Even though he only planned to write one book about DEA agent Art Keller and the myriad of players in the drug wars, Don Winslow returns to the battlefield for a third time in The Border. Now Art takes a job a head of the agency when the body of his nemesis, Adan Barrera is discovered. However, there are both old and new enemies out there and many come in the form of his allies.
In many ways it’s déjà vu all over again. Art finds himself with the heroin epidemic as when he started out in the seventies in The Power of the Dog. One of Barrera’s last actions was switching to the crop. As in real life it is the result of two things, marijuana legalization killing cartel profits from that crop and big pharma getting people hooked on opioids where they can move in and undercut the market.
After reconnecting with and marrying his love Marisol, a doctor turned mayor who survived five bullets from a cartel assassination attempt in Winslow’s The Cartel, Keller takes the director job in hopes of doing it right and seeking redemption. There is also the fact he knows of nothing else. There is a feeling of responsibility he has for the current wars in Mexico with the cartels muscling into the vacuum Barerra’s death created. As it says—He killed the wolf, now all the coyotes are out.
Art’s main thrust is to go after the money that finances and gets laundered from the cartels. He puts his eyes on a bank believed to do this with New York real estate, involved with in a deal with Jason Learner, the owner of a high rise that’s underwater. As luck would have it (good or bad, it’s hard to say), Learner is the son-in-law of a presidential candidate who has been attacking Keller on twitter. If you are a fan of our current president, you may be angry with this book. Even his name, John Dennison, has a connection to Trump. When Dennison is elected it creates a ticking clock with Keller having to make a major bust before he is fired.
Like Elliot Ness, he organizes a small trusted team for the job. His right hand man is Hugo Hidalgo, son of Ernie, who his partner Barerra tortured and killed, sparking the feud. He works with Mullens, the New York Police chief who recruits top undercover man Cirello to pose as a dirty cop the Cartels can buy and the chief as well. Many of the Cirello parts echo The Force, Winslow’s previous book.
The operation leads into and touches on a vast number of players both old and new. We follow the life of a junkie Cirello busts so he can get cozy with a New York mobster setting up a deal with Learner, brokered by American Cartel member Eddie Ruiz, a.k.a. Narco Polo, from The Cartel. We also follow others, including a ten year old Guatemalan boy who takes a dangerous trek to the U.S. to avoid the gangs running his slum.
In Mexico, Barrera’s surviving family go to war with the other cartels. They don’t have the skills from building an empire like their predecessors, but have bravado to burn. They are influenced by the pop culture and legends of their ancestors as much as the actual history. The war also pulls in two favorite characters from The Power of the Dog.
Winslow enlarges what was already a a big canvass from the previous books. While over seven hundred pages with a dozen major characters, it is never unwieldy. Each plot line moves into another without contrivance. His poet’s sense of concise word choice allows him to depict person, place, or situation fully in such a sprawling book without tampering with the forward momentum.
Whether intended as a trilogy or not, The Border proves to be the perfect conclusion to this dark epic. Winslow takes the cartel wars and our war on the cartels, dragging it to the U.S. doorstep where it belongs. He offers little hope since he argues that many of the players, especially the ones in Washington, don’t want it to end.