Review: Charles Bowden – “Murder City: Ciudad Juà¡rez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields

Murder City: Ciudad Juà¡rez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
Murder City: Ciudad Juà¡rez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Geography has made the city the link between the center of Mexico and the transportation arteries of the United States. But in the 1980s, major cocaine routes shifted from Florida to Mexico, and Juà¡rez became the beneficiary of this change. Profits increased manyfold, and by 1995, the Juà¡rez cartel was taking in $250 million a week, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Violence grew accordingly, as did corruption of the local government to protect this money. But nothing in this past of vice, drugs, corruption, and money prepared the city for the violence it was suddenly experiencing. Juà¡rez had tasted two hundred to three hundred murders a year in the 1990s and most of the new century. Suddenly, a month of forty or fifty executions seemed quiet“”the previous record slaughter for the city was thirty-nine in September 1995. A new day had begun and it looks like night.

This book is about the crime in Juà¡rez, Mexico, and how it has escalated to the point where 300 murders a month is commonplace, where everybody is controlled by the drug-selling cartels and corruption is the way of doing things.

At first, reading things like the following stanza from the book:

In 2008, between 5,000 and 6,000 Mexicans died in the violence, a larger loss than what the United States has endured during the entire Iraq war. Since the year 2000, 24 reporters have been officially recorded as murdered in Mexico, 7 more have vanished, and an unknown number have fled into the United States. But all numbers in Mexico are slippery because people have a way of disappearing and not being reported.

…felt a bit dramatic, but, I can assure you, it’s far less than dramatic over the course of reading more than 30-50 pages. It’s commonplace, and not jaded. After a while I was shocked with the gist of
a birds-eye view of things:

According to the Mexican government and the DEA, the violence in Juà¡rez results from a battle between various drug cartels. This makes perfect sense, except that the war fails to kill cartel members. With over two hundred fresh corpses in ninety days, there is hardly a body connected to the cartels. Nor can the Mexican army seem to locate any of the leaders of the cartels, men who have lived in the city for years. The other problem with this cartel war theory is that the Mexican army in Juà¡rez continues to seize tons of marijuana but only a few kilos of cocaine, this in a city with thousands of retail cocaine outlets.

It just keeps going, on a personal level, i.e. without facts having been completely drawn from books:

A friend of mine can barely leave anything in his house, because local addicts rob it the moment he exits. He is on his third large dog. The previous two were poisoned. He has hopes for the third guard dog.

When the cartels are actually openly searching for merciless killers to join their death-squads, you get a sense of how much people are prepared to do to earn money from selling drugs:

In Nuevo Laredo, the sister city to Laredo, Texas, people notice a huge banner floating over one of the major thoroughfares. The message is simple: “Operative group “˜The Zetas’ wants you, soldier or ex-soldier. We offer a good salary, food and benefits for your family. Don’t suffer any more mistreatment and don’t go hungry.“ The banner also advises, “We don’t feed you Maruchan soups [a brand of ramen noodles].“ It lists a cell phone number. In Tampico, another banner appears that says, “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice. What more could you ask for? Tamaulipas, Mexico, the USA and the entire world is Gulf Cartel territory.“ The authorities in Mexico City say they think the advertisement is authentic. The Zetas, besides maintaining training camps for new employees, also equip their people with automatic weapons, grenades, dynamite, and rocket launchers. Presumably they also get machetes since the group sometimes decapitates its adversaries. One of the Zetas’ leaders is said to have elite Guatemalan soldiers as bodyguards. On March 17, Mexican authorities in the state of Tamaulipas seize a Jeep Cherokee with special features: a smoke-screen generator, bulletproofing, and, attached in the rear, a device to throw spikes on the road.

While the violence, the daily life in it and the way that the author constructs this in the book is well-written, there is also a lucid, poetic deal to the book. Throughout it, the author draws parallels to “Miss Sinaloa”, a woman who was “raped out of her mind”, and a former beauty queen:

Violence courses through Juà¡rez like a ceaseless wind, and we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: 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. Violence is not a part of life, now it is life. Just ask Miss Sinaloa.

The poetic tangent actually works to the benefit of the book, as it enhances the feeling of how hum-drum murder, rape and corruption has actually become, and how everything that is officially reported throughout the town seems to have very little or nothing to do with reality.

As with the Italian mafias, there have been some serious attempts made to get to the problem from its core:

Under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), a new incorruptible force, Fiscalà­a Especializada en Atencià³n de Delitos contra la Salud (FEADS), was created. One part deserted, became the Zetas, and functionally took over the Gulf cartel in the early days of the new century. 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 Calderà³n, yet a new federal mutation emerged“”AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigacià³n). 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.

And to further address how widespread corruption, lying and how the information in the city papers are to be believed:

Violence in Juà¡rez always has an ability to become invisible. Since no one trusts the police, crime statistics are often guesswork because citizens of the city do not report what has happened to them. Since the police are often criminals, there is little incentive for them to fight crime. Since torture is the basic forensic tool of law enforcement, the elements of law and order have developed few, if any, skills in solving crimes. Since virtually everyone arrested confesses after enough beatings, there is a patina of crime fighting to disguise the actual business of a gangster state. Since all of this is obvious, it is almost never said and very often not even consciously believed. In most instances, the criminal police and the citizens both share in a fantasy that the crimes are being investigated, the criminals being tamed, and the person standing before them in a uniform and carrying a badge is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Some notes from the people of Juarez are also very interesting:

“You see birds walking on the pavement in Juà¡rez,“ he explains, “and their heads dart from side to side because they are waiting for someone to throw a rock and kill them. This is the way it is for narcos.“

And as the author talks to a professional hitman (whom are called “sicarios”, of whom there seems to be quite a lot of in the city):

I ask him how much he would charge to kill me. He gives me a cool appraisal and says, “At most, five thousand dollars, probably less. You are powerless and you have no connections to power. No one would come after me if I killed you.“

A real sicario, he notes, does not kill women or children. Well, unless the women are informants for the DEA or the FBI.

Everything is contained and sealed. In the 1990s, they used crazy kids to steal cars for the work, but the kids, about forty of them, got too arrogant and started bragging in the nightclubs and selling drugs. This violated an agreement with the governor of Chihuahua to keep the city quiet. So one night in 1998, fifty police and one hundred fifty guys from the organization, who were to ensure the job was done, rounded up all the kids on Avenida Juà¡rez. They were not tortured. They were killed with a single headshot and buried in one hole. “No,“ he smiles at me, “I will not tell you where that hole is.“

And on…

Also, there is a story that says reporters track police radio in order to cover the murders, but that now, for the first time, voices are coming over these police channels and over their cell phones, warning them to slow down, to not arrive at the killing scene just yet. Because it is not finished.

A new list of police yet to be executed is found outside a police station. At the bottom of the list of names is a simple thought: “Thank you for waiting.“

“The narcos,“ he wants me to understand, “have informants in DEA and the FBI. They work until they are useless. Then they are killed.“ He pauses. “Informants for the FBI and DEA die ugly.“ He explains. “They were brought handcuffed behind the back to the death house where they found thirty-eight bodies,“ he rolls on. “A T-shirt was soaked with gasoline and put on their backs, lit, and then, after a while, pulled from their backs. The skin came off with it. Both men made sounds like cattle being killed. They were injected with a drug so they would not lose consciousness. Then they put alcohol on their testicles and lit them. They jumped so high“”they were handcuffed, and still I never saw people jump so high.“ We are slipping now, all the masks have fallen to the floor, the veteran, the professional sicario is walking me through a key assignment he completed. “Their backs were like leather and did not bleed. They put plastic bags on their heads to smother them and then revived them with alcohol under their noses. “All they ever said to us was “˜We will see you in hell.’ “This went on for three days. They smelled terrible because of the burns. They brought in a doctor to keep reviving them. They wanted them to live one more day. After a while, they defecated blood. They shoved broomsticks up their asses. “The second day, a person came and told them, “˜I warned you this was going to happen.’ “They said, “˜Kill us.’ “The guys lived three days. The doctor kept injecting them to keep them alive, and he had to work hard. Eventually, they died of the torture. “They never asked God for help. They just kept saying, “˜We will see you in hell.’ “I buried them with their faces down and poured on a whole lot of lime.“ He is excited. It is all back. He can feel the shovel in his hand. Smell the burned flesh.

It’s all daunting. Very heavy.

We have the numbers. Since January 1994, there have been 3,955 murders in Juà¡rez. Since January 2008, there have been 540 murders. It is the last day of June, and there is still time. The numbers that give us comfort, those dates and tallies, these numbers are still tumbling in. We can write them in columns on white paper and install order in our minds. But still, that door must be opened.

By the end of 2008, the monthly totals reached beyond two hundred. By summer 2009, more than three hundred murders in a month became normal in Juà¡rez.

Even despite the way things have been going and, indeed, are going, the author and life itself leans towards hope, but not without a very real way of getting at things. I wish this book would have explained global drug trading and how the future of drug trade and the workings of the cartels could pan out, as this would perhaps have provided a very special prognosis of things to come. But will change come, really? The drug trade is simply too rich. Its dividends pay off too easily, and its main players refuse to give up their positions; to what, really? Minimum-wage jobs in low-interest sectors?

This is a really well-composed and well-written book. The tempo, the pace and the feeling is more than most non-fiction books ever get, and with the poetic tinge throughout makes this memorable. And very sad.

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