Joe Tone announced just over two years ago that he was leaving his position as Dallas Observer's editor-in-chief to write a book about the drug war and horse racing. That book, Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels and the Borderland Dream, was released this month by One World, an imprint of Random House.
In 2012, Tone read a story in The New York Times about Jose Treviño, a Dallas bricklayer who had made a seemingly sudden career switch into quarter horse racing. His brother, Miguel Treviño Morales, was the leader of a Mexican drug cartel called the Zetas. Jose Treviño was accused of using quarter horses to launder the cartel's money.
Much of the story takes place in Dallas, with a few pivotal races at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, and Tone wanted to cover it for the Observer. But it took him a while to figure out exactly how to do it.
"I stuck it in a folder, and every once in a while I would pull it out and look at the court records or make some calls or just kind of think on it and try to figure out what’s our way into it," Tone says. "The original story was really good. Super well reported but, you know, like any newspaper story, it raised a lot of questions and there was a great narrative there that hadn't taken shape yet, so it was just a matter of finding the way into it."
Tone finally wrote that cover story in April 2015. Sensing there would still be a lot of meat on the bone when he was done, he approached his new book agent, whom he'd met at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Denton. They both agreed that if the Observer story was well received, and it still felt right, it could be the subject of his first book.
A month after the story came out, Tone was diving headlong into reporting Bones, which meant talking to more than 100 people, from FBI agents to attorneys to former drug traffickers. Not only did he get that first book deal, but he might attain another milestone: first movie credit. Anonymous Content, the company that produced Spotlight and The Revenant, optioned Bones for a film last October.
We recently spoke with Tone about his experience writing the book, what he learned about the drug war and the status of Bones' film adaptation.
Did you have any experience in the horse world prior to reporting Bones?
My grandfather’s brother was a very successful breeder of Arabian show horses back in California, close to where I live. They had, I think, the most prolific stallion in the history of Arabian show horses. Or one of them. So in hindsight I sort of wish I had given a shit about that when I was a kid. But I did not. I didn’t pay attention. It would have been useful if I knew anything about that.
But no, unless my dad took me to a horse race when I was a kid, which neither of us remember happening, I had not been to a horse race when I started the book. I don’t think I went to one even when I was working on the [Observer] story. It just wasn’t necessary.
It was the first time I laid a bet on the track, went to an auction, set foot on a breeding farm — I was sort of starting from scratch. During the process, I ran into some guys in the industry who were just super friendly and very talkative and totally willing to help, and so they became my sherpas.
I would go see them or get them on the phone, and they could essentially walk me through anything. They talk in a very specific way, and they use very industry-specific language. I could not only learn what I needed to learn, but pick up on the way they talk and how they talk about certain things.
Do you think coming into it as a novice was an asset?
I think readers will have to judge. Readers who are really familiar with these two spaces — drug trafficking and counter-narcotics work and the drug war, and horse racing — I think readers from inside those worlds and from outside those worlds will have to judge whether I sort of toed that line between getting those worlds right but also presenting them in a way that was accessible for everyday readers.
But I feel like because I was coming to it cold, a reader coming to it cold should be able to feel comfortable in those worlds and feel like they have the right amount of background information and context, but not so much that it gets bogged down.
You interviewed lots of people for this book: attorneys, FBI, former Zetas. Was it hard getting people to talk, in some cases because they were afraid?
It was really hard to get people to talk. For this particular story, it all really started with the court records because there were multiple trials with multiple defendants. A lot of these federal cases never go to trial. A lot of these people get pleaded out. If a case gets pleaded out, a lot of the material that is amassed by the government never becomes public record. Often it doesn’t even get turned over to the defense attorney. It’s just sort of locked up. The government has it, and it doesn’t see the light of day.
In this case, because there were multiple trials, there was a lot of paper and transcripts and records. It was crucial because for as many people as I talked to — and I talked to certainly 100 people — there were lots who I could never talk to. As a reporter, we learn to be sort of dogged and keep going back to people. But in this story, depending on the person, these are people who had very valid reasons for not talking to me – concerns for their own personal safety.
So you understood, and oftentimes you just had to move on. It was difficult. Former traffickers, people from that world, in particular, operatives — they were some of the hardest people to get to and there were a lot of them who I didn’t get to. But the ones who I did, some of them it took a while, and it took a lot of coaxing.
Did you ever feel concerned for your own safety while writing the book?
No. One of the things that the book tries to get at are these sort of unwritten rules and codes of the drug war, which for all of the United States’ culpability in it, white Americans in the United States are not typically in danger, whether they’re agents, participants as money launderers, journalists ... that's the cruelty of it. For Mexican journalists in Mexico, there’s very real danger reporting on this stuff. And even probably just along the border on the United States side. But for me, no. It was never something where I felt unsafe. Or had any reason to.
You're reminding me of the chapter in the book where you follow a $20 bill from Dallas, where a young woman uses it to snort and then buy more cocaine, back to Mexico. A drug dealer here might be an affable, goofy college kid, so it's easy to think, "Hey, this isn't so bad." It's pretty shocking when you consider where that transaction ends and the violence those people are engaging in.
It’s not that far removed. I think we imagine it being several layers away from our own transactions. At the time that the story was taking place, the guy who controlled a lot of the cocaine that was coming into Dallas was offloading it to smaller dealers at the Target across the freeway from Uptown.
People have a tendency to make these things in their minds much more distant than they actually are, and that’s one of the things that we wanted to do. There's another chapter that sort of steps out of the narrative in that way to provide some history and some context. [Those chapters] didn’t exist in the first draft, and they were all my editor's idea, and I was very skeptical of them when he suggested them. Now they’re some of my favorite chapters.
There's a long history of books about horse racing — Seabiscuit even gets a mention in your book — and then narratives about the drug war and drug trafficking are their own thing. How did you set out to combine these two types of book?
What was so exciting about the story from the beginning is that they were so intertwined naturally. These aren’t parallel narratives that are happening side by side that I was weaving together. You had characters who really, truly existed in both of these worlds in very real ways, and so I think that was one of the things that got me so excited in the beginning and got agents so excited in the beginning is that you had two kinds of stories that we are used to, but not together.
And so whatever fatigue exists among the readers — sadly, I guess — for stories about the drug war will, in this case, be offset because the next chapter in it will be about the history of this sort of obscure brand of horse racing. Or people who are interested in it from a horse racing perspective or just a general sporting perspective, they may get drawn into that, but then the next chapter might be about how drugs are trafficked or a particular cartel’s history or why certain groups are becoming more violent than they used to be.
In the horse racing scenes, the language often mimics the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of the sport. You might set up one horse to win and then, mid-sentence, announce that a completely different horse is in the lead. Tell me about how you used language to bring the reader into that world.
When you spend time at horse races or even at auctions, just listening to an auctioneer's voice, you have no idea what they’re saying. It just comes off as gibberish. These cowboys, when they’re talking to each other, there's a kind of shared language that allows them to talk very quickly and in a way that, if I’m just kind of swirling around, I cannot understand them or what the hell they’re talking about.
And then of course the races, particularly these quarter horse races, everything happens so fast. You’re just kind of hanging out and then all of a sudden the horses are in the gate, the gate is gone, then they’re out and then the whole race is done and it’s sort of over in a blur. So I just spent time there and realized that if you're going to make people feel like they’re there, you have to write the scenes that way.
I also feel like, as I got into the history of cartels or the policy history of the drug war, when I shifted gears into a horse races, I thought it was really helpful to pick up the pace and try to make the story really move in those spaces.
Of everything you learned while writing Bones, what surprised you most?
We know how the drug war has been disastrous for people of color in this country, but I think seeing some of the particulars of how the policies were essentially designed to discriminate against black people and brown people, for lack of a better term, and tracing the policy history as a way of understanding it — that was eye-opening.
The counter-narcotics system is essentially designed to insulate white Americans and to ensnare people of color. This story was a good microcosm. You’ve got this multicultural world: You have a lot of wealthy, white cowboys who are kind of the power brokers in that world, and then you have working-class, middle-class, some wealthy Mexicans who love quarter horse racing all the same, and then you have this influx of drug money.
Everybody in the industry was making a choice all the time about how much they wanted to interact with and benefit from this influx of money that they could all see was coming from drug proceeds in Mexico, and they mostly made the same choice, which was, "Yeah, I don’t care where the money is coming from; it’s not my business. I’m a horseman, so I’m going to buy this horse, breed this horse, sell this horse, train this horse, own this horse, insure this horse."
And at the end of the day, only Mexican guys got indicted. Mexican men and women. And somehow, magically, all the white folks escaped. Not to mention all of the bankers who have laundered way more money than any of these people laundered whether they even knew they were laundering it or not. You know that from afar, but when you dig into the details of it and you sort of see how it plays out that way, it’s more upsetting.
In October it was announced that Bones has been optioned for a movie. What's the status of that, and how involved will you be?
I will probably not be very involved, although I’m happy to help as much as they need me. There is a screenwriter named Mauricio Katz who has written some great things. He wrote for The Bridge on FX, and he’s written some great Spanish-language films, and he’s working on a script, and that’s where it is.
We’ve talked about some of the characters and plot points that we think are interesting, and we probably will talk again, and we have vague plans to go to a horse race together one of these days. But he is plugging away on a script, and as soon as he has one that the producers like, then that would sort of trigger the next steps of looking for directors and actors and producing partners and all of that stuff.
You try to temper your expectations on those things because at the best they’re slow. And at worst, and typically, they’re nonexistent. These things often don’t go anywhere. But the company Anonymous Content that optioned it I think is really serious about it and really excited about the book. And Mauricio is a really great writer, and he’s really excited about the book. I think it’s got as good a shot as any project that's at this stage.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.