GUY RAZ, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is fiction, but it's a story that might have come out of today's paper. It's called "Triple Crossing," and it's about the drug wars along the U.S.-Mexico border. The novel opens at the San Isidro crossing in San Diego, where a new Border Patrol officer named Valentine Pescatore is on duty.
SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Host:
(Reading) The landscape never failed to give him the sensation that he had landed on a hostile planet. The levies slanted southeast into Mexican territory. The migrants lining the concrete banks of the levy would race in the fog. The levy was almost dry except for a stream trickling among tufts of vegetation in the center. A black brew of sewage, industrial toxins run off from mountain ranges of garbage in Tijuana shack towns. Border vendors sold the migrants' plastic garbage bags to pull over their shoes and legs before wading through the muck.
RAZ: That's Sebastian Rotella reading from his new book "Triple Crossing." Rotella is an investigative reporter who covered South America for the L.A. Times for more than a decade. He's now with Pro Publica and is with me in the studio. Sebastian, welcome.
ROTELLA: My pleasure. Thanks very much.
RAZ: This guys, Pescatore, he's not your typical Border Patrol agent by any means. Early in the book, he's chasing down a family of three who are trying to cross the border late at night. But when he catches them, he does something unusual.
ROTELLA: Yeah. He slips them money. And that's actually based on reality. I know of agents who have done that, bought lunch. And I know one case where an agent got just so overwhelmed by that grim reality that he just started doing it on a regular basis. And so there's that mix in this character of toughness but this profound compassion.
RAZ: This is your first piece of fiction. It is not your first book, but your first work of fiction. But it's clear that it is not - it's not removed from the real life and the real world dramas of drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. What's real and what's made up?
ROTELLA: There's a mix. There are some things that are - I think absolutely reflect today's reality, and there are a few things that you could say are purely fictional. But one of the things that I really enjoyed doing was combining the liberty and the authority of writing fiction with the rigor of trying to make it as authentic as possible. So the big and the small details from incidents to the way people talk - the slang, the subcultures, the way they dress, the way a shootout happens, the way a prison is in Tijuana - are all drawn from, you know, from in-depth experience.
RAZ: I don't want to give away too much of the story because it's so fast-paced and compelling and complex, but the main protagonist is Valentine Pescatore. He is this Border Patrol agent. Because of a variety of mishaps and circumstances, he ends up being persuaded to infiltrate a Mexican mafia family under the auspices of trying to bust his boss who is corrupt.
ROTELLA: This is very much inspired by reality, whether the Border Patrol agents, people in customs, people who get caught, in his case, he gets caught doing something wrong. I mean, what oftentimes investigators do is use that as leverage, you know, not necessarily arresting them but turning them as informants thinking that that's a way to infiltrate and go after bigger people, and that's very much what happens here. Pescatore does something, crosses the line - literally and figuratively - gets in trouble and gets recruited because the investigators realize that they have a way in for him to continue sort of acting like he's corrupt but using him as a spy. And that happens at the border all the time, and it creates great ambiguity, this world of who's undercover, who's really corrupt, who's pretending to be corrupt, you know...
RAZ: Must be so much paranoia.
ROTELLA: ...which side people are on - enormous paranoia. And I really tried to explore in his experience the tensions of that world, the danger of that world and the question of who do you trust.
RAZ: You write very vividly about the cold-blooded cruelty of assassins, many of them kids, young people, hired by the drug lords. So, you know, these are kids who are playing video games and smoking pot one moment and then brutally murdering people another. And that's real.
ROTELLA: I think that's absolutely real, you know? And we see headlines about it every day, about these essentially teenage killers, you know, one was arrested recently in Mexico, you know, confessed to dozens and dozens of murders.
RAZ: Recently the casino killings, for example.
ROTELLA: The casino killing is another example. You know, there is this - and I tried to explore the power that this culture has over these kids. You know, there's something about that narco culture and the music and the style and the swagger and the power that comes with the gun and the money. But I tried to be careful not to just sort of delve into it to the point or describe to the point that it just became grotesque or overdone. And I think that's a challenge when you're writing about this world.
RAZ: I'm speaking with investigative reporter Sebastian Rotella. His new novel is called "Triple Crossing." It's a story about crime and corruption along the U.S.-Mexico border. Another main character in the book is Leo Mendez. He is a Mexican, and he is this kind of former human rights activist and academic and intellectual. He is tapped to lead this elite government anti-corruption unit. Are there people like Leo Mendez that you came across in your reporting, real people like that, who were really earnestly trying to tackle this...
RAZ: ...and risking their lives.
ROTELLA: Absolutely. In Mexico and throughout South America, I encountered people like him. And Mendez, like several people I met, has this background where he's a former academic, a former human rights activist. People involved in human rights in Latin America inevitably end up doing the role that police and prosecutors should be doing. And he gets - finds himself propelled into this job where he's essentially in charge of this unit that is investigating police corruption, so policing the police with all the strengths and weaknesses that come from being an outsider.
RAZ: And the risks.
ROTELLA: And the risks, of course.
RAZ: Geographically, the book takes us along the U.S.-Mexico border, but also to another famous border, the triple border where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. We find Valentine Pescatore in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, where, of course, things get very dramatic. Can you describe - you've been there many times. You've spent time there. What is that area? What goes on there?
ROTELLA: The triple border is a fascinating area that started getting attention in the '90s after a couple of Hezbollah attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentina where the - some of the terrorist groups were traced back to connections there at the triple border. And it's been a long time base for all kinds of commerce - enormous amounts of illicit commerce of contraband, of drug smuggling, arms smuggling, foreign mafias, particular presence of Middle Eastern and Asian merchants and mafias - and all different kind of rackets all mixed together.
RAZ: And Mexican gangs like in the book?
ROTELLA: Yes. The Mexican cartel has expanded throughout Latin America and in also, in, you know, across the ocean and everything else. There have been people arrested directly connected to the Mexican cartels in - at the triple border because it's kind of these crossroads.
RAZ: You covered the Mexican border area in South America for the L.A. Times for more than a decade. I mean, I know you've been to Iraq and other places all around the world, and you've investigated terrorism, but it seems to me that these may have been some of the most dangerous assignments that you took on. Were you able to actually meet with drug lords or violent, you know, members of violent drug cartels and speak openly with them?
ROTELLA: I mean, not necessarily like the most famous guys who were in hiding. But, for example, I did an in-depth reporting at the prison in Tijuana, which was kind of a fiefdom of the drug lords. So there, it wasn't that hard to go in and talk to people who were arrested, who were very connected. And the other thing that ended happening, you ended up talking to police commanders in Tijuana and other places along the border on the Mexican side who sometimes ended up getting killed, or it was already known when they were still on the job that they were working for one cartel or the other, you know? So it was a very treacherous, complicated, you know, world that was a real labyrinth, but yes, you could end up talking to people like that, people who were connected because the presence, the tentacles of those groups are - is really, you know, extensive.
RAZ: It's a dangerous place to be a journalist.
ROTELLA: It is. Particularly, I must say, more for the Mexican journalists who work in the border cities because it's a place of great extremes, so - of creativity and violence, of cruelty and heroism, sort of the best and the worst of globalization all mixed together.
RAZ: That's journalist Sebastian Rotella. His new novel is "Triple Crossing." It's about the drug wars along the U.S.-Mexico border. He's also an investigative reporter with Pro Publica. Sebastian, thanks so much for coming in.
ROTELLA: My pleasure. Thank you very much.