The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow William Heinemann $202 This is a compelling and violent thriller about the US government's war on drugs and the agencies, including the CIA, FBI, and DEA, that fought - or more often nurtured - the development of drug cartels in Central and South America and along the US border with Mexico. The story begins with the ruthless torture/massacre of a family of 19 in Mexico. The action then jumps back to 1975, when things are even more violent. Operation Condor, a DEA bid to destroy the Mexican opium fields, is under way. In the slaughter of innocent peasants and indiscriminate spraying of the poppy fields with herbicide, the book's central character, DEA operative Arturo Keller, sees clear parallels with Southeast Asia, where he was an assassin for the CIA during the Vietnam war. Keller's bid to gather intelligence on the local cartels, or narcotrafficantes, is stymied by the locals' refusal to talk to him, despite his Anglo-Chicano origins and fluent Spanish - acquired growing up as a child in the barrio. Keller's luck seems to change when he befriends the two Barrera brothers during a boxing match. Their uncle, Tio Angel Barrera, is a powerful Mexican cop who helps Keller to find and destroy a long-established local drug lord. Keller's star rises high in the DEA firmament as a result and he can seemingly do no wrong. But unknown to Keller, Tio Angel is no seraph and has his own fiendish plans to establish a federation of drug dealers to flood the US with lucrative Colombian crack cocaine. He used Keller to help eliminate the local opposition. Things start to go wrong for the baddies when Barrera's thugs kidnap, torture and murder one of Keller's friends and colleagues. The rest of the plot centres on Keller's ruthless and, at times, obsessive crusade to bring down the Barrera family. The complex, multi-layered plot and non-stop action switches back and forth at breakneck speed between Mexico, New York, California, Central America and Hong Kong. Each of the complex cast of characters has his or her own story. These include shadowy secret service agents and gang leaders, some of them psychopathic, others seemingly urbane, but all of them deadly. Then there's a high-class call girl and a charismatic Catholic cardinal dedicated to the improvement of the material lives of his people rather than the spiritual. Given that The Power of the Dog is set against the background of the Iran/Contra arms for drugs scandal and Ronald Reagan's cold war to prevent the communist infiltration of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the plot develops into a massive and all too believable conspiracy theory. Perhaps with one eye on the commercial success of The Da Vinci Code, Winslow rather needlessly throws the Vatican, Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta into the conspiracy for good measure. It's a believable tale with frequent references to historical events and figures. The novel is well researched, with the single glaring exception being the chapter set in Hong Kong, in which the drug lords are in town for an arms shipment from a PLA general. This takes place, of all places, on a sampan in Silvermine Bay, one of the fleet of thousands belonging to the 'boat people' who frequent the 'maze of docks, wharves and anchored boats'. Either Silvermine Bay has changed a bit since this reviewer last visited, or the author's experience of Hong Kong is limited to a Google search of tourism websites and a reading of James Clavell's Noble House.