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"Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes."

-- Abraham Lincoln

"I believe all drugs should be legal and no one should do them."

-- Don Winslow, to the Arizona Republic

I don't usually write about books I haven't finished, but I get the feeling that I'll be reading Don Winslow's new novel The Cartel for a long time. It's more than 600 pages and I'm reading it carefully and slowly, for a few minutes every night. I'm proceeding through it like a man crossing a mine field: my progress is slow and sometimes I find myself having to backtrack a page or two or to pause to steady my nerves. It's not quite unpleasant, but it nevertheless feels quite serious.

This is an interesting sensation. Hemingway believed readers could perceive a writer's authority even through simple, declarative prose. He thought that a sentence written by a writer who understood a subject somehow resounded truer in the mind of a reader than the same sentence written by someone who was faking it. I do not know whether I quite believe that, for I know people are all the time fooled by con men and moral imbeciles. But I perceive things beneath the surface of The Cartel--a deep sadness and anger, a great stopped reservoir of outrage.

Winslow is a clean writer, and his voice is uncluttered and calm. He's not the stylist his influence James Ellroy is, but he doesn't indulge in the literary pyrotechnics or self-aggrandizement of the lovable Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. His story feels less like a product of the imagination than an exhaustively researched bit of journalism. Which it is--a kind of true story set in the recognizable horror show of Mexico narco-terrorism. Winslow has introduced fictional characters into this world; he has changed names and details and muddled chronologies, but there's no doubt he's drawing from life.

This was driven home with last weekend's "escape" from Altiplano Federal Prison, a maximum security facility near Mexico City, by one of the world's most dangerous men, Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, aka "El Chapo." Guzman is a self-made billionaire, a one-time street-level soldier who, Winslow wrote in a piece on the CNN website, has risen "to become the most powerful drug lord in history."

In Mexico he is something of a folk hero, the subject of polka-styled corridos that celebrate his narco cowboy exploits and taunt the Mexican government for its inability to capture and hold onto him. ("Sinoaloa is partying because the boss is back," the accordion-playing lead singer of band Rejegos sings in a YouTube video released hours after Guzman's escape. "They can't believe how it happened/ Like a mole he escaped through a tunnel." )

One of the two major characters in The Cartel--and its prequel, 2006's The Power of the Dog--is modeled on Guzman. Adan Barrera, "the most powerful drug patron in the world," has a similar history. In The Cartel, he walks out of the Guadalajara penitentiary at Christmas time--an episode Winslow says he based on Guzman's real-life disappearance from the Puente Grande federal prison in 2001.

Barrera is in some ways a more compelling character than his nemesis, a former DEA agent named Art Keller, a loner who seems a touch too romanticized (Winslow describes Keller as "his own blues song, a Tom Waits loser, a Kerouac saint, a Springsteen hero ... a fugitive, a sharecropper, a hobo, a cowboy ..."). As narcotics kingpins go, Barrera's a ruthless but rational actor. He's a criminal, but he's acquired some finesse, and his first instincts are not necessarily violent. Like Don Corleone in The Godfather, he exudes a paternalistic noblesse oblige. He's loyal. He has a sense of honor. He will listen to reason.

One of the theories about why Guzman was never extradited to the United States holds that the Mexican government preferred to have him in control of the drug trade. He was not as terrible as the alternative. Some suggest Guzman cooperated with the federales in order to eliminate his rivals, some of whom were arrested and extradited to practically inescapable U.S. supermax facilities. They suggest that Mexican authorities only arrested him under pressure from the U.S. and that his departure from Altiplano was a foregone conclusion.

From the Mexican perspective, this isn't hard to understand. Money invariably translates to power, and the narcos have so much money that they've been able to corrupt a critical number of Mexican jurists, politicians and law enforcement officials. In some places, it's impossible to perform the routine functions of governance without the blessing of the local patron. If everyone sullied by the drug trade in this relatively poor country were miraculously jailed, the country would grind to a halt. In parts of Mexico, complicity with bosses like Guzman is a requisite for doing business.

I'm not sure that legalized cocaine would be a good thing, but I am pretty sure that we'd be better off treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue. The War on Drugs is a self-perpetuating cycle, an economic engine that chews through resources and has created and sustained both the Mexican cartels and an American prison industrial complex. In a sense, we're all complicit--if the demand for illegal drugs wasn't present in the U.S., no one would smuggle in marijuana or cocaine.

But people will self-medicate. While willfully introducing a mind-altering substance into one's body may be morally suspect and medically unwise, it ought not be in itself a crime. We must begin to recognize that, regardless of whether the need for self-medication springs from a physical cause or a deficiency of character, the allure of some narcotics is so compelling that some users care only for getting their next fix. If that means they have to break the law to get it, they will. The quickest and surest way to relieve society of the collateral damage inflicted by the illicit narcotics trade--burglaries, robberies, the murder of undercover police officers, the corruption of Mexico--is to remove the profit motive and to treat drug abusers as what they are: sick people.

Were it not for the U.S. government's seemingly interminable War on Drugs, there would still be cocaine billionaires; they just wouldn't command private armies and traffic in terror. There would still be competition for market share, but it would be waged with TV commercials and magazine ads, instead of AKs and AR-15s.


MovieStyle on 07/19/2015

Print Headline: How we are complicit in the Mexican cartels


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  • Nodmcm
    July 19, 2015 at 8:50 a.m.

    Now just how would legal drugs impact Americans' productivity? This is a capitalist nation, built upon the idea that one person gets others to work for him, and he makes a profit off their labor. But what if folks quit working so hard, due to drug use? Might that cut into the profits of our capitalist class? Don't capitalists more or less run this country, and this world? So now it should be obvious why drugs will not become legal anytime soon. Capitalism has its winners and losers. The winners live lives of fabulous luxury and pleasure. The losers, well, not so much.