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From the internationally best-selling author of the acclaimed novel The Power of the Dog comes The Cartel, a gripping, true-to-life, ripped-from-the-headlines epic story of power, corruption, revenge, and justice spanning the past decade of the Mexican-American drug wars.

It’s 2004. DEA agent Art Keller has been fighting the war on drugs for thirty years in a blood feud against Adán Barrera, the head of El Federación, the world’s most powerful cartel, and the man who brutally murdered Keller’s partner. Finally putting Barrera away cost Keller dearly—the woman he loves, the beliefs he cherishes, the life he wants to lead.

Then Barrera gets out, determined to rebuild the empire that Keller shattered. Unwilling to live in a world with Barrera in it, Keller goes on a ten-year odyssey to take him down. His obsession with justice—or is it revenge?—becomes a ruthless struggle that stretches from the cities, mountains, and deserts of Mexico to Washington’s corridors of power to the streets of Berlin and Barcelona.

Keller fights his personal battle against the devastated backdrop of Mexico’s drug war, a conflict of unprecedented scale and viciousness, as cartels vie for power and he comes to the final reckoning with Barrera—and himself—that he always knew must happen.

The Cartel is a story of revenge, honor, and sacrifice, as one man tries to face down the devil without losing his soul. It is the story of the war on drugs and the men—and women—who wage it.

616 pages, Hardcover

First published May 22, 2015

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About the author

Don Winslow

75 books5,628 followers
Don Winslow is the author of twenty-one acclaimed, award-winning international bestsellers, including the New York Times bestsellers The Force and The Border, the #1 international bestseller The Cartel, The Power of the Dog, Savages, and The Winter of Frankie Machine. Savages was made into a feature film by three-time Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone. The Power of the Dog, The Cartel and The Border sold to FX in a major multimillion-dollar deal to air as a weekly television series beginning in 2020.

A former investigator, antiterrorist trainer and trial consultant, Winslow lives in California and Rhode Island.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,562 reviews
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 343 books397k followers
August 13, 2017
Winslow is such an awesome writer. He’s one of those people who makes storytelling look easy, even for other storytellers like me, who know very well that it is NOT easy. The amount of research he did for this book must have been staggering. It is a fictionalized telling of the recent drug wars in Mexico and beyond, with all the gore and horror that I remember from the headlines when I was still living in South Texas. It felt so real, so true to what happened, that I started fearing for the author’s safety. It seemed like he was getting dangerously close to telling things exactly as they happened. On the other hand, Winslow finds sympathy and humanity in all his characters, even the most hardened narcos who commit the most heinous atrocities. At heart, this is a story of a friendship gone bad between Art Keller, DEA agent, and Adan Barrera, scion of the most powerful drug cartel family in Sinaloa. Once friends, the two men are now bitterest of enemies, and the book follows them both as they try to outwit one another. Only one man can come out of these drug wars alive. It is not at all clear who will success, or even who is the hero and who is the villain. If you don’t mind grisly violence pulled right out of the news, you will find this a fascinating window into the world of narco trafficking.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,388 reviews6,656 followers
April 8, 2019
There’s a scene in this book in which a Mexican drug lord essentially strolls out of prison thanks to a corrupt system. Reality imitated art a few weeks after it was released when a Mexican drug lord escaped prison via a tunnel so elaborate that it’s very hard to believe it could have been built unnoticed by prison officials.

Don Winslow isn’t a prophet.* He’s just a very talented crime writer who has spent years researching the war on drugs, and he knows all too well how the same mistakes have been repeated since it started. He gave us the fictionalized version of its shady history in Mexico from the 1970s through the end of the century in The Power of the Dog, and he returns with this sequel to tell how much worse it's gotten in the years since.

Art Keller is a DEA agent who has been at war with cartel kingpin Adan Barrera for over 3 decades. As Keller and Barrera continue their long blood feud there’s a new power rising in the Mexican drug business. The Zetas were founded by former soldiers who train their members to military standards, and they escalate the turf wars to an astounding level of violence in which murder is routine and decapitations, dismemberment and burning people alive all become standard operating procedure as part of their campaign to terrorize the government, the police, the ordinary citizens, and the rival cartels.

As with The Power of the Dog, Winslow isn’t just using the drug war in Mexico as a colorful backdrop to a crime story. The drug war in Mexico is the story, and every corner of it is probed as we get a glimpse behind the curtain of the ultimate futility of it through many characters including a high school football star who becomes a high level narco dealer, a burned out journalist covering the carnage in his beloved hometown, a child whose desperate poverty compels him to become a soldier in the Zeta’s army, a former beauty queen who gets into the drug trade to assert her independence, and a variety of others who put faces on the multiple tragedies and horrors inflicted on Mexico.

Winslow spares no one in this clear eyed assessment that looks at the problem from every angle. The US is called to account for its hypocrisy in being both the market for these drugs and the hysterical voice demanding that Mexico stop the flow of narcotics. The corruption of Mexican institutions allows the trade to flourish and the violence to escalate. Big business is in the mix with the flow of trade and oil production in Mexico. US and Mexican police forces have become increasingly militarized because of the drug war. Winslow is making a very ambitious case with this book that the war on drugs has fundamentally changed both countries for the worse and done incalculable damage in the process.

It’s that big picture theme and the dedication to using fiction to tell some very harsh truths where the book really shines. Unfortunately, his commitment to that cause does hurt the novel a bit in terms of it’s characters, particularly the female ones who often seem to exist only to act as the conscience or counterweight to the male ones, but all of them are definitely in place to serve a specific plot purpose. Winslow is so good that his natural talent keeps them all interesting and from seeming like cardboard cut-outs,but you can tell where the bulk of his energy was focused.

Another aspect that started to wear on me a bit was how repetitive the violence got after a while. This isn’t necessarily Winslow’s failure because he is depicting reality here, and he has his characters becoming numb to the most vicious atrocities as well as commenting several times on how even the unthinkable can become routine if you see a enough of it. So I can understand why he didn’t skimp on that aspect, but it does start to grind you down as a reader after a while.

Those are minor nitpicks that I think kept me from liking this one a shade less than The Power of the Dog. Still, Winslow has written a fascinating and horrifying sequel that comes within spitting distance of living up to the first one, and it’s also a book that has some very important things to say about the true cost of the war on drugs as well as being an ambitious crime story told on an epic scale.

* Winslow wrote this editorial for CNN about the escape of Joaquin Guzman, and it highlights just how much knowledge he's accumulated about the drug trade in Mexico.

**Winslow went on to write a third book after this one:

The Border
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,102 reviews1,594 followers
March 14, 2022

”Sicario”, di Denis Villeneuve, 2015, un buon film su droga e lotta ai cartelli. Il sequel, “Soldado”, è stato diretto dal regista italiano Stefano Sollima, e purtroppo parte da una sceneggiatura meno buona.

È più corrotto il venditore o il compratore, lo spacciatore o il consumatore?
Quanto deve essere corrotta una società perché i suoi cittadini cerchino droghe per sfuggire alla realtà, al prezzo di sangue morte e sofferenza dei loro vicini oltre confine?

Con la Prima guerra mondiale, le trincee, le ferite, le amputazioni, nasce il consumo di massa di oppio, eroina, antidolorifici. Furono i mafiosi italoamericani i primi a capire la potenzialità di questo business, Lucky Luciano creò canali con l’industria farmaceutica tedesca e si spinse in Birmania per comprare la materia prima.
Con la Seconda guerra mondiale l’Atlantico finì controllato dai nazisti e il Pacifico dai giapponesi, la merce non arrivava più: ecco come sono nate le piantagioni messicane e sudamericane. Gli stessi americani costruirono in tempo record la ferrovia Sinaloa-San Diego, per i loro marinai delle portaerei, le decine di migliaia di feriti, di traumatizzati, di distrutti dalla guerra che tornavano a casa.
Adesso la lotta per il controllo del traffico uccide diecimila persone l’anno, che diventano altrettanti orfani, vendette, traumatizzati.
E, un’overdose s’è portata via 60 mila persone nel solo 2016, più di tutti i soldati morti nella guerra in Vietnam.

Il regista canadese Denis Villeneuve e il direttore della fotografia inglese Roger Deakins studiano un’inquadratura sul set del film “Sicario”.

La guerra più lunga nella storia degli Stati Uniti non è certo una delle due mondiali, o quella in Corea, o quella del Vietnam, neppure quella in Afghanistan, o quella in Iraq: ma quella della droga.
Quaranta anni di guerra, nessun risultato, se non morti, e ancora morti.
Anche perché il governo USA ha le idee poco chiare: a volte combatte gli spacciatori, a volte li protegge, quasi sempre li usa.
Con queste premesse, nessuna meraviglia se dopo quarant’anni i risultati sono gli stessi del primo giorno.

Gli uomini, ma anche le donne di questo romanzo sembrano appartenere alla categoria che "non deve chiedere mai”, resa celebre dallo spot del deodorante Denim Musk.
La psicologia interessa molto poco a Winslow, nonostante le centinaia di pagine l’approfondimento dei personaggi è latitante.

Militari americani in un’operazione antidroga al confine col Messico.

Ho pensato che quelli di Gomorra laserie dovrebbero leggerlo tutti per vedere che con la droga si può fare ‘la bella vita’ (anche se non dolce), invece di quelle vite di merda in quelle case di merda facendosi un culo così come ci hanno mostrato le serie tv.

L’impresa di Winslow è impressionante, quasi titanica, la documentazione dettagliata e approfondita.
E il risultato si vede, si legge: ottocento e passa pagine che si ha sempre voglia di continuare a leggere.
La fatica è mettere giù il libro, staccarsene.

Satana può tentarti solo con quello che hai già.

Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 15 books1,437 followers
June 8, 2020
The Cartel was a good book but is overshadowed by the greatness of Power of the Dog, the first book in the trilogy. I have the third book on the TBR pile. These books are about the rise of the narcotic cartels in Mexico. In the beginning South America controlled the narcotic pipeline with Mexico merely the middleman. This is the story of how that power shifted and Mexico became the driver in the drug business. The books are well researched and so compelling they are hard to put down. I highly recommend them.
David Putnam author of the Bruno Johnson series.
Profile Image for Matt.
900 reviews28k followers
June 17, 2022
“Pablo groans. He’s not behind in his rent, doesn’t need a child support payment, so a narco story is simply an exercise in tedium. The truth is that the narcos are generally stupid, brutal thugs – once you’ve written about one of them, you’ve written about them all. And anyway, who cares?”
- Don Winslow, The Cartel

Less than halfway through The Cartel, a Juarez journalist named Pablo Mora is given an assignment to cover “the drug situation.” He thinks the above-quoted thoughts, ruing the repetitive nature of covering the cartels.

It almost seems like Winslow is engaging in a bit of a meta-critique, an honest appraisal of his own 616-page novel of the War on Drugs, which is itself a sequel to the nearly 600-page The Power of the Dog. Yet, if there is any self-reflection here, it disappears quite quickly. The Cartel doubles down on the violence, the “stupid, brutal thugs,” and the oppressive sense of hopelessness of a vicious conflict that – according to Winslow – killed over 80,000 people from 2004 to 2014, the time period covered in this novel.


When The Cartel opens, DEA super-agent Art Keller is tending bees at a monastery, one of the many, many clichés that Winslow tends to embrace with fervor and conviction. His vendetta against Adán Barrera, the motivating force of The Power of the Dog, has seemingly ended, as Barrera is in a U.S. prison, facing life behind bars in ADX Florence. But no sooner than you can say El Chapo (on whom Barrera is clearly modeled), Barrera has been extradited back to Mexico, where he escapes from prison and rejoins his business.

The corporate model that Barrera tried to build with El Federación, with the various cartels working together in some kind of fashion, has crumbled. Now everyone is at war with each other, and the crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses come so fast that the only twist in The Cartel is when someone is actually loyal.

Along with Keller (vendetta-driven) and Barrera (Corleone with cocaine), we are introduced to a new slew of characters, very few of them holdovers from the first book in the series (a function of the exceedingly high body counts). There is the aforementioned Pablo Mora, a dogged journalist whose love for Juarez, and his refusal to leave, become increasingly hard to fathom; Crazy Eddie Ruiz, an American who rises quickly up the narco ranks, though it takes a flowchart to keep track of who he’s working for; and Luis Aguilera, the incorruptible Mexican prosecutor. Almost everyone who Winslow introduces is an archetype. None of them are given any particular depth or shading, though many get dope nicknames. When they are in danger, when many of them die, it never hit me on any level deeper than that of plot mechanics.

Winslow’s most memorable creation here is a young boy named Chuy, around ten or eleven, who joins as a foot soldier and is soon murdering people with an AR-15, decapitating hostages, and having sex with prostitutes. Chuy is a portrait of stunning depravity, but little effort is taken in attempting to understand what makes him tick. It is almost as if we are supposed to be satisfied by the shock-value alone.

The big-baddie in The Cartel is not Barrera, but Heriberto Ochoa, a thinly-fictionalized version of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the founder of the Zetas. The Zetas are a real-life nightmare, a collection of sadists that make the Einsatzgruppen look like gentlemen. It’s not that they simply murder with impunity, it’s that they tortured, burned, and decapitated with such outright glee that it becomes hard to know what to think of this world.


The incorporation of fictionalized proxies into actual events creates an interesting literary experience. This is not historical fiction, though some real personages and organizations are present. At the same time, much of what happens in The Cartel is based on true events, so that I spent a lot of time doing outside research to separate the hard facts from the pure drama.

This has a couple unfortunate consequences. First, it requires an extra level of effort that is not needed in a show like Narcos that dramatizes real persons and events, rather than creating an alternative reality. Second, the old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction is sadly borne out in the War on Drugs. The headlines from which Winslow rips much of his storylines are so outré, so ghastly, that there is little he can do to improve upon it.


The Cartel really pushes the boundaries of what I can accept as entertainment. While I acknowledge that a book serves many purposes (to teach, to advocate, to persuade), at the end of the day, I also seek some level of enjoyment. I didn’t find that here. The grimness here almost becomes The Cartel’s reason for being.


Winslow’s style is aggressively fast-paced, with many paragraphs consisting of a single line. The prose is marked by terse, clipped sentences, and blunt descriptions. For whatever reason, Winslow dispenses with many dramatic conventions, the most striking of which is the set-piece. Instead of carefully placing his players on the board and gradually building up to climactic events, Winslow just races from one thing to the next. Big moments are handled abruptly, almost indifferently. The rhythm becomes tiresome. Here’s a characters. Now he’s dead! Here’s another character. Now he’s dead. Here’s another character. Now he’s dead. The only thing that differentiates the plot is the manner of death and the sex of the victim.

Though Winslow’s world is bursting with cardboard characters, and terrible enough for all, women fare particularly bad. They are typically described in reference to their “bust” size and the mathematical degree of their hotness, e.g., the Scandinavian Ten. Of course, when they die, they are also sexually brutalized.


Instead of a novel, this felt like reading a list of things that happened, closer to a treatment than a finished product. This is too bad, because Winslow is a talented author who combines an authoritative command of his subject matter with a genuinely punchy flair. There is only one time in the whole of The Cartel that Winslow presents an extended sequence that is allowed to actually breathe and play out. Not coincidentally, it is the most pulse-pounding, palm-sweating, memorable part of the endeavor. It also demonstrates his inarguable skills.


Winslow is a smart man, and I do believe that he has put a great deal of thought into the War on Drugs. To that end, The Cartel is even more disheartening than it appears at first glance. It teems with a simmering fury at the way things have gone. However, while Winslow graphically renders the outlines of the problem, he provides nothing by way of a potential roadmap to a solution.

For instance, there are several throwaway remarks regarding America’s demand-side problem, positing that the cartel body count is the fault of U.S. drug users. This has been said before, and honestly, it is getting to be a wearisome way of sounding informed without telling us anything at all. The “demand” does not occur in vacuum, after all. Addicts are not willfully flouting the laws of two nations out of greed; cocaine and meth are not analogous to illegally-imported ivory or Egyptian antiquities. Rather, the cartel’s customers are hooked on biochemically addictive substances, which are, in point of fact, engineered and designed for that very purpose. It is also not simply a matter of changing American drug policy, since there is a Grand Canyon of difference between legalizing pot and legalizing heroin. When Winslow – via his mouthpiece Keller – bemoans the codependent bureaucracies of the cartels and the drug enforcement complex, caught in a corrupt embrace, he is simply presenting a reality without doing the harder work of providing an alternative.

Indeed, the muddle of The Cartel is how it strenuously asserts that violence cannot be quelled by more violence, but forces us to travel a 600-page journey with a “hero” whose only answer is a bullet.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
February 15, 2016
"...at the end of the day or the end of the world, there are no seperate souls. We will go to heaven or we will go to hell, but we will go together."
- Don Winslow, The Cartel


I went into this thinking I was going to get Tom Clancy+, but actually ended up with a novel closer to Norman Mailer. 'The Cartel', and Don Winslow's previous book on the Mexican drug trade ('The Power of the Dog') are best described as a two-part, fictionalized history of the War on Drugs in Mexico.

I was first drawn to read this by my little brother who was pimping it hard. He mentioned that he heard 'Ben Afflick' couldn't even get in the bid for the rights to this movie. It optioned for $1M with something like a $5M kicker when the movie got made. I think a similar deal got made for 'The Power of the Dog'. Perhaps, Leonardo Di Capro will star. Perhaps the director from Cormac McCarthy's drug cartel movie (yes, the one where Cameron Diaz makse love to a car) may even direct it. Kinda surreal.

Also, it wasn't like I went into this novel not knowing about the drug cartels in Mexico. I live just outside of Phoenix. We used to travel once or twice a year across the border to Rocky Point, but as the Zetas and the violence escalated along the border towns a few years back, our trips decreased. There just seemed to be too much cost for the benefit of sand, 800mg Ibuprofen, and smooth daiquiris. Even still, reading this was like discovering your favorite wound isn't just infected, but hosting a bunch of ugly parasites AND you are largely to blame.

Anyway, it is a total history. Winslow delivers the scope and the horror of the Drug War. He shows the impact on the people, the journalists, the poor. He shows the complicity of the US, the corruption of the Mexican police, the Mexican army, the Mexican politicos. It could easily have devolved into a Zeta snuff film, but Winslow turns it into a powerful piece of historical fiction. It is selling like it is just a thriller, but don't let the flash fool you. There is meat here. There is a body in this burning book. Again, the closest I can get to how reading this feels is Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, Littell's The Company, or Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. This isn't Dostoevsky, but it for sure for shit ain't Clancy.
Profile Image for Guille.
729 reviews1,352 followers
August 22, 2021
“El mal existe y el término entraña horrores que no podían ni imaginar.”
Esta novela, como su antecesora El poder del perro, es un espectáculo del horror, tan sangrienta y despiadada como lo pueda ser la fantasía de Juego de Tronos, pero con el añadido de terror que le otorga el atributo de la realidad, la constancia de que todo esto ha sucedido y sigue sucediendo al ladito nuestro, de que todo se hace por dinero, por poder y hasta por mera diversión o placer.

Esta segunda entrega se centra en la historia de los Zetas, exsoldados adiestrados por EE.UU. para combatir los movimientos izquierdistas de Centroamérica reclutados por uno de los cárteles para garantizar su seguridad y que pocos años después formaron su propio cártel, el más violento, feroz y cruel jamás visto.

Su táctica era sencilla, cometer actos excepcionalmente brutales y sanguinarios contra cualquiera que mostrara la más mínima oposición, igual daba que fueran hombres, niños o mujeres, sembrando un terror en las poblaciones que les garantizaba la obediencia de todos sus habitantes, incluidos policías, soldados y políticos: mujeres violadas mil veces pasaban a ejercer la prostitución en favor de los Zetas, niños reclutados a la fuerza como sicarios o torturados y asesinados si no aceptaban o no valían para el oficio, personas quemadas vivas en bidones de gasolinas, pieles arrancadas, desmembramientos sucesivos hacha en mano, desplazamiento de pueblos enteros cuyas casas eran después repobladas por adeptos al cártel… Entre 2007 y 2014 se estiman que hubo en México más de 150.000 muertos y más de 50.000 desaparecidos relacionados con el narcotráfico, siendo incontables los negocios cerrados, los puestos de trabajo perdidos, las personas desplazadas. Trágicamente irónico fue el hecho de que la guerra contra la droga que inició Felipe Calderón empeoró aún más la situación, llegando a ser, a pesar de todo, tremendamente impopular. El círculo perfecto.
“La tan cacareada guerra contra la droga es una puerta giratoria: eliminas a uno y otro pasa a ocupar la cabecera de la mesa. Eso no cambiará mientras el apetito insaciable por la droga siga ahí. Y sigue ahí, en el gigante que habita este lado de la frontera.”
El estilo de la novela no puede ser más acertado, muy ágil, con numerosos y potentes diálogos, frases simples, secas, casi telegráficas, insertadas en cortos párrafos que se van sucediendo y son culminados en puntos y aparte con otras frases más cortas aún, más tajantes, más sentenciosas; así, una y otra vez, como una letanía, como una oración fúnebre sin fin. Un lenguaje muy periodístico en el que abundan los grandes titulares, no en vano la obra está dedicada al más del centenar de periodistas asesinados durante este período.

Puede que no sea literatura con mayúscula, pero estos libros son necesarios. Como el propio autor afirmó en una entrevista: “El periodismo te proporciona los datos, pero la ficción te cuenta la verdad.”

Solo le pongo un pero a la historia, un pero que quizás sea un tributo que el autor tuvo que pagar para poder publicar: que EE.UU. solo tenga su ración de culpa en ser el gran consumidor sin el cual el narcotráfico del sur y el centro de América no existiría, o al menos no con las dimensiones que conocemos. No parece haber policías americanos corruptos, no parecen existir políticos relacionados con el narcotráfico, no hay empresarios norteamericanos colaboradores, algo que a mí se me antoja imposible.

Una última queja, más cercana y tangencial, es que Winslow relacionara la película de Guillermo de Toro “El laberinto del fauno” con el fascismo italiano cuando en realidad se trata de la posguerra civil española.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,394 followers
January 24, 2016
This is a huge book in every way—for its effects on people’s thinking and actions, in its implications for drug policy worldwide, and in the scope of its historical documentation. It is very up to date. In the fabulous and informative July 13, 2015 interview at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore, and published online by Slate magazine, Winslow describes the genesis of this book and his writing process.

For writers, this downloadable Soundcloud podcast is a must-listen for how one approaches a critically relevant subject with large amounts of historical data. For U.S. residents, this is a must-listen for its implications on recreational drug use. Winslow didn’t want to write this book but he gradually came to realize he “felt like a deserter from a war” and that he could no longer turn his face away from, and neglect to speak of, the violence against the innocent residents of Mexico.
“If I were south of the border, looking north, I would have questions about corruption.” [Winslow @ Politics & Prose]
Winslow’s fictional account of the drug wars in Mexico and the United States is the longest and most important of his work to date, and it is sensational in every way. Winslow has long been recognized for his ability to catch a fascinating slice of the California community, a subset of surfers relaxing into their ‘fun in the sun’ lifestyle. In this huge, sprawling duo of novels, first The Power of the Dog followed by The Cartel, we have a much more sustained effort of imagination, research, and writerly skill that aligns so closely with headlines, a reader might be forgiven for mistaking Winslow as an intimate of the Mexican drug wars. It is also a song of praise for the journalists who risked everything to cover the story. Winslow used news reports to fictionalize events in a way that gets at the motivations and the darkness and corruption on both sides of the border. This is fiction, but what fiction!
“You do not revenge a murder by killing. You revenge it by living.”
The story itself revolves around the fictional DEA cut-out Art Keller, and the head of the Sonoran [Sinaloan] cartel, Adán Barrera [Joaquin Guzman]. They had been pursuing one another for years and when Barrera escaped jail in the United States to return to his drug kingdom in Mexico, Keller came out of hiding to find him and bring him to justice. Winslow ties in years of documented drug trafficking over the U.S. southern border with a very intimate portrait of both men and their organizations. A reader will be familiar with many of the gruesome violence recounted here—so violent it doesn’t seem believable—and will be grateful to Winslow for making it personal.
“Americans take their strength from victory. Mexican strength derives from their ability to suffer loss.”

Winslow does not fail to highlight the role of women in communities throughout Mexico, demonstrating for protection by the police and army. Women often went on record about attacks against their families in a brazen attempt to shame the leaders and the cartels and to show a kind of solidarity with their community. “I have no way of accounting for that kind of courage, for that kind of moral backbone, for that kind of grace,” says Winslow [Slate]. This is a novel about the extremes of human depravity, corruption…and goodness.
“There is such a thing as evil…[and] the world holds horrors…”
Winslow’s deep immersion in research for America’s border war on drugs has led him to hold an opinion and to become a public spokesperson for a point of view on how we are managing: “things are worse than ever before.” The cartels are now advertising their violence, like ISIS, in order to spur recruitment and in order to intimidate. In the last section of this book, the cartels move from narcotrafficking to narcoterrorism, the two phenomena borrowing from one another.

In an interview in Esquire with Tom Junod, Winslow talks about his thinking on whether or not the legalization of marijuana in the United States will tamp down the cartel’s power in Mexico:
”Look, here's my stance, if that's what you're asking for. I think all drugs should be legal and I wish nobody used any of them. I have no problem with people smoking a little dope. But it always amazes me where people who are so persnickety about buying fair trade coffee, and farm-to-table beef, and about where their chicken was raised, think nothing of buying marijuana, which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths, and in a lot of cases harvested by slave labor. So I don't want to harsh anyone's buzz, but I think that's something that we need to look at because we really are in so many ways responsible for the violence in Mexico through our schizophrenic attitude toward drugs, including marijuana. We spent billions of dollars trying to keep it out and we spend billions of dollars buying it—and it's that conflict that allows the cartels to survive. So as marijuana is legalized, the cartels are getting ready for that in terms of trying to go legit. But on the other hand, you have to understand that the cartel's product is not the drug. The cartel's product is control of the trafficking routes. It doesn't matter what the item is, whether it's marijuana or coke or meth or heroin or blue jeans or bottled water, their product is the plazas, it's the neighborhoods, it's the ability to control those trade routes, okay? So, once marijuana becomes actually legal and starts to grow more in the United States and there's no problem getting it across the border up from Mexico, there will be other products. Because the product doesn't matter.”
Winslow points out that the “product” now is, in fact, stronger opiates like cheap heroin. Regarding ‘corruption’ on this side of the border, Winslow cites our incarceration problem and how that relates to racism. Drugs weren’t regulated until black people got in on the action. Then we went after them with a vengeance. Winslow sounds Pynchon-esque in his insistence that we think.

This novel doesn’t seem to be getting the critical attention it deserves. It doesn’t look, feel, or sound like a genre novel, except in its pace. If it is not on the lists of important novels published this year, it should be--should have been--in contention for the major prizes. It is a terrific work of imagination that targets important societal issues, is based on historical events, and it challenges us to do better, in our drug habits and in our spending on drug wars. What more can a reader ask from literature?

I listened to the Blackstone audio production of this book, read by Ray Porter. It is a primo listening experience, but I had a look at the book, and that’s good also. Get either, or both. You can’t go wrong here. Buy yourself and your friends a Christmas present you will never forget. Inform yourselves.
Profile Image for Francesc.
382 reviews189 followers
June 4, 2020
Un segundo libro "casi" tan bueno como "El Poder del Perro". Es evidente que ya no te sorprende tanto todo este mundo narco, pero, aún así, te hiela la sangre. Don Winslow lo hace muy fácil. Escribe sin florituras. Directo. Se permite ciertas licencias poéticas en sus descripciones y poco más.
Crudo. Muy crudo.
Hay que rascar muy fondo para encontrar algo de belleza en esta novela. Pero, si buscas, encuentras.

A second book "almost" as good as "The Power of the Dog". It is evident that you are no longer so surprised by this entire drug world, but, even so, your blood freezes. Don Winslow makes it very easy. Write without flourishes. Direct. Certain poetic licenses are permitted in their descriptions and little else.
Raw. Very raw.
You have to scratch very deep to find some beauty in this novel. But, if you search, you find.
Profile Image for Labijose.
927 reviews386 followers
January 9, 2017
“El cartel” es una digna secuela a “El poder del perro”. No es imprescindible haber leído la primera para disfrutar de la segunda, pero sin duda, es más que recomendable hacerlo. Tras haberse recluido voluntariamente en un monasterio muy particular, Art Keller conoce la noticia de la vuelta de Adán Barrera a México, por lo que se verá obligado a volver a dicho país para intentar dar caza a su enemigo jurado, y así saldar definitivamente las cuentas que le unen a un pasado violento y muy doloroso.
Don Winslow nos vuelve a ofrecer una novela fascinante de un hermoso país aquejado de una enfermedad mortal, el narcotráfico que tantas vidas ha segado, y a tantas familias destruido. A pesar de la longitud de la obra, se lee casi de un tirón, tanto en sus capítulos más agitados como en aquellos más relajados. Personajes muy creíbles. Descripciones magníficas. Sentimientos a flor de piel. Páginas llenas de una violencia y una brutalidad nada gratuitas. Otra obra maestra.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,427 reviews12.7k followers
December 17, 2015
Drugs are bad, m’kay? And so’s Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Cartel, m’kay?

Ok, I’ll stop that (m’kay?)!

The Cartel spans a decade of the Mexican drug wars from 2004. That’s basically the “story” because what follows for 640(!) pages is a sprawling mess of characters and horrific incidents none of which adds up to anything.

There’s Art Keller, a 50-something former DEA agent who’s retired from locking up drug lords and taken to the monastic life before returning for one last job (what is this, a Steven Seagal movie?!). His totally unconvincing “nemesis” is Adan Barrera, head of the biggest Mexican Cartel, La Federacion, who gets sent to prison where he meets the love of his life, a former beauty queen called Magda. With the head honcho in prison, La Federacion breaks up into factions as a power struggle commences leading to the rise of the ruthless Zetas, a cartel of ex-military thugs.

Also thrown into the mix is Pablo, a journalist covering the drug wars, who’s going through a rough divorce and trying to keep custody of his son. There’s a child soldier, Chuy, who earns the nickname Jesus the Kid, after becoming a successful cartel hitman. There’s “Crazy” Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star turned drug lord. And there’s several dozen other characters too – hence “sprawling mess”!

Broadly, the novel follows these various characters as Barrera leaves prison and begins regaining control of his drug empire from the Zetas while avoiding the American DEA. What that actually means is that most of the novel is one nightmarish thing happening after another between the different sides. The cartels battle against each other in escalating, out-of-control violence with huge numbers of assassinations, beheadings, mutilations, people being burned alive in oil barrels, rape, all happening to men, women and children.

The violence is gratuitous even if Winslow’s basing this upon reality and the descriptions over hundreds and hundreds of pages, once past the initial shock, results is a numbing in the reader to this madness. It’s one-note and it becomes very boring very quickly for very long.

Scattered throughout this rambling narrative are standalone stories that don’t add to the main story but serve to illustrate how the drug wars affect ordinary people. An old country gentleman defends his house single-handedly from the Zetas, taking more than a few with him, and there’s the tragic story of a drugged-out whore who was once the mistress of a corrupt cop. While these tangents add to the already obnoxious page count, some aren’t half bad and are actually more interesting than what’s happening to the recurring characters.

Quite why there was so much attention paid to Pablo and his divorce, I don’t know, as none of it was interesting. Nor was it clear how former beauty queen Magda suddenly became a whiz at the drug business once she became Barrera’s woman. Keller and Barrera’s rivalry, supposedly the core conflict of the book, was never once convincing and felt like b-movie schlock at best.

That’s what struck me as odd because Winslow can write, really well sometimes - his other novels like Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine, were great! Why then he decided to write real-life crime drama through the lens of poorly realised corny characters and repetitive “shock” violence that goes nowhere, is a mystery. His writing in The Cartel is among the worst I’ve read from him.

Winslow creates one character in a particularly contrived fashion. She’s a young woman who decides to become the law in a small town – no other cop will do the job so she decides to become the sheriff. She becomes like a surrogate daughter to Keller and his girlfriend and guess what happens to her? The same thing that happens to every non-corrupt cop in Mexico. In comics, this term is called the “women in refrigerators” trope, where a female character is hurt/killed purely to provide motivation for the male character. That’s what her role in this story is for Keller. In other words, lazy bullshit writing.

Sure, Winslow shows us the horrors of the drug wars and comments banally that it will continue because of the industry behind it. Not just the drug consumers but the increasingly militarised police, the DEA, the prison system, the border authorities, and on and on. The Cartel is a reference to the whole mess, not just the actual cartels who run the drug businesses but the American government, the oil companies who legitimize drug kingpins by working in partnership with them, and various agencies like the DEA. Everyone’s bad, m’kay?

As a novel though, it’s a very tedious read with few moments of interest. Full of one-dimensional characters, a non-existent plot, and one nasty scene after another, The Cartel leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Don Winslow, rather than say anything enlightening about the Mexican drug wars, goes for repeated cheap shocks to sustain the reader’s attention and falls short long before the forced end.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 122 books155k followers
July 18, 2015
Violent and devastating look at the "war on drugs." An indictment, really, of both the drug kingpins and law enforcement. Thoroughly absorbing. A bit long in places. But wow. Mercilessly grim in a good way. Some interesting women characters of which I wish there were more. One hell of a read. Art Keller, who is the bitter heart and soul of this book has a fascinating moral code. This is an epic.
Profile Image for Perry.
630 reviews497 followers
July 10, 2017
High-Octane Thriller of Mexican Drug Wars
Fallout from America's Opioid Crisis: Opioid Alternative, Cinnamon & Black Tar Heroin Priced to Sell by Sinaloa Cartel and Mexican Rivals
“The Mexicans have finally found a drug that white trash likes and can afford. And one thing you ain’t never gonna run out of is white trash.”
“Just across the bridge is the gigantic marketplace, the insatiable consumer machine that drives the violence here. North Americans smoke the dope, snort the coke, shoot the heroin, do the meth, and then have the nerve to point south (down, of course, on the map), and wag their fingers at the 'Mexican drug problem' and Mexican corruption.”
The Cartel, Don Winslow

In case you haven't heard of him, Don Winslow is now the Don of Crime Fiction, stories expertly written, thoroughly researched, sweeping in scope and in Hollywood's high demand. His latest crime novel, "The Force," is an NYPD cop tale of Shakespearean dimensions (I say this with all seriousness). He begins it with a quote from Raymond Chandler about cops being regular people: "... They start out that way, I've heard."

The Cartel is an electrifying ride beside true-to-life characters who live and traverse over the mountainous battlefields of the Mexican drug wars. Don Winslow poured himself into the research of the Mexican journalists who risked their lives (some died) for their honesty and integrity in reporting on the brutal, butcherly wars among the drug trafficking, organized crime syndicates, and of the corrupt government officials bought to look the other way and/or to protect the Cartel.

To achieve as much truth as possible for this stunning story on the Sinaloa Cartel and El Chapo Guzmán, Winslow also conducted his own investigation by interviewing family members of the innocents killed as well as of past and present soldiers (anonymously) involved in the drug warfare.

The result is a provocative novel, wired with tension from beginning to end.

If you haven't read a Don Winslow novel, I highly recommend "The Cartel" or "The Force."
Profile Image for Matt.
34 reviews48 followers
July 13, 2019
“The Cartel” and “The Power of the Dog” are two very different books. Winslow manages to keep his content fresh by switching his focus. Both books are meant to give insight into America’s “war on drugs”, however, “The Cartel” has a much more journalistic feel to it. Winslow is a master at writing about long spans of time. The book takes place from 2004-2014. Winslow still manages to incorporate a lot of depth while also managing to cover many bullet point headlines that one would expect to see in a fictional book about Mexican Cartels. Whether he’s writing about the dilemma Mexican journalists have while trying to report about the cartels and the destruction that they cause to communities, or writing about how a young person could be lured into the life of a cartel member, everything Winslow writes has a depth to it that is hard to wrap your head around while reading a book that spans a decade.

While doing some research about the accuracies of “The Cartel”, I managed to go down a youtube rabbit hole. I found some really good videos of Winslow speaking about his book. He really has an evangelical style to his presentations. He’s trying to bring some attention to the situation in Mexico through a fictional vehicle, which is admirable since journalists in Mexico have their hands tied and can’t report about what’s really going on without the fear of ending up dead. If you’re interested in learning more about the cartel situation I also recommend googling Ed Calderon. He’s a real-life Art Keller that worked in the trenches in Mexico. A lot of his stories back up Don Winslow’s fictional accounts.
Profile Image for G.H. Eckel.
Author 2 books135 followers
December 5, 2017
Imagine a 17 hour Ken Burns' movie in a novel and you get Don Winslow's, The Cartel. It's an epic story of the drug cartels in Mexico, their turf wars, and their fight with government forces that are as violent and ruthless as the cartels they seek to destroy. The novel focuses on one Don who comes back into power after a stint in jail, and the American agent who originally put him there and wants him incarcerated again. The story is fictional but rings true because it's based on real cartels, e.g., the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels.

Winslow must be brilliant. The sheer number of pages, the smooth delivery and the epic story line provide a truly rich and enthralling experience. The catch, however, is that you MUST enjoy reading about the ruthless actions of cartel members, warring cartels, the politics of terror and blackmail, and the corrupt government and police authorities that survive by letting the cartels survive. Much like Puzzo's Godfather, The Cartel puts you squarely in the world of the cartel leaders, their differing leadership styles, the truces and battles they wage, the illegal drugs they sell to a hungry public, and the horrific loss of loved ones on both sides of the battle lines. Keller, the rogue agent, who first put the Don behind bars, is enraged that the Don has escaped and rejoins the CIA to hunt down the Don who killed Keller's family members. It's a story that stretches from Central America, to North America, to Europe.

Pros: A brilliant, imaginative journey in the shoes (mostly) of cartel leaders. The depth of detail in the plot, the characters, and the descriptions is mind boggling. We see the human greed for wealth breed ruthless behavior, like mass beheadings, under the auspices of "business." The addiction and need for drugs appears to be as much a part of being human as is our addiction and need for power and wealth. Both addictions lead to momentary highs and certain destruction.

Cons: If you're not interested in drug trafficking wars, you will not enjoy this novel. None of the characters are particularly heart warming. Keller, the misfit agent, is our way into the novel but really, we spend more time with the Don than Keller. So, you don't spend too much time rooting for anyone in the novel. Also, the plot is episodic and infinitely long without the usual flow of a central story point that leads to a climax and resolution. We go through two marriages to the Don in this novel, for example. So, beware if you want a tightly focused plot.

Final thoughts: The plot moves well throughout the novel but there's no sense of everything being shaped around a story point or a central character flaw that get resolved. Like a Ken Burns film, the novel offers a sweep through history. If you're a person who prefers 2 hour movies to 17 hour movies, you might find yourself skipping through large sections of this novel. The story point, of course, is does Keller get his man, or does the Don get Keller? This is resolved but the sweep of history in between is both remarkable and very long.

There aren't passages in the novel that you'll treasure and tweet except for one that comes near the opening of the novel: Mexico doesn't have a drug problem, the United States does. Without buyers, there would be no sellers. The novel isn't moralistic and it doesn't offer a sweet and tidy resolution that cartel members are bad and cia agents are good. After finishing the last page, you'll feel that you've been in Central America for years and you'll have new respect and fear for the cartels operating around the world.

Profile Image for Rodrigo.
972 reviews350 followers
December 25, 2021
Y lamentablemente muy realista.
Si ya en el poder del perro el autor hacia gala de un gran conocimiento de los teje manejes de los carteles de México, el Gobierno de USA con la lucha contra la droga, y demás, en este lo amplía a todos los carteles implicados ( Tijuana, CDG, Sinaloa, Juárez, los Zetas...) con una batalla por el control de las distintas "plazas".
El libro empieza más o menos donde acabó el anterior " El poder del perro ", y se centra en esta lucha de poder entre los cárteles.
A mis favoritos que va de cabeza.
Profile Image for Mark Rubinstein.
Author 22 books809 followers
June 8, 2015
I've read nearly everything Don Winslow has written and think he's one of the most innovative writers out there. The Cartel is an opus of a book and follow-up to his earlier novel, The Power of the Dog. This powerhouse book finds DEA agent Art Keller plunged into the Mexican-American drug cartel wars firing up on both sides of the border, even in Central America. This is a gripping saga, but don't be intimidated by its 624 pages--it reads like a drug rush with Keller pursuing Adan Barrera, the patron of El Federacion, the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. Wars are ugly and messy, especially this one, as the cartels vie for dominance and Keller is caught in the middle. I really enjoy Don Winslow's present-tense writing style which lends a cinematic immediacy to his storytelling. His use of popular culture references is an added bonus for the "addicted" reader. If you enjoy a sprawling, multiple POV story, this one's definitely for you. In some respects, it reminds me of Puzo's The Godfather, but it's even more ruthlessly told. One reviewer called this novel "The War and Peace of the dope trade." It certainly is, and Don Winslow's research is plenty evident in this incredible narco-thriller . One of the best novels I've read in a very long time. A real, no-nonsense rush packed between the covers.

Mark Rubinstein
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,844 reviews420 followers
July 9, 2020
Two books by Don Winslow together tell the story of America’s “war on drugs” from its beginnings in the post-Vietnam war years of the 1970’s through the increasingly violent front-page crack/cocaine drug-dealing decades up to the more current apathetic backpage interest or desensitized year of 2015. Both books follow the main character Art Keller, along with other few, very few, sadly, continuing characters.

In the first book in the series, The Power of the Dog, Keller is a young hopeful altruistic DEA agent. During the events of ‘The Cartel’, Keller has become one of America’s experts on Mexico’s drug-cartel operations, its homicidal leaders and their territorial wars. He no longer is altruistic. I get it. Neither am I.

‘The Cartel’ is a shocking and upsetting historical novel, the sequel to the equally shocking and upsetting first book in the series, ‘The Power of the Dog.’. The horrific gore Mexico swims in daily in real life because of the various drug lords who have been killing each other continuously for decades over territory and machismo supremacy is described fictionally through the lives of several representative characters in this series - including children, farmers, city workers and families of ordinary people.

Horrific torture-murders pile up chapter after chapter, literally. Each and every one of them is based on what happened to real people and in real events as chronicled by brave Mexican journalists from the 1970’s up to recent times - fifty years of brutal drug cartel insanity and still counting. Most of the journalists who wrote the true stories this book series is based on were also murdered in real life. Author Don Winslow lists the names of those newspaper writers whose decapitated and tortured bodies were found, along with those who have never been seen again after being kidnapped from the streets or from their homes. They fill two pages margin to margin.

Reading in the novels about hundreds of murders chapter after chapter, and in reading about similar real-life stories in the newspapers for the last forty years, the fictionalized killings eventually became mind-numbing and normalized to me. I think most readers will discover themselves to be in the same state by the middle of either novel. I can clearly see how the real-life people of Mexico, and Iraq, and Syria, and Afghanistan, and the Congo, South Sedan, and in ghettos everywhere, begin to feel that the seeing of dead mutilated bodies turning up as part of their day is as expected as cooking breakfast.

This normalization of murder does not mean folks feel normal, though. They feel depressed, hopeless, fearful, repressed; and if forced to participate or cover up cartel crimes as well, folks will naturally move on to feeling depraved, corrupt, complicit, suicidal - maybe even become catatonic if not willing to numb it all by becoming a drug addict oneself. Unless they are psychopaths like some who are participating members in the cartels.

Yes, I said some.

The worst part of searing daily violence for years is people begin to accommodate themselves to it, adjust their work routines and family life to it, even if their nights are wakeful with nightmares. Murder and torture themselves become routine, after awhile, for awhile. We are simple human animals intent on pure survival when our civilized veneers are removed under threat to life and limb. In America, most of us are lucky to be able to live in protected bubbles of social morality, and a functioning legal network (comparatively), and technological conveniences, and a wealth of food, clothes and shelter. Not so many who live in Mexico or further south, in Central and South America.

I wonder if Winslow is writing a third novel to continue the story of America’s “war on drugs”. Today, the drama has moved on to opioids, heroin and fentanyl, now supplied by new players such as Big Pharma and China along with the other older suppliers. Drugs arrive through access points on the West Coast, Canada, and the East Coast, even the US Mail by mail order, not only deliveries through the Mexican border.

This is definitely the looongest, most unsuccessful war America has been supposedly fighting, gentle reader. Given the history and complicity at times of several U.S.administrations, and what are now called Homeland Security agencies, who have actually helped the drug cartels on occasion as has been reported and proved, as well as the lack of social responsibility many pharmaceutical companies seem to feel in marketing drugs, I do not believe anymore America is really ‘fighting’ drug abuse despite all of the advertising noise.

As the cartels already know, there is too much money to be made and power to be accrued to allow most addicts or users to quit. Only the foolish marks, moral rubes and ill-educated innocents among us believe in the play-acting of many agencies ‘fighting’ the transportation and distribution of illegal drugs. If the ‘war on drugs’ was real, why are ALL of the frontline agencies starved of resources and money? The pretense of fighting a ‘war’ simply drives up the price of drugs. If the US truly put some money into treating and controlling health issues and mental illness, created a national and rational health service, and supported the addicts by providing drug substitutes or legal access to safe levels of addictive drugs and low-cost hospitalization or clinics until people could wean themselves (it takes years, in many cases), the cartels would be starved of cash and die. Instead, American institutions caterwaul loudly about moralistic solutions when addiction is clearly a long-term physical issue. We don’t tell diabetics to toughen up and go cold turkey, to try to eliminate their need for insulin injections. That would be crazy, right? Right?

I highly recommend this series. I also recommend reading up about the American Mafia in the 1930’s. What became known as The Mafia, or simply The Mob, was a loosely connected group of territorial US criminal cartels created because of another war - a “War on Alcohol”.

Edit: February 18, 2019

Profile Image for Richard.
973 reviews347 followers
May 23, 2017
The Cartel picks up years after the final events in Winslow's drug war chronicle The Power of the Dog . And if you thought Dog was epic, wait till you get a load of this one. In a culmination of their 30-year feud, cartel lord Adán Barrera and DEA legend Art Keller have both lost everything and are stuck in their own prisons. Adán is living large behind the bars of a Mexican prison that he turns into his personal headquarters, and Art is living in seclusion at a border monastery. But when Adán strolls out of prison set on making himself El Patrón again, Art knows that he's the only one capable of bringing him down. But while both men are set on destroying one another, neither of them is prepared to face the cruel and sadistic ways that the drug war has evolved.
When the devil comes, he comes on angel's wings.
This sequel is basically the Godfather Part II or Empire Strikes Back of Winslow's Cartel trilogy. It's bigger, badder, darker, and more violent. I loved picking up again with these two main characters and found it fascinating to see them struggle with this ferociously brutal evolution of the drug war and the fact that they both had a hand in creating it. But the stand-out in this book is the vast supporting cast of scene-stealing characters, such as my favorite, the rational and pragmatic rising drug lord "Crazy" Eddie Ruiz, the tragic child killer Chuy (who's introductory chapter is one of the book's best), or the Juárez reporter Pablo Mora. Each of the rich supporting characters gives us a lens from which to view a particular aspect of this complicated war that affects so many parts of Mexican life and really provides the heart of the story. But the story's backbone is the Keller/Barrera feud, and here, as they each separately try to get a handle on the worsening violence, they still circle one another as their mutual hatred grows, and you get the sense that it can only possibly end with one of them dead.
At the end of the day or the end of the world, there are no separate souls. We will go to heaven or we will go to hell, but we will go together.
The graphic violence is ratcheted up here, especially with Winslow's inclusion of the rise of the real-life Los Zetas organization, responsible for much of the brutal terror in the past decade in Mexico. It's a bit hard to read at times, and unbelievable, but some quick internet research or at least a passing interest in Mexican news will let you know the harsh truth that Winslow's depictions are not only plausible but actually based on real events. Just google Los Zetas, El Chapo, and recently, Javier Valdez. The timeliness and the authenticity makes the whole thing pretty gripping, and the action culminates in a masterful, climactic, jungle set-piece that kept my eyes glued to the page for the last 50 pages of the book.

If you like sweeping crime epics, these books are must-reads! And the best news of all is that Winslow is finishing the work on the last Cartel book, and I'm definitely pumped to read it!
They say that love conquers all. They're wrong, Keller thinks. Hate conquers all. It even conquers hate.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews319 followers
March 20, 2017
5 stars

There are a number of ways to receive Don Winslow's massive fictional undertaking The Cartel (a novel even more massive when you consider it's a 600+ page, very-much stand-alone sequel focused on the drug trade in Mexico):

We could blithely ignore what's gone on in the last few decades, and pretend the Grand Guignol of Mexican horrors hasn't directly affected us and willfully whitewash it from our collective cognizance. We could gobble it up and point to it as a proof-positive exemplar of the rationale behind building a 2,000 mile-long, umpteen feet-high wall separating the US from the evils the bad guys perpetrate (which most assuredly would be missing Winslow's point of this endeavor). Or, we can embrace Winslow's meticulously researched, utterly harrowing saga about how futile the "War on Drugs" is, and how it has served primarily to perpetuate the Cartel wars, rather than fix a damn thing.

While this is a novel, Winslow has culled the efforts of dozens of journalists (many of whom lost their lives, and aptly eulogized in a Dedication section at the beginning) that have devoted their efforts to make sense of the senselessness. Somehow Winslow is able to weave their reporting of hundreds of truly sickening events into his own narrative, in a way that both accentuates the gravity of their profession (of bringing the world the grisly truth) and lays the groundwork for this riveting novel.

I haven't read the prequel The Power of the Dog but I don't at all feel like I needed to read it before appreciating The Cartel, though it might've given me a little more insight toward the motivations behind the main character, Art Keller, if I had. With his nearly three decades of service (first with the CIA, then the Drug Enforcement Agency) he's seen so much awfulness first-hand (thanks to his pocho, or half-bred ethnicity thrusting him headlong into covert operations infiltrating Mexico's drug cartels) that he's become jaded as to his department's efficacy in the War on Drugs. Only some deep-seated personal animosity toward drug kingpin Adán Barrera (which I think was explained in greater detail in the prequel, but Winslow does a fine job catching readers up) motivates Keller (along with a kick in the ass from the DEA) to abandon his monastic retirement as beekeeper in New Mexico and resume his pursuit of Barrera (only to realize just how hopelessly Byzantine the drug trade has gotten circa 2004, with so many players, so many cartels, so many unstable allegiances, and so many hellish bloodbaths of violence that never seem to end).

But The Cartel is not really Art Keller's story (or, really, Don Winslow's, though he's done an incredible job here). It's the entire package of (fictionally, but still) bringing to light the drug trade in a factual manner that seems to transcend other efforts like the motion picture "Sicario" and Netflix's "Narcos" series (which I've only seen bits and pieces of, and hadn't really wanted to, thanks in no small part to a former co-worker acquainting me with the gruesome "El Blog del Narco" website and not wanting to see a Hollywood-ized treatment of same). I will say, though, that Winslow's literary treatment of a very real (and ongoing) problem should not be ignored. It's necessarily brutal and uncompromising, and pulls no punches. I highly recommend it for anyone who can stomach the brutality; particularly to those who believe "Wars on Drugs" are winnable.
Profile Image for Dave.
2,961 reviews313 followers
November 17, 2018
This is a broad, sweeping magnum opus of a novel that has historic breadth and scope and chronicles the modern history of Mexico and the Cartel wars that have absolutely decimated that country. This work, at well over six hundred pages, doesn’t feel long. Rather, it feels overwhelming. This continues the story about the Drug Lord (Adan Barrera) and the Border Lord (Art Keller) that Winslow began in 2005’s Power of the Dog. Winslow could easily have parceled out the 1200 pages that make up these two novels into half a dozen novels. There is not one page extra here. I wouldn’t cut anything out of these books.

This is the story of Art Keller, who, as a DEA agent in Mexico, saw his partner tortured and brutalized and vowed revenge on the cartels. It is the story of his counterpart on the chessboard, Adan Barrera, who seems almost invincible, and who, even, in prison, controlled what seemed like half the Mexican government. It is the story of a chess match played out between these two men, where every move by the DEA and the honest federales only seems to play into Barrera’s hands. Knock out the drug cartels in one area and Barrera consolidates his power. Knock them out elsewhere and local government topples.

It is also the story of how an impoverished underclass in Mexico had nowhere to turn when even the highest levels of the government were on the take, when the cartels owned the prison wardens, the army, the local police forces. It is the story of kids growing up in the slums of Mexican cities and barrios of American border towns who had nothing became narco-terrorists and how the corruption of the local police and federales took over whole swaths of the country and, as one army commander explained, it was not a choice between being on the take or not, it was choice for them as to which side to ally with because they either picked a side or die.

Based in part on real historical events, the book tells the story of the clashes between the different cartels, each wanting to control the plazas, or the border accesses to the U.S.A. It is the story of how the battle between these cartels became more and more violent until the savagery and death that ensued crossed beyond every line of decency. Wholesale massacres became commonplace. Torture became a normal way of life. There were areas like Juarez where any police officer who did not support one cartel or the other was literally torn apart. Heads were hacked off and whole dance clubs set on fire. In the Juarez valley, journalists were killed and ordered to report only what the cartels wanted. Whole villages were wiped out and the entire city devastated as if a full-out war had taken place.

Another part of the story is how ultimately ineffective every attempt to contain the violence was. How could a hunt for the drug lords be carried out when corrupt officials were bagging half a million dollars a month? And, there was so much money involved that every time someone was taken into prison or killed, someone else took his place, more brutal, more savage, than the previous regimes. And, the story tells how Washington failed to understand how much of a war this really was and required its agents to fight this war with one hand tied behind their backs. And, how the drug kingpins used American policy to their advantage to stay in power and to wipe out their competition.
This is a story that needed to be told. It is so close to home, but few in America talk about what has happened just south of our border and how quick and ruthless the descent into savagery became.
Profile Image for Vaios Pap.
88 reviews10 followers
June 19, 2018
Το "Καρτέλ" αποτελεί αδιαμφισβήτητα το μεγαλύτερο Επικό Μυθιστόρημα των ναρκωτικών...
Profile Image for Brandon.
890 reviews233 followers
December 14, 2015
Picking up after the events of The Power of the Dog, Adan Barrera is sitting pretty in a Mexican jail. With corruption at its highest, Adan’s cell looks more like a luxury condo as he orchestrates the actions of his cartel outside the prison walls, waiting for the right time to escape.

Art Keller is living a modest life off the grid. After Barrera's escape, Keller is brought back into the fold, charged with tracking down and capturing Adan. And so, it begins again. Keller vs. Barrera. Round Two.

When I finished Don Winslow’s epic crime novel The Power of The Dog at the end of August, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the constant, escalating violence that bloodied the pages. I knew a sequel had been written and as much as I wanted to dive right in, I knew I needed a break. There’s only so much unmitigated carnage this reader could take.

After four months, I allowed myself to re-enter Art Keller and Adan Barrera’s blood feud in Winslow’s follow-up, The Cartel. Although Winslow covers a much shorter timeline (ten years as opposed to the roughly thirty in the original), he crams in just as much stomach-churning brutality as the battle escalates between warring cartels south of the border. And by brutality, I mean a pure balls-to-the-wall blood bath. Seriously, this isn’t a book for someone with a weak stomach. In fact, I would often horrify my girlfriend when I would tell her about the awful torture scenes. I’d give out a few details but I think a certain shock factor would be lost.

The War on Drugs is a vicious one. There isn’t a line that any of the players involved are not willing to cross. Violence begets more violence as each Cartel struggles for drug dominance. There’s so much death and destruction within that I started to grow numb to the monotony of the atrocities (beheadings, limbs torn from torsos, narcos burned alive). However, somehow, there’s always something much worse that Winslow has waiting in the wings to throw at you. With that said, it’s easy to justify Keller’s fascinating progression from determined DEA agent to something much, much worse. Faced with continuous unconscionable actions from the narco cartels, Keller is given little choice when faced with altering his strategy and putting aside his morals to take down Barrera and his rivals.

Despite the ending being wrapped up with a bow, I could easily read several more novels written around the decades-long conflict between Barrera and Keller. The Cartel is a hell of a character study surrounding two men who both live to spite one another.
Profile Image for Stephen.
508 reviews152 followers
September 12, 2015
What an epic this is - it's like about 4 different books combined into one as one cartel after another battles against each other. It really is the Mexican drug equivalent of the Godfather - or maybe all 3 Godfather films combined into 2 books.

I've seen reviews saying that is Winslow's best book but I think I'd put it equal top with "The Power of the Dog" - it is really a continuation of that and you need to read that first to get the most out of it. If you've already read and liked "The Power of the Dog", you'll love this one.

Warning: "The Power of the Dog" has one extremely shocking scene in it. Also "The Cartel" has the most extreme violence in it (in terms of both type and number of incidents)of any book that I have read (and that is saying something). So much so that I was actually tempted to call it excessive violence - except that from the long list of deceased journalists mentioned in the notes to the book, this book has obviously been meticulously researched (which probably accounts for the long gap between the dates that it and The Power of the Dog were published) so I fear that a lot of the violence may actually be based on fact.
Profile Image for Mel.
116 reviews90 followers
September 1, 2015
For those of us that remembered Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán's vanishing act from his first maximum-security prison stint at Puente Grande -- supposedly via a laundry cart in 2001 -- it was deja vu all over again when it was announced on July 12th that "Shorty" had done it again. Unnoticed by guards, Guzmán pried open a 1'6" sq. metal grill in the floor of his shower, went through the floor, down a ladder, along a tunnel...
...and out the door onto his ride to freedom. So thorough was the rehearsal that government officials discovered the body of a small bird in his trash can; they named the Birdman of Altiplano's deceased bird "Chapito." The escape boosted Guzmán's status almost to that of Houdini's, and Don Winslow's into author/prophet. (I can't help that it reminded me of a book I used to read to my kids, The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree--couldn't resist)

Fellow Winslow fans that had read Power of the Dog and The Cartel prior to July 12/15 must have had a moment; mine was the blaring of my BS meter, courtesy of reading Winslow. I had no doubt that fistfuls of money bought Guzmán's freedom from a corrupt government. How much would it take to miss the building of the tunnel, for a guard to turn his head, or to not see the tunnel in aerial views?!

Beyond turning Winslow's fiction into reality, the event was testimony to the author's 10 years plus of research, and amazing insight into the mind of the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel of whom he says, "is a brilliant, ruthless billionaire businessman....the most powerful drug lord in history." For four years (2009-2012) Guzmán was listed on Forbes magazine's billionaires' list until he was dropped by the magazine due to verification issues, whereabouts unknown. Winslow can do the verification; as he says in a CNN commentary, "I've been tracking Chapo's career for over 15 years, first writing a fictional version of him in "The Power of the Dog," and most recently about his 2001 escape from prison in "The Cartel."
The author's interviews for The Cartel have been hard hitting, fact-based accusations of governments and policies, especially regarding his opinions of this war he says cannot be won.

Winslow's fictional parallel runs staggeringly close to the truth with his creation of the Sinaloa drug cartel kingpin, Adán Barrera, mirroring El Chapo's life more like a biography than fiction. His magnum opus spans 40 years of the rise of the Mexican Cartels and the DEA's War on Drugs: Power of the Dog 1975-2005, and The Cartel 2005-2015. The Cartel's narrative picks up from the Power of the Dog with DEA agent Keller continuing his almost obsessive quest to destroy Adán Barrera and revenge his partner's gruesome death. Of course. With the cartel's inventive brutality involved--what other kind is there? "Kill them a lot."

Cartel goes deeper into the "centrifugal dynamics" of the cartel families, and the fight between the *families* to maintain control of the drugs and therefore the fortunes. The massive amounts of money are mind-blowing; the levels of corruption, knee-buckling. The pages seem soaked with the blood of unimaginable torture, beatings, gang rapes, beheadings -- it's graphically, numbingly violent. Winslow uses the violence not as sensationalism, or as he calls it, "violence pornography," but to drive across the point, and eventually the truth that America doesn't want to acknowledge: This violence and carnage is the consequence of buying drugs; this is your drug $$$ at work, America.

Winslow submerges himself and the reader into those towns across the border. It's was easier to hate the cartel and the drug runners that travel through our communities with the veil of ignorance. Easier to point the finger and ignore, as the saying goes, the 3 pointing back. Winslow cuts deeply through our misconceptions. He poignantly tells the people's story, their genealogy; he explains the social and economic structures that crumbled under the violent insistence of the cartels; he chronicles the fights of the brave willing to stand up to the cartel knowing they would be killed.

John Powers of Fresh Air, gave a review that captured the essence of the book and recognized Winslow's multiple talents as both a reporter and a writer.
"Steeped in reportage, the novel. . . possesses a virtue I associate with traditional documentaries: it explains things. I finished the book understanding why Juárez is so violent; why cartels murder so many innocent people; why both the American and Mexican governments favor some cartels over others; and why the war on drugs is not just futile, but morally compromised. It’s here that fiction and documentary come together in a shared sense of, well, bleakness.”
At one point Adán Barrera looks over the landscape and wistfully recalls a different Mexico, one of pastoral beauty, and music, poets, and artists. Then he packs his wife off across the border to give birth to his child while he loads his guns to do business. According to a PBS article, "between 2007 and 2014 — a period that accounts for some of the bloodiest years of the nation’s war against the drug cartels — more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide." 90% of the cause of those deaths comes to America. There is some ugly math in those stats.

Growing up we looked forward to our trips across the border to Tijuana, not so much Mom's pre-trip speech about the dangers of Mexico, i.e. getting lost, seeing lewd acts that involved a woman and a donkey, eating contaminated food, getting tricked out of paying too much for junk. We'd buy huaraches with tire tread soles, leather fringed jackets, get our pictures taken on donkey/zebras, and buy novelty "horse-shit cigarettes" for our friends. Then, while she was bickering over the price of giant crepe paper flowers with a Mexican woman, or shooing away a kid trying to wash the windshield, Dad would sneak us off and buy us some mystery meat delicacy cooking over a burning garbage can. Afterwards we'd chug a warm Orange Crush and tease each other that it was cat meat and we were going to get the ol' Montezuma's Revenge...sometimes we would. Ah the good ol' days, down in Mexico.

"It is high time for us to arise from sleep" Romans 13:11 [The Cartel]
Profile Image for Carol.
313 reviews827 followers
March 29, 2016
I appreciate that I'm an outlier, given the high volume of 4 and 5 star reviews, but I don't get what everyone sees in The Cartel, other than Winslow's writing style is accessible, e.g., very readable. I stopped reading after 150 or so pages. I have a high tolerance for violence, generally, but not torture and the plot wasn't driving to any particular conflict or resolution; it just went on and on to another day of torture, etc. I could not get into the main character. One day I said, "self, why are you picking this up - what do you hope to learn? feel? experience? resolve?" Self didn't answer. Done.
Profile Image for Linwood Barclay.
Author 81 books5,681 followers
July 29, 2015
I'm only 60 pages or so in, but it's terrific so far, and has an epic feel to it. Winslow either knows this world very well, or has done some amazing research.
Profile Image for LenaRibka.
1,412 reviews414 followers
February 1, 2022

WOW...I know, I should write a proper review, I MUST.

For those who think that the Mexican drug war has calmed down, some facts to reconsider:

I ADMIRE the accurate research and incredible processing of information the author did while working on this powerful series. Even if sometimes my head was on the edge of exploding because of all the names and information to keep, this book was really very hard to put down.
I actually got the audio edition first, but I just couldn't wait for my next audio time, went to Amazon and bought the kindle version either.

If you think that I am someone who like to read about the brutality of the war or senseless killing of civilians, I can assure you that it is not the case, I try to avoid violence in my books (don't we have enough of it daily on TV news?). But once started with The Power of the Dog, I got ADDICTED to the writing, to the characters, to the WHOLE topic.

Maybe I have to warn you here: the second book is even more brutal than the first one. But, on the other hand, how could you write about the drug war and keep the corn of the evil hidden from readers, keep them away from the reality that is even more shocking than its fictional twin?!

Major Cartels:

An excellent fictional book that is actually based on very true facts.

I am keeping thinking if drugs would be legalized...could it be a solution?...

A very good audio book either, I can't recommend this series highly enough.
Profile Image for Nate.
481 reviews20 followers
March 29, 2016
One of the easiest five stars I've ever given to a book. Not only is this one of the most epic, sweeping crime novels I've ever read, it's also a brilliant fictionalized history and inarguably a work of social activism. Don Winslow is officially The Shit, more later.
Profile Image for Charlie Parker.
138 reviews17 followers
June 30, 2022
El cártel

Segundo libro de la trilogía sobre el narcotráfico mexicano. Otra espectacular novela basada en hechos reales. Winslow continúa con su sinceridad relatando como se las gasta esta gente. Introduciendo muchos personajes con gran protagonismo que llegan y se van porque el narcotráfico es una huida hacia delante.

En esta se centra en la guerra de los cárteles para conseguir dominar el tráfico de drogas. Guerra que no solo tiene víctimas entre los narcos, sino que llegan a otras esferas como la política, policial o la gran cantidad de periodistas asesinados para silenciar bocas.

Sigue la corrupción a todos los niveles, traiciones, ajustes de cuentas. Hoy eres aliado, mañana no. Doble juego y mucha hipocresía entre los gobiernos.

El agente de la DEA Art Keller sigue obsesionado con la caza de Adán Barrera y este a su vez pone precio a la cabeza de Keller.

Sobre los ciudadanos, policías, políticos o militares corruptos recupero unas líneas para entender la posición mexicana:

"Ustedes, los estadounidenses, están limpios porque pueden. Nosotros nunca hemos tenido esa opción, ni como individuos ni como nación. Tiene experiencia suficiente para saber que no nos dan a elegir entre aceptar o rechazar el dinero; nos dan a elegir entre aceptar el dinero o morir. Nos hemos visto obligados a elegir bando, así que elegimos el mejor y nos ponemos manos a la obra."

Recomendable leer antes “El poder del perro” para ponerse en situación.
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