It was a small article in the newspaper that caught Dan Slater’s attention. Two teenaged boys from Laredo, Texas had been arrested – as assassins for the Zeta cartel. At first he thought there was not enough story to give him more than a magazine article. But where life is parsimonious, story can be generous. The story of Gabriel Cardona and Bart Reta – and policeman Robert Garcia – as told in Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel bears more resemblance to a novel by Don Winslow or T. Jefferson Parker than anything you’ll find in the paper. Credit Dan Slater for not only sensing a great story, but as well for the research and tenacity to bring it all together in the manner of a page-turning novel.
Slater is a smart writer, who knows how to engage the reader both with story and history, that is to say, the background readers need to understand the strange currents that turned two pretty average-seeming teenagers into rock-star style assassins. He begins his story with Robert Garcia, whose parents had “emigrated from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to the Texas border town of Eagle Pass—an international journey of one mile.” There they built their house themselves, on a patch of land, and brought up their children. Robert ended up in the military, then married, then moved to Laredo, where he became a cop.
Slater gives us Gabriel and Bart’s back-stories as well, crafting a trio of characters we want to like even a we know where this is headed. Slater expertly weaves the personal stories of these men into the larger story of drug smuggling in Mexico, which serves an American market eager to consume. It’s not a matter of whether the drugs will reach us, but how and from whom – in this case, Gabriel and Bart.
The trick of the non-fiction writer is to make is to make us care deeply about the characters and to lucidly illuminate the history that drives them. Even if we know what happens, the reading is engaging and gripping, and Slater deliver on all counts. He crafts a narrative that is every bit as compelling as any thriller and utterly true. Slater’s craft is such that he makes the revelation of the information a plot point for tension, as we turn the pages faster and faster to find out how it came to a point when two teenagers night live like rock stars in Laredo, driving Mercedes, wearing Versace and killing with impunity.
Part of the reason this is all so effective is that Slater never editorializes, even if he’s quite clear that drug prohibition never works. Slater’s focus on the personal lives and the true-crime elements, on the driving story and intense tension, is perfect. He and I talked about his book and the means by which he corralled his huge story into a taut tale of non-fiction suspense. His easygoing conversation complements the precision of his style. Ultimately, Wolf Boys evokes a complicated set of emotions and understandings. We know these people well enough to recognize that in other circumstances, we might be these people.
Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….