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McPheters, "Cartels and Combinations" (reviewed by Tim Ballard) Options · View
Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 10:48:28 PM

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Title: Cartels and Combinations
Author: Mike McPheters
Publisher: Bonneville Books
Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 237
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-59955-487-7
Price: $16.99

Reviewed by Tim Ballard for the Association for Mormon Letters

The handwritten note of Mexican drug lord “El Gordo” crushed Assistant United States Attorney Enrique Guzman: “We have your daughter…You have six of our people currently in custody…You have one week to free our men before we cause harm to your daughter.” And thus begins the high adventure of the novel “Cartels and Combinations,” as U.S. G-men rally together, stopping at nothing to save the daughter of their friend and colleague.

Apart from it being a page-turning action thriller, this novel is particularly relevant to the LDS reader. Underlying the entire plot are subtle and not-so-subtle gospel themes and lessons applicable to our day. We are introduced to priesthood-bearing U.S. operatives, who rely on the Lord to guide them in their rescue mission. We are also introduced to soul-searching organized crime families questioning their immorality and searching for redemption through a strange book that providentially falls into their possession—it is the Book of Mormon.

The author takes us on a journey into diverse historical periods (we travel through both ancient and modern Mexico), and through vastly different settings and scenes (we go from an LDS youth conference, through a drug smuggling underground tunnel system, into a Sunday Gospel Doctrine Class, and end up in a violent drug lord’s training camp deep in the heart of Mexico). Through it all, the author creatively laces Book of Mormon lessons longing to be told--lessons about good and evil, about blessings and consequences. The author offers a powerful interpretation of one of the Book of Mormon’s least understood principles—he discusses the meaning of secret combinations (like those of the famed Gadianton Robbers), how they still exist in the world, and, most importantly, what we might do as individuals, families, and nations to destroy them before they destroy us. For, as one character in the novel affirms, quoting from the Book of Mormon, “And whatsoever nation shall uphold such secret combinations, to get power and gain…shall be destroyed.”

At the core of the author’s message is the power of redemption through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we witness firsthand how even the most fallen beings among us can turn to the Lord in repentance and seek His guidance, through scripture and revelation, for restitution. And in this novel, such restitution climaxes in a heart-pounding rescue scene right out of a Tom Clancy thriller—only unlike Clancy, this rescue scene is directly influenced by God and the Book of Mormon. Simply fascinating.

Though I enjoyed the novel, there was a problematic issue with it that I could never shake. It has to do with the truth surrounding Mexican drug-smuggling organizations and their influence on the United States, particularly their influence on U.S. border towns. In my estimation, the “facts” as presented in the novel simply do not measure up to real world standards. I am generally annoyed with critics who (indulging in self aggrandizement) point out the many factual flaws of some novel or some movie that make it “so Hollywood.” Indeed, I am generally among the first to respond to such critics with, “It’s just a novel,” “It’s just a movie,” “It’s just entertainment.”

However, I do not believe the author has left much room for this defense. This novel—more than just being entertaining—has a resonating socio-political message that the author very intentionally wants declared. For example, the author begins the work with a most serious Foreword, discussing the very real problems of porous borders, drug cartels, illegal immigration, and how all of this threatens the physical and spiritual well-being of the nation. These same themes are addressed throughout the novel by its characters. Furthermore, the book is advertised on its back cover as one that will teach us “a lot” about the “border conflict with Mexico.” We are further told that “anyone wanting to know how drug cartels are infiltrating our country’s borders with illegal drugs will find it in this book.” And finally, the author is a retired FBI agent, who naturally has both credibility and a natural disposition to teach the facts as they are.

He even states on his website (provided in the book) that this novel is “based on current facts and concerns regarding the extremely dangerous situation on our southern border with Mexico.” Indeed, more than an entertainer, the author is clear about his intended role as witness and teacher. And so, readers are naturally led to believe that they enter this reading experience to be taught the facts. In the end, the most powerful lessons we are supposed to learn from these socio-political problems are based on these “facts.” But if the facts are misrepresented, how might that affect our take-home lessons? This is my concern.

But who am I to contest the facts? The truth is, unlike our common practice of choosing which books we will review, I was specifically asked by the review editor for the Association for Mormon Letters to take this one—and for good reason. Not only did I write my Master's thesis on drug smuggling organizations and how they affect the U.S.-Mexico border, but I have lived for almost a decade smack-on the Southwest border (within ten miles of it), during which time I have worked as a Special Agent investigating the very smuggling organizations discussed in this novel. I do not pretend to be the guardian of truth here, but I do feel my perspective is worth something.

The novel is ultimately a national call to action. And I am glad it is! For the problems stemming from drug smuggling organizations are real and must be defended against. However, it is important to understand what is really going on, lest our actions become misguided by misunderstanding.

One of the most unsettling ideas presented in this novel is the role of illegal immigrants in the drug cartels. The author states in his Foreword that “many of America’s twelve million immigrants do the bidding of drug cartels by aiding in the transportation and distribution of illegal narcotics.” Such a statement implies there are indeed *many* illegal immigrants working for the cartels.

The first illegal family we are introduced to in the novel has a son who works for the cartel and is directly involved in the kidnapping of the prosecutor’s daughter, Elena Guzman. On several other occasions throughout the book, the message is clear: illegal immigration directly causes events like the kidnapping of innocent Americans and “violent deaths along the border” (see pp. 130, 157, 229). I do not contest a connection between cartels and illegal immigrants, but I believe the author hugely overstates it. In many ways illegals make awful employees of the cartels. With no documentation they cannot adequately transport drugs through ports of entry and checkpoints, as their lack of status immediately draws suspicion upon them and alerts authorities. Cartels don’t need that. Illegal immigrants might also have problems opening bank accounts for the cartels, effecting financial transactions for the cartels, or carrying out any number of activities that run much smoother for one with legal status.

Some illegals are certainly utilized in the cities where drugs end up (dealing the drugs, for example), but they do not represent a major arm of the cartel, as the novel suggests. If illegals did not exist, the cartels would continue smuggling drugs just the same. And if the cartels did not exist, illegals would continue to flood the United States in search of opportunity. I would encourage any student of this issue to examine the hundreds of publicly available criminal complaints issued weekly for drug smuggling arrestees along the border. The number of illegals arrested for drug smuggling (compared with arrestees who are U.S. citizens or have legal status) represents a tiny fraction. This simply contradicts a central argument made by the author.

This is not to say the problem with illegal immigration is not serious. Flooding the social services sector of America, without contributing to that system (i.e. without paying taxes), has caused social failures that affect us all (as the novel points out). I do not want to be misunderstood. I am against illegal immigration and recognize it as a violation of law. But by stating that “many of America’s twelve million illegals do the bidding of the cartels” and that they are “working in tandem” with the cartels to “saturate our nation with poison” (from the novel’s website) paints an exaggerated picture, which may result in calls for exaggerated policies. Illegal immigrants become viewed as something much worse than they are. (By and large they are here to work in legitimate sectors, though I denounce this behavior, as they are illegitimate workers).

But let’s be honest about it. What do we do, for example, in a case where illegal parents have (wrongly) smuggled their children into the United States. Then, when those children turn 18, and are identified as illegal, do we really throw them back into Mexico or Guatemala, where they have never been, where they don’t know the culture, where they have no family or connection? Is that the right thing to do? Living on the border has exposed me to such common situations. It has caused to me seek measured policies to deal with the issue. Painting illegal immigrants with the same exaggerated brush seems wrongheaded and, if generally accepted, *will* lead to practices unbecoming of a godly nation.

Furthermore, I cringed when I read that Elena Guzman is being persecuted by the Mexican community in the United States because her father prosecutes cartel members (p. 6). This is extremely far-fetched (and frankly, offensive), and again paints a wrongheaded picture. The Mexican community in the United States, even right on the border, is by and large against drug smuggling. They are good people with a wonderful and loving culture. Furthermore, a significant percentage of U.S. officials (from agents to prosecutors) who pursue the cartels stem directly from the Mexican community. What message is the author trying to send here about the U.S. “Mexican community”?

The other disturbing concept of the novel that paints an exaggerated picture, which (if generally accepted) could lead to wrongheaded policy, is the way violence on the U.S. side of the border is presented. This part of the novel can’t be ignored or dismissed as simply the “entertainment” factor of fiction because it represents the single principle that fans the flame against the cartels and illegal immigration. It is the threat and tragedy at the core of the novel’s socio-political message that is intended for the reader. “As long as drugs keep moving through Mexico,” we are told in the novel, “people like [Elena Guzman, who was taken from the San Diego area] will always end up a victim” (p. 14cool. Prosecutor Guzman’s other child, Miguel, is also murdered in San Diego in the novel by the drug cartel. The author explains the drug lord’s decision to kidnap and kill the innocent victims: “[Prosecutor] Guzman was about to file charges against several of the [cartel] members, which would be extremely bad for business.” The author explains how the cartels are after only one thing—profit (p. 49). He further explains how they are extremely intelligent businessmen.

The problem with the novel is that, in real life, there is absolutely NOTHING worse for a cartel’s business than targeting U.S. officials or their families. This is not Mexico. The United States would respond powerfully and drastically to such threats and would deeply hurt the cartel’s business. (Research “Operation Leyenda:” the powerful U.S. response to the Mexican cartel, whose members decided to kill DEA Agent Enrique Camarena, while he was working in Mexico). The cartels understand this. As the author asserts, they are savvy businessmen. They are only after profit. They do not need that kind of heat from the most powerful nation on earth. It is publicly documented how some Mexican cartels go so far as to put “hits” out on their own people for even threatening U.S. officials. When U.S. officers and/or assets are threatened or attacked in Mexico, it is certainly indicative of the culture of violence that exists in Mexico—a threat that should be dealt with powerfully. However, such tragedies do not necessarily support the author’s overall position; for these rare attacks on U.S. interests occur far from the U.S. side of the border and are not necessarily (and are most likely NOT) ordered from the cartel leadership, who know better.

But in order for the novel to portray the awesome threat stemming from the cartels and illegal immigration—which should call us all to action—it has to drop into the realm of make-believe. The author knows this, which is why he has FBI agents in the novel express (in a few short paragraphs) the naivety of the drug lord to pursue his course of action (p.155). And yet, (inconsistent with his obvious knowledge) the author still portrays “El Gordo” as a brilliant businessman and, at the same time, the author utilizes his portrayal of “El Gordo’s” violence on the U.S. side of the border to fuel the readers’ passion and call them to real life action—yes, the author calls the reader to action based on faulty information.

Again, you say, “but it is only fiction.” And again, I reply, “it is fiction with a clear and intentional political motivation.” People believe this sort of threat exists as a common condition on the U.S. side of the border. A highly educated and well traveled friend of mine from the East Coast recently asked me how I could possible live on the border and expose my family to such danger. Indeed, people already believe the myth.

This novel only strengthens the myth. It takes us to an LDS Gospel doctrine class in a ward near the border. The students express in the class how they fear for their lives in living among such violence. If I addressed this in my gospel doctrine class in the LDS ward that sits within a mile of the border, they would laugh me out of the classroom. The violence we hear about is in Mexico, and it is between the cartels. This is not to say some violence doesn’t cross the border. But again, it is very rare on the U.S. side and is most always between cartels. The few and unfortunate killings of U.S. officials on the border almost always have to do with a bad guy (an individual) employing a tactical measure to escape going to jail (like bad guys do all over the country)—not a strategic, preconceived plan of violence from the drug lord, as illustrated in the novel.

But so what if the novel portrays this false (yet entertaining) kind of violence? Well, if I did not know any better, I would read this novel in great despair. I would take the highly credentialed author at his word. I would believe him when he tells me that the facts of the novel are based on reality. I would then push for draconian measures. In addition to blindly rounding up all the “poison-bearing” illegals, I would consider practically shutting down the border. Indeed, if life and limb of the innocent American citizen was daily on the line due to cartels, the borders must be militarized, strangled and almost shut down. And people (far from the border) have called for such a thing. And yet they do not think of the consequences. Our economy (even our lifeblood) depends on foreign trade, particularly with our neighbors to the South. A closed border would affect that and cause human suffering in the United States. This is not to say we have figured out the balance between liberty and security. I am not oblivious to the real threats that do exist. These threats must be dealt with strongly—now more than ever. But before we end the debate, let us have an accurate picture of the problem. In my estimation, this novel (though it claims to do so) does not provide the accurate picture we need.

Other ideas in the novel that add to the less-than-accurate portrayal of the issues at hand include the following. The author tells of over forty secret tunnels connecting the U.S. and Mexico, including one that a vehicle can pass through. (I am very familiar with the illicit tunnels and have personally been inside them. I encourage readers to do a simple Google search to learn the reality of these tunnel systems. If readers wants to see the author’s version, I recommend they see the action-thriller movie, *Fast and Furious.*). The author suggests that current U.S. policy includes decreasing border agents. (Again, a simple Google search refutes this—the number of border agents has been increasing). The author accuses Democrats of intentionally softening border enforcement so as to facilitate dangerous illegals entering the country in an effort to buoy their political base. (This is interesting, but do we have proof of such ill-intent? It reminds me of how Michael Moore can magically read the heart of George W. Bush and declare that the war in Iraq was nothing by a ploy to make the president rich.) And finally, there is a reference in the novel to “U.S. Customs” (p. 15cool needing to be notified of Elena’s kidnapping. (This agency was completely dismantled almost 8 years ago. It seems to indicate the general level of research that went into this novel).

I see no problem with the novel’s use of such misrepresentations, but only to the extent that they are used for entertainment purposes to further the plot of an exciting socio-political thriller (like so many we see today on bookshelves and movie screens). If a reader picks up the novel with this in mind, it will be a wonderful read, particularly with the creative merging of a fast-paced plot with scriptural applications of the Book of Mormon. However, entertainment alone was clearly not the intent here. Online reviews make it clear that readers believe their “eyes have been opened” to how things are on the border and how it is affecting the nation. And why wouldn’t they? The author (as discussed above) has done his best to encourage such thought. His loud declarations laced throughout the book (particularly those given by characters such as Patriarch Granger and Stake President Madden) were serious, and very real, calls to action intended for us, his audience. But these calls to action were clearly fueled and impassioned by less-than-accurate perceptions of the key issues we are now supposed to go out and deal with. The author should have either stuck to the facts and then spoken to the issues and their solutions, or he should have exaggerated the facts (as he did), then downplayed the preaching (which he did not). Taking both roads at the same time may maximize the novel’s appeal and popularity, but ultimately represents an irresponsible course of action.

*The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author in his individual capacity, and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government or any of its departments or agencies.*
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