The drug war has turned Mexico into a place where death and torture are part of everyday life - literally, as commuters pass by beheaded corpses hanging from a busy overpass along with a banner carrying a Cartel message waving in the wind. This bleak hell has been captured vividly by Dan Slater in his new book Wolf Boys, a modern-day masterpiece of journalism that confronts readers with a hopeless cycle of despair, greed, and deadly violence, with no end in sight.
It was to be just another night out in Laredo, Texas, for the soon-to-be divorced dentist. With his marriage in shambles, he parked his Hummer at a parking lot in front of Cosmos Bar & Grill in the nightclub strip of the city, and went clubbing, looking for some fast, and preferably easy, love.
A few hours later, he exited the club and walked back to his car. Alone. No luck tonight, he must’ve thought. As he drove his Hummer out of the parking lot, he was followed by two other cars. The dentist had no clue he’s being watched and followed from the moment he arrived at the club.
Minutes later, he is sitting in the back of a police car while cops search his Hummer. He is clueless. Why did they pull him over?! “We arrested you to protect you,” the officer explains. “It’s my fucking wife, isn’t it?!” the dentist yells. “We’re going through a divorce. She wants me dead!”
Nearby, several armed hitmen from the Los Zetas drug cartel were watching as police led their target away. Unbeknownst to them, they had set their aim on the wrong man. A man who happened to look like their intended prey and drove the same blue Hummer. He was one of forty men featured on a kill list given to the young Mexican-American assassins by Los Zetas leadership in Mexico.
When it came to the drug war, anyone could be killed at any time in a variety of ways. In a targeted assassination, a slow death by torture, used as cannon fodder by Cartel trainees, or simply by mistake. Welcome to the vicious and uncertain world of Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel by journalist Dan Slater.
In his book, Slater brings together two narratives to paint a comprehensive and extremely unnerving picture of the current drug war happening in Mexico and the United States. In one, he follows a young teenager named Gabriel Cardona, who grows up in Laredo, Texas, a good and intelligent student who shines in sports and looks set to escape the poverty of his neighborhood only to fall for the riches and notoriety the life of a Los Zetas hitman brings.
In the other, he follows Laredo Police Department homicide detective Robert Garcia, who slowly grows disillusioned by the war on drugs, calling it “a big fucking lie!” Despite this, he continues to place his life on the line as he hunts down the American-born Cartel killers.
Slater weaves these two narratives together fluently as he describes Mexico’s complicated and violent past and present, much of it connected to the United States, especially the war on drugs.
On the one hand, the United States is one of the world’s most prominent opponents of drugs, patrolling its border, hunting down smugglers and Cartel bosses. On the other, they are the one fueling the entire drug economy. Americans are the biggest consumers of cocaine and various other drugs and Mexican smugglers are simply supplying the huge demand.
Besides the illicit economy, there is another side to this war on drugs. “Approximately one-third of [Laredo’s] legitimate economy is depended on the drug war,” Slater writes. Just like in other big American cities. “Cops and agents, lawyers and judges, prisons and bail bondsmen – the list of beneficiaries went on.”
The focus is always on the Cartel bosses and the smugglers and hitmen they employ, but the war on drugs benefits parties on both sides, making it difficult to end such a profitable endeavor, despite the deadly violence the war brings with it.
Thousands of murders every year, year after year. Mass graves, beheadings, crime scenes littered with body parts, torture and executions caught on video: You name it, Mexican Cartels did it. Life is worthless in the world of dope. Junkies live for that one shot, while the drug lords indiscriminately murder at will to protect and expand their criminal empire.
In such a world, American teenager Gabriel Cardona became an initiated member, a loyal soldier of the notorious Los Zetas drug cartel. Working directly under Cartel leader Miguel Trevino, Cardona committed murders on both sides of the border. He even bragged to Laredo detective Robert Garcia about those he committed in Mexico since he felt certain those couldn’t hurt him. Over there, he explained, Mexican cops would close off the area so he could kill his target and get away without any problems.
We’ve heard about corrupt police before, but Cardona has seen much more. After impressing Trevino with his cold-blooded nature, he is sent to a Los Zetas training camp, where the Cartel trains its assassins. Pupils get classes in close quarter combat, hand-to-hand combat, handling and shooting various weapons, torture, and much more.
All of it with live targets – men who allegedly were captured members of the rival Sinaloa Cartel. Each pupil had to learn how to murder and torture using these men as cannon fodder. Shooting them. Stabbing them. Torturing them. Making them bleed and soil themselves.
Life is worthless.
And there is no end in sight for those living within reach of these drug cartels. Those who have nothing, want something. Those who have something, want more. Those who have more, want everything. And on and on it goes. From the lowly foot soldier to the narco commandante. From the young kid who gets no food in the evening to his parents who are out scoring drugs. Everyone is connected one way or another, each person influencing the other.
After talking to Cartel hitmen and their relatives, prosecutors and DEA agents, journalists and lawyers, Slater has managed to write a true masterpiece, intimately describing an horrendous journey of two Mexican-Americans locked in a life of drugs and death, describing the history that preceded them and the circumstances that set them – and others - on this path.
In the end, it becomes very clear: As long as the profits outweigh the human lives wasted, this war will continue.
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