21 Feb 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
With “The Border,” novelist Don Winslow reaches the end of his Cartel trilogy, a crime fiction epic that sprawls over decades and tells of a brutal, corrupt, expensive and unwinnable war on drugs between U.S. law enforcement and the Mexican cartels.
It’s a series that began with “The Power Of The Dog” in 2005, continued in “The Cartel” a decade later, and now concludes with “The Border,” which hits bookstores on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
And while the research and writing of these three books has taken up a good chunk of his life, as the 65-year-old writer tells it, they only exist by accident.
“I never intended to write a big, sweeping trilogy,” he says. “In fact, I never intended to write a big sweeping novel at all.”
Crime novelist Don Winslow’s new book, “The Border,” concludes a trilogy of novels set amid the war on drugs between the U.S. and Mexico. (Photo by Robert Gallagher)
No, what he set out to do, Winslow explains, was try to understand the kind of evil in the world that led to the mass shooting he read about in the newspaper one day in 1998 in which 19 people in the El Sauzal community near Ensenada were gunned down. At the time, it stood as one of the most violent acts of the inter-Mexican cartel wars.
“I was so shocked, and I couldn’t figure out how anything could come to that point where that was possible,” Winslow says. “And so I started to do research.
“People who know me would laugh at this – I started with philosophy books, like the problem of evil and what is evil,” he says. “I wasn’t intending to write anything about it. I was just trying to figure it out for my own satisfaction.”
But philosophy books didn’t answer his questions, and so he read Mexican history, Latin American history, books about the drug trade, background on the war on drugs that the United States has waged officially for 50 years and unofficially for the century since the federal government made cocaine and opiates illegal to use or distribute.
Winslow worked six years on “The Power Of The Dog,” a novel that spans three decades and establishes DEA agent Art Keller and cartel boss Adan Barrera as long-running enemies, and that should have been that.
“I thought I was done,” he says. “My agent would sometimes call and say, ‘Would you consider a sequel to ‘Power Of The Dog’? and I would literally hang up the phone.”
But by 2010 or so, the drug wars had grown exponentially worse, the brutality of the killings across Mexico and the flow of drugs through ports of entry into the United States leaping higher and higher. “The Cartel” picked up the story of Keller and Barrera, and “The Border” now brings it to a close.
At more than 700 pages, it is the biggest of the books – “Dog” was just over 500, “Cartel” falls in between – but it was also the fastest to write, Winslow says. Part of that is a function of a narrower time span – roughly three years in “The Border,” which corresponds to rise of candidate and now-president Donald Trump, arguments over immigration, drugs, and a wall, all of which show up in fictionalized versions in the novel.
“I also didn’t have to reinvent the research wheel,” he says. “When I started ‘Dog’ I knew nothing about this world. By the time I finished ‘Cartel’ I knew more than I ever wanted.”
In addition to the novel’s fictional characters, real-life events such as the actual massacre of 43 college students kidnapped from a pair of buses in Iguala, Mexico in 2014 show up in “The Border.”
“The Border” is the conclusion of novelist Don Winslow’s epic crime trilogy set amid the war on drugs between the United States and Mexico. (Photo courtesy of the publisher)
The use of such touchstones is important, Winslow says, to make fiction that feels real.
“There are certain real-life touchstones that you have to write about if you’re going to tell the stories of those years,” he says. “If I didn’t hit those events, the story wouldn’t be real.”
All these years immersed in fact-based fictional drug wars have made Winslow an in-demand expert on the real-world drug crises. Earlier on the day we spoke, he’d been on CNN talking about the conviction Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa Cartel which features prominently in the trilogy. A few days earlier Vanity Fair published his article on the futility of expecting the war on drugs to be won by locking up a few prominent kingpins.
“The result (of the war on drugs) is that drugs are more plentiful, cheaper and more potent,” Winslow says. “We’ve had more overdose deaths in the last two years than we’ve ever had. If that’s winning, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.
“Now, with no disrespect to the people who fight that war, I think we need to try something different,” he says. “Because this clearly has not worked, does not work, and cannot work.”
In “The Border,” Winslow’s narrative illuminates what he thinks should be tried next: tackling the epidemic of drug use through rehabilitation and education, reforming the criminal justice system, and working to eliminate the laundering of drug money through real estate and banks in the United States and other nations.
His book tour starts this week and based on the experiences of the previous two books he’ll draw mostly fans of crime fiction but also a good dose of people affected by the drug wars – addicts and family members, DEA agents and cops, and a mix of reactions to the way Winslow sees this war.
“I never went to a single event, not one, where there wasn’t somebody who had lost somebody in the drug wars or had been in prison or had a drug problem in one sense or another,” he says.
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All three books are in development for film or TV with 21st Century Fox and director Ridley Scott’s production company, and that’s where the trilogy ends, said Winslow.
“Now I’m done, I’m done,” he says. “We’re not going back ever again.”
Of course, he’s said that before, though his next book is something entirely different from both the Cartel trilogy and 2017’s “The Force,” which was set in the New York City Police Department.
“I’m not ready to come out with it,” he says of the novel in progress. “I will define it by negation. It’s not a book about drugs and it’s not a book about the NYPD. I’m going to leave it at that, if that’s all right.”
Don Winslow book events
March 13: 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. For more details go to skylightbooks.com/event.
March 14: 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookshop, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For more details go to vromansbookstore.com/event.