DIRTY DEALING: An American Parable

“We were a good family—that’s what people forget,” Joe Chagra said, “It was the money. You can’t know what it does until it happens to you…until everyone is chin-deep in millions of dollars.”

Dirty Dealing, a true story, chronicles the rise and fall of the house of Chagra. The Chagra brothers of El Paso were pioneers in smuggling drugs across the Mexican border, and were infamous for their fabulous wealth. But in the end Lee Chagra was gunned down, a federal judge was assassinated, Jimmy and Joe Chagra were imprisoned, and Charles Harrelson (Woody Harrelson’s father) was convicted for Wood’s murder.

When Federal Judge John “Maximum” Wood was gunned down outside his home in San Antonio, Texas in 1979 (the only assassination of a federal judge in more than 100 years) his death sent waves of shock across the country. The FBI labeled it “the crime of the century.” Former President Nixon expressed “outrage,” calling for quick arrest and punishment. But the crime’s solution would be anything but quick. Dragging on for years and costing $11.4 million, the investigation turned out to be the largest in recent FBI history, surpassing even that of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Gary Cartwright, senior editor of Texas Monthly and author of several nonfiction bestsellers, details the full history of the events leading up to this crime and the trials that followed in Dirty Dealing. This reprint from Cinco Puntos Press includes a new afterword by the author and black and white photographs of all the players. Complete with shady maneuverings on the part of the federal government and an outcome that Kirkus Reviews has called “straight from Oz,” Dirty Dealing is one of the richest and most fascinating of all true crime stories.

From the Author, Gary Cartwright:

I don’t claim much of a literary background. The town where I grew up (Arlington, Texas) had a tiny library above the fire station. The first writer who truly impressed me and caused me to wonder if there was something out there for me was Hemingway. For a long time I tried to emulate his clean, crisp style and feeling for life and death.

I was going pretty well with Hemingway when I got sidetracked by Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, at which time I lapsed into my Purple Period. Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wildside-I think I read some Conrad about the same time-got me out of the stench of lyrical, overripe nonsense and back in the dust where I belonged. Somewhere in there I read Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors, and later Dog Soldiers, and began to understand that a writer’s true function was storytelling.

Like a lot of writers my age, my head was turned by reading J.D. Salinger, though I didn’t understand him. I came to prefer William Goldman, who wrote more to my level and with a skill I could appreciate and borrow from. I know it’s popular in literary circles to dismiss Goldman as a hack-gone-Hollywood, but I wish I had his gift as a storyteller.

In recent years I have fallen in love with such mystery writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and John LeCarre. There is something cynical and laconic in the way these writers weave a story, as though to say life really has no resolution, it’s just one damn thing after another but worthwhile if it’s done right.

Two books that influenced my own works were David Storey’s This Sporting Life, which I read shortly before beginning The Hundred-Year War; and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was the inspiration for my two latest books, Blood Will Tell and Dirty Dealing. I am fascinated by this genre and have come to recognize that life imitating art is every bit as literate as art imitating life.

In a way I can’t quite explain, Dirty Dealing was influenced, too, by John Reed’s Insurgent Mexico. Reed got across a feeling for how the isolation of desert wastelands gives both a meaning and a meaninglessness to life, and how codes within cultures are more permanent than laws within nations.

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