Novelist Don Winslow has spent the last 20 years of his life absorbing more news about Mexico’s narco wars than most of us could stomach. This month he delivers the Border, the fiery conclusion of his sweeping drug-war trilogy. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it is his most overtly political installment yet. He takes on the Trump administration directly, creating a fictional candidate, then president, who stokes racist fears of Mexicans, campaigns on “building the wall” and, along with his venal son-in-law, gets caught up in a shady real estate deal involving Cartel money. Like its predecessors, 2004’s Power of the Dog (covering 1975-2004) and 2015’s The Cartel (2004-2014), The Border is a sprawling, blood-soaked saga and cements Winslow, in the words of one his heroes, the writer James Ellroy, as “the master of the dope war novel. He’s the dope war king.”
Winslow, 65, picks up where he left off with The Cartel. His El Chapo character, Adán Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, is dead, leaving the next generation of narcos in a brutal struggle for power. Art Keller, the aging federal drug warrior, has unexpectedly risen to head the DEA. Familiar characters from Power of the Dog and The Cartel return. As always, Winslow, who in a past life was private investigator, takes the action from the DEA offices and Sinaloa villas right down to the streets, with dealers, cops and junkies enduring the results of decisions made on high. He weaves in multiple narratives and current events, taking us from the barrios of Guatemala and a pair of children fleeing to America, to Staten Island and a junky couple living in a van. It’s harrowing, haunting stuff that often feels as visceral as any documentary or magazine story. Rolling Stone caught up with Winslow to talk about the state of play on the War on Drugs and what’s it like to delve so deeply into the narco world for so long.
Did you always set out to write a trilogy?
No, exactly the opposite. I did the first book, Power of the Dog, it feels like a thousand years ago. But that puppy took me six years to research and write, and when I was done with it I swore I was done with that world. At that time, we thought we’d seen the worst of the worst. We were wrong. Similarly, after The Cartel I said, “No, then that’s it, I’m done.” My agent would call about suggesting that I do another one and I’d hang up. Or I’d pretend to be a pizza place, and just yell, “Forty minutes!” into the phone and hang up. But it turned out that there was more story to be told.
One of the difference from when you wrote Power of the Dog and now, is that there’s more coverage of the cartels. Do you think the interest is higher now?
Definitely. Part of that’s just technology. When I was researching Dog, the internet of course was there, but it wasn’t the blogosphere and it wasn’t Twitter. And in those days, people were trying to hide what they did. By the time I got around to The Cartel, these guys had their own blogs, and they were putting their atrocity videos on them. And the coverage increased. When Guzmán — I always resist calling him Chapo because it just sounds like some sort of cutesy Disney-esque character — made his so-called escape, the romance or intrigue around that raised the level even higher. And now, with the wall, there’s an awareness of the border that just hasn’t been there previously.
Did you follow the Guzmán trial religiously? Have you been surprised by his revelations?
I don’t think I do anything religiously, no. The revelations are not revelations. To those of us who’ve been around this, and I’ve been around it for over two decades now, there were no surprises here. There might have been some surprises to the general public. But no, I wasn’t surprised by anything.
Not even the hundred-million pay-out to the President of Mexico?
Let me say, especially not the hundred-million dollar pay-out to the President of Mexico. Look, that’s lunch money. If you’re taking in 60 billion dollars just on coke every year, a hundred million dollars is a nice tip. But that’s a bargain, man, for the kind of security that was offered.
How come there was no Sean Penn in this book, because I know you’re very critical of that Rolling Stone story.
Yeah, I was critical of that article, so I feel a little weird about talking about it to you.
We can take it.
I know you can. I subscribe to the magazine. But that piece was ill-conceived, and you know the purpose of all of that was Guzmán trying to get a biopic made. You can’t make this stuff up, can you? And it’s nothing personal, by the way, Sean Penn’s a terrific actor and he’s done some really good humanitarian things, I just don’t think this was one of them. I just wish that he had taken along, a real journalist who knew the field, and could ask some serious questions. Somebody had to say, “Hey look, this guy’s not Peter Pan. He’s not Robin Hood.” He’s responsible for the deaths of a lot of people, and untold suffering.
That came out in the trial the other day, you know? Where people were just so kind of titillated about, “Oh, he escaped with his mistress naked through a tunnel.” Okay, and then someone testifies, “Yeah, and then he beats this guy to death with a stick and shoots him in the head and throws him in a fire.”
Do you ever hear from any people in the narco world? Narcos or DEA, about your books…
What do they say?
You know, for the most part they say I get it right, which is gratifying. I’ve heard the DEA gives the book out to agents who are going to that part of the world. I know that certain law enforcement agencies do. Other DEA people have been angry with me, about the anti-War on Drugs stance that I’ve taken.
What about the narcos?
Sometimes, sometimes. Look, I don’t wanna get into this too deeply, you know what I mean? Because I don’t want, in any way, to compare myself with Mexican journalists who’ve been killed covering this story. I dedicated Cartel to them. I dedicated The Border to one recently.
But yeah, you know, you get threats. I don’t like talking a lot about it, because my family reads these things, and I don’t wanna upset them. I’m a little more aware of my surroundings than I used to be, let me put it that way.
Did you regret killing the Adán/Chapo character in Cartel?
Never. One of the most pleasurable scenes I’ve ever written was killing the Adán character. In writing fiction that’s pretty close to the bone, and coming up to this era, to the border coverage, we sort of had to treat with the post-Guzmán world. It was immaterial if he was dead or in prison, he’s done as a power figure. That’s intriguing to write about: What happens when the so-called king is dead? Which is what we’ve been seeing in Mexico, after Guzmán was captured and recaptured and extradited, they just experienced its two most violent years, right?
Well, we knew more about him than we do about the younger generation fighting it out now…
If you’re really looking at the Mexican drug situation now, the story, basically, is you trade one wolf for 37 coyotes. Most people have a reasonable but inaccurate image of a cartel as a pyramid with one person on top. And Guzmán made a very fitting figure for that image. You had that anti-hero, the godfather and all that stuff. That’s not really the reality. The reality is that most of these organizations are shaped more like wedding cakes, with different levels, and he was definitely on top, but with others. So when he gets extradited, you’ve got this chaos. People scrambling to fill that position. And then you have another cartel, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, come roaring in, to fill that power vacuum.
How has writing these books changed you?
I’m sadder. You can’t help but have some of this stuff affect you. It’s been a third of my life on this story. And, again, I don’t want to overdramatize that, but it’s left me a little sadder in a lot of ways. You know, the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened. Obviously the characters are fictional, and you rearrange things for dramatic structure. But that’s the really sad part about. When editors, as they will be, will write you and say, “Well that’s over the top.” And you write back saying, “Yeah, but that’s what really happened.”
You have a character that’s basically Trump. Were you hesitant to go there?
No…I guess you want me to expand on that…[Laughs] Look, I think that you can’t write a book, with these themes set in this time, without going there. It would be dishonest in some ways. Do you know what I mean? Are you going to create George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as president? We all know who is president. We all know what’s been going on. And so, no, I thought that my choice was either I had to ignore it completely, or take it on.
And connecting your fictional versions of Jared Kushner and Trump to drug money – through real estate deals, that somehow doesn’t strain credibility, does it?
Yeah, that’s the problem. Look, I have no information, to be very clear, linking the real Donald Trump, or Jared Kushner, to drug money. This is fiction. But it doesn’t strain credibility. We live in an extremely corrupt era.
There’s a couple passages in this book where you really lay out the theory that the drug war is, in fact, keeping our law enforcement in business. It seems like you’ve even gone further in your thinking about the failures of the drug war than you had in the past.
That’s accurate. I’m a pro-police guy. But I think that there is a drug-prison industrial complex, it’s just a machine that needs to be consistently fed. And it’s fed with defendants, it’s fed with arrests. We spend eighty billion dollars a year on prisons.
Obscene is exactly the word, and the most obscene word combination in the English language, maybe other than “jazz-fusion,” is “prison privatization.” Again, I’m a fiction writer, my primary job and responsibility is to write a good, interesting, exciting book. I’m not a crusader, I’m not a philosopher, I’m not a politician.
What would you do to fix it?
I’m pretty much a man of the left, but I’m conservative enough to say that there’s not solutions to every problem. Addiction will always be with us, albeit not at this rate, right? Criminality will always be with us. But the first thing we can do to fix it is [to] legalize drugs. Period. Across the board. Take the enormous profit out of the drug. That would be the first absolute major step. We’ve done that with marijuana. The problem is, of course, the balloon effect. It’s a theory in criminology: if you squeeze the balloon in one place the air goes to another. And so we squeezed the balloon in the marijuana place and the air went to heroin.
The second thing that we need to do is take a really strong look at who we put behind bars and What is the point of putting a non-violent criminal behind bars?
Do you think that we’ve reached this turning point in the drug war, because of the opioid crisis?
I think that’s a big part of it. Look, we didn’t have an opioid epidemic, let’s face it, ’til white kids started dying. I don’t mean that in any mean sense, I know several of them. But that brought increased awareness. And I think it’s a generational thing, as well. It’s kinda like gay marriage. There seemed to be a tipping point, that was more generational than anything. I’m sure to the people who were being discriminated against, it didn’t feel sudden, it felt like forever. But to those of us who weren’t being discriminated against, it seemed like it happened kind of quickly.
And I think what you document so well in these books is just how the cartels saw opportunity…
Well, they’re businessmen. And they just look at it from a marketing viewpoint…
It’s just capitalism.
Well exactly, it is capitalism. And they saw that the big pharmaceutical companies have created a ready-made market that they could underprice and undercut. And they did it very, very well.
Was it hard to write some of those dope scenes with your junkie character Jackie?
Well it was very hard. I had in my possession some journals from addicts that didn’t make it… People I knew. Yeah, it was tough.
Is this your last drug-war book? Do you want do more?
I know, I’ve said it before, everybody scoffs when I say it now. No, this is it. Whatever contribution I was gonna make to this sort of body of writing, I’ve done. And I’m just done with it.
Do you feel more hopeful from Mexico now, or less?
More… But that’s not a high bar to jump, you know? Look, from my slice of this world, which is the narco world, the answers aren’t in Mexico. They’re here. And until we get our act straightened out, it will have the damaging effects on Mexico. That’s why it just pisses me off so much when these guys go down to the border and make these pronouncements about, you know, “Build a wall and stop crime from coming into the United States,” I mean shit, if I were Mexican, I’d build the wall to keep American money from buying guns and weapons and making billionaires out of psychopaths. The hypocrisy of this is mind-boggling. Not in the history of the world have I ever heard of a Mexican coming into America, sticking a gun in somebody’s head and making them buy a drug.
I couldn’t help but think that, at any point, the country could fall apart.
You’re always in the danger of having a narco republic there. Again, the solution is always on the consumption side. You can grow as much opium in Durango and Sinaloa as you want, it makes no goddamn difference if nobody here wants the drug. That’s the issue.
But we’re nowhere with that.
We are nowhere with that, because we’re not asking the right questions, and if you don’t ask the right questions, you cannot, of course, get the right answers, can you? Until we address those issues – economic pain, racial pain, pain of being left behind, all of these things – the drug problem is going to be with us in this severity. You’ll never stop it on the production side, ever. Seal off all trade with Mexico, right? The drugs will come through Canada or across the ocean.
When will it have enough of a deleterious effect on our society that there’ll be political action?
We might be coming to that point, because, again, you know how you’ve got suburban kids dying. But we’re gonna have to ask ourselves some much more serious and deeper questions than we’re asking.
I like to think your book will help with that…
I hope so. Again, but my job is just to write a good crime novel.