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The Border: Don Winslow's epic ending to his 'war on drugs' saga

Epic storytelling: Don Winslow. Photo/Alamy

American crime master Don Winslow delivers a ferocious ending to a trilogy set against the “war on drugs”.

“It’s the dirty secret of the war on drugs – every time an addict sticks a needle into his arm, everyone makes money. We’re all investors.”

Don Winslow doesn’t pull his punches in The Border, a sweeping, masterful tale that caps a trilogy that he’s been writing over the past 20 years. This is a heavyweight novel, tipping the scales at more than 700 pages. Unlike some sizeable thrillers that may be epic in page count but diluted in power, The Border hits extremely hard the whole way through with its scope, storytelling and substance. It’s a harrowing story that bristles with anger as Winslow delivers a kaleidoscopic look at the realities and injustices of the so-called war on drugs.

Veteran Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Art Keller has battled Mexican drug cartels on the front lines for four decades. He’s witnessed, suffered and dished out horrifying violence. He’s fought monsters and gazed into the abyss, perhaps for too long. With his old nemesis, Adán Barrera, head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, now missing and probably dead, Keller has been called in to lead the DEA as it fights the deadly flood of heroin coming across the US border. But is Mexico really the heart of the problem? Does the border even matter when addiction and corruption lie within?

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Although Keller is a central character, The Border is really more of an ensemble tale, as we follow a diverse array of characters whose stories illustrate various aspects of the ongoing drug crisis. Guatemalan children gamble with their lives to flee gang violence and hop trains north. Cartel splinter groups unleash bloodbaths in bids to grab Barrera’s throne. Wall Street financiers play “see no evil” as drug profits are washed through big-money property deals. Cops risk their reputations and lives going undercover. Waitresses shoot up in dirty vans. Journalists are silenced. Judges imprison 10-year-olds as threats to the country. Politicians spout platitudes, rile up the electorate and feign morality in their craven pursuit of money and power.

“Do you seriously believe anyone really wants to win this war?” a conservative senator privately asks Keller at one point. “You can’t be that naive – tens of billions of dollars a year in law enforcement, equipment, prisons … it’s business. The war on drugs is big business.”

The Border feels horrifyingly true to life, like a lightly varnished documentary where some names have been changed. It takes us into the darkest corners of the failed war over a multi-billion-dollar industry where many people (not just the obvious culprits) make money and gain power from the suffering of millions of others. This is epic storytelling, brave and ferocious. It’s crime writing at its best, and one of the reads of the year in any genre.

THE BORDER, by Don Winslow (HarperCollins, $36.99)

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.