The Power of the Dog

last updated: 11 April 2017 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 835 words)

I’ve just finished reading The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. If you haven’t read the book, fix that and read it now.

The book is set against the involvement by the US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) in the War on Drugs over three decades covering the presidencies of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (41), and Clinton, with much of the action set along the US/Mexico border.


Stylistically, the book feels more like reportage rather than fiction. To my mind this is a good thing—it makes the whole book feel far more real. If you’ve ever read Frederick Forsyth, the style is similar to his.

To call the novel “a book” might give the wrong impression; each chapter (at least in the earlier part of the book) is more like a separate story with its own cast and narrative arc. The chapters are then strung together to create a coherent account set across time. As the book moves forward, each new episode brings one or two characters from a previous situation, moving them into a new context with the consequences of decisions and actions from previous years being understood and illustrated.

The Heart of the Story

The Power of the Dog looks at corruption and short-term political expediency coupled with pragmatism, all in the name of an uncertain end and political deniability.

At the heart of the story is a basic contradiction: the US government was in a war against drugs and yet it contracted-out the implementation of US foreign policy to narco traffickers and helped funnel drug money to fund activities which Congress wouldn’t fund.

And perhaps the ultimate irony was that US policy worked to push up the price of drugs, thereby increasing the profits for the narco traffickers making the continued trade that more worthwhile.

The Threads

There are Italian and Irish mobsters in New York, DEA agents (many of whom were Vietnam vets, many with connections to the CIA), and Mexican drug lords (who in some cases are also Mexican law enforcement officials).

In Mexico, widespread use of defoliants sanctioned by the DEA stops poppy growth. The reaction of the drug dealers is to move from selling locally produced brown heroin to trafficking cocaine produced in countries to the south.

In an attempt to broaden their businesses, the cartels seek political influence—in other words, they bribe and intimidate. It’s not difficult—the cartels have more money than the government and they can reach anyone, including politicians, as the murder of a presidential candidate illustrates.

As the cartels seek influence, there’s a bloody war between them which is good for the war on drugs, but bad for the Mexican population. Many citizens are killed either as collateral damage or if they are the family of someone suspected of damaging a cartel.

The Mexican government is largely powerless to act. First, there is the corruption—within the elected officials and at all ranks of law enforcement. Second, the government has no money—the only significant sources of funds (beyond tax) that the Mexican government can draw on come from the US and the Vatican which is looking for influence and to reinstate its position within the country.

The story then weaves in the funding the Contras in their battle against the Sandinista regime and the broader US fight against the rise of communism in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. With the fear that Mexico would collapse and fall to communism the country was propped by a combination of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and narco profits.

In Columbia FARC guerrillas are trading cocaine for arms—arms procured from China by the Mexican drug traffickers. The US reaction is to use defoliants to prevent the growth of cocoa plants, a practice previously adopted in Mexico to stop poppy growth.

But the defoliants were used without restraint and without consideration for the consequences. Not only were the poppies and cocoa plants killed, but so too were the food crops. And through spraying from too high, spraying over a wider area than expected, and spraying with a too concentrated mixture, many people were sprayed leading to illness—in particular childhood cancer.

With barren land and no other way to sustain a living, residents then had no option but to work for the narcos.


There is violence throughout the book. Some violence is quite extreme. But narco traffickers are savage, so downplaying the risks and the consequences would have reduced the story.

A central thread of the action is driven by a reaction to violence—in this case, the torture and death of a DEA agent.

It rather is case of no violence, no story, so if you’re very sqeamish, maybe look elsewhere.

Look Elsewhere, But You’ll Be Missing Out…

I’ve sought to give a flavor of the book, and I do realize my comments are somewhat fractured, but please don’t let that put you off.

Read a chapter or two for yourself and make up your own mind. If you ignore this book, you’ll be missing out—it’s a great read.

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