Book Review – Murder City

Last book review of the year!

I have been looking for some solid analysis regarding the mass killings of Ciudad Juarez, so, naturally, I downloaded Charles Bowden‘s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and The Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

This book is not Juarez 101. It is not a journalistic or analytical account of what happens there. It is more a personal journey, with lots of stream of consciousness writing. The narrative, if there is one, is not linear but disjointed (although there is a “death calendar” appendix, that lists the dead over a one-year period). There is a lot about the writer himself, what he felt, his own reactions, etc. That is the part of the book that I did not like. It made me want to shout “dude, this is not about YOU!”

As much as I understand that extreme violence at that depicted in the book has to take a toll on one’s sanity, he was still in the privileged position of being able to cross the border back in the US and rejoin his comfortable life at any time, as opposed to the people stuck in that non-stop violent world. So, no, I did not care one bit about his feelings.

That being said, the book is far from a complete waste of time. Once you skip through the first-person stuff, you get to the real story and the people I was really interested in: the people of Juarez, those who live and survive in the midst in continuous and increasing violence from all parts.

One thing that the book does well is to show how the mainstream reporting on Juarez violence explains nothing and covers up much. What goes on there is not government versus drug cartels, or drug cartels versus drug cartels. There are many layers of corruption and violence converging on Juarez: the drug cartels, of course,, bu the federal and state military accounts for enormous violence as well, along with the local police.

Often, police and military officers also work for the cartels, and military hotshots benefit from the drug trafficking. And much the conflict is funded by the US, either in the form of training Mexican soldiers (who then also work for the cartels), or direct money to the federal government in the name of the War on Drugs (is there any way in which that idea is not completely bankrupt?). The cartels bribe DEA and Border Patrol so they can ship the drug to the US without problems.

“In 1953, a flying school in Culiacan was closed to placate the United States, and yet by the late 1960s at least six hundred secret airfields flourished in northern Mexico (the beat goes on—in 2007, the Mexican army claimed to close two secret narco-airports a day). More recently, a series of agencies have tackled drugs. Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), trained by the CIA, was supposed to eliminate drug merchants and radicals in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, its staff either worked for or led cartels, including the one in Juárez. In the mid-1990s, a new force under a Mexican drug czar flourished, until it was discovered that the czar worked for the Juárez cartel and so did many of his agents. It was dissolved. Under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), a new incorruptible force, Fiscalía Especializada en Atención de Delitos contra la Salud (FEADS), was created. One part deserted, became the Zetas, and functionally took over the Gulf cartel.” (Loc. 1918)

In 1997, an organized crime unit was formed to tackle the cartels, and at the same moment in Mexico City, the agents of yet an earlier squad assigned to fight drugs were found dead in a car trunk. FEADS was finally dissolved in 2003 when it was found to be hopelessly corrupt. Under President Felipe Calderón, yet a new federal mutation emerged—AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación). Its head was murdered in the spring of 2008. His dying words to his killer were, “Who sent you?” The government later determined the hit was done by the Sinaloa cartel, with the killers led by a former officer in the agency.” (Loc. 1926)

And the US government pretends that the Mexican government is the democratic wonder that fights the bad criminal organizations. That pretense and its maintenance has devastating consequences as the US media never reports the wrongdoings of the Mexican military and its responsibility in much of the killings as well as its involvement in the trafficking.

That attitude ruins lives. Take the case of a Mexican journalist – Emilio – who made the “mistake” of reporting on the wrongdoings of the military:

“The woman and Emilio collect his son. They stop by his house to get some clothes and then flee to a small ranch about six miles west of Ascensión, where he can hide. He is terrified. Later that night, a friend takes him back to his house once again. He wears a big straw hat, slips low in the seat. He sneaks into his house and gets vital documents. A friend delivers a small black car out at the ranch. All day Sunday, he tries to think of a way to save his life. He comes up with only one answer: flight. No matter where he goes in Mexico, he will have to find a job and use his identity cards and the army will track him down. He now knows they will never forget his story from 2005, that he cannot be redeemed.

He tells his boy, “We are not going back to our house. The soldiers may kill me, and I don’t want to leave you alone.” Monday morning, he drives north very fast. He takes all his legal papers so that he can prove who he is. He expects asylum from the government of the United States when he crosses at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. What he gets is this: He is immediately jailed, as is his son. They are separated. It is a common practice to break up families to crush the will—often jailing men and tossing the women and children back over the fence. He is denied bond, and no hearing is scheduled to handle his case. He is taken to El Paso and placed in a private prison. Had he entered the United States illegally and then asked for asylum, he would have been almost immediately bonded out. But since he entered legally by declaring his identity and legal status at a port of entry and applied for asylum, he is placed in prison because Homeland Security declares that Emilio has failed to prove that “he does not represent a threat to the community.”

It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don’t think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United States would be hard pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight a war on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels.

(…)

This was part of the Bush administration’s ‘Guantanamization’ of the refugee process. By locking people up, especially Mexican asylum applicants, and making them, through a war of attrition, give up their claims there at the camp. I’ve represented ten cops seeking asylum, and not one of them lasted longer than two months. Emilio lasted seven months. On the basis of he had his son and he knew he was going to be killed. There was nowhere that he could go and practice his profession.” There are forty reporters in El Paso—print, radio, and television. Only one or two tiny reports are published by any of them. And the matter of the Mexican army killing innocent Mexicans is not mentioned at all. Like the U.S. government, they apparently believe the Mexican army is some force of light in the darkness of Mexico.” (Loc. 3514 – 86)

And when such journalists try to tell their stories to the US media, they are ignored (as if we needed more evidence of the uselessness of that institution) because no one should destroy the myth of the Mexican government as faithful ally in the War on Drugs. There is so much money at stake in the drug business that everyone wants in, and not just criminal organizations. And Emilio is not allowed to live in the US as a refugee.

And so, the killing continues, more massive than ever. And it’s not just the young women who work in the Maquiladoras (although they are victims). Because the lines are so blurred between Federal / State military, local police and cartel killers, one can never know who killed whom. So, arrests are not made. Actually, it is even lucky if police officers leave their offices to go to killing sites because they are targets. Killings and kidnappings are not reported. And in a kind of collective amnesia, once the bodies are removed, the dead disappear from memory and are no longer mentioned (same goes for the kidnappings).

“The violence has crossed class lines. The violence is everywhere. The violence is greater. And the violence has no apparent and simple source. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself.” (Loc. 484)

As are drugs, something Bowden calls “narcotecture.”

And yes, this has something to do with NAFTA:

“A recent study found over twenty thousand retail drug outlets in Tijuana, mainly cocaine and heroin. In Juárez, there are at least as many such venues. The peddlers earn three hundred dollars a week, there tend to be three shifts, so let’s posit for Juárez twenty-five thousand outlets (a conservative estimate) and figure a payroll of seventy-five thousand retailers. This amounts to a bigger payroll than that earned by the two hundred thousand factory workers earning on average seventy-five dollars a week. And of course, the real money is not in the retail peddlers but in the organizations that control them and import and package their products. This is the economy of the city. This is supply-side economics flooring the killing ground.

(…)

When Amado Carrillo was running a cartel that hauled in $250 million a week in the mid-1990s, Juárez was barely a speck in the mind of the American government or media. When he used the same private banker at Citigroup in New York as the then-president of Mexico, this, too, was of no interest. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed and went plowing into the lives of millions like a greed-seeking missile in the early 1990s, this city that pioneered using cheap labor to bust unions and steal American jobs continued to be ignored. Only brief flickers of interest in the dead women of Juárez captures any American audience.

(…)

In Juárez, the payroll for the employees in the drug industry exceeds the payroll for all the factories in the city, and Juárez has the most factories and is said to boast the lowest unemployment in Mexico. There is not a family in the city that does not have a family member in the drug industry, nor is there anyone in the city who cannot point out narcos and their fine houses, or who has any difficulty taking you to fine new churches built of narco-dollars. The entire fabric of Juárez society rests on drug money. It is the only possible hope for the poor, the valiant, and the doomed.” (Loc. 884 – 1030)

The drug trafficking cannot be separated from the Maquiladoras economy. So, the mass violence is the story of structural breakdown and hollowing of the state, where the only legal jobs keep one in poverty, barely at survival level or illegal immigration to the US. So, killing and drugs are legitimate career choices for young men. Killing is not deviance. It is where the incentives are.

If Bowden is right and Juarez is the future, it’s not pretty.

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