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Life Imitating Art: How Don Winslow’s Fiction Eerily Predicted El Chapo’s Escape

Author Don Winslow talks to Co.Create about how his latest novel, The Cartel, mirrors recent events in Mexico, with a really odd case of timing.

Life Imitating Art: How Don Winslow’s Fiction Eerily Predicted El Chapo’s Escape
[Photo: Przemek Tokar, Shutterstock]

When Don Winslow picked up his newspaper a couple weeks ago and a headline screamed out “Drug Lord Escaped,” the author knew right away to whom it referred. This particular drug lord had already escaped from prison twice before—once in real life, and once again in Winslow’s latest novel, The Cartel, which had been released just a few weeks before.

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“Chapo Guzmán lasted in jail only 17 months this time,” Winslow says. “I knew he’d get out, but it was even quicker than I thought.”

Don WinslowPhoto: Mike Pont, Getty Images

The escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel had the kind of coincidental timing usually only found in movies. (Ridley Scott is attached to direct an adaptation of The Cartel, by the way, and Leonardo DiCaprio is in talks to star.) Winslow’s book, however, is steeped in reality. He’s been researching and writing about a character modeled after Guzmán for 15 years, and this latest escape is totally in keeping with both the character and the real-life circumstances behind him.

The Cartel and its predecessor, The Power of the Dog, together tell the story of DEA agent Art Keller pursuing a drug lord named Adán Barrera over the course of 40 years. In the first book, the resemblance to El Chapo is less pronounced, and the character is featured less prominently. The sequel, however, which was released on June 23rd, centers on Barrera’s escape from prison and subsequent Sinaloa Cartel-like rule over Mexico. It draws from what happened after the real-life Guzmán escaped his first incarceration in 2001 and consolidated his power.

“Initially I got interested because of a mass murder of 19 people south of the border near Tijuana not far from where I live,” Winslow says. “I started to research it and it was a fascinating and in some ways infuriating story.”

It wasn’t the first time fact and fiction had mingled in the author’s work. Previously, he’d written a book called The Winter of Frankie Machine in which the main character, San Diego mob hit man Frankie Machine, is an amalgam used to tell stories of actual crimes committed by real people. This time, Winslow used the device to give history a happier ending.

The conclusion of The Power finds Barrera arrested and subject to the extradition to America that his real-life counterpart managed to avoid. (“I’d love to see Chapo extradited to the United States because if so, it’s game over,” Winslow says of the impenetrable supermax prisons of America.)

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The book occupied five-and-a-half years of its author’s life and Winslow thought he was done with the subject. Recently, however, the situation surrounding Mexican drug cartels spiraled into a level of violence previously unimagined.

“I was reluctant to go back and write the follow up,” he says, “but the more I watched events down in Mexico the more I wanted to try to understand what was going on, the more fascinating a story it was so I ended up writing about it.”

One of the ways the real-life Chapo has been able to retain power while he’s been in Mexican prison is that his enemies— the Gulf Cartel and Tijuana Cartel, most notably—have been extradited to the US. Although fictional counterpart Barrera begins The Cartel in the supermax prison we last saw him in, after miraculously escaping, his actions reflect the reality of Guzmán’s. Through his influence on the Mexico government, Barrera is able to send his enemies far away and elevate his own cartel in the process.

By writing the book, Winslow was able to vent some of his simmering frustrations over the corruption and senseless violence around the drug trade in Mexico. (He also aired out some of his thoughts on America’s War on Drugs this June, taking out a full-page ad in The Washington Post urging Congress to quit fighting its “unwinnable” war on drugs.) History soon validated Winslow’s prophetic fears when El Chapo escaped on July 11th, purportedly through a tunnel. Even though some prison guards have since been charged for helping Guzman escape through the tunnel, Winslow thinks the entire tunnel aspect of the escape is a ruse.

“Everyone is calling this a daring escape but I don’t think it was either daring or an escape, but a paid-for departure,” he says. “When his 2001 escape story was put out, the subterfuge was that prison guards helped him out in a laundry cart. That wasn’t the truth. He paid 2.5 mil and he walked out the door. Either way, that tunnel could not have existed without the cooperation of guards and people in the government. It’s not possible.”

Winslow’s thoughts on the matter are more than a hunch. He’s been at this for 15 years in both a novelistic and journalistic capacity. He’s torn through reams of trial transcripts, court transcripts, depositions, police reports, FBI, DEA, and CIA reports, and even directly reaching out and talking to key figures and bystanders to the story. The breadth of research gives The Cartel a level of realism that makes the timing of the escape feel unsurprising in retrospect.

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“On the macro level, many of the real-life watershed events inform the story,” Winslow says. “On the micro level, it’s a little different. I want realistic details and I pull out as much realism as I possibly can on the small things because I think that means a lot.”

Despite the resemblances, some elements Winslow considered borrowing from Guzman’s life ultimately seemed too over the top to play as fiction.

“Several incidents were so over the top and so violent that I had sort of a double hedge. On the one hand, I wasn’t sure that I believed them, and the second hurdle was even if I did believe it, I wasn’t sure that a reader could even take it in. So I left some of those things out. Sometimes it gets so surreal that you’re just wondering, ‘Am I really looking at what I think I’m looking at?’ And the answer in almost every case is yes.”

With any luck, Guzmán will be caught within the coming months, his reign cut too short to inspire a third volume from Winslow.