City of Sorrow
Nation Books, 2010
With the passage of new laws in Arizona, the debate over Mexican immigration has been thrust back into the national spotlight. We hear constant fears about the porous border being a threat to our national security, about the violence of drug cartels spilling over. Some say that a wall should be erected to keep out the mass of illegal immigrants, while others say that we need fix the problem at its source by helping the economy of Mexico itself. There are no easy answers, of course, but Charles Bowden’s new book Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s News Killing Fields, helps to shed a light on what some people are leaving behind.
The city of Juarez lies right across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. It was once referred to as a jewel of Mexico, but lately it’s become known for the violence that has engulfed the city streets. Just recently an employee of the US Consul and his wife were murdered, and the US Army base in El Paso has banned troops from crossing the border during leisure time, because of the danger. Sadly, violence is nothing new to the city or to Mexico in general, fighting between cartels and cartels and government have been common place for more than twenty years. In years past, Juarez has become famous for the killings of women in the city, and has attracted the attentions and sympathies of Hollywood stars.
Jane Fonda cares, so does Sally Field, and so both have been to Juarez to protest the murder of women. The Vagina Monologues has been staged here, also. Over the past ten years or so, four hundred women have been found murdered, the majority of them victims of husbands and lovers and hardly mysterious cases. Two movies have been made about the dead women. Focusing on the dead women enables Americans to ignore the dead men, and ignoring the dead men enables the United States to ignore the failure of its free-trade schemes, which in Juarez are producing poor people and dead people faster than any other product. Of course, the murders of the women in Juarez are hardly investigated or solved. Murders in Juarez are hardly ever investigated, and so in death, women finally receive the same treatment as dead men.
However, as a result of the newest phase in the war on drugs, people are being slaughtered in Juarez in record numbers. Almost 300 a month and almost 4300 in the past two years. It is one of the most violent places on Earth. Murder City takes us into the lives of a few people who are living and working in this dangerous place. The book is a masterful, poetic look into a nation on the verge of collapse. We follow Mr. Bowden as he wanders the streets of the city, and tries to make sense of the violence all around him:
Juarez is pioneering the future again, and this is a city of achievements. It claims the invention of the margarita, it’s the birthplace of the zoot suit, of velvet paintings, of the border factory era, of the most innovative and modern drug cartel, of the world-class murder of women and also of men. The violence has crossed class lines. The violence is everywhere. The violence is greater. And the violence has no apparent or simple source. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself.
Most of the leading citizens of the city have already fled across the border. It is not uncommon for ER’s in El Paso to receive the wounded from Juarez, as a result of hit men showing up in Mexican hospitals looking to finish their work. As you read on in horror, you hope that Bowden is mistaken somehow. But the horrifying facts bear out that he’s not wrong; if anything, Murder City shows us just the beginning of the chaos, all if it happening a stone’s throw from U.S. soil:
There is a rhythm of casual violence in the city that almost always goes unmentioned. The mayor of Juarez lives in El Paso so that he can keep his hand on the pulse of the city. The publishers of the daily paper in Juarez also lives in El Paso. The publisher of the daily paper in the capital of Chihuahua lives in New Mexico. A growing number of the businesspeople of Juarez live in El Paso. Leaders in the drug industry also keep homes in El Paso.
The wave of current violence began in 2006, when the newly elected president of Mexico began a war against the cartels. In doing so, he militarized what was already a violent situation, and opened a Pandora’s box of death and misery onto the country. When the army or local police do raid houses held by cartel soldiers, they find state of the art weaponry, and electronics. It becomes clear that the army has provoked a fight with an adversary that is better supplied and better funded then they ever could be.
The military has flooded across Mexico since President Felipe Calderon assumed office in December 2006 with a margin so razor thin that many Mexicans think he is an illegitimate president. His first act was to declare a war on the nations thriving drug industry and his favorite tool was the Mexican Army. Now over 40,000 soldiers are marauding all over the country in this war against the nation’s drug organizations. In 2008, between 5,000 and 6,000 Mexicans died in the violence, a larger loss than what the United States has endured the entire Iraq War.
Mr. Bowden has been reporting from the border for many years, and his knowledge and vast contacts throughout the region shows. We meet all kinds of people in Juarez, from a pastor who runs an insane asylum on the outskirts of the city, to a sicarios, or hitman, who worked for the cartels. El Pastor (very rarely are full or real names given) is one of the only figures of hope in the book. A former drug addict who spent several years in the United States, he returned to his home town to try help those in need. One of his patients, a Miss. Sinaloa, seems to have haunted Bowden. The prose here reads more like an existentialist novel, with the stories of all these tragic people intermingling with that of Miss. Sinaloa. A beauty queen who was invited to a party in Juarez, she wound up becoming the weekend plaything of the local police. The trauma of her ordeal led to temporary insanity, and she was found wandering the streets. Eventually she made her way to El Pastor, who took her in. After a few months she was able to recover and contact her family.
Perhaps the most chilling interviewee is the sicarios. He’s a man who made his living torturing, killing and disappearing people for the powers that be (he never officially knew what cartel he worked for), and it’s this section of the book that brings us closest to the heart of the madness of it all. You listen as he talks about the pride he had in his work. Of the time, and planning that went into a hit, of being able to torture someone within an inch of their life, and then going home for dinner with his wife and kids. In a land racked with poverty, the best way to make a steady income is through contract killing. There will always be work. Even more frightening is the fact that almost all of these killers get their training when they sign up for the local police or the Mexican Army.
In the media, the violence has been presented as two cartels slugging it out in order to maintain control over respective areas. In part this is true, but with the lowering cost of drugs these days there is more room for “independent” dealers to set up shop. Bowden describes one man:
At around noon on March 10, Juan Carlos Rocha, thirty-eight, stands on an island in this freeway peddling P.M., the afternoon tabloid that features murders and sells to working-class people. Two men approach and shoot him in the head. No one sees anything except that they are armed, wear masks, and move like commandos. They walk away from the killing. A city cop lives facing the murder site…Rocha, the people in the barrio say, sold more than P.M. He also offered cocaine at four to six dollars a packet. He’d been warned twice by mysterious strangers to cease this activity. He did not listen.
There is a notion that everyone who is killed is actively attached to the drug trade, but it’s not as clear as that. More than 70% of the population of Juarez earns its living from the trade in one way or another; even your most honest citizen may need to aid their paycheck by working for people in “the life.” The idea that only those involved are murdered allows people a way of rationalizing the killings around them. These deaths are predictable and paradoxical, that people can be clean upstanding citizens (and most are) in most of their lives but still end up as murdered cartel operatives and dumped bodies. And the bodies are being dumped in record numbers. Some residents living near local parks have taken to putting up signs, asking that bodies not be dumped so close to their homes. The cartels responded by murdering the neighbors.
The paradox is fueled by the fact that there is a society of corruption in Mexico itself. Reporters who print the truth often get killed, and the ones who don’t take bribes are looked upon with suspicion. Bowden focuses on one journalist friend of his, Emilio, who, after printing a story he thought was insignificant about the army, winds up running for the border with his young son. At least twenty journalists have come to the border requesting asylum. None have been granted it. Some languish in immigration prisons, with only a lucky few able to make their bond. If they return home they’ll be killed, so the US (magnanimously) allows them to be deported to a third nation.
Reading Bowden’s book raises one question above all others: how do we stop the violence? The current solution seems to be to provide training for the Mexican army. But as Bowden shows us, if anything, that’s the wrong solution. The Mexican army is part of the problem; if he’s right (and I think he is) the army is nothing more than another cartel. The drugs they confiscate, they sell, and most soldiers are either former cartel employees, will become cartel employees, or are simply both at the same time.
Also the economy of the country is a huge hindrance. NAFTA which was passed in 1994, was supposed to help grown the Mexican economy, but all it has done is to be a machine that creates poor people in Mexico; stripping farmers of land they’ve tended for more than a hundred years. It is these economic agreements that have starved the Mexican people, allowed the drug trade to flourish and fueling the killing. Bowden talks about the maquiladoras, US factories that set up shop in Juarez making goods that get sold across the border. People work in these factories for long hours with little pay:
Every day in Juarez, at least two hundred thousand people get out of bed to pull a shift in the maquilas. The number varies-right now probably twenty thousand jobs have vanished in Juarez as a chill sweeps through the global economy. Within a year, eighty to one hundred thousand jobs will vanish. Just after the millennium, about one hundred thousand maquila jobs left the city for mainland China, because as Forbes magazine pointed out, The Mexicans wanted four times the wages of the Chinese. A fair point. The greedy Mexicans were taking home sixty, maybe seventy dollars a week from the plants in a city where the cost of living is essentially 90 percent that of the United States. Turnover in these plants runs from 100 to 200 percent a year. The managers say this is because of the abundant opportunities of the city. Labor is still a bargain here-but so is death.
It becomes apparent that the violence the people are facing isn’t just the result of the cartels; the violence is a result of economics as well. If we want to help the people of Juarez and of Mexico in general, the United States needs to help grow the Mexican economy. To do that, the U.S. has to change NAFTA. Until that happens, there will be nothing but a continued cycle of dictatorships, drug cartels, and an army that does the bidding for both.
When you finish this book, you will have no idea what to do, you will feel completely hopeless, and that’s a good thing. The first step to solving a huge social catastrophe is to be made to feel powerless by it. And that is exactly the emotion you’ll feel when you put Murder City down. Bowden’s writing will stir your soul; and hopefully, if he doesn’t drive you to action, you’ll have a differently outlook when people talk about drugs, the border, and why people flee to the north.
Kevin Mullins is a playwright based in Boston.