'Vocabulary of Mutilation': A Disturbing Primer on the War on Drugs

Don Winslow, novelist and conscientious objector to America’s longest “war,” was skeptical when he was in Washington on a recent Sunday morning. This was shortly after news broke about the escape, from one of Mexico’s “maximum security” prisons, of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Guzman reportedly disappeared through a tunnel almost a mile long and built solely for his escape. Asked about this, Winslow, his fork poised over an omelet, dryly said he thinks Guzmán might actually have driven away from the prison’s front gate in a Lincoln Town Car. What might seem like cynicism could be Winslow’s realism. Fourteen years ago, Guzmán allegedly escaped from another “maximum security” prison simply by hiding in a laundry cart. With exquisite understatement, the Wall Street Journal reports that his recent escape raised “new concerns about corruption in Mexican law enforcement.”

Winslow, 61, was in Washington to publicize his 16th crime novel, “The Cartel,” a sequel to “The Power of the Dog” (2005).

Both are about Guzmán and other heads of the Sinaloa and rival cartels. The novels are, together, 1,200 pages of gripping narrative, mind-numbing carnage and mind-opening reportage about the “war on drugs” that is in its fifth decade. Since President Nixon declared the war, the quality of drugs reaching U.S. streets has risen and prices have fallen.

More Mexicans have died in drug-related violence ???100,000 in 10 years; overall, nearly twice the number of American fatalities in Vietnam. Winslow believes that the Islamic State is mimicking the cartels’ “vocabulary of mutilation” to create its charisma of cruelty ??? Internet videos of beheadings, dismemberments, crucifixions, flayings, immolations, etc. “The Cartel” is dedicated to 131 journalists, all named, who, because of their reporting on drug violence, are known to have died or vanished. “There were others,” he says. And there probably will be more.

Many of Winslow’s lurid passages ??? all, he says, “inspired by actual events” ??? are essentially confirmed in Roberto Saviano’s “ZeroZeroZero,” a nonfiction book on the world cocaine trade, written by the Italian journalist who has had police protection since he first published in 2006 “Gomorrah,” a report on a Neapolitan branch of the Sicilian Mafia. Saviano, a somewhat overwrought writer, understands the power of economics: One thousand euros invested in Apple stock in January 2012 would have been worth 1,670 euros 12 months later. But 1,000 euros invested in cocaine in Colombia could have returned 182,000 euros in Europe, assuming ??? a reasonable bet ??? you could get the cocaine past law enforcement.

Mexico is a casualty of a U.S. drug enforcement success. In the 1980s, the South Florida Task Force produced the “balloon effect” ??? squeeze a balloon in one spot, it bulges in another. The task force deflected sea-borne cocaine imports to Mexico. Hence today’s northward flow of drugs, southward flow of money and drenching flow of Mexican blood as the cartels war with one another and with Mexico’s federal, state and local governments.

Some U.S. emergency room physicians are, Winslow says, glad that Mexicans, using precursor drugs from China, have taken over most manufacturing of methamphetamines because this has “standardized the product,” making it easier for physicians to standardize treatment protocols.

In both novels, Winslow relentlessly but not unreasonably compares the war on drugs to the war in Vietnam ??? American “advisers,” “the dull bass whop-whop-whop of helicopter rotors,” defoliants, assassinations, intelligence failures and futility. A man of the left, Winslow has scant sympathy for U.S. foreign policy problems in Central America during the Cold War, when, he says, arming anti-communists became entangled with the drug trade. He favors drug legalization because interdiction “is a broom sweeping back the ocean” and because legalization would financially cripple the cartels.

But less bloodshed in Mexico would mean more social regression in the United States: Today’s levels of addiction are nowhere near the levels that probably would be reached under legalization, even without assuming the marketing measures that probably would be legal. So read his novels as didactic entertainment ??? you will be vastly entertained while learning many disturbing things ??? not as policy prescriptions.

Winslow now lives in Southern California not far from the border. When he decided to become a writer he moved to Idaho, where his sister was mayor of the town of Hope. He settled in a nearby area known as ??? really ??? Beyond Hope, a good place to begin his path to “The Cartel.”