Gisela Mota was sworn in as the mayor of Temixco on January 1. She promised to lead a determined fight on crime. On January 2, an unknown number of asGisela Mota was sworn in as the mayor of Temixco on January 1. She promised to lead a determined fight on crime. On January 2, an unknown number of assailants riddled her house with gunfire and killed her.
I'm writing this review on January 3, and I can tell you that Mota is not a character in Don Winslow's newest drug war epic, "The Cartel." Granted, one of the female characters in this book does go on to become the mayor of a small city, and that character does become a target for assassins. But Mota was a real person, and while her death might have postdated Winslow's book, so many of the violent and shocking events portrayed in "The Cartel" (and its predecessor, "The Power of the Dog") can be traced back to actual atrocities committed by and suffered by real people.
I'm sure a number of people will find the graphic scenes of torture and execution to be excessive and over-the-top. And I would agree . . . except for the fact that you can go to sites like Blog Del Narco and Borderland Beat and see actual pictures of these atrocities. And the similarities don't stop there. When Adan Barrera breaks out of prison in the first act of the book, the obvious inspiration is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's escape from prison (not his second escape, which took place a few weeks after this book was published, but the first one). Actually, if you want to avoid a lot of spoilers, you should probably avoid reading the Wikipedia page on Guzman - a large amount of Guzman's actions, particularly with regards to his personal life, correspond with the actions taken by Adan Barrera in "The Cartel." To be sure, a number of characters in "The Cartel" may have been created from whole cloth, but even there, those characters operate within a culture and context that is ripped straight from the headlines of those publications that haven't been silenced by narco assassins.
All that said, there are a lot of well developed characters here. Very few of the main players (and virtually none that have their own POV chapters) are two-dimensional. Winslow does a particularly good job with some of his female characters, gifting them with their own identities beyond the simple taxonomy of virgin, mother, or whore. Magda, Erika, Marisol, Yvette, and Ana show themselves to be the equals of the men who usually wield power and mete out punishment, even though the women often have to work around the limitations imposed by their gender and circumstances. The male characters are a bit less noteworthy, since male antiheros are so common nowadays, but the main antagonists are well developed and secondary figures like Eddie Ruiz provide some interesting variations on narcotrafficking personas.
I liked this book more than "The Power of the Dog." It covers a much shorter period of time, which allows for more continuity and less "fast forwarding" to critical events in the drug war. I don't think "The Power of the Dog" is a necessary prerequisite for "The Cartel," since a lot of the characters are new and you can quickly get the gist of the backstory as you go along. "The Cartel" is over 600 pages, but it's moves along at a brisk pace. Even when there isn't a kidnapping or a shootout in progress, the political and dynastic maneuvering keep you engaged with the story.
In the end, this book flirts with the boundary between novel and creative nonfiction. It's a well-written book about an exceptionally ugly topic that binds the U.S. and Mexico together. You may not like this book, but hopefully you can understand its value....more