'Cartel' Author Spins A Grand Tale Of Mexico's Drug Wars

'Cartel' Author Spins A Grand Tale Of Mexico's Drug Wars

4:42pm Jul 15, 2015
Don Winslow has written 17 novels, including The Power of the Dog and The Cartel.
Don Winslow has written 17 novels, including The Power of the Dog and The Cartel.
Michael Lionstar / Knopf

Novelist Don Winslow has spent 10 years immersed in the Mexican drug wars. He has studied all the players, from the lowly traffickers to the kingpins who head up the cartels. One of the characters in his new novel, The Cartel, is based on drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, who escaped from a Mexican prison over the weekend.

Winslow points out that El Chapo is a rich and powerful man who likely had help from both inside and outside the prison. This was his second escape, and the previous one was followed by a surge in drug violence.

"He got out and tried to reassemble a mega cartel and really take over the border territories," Winslow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So, in effect, he touched off the war that went on for 10 years and cost 100,000 lives."

Winslow began looking into Mexico's drug wars in 1998, after reading a newspaper article about the massacre of 19 people in a Mexican town he sometimes visited. That research eventually led to his novel, The Power of the Dog, which traces the origins of the drug wars to the 1970s.

In The Cartel, Winslow focuses on the more recent violence, which, he says, comes from "a new generation of cartel leaders that are more violent, more sadistic" than their predecessors. "Whereas back in the day, the cartels used to try to hide their crimes, now they announce them on social media."


Interview Highlights

On El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel

This is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill, to have killed, and a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There's a reason why they didn't extradite him to the United States — principally because he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories. Don't think he wouldn't do it and don't think that certain people in Mexico are terrified of Chapo Guzmán talking to American federal prosecutors. ...

Chapo has been around, a player, since the late 1970s, so he survived the big DEA onslaught in the '70s. He survived a major war against the Tijuana cartel. He was responsible, probably, for killing a Roman Catholic cardinal. But in this latter phase, it's when Chapo escaped from prison the first time in 2001, he got out and tried to reassemble a mega cartel and really take over the border territories in Juarez, Laredo and Tijuana, so, in effect, he touched off the war that went on for 10 years and cost 100,000 lives.

On the new generation of cartel leaders and how they are similar to the self-proclaimed Islamic State

It's not like the cartels are like ISIS; ISIS is like the cartels. Ten years before ISIS was releasing beheading videos the cartels were doing it. They're very sophisticated. They know that they need, not only to control the action on the ground, but also the narrative, [to] control the story. I think ISIS is just taking a page from their playbook. ... The problem, similarly to ISIS, is they use these videos as recruiting tools. They're attractive to people who feel themselves to be powerless, they see these examples of ultimate power and it's quite attractive to them.

On dedicating the book to the journalists who were killed or abducted by cartels

It's one of the, ironically, great untold stories of this period. ... The cartels decided that they needed to control the narrative. They did that through social media, through the Internet and Twitter and all those things. But they also did it by attacking journalists. They bribed journalists, and journalists who couldn't be bribed or who wouldn't do what they said, they killed, and it's a real tragedy. I'm not a journalist — again, I'm a novelist. I write thrillers. I write entertainment. At the same time, though, as a writer, I do feel some kind of kinship with those journalists. And as an American writing about Mexico in a fictional sense ... it's much safer for me than, obviously, it was for those people. I felt that I should acknowledge them and honor them and do it by name.

On how America's drug problem relates to Mexico's drug problem

We are the largest drug market in the world. We're 5 percent of the world's population — we consume 25 percent of the world's illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. ... At the end of the day, they'll run out of products. It's the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there's no recourse to law, there's only recourse to violence. That's created the cartels. It's our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.

On how marijuana is farmed with slave labor

What you have now in the immigrant community are more Central Americans than Mexicans and they make this long and dangerous journey up through Central America up through Mexico to get to the American border. A lot of them don't make it. They are kidnapped by the cartels, often murdered, the men, on suspicion that they might join a rival cartel and might be used by a rival cartel. The women and the girls are very often taken and forced into farm labor and/or prostitution. So I don't want to harsh anybody's high, I wouldn't tell an adult what he or she should do, however, I think that we ought to know the provenance of these drugs that we're taking (I say "we," I don't do any drugs), and know that there's a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you're having.

On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking

Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what's happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they've been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they've almost stopped growing it now, because they can't compete with the American quality and the American market. ... I'm not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they're telling us is it's down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Whether he knows it or not, the Mexican drug kingpin - known as El Chapo - who escaped from a Mexican prison over the weekend, is the basis of one of the main characters in the new novel "The Cartel." My guest, Don Winslow, wrote "The Cartel" as well as an earlier novel about the Mexican drug wars called "The Power Of The Dog." Winslow spent 10 years researching the cartels and the drug wars. He's also written several detective novels and worked as a private eye for several years before becoming a writer. Winslow describes the cartel as about a tortured DEA agent's search to seek revenge and bring down a drug lord - the El Chapo character - who he considers the embodiment of evil. Our critic at large, John Powers, described the novel as steeped in reportage and offering a superb history of the cartels and those out to stop them.

Don Winslow, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why did you choose El Chapo as the cartel leader that you modeled your main cartel leader on in your novel?

DON WINSLOW: Yeah, you know, it has more to do with events and with reality than with choosing him as a character. You know, this isn't the first book that I've written about the drug cartels. It follows up a book I did 10 years ago called "The Power Of The Dog." And so I already had this character, Adan Barrera. When I moved into this phase, though, of the Mexican drug wars and wanted to give a fictional account of that in this thriller, I looked at El Chapo's actions. Really, if you're following this phase of the Mexican drug war, you want to be following the Sinaloa cartel, which is where the action was in which started this whole thing. And that meant really kind of following El Chapo's tracks.

GROSS: What's he responsible for in the development of the Mexican cartels? What's his claim to fame (laughter)?

WINSLOW: (Laughter) You know, Chapo has been around and a player in this since the late 1970s. So he survived the big DEA onslaught in the '70s. He survived a major war against the Tijuana cartel. He was responsible probably for killing a Roman Catholic cardinal. But in this latter phase - it's when Chapo escaped from prison the first time in 2001 - he got out and tried to reassemble a mega cartel and really take over the border territories in Juarez, Laredo and Tijuana. So in effect, he touched off the war that went on for 10 years and cost 100,000 lives.

GROSS: So a few days ago he escaped for the second time.

WINSLOW: Right.

GROSS: What did he accomplish after the first time he escaped?

WINSLOW: Well, he accomplished a great deal. He basically won the war. He took on the Gulf cartel, the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel, the Zetas, La Familia and the Sinaloa cartel became the dominant cartel in Mexico.

GROSS: So your character who's modeled on El Chapo escapes from prison. How does your character do it?

WINSLOW: Well, my character did it the way it probably really happened the first time. He walked out, went to the roof and got in a helicopter.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. How do you manage to do that?

WINSLOW: Well, if - you pay $2.5 million to do that. You know, listen, I'm not sure I buy this tunnel story from this weekend at all.

GROSS: The story that El Chapo tunneled out.

WINSLOW: Yeah. Come on, this tunnel, you know, had everything but room service in it, didn't it?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WINSLOW: You know, air conditioning...

GROSS: What do you mean?

WINSLOW: Well, I mean, it's a - look, the story that we're being asked to believe is absurd, that this guy was, you know, in his shower and somehow over the course of a year, with no help from the inside or the outside, digs a mile-and-a- half - a kilometer-and-a-half - a mile-long tunnel that has air conditioning, a little railroad track for a motorcycle that was taking the dirt in and out and nobody noticed? Terry, I don't know where you live, but I'm guessing that if someone was digging a tunnel, you know, under your house, you might notice construction equipment, you know, construction workers. So the story is absurd. So if the past is prologue, you know, in 2001 when he escaped, the story went that he went out in a laundry cart. Years later, we learned it was probably either a car or a helicopter. I'm guessing that in a year or so, we'll learn that Chapo walked out of this prison in some fashion and that this tunnel is a face-saving device.

GROSS: So you think it's improbable that El Chapo was able to tunnel out from his prison cell. What about the option of somebody from the outside tunneling in?

WINSLOW: Oh, listen, I think the tunnel exists, obviously. I mean, we've seen film of it. They dug a tunnel in there. It had to have been someone from the outside (laughter). There's - it boggles the mind. It defies logic that this was completely an inside job. Maybe I wasn't clear about what I was saying. I think there absolutely was a tunnel. I think that Chapo had help from inside from the prison staff and from the outside at fairly high levels. It can't be otherwise. You can't dig a mile-long tunnel into a maximum security prison and keep that a secret.

GROSS: So you think a lot of people were paid off?

WINSLOW: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that the payoffs started probably several days after he was captured last year. Listen, this is - again, this is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill - to have killed, a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There's a reason that they didn't extradite him to the United States. Principally because A, he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories. Don't think he wouldn't do it and don't think that certain people in Mexico are terrified of Chapo Guzman talking to American federal prosecutors.

GROSS: Well, your character, when he gets to prison in Mexico - your character based on El Chapo - as part of the group that runs the prison, you know, the prison guards are paid off. The cartel prisoners basically still run the cartels. They just run it from inside. So they - the prisoner in your novel in Mexico, he's basically in this, like, the luxury hotel version of a prison cell.

WINSLOW: Yeah. You know, when Chapo Guzman went in the first time, he basically turned it into the Four Seasons for himself, as much as one can do in a prison. He had a refrigerator truck full of fresh food. He had movie nights. He had ladies of the evening coming in. He had affairs with women prisoners and women guards. And people were coming in and out to talk with him constantly. Some reports have it, you know, Terry, that he was going in and out of the prison at will.

GROSS: El Chapo and the character in your novel are representative of, like, the more old-school cartels. He's been around - he and your main character have been around for decades.

WINSLOW: Yeah.

GROSS: And you compare that to, like, the new school of cartels, which is, from the way you describe it, a more violent, like, an even more violent type of group.

WINSLOW: No, absolutely. You know, I've been following Chapo's career for 15 years. And these two books together - "The Power Of The Dog" and "The Cartel" - basically tell a 45-year story about these two men, as you alluded to, this DEA agent Keller and Adan Barrera, in this blood vendetta, you know, over the course of many years. So I've been writing about this since 1998. At the time, I thought I'd written about the worst of the worst. There are incidents in "Power Of The Dog" that I thought were horrific that wouldn't have made the headlines or maybe even the newspapers in 2010 or 2011 in Juarez or Nuevo Laredo. So what you have seen is, yes, a new generation of cartel leaders that are more violent, more sadistic and really almost terrorist groups in the sense, you know, that they put their videos out on the Internet. They proclaim their crimes, whereas back in the day, you know, the cartels used to try to hide their crimes. Now they announce them on social media.

GROSS: They're like ISIS in the respect, you know, like ISIS releases beheading videos. And the new generation cartel in your novel releases a video that let's just say it involves a chainsaw.

WINSLOW: No, listen - absolutely. I would put it in the reverse, Terry. It's not like the cartels are like ISIS. ISIS is like the cartels. Ten years before ISIS was releasing beheading videos, the cartels were doing it. They're very sophisticated. They know that they need not only to control the action on the ground but also the narrative - control the story. And I think ISIS has just taken a page from their playbook.

GROSS: In your novel, the DEA agent looks away from the video once the chainsaws appear. Have you watched these videos?

WINSLOW: Yeah, I've watched too many of these videos.

GROSS: Why have you actually sat through them as opposed to turning your head?

WINSLOW: Research, thoroughness, honesty. I think that if you're going to write about these things, you owe it to the people to force yourself to watch them completely through. The other thing that I tried to do and was successful in some cases was to try to put names to these people, you know, cross-referencing research to try to find out who they were, why they died. I didn't necessarily use it in the novel, but it just seemed otherwise voyeuristic to be watching this without trying to give these people real lives and real stories - even if I didn't, you know, use them in the book.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Winslow, and his new novel is called "The Cartel." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Don Winslow. He's a novelist who's just written his second novel about the Mexican drug cartels. It's called "The Cartel." And of the two main characters, one is a DEA agent and the other is the head of a Mexican drug cartel. And that character is based on El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa cartel who just escaped a few days ago from a Mexican prison.

This is the second novel - your new book "The Cartel" is your second novel about the Mexican drug wars. And you've been researching the subject for over 10 years. What is it about the drug wars that has caught you up in them to this degree?

WINSLOW: You know, I never intended to write either of these books. I was - I live close to the border. And one morning back in '98...

GROSS: This is in California?

WINSLOW: Yes, ma'am. I picked up the local newspaper and read about the massacre of 19 people by a drug cartel. And I - and it was a town that I was, you know, familiar with in Mexico. We used to go there on weekends. I couldn't quite come to grips with how that could happen, how any phenomenon - drug war, whatever - could get to that point where someone was willing to do that. I didn't really set out to write a book on drug trafficking. It didn't interest me. But (laughter) in fact, what I started to do was read philosophy. I was reading books with titles like, you know, "The Problem Of Evil" and "What Is Evil," trying to discover for myself the answer to this. Philosophy didn't help me at all.

So I started to research the history of drug trafficking in Mexico. And the more I read, the more I realized that this was a huge story that went way back that had to go back to the 1970s to explain what had happened in 1998. And that launched me on this sort of odyssey, if you will, "The Power Of The Dog," which took five and a half years of my life between research and writing. When I was done with that, I thought I was done with the subject. I didn't want anything more to do with it. But then as events started to unfold in Mexico in this more recent period and I started to see again this unbelievable increase in violence in the war, I started researching it again, I thought, just for my own satisfaction. And then one morning I was typing what turned out to be "The Cartel."

GROSS: Why did you decide to write fiction instead of journalism?

WINSLOW: Well, I'm a novelist, you know? And at the end of the day, you know, ultimately what I do is I write crime novels. I write thrillers. I want these books to be entertaining and interesting and taut and suspenseful and scary. That's what I do, and I hope and I think that's what I did in these two books. I also think that sometimes fiction can do things that journalism can't, you know, because we have that imaginative license to make up thoughts and feelings to get inside people's heads and their hearts and to try to bring the reader into a world that they couldn't otherwise come into and see it through characters' eyes. And I think that fiction is in a position to do that in ways that journalism often isn't.

GROSS: I'm guessing here that fiction is a safer trade than journalism when you're writing about the Mexican drug cartels. I mean, your dedication is one-and-a-half pages of names in very small type, and all those names are journalists who were assassinated or who disappeared as a result of the Mexican drug wars.

WINSLOW: Yeah, sadly. Yeah, you know, it's one of the ironically great, untold stories of this period. I mentioned earlier that the cartels decided that they needed to control the narrative. They did that through social media, through the Internet and Twitter and all those things. But they also did it by attacking journalists. They bribed journalists, and journalists who couldn't be bribed or who wouldn't do what they said, they killed. And it's a real tragedy. I'm not a journalist. Again, I'm a novelist. I write thrillers. I write entertainment. At the same time, though, I - as a writer, I do feel some kind of kinship with those journalists. And as an American writing about Mexico in a fictional sense, you're quite right. It's much safer for me than obviously it was for those people. I felt that I should acknowledge them and honor them and do it by name.

GROSS: Do you have any idea whether any of the narcos have read your two cartel novels?

WINSLOW: Well, "The Cartel's" not out in Spanish yet, so probably not yet. But, yeah, I've had feedback from traffickers from "Power Of The Dog."

GROSS: And what were the reviews like?

WINSLOW: (Laughter) Mixed. Listen, I think that everybody wants their story told. You know, everybody wants to be understood. I have interviewed, either as an investigator or as a novelist, drug traffickers, murderers, child molesters. You name it. None of them identify themselves as evil people. They all have reasons and rationales for what they do. And they, I think, like to have it explained. They like to have their point of view put across, however twisted or wrong or more immoral that we might objectively find it. Others were not very happy, you know?

GROSS: How did they let you know they were not very happy?

WINSLOW: They told me so (laughter) you know?

GROSS: In a threatening way or just like, I didn't like your book very much?

WINSLOW: No, not really. Yeah, I didn't like your book very much. You know, I've been threatened a few times, but I really think that those were practical jokes. Again, you know, as an American, I have a certain level of protection that the cartels are not going to cross certain lines. They're very smart. They're not going to prod the tiger in that way. Now, I'm not, you know, trying to throw down a challenge here by any means. But I certainly have a level of protection that people in Mexico tragically did not and do not.

GROSS: You know, in terms of writing fiction about the Mexican cartels, the narcos seem to love the mythology that surrounds them. And I'm thinking here of the narcocorridos, the songs that kind of glorify the narcos. Who writes them? Is it the narcos themselves who write these songs?

WINSLOW: No, but quite often they hire musicians to write them and perform them. And narcos have their favorite bands. You know, some are Grammy winners that they bring to parties or they sponsor their concerts. Alternatively, they've been known to kill musicians who have performed songs praising rival narcos.

GROSS: Have you heard any songs that you find especially interesting or revealing?

WINSLOW: Oh, well, I've heard dozens. I mean, if we want to go back to El Chapo, you know, he's become over the years - not just recently - a real folk hero and thought of as sort of a Robin Hood, which of course is completely wrong. But, you know, these guys do build clinics, build churches, sponsor Mother's Day and Children's Day celebrations. So they have a two-handed approach to how they control the population. One is through terror - the sort of videos that we discussed - but the other is through generosity and giving out presents and gifts and money. And, of course, when they sort of thumb their noses at authority, that's thrilling to a lot of people. So I'm sure that songs are already be written -have been written about Chapo's latest so-called escape.

GROSS: My guest is Don Winslow, author of the new novel "The Cartel." We'll talk more about the Mexican drug wars and about Winslow's work as a private eye before he became a writer after we take a short break. By the way, Winslow is right in assuming there are already narcocorridos about El Chapo's recent prison break. You can find them on the Internet, but we chose this song about his first prison break in 2001. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL CHAPO OTRA FUGA MAS")

LUPILLO RIVERA: (Singing in Spanish).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Don Winslow, author of the new novel 'The Cartel." He wrote an earlier novel called "The Power Of The Dog" that was also about the Mexican drug wars. He researched the subject for 10 years drawing on his experiences as a private investigator. The main character in "The Cartel" is a DEA agent obsessed with taking down the head of the Sinaloa Cartel who has escaped from Mexican prison. That character is based on the Mexican drug kingpin known as El Chapo who escaped from a Mexican prison last weekend.

Art Keller, your main character, the former DEA agent who returns to the DEA - he says the so-called Mexican drug problem isn't the Mexican drug problem; it's the American drug problem. There's no seller without a buyer. I think that represents your point of view too.

WINSLOW: Well, it really does. You know, I think I put my words a little bit into Art Keller's mouth. You know, again, this is not a political book. I'm not trying to make a point. It's a thriller; it's entertainment. But I really do believe this, you know, that we are the largest drug market in the world. We're 5 percent of the world's population. We consume 25 percent of the world's illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2000-mile border with the largest drug market in the world.

GROSS: But you've also said that the cartel's product isn't the drug, it's the control of the trafficking routes. And if for instance marijuana was legalized here, there'd be another product.

WINSLOW: It will exactly. But listen, at the end of the day, they'll run out of products. It's the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything, only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there's no recourse to law. If there's no recourse to law, there's only recourse to violence; that's created the cartels. It's our simultaneous appetite for and prohibition of drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.

GROSS: Are the main drugs that are sold by the Mexican cartels meth, marijuana and coke?

WINSLOW: And heroin.

GROSS: And heroin.

WINSLOW: Yeah.

GROSS: Are there separate cartels for each?

WINSLOW: Well, yes and no. Listen, all the cartels are poly-drug traffickers. But certain cartels or certain factions of certain cartels - because some of them are horizontally organized such as the Sinaloa Cartel, certain of the traffickers have specialties. So Chapo, you know, is more with heroin. But his partner in the Sinaloa Cartel, Miyo Zambada, has made more of his money out of methamphetamine. But they're very flexible and they will switch and they will, you know, change focus depending on what the market is saying.

GROSS: What's it like for you to listen to politicians talk about the drug war?

WINSLOW: Excruciating. You know, I recently took an ad out in the Washington Post, an open letter to Congress asking for an end to the war on drugs. I didn't hear back in three weeks from a single congressman. I have heard back from about 50 cops.

GROSS: What do the cops say?

WINSLOW: The cops say privately, you know, they wouldn't say it publicly yet but they say it privately you're dead on and we need to end this war; it's futile. We want to go back to doing real police work.

GROSS: Why did you take out an ad? Why did you buy an ad as opposed to writing an op-ed?

WINSLOW: Well, you know, I had this idea, Terry, that this newspaper would get laid on Congressmen's desks with their morning coffee. And I felt after again, 15 years of researching and writing about this, telling the fictional story of the war on drugs over the course of 45 years of following these characters lives, talking to drug traffickers, talking to DEA people, talking to widows, talking to the families of teenagers who were killed in this conflict, going to the funerals of heroin addicts who didn't make it through, talking to cops, that I felt that I should put a little skin in the game, you know? That again, at the end of the day, I'm a novelist; I'm not a crusader by any means. But I thought I should try in a modest way to do something and speak out about this issue.

GROSS: But I'm just curious...

WINSLOW: I've written a number of op-eds.

GROSS: Right, and you didn't think they were affective and an ad would be more so?

WINSLOW: I thought, yeah, that an ad, a full-page ad, you know, might attract the attention of some of these politicians.

GROSS: What do you see as the main consequences of the war on drugs in the U.S.?

WINSLOW: Well, how much time do you have, Terry?

>>GROSS (Laughter).

WINSLOW: Well, let me give it to you really quickly. We have the largest prison population in the history of Earth due largely to the war on drugs. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year trying to prohibit drugs, money that could be used to address the root causes of the drug problem. I could lay the events in Ferguson and Cleveland and New York and elsewhere - I think you can draw a direct line to the war on drugs because that's when the militarization of our police forces began. I've had police officers tell me, you know, they cut my community police funding in half, but they gave me tanks. Police officers say these things; I didn't come up with this idea myself. So the consequences are vast. The consequences are destructive. Towns that used to vie for factories now vie for prisons, which is one of the saddest comments that I know. Prison privatization might be the sickest phrase in America of the last half-century. So the results have been dire. And the results in Mexico and Central America have been catastrophic.

GROSS: You said that it amazes you that some people who are so careful about making sure they buy fair trade coffee and farm-to-table beef think nothing of buying marijuana which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths and harvested by slave labor.

WINSLOW: Yes.

GROSS: What would you like us to know about the slave labor that harvests the marijuana?

WINSLOW: Well, what you have now in the immigrant community are more Central Americans than Mexicans. And they make this long and dangerous journey up from Central America through Mexico to get to the American border. A lot of them don't make it. They are kidnapped by the cartels, often murdered - the men - on suspicion that they might join a rival cartel and might be used by a rival cartel. The women and the girls are very often taken and forced into farm labor and or prostitution. So, you know, I don't want to harsh anybody's high and I wouldn't tell an adult what he or she should do; however, I think that we ought to know the provenance of these drugs that we're taking. I say we - I don't do any drugs. But - and know that there's a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you're having.

GROSS: Of course a lot of people have no recourse. If they're smoking marijuana, they get it where they can because in most states, it's not legal. And even if it is legal, in most states where it's legal, it's only for medical use.

WINSLOW: Yeah, OK. But listen, I don't know any such thing as a marijuana addict by the way. There are heroin addicts, meth addicts and cocaine addicts, but marijuana doesn't really function that way except psychologically. But I'm really addressing the people who do do these things recreationally. And they all tell me the same thing. They all tell me, you know, my cousin, Eddie, grows it in his bedroom or whatever. But listen, if you know where it's coming from and you think that's relatively clean, fine. But I'm here to tell you that there are tractor-trailer trucks of it coming up through Mexico and somebody is smoking that. In my perfect world, all drugs would be legal and no one would use them.

GROSS: Do you think that that would work in ending the drug related crime from the cartels and from, you know, drug wars in the U.S.?

WINSLOW: In the middle term. It wouldn't right away but certainly. Look, just the two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what's happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports - they've been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa where most of the marijuana is grown, they've almost stopped growing it now because they can't compete with the American quality and the American market.

GROSS: That's interesting. You think it's really having an impact on the Mexican cartels.

WINSLOW: The numbers are the numbers. I'm not making this up. You get this from customs and from DEA, you know, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border - judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize. And what they're telling us is it's down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting - just two states - stopping fighting the war on that drug, it's been effective.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Winslow and his new novel is called "The Cartel." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Don Winslow. His new novel "The Cartel" is his second book about the Mexican drug cartels. His first on the subject was called "The Power Of The Dog." Before you started writing about the Mexican cartels, you wrote several private eye novels, and you used to be a private eye earlier in your life before you became a novelist. Where did you work and what kinds of crimes did you help solve?

WINSLOW: (Laughter) Well, I started in New York in Times Square before it was Walt Disney. And I worked movie theater cases when I first started - uncovering in theft and embezzlement in movie cases and then I worked on the pickpocket squad. And then I moved on to do other kinds of things - runaways. And then I went back to graduate school, believe it or not, and did some other stuff. And then I came back to the investigative field, this time on kind of a higher level and mostly in California. And so I did a lot of arson cases, homicide cases, fraud, industrial espionage, you name it.

GROSS: So were you a private eye or were you working for the police or go back and forth?

WINSLOW: No, I was private. Now, sometimes small towns will hire private district attorneys because they don't have district attorneys. And those attorneys might hire me as an investigator. So I did some criminal prosecutions.

GROSS: You mentioned the pickpocket squad.

WINSLOW: Well, that was private. That was with a detective agency to go in and just try to get pickpockets out of theaters.

GROSS: Can I ask you to describe one of the sleaziest cases that you worked on?

WINSLOW: (Laughter) Sleazy? You want sleaze?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

WINSLOW: I was sent one time to London to bring back a businessman who was off on a tear. And he was easy to find because he was just spanking the AMEX card. And I got up to his room and there were just lines of professional ladies in the hallway. And he had just, you know, was just on a tear. And I finally managed to speak to him and said look, you know, you have to come back. You know, you have a job and, you know, they're waiting for you. Nobody's angry but I've been sent to find out how you are and to bring you home. And he said you know how many times I've had sex in the 30 years I've been married? And I said no, sir, I have no way of knowing that. And he showed me - he opened his wallet and showed me the picture of four children. And so I said well, what I'll do is not call this in for 48 hours and you promise not to run on me. And so I took the room next to his in this hotel and he did his thing for another two days and we flew home.

GROSS: Wow. I want to get back to the main character of your novel "The Cartel." And this is Art Keller, the former DEA agent who goes back into the DEA to help hunt down the cartel leader who has escaped from prison. And that's the character based on El Chapo who just really escaped from prison.

WINSLOW: Right.

GROSS: So when the novel opens, he is in a monastery. He's left the DEA. He's in a monastery; his occupation there is working as a bee keeper. And he just wants to live a reflective life and to find some kind of solace, some kind of comfort in God, in quiet, in solitude, in reflection. That ends pretty quickly. But throughout the book, there are passages from the Bible that are quoted. And that I'm sure put you in a very - those parts put you probably in a very different frame of mind and required a different kind of research than the, you know, than the crime parts. So I'm wondering if you went back to the Bible to write parts of the book, if there's a part of you that longs for that kind of reflective life?

WINSLOW: Yeah, you know, I think so. I've often said that "The Power Of The Dog" is more about religion than it is about drugs. It's set in the world of drugs, but it's about people who lose their faith and then have to find a way to live decently in what is basically an indecent world. I grew up Catholic and as a child who was a devout, true believer - evolved away from that as I've said. I checked out of that particular motel when I was 12 or 13. But I think that when you do the kind of work I've done both in the investigative field and in writing "The Power Of The Dog" and "The Cartel," you do lose your faith because of what you see and want you experience, the people that you talk to, the fact that you spend most of your time being lied to, uncovering deceptions. You sit across desks from murderers and child molesters, look them in the eye and ask them questions and get answers that are often disturbing. And I think sometimes makes you cynical, you know? And so I think yeah, Terry, I think there are times that, you know, to be perfectly honest, that I do want quiet and solitude and serenity and peacefulness. And, you know, I try to acquire it in my own way.

GROSS: How did you go about choosing the Bible passages that you quote through the book?

WINSLOW: It's funny, I literally stumbled over "The Power Of The Dog," literally tripped over a Bible one night in the hallway where I'd been stacking books - we had just moved. And I said, you know, I have to now look at what page it opened to (laughter) and read this Psalm save my soul from the sword, my love from the power of the dog. And I didn't know what it meant but I thought it was lovely and powerful. And I used it as the title of that book without really knowing what it meant. Months later after asking many people in the clergy what it meant, a minister in New York, she at the time was the president of Union Theological Seminary and a very dear friend, told me that it back in the Old Testament days, it referred to the ability and the willingness of the powerful to oppress the powerless. And I thought well, that's exactly what I'm writing about. The Bible quotes in "The Cartel" I chose very specifically for the character of Art Keller. And it really is included in your question, you know, that this is a man who is seeking truth and stillness and trying to find a God that he no longer believes in.

GROSS: Don Winslow, thank you so much for talking with us.

WINSLOW: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it. It was an enjoyable conversation.

GROSS: Don Winslow is the author of the new novel "The Cartel." Coming up, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, traces how the expression tell it like it is came to be appropriated by politicians including Chris Christie who's using it as his campaign slogan. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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