Winslow revisits the bloody territory of his 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, where the death of his partner at the hands of Adan Barrera, head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, fueled DEA Agent Art Keller’s rage and
determination to exact justice. Once friends, the two are now formidable enemies.
Each knows his foe well, Keller hoping to use this knowledge to destroy Barrera’s Sinaloa machine
(“El Federacion”) and impact the warring factions jockeying for control in the violent drug culture
that infects every layer of Mexican society. Their enmity, over thirty years' duration, remains unabated, begun again when Barrera is transferred to a Mexican prison, ending years later in a gunfight in Guatemala.
Once Barrera escapes the prison
where he has been living in luxury, the true battle begins. Barrera reshapes the landscape of friends and foes, returned to claim his rightful place as patron, drug lord of the largest and most powerful cartel. With a two million dollar bounty on his head offered by
Barrera, Keller is prey for any greedy assassin. He returns to Mexican soil, where he is safer, as an unofficial advisor to an elite investigative team, his knowledge of Barrera invaluable as they navigate the infrastructure of the Sinaloa cartel. The cartel goes to war with the other players in this high-stakes game, all seeking dominance, particularly the Zetas. The result is the escalating drug wars that devastate a country, the bodies of thousands of victims a shocking testament to the economic weight of the drug trade that has infiltrated the highest levels of political power and infested both police and federal agencies.
Keller is in the middle of an unfolding massacre that grows more complicated and mindlessly brutal with each confrontation of opposing narco factions.
A state of war that threatens city and village alike, north and south, from the border towns to the interior, no one safe from the mayhem unleashed by a struggle most clearly defined between the Sinaloan cartel and the Zetas. Winslow knows this territory intimately
and creates a tableau of intrigue and human drama. He brings his characters vividly to life, whether citizens, officials, or narcos bound by loyalty to a cause.
Those belonging to the cartels, from foot soldiers to the power-drunk leaders who order death with impunity, from Barrera’s closest allies to his sworn enemies, all speak the language of death as though existing in an alternate universe.
There are reporters and activists, at first free to speak their truth, to print their stories, later silenced by deadly threats as bloodshed continues unabated.
There are officials in government agencies, both trustworthy and corrupt, Keller unsure who he can trust as choice finally demands aligning with enemies to achieve peace in an exhausted, hopeless country.
Winslow takes us into the heart of the drug wars, either through Keller’s perspective or that of Barrera and warring cartel leaders planning strategy, a world where normalcy is suspended, where paranoia, fear and hate run rampant. But all these characters, good and vile, are richly portrayed
and humanized, their stupidity, greed, lust, fear and desire to survive. Keller’s hate is a savage thing consuming him, from Adan’s prison escape in 2004 to their final encounter in a Guatemalan jungle in 2012. Though there is a brief respite when Keller forms a relationship with a brave village doctor, even that meager comfort is trampled by the brutality of their existence. Death becomes a way of life. Surviving the wasteland the fighting has wrought, Keller must carry the burden of his history in Mexico--all he has seen, all he has done, the impossibility of controlling the flow of product to consumer and the corruption that follows like a poisonous miasma: “Eighty thousand dead and all we have done is crown a new king. And the new king is the old king.” If this were a movie, it would play like a neo-western “Game of Thrones” or a video game to entertain adolescent boys excited by the thrill of killing. But it isn’t a film or a game: The Cartel is as real as the fact that Americans blame the Mexican cartels for the massive amounts of product we consume, our “war on
drugs” a masquerade to hide a history of complicity and shame. The Power of the Dog was published in 2005, The Cartel in 2015, but still we are amazed: “The thing you have to admire about the Americans is their consistency. They never learn.” Winslow is reminding us, but who is listening?