Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, by Charles Bowden, Nation Books, 320 pp. | $27.50
A century ago, Joseph Conrad’s haunted narrator, Marlow, invited readers into the heart of darkness aboard a river steamer. In Murder City, Charles Bowden, the veteran chronicler of the U.S.-Mexico border, kidnaps us in a narco-assassin’s car.
“Here’s the deal,” Bowden writes in the prologue.
“We’re gonna take us a ride.
“Now be quiet. . . . We brought the duct tape—do you prefer gray or tan?”
His ventriloquism as a sicario—a drug-cartel killer—serves as a foretaste of both the strengths and vulnerabilities of his chilling account of the mayhem unfolding in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where last year more than 2,600 people were slaughtered in an unprecedented wave of drug-soaked violence. Bowden plunges with verve into his grim subject matter. But unlike Marlow, who narrated human evil with detached horror, he can seem, like some cop reporters, more than a tad seduced by the shadows.
Juárez, the emptying metropolis across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, remains one of the murkiest killing grounds in the world, a fact made all the more surreal given that the gunshots (if not the screams) erupt within hearing range of the world’s greatest power. Never a model of civic calm, the hard-bitten city of 1.2 million (or 1.5, or 2 million—nobody knows its real size) has long been roiled by desperate poverty, pollution, narcotics smuggling and the social ills wrought by the maquiladora industry, the foreign assembly plants that soak up and spit out young workers by the shantytownful. But things took a turn for the truly hellish in late 2006, when President Felipe Calderón unleashed his military against the drug lords. Since then, the corpses in Juárez, a major drug transshipment point to the United States, have been stacking up in gutters, on the desert sands, and under the floors of torture chambers called “death houses.” The killings have become general, and are mostly unsolved. Many of the murdered appear to have no connection to narcotics. No social class is immune. And all the security services are involved. It is into this miasma of atomized violence that Bowden strides with his notepad. “I go,” he writes, “in the vain hope of understanding how a city evolves into a death machine.”
Bowden is at his best describing the fearful atmosphere of that city. His language can be as stark as the noonday desert sun: “On Sunday, March 15, a violent dust storm sweeps the city. In the past 30 hours, there have been six reported murders. People fly kites all over the city.”
He reports that both the mayor and newspaper publisher of Juárez live in El Paso for safety. So do some of the drug dealers. The Mexican army, sent by the president to stamp out the violence, instead kidnaps policewomen and rapes them. Anonymous newspaper ads brazenly seek college students to work over spring break as “mules” or drug couriers. Death lists are plastered to police stations—the named cops are doomed for refusing cartel bribes—with the assassins’ polite addendum, “Thank you for waiting.”
“History erases itself in Juárez,” writes Bowden, struggling to make sense of the swirling bloodshed in an amnesiac city terrified by lethal reprisals. “The newspapers cast out their photographs of murders, and the clippings vanish, also. Police records disappear.”
Perhaps the scariest thing about Murder City is its author’s apocalyptic conclusion about the future of the city—and, ultimately, the globalized world.
Bowden maintains that the official explanation for Juárez’s agony—a turf war between the powerful Juárez and Gulf cartels, which are under pressure from the Mexican government—is a reassuring lie. The real source of the violence, he says, is a combination of dehumanizing economic forces (the North American Free Trade Agreement bankrupted millions of Mexican peasants and sent them stampeding north) and a booming domestic drug habit (Juárez is believed to have 150,000 addicts and 20,000 retail drug outlets). Throw in hopeless armies of maquiladora workers toiling on near-starvation wages while assembling First World junk for the Americans; 500 street gangs who prey on or recruit them; corruption that seeps to the marrow of virtually all institutions; and what Americans face—or rather refuse to face—on their doorstep is a beast of a frightening new order: A Clockwork Orange set to ranchera music.
Killing is now the new “normal” in Juárez, Bowden tells us. The magazine hawker shot dead at an intersection; the restaurant mogul expertly picked off while standing among his bodyguards outside a disco; the young schoolgirl raped and murdered while doing homework in her bedroom. These aren’t victims swept up in the criminal vortex of a multi-billion-dollar drug trade to the United States. They are collateral damage in a society eroded by feral capitalism, a free-trade zone turned free-fire zone.
“Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button,” writes Bowden. “Violence is not a part of life, now it is life.” Moreover, this brutal blowback of globalization will touch us all, he asserts: “Juárez is where we are learning the very first steps in the dance that will come sweeping through our lives.”
Maybe. Maybe not. By insisting that the agonies of Juárez represent some novel sociological phenomenon, Bowden digs himself into some pretty strange holes. Again and again, he mocks the standard explanations for the drug violence as naïve, as “the rhetoric of deceit,” even dismissing, ludicrously, any responsibility 22 million or more drug-using Americans might have in bankrolling the slaughter.
Straining hard to prop up his bleak vision of Juárez as the model for a post-globalized dystopia, Bowden also does himself a narrative disfavor. He diminishes the power of his bravest reporting: the rarely told stories of Juárez’s hapless citizens. They tend to fade into props for his overheated heart-of-darkness musings. (“What if the violence is not a kind of breakdown, but more like a flower springing from the rot on a forest floor?”) We see scores of people snuffed out by gunshot, knife, and acid, but they are described two dimensionally, in numbing police-blotter fashion. They fall like tin cutouts in a carnival shooting gallery, unmourned. Stalin famously said that one person’s death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Yet Bowden’s central human touchstone, a gang-raped young woman he calls “Miss Sinaloa,” remains almost a cipher. It is hard to tell whether he even has met her.
In this respect, Bowden resembles another writer who teases sweeping, abstract end-times epiphanies from his travels in the developing world, the conservative seer Robert D. Kaplan, who preaches that mounting chaos in poorer countries will be the global detonator for what he calls “the coming anarchy.” Such facile nihilism is itself dehumanizing to the people who struggle to survive in places such as Ciudad Juárez. Bowden’s sources deserve better.
Murder City has much to recommend it. Bowden, who has spent 13 years visiting the hardscrabble border city, trods where few American writers venture, and his book offers a keyhole into a pain-filled world few Americans wish to see. His portentous theorizing isn’t necessary to make this story resonate north of the Rio Grande. We buy Juárez’s value-added gimcracks just as we buy its drugs by the ton. As Conrad’s ocean-eyed Marlow recognized a long time ago, the dark heart that we always seem to be finding on our journeys across some frontier—among the exotic “other”—matches, beat for beat, the one at home.