Days of the Dead

How the international drug trade turned a sleepy town on the U.S.-Mexican border into a war zone.

By Andrés Martinez

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Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields
by Charles Bowden
Nation Books, 352 pp.

Even as a child growing up four hours due south, it struck me that few places were as aptly named as El Paso. Not that I was aware of the drugs flowing north and the bundles of cash flowing south, or the fact that this was the place from which Mexico’s revolution was launched, the border crossing where a motley band of exiles reentered the country a century ago to march south. Nor did I fully understand the degree to which Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s then-peaceful sister city, had become an extension of U.S. industry, host to dozens of low-cost assembly plants. Parts passed from north to south; finished goods passed from south to north.

For me and my family, "the Pass" was the gateway we passed through to access the First World—the world of gleaming freeways with crisply clear green signs, clean public restrooms, late night with Johnny Carson, aboveboard cops, and all that. Every voyage north entailed a drive that culminated in the dusty sprawl of Juárez, the long wait in bumper-to-bumper traffic that preceded the sight of the Stars and Stripes halfway across the Bridge of the Americas over the less aptly named trickle of the Rio Grande, and all that beckoning tidiness beyond.

The formality of a proper crossing was just that for many people back in the 1970s and ’80s, before the border patrol cracked down in and around El Paso. At various places along the city, mom-and-pop operations supplemented the three official points of entry with boat rides across the river for 10 or 20 pesos, maybe 25 if you wanted coffee for the trip. These "lancheros" were part of the scenery back then, part of "el folklor" of the one great binational city on the border. (Tijuana and San Diego have never been one integrated metropolis in the same way.) Juárez was playfully raffish where El Paso was staid, the place where Americans went to party, eat better, get divorced, or find affordable medical care.

No longer. Juárez today, as detailed in Charles Bowden’s haunting chronicle Murder City, has become a different type of gateway—a stopover on the way to hell. Juárez has become ground zero in Mexico’s drug wars, and one of the world’s foremost urban killing fields. A city of some 1.5 million people, less than 2 percent of Mexico’s population, Juárez accounted for more than a third of all homicides committed in Mexico last year, more than 2,500. This, despite the deployment of thousands of Mexican army troops by President Felipe Calderon to impose martial law.

If Juárez were a city in Gaza or the West Bank or a border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or plopped down in any of the other parts of the world deemed worthy of attention by our foreign policy establishment—as opposed to being on our own southern border—its mayhem would be front and center in our newspapers and on the Sunday talk shows. The neglect is reinforced by the fact that the violence is, for now at least, oddly contained on the southern bank of the Rio Grande. The brazen killing of U.S. consulate employees in broad daylight in March catapulted Juárez into the news for a day or two, but it isn’t clear that there will be a widespread targeting of Americans or that the conflict’s violence will spill over in any meaningful way to this side of the border. The drug cartels are loathe to take on U.S. authorities, and may be reluctant to wreak havoc in the land where their customers live. El Paso remains among the safest U.S. cities—even the mayor of Juárez lives there.

Bowden’s chronicle of death helps redress the long-standing American neglect toward Mexico’s crises that don’t directly impact its northern neighbor. The Tucson-based writer spent the better part of 2008 attempting to keep up with the death toll, bearing witness: "I tell people I hate Juárez. I tell people I am mesmerized by Juárez. I tell myself Juárez is a duty." Elsewhere he adds, "You cannot know of the slaughter running along the border and remain the same person."

Bowden is a gifted writer; the book reads like a lyrical ode to arid despair. The literary quality of the writing, and its relentless fatalism, bring to mind Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, except in this case it is not the protagonist’s death in question, but an entire city’s. The oppressive, windswept vibe also brings to mind No Country for Old Men, the Oscar-winning movie based on a novel by the El Pasoan writer Cormac McCarthy.

"There is a sound that is everywhere in Juárez," Bowden writes,

the skittering of litter down a street by a warehouse of death, the flapping of plastic bags caught on the barbed wire, on fence posts, on iron bars. The city has this skittering and flapping, and all is wrapped in endless waves of dust and plumes of exhaust pouring out the tailpipes of dying buses carrying workers to endless toil.

Bowden can barely keep track of the killings, let alone explain them. He is exhausted, demoralized, and shamed by the mounting toll—the discovery of mass graves, the massacres in rehab centers, the impunity of the killing. He writes, "Nothing really registers in this place, the city erases not simply lives, but also memory. And those who remember are the most likely of all to be erased."

There are few heroes in Murder City, mainly bad guys, accomplices, victims, and a handful of implausible survivors. The cruelty of sicarios, the callousness of the authorities who are either on the take or so cowed that they choose to look the other way, and the suffering of the city’s population all bring to mind the most haunting line of Nobel laureate Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude: "For Mexicans, life is about the possibility of"—um—"chingar o de ser chingado."

owden concludes his book on a helpless note, observing that no one can imagine how the violence will stop, given "the torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for." He points out that as early as the mid-1990s, before Juárez became a battleground for various warring cartels from different parts of Mexico, the local cartel, then run by Amado Carrillo, was already clearing an estimated $12 billion a year in profit. Plan Merida, the package of U.S. security assistance that Hillary Clinton negotiated in March, amounts to just $300 million annually.

Against a backdrop of such hopelessness, Bowden maintains that redemption can only be attained at the individual level, and even then in rare instances. His examples are exquisite profiles, of a sicario who finds Jesus and slips his former employers; a newspaperman who tries to stay out of trouble but has to seek asylum north of the border for offending the army (and is treated horribly in the United States despite his obviously well-grounded fear of persecution); a pastor who runs a rehab center.

But if Bowden excels as Juárez’s chronicler of death—almost its poet laureate—he falls short as a policy analyst or provider of broader context. Granted, Juárez is a hellish place these days, but Bowden is too invested in making a horrible situation seem as bad as possible, an understandable failing but a failing nonetheless. Contra Bowden’s portrait of the city, not everyone in Juárez is in on the killing. There are plenty of civil society groups, businesspeople, politicians, and even security units that are clean and trying to do what is right, even if they are currently overwhelmed and outgunned. Bowden’s narrative is lacking these folks caught in the crossfire, unless they literally are, as victims. He also paints a distorted picture of a city of addicts—drug addiction rates in Juárez are definitely higher than in other parts of Mexico, but still lower than in major American cities. In painting his hellish portrait, Bowden depicts a poverty born of desperation, but Juárez is not Chiapas. It is far better off than most other regions of Mexico—including plenty of places where people aren’t killing each other—and by many measures, living standards in Mexico have risen in recent decades. At one point, the book asserts, in an all-you-need-to-know manner, that well into the 1990s a woman in Mexico could be barred by law from holding a job without her husband’s permission. If such an archaic law remained technically on the books, it would have been as relevant to contemporary life as the Virginia state law still on the books today criminalizing cohabitation by unmarried couples.

It’s also unfortunate that Bowden indicts Juárez’s assembly plants, NAFTA, capitalism, and other economic forces having little to do with the supply and demand for illicit drugs in this country, raising questions about whether the author has a separate agenda compelling him to make a bad situation seem even worse. Maybe there is a lazy assumption on the part of the author and his editors that right-minded readers all should share his distaste for economic liberalization, but I am not sure how the drug war in Juárez would be any different had Mexico embraced Bolivarian socialism. In his pursuit of grand economic explanations, Bowden misses more obvious ones, failing to connect the dots between the outbreak of uncontrollable violence in Juárez in the last few years and the aggressive clampdown on the flow of drugs from Colombia via the Caribbean, and he doesn’t explore the links between drug trafficking and human trafficking. Nor does he flesh out the altered power dynamics in Mexico with the advent of greater democratization in 2000. He doesn’t speculate about what role the U.S. might play to alleviate the suffering of Mexico, or consider what might have been responsible for the remarkable turnaround of another Latin American city once as synonymous with murder as Juárez has become: Medellin, Colombia.

In fairness, it is only because Mexico doesn’t get sufficient attention in the United States that a reader would look to an impressionistic account like Murder City to cover all the bases, an expectation we wouldn’t have of a similar book on Afghanistan or Iraq. Still, readers less inclined to fatalism and more interested in understanding the broader context of Mexico’s drug war will have to look elsewhere.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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Andrés Martinez, a native of Mexico, directs the Bernard Schwartz Fellowship Program at the New America Foundation. Previously he was the editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times.

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