WE’RE STRANGE ANIMALS, humans. We over-indulge, have a habit of making rash decisions, and let our emotions drive us over the cliff — middle fingers extended all the way down. If we do make headway, we will knock over anyone we can that comes in our way. Charity — true giving — is rare among us. Even those of us living morally do so for a reward: heaven, gratitude, a boost to the ego. There has to be something we’re due, right? Something that should belong to us and only us.
That’s our base: we want. We want money, we want power, we want control, and we want happiness. Capitalism demands that desire be our church. There needs to be someone on top and the rest need to be ice skating up that hill. Maybe some of us will even make it up there only to find another hill — another thing we’ll need.
In The Cartel, Don Winslow’s masterfully crafted follow-up to The Power of the Dog, we’re provided with a stark window into the effects of extreme human desire. Nothing fantastical. This is the human condition. This feels even more of an important concept to explore in a post-9/11 world built on aggression, fear, and greed thanks to the actions of the few. The world seems almost desperate to ignore the need for uncomfortable change, and instead has remained steadfast to principles built on consumption and consumption alone. We’ve grown into something awful, and only now is that slowly dawning on us.
Winslow’s United States and Mexico — the focal points of this cycle of consumption and destruction — represented respectively best by characters Art Keller and Adán Barrera, have layered motivations and characteristics, but at the end of the day they are driven by their need for something to fill a void inside of them. The drug lords are driven by a lust for power and privilege afforded by the upper crust. The law is driven by a desire for control or power of its own. In the middle, the users, soldiers, and families are driven by the need to survive and live on their own terms.
Americans consume an immense amount of narcotics, and Winslow wisely focuses on how that consumption has created the state of affairs down in Mexico. There are few plot beats in The Cartel that aren’t rooted in reality. This demand from the north has driven an entire country to the brink and has made powerful men of some of the most wretched examples of humanity. The drug cartels may be monstrous, but often the impetus for their bloody acts can be traced back to the American marketplace. Those drugs have to go somewhere and have to be desired by someone. It’s no coincidence the bulk of it heads north or that the industry pushing the product onto the streets also drives the industry built to stop it.
It is a classic example of the ouroboros: the snake eats its own tail because it doesn’t know any better. Unfortunately, in the case of US and Mexican drug relations, the snake isn’t the only thing being hurt, and the fallout of this war has become tenfold worse than it was less than a decade ago. For this reason, and effectively, The Cartel presents its story from multiple viewpoints. This is a world that’s lived in, and the reader needs to see the events unfold from the very top to the bottom, macro to micro; but it’s the way all events affect and degrade every character that matters.
In Juárez, we meet journalist Pablo Mora. He’s one of the few with his boots on the ground, seeing first-hand the horrors of this war. Slowly, but surely, Pablo’s faith and character becomes eroded. Winslow describes the process of erosion as almost unfulfilling: “You’d think that there would be a breaking point — a decisive moment — but there is no single moment or event that you can put your finger on. No, it’s not that dramatic — it’s the dull monotonous process of erosion.”
In the world of the narcos, Eddie Ruiz starts as a simple weed dealer with citizenship and high school football fantasies. As he further falls into the world of the cartels, though, his morals may erode, but there’s also the buildup of something dark and hard over his exterior. He becomes one of the most detached members of this insanity. At one point, during an especially bloody and personal war against the Zetas, a military-like gang, Eddie writes an open letter to the president of Mexico to intervene even though Eddie is very much an active part of the violence. It shows not only how delusional Eddie is, but the response to the letter doubly shows how detached the entire world of The Cartel is from its insanity:
The ad goes on, “Seriously, dude, the Mexican army, the federales, and the attorney general lack the means and tools to handle these guys? I’m no angel but I take responsibility for what I’ve done.
And he signs it.
“Sincerely, Edward Ruiz.”
The ad gets some attention.
It wins him the nickname “Crazy Eddie.”
And, perhaps most interesting for the reader, this is a cold, logical world. This is a place where deals with devils must be made — no matter how painful or contradictory. By the end of the book, I found myself more likely to agree with decisions that I never thought I would agree with, because there are no easy answers for any of the characters in The Cartel. Things had to be ugly, no matter what the outcome.
And back to that human need of fulfillment. Everybody in The Cartel wants something: Art Keller wants revenge, Eddie Ruiz wants money and sex, Adán Barrera wants some kind of controlled peace (or as good of an escape plan as the real-life Chapo Guzmán), Pablo Mora wants happiness, and everyone wants a purpose. These are things that others have and aren’t very willing to share or give up. So the struggle continues. Alliances are forged and broken, deals are made and modified. All of this is causing untold physical, mental — and potentially — spiritual anguish. And there’s no safe place. Even for those who don’t care anymore.
Take one of the most interesting characters in the novel, a young boy known as Chuy. We meet him at age 12, thirsty for money and glamor. From there we watch him become a remorseless murderer, a zealot, a maniac, and finally a broken shell. Each incarnation desiring something else, something that another presence has dictated would bring him stability. Winslow had me wondering if the effort was a waste because those with the carrot made it so or because Chuy acted in ways I wouldn’t. That stayed with me, and I struggled to understand a world where a child would do more evil than I could potentially imagine as an adult.
But maybe I can imagine those atrocities if I put a little effort into it. It isn’t like they’re truly thousands of miles away. It’s impossibly easy for me to connect with anyone in the world, to see, firsthand, exactly what’s happening anywhere, anytime. Winslow does not ignore how easy it is to digest information in an immediate way with today’s technology. This is far from the world that existed in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, when The Power of the Dog takes place. The internet plays a massive presence in The Cartel, bringing the breathless pace of the modern media cycle into play. Reality has become amplified onscreen, and there’s a lingering thought — for me, at least — that my mind’s eye can only venture into some of the imagery Winslow provides because I know it’s out there. I may not actively seek it out, but it’s there, just a click away. Perhaps that’s what kept me reading even when I felt I needed to pull away to catch a breath. There’s no room for that in the real world, and honestly, there’s no room for that in The Cartel. The demons have to be faced head on if we have any hope of defeating them.
The Cartel is cynical of the human condition and the global political stage we’re all taking a part on, but it is not without hope. For as much as we have the capacity to inflict pain, we can find moments to inspire and be good to one another. In my opinion, it’s that bleak world — painted so much bleaker by Winslow — that makes those special moments pop so much from the novel’s backdrop. A touch, a small moment between friends or lovers. We want life to be big picture and have an inherently deep meaning. In the meantime, it all probably grinds down to “don’t be an asshole.” But that’s easier said than done. We still have human nature to contend with.
It’s a tricky balancing act, to live a life, and Winslow strives to capture that. Adán Barrera, the narco king, finds himself broken at the death of his long-suffering daughter. Haven’t we known people in those situations? Haven’t we felt that anguish? Or Art Keller’s life of guilt: the weight on his shoulders that every life taken by the drug wars is in a small way his fault. He finds himself putting a person he’s connected with deeply in peril. Wouldn’t we do anything to ensure the safety of those we love? Even if it meant bending from the right path? The Cartel tested the limits of my empathy, leaving me heartbroken for people that did not deserve it and spiteful of those that perhaps needed me to be a little easier on them.
It’s difficult to walk away from this novel and not acknowledge that we’re all guilty of bending back and forth in order to feel good about the life we lead — some clearly worse than others. But there’s also light there. Perhaps in understanding that our actions can be so extreme and awful, we take the first steps toward having the capability to not make the wrong decision. In the face of those horrors, I’ll have to believe some good can be done, just like Keller and even Barrera.
Even at their lowest, Winslow’s characters find a way to continue their search for fulfillment, good or bad — just like we do. This makes The Cartel one of the most quintessentially human crime novels I’ve ever read.