Read of the Week

The Cartel

Don Winslow

William Heinemann


Review: Brian Joss

When you google Don Winslow, a map of the world appears on his website, most of it in red, where he is widely read. But South Africa is a grey mass indicating that he is hardly known here. Which is a pity because he is one of the best crime writers around.

And he proves it again in The Cartel about America’s war on drugs. It can be read as a sequel to The Power of The Dog (reviewed) or as a standalone. The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off.

Art (Arturo) Keller), a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and Adá* Barrera, a drug lord and head of the Sonora Cartel, are sworn enemies.

Barrera is in the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in San Diego, thanks to Keller, from where he runs his evil empire.

Barrera, however, who wants to be extradited to Mexico, is making a deal with the Americans.

Keller, meanwhile, is living quietly as a beekeeper at the Monastery of Christ in New Mexico after he put Barrera in jail, instead of killing him, when the drug lord tortured and murdered agent Ernie Hildago, Keller’s partner, and threatened Keller’s family.

But Keller’s quiet life comes to an abrupt end when his former boss, Tim Taylor, turns up at the monastery to tell him that Barrera, who has “gone all Celine Dion” – singing like a canary – has put a $2million price on his head.

Reluctantly, Keller agrees to get involved in the war on drugs again: although he knows it won’t end even if he or Barrera are dead.

The cartels, who each control a Plaza through which they ship their drugs to their biggest market, America, have now adopted terrorism to run their businesses, the method Al Qaeda uses.

They have their own armies; they decapitate their opponents and leave their dismembered bodies hanging from bridges; they kill women and children and bribe people including police and politicians in Mexico.

Journalists are paid off, threatened and murdered as they try to uncover the truth about the cartels. And it is in this violent maelstrom that Keller finds himself when he has to make a deal with the devil and becomes the person he most despises.

The Cartel is a human story and the supporting cast members are finely drawn and include drug dealer Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star who gets enmeshed in the clash between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas; Barrera’s mistress Magda Beltrans becomes a powerful drug kingpin in her own right; Keller’s love interest, the beautiful doctor Marisol Cisneros; and the 11-year-old psychopath Chuy Barajos, who is a killing machine for the evangelical Los Familias, another violent cartel. Throw into the mix a group of journalists, Pablo Mora, Ana and photographer Giorgio who work for El Periodico, the daily newspaper in Juarez, edited by Oscar Herrera , known as El Buho, The Owl, who shine a light on the cartels – until they and their families are threatened.

There is also a blog, Esta Vida, written by Nino El Salvaje, which chronicles the savagery of the drug wars.

And whom the cartels want to silence but they don’t know who it is. The violence is graphic although there are some lighter moments when Winslow unexpectedly unleashes his funny one-liners. The action spreads from Mexico to Europe and to the jungle of Guatemala where the explosive climax plays out.

The Cartel is a white-knuckle read that will have you on the edge of your seat from page 1 to page 615 and Winslow’s staccato style adds to the atmosphere and tension. Buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy but whatever you do, read it.