It's 2004. DEA agent Art Keller has been fighting the war on drugs for thirty years in a blood feud against Adán Barrera, the head of El Federación, the world's most powerful cartel, and the man who brutally murdered Keller's partner. Finally putting Barrera away cost Keller dearly--the woman he loves, the beliefs he cherishes, the life he wants to lead. Then Barrera gets out, determined to rebuild the empire that Keller shattered. Unwilling to live in a world with Barrera in it, Keller goes on a ten-year odyssey to take him down. His obsession with justice--or is it revenge?--becomes a ruthless struggle that stretches from the cities, mountains, and deserts of Mexico to Washington's corridors of power to the streets of Berlin and Barcelona. Keller fights his personal battle against the devastated backdrop of Mexico's drug war, a conflict of unprecedented scale and viciousness, as cartels vie for power and he comes to the final reckoning with Barrera--and himself--that he always knew must happen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although the book is an enormous achievement, there’s almost too much here. The narrative becomes so all-encompassing and unwieldy that factual errors creep in, at least to my knowledge. (Operation Fast and Furious was, I believe, an ATF operation. Not DEA, as stated here. ICE and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are the same agency, despite being listed as separate agencies in one sentence.) There’s a familiarity to the story, maybe due to the reoccurring characters and the fact that drug wars are drug wars. There’s not a ton of variety when it comes to killing and torture.
The overall effect is to highlight the horror and pain inflicted on almost an entire country as the result of the immoral and reckless pursuit of power and ill-gotten wealth. That doesn’t even factor in the damage caused by the drugs themselves. The book concentrates on the violence and power struggle behind the war to control the drug trade.
Do yourself a favour, and read every book from him you can find. I can't understand why he doesn't have a larger following.
Definitely been added to my Read Again List.
Mexico—the land of writers and poets—of Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Garro, Jorge Volpi, Rosario Castellanos, Luis Urrea, Elmer Mendoza, Alfonso Reyes—the land of painters and sculptors—Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Orozco, Pablo O’Higgins, Juan Soriano, Francisco Goita—of dancers like Guillermina Bravo, Gloria and Nellie Campobello, Josefina Lavalle, Ana Merida, and composers—Carlos Chavez, Silvestre Revueltas, Agustin Lara, Blas Galindo—architects—Luis Barragan, Juan O’Gorman, Tatiana Bilbao, Michel Rojkind, Pedro Vasquez—wonderful filmmakers—Fernando de Fuentes, Alejandro Inarritu, Luis Buñuel, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro—actors like Dolores del Rio, “La Dona” Maria Felix, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Salma Hayek—now the name of “famous” narcos—no more than sociopathic murderers whose sole contribution to the culture has been narcocorridos sung by no-talent sycophants.
Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts and jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens, boulevards and cobblestone streets, broad plazas and hidden courtyards, is now known as a slaughter ground.
And for what?
So North Americans can get high.
Just across the bridge is the gigantic marketplace, the insatiable consumer machine that drives the violence here. North Americans smoke the dope, snort the coke, shoot the heroin, do the meth, and then have the nerve to point south (down, of course, on the map), and wag their fingers at the “Mexican drug problem” and Mexican corruption.
It’s not the “Mexican drug problem,” Pablo thinks now, it’s the North American drug problem.
As for corruption, who’s more corrupt—the seller or the buyer? And how corrupt does a society have to be when its citizens need to get high to escape their reality, at the cost of bloodshed and suffering of their neighbors?
Corrupt to the soul.
That’s the big story, he thinks.
That’s the story someone should write.
Well, maybe I will.
And no one will read it.
A Solid 5 out of 5 read.