Wolf Boys by Dan Slater, review by Bruce Jacobs
Former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and contributor to Fast Company, Dan Slater takes a big leap in subject from his first book, about Internet dating (Love in the Time of Algorithms), to his study of young Texas Latinos caught in the drug wars. Kids in Laredo's Martin High joined one of two groups: "those who would go into the drug business, and those who would chase them." Wolf Boys focuses on Robert Garcia, a local cop and former DEA adjunct, and teenager Gabriel Cardona, a hit man for the notorious Zeta cartel. Slater traces their paths through the streets of an economy built on smuggling's vast wealth--from the Mexican cartels and from Washington's waterfall of resources for drug interdiction and border security. A poor city filled with legal and illegal immigrants, Laredo was awash with money when the "war on drugs" heated up and post-9/11 border hysteria swelled.
A green card immigrant, Garcia was hired by the poorly funded Laredo Police Department before big government money came to town, so he jumped at the chance for a bonus by joining a DEA task force. However, anti-drug policing soon disillusioned him. Confiscated cash, drugs and cars helped pay for the growing federal and local enforcement agencies, but the flow of drugs never stopped. He was happy to earn a transfer to homicide: "Murder was apolitical.... You either caught the murderer and locked him up or you didn't." But Laredo's small city homicide beat soon imploded when the Zetas decided to take their turf war with the Sinaloans into Laredo, recruiting and training local teen assassins.
Raised in Laredo's Barrio Azteca, Cardona was a good student with the ambitious hope to use his middle school football talent to go to college. When the high school coach didn't take him, however, he walked away from his dreams. It was easy and more lucrative to join a neighborhood gang heisting cars and guns to sell across the border in Nuevo Laredo. He was 15 and tough. The Zeta boss "Forty" noticed and took him under his wing for weapons training in Mexico as one of the Zeta's lobos--wolf boys.
A tenacious bilingual journalist, Slater took numerous trips to Laredo, dug through news stories from both sides of the border, read a bibliography full of background history and commentary, and conducted hundreds of personal interviews with Cardona and Garcia. Wolf Boys includes enough history to keep the Mexican drug trade in perspective, but it is Slater's storytelling that carries the day. Not a pretty story perhaps, yet it is an engrossing one. It raises more questions about the effects the "war on drugs" has on the United States' youth than on the Mexican cartels it is meant to combat.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.