Book Review: El Cartel by Don Winslow

Being in Latin America for the summer and with El Chapo, the Mexican drug cartel king in the news, I wanted to read something about the drug trafficking business. Don Winslow’s El Cartel fit the bill. It is a novel, but based on years of research on the Mexican cartels, and having lived in Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela through the years, the book really rang true with me. Winslow certainly knows Latin America. Mexico despite being neighbors with the USA, is one of the few countries of Latin America, I do not know much about. The novel gave me a good background in the history, politics and geography of the country.

I was shocked at level of sick violence in the battles between the drug cartels. In the novel, it mentions a blog detailing the gruesome and awful violence of the cartels, and in looking at the real blog, Blog del NarcoI immediately was repulsed by what I saw. I could only watch for a few minutes, but there are poor souls being tortured, with beheadings, limbs being chopped off, etc., This is much worse than what I saw in Colombia in the 1990s when I was living there and on the level of the ISIS thugs.

The book got me thinking again about the “war on drugs”. I have seen the effects of this first hand in Latin America and with more America putting more people in prison per capita than any other country, it does not make sense to continue down the path of prohibition. If I was czar of the US, I would legalize all the drugs involved in the trade, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and even prostitution. When these products are illegal, it brings high profits (fact – cocaine alone is a $30 billion market in the USA annually and a kilo of cocaine costs over $50,000 in Europe)) and violence and a corruption of societies. The money and efforts being spent on curtailing this can be used for better purposes. The author came to the same conclusion and explains some of this in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. He mentioned the large percentage drop in the Mexican cartel’s profits from legalization in Colorado and Washington.

Winslow is a thriller writer so the 600-page novel has lots of action and not much analysis or deep philosophical or emotional insights into human nature. It does give some basic background on the politics of Mexico which made me do some more research on the history of the country. I really want to make a visit to Mexico someday!  There are a few tidbits however:

  • “how corrupt does a society have to be when its citizens need to get high to escape their reality, at the cost of bloodshed and suffering of their neighbors?”  – The eternal question of the drug trade, who is more to blame, the users or the producers?
  • Drug cartel members are “sociopathic murderers whose sole contributions to the culture has been the narcocorridas sung by no-talent sycophants.” – It is sad that Latin America is known for the drug trade when it does have great writers, actors, artists, musicians, etc.
  • “So it’s chaos here now, and the people who pay the price for it are the people who always do, and who can least afford it – the poor, the powerless, the ones who can’t lock themselves up in gated communities, or commute from El Paso” (describing the  effects of the drug war in the border city of Juarez)

New vocabulary

  • pocho – An Americanized Mexican
  • ennui – pronounced an-wee, listlessness
  • inchoate – pronounced (in-ko-it), newly formed, not quite ready
  • assignation – a secret meeting with a lover