A grisly yet compelling tale of impoverished Mexican-American youth molded into assassins by Los Zetas, the fearsome drug cartel.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Slater (Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating, 2013) adeptly develops a sprawling narrative regarding the “spillover” of cartel violence around 2005 into border cities like Laredo, Texas, where a long smuggling tradition was transformed by ruthless competition and NAFTA’s amplification of poverty: “All contras and defectors in Texas had to be eliminated, Zeta leadership decided. It could only be done with a strong presence on the U.S. side.” In a milieu of well-developed characters on both sides of the law, Slater focuses on two strong personalities: Mexican-born homicide detective Robert Garcia, and Gabriel Cardona, who’d plead guilty to several murders before age 20. Garcia twice arrested Cardona, yet the Zetas bonded him out to commit more shootings. Slater chillingly replicates Cardona’s perspective and experience, documenting the arc of his recruitment and training based on research and correspondence. While he follows this season of mayhem, as orchestrated by the Zetas hierarchy, he also looks at the political and historical narratives of the border, portraying a long-term corrupt, destructive relationship between the two nations regarding drugs, trade, and labor. “The U.S. government was eager to minimize the spillover narrative,” writes the author. Notwithstanding such priorities, Garcia’s team ultimately wiretapped and apprehended Cardona’s cell of youthful assassins in their Laredo safe house, securing long sentences for them. Still, this narrative triumph seems checked by a cynicism beyond the Zetas’ brutality. Even Garcia concludes that narcotics interdiction required “willful ignorance,” while his colleagues seemed addicted to the benefits of seized funds and career advancement. Slater covers this difficult social landscape with an empathetic eye and careful prose, vividly rendering a border region of “extreme poverty and garish wealth…elaborate courtesy and low-barbarian violence.”
Engrossing and readable yet nightmarish vision of a hyperviolent and corporatized narcotics industry, seducing a new generation with minimal alternatives.