Thanks Don Winslow. (Said with the cadence of ‘Thanks Obama.’) You ruined Sicario for me. Your fantastic, devilishly researched novel The Cartel that James Ellroy called “The War and Peace of dopewar books.” Even before El Chapo escaped jail and the Mexican government scapegoated four policemen, you changed the entire way that I looked at the so-called war on drugs. To paraphrase “I’ve looked at drugs from both sides now,” and by using multiple narratives you made the case that the cartels aren’t something run by Mexican families south of Laredo, but an intricate web of government complicity on both sides of the border where our guys often choose what they consider to be the least of all evil drug lords in a policy that, like the War in Vietnam, has become a lose-lose proposition.
Don — may I call you Don? — by writing a book with multiple narratives, that gives humanity to everyone from the journalists in Juarez to the mistress of the El Chapo of your narrative to a child soldier born in the states and trained to become a sicario of soul-evaporating brutality, as well as American law enforcement, you created a rich and complex narrative. It’s a tale of one border with two very different sides that are as interrelated as brothers, codependent and estranged. Watching Sicario, the movie that stars Emily Blunt as a naive, or as Hollywood says, “idealistic” FBI agent, I kept wondering why she hadn’t read your book — or at least, given the grotesquely violent set pieces she heads into with her Kevlar vest and her eyes open, why she had so little clue about the invasive tentacled tumor that the cartels have become on both sides of the border crossings that they control to Midas-size profits.
For those who read my work, you’ll know that I’m all about the female-driven narrative, but Blunt’s wide-eyed and slightly lip-glossed agent is a false construct. To root for her, and her desire to fight crime by the books, is to sit on the side of American willful ignorance. And that’s not my preferred seat.
What I love about Sicario are the visceral set pieces. But when G-worman Blunt crosses the border in a plane with a mysterious federal agent (a charmingly no-bullshit Josh Brolin) and a twitchy overdressed Latino on special assignment from no branch of the U.S. government that has a payroll (Benicio Del Toro), I missed the complexity of The Cartel. Because his Juarez, not the Mexican drug jungle of the movie, had a culture of books and journalists and community. It was a real place raped and dismembered by the drug trade, a collusion of greed and violence and the American dream for escape through white powder.
The Juarez of Sicario is all backdrop for an American vision. Additionally, thanks to The Cartel, I know that the duality the movie sets up between the good federales and the corrupt local police is bullshit — the federal police are just playing on a different team, because there isn’t just one drug kingpin but many.
Sicario will shock, and Brolin and Del Toro give it grit, Blunt (as always) gives her best but, like Jessica Rabbit, her problem is that she was just drawn that way and can’t escape the sketch. But not only does it come in the wake of The Cartel, and not everybody is reading 600-page books however brilliant these days, but it also follows Netflix’s Narcos, the serial character study of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar that I watched in great gulps until the final downward spiral. And, if you want to read a fantastic female-driven narrative of a legendary female drug chieftain, reach for the riveting Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Telemundo adapted that novel in Spanish in the wildly popular telenovela La Reina Del Sur from Telemundo.
And, Don, I don’t want to leave out the sultry but intensely lonely survivalist drug queen played by Salma Hayek in Oliver Stone’s adaptation of your novel Savages. She certainly deserves her own book — but I know you are busy, busy.
So that is my long answer as to why, while Sicario will shock some audiences (and the lovely man sitting next to me at the Toronto International Film Festival screening), it lacks authenticity. While it has the stinking dismembered bodies to give it street cred, it goes down like warm milk compared to the reality: a world where we Americans, in general, are willfully misunderstanding our co-dependent relationship with our sister to the south. As someone who grew up on the border in San Diego, and has fond memories of family visits to Tijuana and Ensenada, where life seemed so much more vibrant than the suburbs where I lived, this is a narrative I find infinitely affecting.
Like Vietnam, the War on Drugs is unwinnable — but we have to understand what its true nature is — and how many people on both sides of the border have invested their political and law enforcement careers on it. Read the headlines — and learn to read between the headlines. Follow @DonWinslow. Drug kingpin El Chapo escapes his high security prison. The Mexican government arrests four policemen who take the fall. But this is a dance and the drug cartels are paying the band with briefcases of cash. This echoes the refrain of Narcos: do you want silver or do you want lead — bribes or death. In that environment, there is no law. if you were given that choice, what would your response be? A dead with the devil or death? Think on that.