Read The Cartel Online

Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Cartel (4 page)

“You went off the radar,” Taylor says to Keller. “Hard man to find.”

“What do you want?” Keller asks.

“You think you could put the gun down?” Taylor asks.


Keller doesn’t know why Taylor is here or who sent him. Could be DEA, could be CIA, could be anybody.

Could be Barrera.

“Okay, we’ll just stand out here with our hands in the air like jerk-offs.” Taylor looks around. “What are you, some kind of monk now?”


“These are what, beehives?”

“If your boy there moves to the side again I’ll shoot you first.”

The younger man stops moving. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m Agent Jiménez. Richard.”

“Art Keller.”

“I know,” Jiménez says. “I mean, everyone knows who you are. You’re the man who took down Adán Barrera.”

the Barreras,” Taylor corrects. “Isn’t that right, Art?”

Accurate enough, Keller thinks. He killed Raúl Barrera in a shootout on a Baja beach. He shot Tío Barrera on a San Diego bridge. He put Adán—goddamned Adán—in a prison cell but sometimes regrets that he didn’t kill him too, when he had the chance.

“What brings you here, Tim?” Keller asks.

“I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“I don’t answer to you anymore.”

“Just making conversation.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice,” Keller says, “but we’re not big on conversation around here.”

“Vow of silence sort of thing?”

“No vows.” Keller’s disappointed with himself in how quickly he fell into verbal fencing with Taylor. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t want it or need it.

“Can we go someplace and talk?” Taylor asks. “Out of the sun?”


Taylor turns to Jiménez and says, “Art’s always been a hard case. A real asshole—the Lone Ranger. Does not play well with others.”

That was always Taylor’s beef with him, from the moment Keller—freshly transferred from CIA to the new DEA—arrived on Taylor’s turf in Sinaloa thirty-two years ago. He thought Keller was a cowboy, and wouldn’t work with him or let other agents work with him, thereby forcing Keller to be exactly what he accused him of—a loner.

Taylor, Keller thinks now, virtually drove me into Tío Barrera’s waiting arms. There was nowhere else to go. He and Tío made a lot of busts together. They even “took down”—a euphemism for “killed”—Don Pedro Áviles,
gomero número uno.
Then DEA and the Mexican army sprayed the poppy fields with napalm and Agent Orange and destroyed the old Sinaloan opium trade.

Only, Keller thinks, to watch Tío create a new and vastly more powerful organization out of the ashes.

El Federación.

The Federation.

You start, Keller thinks, by trying to cut out a cancer, and instead you help it to metastasize, spread from Sinaloa throughout the whole country.

It was just the beginning of Keller’s long war with the Barreras, a thirty-year conflict that would cost him everything he had—his family, his job, his beliefs, his honor, his soul.

“I told the committees everything I knew,” Keller says now. “I have nothing left to say.”

There’d been hearings—internal DEA hearings, CIA hearings, congressional hearings. Art had taken down the Barreras in direct defiance of orders from CIA, and it had been like rolling a grenade down an airplane aisle. It blew up on everybody, and the damage had been tough to contain, with
New York Times
Washington Post
sniffing around like bloodhounds. Official Washington couldn’t decide if Art Keller was a villain or a hero. Some people wanted to pin a medal on him, others wanted to put him in an orange jumpsuit.

Still others wanted him to just disappear.

Most people were relieved when, after all the testimony and the debriefings were concluded, the man once known as “the Border Lord” did it on his own. And maybe Taylor is here, Keller thinks, to make sure I stay disappeared.

“What do you want?” Keller asks. “I have work to do.”

“Do you read the papers, Art? Watch the news?”


He has no interest in the world.

“Then you don’t know what’s going on in Mexico,” Taylor says.

“Not my problem.”

“It’s not his problem,” Taylor says to Jiménez. “Tons of coke pouring across the border. Heroin. Meth. People getting killed, but it’s not Art Keller’s problem. He has bees to take care of.”

Keller doesn’t answer.

The so-called war on drugs is a revolving door—you take one guy out, someone else grabs the empty chair at the head of the table. It will never change, as long as the insatiable appetite for drugs is there. And it’s there, in the behemoth on this side of the border.

What the suits will never understand or even acknowledge—

The so-called Mexican drug problem
the Mexican drug problem. It’s the
drug problem.

There’s no seller without a buyer.

The solution isn’t in Mexico and never will be.

So once it was Adán and now it’s someone else. After that it will be somebody else.

Keller doesn’t care.

Taylor says, “The Gulf cartel stopped two of our agents in Matamoros the other day, drew weapons, and threatened to kill them. Sound familiar?”

It does.

The Barreras had done the same thing with him back in Guadalajara. Threatened him and his family if he didn’t back off. Keller responded by sending his family back to San Diego and pushing harder.

Then the Barreras killed Art’s partner, Ernie Hidalgo. Tortured him for weeks for information he didn’t have and then dumped his body in a ditch. Left a widow and two little kids.

And Keller’s undying hatred.

Their feud became a blood feud.

And it wasn’t the worst thing that Adán Barrera did.

Not by a long shot.

That was what, Keller thinks, twenty years ago?

Twenty years?

“But you don’t give a damn, right?” Taylor asks. “You live in this ethereal world now. ‘In it but not of it.’ ”

When I was in it I was
in it, Keller thinks. I got Ernie killed and then I got nineteen innocent people killed. He’d made up an informant to protect his real source and Adán Barrera slaughtered nineteen men, women, and children along with the phony
to teach a lesson. Lined them all up against a wall and shot them.

Keller will never forget walking into that compound and seeing children dead in their mothers’ arms. Knowing that it was his fault, his responsibility. He doesn’t want to forget, not that his conscience will let him. Some mornings the bell wakes him from the memory.

After the El Sauzal massacre he wasn’t in it to stop drug trafficking, he was in it to get Adán Barrera. To this day he doesn’t know why he didn’t pull the trigger when he had the gun to Adán’s head. Maybe he thought that death was too merciful, that thirty or forty years in the hell of a supermax prison before he goes to the
hell was a better fate for Adán.

“I have a different life now,” he says.

A Cold Warrior, then a Drug Warrior, Keller thinks.

Now I’m at peace.

“So here in your splendid isolation,” Taylor continues, “you haven’t heard about your boy Adán.”

“What about him?” Keller asks, despite himself. He wanted to have the strength not to ask.

“He’s gone Céline Dion,” Taylor says. “You can’t stop the guy from singing.”

“You came here to tell me that?” Keller asks.

“No,” Taylor says. “There’s a rumor that he’s put a two-million-dollar bounty on your head, and I’m legally obligated to inform you of a direct threat on your life. I’m also obligated to offer you protection.”

“I don’t want it.”

“See what I mean?” Taylor says to Jiménez. “Hardass. You know what they used to call him? ‘Killer Keller.’ ”

Jiménez smiles.

Taylor turns back to Keller. “It’s tempting—my share of two mil, I could buy a little place on Sanibel Island, get up every morning with nothing to do but fish. Take care of yourself, huh?”

Keller watches them walk back up the hill and then disappear over the crest. Barrera a
? There are a lot of things you can call Adán Barrera, all of them true, but a snitch isn’t one of them. If Barrera is talking, it’s for a reason.

And Keller can guess what it is.

have killed him, Keller thinks more out of fatigue than fear. Now the blood feud will just go on and on, like the war on drugs itself.

World without end, amen.

He knows it won’t end until one or both of them is dead.

The beekeeper is not at dinner that night, he doesn’t go to Compline afterward. When he doesn’t show up at Vigils in the morning, Brother Gregory goes to his room to see if he’s sick.

The room is empty.

The beekeeper is gone.

Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego


The thing you have to admire about the North Americans, Adán thinks, is their consistency.


Adán has been as good as his word.

After the funeral, he sat down with Gibson and gave him gold. He sat across the table from DEA, with federal, state, and local prosecutors, answered every question they asked, and some they didn’t know to ask. The information he provided led to a score of huge drug seizures and high-level arrests in the United States and Mexico.

This scared the shit out of Tompkins.

“I know what I’m doing,” Adán assured him.

He saves the best for last. “Do you want Hugo Garza?”

“We’re on Viagra for Garza,” Gibson answers.

“Can you
them Garza?” Tompkins asks, rattled. His client is offering to give up the head of the Gulf cartel, the most powerful drug organization in Mexico now that Adán’s old Federación has been taken apart.

This is why Tompkins doesn’t like to let clients in on the haggling. It’s like bringing your wife in with you to buy a car—sooner or later she’s going to say something that costs you. Clients have a right to be present, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

But what Adán says next—it goes way over the top.

“I want to be extradited,” Adán says. “I’ll plead guilty here, but I want to serve my sentence in Mexico.”

Mexico and the United States have a reciprocal arrangement to allow prisoners to serve their time in their home countries for humanitarian purposes, to be near their families. But Tompkins is aghast and hauls his client out of the room. “You’re a
Adán. You won’t last five minutes in a Mexican prison. They’ll be lining up to kill you.”

“They’ll be lining up in American prisons, too,” Adán observes. The prisons on this side of the border are filled with Mexican narcos and
gangbangers who would jump at the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy by killing the world’s biggest informer.

Security arrangements for Adán have played a major role in the plea agreement that Tompkins has been negotiating, but Adán has already balked at going onto the “protected prisoner” units with child molesters and other informers.

“Adán,” Tompkins pleads, “as your lawyer—as your
—I’m asking you not to do this. I’m making progress. With judicial notice of your cooperation, I can possibly get your sentence down to fifteen years, then the witness protection program. Time served, you’re out in twelve. You can still have a life.”

my lawyer,” Adán says, “and as your client, I’m instructing you to make this deal—Garza for extradition. If you won’t, I’ll fire you and get someone who will.”

Because this deal has to be made, and Adán can’t tell Tompkins why. Can’t tell him that delicate negotiations have been going on in Mexico for months, and that yes, it’s a risk, but it’s a risk he has to take.

If they kill him, they kill him, but he’s not going to spend his life in a prison cell.

So he waits while Tompkins goes back in. Adán knows it won’t be simple—Gibson will have to go to his bosses, who will go to theirs. Then the Justice Department will talk to the State Department, who will talk to the CIA, who will talk to the White House, and then the deal will get done.

Because a former occupant of that same White House authorized the arrangement back in the ’80s by which Tío trafficked cocaine and gave money to the anticommunist Contras, and no one wants Adán Barrera pulling
skeleton from the closet to the witness stand.

There will be no trial.

They’ll take the Garza bait instead.

Because the North Americans never learn.

Three weeks later, the Mexican
acting on information provided by the DEA, capture Hugo Garza, the boss of the Gulf cartel, at a remote ranch in Tamaulipas.

Two days later, U.S. marshals take Adán out of San Diego in the middle of the night and put him on a plane to Guadalajara, where
in black uniforms and hoods whisk him off the plane and drive him to serve his sentence at the Puente Grande Correctional Facility—“the Big Bridge”—outside the city that his uncle had once ruled like a duchy.

A convoy of two armored cars and a personnel carrier rumble up the Zapotlanejo Freeway toward the guard towers of the prison, its searchlights glowing silver in an otherwise silk black night.

The lead armored car stops under one of the towers by a large sign that reads
. Coils of razor wire top the high fences and concrete walls. Machine gunners in the towers train their sights on the convoy.

A steel door slides open and the convoy pulls inside a large supply bay. The door slides shut behind it. They say that once you cross the Big Bridge, you never cross back.

Adán Barrera is looking at twenty-two years here.

It’s cold, and Adán huddles inside the blue down jacket they gave him as the guards take him by the elbows and help him out of the personnel carrier. His hands are cuffed in front of him, his ankles shackled.

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