Friday, October 28, 2016


I reviewed Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel (Simon & Schuster) by Dan Slater for Lone Star Literary Life. “The Mexican immigrant who became the American cop busted the natural-born Americans who became the cartel crooks.”

Dan Slater
Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 978-1-50112-654-7 (also available as a paperback, an ebook, and on Audible), 352 pgs., $26.95
September 13, 2016
“The Mexican immigrant who became the American cop busted the natural-born Americans who became the cartel crooks.”
At nineteen years old, Gabriel Cardona wore Versace, drove a Mercedes SUV, and was “being primed for a managerial position in a global enterprise”—Los Zetas. He was a sicario, an assassin. A United States citizen, Cardona was useful. He could work both sides of the border. Cardona also recruited his friends from the slums of Laredo, including Bart Reta, the second teenager mentioned in the title. He was thirteen when he began working for the Zetas.

Robert Garcia immigrated from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to Eagle Pass, Texas, as a child. After some time in the U.S. Army, he joined the narcotics unit of the police department in Laredo. An Officer of the Year Award earned him an offer to join a Drug Enforcement Administration task force. The whiteboard over Garcia’s desk resembled “a graduate-level math proof that could be worked forever but never solved.” He became disillusioned with the “War on Drugs.” Then Los Zetas arrived. “Without attacking demand in the United States, [Garcia] couldn’t see the point of putting so many resources into stemming only a fraction of traffic. But violence spilling over was another matter.”

Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel is creative, narrative nonfiction by Dan Slater, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Slater incorporates demographics, sociology, and economics—the elementary supply and demand—in his recounting of this familiar story. He gives it some context with a brief, incomplete history of vice prohibition in the United States. “Every new regulation presented a new smuggling opportunity,” he writes.

The history of Laredo’s politics is interesting, but the picture Slater paints of the border town is unnecessarily harsh. Facts are facts (the patrón system and kickbacks), but Slater’s characterization of Laredo as “a giant, unimproved truck stop” is myopic. The history of cartel formation, beginning with the Gulf Cartel in the 1940s, and continuing with PRI institutional regulation, is well and clearly told. When the PRI fell from power in the 1990s, “privatization” of the drug industry created a new landscape of independent, competitive subsidiaries” and “traffickers preferred to hire private armies rather than outsource ineffective protection to the state.” Enter Los Zetas.

Slater doesn’t romanticize the cartel thugs and their lifestyles as has been done so often, and he gives equal time to Garcia and law enforcement. He provides a thorough breakdown of how the drug business and the cartels operate, complete with vicious details not for the squeamish. Slater is best at the straight facts. When he gets creative, he verges on the purple: “Laredo was the border frontier’s petri dish of implication.” The narrative moves along steadily, keeping the pages turning despite a tendency to repetition, and the sting that finally brings down Cardona and Reta is intense.

Startlingly, Slater admits to buying and using cocaine in Laredo with Cardona’s older brother.

Wolf Boys is a serviceable, if uneven, contribution to the story of Mexican cartels and United States law enforcement. The details are fascinating and provocative without being prurient, but most Texans won’t find much new here.

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