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Crime novelist of ‘The Cartel’ calls for end to war on drugs

July 16, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
The escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán felt to novelist Don Winslow like it came straight out of the pages of his new book, "The Cartel." Winslow has been writing about the drug wars for years, sharing observations of devastating brutality through his fiction. He joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the challenge of conveying violence to readers and the futility of our war on drugs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s escape this week from one of Mexico’s maximum security prisons made headlines around the world. Guzman was the longtime head of one of the most violent criminal syndicates in Mexico and the United States.

Now a new novel, “The Cartel” by Don Winslow, offers some insight into both sides of the war on drugs, the narco-traffickers, as well as law enforcement.

Jeffrey Brown talked with Winslow recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Don Winslow, welcome to you.

DON WINSLOW, Author, “The Cartel”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have been writing about the violence in Mexico for — and along the border for a long time now. Why? Why compelled to sort of be in the news this way?

DON WINSLOW: You know, I live along the border, about 40 miles. And so we live in a border culture.

Mexico is very real to us. We have people going back and forth all the time. I also think it’s one of the most important crime stories in the world today. I’m a crime writer, so I want to be writing about the most important things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a continuing story. Even this week, we get news of the escape of El Chapo.

DON WINSLOW: El Chapo Guzman, exactly.

Yes. You know, I have been writing this book. “The Cartel” is a continuation of a book I did about 10 years ago and follows the war on drugs for about 45 years. So, I have been following El Chapo for 15 years, and this weekend’s — past weekend’s news, it felt like it came right out of the pages of my book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that a novel — I wonder, after having taken a crack like this in several different ways, does a novel capture something that the day-to-day journalism can’t?

DON WINSLOW: I think so.

I think you can use fiction to get inside people’s minds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inside their minds?

DON WINSLOW: Inside their minds. And you let the reader look at the world through their point of view, as journalists aren’t often allowed to do or shouldn’t do.

So, yes, I think that novelists can sometimes approach a subject like this from a different angle. It can be enlightening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m also wondering, because this is another discussion we have here, when you’re dealing with something so horrific, right, you’re trying to translate it. There is this term, the pornography of violence. Right?

DON WINSLOW: I have used it, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used it.

How much do you show? Where do you use restraint? What’s your stance vis-a-vis the reader?

DON WINSLOW: I think that you have to make a very clean decision about this.

I never wanted to sanitize the violence for the reader, because I want the reader to understand what has happened down in Mexico over the past 10 years. At the same time, it can have a numbing effect, just as real-life violence has a numbing effect on the people who experience it. So I had to find different avenues of approaching it.

So, sometimes, I wrote the actual event of violence. At other times…

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say the actual event, you mean based on…

DON WINSLOW: Based on…

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes based on the actual event.

DON WINSLOW: Almost all the time based on the actual event.

JEFFREY BROWN: Almost all the time? Wow.

DON WINSLOW: Other times, I would write people’s reaction to it, a journalist coming across it, somebody coming to the scene later, and write more of the emotional and psychological reaction of someone coming on that scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you would have times when you say this goes too far, I’m stopping here?


There were times where the violence was so horrific, I just didn’t think a reader could absorb it. And even though I believed that’s what had happened, there are times when I backed off it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read about you. I didn’t realize that you had been a private investigator once in your life. You have done various things in your life.


JEFFREY BROWN: But how much does that — how much do you draw on in the books? How much research goes into a book like this?

DON WINSLOW: Well, a lot.

I mean, this was about five years of my life in terms of research and writing. And so you talk to DA agents. You talk to drug traffickers. You talk to addicts. You talk to a lot of people. You do a — read a lot of journalism, read a lot of books, court transcripts, trials, that kind of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You did an unusual thing when the book was coming out, and you took out a full-page ad in newspapers calling for an end to the war on drugs. Why — it obviously cost you a fair amount of money, I suppose, to do something like that. Why do that?

DON WINSLOW: Well, as I said, I have been writing about this war for 15 years, and I have been to the funerals.

I have sat with the mothers who have lost addicted sons. I have sat with families of kids who have been killed in drug-related gang violence. I have been to the prisons. I have seen the effects. At some point in time, I felt I had to do something other than write a novel about it, that I needed to try to make some sort of contribution, at least try to make some sort of difference in the real world.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a line in there.

I want to pull out one quote, a direct line, you see, between the war on drugs and recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and elsewhere. What’s the line?

DON WINSLOW: Well, you can draw a direct line between the militarization of our police forces — and cops have told me this — and the events in Ferguson and Cleveland and New York, because it was the war on drugs that really militarized our police first, where police are going into these neighborhoods, smashing down doors, arresting young men.

And that starts a hostility that continues to this day. One police officer, high-ranking police officer, told me, you know, they cut in half my community policing funds and instead gave me tanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how far do you push this? You talk about legalization. You certainly talk about decriminalization.


I would push it all the way to legalization. Look, we have been doing the same thing for coming on 45 years, Jeff, and what’s the result? Drugs are more plentiful, more potent and cheaper than ever. It’s not working. In no way do I mean to disparage the very brave and intelligent people, police officers, DEA personnel who fight this war, but we need to start looking at this as a social health problem that it is, and not a law enforcement problem or a military problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the novel is “The Cartel.”

Don Winslow, thanks so much.