10 April 2019

The Border

Don Winslow's The Force made my top-ten list for 2017, and his new novel The Border is already on my 2019 list. If you're familiar with his work, you can guess why; if you're not, how come?
The Border is the third book in a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog in 2005 and continued with The Cartel in 2015. These are decidedly unsentimental. This ain't the Mexico of mariachis and margaritas. This is a landscape of sangre y muerte, bitter enmities and brute force.

The thing here is that it's almost impossible to write about the drug war without getting political. We've long had an abusive relationship with Mexico, and American attitudes have been condescending from the start, going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which Mexico has always regarded as a humiliation. Mexico in American popular culture is caricature, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo a sales pitch for Corona. But not to recognize our part in this dynamic isn't just turning our backs on history, it's dangerously delusional. The most basic fact of the drug business is that the U.S. represents an enormous market, and the supply chain is a growth industry. Secondly, we're talking big money, and the reach of the cartels is long. This leads to institutional corruption, to the degree that Mexico is close to being a failed state, although to imagine the problem is limited to the Mexican legal and political machinery is ridiculous. Thirdly, the War on Drugs itself is an established enterprise. We commit huge resources to it, and nobody wants to jeopardize that. We've created a toxic, symbiotic relationship.

Is any of this a surprise, or up for debate? I'd think it was Narcotics 101, but in some circles, apparently, the mechanics of Cause and Effect are disputed. For example, you can give billions in military aid to the government of Guatemala, say, for drug eradication. When that government uses the training and weapons to turn their military and police into engines of political repression, it's a little disingenuous of us to be shocked when thousands of refugees show up on our doorstep.

It's to Don Winslow's credit that he shows us the political dimensions to the story without taking sides, and shows us the personal cost, too. You can tell he's in a fury, but he's not writing a polemic. These are novels about choice and consequence, moral confusion, self-destruction, and even redemption. It's a story about internal conflict, and interdependence, Mexican and American.

Writing about what Jeff Parker has called The Iron River, the drugs and human traffic coming north, the money and guns moving south, it's hard not to tell a story that resonates. Jeff has done it, Don Winslow has done it, I've certainly tried. But none of us has any prescription.

This isn't the first time I've quoted Porfirio Diaz. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."


  1. I've been a Winslow fan since reading California Fire & Life nearly 20 years ago, and I went back and found his Neil Carey series. Not bad, but certainly his apprenticeship for what would come later. I think I've read all his books except one set in New York (?) that may be out of print (?).

    Power of the Dog and The Cartel tell truths Americans don't want to hear, basically that the drug problem is OUR fault, not Mexico's. I haven't read The Border yet, but it's on my list, too. Interesting that you say Winslow keeps politics out of his book because most of the negative reviews on Amazon complain about his politics.

    Considering how much corruption and government play into the drugs, an apolitical book would be misleading, if not an outright lie. I can say this because I know Winslow is an outspoken critic of the current administration, and I'm in the same boat.

  2. Steve -
    The trick he pulls off is to represent the politics (both Mexican and American) without telling us how to fix it. He has, on the other hand, written some scathing op-eds lately - the one on the Chapo Guzman trial is a scorcher. He doesn't bother to conceal or mitigate his obvious contempt for the present batch of morons.
    I'm guessing DW's reasoning is that using a specific time-frame weakens both the story and the argument, because the cumulative history is damning enough.
    (All three of the books are actually romans a clef without calling attention to it.)

  3. The War on Drugs has been big business for as long as I can remember - and I can remember when Laotian Red and Cambodian Green came in off the boat in San Diego for $22 a kilo. It's also always been racist AND political - John Erhlichman said "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did." And Porfirio Diaz definitely knew what he was talking about.

  4. Yeouch. Porfirio Diaz's comment bites like acid.

    As promised, I watched The Wild Bunch last month. Seems to me it had a couple of pithy observations as well.


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