By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Don Winslow
Narrated by: Ray Porter
Don Winslow has written a novel that exposes the culpability of addicts, recreational drug users, and government enablers for an estimated 20,000 drug-war’ deaths/year in Mexico.
The location of Winslow’s story is Mexico but all countries that manufacture drugs for illegal use are driven by the same human motives and similar organizations. Winslow writes about the social organization of “The Cartel”; i.e. a criminal organization designed to make people rich, powerful, and respected.
Government’s reluctance to treat addicts, and society’s rich and middle class who use illegal recreational drugs, are financing the murder of innocent men, women, and children around the world. Every grade school, high school, college, working, or unemployed citizen buying illegal drugs is paying for the murder of people just like them.
Winslow credibly describes how drug cartels are formed. They come from the human desire for a better life. With poor education, poor paying jobs, and few of the basic needs of life, the poor and middle class seek the best jobs they can find to improve their lives. Illegal drug cartels offer a kind of education, a good paying job, and all the basic needs of life.
Winslow describes how street children are recruited by drug cartels. They are sent to boot camps for some months of training to become part of an exclusive business. The business is the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs. Many become soldiers of the drug industry to carry out demands of the cartel. They are taught, like soldiers recruited for combat, to kill. They can be as young as 8 in Winslow’s story.
Winslow describes how two young boys are recruited, trained, and assigned by the Zetas to murder a rival in another cartel. One drives and the other boy throws a grenade into a room full of people to complete the task. However, he fails to kill the target and kills innocent bystanders. The young boys return for their reward (expected to be thousands of dollars), but because of messy execution and failure of the assignment, the grenade thrower is brutally beaten. He barely escapes but the lesson is clear to the recruits that remain in training. You are paid well if you do what you are told but murdered if you fail. The grenade thrower’s escape eventually leads to another drug cartel where he becomes a better soldier; a better killer. The boy is under 10 years old.
In a second story Winslow suggests another way the Zetas recruit members. A bus filled with citizens is stopped by a cartel leader. (The leader is called Z-40 because he is the 40th person to join the Zetas.) The leader culls the bus passengers. He orders them into groups. Old males to one group; old females to another, and young females assigned to a third group. Forty of the passengers appear to be able-bodied younger men. The leader gives each of the 40 culled men a bat with a nail driven through it. Z-40 tells each man to face the person next to him and beat him to death. Whomever survives becomes a part of the cartel.
Those seriously wounded are murdered; presumably along with the older men and women. After bludgeoning each other, eleven are left. The younger women are raped and also murdered. The reward for the eleven survivors is that they are now Zetas.
Winslow’s characters capitalize on what drug cartels offer. In a struggling economy, private and public enterprises create few jobs; i.e. they fail to provide a decent education, and, when they do have available jobs, they pay substantially less than cartels. A rational person compares job providers and takes the one that offers more opportunity or money; even at the risk of being jailed or killed. For young people, the cartels are like joining the military and being paid to learn a new job. For older people, it is a job that pays well.
One is reminded that cartels can pay more money because they are making more money. Why are they making more money? Because they offer something that cannot be purchased legally. They conduct business internationally so they can tap strong market economies; with the added bonus of a product that is addictive.
As long as healthy economies ignore drug addiction and treatment for the addicted, they are complicit with the growth of drug cartels. What is worse, individual recreational drug users from stable countries (who can afford to pay for drugs, or are addicted) are paying for the murder of people who are struggling to survive in unstable countries. All users of illegal drugs are culpable for the murder of innocents.
Of course, this is a novel. Winslow’s story may not have basis in fact but, with little credible doubt–money, power, and prestige accompany admittance to a cartel. There is ample evidence in the daily news of drug cartels’ wealth, power, institutionalized presence, and influence. With money to burn, cartels are willing to train children to kill, influence politicians to lie, move governments to comply, and convince the rich to ignore.
Two other main points made in Winslow’s story is that decent people live in drug cartel countries, but corruption is endemic. Public servants, like some police and government military, are not paid well because the countries they serve are poor. Newspaper reporters, private business owners, and public officials receive packages of money to look the other way or ignore drug cartel’ business. Those who choose to fight the cartels by writing negative stories or interfering with cartel’ business have themselves, their families, or their employees threatened, kidnapped for ransom, or murdered. The second point is that when a cartel employee is killed in the “line of duty”, the cartel supports the employee’s family for the rest of their lives. This second point insures loyalty to the cartel even when a loved one’s family member is killed.
Finally, Winslow’s story shows the human degradation that comes from a gang culture that depends on money to maintain power and prestige in their respective fiefdoms. Greed drives gangs to compete for territory. In that competition, non-aligned citizens are caught in blood-feud and territorial conflicts between rival gangs. The non-aligned include citizens who think they are protected from the violence because they are wealthy or politically influential.
Soon newspaper editors, wealthy citizens who make their living as doctors, and owners of large properties and businesses lose their lives and lives of innocent employees or relatives. Cartel leaders begin losing control when non-aligned wealthy or influential citizens become collateral damage. Everyone becomes a victim. Then, Winslow’s story suggests it becomes a matter of choosing sides. Vigilantism and revenge become the chosen path of the many factions in the small towns, cities, and states. No one can be trusted; no one is in charge, chaos increases, and anarchy dominates the state.
Winslow’s story suggests that previous opponents of the drug cartel; i.e. state government agencies, the police, the military, the newspaper industry, and business moguls choose sides. They choose to support one drug cartel rather than another because they believe a particular cartel is the lesser evil. Winslow suggests choosing sides extends to the American government.
Violence and revenge become the only tools of control. One cartel, and several American government agencies (like the CIA, FBI, and DEA) collude (albeit for different reasons) with the state to combine forces to eliminate cartel competition. The American government and Mexico, in Winslow’s story, choose to help one cartel dominate the illegal drug trade because it is perceived as a lesser evil.
As fictional as Winslow’s story may be, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seems to have chosen vigilantism as the only way of fighting the drug war in his country. One wonders if the American government is complicit in Duterte’s methods of enforcement and attack.
“The Cartel” is a novel. However, what it reveals is the fundamental truth that America’s 40-year war on drugs is a failure. Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s, all that is accomplished by making addictive drugs illegal is the creation of a criminal industry.
War against the cartels will only lead to a Hobson’s choice; i.e. the choice of lesser evils. In that choice there is no justice. There is only vigilantism. Blame for this continuing tragedy begins with every grade school child, high school student, college alumnus, working, or unemployed citizen buying illegal drugs. As long as government fails to treat the drug addicted and legislatively regulate drug use, the story of “The Cartel” is a harbinger of the future, and a reflection of the present.
Winslow’s “The Cartel” fits into a pulp fiction genre, but it is insightful. It is also excellently narrated by Ray Porter.