By Don Winslow
William Morrow, $28.99, 720 pages
While serving in the U.S. Navy on an aircraft carrier in San Diego in 1970, I was a frequent visitor to Tijuana. We were told to be most careful regarding the criminals and drug gangs that operated openly in Tijuana, especially at night. During the day, Americans flocked to Tijuana for the shopping and the city was relatively safe. But at night, the streets, bars and cantinas were prowled by drug dealers, armed robbers and other assorted criminals. Still, many American servicemen flocked to Tijuana for the nightlife. In later years, rival criminal drug gangs turned this exotic and exciting Mexican city into an open war zone.
For more than 20 years, Don Winslow has researched the Mexican drug cartels and its huge, far-reaching and powerful criminal enterprise. Mr. Winslow’s “The Border” is the last installment of a fictional trilogy that includes 2005’s “The Power of the Dog” and 2015’s “The Cartel.”
The first two well-researched and well-written novels feature a mano a mano contest between an “El Chapo” type brilliant and violent Mexican drug lord named Adan Barrera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, and an obsessive half-Mexican DEA special agent named Art Keller. The two, at times friends and allies, but more often bitter enemies, operate against each other in Mexico and across the border in America.
In “The Border,” Adan Barrera is missing after a gunfight with a rival cartel and is presumed dead. In his wake, other drug lords vie for his top spot with corruption, conspiracy and countless murders.
“Keller first came to Culiacan as a rookie DEA agent back in the 70s, when the city was the epicenter of the Mexican heroin trade. And now it is again, as he thinks as he walks through the terminal towards the taxi stand. Everything has come full circle,” Don Winslow writes. “Adan Barrera was just a punk kid then, trying to make it as a boxing manager. His uncle, though, a Sinaloa cop, was the second-biggest opium grower in Sinaloa, striving to become the biggest. That was back when we were burning and poisoning the poppy fields, Keller thinks, driving peasants from their homes, and Adan got caught up in one of the sweeps. The federales were going to throw him out of an airplane, but I intervened and saved his life.
“The first, Keller thinks, of many mistakes. The world would have been a much better place if I had let them go Rocky the Flying Squirrel on little Adan, instead of letting him live to become the world’s greatest drug lord,” Mr. Winslow continues.
Art Keller has now been appointed as the director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Suspicious of his own deputy and staff, as well as the incoming Trump administration and members of Congress, Keller operates much like he did in Mexico as a young special agent — mostly on his own, off the radar and, as some suggest, off the rails.
Keller meets with the New York Police Department chief of narcotics and the two conspire on their own to target New York drug bosses, as well as the bankers and real estate developers who are laundering the illicit drug money. (Featuring a thinly-disguised Donald Trump and Jared Kushner). The NYPD boss assigns a young “Prince of the City” type detective to go undercover and work his way into the drug gang to gather evidence, while a recently released Mexican drug lord from an American supermax prison returns to Mexico and plots to become the top drug lord.
The horror of the murders and violence in this novel and the two previous novels might seem gratuitous had not Mr. Winslow based nearly all the atrocities on true incidents. Mr. Winslow’s drawn-from-the-headlines scenes are supplemented with scenes and characters that are reminiscent of some popular crime films.
Having gone out with narcotic officers on drug raids and having interviewed numerous cops and DEA special agents over the years, I found the crime scenes to mostly ring true.
But, alas, in “The Border” Mr. Winslow complicates an already complicated story by presenting a sweeping and somewhat unfair indictment of the entire American government and business community for complicity in the mayhem caused by drugs, in a way that he similarly indicted the entire NYPD for absolute corruption in his previous novel, “The Force.”
“The Border” is a fine crime thriller and many readers will find it entertaining as well as enlightening. I enjoyed the thriller, as I’ve enjoyed reading his other insightful and interesting thrillers. But Mr. Winslow’s new novel is somewhat marred, in my view, by being a bit too political and a bit too preachy.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.