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The Author of 'The Cartel' on America's Role in Mexico's Brutal and Bloody Drug War

A look at how drug trafficking's massive profits feed high-level corruption, and how American policy is fanning the flames.
July 6, 2015, 1:57pm

Photo courtesy Knopf Doubleday/Don Winslow

Don Winslow's recently released novel The Cartel, a sequel to his 2005 book The Power of the Dog, chronicles the rivalry between a United States DEA agent and the cartel kingpin he is dead-set on taking down. In 600 pages, Winslow examines how the massive profits of drug trafficking allow for high-level corruption, explores the United States's role in the brutal violence plaguing Mexico, and questions the efficacy of a war against cartels determined to defend their power and prosperity by any means necessary.

The book is as gruesome a read as it is insightful, chock-full of research into the organization and tactics of cartels and their (at times) strikingly similar governmental opponents. It is disturbing, and it is based in large part on actual events. VICE spoke with Winslow about what inspired his work on the topic, and why he hopes it will bring attention to what he calls the "American problem" plaguing Mexico.

Don Winslow. Photo by Michael Lionstar/courtesy Knopf Doubleday

VICE: What inspired you to start writing about drug war violence in Mexico?
Don Winslow: I was six published books into my writing career and there was a massacre—there's no other word for it—of 19 innocent people, men, women, and children, in Baja, California, near where I live. I didn't really start to write a book, I started to try to find out how we got to the point where people were willing to do that.

Now that was 1998, and we think that was a horrible incident, but it pales in comparison to what went on ten years later. The worst things I wrote about in Power of the Dog wouldn't have made the papers in 2011.


You hadn't planned on writing a sequel to Power of the Dog, but this increase in violence changed your mind?
That's right. When I finished with Power of the Dog, I thought I'd written about the worst of the worst. It absolutely ground me down and I had no intention of returning to that subject, ever. But as I sat here near the border and watched these events spiral out of control, I asked myself again, why? And I started to do research to try to get answers to those questions, and write out what I learned. The two books together encompass 15 years of the War on Drugs, as seen mostly through the prism of two characters—a DEA agent and a drug lord—locked in this vendetta against each other that began in the 1970s and just keeps going on.

It sounds like drug trafficking in Mexico has undergone some significant changes since your last book.
It has changed drastically. First of all, the sheer level of violence is so much bigger, and frankly, the level of sadism is so much greater. We couldn't have imagined it in our worst nightmares, and it is nightmarish, except that it's real—the decapitations, the mass murders—they're real.

Another way things have changed is with the militarization of the war on drugs. Cartels went out and hired their own private armies, a lot of times made-up by ex-special forces, some of whom were trained in the US as anti-drug soldiers. They went over to cartels and the level of lethality, if you will, became so much higher. It started as sort of an arms race—one cartel did it, then another and another, and pretty soon you have thousands of people fighting. And then, when the Mexican government in 2006 decided that they needed to intervene, they could no longer do it with police, a lot of whom had been coopted by cartels, so they sent in the military. Now you had a real war, and it was multi-fronted: cartel against cartel, cartel against military, certain police forces against other police forces.


The cartels also got very sophisticated about communication. They figured out it wasn't enough to win a war on the ground, that they also needed to control the narrative. Their use of propaganda, particularly through social media, was something we had never seen before. It used to be criminals tried to hide what they did, but in this era of Mexico they proclaimed it as a means of intimidation and terrorism, but also recruitment.

Plus, they terrorized and often killed journalists to control the stories in newspapers. After a murder came across a reporter's call radio, cartels would call their cell phones to instruct them on what they could or could not cover—and that's something absolutely new in crime. It's very different than the book that I had written before.

How did you conduct research into the real-life and yet "nightmarish" events on which you based the book?
I read a lot of journalism. I talked to people again and again. In this surreal sense, I followed it on the net. You can pull these videos up in five seconds. But what I really tried to do was to put names to the victims. I just felt that I owed them that, so I would cross-reference materials to try to show that these people had lives and families and hopes and fears and dreams like everybody else, and not just to have them be pornography of violence.

In The Cartel, you describe how the military's war on cartels has led to even more bloodshed.
Yes. 2006 was the year that Mexico launched its military program against the cartels, and the height of the violence really came around 2012 and 2013. Since the mid-2000s, an estimated 100,000 people [ ed. note: depending on who you ask] were killed. When you go to war with cartels, they fight back, and they are as well-armed in many cases as the Mexican soldiers fighting them.


A major theme in your book is that while Mexican and US governments often celebrate the capture or killing of a cartel kingpin as a victory, the take-down does not necessarily increase peace, but creates a power vacuum.
Exactly. All it does is create a multi-billion-dollar job opportunity, and there are always people wiling to take chances to step into that position because the wealth is fantastic. Look at Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka El Chapo), who was on Forbes magazine's World's Most Powerful People list in 2012. Chapo was captured last year. Great. But what difference does it make in drugs coming up to the border? None. While it might disrupt things for a few weeks, it will probably cause more violence as people scramble to fill those positions. The bottom line is we've captured drug lord after drug lord—captured or killed—and it makes no difference at all.

The real problem is not Mexico, it's in the US. It's in the market. It's our simultaneous prohibition of drugs and appetite for them that create such high profit margins, and that makes these territories worth fighting over and worth killing for.

And it's a tragedy: 100,000 people killed; 22,000 missing. That makes it one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Western Hemisphere since the American Civil War, and we're largely unaware of it. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this stage of Mexico's drug conflict coincides exactly with the post 9/11 era, so we've been very focused on terrorists abroad, and for good reason. On the other hand, we need to be more aware of the consequences our actions have on our neighbors, and in Mexico, those consequences have been severe.


You've compared Mexico's cartels to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and wrote that the United States's anti-terrorism initiatives, which focused on taking down top jihadists, spilled over into drug war tactics. So clearly, you see parallels between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.
Absolutely. While terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIS are ideologically driven, cartels are driven by profit motive, sure. But if you look at what the cartels do—mass murder, torture of the vilest kind, kidnapping, mass rape, enslaving people to work on farms and plantations, sending out threatening videos—if that's not terrorism, I don't know what is.

Plus, we've evolved in our anti-terrorist doctrine form what's called counter-insurgency doctrine to anti-terrorist doctrine. The former involves building relationships with local communities, protecting or defending them from guerrillas. The latter is more simple: to go out and kill and capture terrorists, particularly leaders. And that philosophy in Washington leaked into the way we now approach anti-drug trafficking, so our focus in conjunction with the Mexican government has been to capture and kill drug leaders. The philosophies are similar.

You also say Mexico's military is making the same mistakes US soldiers did in Vietnam. How so?
From the beginning, when Nixon first declared the War on Drugs some 44 years ago, we dropped a substance very similar to Agent Orange onto the poppy and marijuana fields in Sinaloa and Durango, and we completely alienated the local community. We forced them into the cartels' hands, and we keep making the same mistake over and over again. The Mexican military has long been waterboarding people with gasoline and soda, which almost sounds amusing unless you're half-drowning with carbonation fizzing in your nose and throat. They've burnt buildings. They've taken young men suspected of being with a cartel back to army bases and tortured them.


That is, of course, just like Vietnam and elsewhere, going to alienate people in these villages. Now the cartels do things that are similar to and even worse than US soldiers did in Vietnam, but the cartels also build hospitals, churches, chapels, and clinics. They hold Mothers' Day and Day of the Children celebrations, giving out gifts. So they gain these heroic sorts of images in a lot of these communities, particularly in the rural areas where they're looked upon like Robin Hoods or heroes. Of course, they're not.

Your book compares the army to cartels, and describes police as "not protecting" but "guarding" cartels.
I didn't draw the comparison—the facts are there on the ground. The army has been, in some places, very corrupt. It has seized land from people. It has cooperated with drug traffickers and probably trafficked itself, so the army has formed its own power unit that's really not answerable to anybody, and that's what a cartel does.

Now, it may sound paradoxical, but the drug lords aren't really in the drug business, they're in the territory business, so a lot of top drug lords might never touch drugs their entire career. What they're doing is charging other, lower-level people to run drugs through their territory, and the most valuable territories are border towns near highways that run to major US cities. With that being the case, they have to secure the protection of the local police or army, and that means bribes go very high into the federal government. The federal police in Mexico have reorganized several times to try to route out corruption, but it tends to stick because the money is so extraordinary. They may also be threatened with violence, given no choice but, "Take it, or we'll kill you and your family."


In addition to the United States's drug consumption habits and policy of prohibition, you also talk about immigration policy as a source of profit for cartels.
Again, what cartels control is territory, and the most valuable territory is across the border. For the most part, anything that has to cross the border illegally must go through the cartels, whether it's drugs or people. Cartels are increasingly involved in human trafficking because they control smuggling routes. So now undocumented immigrants, unless they're very lucky, have got to hire coyotes organized by cartels and pay them a fee to be smuggled across [the] border. Sometimes these coyotes take their money and just dump them down in the deserts or mountains where they die of exposure. Other times cartels will kidnap family members and demand they mule drugs across the border or have their relatives killed. Sometimes, they do run the drugs, and they kill the family anyway, or force the women into prostitution.

How has marijuana legalization affected cartels' business model?
Well, a lot. Two states have [fully] implemented legalized marijuana, while others decriminalize or allow medical marijuana, and the latest reports we get is that the marijuana coming up from Mexico has dropped by more than 30 percent, which takes a huge chunk out of the cartel payroll. With legalization in just two states, we're getting reports that marijuana plantations in Durango and Sinaloa states have stopped planting the crop because there's no money in it. They can't compete with the quality and price of the domestic American market.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, to make up for loss of income, the Sinaloa cartel—which pretty much runs the game at the moment—has lowered the price and increased the production of black tar heroin now flooding cities in America. Some people look at this and say, "Oh my god, we've legalized marijuana in two states and now we have a heroin epidemic." But what we should be looking at is the fact that we legalized marijuana in a couple states, and the implication is that imports from Mexico are down and dropping. What if we legalized heroin?

So do you think full-on legalization of all drugs is the best solution to stopping this violence?
Look, for some problems, there are no great answers. There are only less bad answers. We've been doing the same thing for coming on 45 years and it hasn't worked, and it's time to try something different, and that something must do more than make adjustments to our current policy. I think it has to be a whole new way of thinking, a whole new outlook.

Since writing this book, you've written op-eds about the drug war and even took out an ad in the Washington Post imploring Congress to end the War on Drugs. Do your aspirations with The Cartel go beyond entertainment?
Well, I'm a novelist, and my first goal is to write a good, entertaining and interesting book for the reader. That's always my primary responsibility. The ad was something I felt I needed to do—that if it could spark an honest conversation on the Hill, if we're out there challenging these guys in [the] hometown paper to take an honest look, to really try to rethink this, maybe we would get somewhere. I've been researching and writing about this damn thing for 15 years or more and I'd like to see it end. I don't think every writer has a social responsibility, and I just felt that, you know what, you should have some skin in the game, and then go ahead and speak out in ways other than a novel.

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