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The Power of the Dog

Don Winslow

  The Power of the Dog

  By: Don Winslow

  © 2005

  In memory of Sue Rubinsky,

  who always wanted to learn the truth


  Art Keller, through tenacity, skilled experience, and what he once thought of as luck, positions himself as a strategic piece in the DEA’s war on drugs. His career really begins in a boxing ring, where he is pummeled a great deal, forced to use every skill he has, engage his tactical mind in order to survive, and looses the three round bout. But from the blood, pain and street-wise cunning, it appears that he has won the real match, only to find that he’s still one step behind in the greater game.

  The rest of his long, hard won career seems to be a repeat of that sparing match. In a high powered story of political forces, and brutal mentalities, Art Keller attempts to do his job, while not becoming a victim of his obsessions. Following Keller and the other characters of this novel, Don Winslow positions us as witnesses to tremendous crimes, and horrific destruction, while listening to members of both sides of this ‘war’ declare victory and prosperity from the engagements that leave towns destroyed and families murdered.

  While the Power of the Dog is a fictional novel, the tremendous effort in historic and cultural research by the author is very evident.

  Deliver my soul from the sword,

  my love from the power of the dog.

  Psalms 22:20


  El Sauzal

  State of Baja California

  Mexico, 1997

  The baby is dead in his mother’s arms.

  Art Keller can tell from the way the bodies lie—her on top, the baby beneath her—that she tried to shield her child. She must have known, Art thinks, that her own soft body could not have stopped bullets—not from automatic rifles, not from that range—but the move must have been instinctive. A mother puts her own body between her child and harm. So she turned, twisted as the bullets hit her, then fell on top of her son.

  Did she really think that she could save the child? Maybe she didn’t, Art thinks. Maybe she just didn’t want the baby to see death blaze out from the barrel of the gun. Maybe she wanted her child’s last sensation in this world to be that of her bosom. Enfolded in love.

  Art is a Catholic. At forty-seven years of age, he’s seen a lot of madonnas. But nothing like this one.

  “Cuernos de chivo,” he hears someone say.

  Quietly, almost whispered, as if they were in church.

  Cuernos de chivo.

  Horns of the goat: AK-47s.

  Art already knows that—hundreds of 7.62-mm shell casings lie on the patio’s concrete floor, along with some .12-gauge shotgun shells and some 5.56s, probably, Art thinks, from AR-15s. But most of the casings are from the cuernos de chivo, the favored weapon of the Mexican narcotraficantes.

  Nineteen bodies.

  Nineteen more casualties in the War on Drugs, Art thinks.

  He’s used to looking at the bodies from his fourteen-year war with Adán Barrera—he’s looked at many. But not nineteen. Not women, children, babies. Not this.

  Ten men, three women, six children.

  Lined up against the patio wall and shot.

  Blasted is more the word, Art thinks. Blasted to pieces in an incontinent rush of bullets. The amount of blood is unreal. A pool the size of a large car, an inch thick with black, dried blood. Blood splattered on the walls, blood splattered on the manicured lawn, where it glistens black-red on the tips of the grass. The blades of which look to him like tiny, bloody swords.

  They must have put up a fight as they realized what was about to happen. Pulled from their beds in the middle of the night, dragged out to the patio, lined up against the wall—someone had finally offered a struggle, because furniture is tipped over. Heavy wrought-iron patio furniture. Glass shattered on the concrete.

  Art looks down and sees . . . Christ, it’s a doll—its brown glass eyes staring up at him—lying in the blood. A doll, and a small cuddly animal, and a beautifully rendered pinto horse in plastic, all lying in blood by the execution wall.

  Children, Art thinks, pulled out of sleep, grab their toys and hold on to them. Even as, especially as, the guns roar.

  An irrational image comes to him: a stuffed elephant. A childhood toy he always slept with. It had one button eye. It was stained with vomit, with urine, with all the various childhood effluvia, and it smelled of all of them. His mother had sneaked it away in his sleep and replaced it with a new elephant with two eyes and a pristine aroma, and when Art woke up he thanked her for the new elephant and then found and retrieved the old one from the trash.

  Arthur Keller hears his own heart break.

  He switches his gaze to the adult victims.

  Some are in pajamas—expensive silk pajamas and negligees—some in T-shirts. Two of them, a man and a woman, are naked—as if they had been grabbed from a postcoital sleeping embrace. What once had been love, Art thinks, is now naked obscenity.

  One body lies alone along the opposite wall. An old man, the head of the family. Probably shot last, Art thinks. Forced to watch his family killed, and then dispatched himself. Mercifully? Art wonders. Was it some sort of sick mercy? But then he sees the old man’s hands. His fingernails have been ripped out, then the fingers chopped off. His mouth is still open in a frozen scream and Art can see the fingers sticking to his tongue.

  Meaning that they thought someone in his family was a dedo, a finger—an informer.

  Because I led them to believe that.

  God forgive me.

  He searches through the bodies until he finds the one he’s looking for.

  When he does, his stomach lurches and he has to fight back the vomit in his throat because the young man’s face has been peeled like a banana; the strips of flesh hang obscenely from his neck. Art hopes that they did this after they shot him, but he knows better.

  The bottom half of his skull has been blown off.

  They shot him in the mouth.

  Traitors get shot in the back of the head, informers in the mouth.

  They thought it was him.

  Which was exactly what you wanted them to think, Art tells himself. Face it—it worked just the way you planned.

  But I never envisioned this, he thinks. I never thought they’d do this.

  “There must have been servants,” Art says. “Workers.”

  The police have already checked the workers’ quarters.

  “Gone,” one of the cops says.

  Disappeared. Vanished.

  He forces himself to look at the bodies again.

  It’s my fault, Art thinks.

  I brought this on these people.

  I’m sorry, Art thinks. I am so, so sorry. Bending over the mother and child, Art makes the sign of the cross and whispers, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

  “El poder del perro,” he hears one of the Mexican cops murmur.

  The power of the dog.

  Chapter One

  The Men from Sinaloa

  Seest thou yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,

  The seat of desolation, void of light,

  Save what the glimmering of these livid flames

  Casts pale and dreadful?

  —John Milton, Paradise Lost

  Badiraguato District

  State of Sinaloa

  Mexico, 1975

  The poppies burn.

  Red blossoms, red flames.

  Only in hell, Art Keller thinks, do flowers bloom fire.

  Art sits on a ridge above the burning valley. Looking down is like peering into a steaming soup bowl—he can’t see clearly through the smoke, but what he can make out is a scene from hell.

  Hieronymus Bosch does
the War on Drugs.

  Campesinos—Mexican peasant farmers—trot in front of the flames, clutching the few possessions they could grab before the soldiers put the torch to their village. Pushing their children in front of them, the campesinos carry sacks of food, family photographs bought at great price, some blankets, some clothes. Their white shirts and straw hats—stained yellow with sweat—make them ghost-like in the haze of smoke.

  Except for the clothes, Art thinks, it could be Vietnam.

  He’s half-surprised, glancing at the sleeve of his own shirt, to see blue denim instead of army green. Reminds himself that this isn’t Operation Phoenix but Operation Condor, and these aren’t the bamboo-thick mountains of I Corps, but the poppy-rich mountain valleys of Sinaloa.

  And the crop isn’t rice, it’s opium.

  Art hears the dull bass whop-whop-whop of helicopter rotors and looks up. Like a lot of guys who were in Vietnam, he finds the sound evocative. Yeah, but evocative of what? he asks himself, then decides that some memories are better left buried.

  Choppers and fixed-wing planes circle overhead like vultures. The airplanes do the actual spraying; the choppers are there to help protect the planes from the sporadic AK-47 rounds fired by the remaining gomeros—opium growers—who still want to make a fight of it. Art knows too well that an accurate burst from an AK can bring down a chopper. Hit it in the tail rotor and it will spiral down like a broken toy at a kid’s birthday party. Hit the pilot, and, well . . . So far they’ve been lucky and no choppers have been hit. Either the gomeros are just bad shots, or they’re not used to firing on helicopters.

  Technically, all the aircraft are Mexican—officially, Condor is a Mexican show, a joint operation between the Ninth Army Corps and the State of Sinaloa—but the planes were bought and paid for by the DEA and are flown by DEA contract pilots, most of them former CIA employees from the old Southeast Asia crew. Now there’s a tasty irony, Keller thinks—Air America boys who once flew heroin for Thai warlords now spray defoliants on Mexican opium.

  The DEA wanted to use Agent Orange, but the Mexicans had balked at that. So instead they are using a new compound, 24-D, which the Mexicans feel comfortable with, mostly, Keller chuckles, because the gomeros were already using it to kill the weeds around the poppy fields.

  So there was a ready supply.

  Yeah, Art thinks, it’s a Mexican operation. We Americans are just down here as “advisers.”

  Like Vietnam.

  Just with different ball caps.

  The American War on Drugs has opened a front in Mexico. Now ten thousand Mexican army troops are pushing through this valley near the town of Badiraguato, assisting squadrons of the Municipal Judicial Federal Police, better known as the federales, and a dozen or so DEA advisers like Art. Most of the soldiers are on foot; others are on horseback, like vaqueros driving cattle in front of them. Their orders are simple: Poison the poppy fields and burn the remnants, scatter the gomeros like dry leaves in a hurricane. Destroy the source of heroin here in the Sinaloan mountains of western Mexico.

  The Sierra Occidental has the best combination of altitude, rainfall and soil acidity in the Western Hemisphere to grow Papaver somniferum, the poppy that produces the opium that is eventually converted to Mexican Mud, the cheap, brown, potent heroin that has been flooding the streets of American cities.

  Operation Condor, Art thinks.

  There hasn’t been an actual condor seen in Mexican skies in over sixty years, longer in the States. But every operation has to have a name or we don’t believe it’s real, so Condor it is.

  Art’s done a little reading on the bird. It is (was) the largest bird of prey, although the term is a little misleading, as it preferred scavenging over hunting. A big condor, Art learned, could take out a small deer; but what it really liked was when something else killed the deer first so the bird could just swoop down and take it.

  We prey on the dead.

  Operation Condor.

  Another Vietnam flashback.

  Death from the Sky.

  And here I am, crouched in the brush again, shivering in the damp mountain cold again, setting up ambushes.


  Except the target now isn’t some VC cadre on his way back to his village, but old Don Pedro Áviles, the drug lord of Sinaloa, El Patrón himself. Don Pedro’s been running opium out of these mountains for half a century, even before Bugsy Siegel himself came here, with Virginia Hill in tow, to nail down a steady source of heroin for the West Coast Mafia.

  Siegel made the deal with a young Don Pedro Áviles, who used that leverage to make himself patrón, the boss, a status he’s maintained to this day. But the old man’s power has been slipping a little lately as some young up-and-comers have started to challenge his authority. The law of nature, Art supposes—the young lions eventually take on the old. Art has been kept awake more than one night in his Culiacán hotel room by the sound of machine-gun fire in the streets, so common lately that the city has gained the nickname Little Chicago.

  Well, after today, maybe they won’t have anything to fight about.

  Arrest old Don Pedro and you put an end to it.

  And make yourself a star, he thinks, feeling a little guilty.

  Art is a true believer in the War on Drugs. Growing up in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, he saw firsthand what heroin does to a neighborhood, particularly a poor one. So this is supposed to be about getting drugs off the streets, he reminds himself, not advancing your career.

  But the truth of it is that being the guy to bring down old Don Pedro Áviles would make your career.

  Which, truth be told, could use a boost.

  The DEA is a new organization, barely two years old. When Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, he needed soldiers to fight it. Most of the new recruits came from the old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs; a lot of them came from various police departments around the country, but not a few of the early start-up draft into the DEA came from the Company.

  Art was one of these Company Cowboys.

  That’s what the police types call any of the guys who came in from the CIA. There’s a lot of resentment and mistrust of the covert types by the law enforcement types.

  Shouldn’t be, Art thinks. It’s basically the same function—intelligence gathering. You find your assets, cultivate them, run them and act on the intelligence they give you. The big difference between his new work and his old work is that in the former you arrest your targets, and in the latter you just kill them.

  Operation Phoenix, the programmed assassination of the Vietcong infrastructure.

  Art hadn’t done too much of the actual “wet work.” His job back in Vietnam was to collect raw data and analyze it. Other guys, mostly Special Forces on loan to the Company, went out and acted on Art’s information.

  They usually went out at night, Art recalls. Sometimes they’d be gone for days, then reappear back at the base in the small hours of the morning, cranked up on Dexedrine. Then they’d disappear into their hooches and sleep for days at a time, then go out and do it again.

  Art had gone out with them only a few times, when his sources had produced info about a large group of cadres concentrated in the area. Then he’d accompany the Special Forces guys to set up a night ambush.

  He hadn’t liked it much. Most of the time he was scared shitless, but he did his job, he pulled the trigger, he took his buddies’ backs, he got out alive with all his limbs attached and his mind intact. He saw a lot of shit he wishes he could forget.

  I just have to live with the fact, Art thinks, that I wrote men’s names down on paper and, in the act of doing so, signed their death warrants. After that, it’s a matter of finding a way to live decently in an indecent world.

  But that fucking war.

  That goddamn motherfucking war.

  Like a lot of people, he watched the last helicopters taking off from Saigon rooftops on television. Like a lot of vets, he went out and got good and stinking drunk that night, and when the o
ffer came to move over to the new DEA, he jumped at it.

  He talked it over with Althie first.

  “Maybe this is a war worth fighting,” he told his wife. “Maybe this is a war we can actually win.”

  And now, Art thinks as he sits and waits for Don Pedro to show up, we might be close to doing it.

  His legs ache from sitting still but he doesn’t move. His stint in Vietnam taught him that. The Mexicans spaced in the brush around him are likewise disciplined—twenty special agents from the DFS, armed with Uzis, dressed in camouflage.