Nebraska Center for Writers

by Don Winslow

Badiraguato District
State of Sinaloa

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 isnít Operation Phoenix but Operation Condor, and these arenít 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.

Reprinted with permission
from The Power of the Dog
Copyright © 2005
by Don Winslow
Alfred A Knopf

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