and on. Repetitious? Depressing? Too bad. We are witnessing another "cleansing". Right under our (USA) very nose and the "war on drugs" has achieved nothing.

I lean more toward the second view, but not totally. This book took a long time to get through, a slow read for me. And that is mainly why it is 4 stars.

Interestingly, Winslow took out a full page ad in the Washington Post only days after the release of "The Cartel", and in the ad he identified what he believes the only solution is. Eliminate the demand by legalizing all drugs in the USA.

Well, that doesn't work for me, nor does the ending of the book - though it would make a great movie scene Maybe I should give it 3.5 stars. Books over 500 pages must be 5 stars, and this isn't, so I'm a bit annoyed.
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LibraryThing member norinrad10
This is the one the top five books I have ever read and also the most depressing. This is part two of Winslow's fictionalized version of the history of the drug war in Mexico. Story may be fiction but the book is based on fact and Winslow's research is impeccable. It is heartbreaking to read the toll on people lives that the drug war takes. If you had doubts that our actions in Mexico have been anything but a failure, this books will erase those doubts.… (more)
LibraryThing member zmagic69
It too bad the rating system only goes to five. The Cartel, is easily the best book I have read this year, and in the top ten of all time. This is the Bible of what the cartels did and how they did it in Mexico for the last 10 years. it is the sequel to The Power Of The Dog, which was the authors best book, until this one came along.
You don't need to have read The Power Of The Dog, to appreciate this book, but you would be foolish not to start with it. This is not a book of happy endings, it is vicious, violent, raw, gruesome, and unforgiving. Yet pales to what actually took place.
If anyone can doubt that the war on drugs and the participation and help the cartels have received from the Mexican government, with back alley deals with the multiple U.S. Departments set up to stop the drug flow, Mathis book should help open your eyes, yes the book is fiction, but then so we're the books by Tom Clancy and look at how much of those were true.
Read The Cartel, you will not be disappointed.
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LibraryThing member gmmartz
Don Winslow's 'The Cartel' is a truly frightening book. It's fiction, but it's also straight out of the drug war headlines from the past couple of decades. I'll admit I nearly bailed on it about a third of the way through- too much going on, too many characters, unending violence..... but I didn't and I'm really happy I stayed to the end.

The Cartel is one of my favorite books ever, not because it's so well written (it's OK, not great) or tightly plotted, but because of the incredibly complex multi-year story that's handled so well amidst the huge number of themes at play. As you're reading it, there's a pervasive sense that you may not necessarily understand what's happening among the players, but you know where it's heading and it won't be pretty.

I don't want to go into the plot except to say that it's about the Mexican drug cartels, the guys trying to shut them down, and the effects of the drug war on 'civilians'. There is a dizzying array of themes involved: love, hate, revenge, good, evil, narcissism, lust, man's inhumanity to man, hedonism, religion, rejection.... I could go on an on. It's a theme-laden novel. Did I mention revenge?

The writing is a good match for the content. My one complaint is Mr. Winslow's tendency to change his narration by character. For example, his writing for the 'hero' is pretty straightforward, but when a lesser character's actions are described he'll misuse singular/plural ('he don't', for example) in his narration (not quoting the person, just in describing his actions). Anyway, his writing is as propulsive as the action, the characters are quite well-developed, and the dialogue seems rich and true. Mr. Winslow's knowledge of the physical and emotional landscape around the drug war seems extremely detailed as well.

This is a hard book to take if you're uncomfortable with violence or you prefer to believe that stuff written about in The Cartel doesn't exist (it does- just google 'Mexico drug war' to get a dose). However, if you'd like to experience a novel that's terrifyingly real, this is one fantastic read.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
The only time most Americans think about Mexico’s drug cartel is when the violence crosses the Rio Grande and claims the lives of one or two American citizens. Well, shame on us, because other than those rare moments when they spill blood here, do we even consider the reality of what Mexicans have been living through for at least the last two decades. When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike. And, worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see. Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem.

Sometime Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Art Keller learned all about the cartel from the inside. Keller, half-Mexican himself, has known reigning drug kingpin Adán Barrera since the two were children. The onetime close friends, though, are now mortal enemies, and each has sworn to put the other in his grave. As The Cartel begins Keller is content with the new life and identity he has created for himself on the U.S. side of the river. He knows that Barrera is looking for him, but Keller is surprised when his old DEA boss finds him first and presses him to rejoin the fight to destroy the cartel.

The battle is on – and what a battle it turns out to be. Over the next several hundred pages, Winslow follows the bloody evolution of a drug cartel coming apart at the seams as one drug lord after another falls in a pool of blood to his successor. No one is safe; no one can be trusted; and no one is going to live long enough to become an old man. The hell of it, though, is that they will take thousands and thousands of Mexicans down with them.

This 19-CD audiobook clocks in at more than twenty-three hours of listening time, so finding an expert reader has to have been a high priority for its producers – a goal they met admirably by hiring Ray Porter for the job. Porter’s mastery of accents, voices, and vocal inflections makes it easy for listeners to distinguish between the book’s many characters and their complicated relationships, something that audio readers will appreciate more and more as the book progresses.

Bottom Line: The Cartel is a brutal crime thriller intimately based on the research that Don Winslow did on the Mexican drug cartel. Its audiobook version is the perfect choice for the next extended road trip you take, just be forewarned that it is not a story for little ears. It’s an ugly old world down there.
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LibraryThing member velopunk
It is hard to keep all the characters straight, but it is a good story of the power of the drug cartels in Mexico.
LibraryThing member rdwhitenack
Keller chases Barrera across many years and many regions of Mexico in order to stop the drug kingpin. Along the way Winslow introduces you to all the depravities that exist within Mexican police forces, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, the military, the DEA, and all the individuals that contribute to that miasma. Anyone that enjoyed Sicario, Narcos, or anything involving the drug trade will enjoy this book. I enjoyed the audio book immensely, finishing all 27 parts in 9 days. Listening to the reader narrate the female dialogue is particularly funny, especially the post-sex scenes.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
Well, this is one of those rare cases where I liked the sequel more than the original. Basically, the story in this book is, once again, Keller vs. Barrera in the War on Drugs. What made this one "better" for me, is that it remained focused on Mexico, rather than stray to New York and the Italian and Irish Mafias, as did its predecessor. And I really liked the ending, not the epilogue ending, but the ending, ending. That's how it should have wrapped up, in my opinion. I don't know if I'd read a part 3, but I'm glad that I read part 2!… (more)
LibraryThing member kvrfan
This is truly an epic novel, a kind of "Godfather" on steroids, a fictionalized version of a decade of the Mexican drug wars. There is intrigue and competition among various cartel families, leading to betrayals, assassinations, and manipulations of other power-players like politicians, police and army officers, and journalists. But whereas Don Corleone's extremes might lead to an ambush to a garroting of a disloyal subordinate, his Mexican counterparts might leave mass graves in their wake and whole populations living in terror. A reader has to get used to beheading as a form of retribution in order to get through this book.

As far as I can tell, there is a fair amount of authenticity to the content. The cartels, as identified in the novel, were (are?) real. They did conduct a virtual reign of terror in the first decade of this century. Names of cartel leaders and others have been changed, however, and the book felt to me that it ended a little too tidily. Two major protagonists are a DEA agent and a cartel leader who carry personal vendettas toward one another, and I suppose that for excitement's sake there had to be a major showdown between them, but real life isn't that "neat" (especially since the implication is that following the showdown, Mexico has is enjoying a comeback again--all is at peace, etc.).

This of course is the trouble with novels that take real life events and build novels around them. They make readers like me wonder what's REALLY real and what's not. For instance, did cartel corruption extend as far as Mexico's "White House"?

On the other hand, one shouldn't look to novels to get their history lessons. Let's just consider what transpires in The Cartel as an "alternate universe." Because it was a thrilling book and a good read.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was not an easy book. 615 pages of unrelenting violence that depicts 2004-2012 of the drug wars in Mexico. At first I thought it was too much but if this is indeed an accurate portrayal of the impact of the war on the drugs and what it has done to Mexico, then the length was necessary. I lived in Arizona and spent much time in Mexico but have not been there since 2002. We were planning another trip, but this book shook me up so much that I doubt if I will go. As a crime fiction I would have wanted more complication in the plot, but knowing that it was fact based, I cut it some slack. Lots of characters are introduced and it is sometimes hard to keep up but the book kept my interest. It got my attention and the problems of illegal drugs and that insatiable demand in the US is the reason for the chaos in Mexico. If you make something that people want illegal than those that supply it will be criminals and the result of having criminals be the suppliers is not good. Don Winslow in interviews has suggested that making drugs legal and then using the billions being spent on the current "war on drugs" on drug education and treatment. You cannot end drug use through criminalization of the activity. We are seeing that with marijuana. Making the activity legal allows for control and takes the violent criminal element out of it. Read this book if you want to know how the "war on drugs" thing is working. Not very well.… (more)
LibraryThing member DaveWilde
This is a broad, sweeping magnum opus of a novel that has historic breadth and scope and chronicles the modern history of Mexico and the Cartel wars that have absolutely decimated that country. This work, at well over six hundred pages, doesn’t feel long. Rather, it feels overwhelming. This continues the story about the Drug Lord (Adan Barrera) and the Border Lord (Art Keller) that Winslow began in 2005’s Power of the Dog. Winslow could easily have parceled out the 1200 pages that make up these two novels into half a dozen novels. There is not one page extra here. I wouldn’t cut anything out of these books.

This is the story of Art Keller, who, as a DEA agent in Mexico, saw his partner tortured and brutalized and vowed revenge on the cartels. It is the story of his counterpart on the chessboard, Adan Barrera, who seems almost invincible, and who, even, in prison, controlled what seemed like half the Mexican government. It is the story of a chess match played out between these two men, where every move by the DEA and the honest federales only seems to play into Barrera’s hands. Knock out the drug cartels in one area and Barrera consolidates his power. Knock them out elsewhere and local government topples.

It is also the story of how an impoverished underclass in Mexico had nowhere to turn when even the highest levels of the government were on the take, when the cartels owned the prison wardens, the army, the local police forces. It is the story of kids growing up in the slums of Mexican cities and barrios of American border towns who had nothing became narco-terrorists and how the corruption of the local police and federales took over whole swaths of the country and, as one army commander explained, it was not a choice between being on the take or not, it was choice for them as to which side to ally with because they either picked a side or die.

Based in part on real historical events, the book tells the story of the clashes between the different cartels, each wanting to control the plazas, or the border accesses to the U.S.A. It is the story of how the battle between these cartels became more and more violent until the savagery and death that ensued crossed beyond every line of decency. Wholesale massacres became commonplace. Torture became a normal way of life. There were areas like Juarez where any police officer who did not support one cartel or the other was literally torn apart. Heads were hacked off and whole dance clubs set on fire. In the Juarez valley, journalists were killed and ordered to report only what the cartels wanted. Whole villages were wiped out and the entire city devastated as if a full-out war had taken place.

Another part of the story is how ultimately ineffective every attempt to contain the violence was. How could a hunt for the drug lords be carried out when corrupt officials were bagging half a million dollars a month? And, there was so much money involved that every time someone was taken into prison or killed, someone else took his place, more brutal, more savage, than the previous regimes. And, the story tells how Washington failed to understand how much of a war this really was and required its agents to fight this war with one hand tied behind their backs. And, how the drug kingpins used American policy to their advantage to stay in power and to wipe out their competition.
This is a story that needed to be told. It is so close to home, but few in America talk about what has happened just south of our border and how quick and ruthless the descent into savagery became.
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LibraryThing member Brumby18
good read with some interesting tales of the drug cartel situation in Americas - way better to read the novel than the truth - it would scare me too much.
LibraryThing member danhammang
The Cartel is a great book. It is also an example of how hard it is to fit some books into genres. It is certainly a story about crime. It is not, however, a mystery in the conventional sense, yet it is a nominee on many of the mystery writer award lists in 2016. And it is certainly fiction but that fictional story tells a long, tragic story that is very real. In fact I'd wager that Don Winslow wrote the book more to tell that factual story than to write a novel of fiction. It goes to just over 600 pages and is a compelling read all the way through. I recommend it highly.… (more)

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