Don Winslow’s The Cartel is violent and brutal, exactly what you’d expect from a serious novel about the war on drugs and the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. What sets The Cartel (Alfred A. Knopf, $28) apart from so many other crime novels—and what’s earned Winslow positive comparisons to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the classic Francis Ford Coppola films that followed—is the way Winslow incorporates fully formed characters into his storyline. This isn’t just the story of DEA agent Art Keller and his relentless pursuit of Adán Barrera, a powerful player in Mexico’s drug trade. It’s an honest look at the failure of U.S. foreign policy, the widespread corruption in local and federal law enforcement, the crucial role of journalists who put their lives at risk trying to print the truth, and the tens of thousands of casualties caught in the crossfire.
Of course, this isn’t Winslow’s first fictional foray into international drug trafficking or his first stab at telling a story with these characters— he spent five years researching The Power of the Dog (2005), the book that introduced Keller and Barrera. The finished novel spanned three decades starting from the mid ’70s, and when the novel was completed, Winslow swore he’d never write a sequel, never revisit the characters. But just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, Winslow got “pulled back in.” Like its predecessor, The Cartel is sprawling—more than 600 pages—but it’s the characters that make this story epic, not the page count.
The Cartel begins in 2004. Art Keller is out of the game, tending bees at a monastery in Abiquiú, New Mexico. He is quickly pressed back into service by the DEA and partnered with Luis Aguilar (who works for SEIDO, the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Special Investigations on Organized Crime) and Gerardo Vera (who works for AFI, the Federal Investigations Agency). The plan? Take down Barrera, who has broken out of a Mexican prison and placed a $2 million bounty on Keller’s head. Aguilar is strictly by-the-book, whereas Vera is a loose cannon like Keller. Slowly, Winslow introduces the secondary characters: Magda Beltrán, a dangerous beauty Barrera meets in prison; Nacho Esparza, a rival drug lord with a plan to merge his empire with Barrera’s; violent career criminals Heriberto Ochoa and Miguel “Forty” Morales; a juvenile enforcer named Jesus the Kid; Pablo Mora, a local reporter working under the constant threat of violence; Marisol Cisneros, a passionate doctor trying to provide medical attention where it’s needed most; and Erika Valles, an unlikely police chief. Winslow is a patient storyteller and he pumps so much life into his characters that when the violence begins, it packs added punch.
The Cartel is a work of fiction, but Winslow acknowledges that many incidents were inspired by actual events, which makes the novel’s depictions of torture and execution even more chilling. The Cartel is an unforgettable story, impossible to put down, written by a master storyteller. It’s not necessary to read The Power of the Dog before tackling The Cartel, but once you’ve read one you’ll crave the other. ★★★★★