My piece in today’s LA Progressive.
The writer and activist KJ Noh recently sent me a link to a new program launched by DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Narrative Networks, in the words of our Defense warriors, purports to discover “how narratives influence human cognition and behavior and apply those findings in international security contexts.”
As a writer of fiction as well as a sometime journalist, I don’t need a research project to validate my belief that a well-told story engages both heart and mind, affects attitudes, and embeds itself in memory the way, I regret, journalism too often does not. As for advocacy journalism, we’re often addressing people who already agree with us, but a good novel can reach and influence readers who have never before stopped to think about the issues we try so hard to bring to public awareness.
Consider this Amazon review of Don Winslow’s 2005 bestseller, The Power of the Dog. “This is not a subject of much interest to me, but… [h]is characters are fully believable and spring off the page with great force and achieve a totally convincing documentary-like reality that grips you from start to finish. Believe me it’s tough to put down for a moment the characters are so mesmerizing.”
Winslow’s subject is our misbegotten War on Drugs and the damage it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the first Bush president) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels.
I’ve written articles on the subject year after year and I can yak your head off about US policy–and all my well-intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Winslow offers the same disturbing information but in a form that makes your pulse race.
So rather than write one more article about Mexico or Colombia, I want to talk about three works of fiction, The Power of the Dog; Winslow’s new follow-up novel, The Cartel; and Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, (available for preorder now; officially published on Oct 13), in which a privileged young woman comes of age during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war.
At the center of both exhaustively researched Winslow novels is DEA agent Art Keller, trying to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of the ruthless Barrera family, causing a massacre, and bringing about the abduction, horrific torture and murder of Ernie Hidalgo, a fellow DEA agent. Keller has had blood on his hands before. Serving in Vietnam, in Operation Phoenix, he put names on lists knowing that the people he named would be assassinated. In Mexico, he will have to decide if he’s willing to become, himself, an assassin.
In The Power of the Dog, I was particularly gripped by Ernie Hidalgo’s fate at the hands of traffickers (with the complicity of representatives of the Mexican and, apparently, US governments), a fictionalized version of the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.
Years ago, I briefly crossed paths with Camarena’s widow. She wanted his true story told, outraged by the Mexican government cover up. The whole story has yet to be revealed but in the last few years former agents and at least one cocaine pilot have come forward to claim that the US government and CIA were complicit in Camarena’s horrific death. Why? To discover a leak in the trafficking organization and to find out how much Camarena knew about the Reagan White House scheme by which the CIA trafficked drugs to finance the provision of arms to the rightwing Contras in Nicaragua.
The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off but offers no further revelations about “Hidalgo’s” death. Winslow goes off in another direction. He stopped my heart starting with the two dedication pages, name after name in small print. I counted them. 131 in all. Followed by this note:
Journalists murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period
covered in this novel. There were others.
Journalists are among the most vivid characters of the book.
The Cartel isn’t as fast-paced and easy to follow as The Power of the Dog, and it certainly is not for the squeamish, but it may do better than any news report to explain what fueled the bloodshed and what this meant to cities, towns, and the vast majority of Mexican people. From Juárez to Tamaulipas to Veracruz and Michoacán, rival crime organizations battle for control of territory, border crossings and shipping routes while making and breaking alliances with each other and with police, military, and two government agencies at the highest levels in both Mexico and the US including the White House and Los Pinos, its Mexican counterpart.
In both novels, Winslow underscores US responsibility: Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking wouldn’t have developed without the insatiable demand in the US for the product; NAFTA eased the passage of cocaine; weapons and training provided by the US under the Mérida Initiative are easily transferred from corrupt institutions to the cartels. Winslow writes about the Zetas, psychopathic cartel killers and the Kaibiles, perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide against the Maya, both elite fighting forces originally trained and equipped by–you guessed it–the US.
The climactic event occurs with a US-sponsored (through a private contractor) attack on the traffickers’ drug stronghold in the Petén rainforest of Guatemala. In the novel, the traffickers have taken over the village of Dos Erres. But Dos Erres is where, in 1982, Guatemalan military forces carried out an infamous massacre of the indigenous population. At first I thought this was another of the novels’ regrettable errors–like referring to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a Guatemalan rather than Salvadorean, or citing the old name of Ciudad Juárez as Paseo–when it should be Paso–del Norte. (Where was the copyeditor?!?!) Turns out Winslow knew all about Dos Erres and chose it for his fictional raid in order to work the history of the massacre into his novel.
Where this sprawling, often horribly brutal work of fiction stands out for me is in its portrayal of the people of Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley. Even before the drug war massacres, beheadings, and mutilations, to North Americans the city across the river from El Paso was synonymous with debauchery and sin. When US states tried to limit divorce, Americans got “quickie divorces” across the border. When divorce laws in the US were liberalized, Juárez was still the place to go for bars and brothels. When the maquiladora factories set up on the Mexican side of the border with jobs attracting thousands of young women, “Juárez” became synonymous with the femicidio–the abduction and killing of young women.
But Winslow writes about the city and surrounding rural areas not just with respect, but with love. The war for the soul of Juárez is horrific not just because of the daily atrocities but because as seen through the eyes of Winslow’s characters, the city is worth living for and dying for: a place of beautiful plazas, a lively cultural and intellectual life, civilians of almost unfathomable courage. These women of Juárez may risk their lives and may die but they never die as the anonymous victims of the femicidio: 19-year-old Erika becomes the police chief (and sole cop) in Valverde after the men have been killed or have fled; Dr. Marisol, Art Keller’s lover, continues to treat her patients and becomes Valverde’s mayor when there’s no one else willing to fill the seat. There’s Jimena, the baker and community leader, and Ana, the journalist whose unshakeable integrity shames her colleague Pablo Mora. He broods over his moral exhaustion:
You start by being idealistic, morally strong if you will, but then the rock of your moral strength is eroded,
bit by bit, until you’re well, exhausted, and you do things that you never thought you would. Or you do things
that you always feared you would…
The novels excel not only in twists and turns and betrayals and corruption, but also in moral ambiguity. In The Power of the Dog, the elite hooker Nora becomes Adán Barrera’s mistress but truly loves (platonically) a cartel-compromised priest, and I found myself rooting for the Irish American hit man from New York’s Hells Kitchen. In The Cartel, Chuy is a depraved killer, but we also get to know him as a victimized child who was taken in by the Zetas and forced to commit unimaginable acts from the age of eleven. Crazy Eddie Ruiz (who prefers to be known as Narco Polo) thinks of himself as the good trafficker as he alone refuses to kill women and children.
If the spine of The Cartel is the enmity between Keller and his former close friend Adán Barrera–Keller comes out of retirement to hunt Barrera down while at the same time Barrera has put a multimillion-dollar bounty on Keller’s head–it’s the portrayals of dozens of characters in the supporting cast that make the novel so memorable.
There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life.
Mercedes, mysteriously abandoned by her North American Jewish mother, grows up with her adored father, Diego, amid thousands of acres of sugar cane, coffee on the steep hillsides, alpacas and horses on the warm valley slopes and hacienda workers who call her princesa. She expects this life to go on forever and takes for granted the armed bodyguard/driver who escorts her every day from the countryside to school in the city of Cali.
At age 15, Mercedes is exposed to bus hijackings and the desperation of men, women and children driven from their land by violence, but her main preoccupation is finding a boyfriend. She has the perspective you’d expect of someone of her social class who would also get her views from the conservative mainstream media. Realistically, she assumes that all the atrocities she hears about are the work of the guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN. (Similarly, later, when she tries to connect with her mother in Israel, her perspective is again partial, informed by her fear of terrorism and her affair with a special operations officer in the IDF.)
The retrospective narration allows Blakeslee to acknowledge the violence wreaked by the government and the Army’s allies in the rightwing paramilitaries forces. And the man Mercedes thinks of as Uncle Charlie, her father’s associate, is none other than the real life Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, the rightwing paramilitary organization which was financed in part by drug trafficking and notorious for brutal murders and the massacres of thousands of civilians.
A more conventional author would have had Mercedes fall in love with a charismatic guerrilla. Instead, she becomes involved with a Catholic youth group that advocates and demonstrates in favor of peace and negotiations. Her friend Ana, a youth group member, prays for everyone. “Even the drug traffickers, the paras, the guerrillas?” Mercedes asks. Ana answers, “God lives in everyone, even the worst.” (Or, one might suggest, even the best make deals with the Devil.)
Through Ana and the youth group, Mercedes meets and falls for Manuel, a guitar-playing carpenter, six years her senior. The lovers meet secretly. But is Manuel interested in her only to uncover the dirt about her father’s past as a drug trafficker and his links to rightwing violence? Does her father’s disapproval put Manuel in danger?
As the novel goes on, with revelation following questionable revelation, nothing and no one can be trusted.
If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.
So what is the agenda of Narrative Networks? According to the DARPA website,
The program aims to address the factors that contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and
terrorism among foreign populations, and to support conflict prevention and resolution, effective communication and innovative
Conflict resolution? Treatment for PTSD? Sounds good, but only, I guess, if you still believe Defense means defense. That bit about “effective communication”? Surely the Pentagon isn’t interested the way the novelists are in complexity and ambiguity. The Pentagon wants narratives that get results. The project, Noh believes, is aimed at learning how to weaponize stories.
But fiction writers were there first. The fictional world can reflect our own experiences back to us but most important, it encourages us to identify and empathize with characters different from ourselves, living through circumstances we ourselves have not had to face. What we read can change us.
Stories as weapons. My thanks go to Don Winslow and Vanessa Blakeslee for taking up arms.
And to poets like Ruth Goring. An American who grew up in Colombia, Goring has returned again and again to stand with villagers threatened by paramilitary forces. Her new collection, Soap Is Political, explores the experience of adjusting to a new environment, a new language, but also makes us see the displaced, the disappeared, the dead as individuals.
In one poem, women circle a jail, calling out names, planting them like seeds.
In another we meet Deiner, age eleven, his father and his stepmother as they clear brush around the cacao trees. Armed men emerge from the trees and Goring warns the reader:
Now you may need to turn the page.
For if you stay, and travel with the search party,
at the river you will find three
entangled bodies, boy’s head tossed
to one side, flesh gouged by vultures.
On the days when, even as activists, we find ourselves tuning out the news, novels and poems can still compel our attention and hold it and stop us from turning away.