Nanette Donohue | Dad and I share same taste in books

Nanette Donohue | Dad and I share same taste in books


The older I get, the more I realize that my taste in books overlaps with my father's. We both like thrillers, especially ones with creative use of weapons; espionage novels; books about terrorists; and books about drug cartels.

In honor of Father's Day next Sunday, I'm paying tribute to my dad and our shared reading tastes by sharing an epic series about the War on Drugs: Don Winslow's "Cartel" trilogy.

We first meet Art Keller in "The Power of the Dog." A Vietnam vet who worked in intelligence during the war and was recruited by the brand-new DEA in the mid-1970s, Keller arrives in Mexico as the American War on Drugs is ramping up.

In the early days, Keller is shut out by his ineffective boss and strikes out on his own, attempting to cultivate his own relationships with the locals.

At the time of their meeting, first meeting, Adan Barrera is a 19-year-old wannabe boxing promoter managing his cousin, a promising young fighter. Keller wins the trust of Barrera and his family, who use Keller to investigate and arrest their enemies, giving the Barreras control over the nascent Mexican cocaine trade. Keller realizes he's been used, and his personal war on the Barreras begins.

As Keller becomes more enmeshed in his investigation, he engages in unethical and illegal behaviors with the hope of curtailing the violence that has become the hallmark of the cocaine trade.

Illegal surveillance, double-crossing, dirty deals, lies and deception — Keller is fighting the Barreras on their level, in a war that may not be winnable.

"The Power of the Dog" spans almost three decades, including the height of cocaine's popularity, the introduction of crack cocaine, the rise and fall of the Colombian cartels and political unrest in Central America. It's epic in both scope and vision, and it brings the War on Drugs into harrowing, disturbing focus.

Throughout "The Power of the Dog," we meet people involved in every level of the cocaine trade, whether directly or indirectly.

Winslow jumps to New York City, introducing Sean Callan, an Irish kid whose penchant for violence makes him indispensable to the Cimino crime family, then to San Diego, where teenage Nora Hayden is lured into prostitution.

All of these characters are connected, because drug trafficking isn't a problem that is isolated to certain violent pockets of society or to drug addicts or to the law enforcement officers directly involved with the situation. It's widespread and it affects millions of people.

The saga continues in "The Cartel," which picks up in 2004. Adan Barrera is finally in prison, thanks to Keller's dogged pursuit of justice, but Barrera's cartel, El Federacion, continues its operation with little interruption.

Barrera is transferred to Mexico, where his political power grants him a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. But other cartels are rising, and they want a piece of the lucrative market.

While Adan and El Federacion weren't afraid to use violence to threaten, intimidate and eliminate their rivals, these new cartels bring the terror to a new, brutal level, involving innocent bystanders in their violent activities.

As in "The Power of the Dog," Winslow introduces a group of characters who demonstrate how deep the roots of the narcotics trade lie. Much of the novel is set in the border town of Juarez, Mexico, location of some of the most devastating violence.

Colorful characters abound, such as Eddie "Narco Polo" Ruiz, an American whose only loyalty is to money; Pablo Mora, part of a group of Juarez-based journalists determined to tell the truth about the cartels' stranglehold on their city; Chuy Barajos, a 10-year-old boy whose desperate circumstances draw him into the cartels' world of violence and depravity; and Marisol Cisneros, a lifelong Juranese whose unwavering loyalty to the people of her city puts her in constant danger.

The violence is realistic and unsettling, and Winslow pulls no punches in his depictions of cartel brutality. The climactic ending brings the main players together in the Guatemalan jungle, with Keller on an unsanctioned mission that, if successful, could put an end to the violence.

It's the aftermath of the mission that forms the basis of "The Border," the final volume in the trilogy.

Winslow has retired from the DEA and is enjoying civilian life when a powerful government official offers him a position as the head of the DEA — giving him the opportunity to shape the future of drug investigation and enforcement.

"The Border" is unabashedly political — as Keller follows the money and the corruption, he discovers that its reach extends to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Keller's final battle in his personal war on drugs is his boldest yet, and has the potential to cement — or destroy — his legacy.

Winslow brings back characters from earlier books, including Sean Callan and Nora Hayden, and introduces a new group of players, including a Guatemalan refugee fleeing violence and poverty, an undercover narcotics officer with the NYPD whose battle against drug trafficking becomes personal and a third generation of narcos whose young lives have been shaped by wealth, excess and violence. Like the other volumes in the trilogy, it's a masterpiece of crime writing and a panoramic view of the faults and failures of the decades-long War on Drugs.

Keller's final reckoning is astonishing and sobering, reminding the reader that as long as there's a market for drugs, there will always be a drug trade — and that the drug trade affects more than the average American could comprehend.

Nanette Donohue is the technical services manager at the Champaign Public Library.

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