About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Cartel by Don Winslow

Cartel by Don Winslow – More of a docudrama in writing than pure fiction Cartel is Winslow’s account of the brutal cartel wars of Mexico from 2004 to 2012.

The book was published 10 years after The Power of Dog in which Art “Killer” Keller battled Mexican drug lords, Adan and Raul Barrera, the leaders of the El Federacion in Mexico

Keller, half Mexican and half American, left the DEA at that time after decades of fighting drug dealers in Mexico. He has lost his soul and his marriage during that quest.

One of his last actions was to coerce Lucia the wife of Adan Barrera, into luring him across the border. His daughter, Gloria, was in America receiving treatment with regard to her deformed head. Lucia falsely tells Barrera that Gloria is days from death. When Barrera comes to the hospital he is arrested and convicted.

Barrera, displaying practicality rather than any criminal code of silence, successfully bargains for his transfer to a Mexican prison by providing information on drug dealers not a part of his family in Sinaloa. It is a cunning exercise. He gains the transfer home and eliminates a number of rivals.

Back in Mexico he lives lavishly in a Mexican prison. After careful manoeuvering and lavish bribes Barrera arranges his escape from prison by helicopter.

Keller, upon hearing of the escape seeks to return to a DEA more than reluctant to see him back. Ultimately, because of his vast knowledge of the Mexican drug organizations he is allowed to go to Mexico to help hunt down Barrera.

Finding and capturing Barrera is difficult. He is well protected in Sinaloa by a private army and a population that respects him.

The Mexican drug business is a form of brutal capitalism. There are competing organizations with shifting alliances. Taxes are paid for moving product through border points to the organization controlling that area.

Disputes may be negotiated but efforts to gain territory and increase an organization’s share of the business often lead to violent conflict.

Barrera, more disciplined than his competitors, diligently works to expand his organization.

Soon the northern border of Mexico is aflame with multiple organizations of drug dealers fighting with each other. Civilian casualties are common. Billions of dollars can buy a lot of guns. There is no shortage of recruits.

The city of Ciudad Juarez becomes a dirty battleground. Hundreds of deaths drive legitimate and illegal businesses out of the city.

Millions of dollars flow to high ranking government officials. It is easy to determine which narcos have paid to influence the government fight on drugs. The federales attack the other groups.

The horrors reach deep. Winslow fictionalizes the real life story of an 11 year becoming an assassin. In Cartel he is utilized by the Zetas (the drug organization formed from former members of Mexico's special forces).
While Keller wants Barrera captured and Barrera wants Keller dead (he puts a $2,000,000 bounty on Keller) each is denied their goal by the complex interactions between the narcos (internally and externally) and the Mexican government.

The brutality is horrendous. Torture is routine. Executions are often painful and prolonged. It is hell on earth and Winslow keeps the narrative driving. I grew numb in the reading.
I wish the story was unbelievable, that Winslow strained credulity, but I recently read there have been 17,000 murders in Mexico in 2016 associated with the war on drugs.

Overall it is a compelling, if depressing story, of the impact of drug trafficking on Mexico. Cartel hammers home the war on drugs will fail as long as there are billions of dollars to be made in selling illegal drugs in America.

After an unflinching recounting of the wars the ending was somewhat disappointing. It approaches but not does quite become a conventional thriller conclusion. A finish appropriate to the rest of the book would have made it a great work but I doubt would have been accepted by a publisher.

If you can stand the slaughter you will not put the book down. Winslow will keep you turning the pages. 


  1. Unfortunately, Bill, the drug cartel stories are all too true. Some of the stories really are so shocking that the seem more like stuff of not-quite believable thriller fiction than actual fact. But they happen. I'm glad you thought Winslow did a good job of portraying all of this. It's depressing, as you say, but it all happens.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Human actions in real life can be crueler than the writer can imagine.

  2. This sounds like it would be harrowing to read this book, but maybe I will try it someday.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. Pick a day when you are not feeling down already.