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Drug war capitalism in Mexico and the novels of Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog and The Cartel reflect real-life concerns in Mexico’s drug war. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Irving Cabrera Torres

Drug war capitalism in Mexico and the novels of Don Winslow

Ever heard of drug war capitalism? The term refers to the combination of anti-drug policies, state militarisation, criminal activity, and paramilitarisation that dissolves clear distinctions between state forces and drug cartels in the territorial and social expansion of capitalism. Mexico is a case in point – both in everyday life and the novels of the American writer Don Winslow.

Indeed, recent events in Mexico’s drug war could easily have been depicted in Winslow’s diptych The Power of the Dog (2005) and The Cartel (2015). But first, everyday life Mexico.

Two seemingly disparate recent events bring into stark relief the contradictions and consequences of the drug war in that country.

Members of the Mexican military hold Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias ‘El Chapo’, at the Navy hangar in Mexico City, in February 2014. EPA/Mario Guzman

The first occurred in July, and involved the boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who conducted a dramatic escape from a high-security prison in Toluca, in the State of Mexico.

He succeeded in his jailbreak by exiting from a mile-long tunnel, complete with ventilation and an awaiting motorcycle, to disappear. This has led to a US$3.8 million reward on his head.

The tunnel through which alleged Mexican drug lord Jaoquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman reportedly escaped from a high-security prison on July 11, 2015, in Amolaya, Mexico. EPA/STR

(It’s not the first time we’ve seen such bombast. In 2001, “El Chapo” – or Shorty – escaped from the top-security prison Puente Grande, in Greater Guadalajara located within the Pacific coastal state of Jalisco, supposedly hidden in a laundry cart but most likely dressed as a police officer, revealing official complicity in his escape.)

The second incident also unfolded in July this year, with the torture and murder of the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and four women in Mexico City. He had fled the port city of Veracruz with Nadia Vera, an advocate for a prominent nationwide student social movement.

They were murdered along with two flatmates (Yesenia Quiroz and Mile Virginia Martín) and a domestic cleaner (Alejandra Negrete) who were, additionally, it was reported, raped before their murders.

Vera and Espinosa were known critics of Javier Duarte, the governor of Veracruz. Espinosa became the 14th journalist in the Gulf state to be murdered since Duarte became governor in 2010.

Pax narcotica

Historically, a degree of conviviality existed between elements of the state apparatus in Mexico, combining municipal, state and federal government officials and police forces allied with narcotraficantes.

This pax narcotica existed under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which remained in power in Mexico for some 70 years up to 2000.

Since then, a horrific drug war in Mexico has been unleashed, initiated by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 and leading to, so far, at least 100,000 deaths and between 20,000 and 60,000 missing.

This has come about as a result of an offensive against specific drug cartels and the increased militarisation and paramilitarisation of the country.

In 2008 the passage of the Meridá Initiative led to the funnelling of US$1.4 billion in bilateral US-Mexico funds towards – supposedly – quelling the violence between cartels competing for strategic plazas.

The struggles over these spaces of cartel operations have also included vigilantes such as the Grupos de Autodefensa (self-defence groups) in the state of Michoacán, as depicted in the new documentary film Cartel Land (2015).

Many of these groups have also been embroiled in torture, decapitations and incinerations.

The control of the plaza by the Sinaloa cartel, operating out of the states of Baja California, Sinaloa, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua, but covering a geographical axis stretching across the United States (and the escape of its leader “El Chapo”) is one of the latest twists in the dominance of this cartel and its complicity with state forces in the drug trade.

The rise of the Sinaloa cartel is perhaps indicative of a new pax narcotica. A further echo of the past is the continued murder of student activists and, increasingly, journalists. Since 2000, approximately 90 journalists have been murdered across Mexico. There is still the unsolved murder and disappearance of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, in September last year.

The Drug War Diptych

How does the above relate to the novels of Don Winslow?

The Power of the Dog and The Cartel trace the rise of the fictional drug lord Adán Barrera as heir to the Federación cartel, based in Sinaloa, and his ultimate rivalry with former friend-turned-enemy Art Keller, veteran of operations in Vietnam and now in the employ of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a US government operative.

The novel builds a 30-year story of the rise of cartel operations during the era of the_ pax narcotica_ under the PRI weaving together various crime syndicates across the spaces of Mexico and the United States. Along the way, the vicissitudes of characters caught up in the spiralling violence are also told.

These include the high-class sex worker Nora Hayden, the Irish hitman Sean Callan from the streets of New York, and the Catholic priest Father Juan Ocampo Parada.

The Power of the Dog starts in 1975, focusing on Operation Condor, which was a real-life campaign of political repression and state terror linked to the “War on Communism” in Latin America.

It closes in 2004 portraying, by that time, the actual historical murder of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio (1994) and how the violence and brutality of the war on drugs touched the Vatican, evoking again in narrative form the actual murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo (1993).

This was a period that Carlos Fuentes, the famous intellectual and novelist, heralded as Mexico’s “year of living dangerously”.

Community Policemen from Ocotito, municipality of Chilpancingo, in Guerrero State, conduct patrols and permanent operations to deter drug gangs and other illegal acts in the town. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Irving Cabrera Torres

The second novel in the series, The Cartel, continues the rivalry between Sinaloan drug lord Adán Barrera and DEA operative Art Keller. Again, it is a page-turning and graphically detailed account of the violence and complicity of the drug war that ties in with real everyday life concerns.

Not least among those is drug war capitalism.

The journalist Dawn Paley has referred to drug war capitalism as a mode of expanding capitalism across struggles over the spaces of territory, land and resources through violent dispossession and terror.

As she states in her book Drug War Capitalism (2014):

The war on drugs is a long-term fix to capitalism’s woes, combining terror with policymaking in a seasoned neoliberal mix, cracking open social worlds and territories once unavailable to globalised capitalism.

The spatial dimension of this expansive and violent extension of capitalism is superbly captured in The Cartel with the Sinaloa plaza of Adán Barrera and his Federación cartel controlling the “choke point” cities of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Lareda and Matamoros in Mexico.

The border between Mexico and the United States spans six Mexican states and four US states, and has more than 20 commercial railroad crossings. Wikimedia Commons

Spatially these are crucial for the highways that link them to the United States: Tijuana borders San Diego and is the main north-south arterial running up to Los Angeles (controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel); Ciudad Juárez borders El Paso and connects to the main east-west arterial to the entire southern United States (operated by the Juárez Cartel); and Nuevo Laredo and Matamoras are twin jewels with Nuevo Laredo linked to its counterpart Laredo, Texas, and the north-south route that runs to Dallas with Matamoros offering access to Houston, New Orleans and Florida (run by the Gulf Cartel and its paramilitary force of Los Zetas).

These respective plazas of the Sinaloa, Juárez and Gulf cartels are described by Winslow in a wonderfully spatially-sensitive account of the drug war as these plazas become connected by “The Fives"—Interstates 5, 25, and 35—as the arterial veins of the Mexican drug trade. They are constitutive parts of the Mexican "trampoline” of the transshipment of drugs into the United States.

Mexican photojournalists hold pictures of murdered colleague Ruben Espinosa during a demonstration in Mexico City, on August 2, 2015. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Irving Cabrera Torres

Bringing the narrative up to 2014 and surveying the rise of the new pax narcotica dominated by the Sinaloa cartel, Winslow relays towards the end of The Cartel the violence wrought against journalists, female social movement activists, and members of the cartels themselves.

One journalist character, Pablo Mora, refers to the limpieza – or cleansing – conducted by factions within the drug war to note that, “This is not a war on drugs. This is a war on the poor”. Equally, the territorial and spatial reorganisation of the plazas is captured by referring to how:

the narcos become little states and the bosses politicians sending other men to war.

The Power of the Dog and The Cartel blend fiction and history with such dexterity to rival the panoramic epic of James Ellroy in his so-called Underworld Trilogy made up of American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009).

As popular crime-thriller novels, Winslow’s diptych is an essential literary source on the spatial expansion and violence of drug war capitalism. His talent is to capture with outstanding perspicacity the fictional lives at the centre of actual traumas that are diffusing across Mexico.

These narratives thereby link the seemingly disparate but ever more connected lived spaces of drug war capitalism.

Today more than ever, the war on drugs is inscribed in space.


Adam David Morton is the author of Revolution and State in Modern Mexico, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2013).