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What novelist Don Winslow thinks of America’s war on drugs

Novelist Don Winslow has spent 20 years chronicling the war on drug cartels south of the U.S. border that have triggered unspeakable violence and caravans of asylum-seekers searching for safety in the U.S. His new novel “The Border" is the concluding work of a trilogy that was born out of a single news story in the late-1990s. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Jeff Greenfield recently sat down with Winslow to learn more.

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  • Fox News Anchor:

    One of President Trump's most popular talking points in the last few weeks. The caravans of Central American migrants headed towards the U.S. Southern border.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    It has dominated our political debate…

  • Donald Trump:

    "Build that wall, build that wall"

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    It helped elect a President…

  • Chuck Schumer:

    President Trump: you will not get your wall.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    It triggered a month-long government shutdown..

  • Protesters:

    "Hey, hey, ho ho, shutdown's got to go!"

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And the President has declared it a national emergency.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people. Jeff Greenfield: "It" is the toxic mix of Mexican drug cartels, unspeakable violence, caravans of asylum seekers, and a major domestic political fight.

    Just 40 miles from the San Diego-Tijuana border, in the mountain down of Julian, California, novelist Don Winslow has spent twenty years chronicling the story of the drug wars that have triggered so much of this controversy.

    The horrific violence as drug cartels battle for supremacy. The murder of hundreds of journalists and officials and that has driven so many on a perilous search for safety.

    His new novel "The Border", now at the top of many best-seller lists, is the concluding work of a trilogy that was borne out of a single two-decade old news story.

  • Don Winslow:

    I remember the date: September 20th 1998. I get up in the morning and my the first thing I do every morning is I look at the newspapers and that morning in the San Diego Union Tribune there was a story about 19 innocent men, women and children slaughtered in a town just across the border because it was thought by the local cartel that one of them was an informer.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    That story inspired Winslow to write 2005's "The Power of the Dog," chronicling American efforts to battle the rise of a drug cartel, led by a thinly fictionalized version of Joaquin Guzman, known better as "El Chapo".

    Winslow thought that one book would be all. But the escalating violence, and the escalating efforts by the U.S. to fight what it calls "a drug war", kept him returning to the story. He followed with "The Cartel," in 2015. And now with "The Border," Winslow has come to one stark conclusion.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    What is it about this drug war about what's going on that you think Americans most need to know and may not know?

  • Don Winslow:

    That it's not the Mexican drug problem; it's the American drug problem. We point our fingers increasingly so with this administration at Mexico. Oh, those criminals are coming up. Oh, those drugs are coming up. Yes. Why? Because we buy the drugs. If I were standing on the other side of that border, of that proposed wall, I might want to build a wall because something like $65 billion dollars in drug money goes south across that wall to fund, basically, terrorist organizations that are destabilizing Mexican society, Mexican politics and the Mexican economy.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    America's so-called "War on Drugs" began almost 50 years ago, promoted by presidents from both parties.

  • President Nixon:

    America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. President Reagan: Drugs are menacing our society. They're threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. President Clinton: We've had more major drug dealers arrested than in any previous similar time in our history. Jeff Greenfield: For Winslow, much—most—of the efforts to fight this war—the rhetoric of Presidents going back decades, the endless photo ops of drug seizure—even the recent conviction of cartel leader Joaquin Guzman—"El Chapo"—have been exercises in futility. Don Winslow: And all you have to do is look at the numbers. Since he was captured and recaptured or re-recaptured, the importation of drugs into America has not fallen, it's risen. The number of overdose deaths have not fallen, it's risen.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And as for building a wall to stop the flow of drugs?

  • Don Winslow:

    If you read the DEA's last five annual threat assessment reports, it says right in there what we all of us have always known that 90 percent or more of the illicit drugs that come through the Mexican border, come through POEs– points of entry –there are 52 of them on the Mexican American border. But three that really matter and most of the drugs come in tractor-trailer trucks. Right through those legal ports of entry.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And it's at these three ports–San Diego, California, Laredo, Texas, and El Paso, Texas– through which an unstoppable flood of drugs flows into the U. S. every day.

  • Don Winslow:

    One every 15 seconds through El Paso, for instance. A bout 5,000 a day give or take through these ports of entry. So there's no way that you're going to stop and search those trucks unless you completely shut down commerce between the United States and Mexico, which you cannot do because you will wreck the economies of two countries.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    For Winslow, the whole notion that these travelers crossing the border pose the danger of violence is wrongheaded. In fact, he says, most of these people are fleeing the violence of drug cartels, who often recruit children to act as drug "mules" on pain of death.

    And he took us to the mountains where many are abandoned by their "guides" to grapple with literally life-threatening weather.

  • Don Winslow:

    We're looking down at the desert floor. The kind of bitter irony is that the immigrants get dropped off out there, either coming across the mountains where they could freeze to death or right down there in the desert, just a few miles where they die of heat exposure.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Winslow's novels also paint a picture of powerful financial interests in the US—banks, investment companies that—wittingly or not-launder the drug profits.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And after two decades immersed in this world, Winslow has emerged with a blunt provocative answer to the question: what to do?

  • Don Winslow:

    Well, I'd legalize drugs.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    All of them?

  • Don Winslow:

    All Of them.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Control them? Just let them free market. Does it matter?

  • Don Winslow:

    Listen I I'd like to see us talk about any of those possibilities. What I know right now is that what we're doing treating it as a law enforcement problem or God help us a military problem. Doesn't work. Every horror story you can tell me about heroin and cocaine and meth and all of them. Right. And I've seen them firsthand happens while they were illegal. Every one of them. So I think what we need to do is yes at least to criminalize, more emphasis on diversion programs, trying to get people treatment. But one thing we definitely want to do is take the profit out of these drugs. Because it's the profit that is funding violent sociopaths to the point of billions of dollars a year.

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