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Border & Immigration

Crime Novel Tracks Guns Along The Border

Crime Novel Tracks Guns Along The Border
T. Jefferson Parker talks about the latest novel in his Charlie Hood series, The Border Lords, a continuing tale of drugs and guns along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

T. Jefferson Parker talks about the latest novel in his Charlie Hood series, The Border Lords, a continuing tale of drugs and guns along the U.S.-Mexico Border.


T. Jefferson Parker, local author of the new book "The Border Lords"


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

A new novel explores how fighting brutal drug cartels can brutalize the good guys. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, San Diegan and New York Times best selling author, T. Jefferson parker is out with a new thriller set once again in the troubled burden land between Mexico and California, we'll talk about the novel border lords and the consequences of entering the dark side. And then we meet young offenders in San Diego, who are turning their lives around, with help from the jolt program. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Evening good guys have their breaking point. Especially when they are surrounded by some of the world's most violent, ruthless criminals. In his new novel, Border Lords, author T. Jefferson parker brings back into the world of law man, Charley hood. This time he's working to save the life and perhaps the soul of a federal undercovers agent who's seen too much in the border lands develop California and Mexico. This is the fourth in parker's projected six book series on the border, are the subject as San Diego based Jeff parker knows well 32 both research and proximity. I'd like to welcome my guest, New York Times best selling author, T. Jefferson parker. Welcome back to the show.

PARKER: Thank you, good to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you were on These Days last February, talking about your book, iron river, which focused on the gun trade flowing from America down to Mexican drug cartels, what is the maybe focus of this book, border lords.

PARKER: The main focus of this book is what happens when the a young, capable, trained principled lawman gets in over his head and starts to crack. It's about -- it's about what happens when the hero portfolio is not quite enough.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And we're talking about ATF agent Shawn oz born.

PARKER: That's right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oz, in the book. Of now, what is his quest? What is the area of his break down?

PARKER: Well, it's a couple of things Maureen, the first, is, he's been under deep cover for 18 months, which is a long time for anybody, A[CHECK] is when my book opens, and he -- he appears to crack, he commits A series of brutal murders against cartel hit men and boys, and then he climbs into his beloved yellow piper club, and flies away [CHECK] south into Mexico. And of course, A, F has to dispatch my hero, Charley hood, to go fetch him and bring him back.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He has in a lot of aspects gone rogue.

PARKER: He's totally gone rogue. And one of the big fat mysteries that runs through the book is what's going on with him. Because he's not only exhibiting some terribly unusual behavior for him, he's a stand up lawman, and all of a sudden he's committed these murder, but these changing physically, he's changing mentally, he's [CHECK] [CHECK] [CHECK] [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This mystical transformation that runs through the book, why is that an element in this book.

PARKER: I think one of the most important things that we can ask ourselves as helpings is what is our place in the universe and how did we get here? Is there a God? If so, can we communicate with him or her? If not, what should we do about it? These are the questions that are going through Shawn's mind. So his quest, as a spiritually grounded man at the beginning of thing boo, begins to dissolve. That begins to dissolve. [CHECK] really available? If so, why is this happening to me and how come everything about me is changing and collapsing and I've always been a good man?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Because he faces that encounter with really ultimate evil, and he sort of is having a difficult time dealing with it.

PARKER: He sure does. He sure does. And I do too. And one of the things that I love about these books, Shawn in particular, and Charley in gentleman, in the course of these four books, is that notion of [CHECK] I don't like the John Wayne heroes, and I don't like the guys who come in and shoot everybody dead. And the Rambo kind of guys. I think life is more complicated than that. [CHECK] especially Charley, he's ATF, one of his job system to try to control the flow of guns in and out of the south of New Mexico, but he finds himself constantly outnumbered and often outgunned, because the cartels have as much good of stuff as they do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK] as you were writing this rogue officer, Shawn Osborn, and you had your own hero, Charley Hood, trying to track him down and maybe being out of his element, and overwhelmed by the outrageousness of Sean Osborn, did you find yourself having to track downs on born as an officer? Like, did he surprise you?

PARKER: Yeah, he did. He really did. I didn't have a thorough identity line for this book. I made up this book pretty much daily as I went along. I knew that Shawn would go on a spiritual mystical quest, if you will, at times [CHECK] this piper cub, and the piper cub kind of zooms him around everywhere. [CHECK] so I kind of followed Shawn, I felt like he was leading me through the story, and the man script as much as anything else. Sometimes when you're writing on a novel, you -- the characters will start to do things and tell what they need to do, and the book will help you write it. If not almost write itself. And this book was one of those.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to bring you back to the idea that this is the fourth in a series of books, and one of the most interesting characters inside this series, out Charley hood, of course, is Bradley zones. Charley tried to help him straighten out his life, in previous books, [CHECK] to no avail. [CHECK].

PARKER: Bradley in this book is developing quickly to become a wonderful, wonderful antagonist, I think, down the line. Charley and Bradley inevitably have to resolve their differences, you know, and Charley is the straight man, he's the law enforcement guy. He's not a zealot. But he's a true -- he's a true cop. And he's state your full name, and he's not gonna bend the rules very much. And Bradley will bend them all he can. Of as he explains in one of the novels of course 81s he becomes a fully accredited sheriff's deputy, he says, well, I'm here to protect and serve myself. And that's what he does.


PARKER: He's half criminal and all law enforcement, which I guess is all criminal, if you want to look at it that way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you see this series as building down to some final showdown [CHECK].

PARKER: I think it has to, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when did it occur to you that these border books were gonna be a series, a six book series?

PARKER: [CHECK] drawn to the problems along the border, and the problems down in Mexico, the drug cartel problems just so graphically and so wholly, just a few years ago. I couldn't -- once I had read enough headlines about what was going on down there, are the number of deaths and the mutilations, and the huge amounts of money being made, and all the trouble back and forth between San Diego and the border. I just could not write about it. [CHECK] in Fallbrook where I live, and figuratively, and almost literally, I can see that border. And what happens south of the border affects us terrifically. And I always have loved Mexico. It breaks my heart what's going down there. [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, reviewers of your book often point to not only this book but your previous books as well. The fact that the violence in them is very gritty and very detailed. And also the fact that you seem to know an awful lot about the way violent encounters are conducted between agencies of the ATF, and drug cartels and so forth. I'm wondering how do you do your research?

PARKER: You know, I do a fair amount. I have some really good contacts in law enforcement, ATF, [CHECK] locals, and they're very helpful men and women, you know? I found throughout my long career that if you're honest and up front with law enforcement people and they know that you're not gonna try to portray them poorly or ridicule them in some way, that they'll be honest. And they'll tell you what's going on. Because they have some interesting lives of conversely, perhaps you might figure that I found that a great many people in law enforcement actually want to be writers. So I give them writing advice, and they give me the rules of evidence and investigation. Of so that's kind of cool.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that's really funny.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you heard about agents like Sean Osborn, well, perhaps not ones on borne particular journey. But agents or law enforcement officials being badly affected by their continued association with drug violence?

PARKER: Well, you know, if you talk to the agencies, if you get the official line on that, it's -- they say, oh, well, no. That hardly ever happens, you know? Our agents are always in self -- they have control of themselves, and they rarely cross the line and mow is what they tell you. But I don't really believe that. And certainly as a story teller, it's much more interesting when they man spends 15 months undercover and then cracks, you know? In real life, these agents, undercover agents lead unbelievably stressful lives.

POLLACK: A lot of people don't know this. Of but an undercover A, it F agent, for instance, will spend his Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, [CHECK] and he'll be a bad guy until 5:00 o'clock, and then at 5:00 o'clock, he'll go back to ATF and he'll address him as a regular guy. And then he'll go home to his family. So try that one on for a crazy maker. Try doing that day after day after day, [CHECK] that I had put in prison ten years ago, and I thought uh-oh, I've been busted. That's a lot of pressure, and that's what happens to Shawn, but what happens to Shawn is amplified by 11, if you will.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes. Indeed. That's an amazing story. I'm speaking with T. Jefferson parker, his new book is border lords. And how close were you able to get to anybody involved in the cartels at all in did that happen 1234.

PARKER: Not very, is the answer. Those guys are hard to come up with.


PARKER: You know, they're on the run, they're protected by levels and levels and levels. They don't want to talk to me. I've talked to people who are cartel employees, if you will. Associated low level guys. They're all over the place. They can be find found. But how to write a true border lord, a drug lord, that is, for me, an act of a little bit of research, and a little bit of reading and a whole lot of imagination. [CHECK] think and say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you've said that writing about the border and the situation in Mexico is sort of like your -- it's something that you must do. Because you're sitting in Fallbrook and you're looking over and you're seeing the boarder and it's really sort of a part of your life. What is your take on the situation in Mexico?

PARKER: Wow, wow. Well, here at the end of 2010, just a few weeks ago, the stats were totaled up. And our government, and the Mexican government claims that 2010 was the bloodiest of the last five years of the border, of the drug wars as prosecuted by Calderón, the president of Mexico. The total body count is 38000. Imagine that for a moment. The estimates of the drug [CHECK] 20 and $50 billion a year. Depending what you believe. That puts it right up there, and in some cases, ahead of tourism, and [CHECK] the refining in the gasoline. So the dollars are gigantic. They're unimaginable. And the brutality is there, of course. And American dollars coughed up by our drug users finances 90 percent of that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And of course in your left book, you wrote about the gun trade, that American guns being sold here in America to Mexican drug cartels, and I wonder what you think the role of America is in the drug murders and the cartel violence south of the border.

PARKER: Well, we're the customers, we pony up the doctor dollars. And we also -- we supply a lot of the guns of that's changing. Of I think there are other avenues right now. And I think there are [CHECK] better military stuff.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: From their own army?

PARKER: Yeah, they steel it. Of yeah. But a lot of the guns down there do come from the United States, and they're smuggled in, 1, and 2, and 3 at a time. The Mexicans call it the "Contrabando de Hormigas" and our job -- it's just really hard. It's really hard to check every single car and every single person moving down there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you must be really ark tuned to the news that comes out of Mexico and the border. And lately we just heard that the plans for the very well border fence that they were going to set up were abandoned because it was too expensive, and it doesn't work. [CHECK].

PARKER: Yeah, yeah. It is kind of a typical miscalculation, I think. It was one of the Texan gubernatorial candidates before the election was famous for saying, well, I don't believe in the border fence, because if you billed a ten-foot fence, they'll just use an 11-foot ladder. [CHECK] immigration policies with all of our neighbors. Course we do what those are. I'll let the experts decide. But building a wall, as a defense, it's just -- it's laughable.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, since we only have a few empties left. Would you tell us -- give us a little hint about what Charley hood is gonna be up to next.

PARKER: Well, I'll tell you -- he is gonna have his hands full in the next book. [CHECK] a good friend of his, an American pop singer, very successful young woman findings herself kidnapped by a cartel lord who loves music. And Charley has to take the ransom down and [CHECK] so his life is one of payroll. Of I'm almost done with the book, I'm on 400 and something pains. I got another hundred pages to write [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, I have to note that this is two major novels published in, basically a 365-day year.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And now you had a -- another novel practically done. Talk to us a little bit about your workday. You're very disciplined, aren't you?

PARKER: I am [CHECK] I also like it. I mean, I couldn't get up and do that if I didn't enjoy the stories sometimes, you know? They're not always fun, but they're often fun. So I'm up early, I'm in the office, which is a little building on my office. [CHECK] and work all day. And I like it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to congratulate you on another success.

PARKER: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Jefferson parker. He is a New York Times best selling author. The name of his brand-new novel is border lords. Thanks again for talking with us.

PARKER: Thank you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up an encore broadcast about the JOLT program, helping young offenders in San Diego. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.