Posts Tagged ‘Dos Erres’

Trafficking Fiction: US Novelists on Mexico and Colombia

September 9, 2015

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
PTSD treatments.

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.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

February 16, 2014

The #MyWritingProcess blog tour is not quite a chain letter. You don’t end up with good fortune or 1,000 picture postcards from around the world or bad luck if you break the chain. It works like this: You get an invitation from an author-blogger to answer four questions about your process. When you do, you also invite three more writers to answer the same questions and carry the tour forward.

And who would know more about writing process than Susan K. Perry, author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity? She blogged about her own process last week here and invited me to chime in this week. You can learn more about her fiction and nonfiction by clicking on her name.

Now, here goes:

1) What am I working on?

My novel-in-progress, Out of Place, takes place on five continents. Juggling the characters, events, places, and chronology gets me crazy. I first started thinking about it after 9/11 when international scientists working on research projects here in California found they couldn’t continue their contributions because tightened security clearances meant they no longer had access to the necessary data. In the novel, suspicion focuses on Emine Albaz, a Jewish Turkish hydrogeologist working in the California desert; Rennie, the office manager at the research institute, and Emine’s husband, Oğuz, a Muslim Turkish physician volunteering as doctor to a nomadic tribe in India. They are part of a web of relationship with characters around the globe.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

If we consider it literary genre, I’m sure there are other novels structured in similar ways. But if you want to compare it to espionage or political fiction, those would ordinarily have forward momentum in the narrative while my novel is structured more like the challenge an intelligence officer would face. Old School, effective interrogators didn’t torture anyone or rely on brutality. They gathered seemingly innocuous information until the mosaic pieces fit together and the picture emerged. My novel will jump around but all the sections do connect and ultimately make at least some sense. I’m having a hard time deciding on the order of the sections and then I think of Julio Cortázar’s great novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) in which chapters need not be read in the order in which they are printed.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Obsession. Trying to figure out why things happen as they do, whether it’s in terms of relationships or the politics of the world we live in. I’ve written a lot of advocacy journalism in which I report on issues from a progressive perspective–to make sure that point-of-view is available and that un- and underreported stories get covered. Some of the same issues turn up in my fiction but novels and short stories reach a different readership, make it possible to explore more ambiguous and complex realities, and are, for me, simply more satisfying to write because I never quite know where I’m going, where I’ll end up, or what I’ll discover along the way.

4) How does your writing process work?

Ask me again in six months as it’s in transition!

Those of you who follow my blog probably noticed there hasn’t been much new content lately. Well…I’d never made a New Year’s resolution before, but this year I resolved: No more journalism. No more nonfiction. No more using my eyesight for computer-based work unless it’s for FICTION.

So here I am blogging, but how can a person say no to Susan Perry?

And while I’m cutting back on political activity, too, I did go to San Diego to talk about disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline with concerned members of the University City United Church.

And, yeah, of course I went to Riverside last week in solidarity with the local Guatemalan community. We wanted to observe the sentencing of Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes who was convicted of immigration fraud for coming to the US and covering up his responsibility in the 1982 massacre of the people of the village of Dos Erres.

For a change, instead of charging undocumented immigrants with identity theft for using fake Social Security numbers — an act which harms no one but instead benefits the Social Security system because they pay in with every paycheck and will never collect a cent — the feds were on the right side this time. Assistant US Attorney Jeannie Joseph asked for the maximum — ten years in prison — and Judge Virginia Phillips agreed. Sosa Orantes was also stripped of his US citizenship and, assuming all this is upheld on appeal, will face deportation after serving his time. Present in the courtroom and addressing the judge was Óscar Rámirez Castañeda, who survived the massacre because one of the soldiers took him and adopted him.

Óscar Rámirez Castañeda

Óscar Rámirez Castañeda

He was spared, it’s my guess, because of his light skin at a time when the Guatemalan military was committing genocide against the indigenous people. We were joined in front of the courthouse with survivors from targeted Quiché Maya communities.

Óscar’s biological father was at work away from the village when the massacre occurred and so he, too, survived, but neither knew of the other’s existence until DNA analysis by the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (Foundation of Forensic Anthropologists of Guatemala). The same anthropologists were able to inform my friend Mario Ávila that the remains of one of his brothers who was disappeared years ago had been identified in a mass grave. Mario wasn’t allowed into the courthouse (even to use the bathroom) because of the face paint.

Mario Ávila lying in front of US District Court, Riverside, CA

Mario Ávila lying in front of US District Court, Riverside, CA

OK, I know this is supposed to be about my process, but in Spanish, proceso also means trial. So will Sosa face justice once he’s back in Guatemala? He’s protesting his innocence. In the meantime, former president Efraín Ríos Montt has been repeatedly convicted of genocide and each time the sentence is vacated and the case sent back to court. Some powerful people are no doubt nervous about a conviction–including the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, also accused of genocide and war crimes. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has been a powerful defender of human rights and the rightwing is now trying to have her removed from office before her terms expires. So Guatemalan justice? ¿Quién sabe?

But back to my process: New ideas come from engagement with other people and in the world. But then the task is to elaborate ideas into something imaginative. My process used to be absolute concentration for hours or days (or weeks) on end when I wasn’t working for a living. Especially when working on a novel, I want to remain immersed in the fictional world. But 15-hour days at the computer, what may be the worst ever case of Computer Vision Syndrome damaged my eyesight. It’s limited the amount of time I can spend looking at the screen. Eyestrain also causes fatigue and when my eyes are tired, my brain stops working. My process has become a slow one, taking lots of breaks, creating one piece of the mosaic–whether fiction or nonfiction–at a time.

Revision is something I can do anytime, anywhere but creating new material does require conditions. I used to prefer writing first thing in the morning while still in a hypnogogic state. That changed when I adopted a cat. First thing in the morning, she had to be cuddled and fed. Shower, etc. And then email with my coffee. Once the coffee mug is in the sink, I get to work. That hypnagogic state still opens creative doors only now language, ideas, characters keep me awake at night as I remain stuck on sleep’s threshold.

Since I can’t spend hours at the computer, I do spend time letting material percolate. The unconscious gets to work when I’m doing what I enjoy doing anyway: walking, driving, pampering the cat, doing behavioral observations for the research department at the zoo, or hiking– alone, so there’s no conversation except what’s going on in my head. Working in theater also gets me out of the apartment. My one-act play, Pulga de Dios (Spanish version of God’s Flea) will premiere Friday evening as a Grupo Ta’Yer project at Rubén Amavizca-Murúa’s Frida Kahlo Theater, in a double bill with Fernando Castro’s Blacaman.

Pulga de Dios and BLACAMAN Flyer 2.17.14
And as I’ve been a lazy blogger, let me catch up with a few comments here. Now that I’ve cancelled Time Warner (at last! hooray!), I have no TV and will spend more time reading. On paper, on the page, in BOOKS and not on a Kindle.

I’ll read hoping for more strange synchronicity. It was only after we returned from Belfast to our respective countries that Tania Cañas and I read Nor Meekly Serve My Time and learned that the IRA hunger strike was broken when families removed their sons and brothers to Musgrave Park Hospital–just steps away from where we and the ImaginAction team was housed. (For an account of our work, check the previous blog post called “Provocations.”)

So I was thinking a lot about how we go around often oblivious of the significance of places that hold profound meaning to those who know. In that state of mind, I read Teju Cole‘s novel, Open City, in which the narrator, of Nigerian and German descent, wanders New York City more aware of the forgotten history at every site and of history’s many atrocities than he is of his own story. The brothers in Boualem Sansal’s remarkable novel, The German Mujahid, are raised in Paris, of German (again!) and Algerian parentage. They also must confront hidden and not so hidden histories of genocide and violent intolerance. At the same time, I read (and looked at–since it’s as much a coffee table book as a book-length poem) Susan Suntree’s Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California. Her poem, too, changes the way we feel about the ground we take for granted beneath our feet, first by offering how Science tells the creation (and repeated cataclysmic destruction) story of this region and then how the story is told in the various traditions of California Indians.

Enough screen time!

Next Week: On February 24th, please get to know:

Laurie Cannady, Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University. Her memoir, Have a Little Piece of Me, is forthcoming with Etruscan Press. It will be published Fall 2015.

(Have a Little Piece of Me is an important memoir by an extraordinary woman. It’s also a tribute to Laurie’s mother who did everything the way you’re supposed to, against all odds, and, instead of rewards, faced trouble after trouble. I was lucky enough to read much of this book while in-progress. For those of you familiar with Nathan McCall‘s classic, Makes Me Wanna Holler, about his evolution from confused and violent incarcerated youth to a respected journalist, be sure to get your hands on Laurie’s book. She grew up in the same neighborhood as McCall, but hers is the perspective of a young woman with good reason to fear the poverty, dehumanization, and misogyny he highlighted in his memoir. They have since met as fellow writers and he is a champion–as I am–of her work.)

She blogs at:

Giano Cromley was born in Billings, Montana. He’s the author of the novel, The Last Good Halloween, has been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Hot Chicago Writer Blog, and his writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Literal Latte, and The Bygone Bureau, among others. He is a recipient of an Artists Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. He teaches English at Kennedy-King College and lives on Chicago’s South Side with his wife and two dogs.

(I met Giano one cold January in Chicago–is there any other kind?–because he married Naty, the roommate who kept me sane during one of my visits to Colombia. It was a delight to discover that he and I admired the same fiction and had more to talk about than was possible during my short stay. Last year, when he published The Last Good Halloween, I was excited to read it and to see Tortoise Books give it an enthusiastic launch. I found again we’re on the same wavelength. Giano’s insightful, often funny novel illuminates something I think about a lot: how a basically good kid can get himself into lots of trouble.)

Giano blogs at

Julia Stein‘s seventh book of poetry, What Were They Like? was published March 2013. She has edited two books of poetry: Every Day is an Act of Resistance: Selected Poems of Carol Tarlen by the brilliant S.F. poet Carol Tarlen who died in 2004, and Walking Through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry. She is the 2011 Joe Hill Poetry Award winner. She also has been a journalist, literary critic and has just finished a novel about the 1960s.

(What Were They Like? powerfully evokes the lives of people affected by the so-called War on Terror. Let me add that it was Julia who introduced me to Susan Suntree’s work. And besides being a strong progressive voice in poetry and a tireless advocate for the work of other writers, Julia has long been a champion of the rights of adjunct faculty, which includes her fight for what adjuncts sorely need and deserve–union membership.)

She blogs at

Thanks for accompanying us this far. Now my eyes are crossed and I remember why I don’t want to do this!