REVIEW | Don Winslow's new novel is more than a mere retelling of a drug war

'The Border' sketches a daunting image of the complicated relationship between drugs, politics and the American nation, writes Sonja van der Westhuizen

21 May 2019 - 15:35 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
'The Border' by Don Winslow.
'The Border' by Don Winslow.
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

The Border is a monumental literary feat ending off Don Winslow’s three-part cartel series which chronicles the Mexican drug war.

The multimillion-dollar empire feeding drug cartels and destroying the lives of thousands of Americans starts off in the poppy fields of Mexico, far away from suburban America. Despite its humble beginnings, its wide reach and enormous impact become evident as you make your way through Winslow’s formidable novel.

Art Keller, the protagonist of Power of the Dog and The Cartel, returns after the killing of leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Adán Barrera. What follows is the ripple effect Barrera’s death has on the drug trade and the inevitable war that follows to gain control of his empire.

However, this is only one part of the story. What’s more important is those whose lives have become intertwined with the drug trade, whether by choice or not. They include a 10-year-old Guatemalan boy who has to flee his hometown to avoid becoming a gang member. The extreme conditions he endures to cross the border in order to live with family in America, is but one retelling of the desperation driving illegal immigrants across the border and their subsequent treatment by the Trump-era immigration laws.

The direct impact of heroin is depicted through the characters of a drug-addicted couple living in a van in Staten Island and shows how the drug harvested in Mexico eventually ends up in New York. The opioid crisis is affecting all communities, it’s no longer limited to the black or poorer urban areas. Annual statistics of drug-related incidents and deaths indicates a national crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse "more than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids - a 2-fold increase in a decade".

None of this trade would be possible if there wasn’t demand. Drug cartels will continue producing opium as long as America needs drugs to solve its problems.

The misconception remains that blame for the drug crisis has to be laid at the feet of the Mexican drug cartels and that building a wall will prevent drugs from entering the US.

Ironically most of the drugs smuggled over the border is smuggled in at legal crossing points (US Customs and Border Protection statistics provides some interesting information on this).

It is transported through an intricate and highly coordinated network and much like a business, it’s organised and connected to other lucrative businesses. In Winslow’s version revenue from drugs is funnelled into real estate deals and through Wall Street. The war on drugs is very much a reality and not too be glossed over or over-simplified as American politicians, including Trump, tend to do.

Which brings us to the one comedic character in The Border, John Dennison, a near-perfect replica of Donald Trump who tweets the same idiotic tweets, makes the same sweeping statements and whose name is a combination of two aliases Trump used himself: John Barron and David Dennison. Even Jared Kushner is given his place own character as Dennison’s son-in-law, Jason Lerner. Unfortunately they are the only comic relief in an otherwise sobering read.

The Border sketches a daunting image of the complicated relationship between drugs, politics and the American nation. Reading through the harrowing, mostly violent account of the logistics of the drug trade, part of you hopes it is a highly fictionalised account of what’s has been going on in Mexico and the US for decades. It’s not.

Don Winslow has spent 20 years writing this trilogy and much of that time was been spent on research. According to a recent article in the New York Post, Winslow interviewed "cartel members, killers and law enforcers; viewed videos of cartel-sponsored murder and torture; he has heard about entire families being tossed from bridges and cartels co-opting Mexican armies to create their own militias".

The Border is more than a mere retelling of a drug war. It’s a 700-page wake-up call for America and the world to realise something needs to be done before an entire nation destroys itself. Even though Winslow started writing the trilogy years ago, this final instalment of the series couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.