High Art in a Low Place: On Don Winslow’s “The Border”

By Jim RulandApril 25, 2019

High Art in a Low Place: On Don Winslow’s “The Border”

The Border by Don Winslow

IN THE MIDDLE of Don Winslow’s The Border, approximately 1,500 pages into his epic Cartel trilogy, the author introduces an unforgettable new character.

Nico Ramirez, a 10-year-old boy who lives in El Basurero in Guatemala City, engages in a weekly life-or-death struggle to salvage enough trash from the city dump to pay his family’s rent. If he falls short, he will be beaten — again — and his mother will be raped — again — by the Calle 18 gangsters that run the dump. Although this malnourished and chronically ill boy is in competition with thousands of other basureros, he has one thing going for him: he’s really fast. “Nico wins every race, even against the older kids. Nico Rápido, they call him, ‘Fast Nicky,’ and on the rare occasions when they can find something resembling a fútbol, Nico is the star — quick, shifty, clever, skilled with his feet.”

But he can’t outrun Calle 18 forever. When a gangster brands the numerals “18” into Nico’s ankle with a hot knife, his mother sends him to New York, where her sister lives. With nothing but a water bottle, a couple of tortillas, his prized Messi jersey, and no money to speak of, Nico flees El Basurero with his friend Flor.

To get there, they ride atop La Bestia, a.k.a. el tren de la muerte, “the death train” that cuts through the heart of Mexico. Gangsters, bandits, and pimps prey upon them at every stop along the way. This happens with such regularity that Nico’s journey feels every bit as harrowing as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. All Nico can do is run.

Nico’s journey might seem like an odd interlude for a hyper-violent saga about Mexican drug cartels. This isn’t a dystopian flourish, but a cold dose of reality. Guatemala City’s El Basurero is real. So is el tren de la muerte. In fact, authorities estimate that as many as 500,000 migrants make the treacherous 1,500-mile journey to the Southern border of the United States every year.

Nico’s journey illustrates in heart-breaking detail why so many people are fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Just as Sam Quinones and Beth Macy use narrative vignettes to illustrate the depth and breadth of the opioid crisis in their books Dreamland and Dopesick, respectively, Winslow employs snippets of journalistic fiction to educate his readers about Central American migration, drug distribution, gang culture, money laundering, and more, and splices these threads into multiple story lines.

Winslow also incorporates two of the biggest, most recent scandals in Mexico and the United States: the disappearance and massacre of 43 normalistas from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014, and the election of the money-launderer-in-chief, Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential election. Here Winslow takes a counterfactual turn in his narrative and spins an alternate future that echoes our present reality.

In The Border, the real estate tycoon turned reality show celebrity is named John Dennison. David Dennison, it’s worth noting, is the name Michael Cohen used for Donald Trump in non-disclosure agreements. If that clue isn’t enough, anyone who has read even a handful of Trump’s tweets will recognize his tempestuous tone and short-attention-span syntax. “‘Red Mari’ embarrasses her husband. Sad.”

Dennison’s ire is directed at Arturo “Art” Keller. After Keller’s wife, Marisol, a Mexican citizen, goes to Mexico City to protest the killing of the students, conservative media attacks Keller, and Dennison piles on every chance he gets. As a half-Mexican-American citizen from Barrio Logan in San Diego, California, Keller’s loyalties are also called into question, which is ironic given how much his service has cost him.

In the first book of the trilogy, The Power of the Dog, Keller gets a taste of the War on Drugs as an ambitious young DEA agent. The experience is so disheartening that the second book finds Keller working as a beekeeper in a New Mexico monastery, but the DEA lures him back to take down the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Keller’s nemesis Adán Barrera.

In the third and — according to Winslow — final book of the series, Keller has accepted a position as the head of the DEA, a job he detests. Barrera’s death has created a power vacuum in the drug trade, and the once mighty Sinaloa Cartel has dissolved into warring factions that must fend off drug trafficking organizations from other states.

During a closed Senate hearing, Keller testifies that the old way of doing things isn’t working:

In modeling the war against terrorists, we’ve been following the wrong model. Terrorists are reluctant to take over the top spots of their dead comrades — but the profits from drug trafficking are so great that there is always someone willing to step up. So all we’ve really done is to create job vacancies worth killing for.

Although he has buried more friends and colleagues than he can count, when he discovers that Dennison’s son-in-law, Jason Lerner, has accepted a loan from a syndicate of Mexican drug cartels, Keller vows to bring the whole house of cards down — no matter the cost.

The result is a book that’s part narco shoot-’em-up, part police procedural, and part legal thriller with a raft of returning characters from the previous two books and a slew of new ones. Winslow doesn’t introduce a character to make a point. Rather, he masterfully weaves them into his web of intrigue. It’s an audacious and unusual undertaking.

Winslow’s trilogy often gets compared to The Godfather, but the sprawling narrative bears a closer resemblance to The Wire. Both explore story lines from opposite sides of the “War on Drugs” that eventually intersect in explosive fashion. And, like the characters on The Wire, the “good guys” in law enforcement often do very bad things, and the drug dealers have their moments of compassion, loyalty, and respect — within the context of their code — despite their penchant for breathtakingly brutal violence.

After a brief prologue, the novel opens where The Cartel left off. His battle with Adán Barrera has left a vacuum in the Sinaloa Cartel. Because Adán’s offspring are still children, three competing forces vie for control of the cartel: Adán’s sister Elena, who had hoped her time working for the family business had come to an end; Ivan, the eldest of the hotheaded Esparza brothers; and Ric Núñez, Adán’s godson. Ivan and Ric, along with Rubén Ascensión, comprise Los Hijos, the new, young generation of narcos who at times are more enamored with their playboy lifestyles than the ruthless work of running a drug trafficking organization.

Their respective plans for taking over the cartel are met with infighting and intrigue both from within the Sinaloa Cartel and from cartels in other states that set the young players against each other in ways that result in shockwaves of violence throughout the country.

Keller watches this from afar, trying to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, but is met with interference from sitting Senators, rogue CIA agents, and his own agency.

Counterfactual potboilers tend to be written by older white men for older white men. This subgenre, generally speaking, is not the place one would expect to find progressive politics embedded into the narrative. Yet Winslow writes about the bloodshed in Mexico with a passion and purpose that calls to mind “The Part About the Crimes” section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

Winslow’s passion extends beyond the pages of The Border. On Twitter he is a frequent antagonist of Trump’s, especially when it concerns MS-13 or the ridiculous border wall and the racist rhetoric that surrounds these topics. Winslow’s adversarial tone is reminiscent of the late Charles Bowden, another writer who was a caustic critic of NAFTA and the War on Drugs, policies that have allowed corruption to flourish and caused misery for so many hardworking Mexicans.

At the sentence level, Winslow’s writing in The Border is comparable to James Ellroy's — not the dark dream of the L.A. Quartet, but the hard-bitten prose of the Underworld USA trilogy that followed. Like Ellroy, Winslow works in a number of modes, from the comedic Savages, which Oliver Stone made into a film of the same name, to The Force, Winslow’s best-selling hard-bitten tale of police corruption. Take this passage from Keller during a sleepless night that turns to morning, which unfolds like a prose poem:

The sun comes up.
Cheerless winter sky.
It comes up on junkies, men in prison, grieving families, the strung out, the jammed up, a country that doesn’t know itself anymore.
Sleep won’t come in daylight any more than in the dark.
You have a choice to make.

Few fiction writers know more about the futility of the War on Drugs and its impact on the United States and Mexico than Don Winslow. This research comes in handy when writing sadistic scenes of narco torture and retaliation, and The Border has an abundance of them. But there’s a grander purpose at work here. At a time when nationalism is on the rise, The Border is nothing less than Winslow’s endeavor to pull down the barriers in his readers’ imaginations.


Jim Ruland is the author of Forest of Fortune, co-author of My Damage with Keith Morris of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and OFF!, and curator of the Southern California based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its 15th year.

LARB Contributor

Jim Ruland is the author of the novel Forest of Fortune (2014) and the short story collection Big Lonesome (2005). He has written a book about the punk band Bad Religion, Do What You Want (2020), and co-authored Keith Morris’s memoir My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (2016). Ruland has been writing for punk zines such as Flipside and Razorcake for more than 25 years, and his work has received awards from Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is curator of the Southern California–based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its 15th year. His most recent book, Make It Stop, was published in April 2023.


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