Guns, Drugs Flow Across "Iron River"
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The drug cartel wars in Mexico have been the subject of countless news stories and feature reports for the past two years. We've heard about the shootouts, and assassinations that have claimed thousands of lives in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and other border cities. Usually the stories center on the trafficking of illegal drugs as the root of the violence, but a new novel points to a different villain in the story. “Iron River” tells the tale of the guns that flow down to Mexico from the U.S. and about the complicated relationship between drugs, money and power that is causing havoc along the border. I’d like to welcome my guest T. Jefferson Parker. His new novel is called “Iron River.” And, Jeff, welcome to These Days.
T. JEFFERSON PARKER (Author): Oh, thank you. Nice to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s start out by having you tell us about the name of the book. What is the “Iron River?”
PARKER: “Iron River” is the name of the book and it’s also law enforcement slang for the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Corpus Christi, Texas, roughly 2,000 miles through which guns pass illegally from the United States to Mexico. Iron being the guns, river being the flow.
CAVANAUGH: Now, our protagonist is Charlie Hood, the LA deputy sheriff assigned to the ATF Task Force at the border. This is not the first time we’ve met Charlie Hood in your novels. Tell us a little about him.
PARKER: I’ve written – this is the third book I’ve written featuring Charlie. I wrote him for the first time three years ago in a book called “LA Outlaws.” And when I was done with that book, I liked Charlie. I liked his kind of forthrightness but he’s bright, he’s capable, he’s a just man but he’s not a crusader. And I decided to write about him again, and, as you pointed out, I needed to pluck him out of the sheriff’s department of Los Angeles for this book and thrust him into an ATF Task Force working the border, given the fictitious operation, a blowdown is what they’re called, and they’re trying to stop these guns from going south.
CAVANAUGH: Now, even though Charlie is an Iraq war veteran, there’s something about this assignment, something about this whole drug cartel violence that he gets enmeshed in, in the book “Iron River,” that is even more powerful to him than his experience in the wartime.
PARKER: He has a – In this book, “Iron River,” Charlie has an awakening, I guess you would say. The world that he sees along the border and south of the border in Mexico where so many atrocities have been happening in the last few years, he begins to see that as a change in human nature and a change in human development and a change for the worse. He takes on sort of an apocalyptic vision of these things that are going on around him. And there’s a series of very brief letters in the book that he writes home to his mom and dad and in these letters, he questions what he’s seeing around him, this devolution of human behavior as he kind of describes it and he also questions his own role, why he feels compelled to witness it and to step in and try to correct the situation. So he questions humanity’s devolving, you know, sense of itself and his own curiosity and even perhaps culpability in that thing.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with T. Jefferson Parker. His new novel is called “Iron River.” And it’s really about the drug cartel wars and the U.S. involvement in the drug cartel wars in Mexico. You started out talking about he gets involved with the ATF Task Force there at the border and this huge fight develops at the border. Tell us about that and what is it about?
PARKER: What happens in “Iron River” is Charlie’s ATF Task Force team gets in a terrible, nearly accidental gun battle early on in the book and a stray bullet kills a young Mexican man who turns out to be the son of a powerful cartel leader. The son was on his way to UCLA to be a student. He was a good, clean-cut kid, as far as we can tell, but he dies at the hands of ATF Task Force accidentally. And that leads to reprisals and the reprisals lead to reprisals against those, and so “Iron River” is a – it’s not a mystery in the sense that there’s a crime to solve. It’s a story about building cataclysms and disasters that are piled on each other, and it’s a huge structure of vengeance and vengeance again that propels the novel forward.
CAVANAUGH: One of the fascinating things about this book, I think, Jeff, is the fact that you give voice to a lot of different opinions about what’s going on in – between the U.S. and Mexico when it comes to drugs, when it comes to guns. You have a speech from a gun dealer in the United States basically – tell us basically what the gun dealer says to defend his position in all of this.
PARKER: Umm-hmm. Well, his name is Ron Pace. He’s a fictional character. He is the last surviving family member of an older arms building company that was operating in Orange County, California. There were several such ones. And he develops this swank new weapon because he’s an engineer, he’s an inventor. And he enters into a deal with a cartel leader to supply a thousand of these machine pistols, take them down south of the border. Ron’s position is, and the position of Pace Arms, his company, is that they are doing the right thing by building inexpensive weapons that can be used by people to defend themselves and the rap of the company all throughout the last decades, way back into the seventies, Ron’s company said we don’t build Saturday Night Specials, we build the working man’s equalizer. And Ron believes that the building of handguns is a legal—which it is—profitable and morally acceptable business in the United States, and I think a lot of people would agree and I think I would agree, but when you let the guns get out of control, like Ron does, and you specifically sell them to bad guys, the whole equation changes in my mind.
CAVANAUGH: And, conversely, when Charlie Hood, in the novel, meets a Mexican policeman that he forms a sort of relationship with, the Mexican policeman says some of the most, I think, provocative things for Americans, at least, in your novel. Tell us about his opinion of the entire relationship between drugs and guns and what’s going on in Mexico with the cartel wars.
PARKER: Yeah, sure. That’s Luna. Luna is a tough Mexican police captain, an honest man, and he and Charlie have rather pointed discussions about what’s going on. And Luna’s point of view is that it is the American desire, insatiable desire, for drugs, be they illegal drugs like come north from Mexico, or legal drugs that we see, you know, pedaled so flagrantly to us on the evening news. You know, drugs for everything from twitching feet to whatever it is, you know, they’re just – Americans have an insatiable appetite for drugs, according to Luna. And they are willing, Americans are willing, to pony up good money for it, and they are willing to buy from America the guns that it takes to carve their territory south of the border in order to feed this insatiable desire. And Charlie disagrees with that. Charlie thinks, no, that’s not exactly true at all. It is your—the Mexicans’—desire for money at all cost and profiteering and these criminals shoving these drugs up into our streets, that’s the core of the problem. And to my view, you know, Maureen, to my view, they’re both right.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jeff Parker. His new novel is “Iron River.” I wonder, Jeff, how close to life are the situations in your book? What kind of research did you do in order to substantiate some of the positions that your characters take and some of the incidents that happen?
PARKER: I’ll tell you, I spent some time along the border in various gun stores, you know, looking at the – you know, talking to people who sell guns. I did a lot of work with the ATF, interviews with the ATF, talked to them a lot. So I spent some time down there prying into things a bit. My job as a novelist is to dramatize what I see and dramatize it in a clear way and dramatize it in a way that will provoke enjoyment and thought in you, the reader. So to answer your question, you know, my book deals with the great fear that Americans have that this terrible violence in Mexico will spill over. Those are always the words you hear. It’s going to spill over sooner or later, and some people say it already has. Well, in the book, of course, as a novelist, my job is to spill it over.
PARKER: So I spill it over in a – writ large, in a big way, a big, dramatic way and so what I might observe there becomes exaggerated in a dramatic fashion.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. The kidnapping – An American law enforcement official is kidnapped by a Mexican gang in your book “Iron River.” And did you feel that you were upping the ante when you put that in your book?
PARKER: Yeah, I did. I felt I was upping the ante dramatically because people know that something like that has not exactly happened. But in my heart I believe that something like that could happen if there isn’t an improvement in the situation down there before too long. And also I put that in because it was a nod, if you will, or an acknowledgement of Kiki Camarena and what happened to him so many years ago. I mean, that name will resound in the memory of a lot of our listeners and as it resounds in mine. And I – in a way, the kidnapped Jimmy Holdstock in my book is kind of a – an exaggerated, a dramatized version of Kiki, if you will.
CAVANAUGH: For people who are unfamiliar about the Kiki Camarena story, could you tell us just a little bit about that?
PARKER: Well, yeah. Kiki Camarena was an undercover DEA agent and he was in Mexico and he was kidnapped by cartel people and he was kept alive on drugs and tortured hideously for several days before he finally died and he is the most flagrant, you know, case, I guess you would say. He’s sort of a martyr and a hero among DEA and among American law enforcement for what he endured.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jeff Parker about his new book “Iron River.” And I want to know, you know, here in San Diego, Jeff, and in LA, we’re very familiar with stories about what’s been going on in Tijuana and along the border. And I wonder, however, when you travel the country on your book tours and you tell them about this story about “Iron River,” what kind of – First of all, is this a familiar story to most people?
PARKER: It, oddly enough, isn’t. You know, we all have seen the movies and read the stories about the bales of marijuana and cocaine coming north and discovered at the border, and we’ve all seen the pictures on the news of the huge, you know, cash bundles that pay for them. But rarer are the guns and the understanding that so many of the guns come from the United States so, you know, some guy in Michigan, you know, said to me, well, what does this have to do with me and where I live? And I said, well, you know, these drugs are coming north into your streets and, believe it or not, when a weapon is ripped off from Lansing, Michigan, chances are it’s going to end up down there, heading south, if that’s what the people want to do with it. And so the supply of weapons actually comes from the entire United States. And California, for instance, where we are, is not a huge state for being the origin of firearms that go south into Mexico along the “Iron River,” but it is, it’s a highway, it’s the tunnel through which these guns go, California, Arizona and Texas.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering what kind, if any kind of blowback you’ve got from your portrayal of the situation. I mean, giving sort of what you tried to do, I suppose, in the novel was sort of an even amount of respect for the opinions of various numbers of your characters, whether it’s the gun dealer or the policeman in Mexico.
PARKER: You know, I haven’t gotten a lot of vehement, you know, blowback about some of the things I’ve said in this book. I don’t expect any because I think the book is a fair portrayal of a situation that is true. And in the book it may not be totally true but it just about is. And, you know, my worry is that – I think one of the real livid points of discussion that this book could provoke is Second Amendment rights and, you know, to keep and bear arms and I think that, you know, when and if, you know, the NRA guys read this book, they will probably land on me with both feet because the book can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unregulated sales of weapons. And those guys are laissez faire, they’re capitalists, guns are good, they make them, they buy them, they sell them, they’re legal, and there’s no reason why you can’t do what you want with your guns. That’s their point of view. And I’m afraid that they’ll read me as an antagonist, which is odd because I come from a gun background and a gun family. I own firearms, I use them. I like them, I respect them.
CAVANAUGH: And so that was not your intention of making it an assault against the Second Amendment.
PARKER: No, definitely not. Definitely not. My attitude about the Second Amendment has not changed in my life and writing this book didn’t change it. I believe that the Supreme Court interpreted it correctly recently, the Washington, D.C. case. And I believe that we do have a right, for better or for worse, to keep and bear arms in this country as individuals. So I’m not attacking Second Amendment rights at all but I think that a lot of people, when you bring up firearms, guns, it’s a very binary word. You’re either for them or against them, and they’re – it’s very divisive like a lot of subjects, abortion, say. You know, there are certain things that people just get really, really riled about really quickly, and so they’re going to put you in one camp or the other and they’re going to exalt you or crush you, depending on which side of the opinion they carry.
CAVANAUGH: T. Jefferson Parker’s new novel is “Iron River.” You know, Jeff, I want to talk to you a little bit about a technical writing question because you have an extended scene of this gun battle that goes on between the ATF and Mexican police, and it goes on for several pages. And I was wondering how do you plot out a very complex, fast-moving scene like that, one that, you know, you might – it might unfold in your mind like a movie but there it is on the page. Do you work it out with maps or diagrams? How do you do that?
PARKER: That’s a good question because one thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that those action scenes like the ones you’re talking about are – they’re really hard to write. That’s one of the hardest things a novelist can do is to try to write an action scene and make it clear and believable and surprising and engaging and worthy of the action itself. For me, I’ll generally start with a blank sheet of typing paper and a pencil and I’ll draw it. I’m a terrible artist but I draw these – it looks like something I would draw in the second grade for one of those projects where you listen to an hour of California history on the radio…
PARKER: …and then you draw a picture of it, you know. That’s what my pictures look like. But I plot out where the guys are, the people are, and what’s going to happen and what the terrain looks like and what time of day it is and where the shadows are going to fall and what the roads are like. And I draw it and then proceed to write from there. And I will tell you, those action scenes like the one you’re talking about, I wrote – I probably wrote that scene – I must’ve wrote that scene ten times, must’ve written that scene ten times to get it finally the right combination of adrenaline and clarity. It’s hard to do.
CAVANAUGH: And you told us about the background research you did to get it right about what’s actually happening on the border but I’m wondering where do you do the research for that kind of thing, for a shootout? Your personal background is as a reporter, right?
CAVANAUGH: Do you talk with law enforcement agents? How do you know what actually goes on?
PARKER: Well, I talk to agents and people who do that for a living.
PARKER: And then I project myself and imagine myself into a gun battle. I’ve never been in a gun battle and I’ve never even been near one but I’ve fired plenty of guns and that helps a little bit. And so you – The beauty, if you will of being a novelist is that you can do some research and find out the basic factual components and then you unleash your imagination and your vocabulary, if you will, your tools, your words, to try to dramatize and portray what you imagine.
CAVANAUGH: You are one of a handful of novelists that use Southern California as your backdrop. That’s your home ground, that’s where Charlie Hood lives, that’s where you write about. And I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about how fertile a ground you think this is for your kind of detective novels.
PARKER: Well, I love California. I was born here and I now live, I don’t know, 90 miles from where I was born and I probably will die here. So I love California, I’m vested here, I’m a Californian through and through, born in Los Angeles, to Orange County, now San Diego. As such, you’re going to find fertile ground wherever you are, if you live in a place for 56 years like I have. However, Southern California – California in general, Southern California is particularly rich in the kind of things that I am interested in as a crime writer. For instance, the “Iron River,” this border. I can see it, you know, virtually from my office, you know. I live very near that border. And so when you see the kind of conflicts that we have, you know, the people, the races, the economics, the social stuff, the geography, the history of California, it all comes together beautifully before your eyes if you want to look at it that way. So I think there’s just kind of no end to the crime novels that will be written about Southern California.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, when you do so much research and you get so in depth in a novel like “Iron River,” do you actually, as a novelist, want to see anything come of it? Do you hope that it changes people’s minds? Do you hope that it educates…
CAVANAUGH: …people? Or do you just hope that it entertains them?
PARKER: You know, all of the above, Maureen. I see my job, my main job, my really number one job when I step up to the plate, is to entertain. I see myself as an entertainer. And as an adjunct to that, I hope that my entertainment will reveal some new things that people might not know about, in this case the gun trade and what’s being done to control it. I hope that my reader is – I hope they feel that they’ve been through an intense, emotional experience. When they turn page 353 of “Iron River” and the book is over, I hope that there’s an impact in them and they don’t just simply pick up the next book five minutes later and start reading that. I hope there’s a pause and some sort of a feeling of having experienced something emotionally moving through one of my stories.
CAVANAUGH: Now, of course, you’ve written “Iron River,” it’s out there, you’re on the book tour, the final end of your book tour. Do you start thinking now about what’s – what the next novel is going to be?
PARKER: You know, I’m – I’m closing in on the end of it, believe it or not…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?
PARKER: …Maureen. I’ve 422 pages into what will probably be a 522 page book, say, so I’m 100 pages out right now.
CAVANAUGH: So you’re almost finished writing it then.
PARKER: Yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Is it another Charlie Hood?
PARKER: Yes, it is. Yeah. It’s due – the manuscript is due back in New York April first so I have…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
PARKER: …February and March to close out that last hundred pages and clean it up.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about this.
PARKER: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: I really appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with T. Jefferson Parker about his new novel called “Iron River.” If you’d like to comment about anything you hear on KPBS, you can go to KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.