Don Winslow, the celebrated author of more than a dozen books — including 2010's "Savages," which the New York Times described as a beguiling mix of "the grave and the playful," and which Oliver Stone adapted in 2012 — has done something he said he wouldn't do.
After six years of researching the war on drugs and Mexico's cartels led Winslow to write 2005's "The Power of the Dog," Winslow believed he was done with writing about that nasty corner of the world. The novel was well-received by critics and earned him more public attention than ever, but as he recently explained to the San Diego Union-Tribune, spending so much time immersed in chaos and blood has its costs, too.
But sometimes a story decides it must be written; and as Winslow watched the situation in Mexico somehow become even worse during the 10 years between "The Power of the Dog" and now, he felt compelled to write once more about the costs others pay for America's war on drugs. The result is "The Cartel," the 640-page opus released this week that "L.A. Confidential"'s James Ellroy calls "the 'War and Peace' of dopewar books."
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Winslow to discuss the drug war, his new novel, and why Americans who think Mexico's problems have nothing to do with the U.S. are making a big mistake. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
You've written about this subject before, and you've said the process was emotionally taxing — and something you weren't in a hurry to do again. So what was it that, "Godfather III"-style, pulled you back in?
Listen, you know, I wrote a book called "The Power of the Dog," which basically, in a fictional way, chronicled the rise of the Mexican cartels. And when I left that book off, I thought I’d seen the very worst things that could happen in a country in terms of violence and chaos. And in the years following, I found that was tragically untrue. You know, I’m sitting here safely on the other side of the border, watching things across the line fall apart, watching violence escalate to a level nobody dreamed of.
I didn’t really want to write this book. I was reluctant to go back into that world. The previous novel had taken me about five and a half years, and, again, to be honest with you, it took some stuff out of me. So, I was reluctant to come back to this topic. You used the phrase dragged me back in, [like] "Godfather III." But it didn’t. I started to do research on it, not even doing the research to write another book, but just to inform myself — because I was trying to figure out why, how, things had gotten to this level.
The things that I had written about in "Power of the Dog" — some of them wouldn’t have made the newspapers in 2010, 2011, in Mexico. Things had gotten that much worse. When I started to do the research, I started to see, I think, patterns and explanations and reasons, and then I started writing … because I think you have to.
I think Americans have a vague sense of how violent and horrible things have become in parts of Mexico. But, perhaps because it's so unpleasant, I don't think many of us really know just how bad it's gotten. How do you try to get people to understand just how severe the problems are?
Not to get overly technical about it, but I think that there are two techniques. One’s objective and the other’s subjective, and the second, I think, is far more powerful. You can sit back as a narrative prose writer and say, this happened, this happened, this happened, this happened. And people see that and it has a certain kind of impact. I think that the better way, though, particularly for a novel, is to witness those events through the eyes of characters, so that it really has an emotional and visceral impact on the reader.
Sometimes the best way was to have a character participate in those events, but I found that after a while that was getting to be numbing. And so, I thought, well, maybe if characters come in after an event. You know, don’t write the event itself; write the aftermath, write a witness or a reporter coming to the scene and get their reaction to what had happened. Again, I think that gives more of an emotional, intimate, view of these things.
I also think that novels can do things that sometimes journalism can’t, in the sense that we’re allowed to imagine the inner lives of characters, create lives around them that the reader will then care about. And so then when things happen to those people, the readers care about that, and feel it, I think, in a different way.
Can you talk more about the patterns you noticed as you collected these news stories about the drug war and cartel violence?
There are things that start to stand out. One that’s almost begging the question is the militarization of the drug wars on every side. So at one point, one of the cartels goes out and recruits special forces soldiers, Mexican special forces, albeit trained in the United States to be anti-drug soldiers, and recruits them as an armed forced. So when that happens, every other cartel goes, "We need an army. We need former soldiers. We need former or current police."
So, you can watch this sort of arms-race domino effect all across the Mexican cartel setup, where now every cartel leader, big or small, recruits his own army. Then towards the end of 2006, the Mexican government decides that the police forces can no longer handle this, so they send in the military. Now, you have a multi-pronged war going on, between the various cartels’ armed forces, those armed forces and the military, the military and certain police forces — municipal and state that might or might not be allied with cartels.
The whole thing becomes highly militarized, which is one reason that you get this extraordinarily high level of killing. Another major development was Pablo Guzman getting out of prison, and coming out and deciding he was, once again, going to try and create a super organization, a mega cartel — roughly speaking the Sinaloa cartel, which requires that he basically invade other cartels’ territory, because he needs border crossings, he needs a plaza near the American arterials in Texas, Arizona and California.
What about the government in Mexico?
Later in this phase, I think it’s pretty clear that the Mexican government, for good or for ill — and I can defend this, actually — picked a winner. They decided, Let’s go with the least-worst of these guys and pick the Sinaloa cartel.
Another major evolution in this whole thing is the role of women, both inside the cartels and in government and police work, against them. In the first instance, you see women coming into power, either taking it or inheriting it because so many of the men in the organization have been killed or jailed.
In the second case, you see an amazingly inspiring story, really, of these incredibly brave women who decide to become police chiefs, police officers, when their four predecessors have been killed — who decide to become town councilwomen or mayors of towns, or social rights activists going up against the cartels, and the police, and the government, and the army, and all too often, killed for it. And for me, that was an amazing and undertold story.
I know one is usually supposed to respond to an opponent's best argument, but I'm going to bounce something Donald Trump said recently off you instead. He's been talking about needing to build a big wall along the border — one that he wants Mexico to pay for — and so forth. But you don't think this is a problem we can just wall ourselves off from. Why not?
It’s very simple. We’re the market. We buy the drugs. We create the demand. So if we weren’t using — you know, we’re the largest drug market in the world — if we weren’t buying all these drugs, they wouldn’t be coming out of Mexico. I don’t understand, frankly, what people don’t understand about this.
We create the demand. And at the same time we create the demand, we ban it. We prohibit it. When you make something criminal, then only criminals can sell it. When only criminals can sell it, they have no recourse to law. When there’s no recourse to law, the only recourse is through violence, and when the only recourse is through violence, the most violent people will rise to the top. And to me, that’s the exact chain of events that we’re looking at with the American appetite for drugs coupled with its prohibition and the effect that it has on Mexico.
Is there anybody, any political figure out there right now, who’s saying what you want to hear? Or is the mainstream in politics not as far along as it needs to be and as we think?
Yeah, sort of the latter. Again, it’s not so much about people, it’s about policy. We’ve had how many presidential administrations dealing with this war? I think, listen, there’s a whole spread about what people are saying out there, including, as you mentioned, Trump. But I don’t think that the mainstream is willing yet to come out, and really say what needs to be said. That the war is a failure, and we need to end it.