Don Winslow’s War

Don Winslow in the Anza-Borrego Desert — what he calls "the big nowhere."
Don Winslow in the Anza-Borrego Desert — what he calls "the big nowhere."Photograph by Jake Stangel

Don Winslow is out in the California desert, 30 miles north of the Mexican border, gunning his dusty Mustang with the A/C busted into the heat of what he calls “the big nowhere”: no other cars on the road but his, surrounded by 650,000 acres of little but cactus, creosote bush, ocotillo, and a beating-down sun in a swizzled blue sky.

“I mean, if this isn’t abandoned country,” he says, “I don’t know what is.”

More gas, more speed, going deeper into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

This is his kind of place. He likes it out here. Often he’ll pull over and start canyon running among the boulders, going for a couple of miles, working up a good sweat and clearing his head. Or else he’ll just drive. “I’ve been places I’ve thought I shouldn’t have been,” he says, “like ranches way the fuck out, with tin cans tied to wire to make noise if people come through.” Bad stuff happens in places like these. Cresting a bluff, he slows and points to a road down below. “That’s the road that leads to Mexico,” he says. “It’s a major smuggling route.” At another point, the desert gives way to a sprawling oasis of a resort called La Casa del Zorro, which is impressive in a swinging, Vegas-in-the-’50s kind of way. “The Tijuana cartel wives used to come here,” he says. “But, I mean, couldn’t you see some old mob guy here, too, if he wanted to get lost, just on the edge of the big nowhere?”

Winslow writes hard-boiled, pulpy, neo-noir crime fiction in which bad guys, drugs, and death always play a part, so these kinds of thoughts are always on his mind. His most famous book is Savages, a 2010 bestseller about a groovy-loopy pair of drug dealers that was made into a semigood Oliver Stone movie, starring Blake Lively. If you’re a surfer, you probably also know him for 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, about a surfing hit man, or 2008’s The Dawn Patrol, about a surfing private investigator.


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And if you’re a cop in San Diego, say, you most likely know him for 2005’s The Power of the Dog, a massive novel that takes on the history of the murderous Mexican drug cartels, 1975 to 2004, and has been used by members of the SDPD as a kind of textbook, since much of what Winslow writes about is taken from actual events. It’s got it all: Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra affair, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the excruciating torture and murder of a DEA agent, the assassination of a senior Catholic clergyman, the stupidity of NAFTA, the criminal consequences of the U.S.’s War on Drugs, along with a variety of Mafia capos, Irish hit men, Marxist terrorists, ruthless street urchins, high-IQ hookers, and an astonishing, unsettling amount of violence, some of it made up, much of it, quite sadly, based on fact. It took Winslow more than five years to research and write The Power of the Dog. And another five years to write the sequel, out this month, covering 2004 to 2014, called The Cartel. It’s more of the Grand Guignol same. Much, much, much more.

“He’s a master of the dope-war novel,” says James Ellroy, a hero of Winslow’s and father of the ambitious, maximalist SoCal noir novel. (One of Ellroy’s books, as it happens, is called The Big Nowhere.) “You get all these bloodcurdling motherfuckers on both sides of the law. He’s the dope-war man. In fact, I think he’s the dope-war king.”

“In a lot of ways, I didn’t want to write the new one,” Winslow is saying now. “When I finished Dog, I was depressed and bummed out. I’d spent years living in that world. It was a little tour of hell each day. So you finish writing the story — people tossing kids off bridges and shit like that, which was all true — and you think you’ve written the worst of the worst.” He shakes his head. “Hadn’t touched the surface. Used to be, the cartel seemed ashamed of its crimes and tried to hide them. But it’s a different breed of cat now. And this cat puts it out on Twitter.” Which in part is why he wrote The Cartel — to bear witness to the horrific new levels of violence and, once again, as he did in Dog, to demonstrate how U.S. drug policies are mostly to blame.

The temperature is rising inside the Mustang, but Winslow doesn’t seem to notice or care. It’s not like it is in the summer, when if you run out of gas, you’re as good as dead. He drives into the flyspeck town of Borrego Springs, notable mainly for a huge traffic circle bizarrely festooned with Christmas decorations all year long, as well as a dive bar named Carlee’s. Inside the bar, Winslow takes a stool and orders a Coke. He stopped drinking some 30 years ago, but he’s still a fan of bars. Plus, he’s working on a new book and is thinking of setting a scene in Carlee’s. “What I want is a dirty cop, on the run, trying to figure out his fucking life, and he meets his lawyer in here to see what can be done.” So, in part, this trip has been research. He’ll probably name the bar in the book, too.

Winslow is big on bringing the real world into his fictional worlds. For certain ugly scenes in The Cartel, he’d prop photographs up next to his computer, peer into them, at what terrible things man can do to man, and work to find the words for what he saw. Or he’d look at videos. Then, at the end of the day, he’d shut the door to his home office and go see Jean, his wife of 30 years, and try to forget what he’d just been writing about.
“Look at me,” Winslow is saying a few days later. “Do I look like a tough guy?”

Not especially. He is pint-size and both sparse of hair and slight of build. But at the age of 61, he’s still running those boulder-chunked trails in the desert, miles at a time. Plus, one of the most important things to know about Winslow is that he used to be a private detective, so no doubt he is well-versed in the ways of saying one thing to maybe conceal another.

He’s at his home, a modest, one-story affair in the hamlet of Julian, California, a former mining town not far from Anza-Borrego and about an hour inland from San Diego. Winslow’s daily routine is to get up at 5, be at his keyboard shortly thereafter, work on one book until 10:30 or so, go for a five- or six-mile hike (or go surfing if he’s at his other home, near the coast, in Solana Beach), work on another book for several more hours. He does this six days a week. On Sundays, he takes the day to read, but he doesn’t consider it a day off, so it’s best not to call him then.

His office is exceptionally neat and has family photos on the desk (he has one son, 25-year-old Thomas, now a consultant in Washington, D.C.), framed book reviews on the wall (Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, on Savages: “. . . startling . . . stylish . . . mega-cool”), mementos from travels scattered about, an alto sax on the floor (“I thought I needed to do something that had nothing to do with words, because by the end of the day, I’m sick of them”), and bookshelves all filled up. From the look of things, he’s a huge fan of all the greats of his genre: Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Raymond Chandler, and John D. MacDonald, along with unclassifiables like Jim Harrison and William Shakespeare (“I find myself going back to Henry IV parts one and two. So great, so human, and really writing about the underclass”), and he has them all grouped together just so. In the nonfiction category, on lower shelves, is a bunch of source material for Dog and The Cartel, books like El Narco, Narcoland, and El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man.

(Winslow led safaris in Kenya before writing his first novel. Photograph Courtesy Don Winslow)

The images in some of these books — burned-up, chopped-up human beings — are horrific. At various times, his computer is loaded with awful videos, too, but once they’re no longer needed, he gets rid of them as fast as he can. Before starting to write The Cartel, he spent several months with his books and videos, along with various narco-related blogs and online newspapers, obsessively “creating a chronology of the drug wars, to the extent that for every day, I could find something significant that happened.” Meaning that a gazillion deaths fill the pages of The Cartel — so many that the publisher (thankfully) convinced him to excise a few. “I don’t think Americans know the sheer level of violence and chaos that the War on Drugs has touched off, so I try to make the point by sheer repetition.” In a way, Winslow wrote both The Power of the Dog and The Cartel as a way to explain to himself, and to readers, the nature and causes of violence. “What precipitated Dog,” he says, “was reading about 19 people slaughtered in the village of Rosarito, which is a place my wife and kid used to go to on weekends. I couldn’t figure out why that had happened. So I started reading.” His basic feeling is that Mexico isn’t causing the drug problem, along with the associated beheadings and disembowelments — it’s all the users in the U.S., with their constant craving for heroin, coke, crack, and weed. Personally, he’d legalize, or at least decriminalize, all drugs, to reduce the profit motive. In the meantime, he reserves special scorn for snooty, ganja-loving hipsters.

“Twenty-somethings now?” he says. “God forbid they should buy anything but fair-trade coffee, or locally grown pork, or whatever the fuck. And yet they’ll think nothing of buying marijuana that has blood all over it — Central Americans kidnapped, made into slave labor, raped, murdered, put out to prostitution, just so little Johnny in Dubuque can have his marijuana. It pisses me off beyond belief.” He’s on a roll and can’t stop. “Socially conscious people? They’ll boycott foie gras, right? Because we’re torturing a duck, right? How dare that restaurant serve evil foie gras? Well, fuck your duck. They should be boycotting marijuana!”

He takes a deep breath. “Sorry,” he says. “I get a little passionate about this subject.”

One afternoon, Winslow has to make a call. Among the first things he says is, “You should absolutely not sign anything, and my preference would be if when you guys exchange information about this, you do it over the phone and no email, OK? Just to be on the safe side.”

It develops that for the past eight years, his niece has been involved in a brutality suit against the North Providence, Rhode Island, police department. During a protest over low wages at a local restaurant, a cop shattered her leg to the point that she nearly lost it. Since then, Winslow has been offering advice. A $455,000 settlement offer is on the table. “I think it’s within the range,” he says after the call ends. If he had his way, however, he’d try to wrangle “another couple of hundred K” out of the opposition. “I’d threaten to get everybody and anybody deposed. The chief. The officers. Their wives and children. That’s the way you do it. I’d be saying, ‘Every document that ever came through the North Providence police department, I’m subpoenaing today.’ Yeah, they’d scratch a check.”

Winslow spent most of his childhood in Perryville, a small town near the Rhode Island coast, where at night, his father, a career Navy man, would tell stories about storming Guadalcanal in World War II. His mother, who worked at the public library, came from New Orleans, where her mother was associated with Carlos Marcello, the mobster who may have arranged Kennedy’s assassination. These were his early influences.

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After high school, Winslow headed to the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln, to study journalism, but wound up with a degree in African studies. This got him overseas for the first time, to study in South Africa “during the battle days of apartheid.” After that, he returned to Lincoln, where he earned another degree, in military history. While in college, he had an idea to teach history by putting on plays by Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and David Rabe, and received a grant from the Ford Foundation to do so.

More than anything, however, Winslow wanted to be a writer, a dream that took root when he was seven years old and his pal Joey Palumbo paid him a quarter to write a backyard play to stage. By the time he was in his twenties, he was hooked on reading crime fiction. “Not only were the subjects fascinating,” he says, “but the writing was so wonderful, poetry really.” He can still recite the opening line of Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89: “A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, ‘Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody,’ ” Winslow says. “I mean, that’s a great first line. I admired those writers and what they were doing and wondered if I could maybe do that, too.”

So, in the late ’70s, he moved to New York City, as all serious budding writers must. Needing a job, he skipped a position at the fabled Strand bookstore in favor of $15 more a month as an assistant manager at a movie theater not far from seedy, blinking-neon Times Square. Part of his job was to troll the streets, wearing a wire, looking for dope dealers to buy from — not so cops could come bust the guy but so his employer could chuck the guy out of his theater if he ever saw him inside. On occasion, he would snort cocaine in front of the sellers to lower suspicions, an experience, he says, that left him with the feeling that “I like coffee better.”

“My predecessor at the theater was shot to death in a robbery,” he goes on. “It was just bananas all the time. The business was being ruined by drug dealers, hookers, pimps, muggers, and pickpockets.” One of his favorite duties was to roust the pickpockets. (“It’s a job I would do again tomorrow. It was like playing 3-D chess in the dark!”) This led to his becoming a P.I., employed mostly by defense attorneys in New York and, later on, in California, where he worked arson and missing-person cases.

He also did a bit of “dark work” and explains it thusly, in a clipped tone: “Generally speaking, it encompasses espionage, I suppose. But we’re not going to talk about it.” And sometimes he hooked up with the State Department and explains that one as follows, also clippedly: “I was a practice terrorist, doing hostage-taking simulations, and that’s as far as this conversation is going.”

Never one to slack off or sit still, he sometimes flew to Kenya to lead photographic safaris, at the behest of a college buddy who owned the safari company. He also landed a job at Oxford University directing high school students in Shakespeare plays. One day, the professor who ran the program said to him, “You always talk about writing a book, but you never do it. Why don’t you do it?” And from then on, starting in 1988, regardless of where he was or what he was doing, he wrote — “five pages a day, no matter what. Planes, trains, tents, apartments, squatting in the bamboo chasing some panda around . . . awful, awful.” The book that came out of this effort, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, about a grad student who works for a private eye, was rejected by 14 publishers, including Knopf, his current imprint. This was in 1991. Sixteen other books have followed, many of them set in the ritzier areas around coastal Laguna Beach, California, with the criminals in them being charming in certain criminally charming ways. Dog and The Cartel are the only ones that are unremittingly dark.

Oh, and once, back in his P.I. days, he was suspended from a law firm for allegedly fabricating evidence and roughing up a witness. “I didn’t, by the way, fabricate evidence,” he says.

How about roughing up a witness?

Levelly, he says, “I put a brotherly hand on his shoulder and encouraged him to tell the truth. I mean, come on, who am I going to rough up?” — which isn’t, of course, any kind of denial at all. Then again, he was cleared — and hired again by the same law firm.

Winslow is a peculiar mix of a guy. It’s no problem for him to crawl into a bullet-resistant Border Patrol vehicle at the San Ysidro crossing, in order to avoid the cartel snipers who are supposedly hiding in apartment buildings across the border. But he was once at a bookstore event with Lawrence Block and Elmore Leonard, two of his heroes, and couldn’t bring himself to speak a word to either of them — he’s that shy. On the one hand, he will say, “I’m not a violent guy at all. I don’t like violence. It’s scary, and it makes me sick.” And on the other: “I almost attacked a guy here the other day. He was driving through this parking lot at 50 miles per hour, and there’s these little kids all around. I mean, if he gets out of that car, it’s a problem.” He can go a week without seeing another soul besides Jean and be perfectly happy.

And yet his civic zeal knows no bounds. During the devastating California wildfires of 2003 and 2007, he helped run Julian’s relief centers and oversaw delivery of 10,000 bottles of water a day for the town’s citizens. “I finished writing Power of the Dog while sitting on pallets of water in town hall, which may have had a subliminal effect on its bleak landscape,” he says. “Everything around you was black. We’d become a Third World country. People wandering Main Street with their shoes burned out and in shock.”

He might claim to be no people person, but he loves his town and the characters in it — like the local piemaker, “who is so OCD that she will not let left-handers bake pies because the thumbprints in the crust will go in the wrong direction.” And the couple in their eighties who stayed at his house after the 2007 fires and talked so much about loving France that once a week, Winslow would dress up as a French waiter and serve them a French dinner. More recently he has adapted Shakespeare’s plays for local students and is working to restore a theater for them — work he considers at least as important as his own.

Once, his screenwriting partner, career adviser, and best friend, Shane Salerno, called him and said, “Listen, we’ve got to get this thing to DiCaprio tomorrow!” Winslow told him, “I don’t think it’ll be tomorrow. I’ve got this play, and the kids are really counting on me.” Salerno said, “Listen, man, you’re writing a movie for Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros., and we’ve got to do this.” Winslow said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it in the next couple of days.” And so that’s how it went.

Says Salerno: “He’s just cut from a different cloth. At one point, after he’d published 13 books, he said he was still struggling financially and thought maybe he’d go back to work as a P.I. or a safari guide. I was like, ‘This doesn’t make sense. This guy should not be struggling.’ So he discharged his very-well-known agent and put his life in my hands — I’d never done anything like this before — and within two years, he was making 18 times what he’d made before, well into the seven figures. He is the ultimate protector of other people, but he doesn’t always look out for himself in the same way.”

He leaves his house, walks past his aging Mustang with the busted A/C, up his dirt road, across one street, and into a restaurant. To get the goods for his books, Winslow has met with (and sometimes befriended) DEA and FBI agents, Border Patrol officers (“The most chronically depressed people I’ve ever seen”), internal affairs officers, street cops, and former CIA agents, along with burglars, robbers, gangbangers, and low-level cartel types. It’s another reason that his work so often rings true. His attention to detail tends toward the obsessive. While surfing, he has intentionally gotten himself rolled by big waves, filming it with a GoPro camera, so he could describe that experience accurately. While writing California Fire and Life, about an arson investigation, “I used to try to set stuff on fire to make sure that it would or wouldn’t ignite — days that my son truly enjoyed.”

(In London in the 1980s, when he directed Shakespeare plays at Oxford. Photograph Courtesy Don Winslow)

“I call him a method writer,” says Salerno. “He immerses himself in the way that a method actor like a Hoffman or a Pacino would. I mean, he’ll put himself through a grinder.” Today he’s having lunch with a square-jawed cop from the San Diego area. The guy’s a higher-up in the department, has decades of experience, and has seen some things. They talk about drugs for a while. Winslow wants to know what’s new.

“San Diego County used to be the meth capital of the world, but the bottom dropped out of the market,” the cop says. “Five years ago, a pound of meth cost $10,000. Now it’s down to $800, and it’s all being made in Mexico.”

Winslow nods. He says that Julian used to have its share of meth labs, but they’ve all disappeared, along with the tweakers who depended on them. “I got to tell you, it’s kind of a relief,” he says. “Tweakers drive me out of my mind.”

“I’ll take someone on heroin any day,” the cop says. “Tweakers suck.”

Then Winslow moves on to police corruption. “Let’s take the scenario of the cop who lets a mid- or high-level cartel guy walk for $100,000,” he says. “Let’s say you bust him, and you’re sitting across the table from him. What goes on in your head?”

The cop is nodding. “Twenty-five years ago, I would have said, ‘What an asshole.’ Now it’s, ‘Dude, I get what you were thinking. But, sorry, you’re done.’ I mean, what’s the big deal? It’s just one guy. We’re not going to win the War on Drugs. Who gives a shit? But, see, the reason that won’t happen to me is, I don’t want to go to prison. I’m terrified of going to prison. And even if you don’t bust him, what happens if the cartel guy thinks he owns the cop and says, ‘You’re not done working for us’?”

“What I don’t understand about that,” Winslow says, “is why the cop doesn’t say to the guy, ‘Fuck you and die. You don’t have any proof, and if you do have proof, you’ll be in prison before I am.’ ”

The cop takes a long moment. “I guess what comes to mind is all those videos I’ve seen of guys lined up with their heads cut off. Everybody in law enforcement knows how savage those guys can be. I could envision a scenario where a cop takes drug money.

I mean, what’s the moral problem with that? This is dope money that’s otherwise going to be turned over to a corrupt system. What’s the moral issue with holding some back? I’m not sure there is one.”

Winslow doesn’t take notes — he has a prodigious memory — but he still jots a few words down on a pad, in part to let the cop know he’s listening. What the cop has been saying makes perfect sense to him. One of the great things about his books and his thinking is that there are no moral or ethical absolutes. Could you say that the cop here today is less than perfect in his heart if not in his actions? You could, but that would ignore the lesser-evil reality of the circumstances in which the cop lives. There are no easy choices, and if the prospect of getting caught is the only thing that keeps you from stepping over the line, then that’s good enough.

Later, Winslow is back in his office, sitting near his computer monitor.

“I think that crime fiction cuts to the heart of things faster than other forms,” he says. “You get to the extreme of human behavior, both good and bad. You get more than 50 shades of gray. I think it’s very similar to a wave: You see one thing on the surface, but there’s always something under the surface that’s driving what you see — and it could have originated far away and long ago.”

Would he mind showing an example of the kind of videos he consulted when writing The Cartel?

He doesn’t look happy. It seems that he would mind. Even so, he types in a few words, clicks a few buttons, and then on the screen appear four Mexican peasant women in a field, on their knees in the dirt, hands tied. Three of them are stripped naked to the waist. Thirteen masked Zeta cartel soldiers with rifles stand behind them. A man is barking questions at the women, who are all connected to a rival cartel and one of whom is apparently the infamous La Guera Loca — the Crazy Blonde — who once beheaded a Zeta and peeled off his face with a box cutter.

(Winslow in his home office. He writes more than five hours a day, six days a week. Photograph by Jake Stangel)

“There’s a problem with writing about this sort of thing,” Winslow says, “and there’s a problem with watching this sort of thing. Where do you cross the line into the pornography of violence? I think it’s important to convey a reality that is far beyond most people’s comprehension, but at what point do you cross the line into some sort of sick titillation? And become exploitative of those real women on that video? There’s also a fine line to walk in terms of research, which is why I’m resenting this a little bit” — he nods at the screen — “because at what point do you have enough? How many of these do you need to watch before you know what happens, and if you watch more of them than that, why are you watching it?”

Has this had an effect on him?

“Well, I think, sure,” he says. “I’ve covered this fucking thing from the 1970s to the present. So there is a desensitizing factor to it. First time you see one of these things, it’s horrific. The 30th time, it’s not.”

He stops talking and looks at the screen. It is not, in fact, his 30th time — more like his 100th time.

So is this affecting him right now?

“A little bit,” he says.

And then, quick as that, he jerks to his feet, saying, “Have a ball, pal,” and turns to walk away.

So, let’s not do this if it’s that painful.

“It’s not that painful,” he says, puffing up a little. But then: “Well, listen, of course it’s painful. Look at it. But there’s no story here about the psychological ramifications on me about this. We can watch it. I can show you others if you want. But my reaction to it isn’t important. It’s the reality of it. It’s the suffering of these people. It’s not some writer sitting in his nice little place in California, looking at it. Who cares?”

The Zetas push the women to the ground and trade rifles for machetes, a knife, and an ax, and shortly the hacking-up slaughter will begin.

“Happy now?” Winslow says.

No, not happy, no. But sitting here in this nice little California place, it does somewhat suggest what writing about crimes like these might do to a crime writer. In The Cartel, for example, Winslow writes about a journalist whose life is destroyed by reporting about Nuevo Laredo’s deterioration into a full-blown war zone. It happens.

As for himself, Winslow is incredulous. “What crime does to crime writers?” he asks. “That boat sailed a long time ago. This is not the first death I’ve seen. Not the first corpses I’ve spent time with. I mean, I knew I needed to get out of P.I. work when I found myself eating a ham sandwich while looking at autopsy photos of a woman who had been burned to death.”

Then why did he get so worked up?

He stammers for a brief moment, then says, quite calmly, “Did I get so worked up?”

And that’s it right there. There are no absolutes when it comes to what crime writing might do to a crime writer like Winslow. He’d like to say it’s just made him jaded, desensitized, beyond feeling. But quite clearly it’s more complicated than that. “I mean, sure,” he says, “if you spend the majority of your days looking at mutilated autopsy photos, following the careers of hit men who started when they were 12 years old, murdered women and children by the score, and endless bad things — I don’t want to overdramatize this, but, yeah, your days aren’t exactly full of chuckles.” It’s like something else, he says: “I have an expression: A gun makes all things new again.” Or like when you’re driving deep into the Anza-Borrego and suddenly see tin cans rattling on a wire. Someone’s been alerted. And no one knows, but that they could soon be coming for you.

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