Thursday, August 05, 2010

Murder City

by Charles Bowden

The occasional front-page stories in the Times or Post about the hundreds of monthly murders that plague the small border city of Juarez can't quite capture the mind-numbing violence and pervasive despair that grips that city. But Charles Bowden does.

A veteran reporter who has worn a lot of shoe leather up and down the border between Mexico and his home state of Arizona, Bowden spent the first half of 2008 tracking hundreds of murders (a "river of blood" chronologically re-ordered in the appendix), and recounting them in a nightmarish blur of one killing after another. By "the last day of June, I see and taste and feel the fully mature culture of death. Death from low wages, death from drug deals, death from unknowable wars, death from going to the bank, death from riding down the street..." The pace of the murders is so relentless and the continuous that they are only occasionally punctuated by gruesome "scene-enders that stop you cold," as James Ellroy puts it in his blurb.

Like the time when an ice chest containing four heads is delivered to a police station. Or the time the police (or was it a group of soldiers?) mow down 8 recovering addicts and social workers during a prayer service.

The relentless list of victims includes everyone from petty glue-damaged street vendors who refuse to stop selling dime bags when warned to high-level police chiefs -- and everyone between -- professors, pregnant women, rich kidnapped businessmen, journalists and social workers.

In a fascinating chapter, a former sicario (hit man) -- himself ultimately a target -- recounts for Bowden his rise from the streets through the police academy, FBI training, and ultimate integration into a cartel that has him so comparmentalized that he doesn't know who he's working for -- to his ultimate betrayal after confiding his doubts to a colleague -- tells Bowden that kidnap victims are never returned.

Even Miss Sinaloa becomes a victim after attending a party where the whiskey and cocaine flow freely before things turn ugly and she gets gang raped for days, eventually ending up getting dumped on the side of the road, ending up at a nearby asylum for recovering junkies and people gone made, a broken beauty whose story haunts Bowden again and again.

While interviewing the sicario, "I feel myself falling down into some kind of well, some dark place that hums beneath the workaday city, and in this place, there is a harder reality and absolute facts. I have been living, I think, in a kind of fantasy world of laws and theories and logical events. Now I am in a country where people are murdered on a whim."

No one is immune and nowhere is safe.

Each neighborhood has its own "Death House" -- a place where multiple victims are taken and tortured, killed, and buried in mass graves. Thus it is easy for hit men to plan and carry out a hit just about anywhere.

"Nothing you do can make you safe, and nothing you do can put you in danger. So, relax. You are in play, and all the neighborhoods are the wrong neighborhood, and all the bars are the wrong bar, and every minute of the day and night offers slaughter. This is not some breakdown of the social order. This is the new order."

If you can get through the book, you'll experience the sheer exasperation and exhaustion. "Over five hundred murders in six months, and still, no one seems to make sense of the murders, and no one seems able to say the names of the killers or to explain who they are, who they represent, and what they want. No matter how many facts and details are assessed, the killings overwhelm simple explanations. There are too many authors writing too many short stories on bodies, there are too many styles of handwriting and forensic specialists get baffled by all the murderous forms of cursive writing. No matter how clever the examiner, still, there is a door behind whatever explanation is offered. The gangs are sent to kill, but who sends them? The cartels are killing, but who in the cartels gives the orders and why? The army slaughters, but who is behind the army? And what if a person finds the door and opens it and finally gets in the room where the orders are issued, the deaths decreed, yes, walks into that room. And finds nothing but dust, cobwebs, and a cold cup of coffee?"

The worst stories are rarely reported -- not because the news editors have any standards of decency, or because there's any official censorship -- but rather, because they aren't immune, either. Any reporter who doesn't accept a sobre (envelope stuffed with cash) risks being a target, regardless of whether or not they are stupid enough to name names related to incidents that are too public not to be reported. Mexico has always been a risky place for the profession yet over 30 journalists have been killed since Calderon became president in 2006, according to CPJ.
For its part, 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. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: The war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government-financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children." But "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."

Bowden refuses to assign Juarez' murder epidemic to any single cause -- a war between cartels, poverty, the corruption of the army (which, as he recounts, is undoubtedly the source of numerous hits) and the police (75% of whom are on the narcos' payroll), a gang of femicidal freaks, or the devolution of Mexican politics and Federal control ever since the PRI lost the 2000 election, ending 70 years of "perfect dictatorship".

"I am sitting with a Juraez lawyer at a party, and he explains that there has been a failure of analysis. he tells me criminology will not explain what is happening, nor will sociology. He pauses and then says that we must study demonology."

Of course drugs have a lot to do with it. After all, if Juarez were not on the border, the transit point for thousands of tons of coke and pot, would it be that bad? According to El Pastor, a confidant who built an insane asylum for addicts and people who have gone crazy from the violence ("he is building a cell for me," Bowden says, "I am grateful that I will never be homeless") -- thirty to forty percent of the city depends on drug money for their income. There are 150,000 addicts in the city of 2 million.

But "no one knows how many assassins live and thrive in Juarez. There are an estimated five hundred street gangs -- but our knowledge of these facts is limited since the city police's expert on gangs was executed in January 2008 at the beginning of a killing season that is humming along at more than one hundred corpses a month. Still, assume there are five hundred gangs. Assume that full membership requires murder, be conservative and say there are only ten members in each gang, and then you have five thousand young and frisky killers. To be sure, the Aztecas, one premier gang have three thousand members, but why exaggerate the number of killers? Let's just say five thousand. This tally ignores the world floating about the gangs, the land of police and soldiers and cartels, where many other murderers find wages and niches."
The situation that is likely to get worse as the federal government loses its grip (or overreacts as as it attempts to regain control in cities where the cartels use street banners to openly advertise for new recruits). All the while, armed groups like the Zapatistas and ERP continue to hold their ground in other regions. And a young man's traditional escape routes have all but disappeared:  NAFTA has driven many Mexicans off the land who were once able to eke out a subsistence living in the interior. Many moved north, looking for work, only to find that many of the Maquiladora industrial parks that once blanketed the border region have relocated to China. The growth of Homeland Security and ICE (not to mention waves of right-wing xenophobia) on the other side will only get worse as the perceived threat grows.

Bowden is very much aware that the problems are systemic, but avoids cheapening the force of his reporting by going there. He's obviously very much aware of the pitfalls of engaging in such speculation, while undoubtedly cognizant of the systemic significance of the situation. E.g. check out the interviews with him on CSPAN (here and here).

In the summer of 2002, Bowden had a conversation with John McCain in his office. McCain told him, "Chuck, look, we can change Iraq to a parliamentary democracy in less than 5 years. I'm a friendly guy, so I leaned forward and asked him to share his drugs. He sincerely believed it, because he thought these cultures are plastic."

Still, I'm left wishing he had incorporated some kind of historico-politico analysis, because it's quite tempting to predict that things could get much worse. (As Bowden reports, there were a total of 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008. In the epilogue, he reports that the number grew to 2,400 in 2009.)  The structural factors that kept Mexico from dissolving into anarchy in the past (forget "civil war" -- that's assuming there would be just two sides) seem to be disintegrating more and more each day.

Take Mexico's oil. Once one the country's biggest exports and sources of economic stability, and ever since the Cardenas years (1930s) the basis of much national pride and economic and ultimately political stability (arguably key to the PRI's reign), Mexico's reserves are expected to be gone in a decade or so, either tapped out or sold off in pieces as the last parts of PEMEX are broken up and privatized to companies like Halliburton.

How does that relate to the mayhem in Ciudad Juarez? Well, it makes it even more likely that the federal government will turn into a full-fledged narcostate, like Columbia.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just finished George Carlin's Last Words. Fun, quick read, though I'm not sure I woulda wanted to meet him when he was in the throes of his coke addiction. There's a good moment most of us never saw when he and Bob Dornan were both guests on Dinah Shore. As he described it (the book was literally dictated to Tony Hendra), Dinah liked to get her guests to fight. And though you woulda expected more, Carlin was less politicized in those days (the 70s):

"I ripped up Representative Bob Dornan, the red-headed maniac from Orange County, when he had just become a congressman.  He talked about "these hippies desecrating the flag" and "the violence of people who are blowing up math buildings" and protested about protesters getting violent. So I called him on it: "Wait a minute. A flag is supposed to represent everything that a country does. It's not supposed to only represent the good things. If you burn the flag, you're burning the flag for what you perceive to be the bad things the country has done. It's only a symbol. It's only a piece of cloth." And "the violence the Left is symbolic; the injuries are not intended. The violence of the Right is real--directed at people, designed to cause injuries. Vietnam, nuclear weapons, police out of control are intentional forms of violence. The violence from the Right is aimed directly at people and the violence of the Left is aimed at institutions and symbols." I got him mad as hell. It was a nice turning around of his words. Which was great. "Take that you cocksucker."

I'd love to see the tape. I can't imagine Dornan (or any right-winger for that matter) letting him even finish a sentence, let alone get all this off at once. Maybe Dinah told Dornan to put a plug in it after he had his say, or maybe rightwingers were willing to listen more in those days. Who fucking knows.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Buffalo Poetics List Serve is one of the most interesting, according to my friend Steve Russell.
Video Streaming tools:

Go to and download the software, which downloads programs for you,
but no streaming off the site. also has software. It's where you can watch al-Jazeera English
and Iranian television (where I've been drafted as a DC pundit). There are another
4 dozen television and radio outlets on Live Station.

The content is streamed to your computer, as opposed to downloaded.

Just finished Charles McCarry's spy novel, "The Last Supper" -- one of his Paul Christopher novels. Pretty fun, and a good beginning for a vacation break.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another blog to check now and then: Anti-Fascist Calling.

Also, Good Reads has a list of groups that share recommendations.

I gotta do a page on resources for booksellers, but for now, here's one on how to use the USPS Click-N-Ship.

Friday, May 08, 2009

With the help of my colleague Marcia, I used the Engine 2 diet last month.

You can register on their site and get access to 60 vegan no oil-recipes.

Check out the introductory video....

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I'm hoping to embark on a minor self-tutorial about China. Check back in six months to see if I got anywhere. Starting with Chinese dissident and economist Minqui Li's The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (how's that for provocative?), published by Monthly Review.

It's been a while since I've used the blog, so anyone who might check it now and then must be thinking I've lost interest or stopped reading?

No, just haven't had much time. In fact, today the only reason I'm here is because I'm at home, sick. In any event I'll be updating the reading list more fully soon.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Time to catch up on what I read in 2008. Before I forget:

First, a list of some of the best I read this year:

The Tyranny of Oil by Antonia Juhasz (the best book about the industy out there)

Wall Street by Steve Fraser (an essay on the zeitgeist of greed, drawing from the history)

The Squandering of America
by Robert Kuttner (one of the two best overall explanations of why our economy is fucked up -- rooted in the failure of regulatory policy and the laissez faire doctrines that dominate the discourse...who was it said, "a little learning is a dangerous thing" ? (Alexander Pope?) ... well, when it comes to economics, he was so right, because the real world has nothing to do with what they teach us. Rather than savage the academics, however, Kuttner explains what has actually happened.

Bad Money
by Kevin Phillips (the other best overall explanation...a bit less exacting on the policies, but much more soaring in its rhetoric...the capstone to the brilliant trilogy of books that he issued during the past 8 years)...

The Great Depression and the New Deal by Rauchway (are you ready for it to happen again? If not, you should be, and there's no better intro than this tight, concise history...and you can find more on his blog)

Coming of Age at the End of History
by Camille de Toledo (French essayist, young activist with a sharp chip on his shoulder)


New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Condrescu (I read that on a recent trip back down to sleeziana...nice, crisp columns by the NPR commentator)

Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life by Tom Clark (bio) I stopped halfway through - intend to finish - I like to read poets' bios before I decide if I wanna make the effort to read their work - esp. ones that are difficult like he seems to be.

Tree Smoke by Denis Johnson (They tout this as his masterpiece. I was a bit disappointed, actually. Though very well written, as are all his novels and poetry, there's not much to the plot.)

Generation of Vipers by Phillip Wylie. I keep running across copies of this snarky early 1940s social critique at used book sales. And with a title like that, how could I resist? (Esp. as a big fan of contrarian writers, like Hitchens, Mencken, Twain, etc.). This was quite entertaining and scorching, but there were times when he seemed way off-base -- esp. his views on women, which seem a bit wacky, even for those days: "The henharpy is but the Cinderella chick come home to roost: the taloned, cackling residue of burnt-out puberty in a land that has no use for mature men or women" except where they acknowledge that women are the primary targets of the new heights of commercialism: "Women as an idle class, a spending class, a candy-craving class, never existed before...The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift -- an idea promulgaed by every medium and many an advertisement -- has defeated half the husbands in America. It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. ... The goal of security, seen in terms of things alone and achieved in those terms during the least secure period in human history, has predictably ruined Cinderella: she has the prince, the coach, the horses -- but her soul's a pumpkin and her mind's a rat-warren. She desperately needs help.")

That said, I loved some of this venomous vituperation:

"The doctors are condemned as a whole, again, by their infuriated defiance of a public tendency toward health insurance and toward any step that may be called the socialization of medicine. If this defiance were accompanied by a practicable plan, agreeable to all, whereby the mordant and the miserable of this republic could get themselves a fair measure of mere physical care, the emotion could be interpreted as an urge to restrain man from foolishness and guide him into wisdom..." (p. 179)

and bilious bloviation:

"The grievous gulf between medieval man's engineering skill and his ineptitude at being manlike is thus reflected in the art of the woebegone period as vividly as it is to be seen in his crammed and caterwauling psychopathic wards." (p.25)

Spitting into the spiritual facetiousness of Christianity:

"Behind the mask of these good, virtuous, scrificial and holy American people, instinct has gone on working exactly as it always worked. Men are murdered. Children are seduced. Public officials are corrupted. Thieves steal. Churchly men have invented forms of theft so subtle that the law has no means of detecting and punishing them...On and on the negative instincts led the disguised chase. The practice of law became in a large part the practice of concealed robbery. A business apprenticeship consisted in training a youth to be a Fagin. Even a doctor might be practicing medicine or he might be practicing any crime that suited him -- for profit. The scientists hired themselves out to the businessmen and searched only those corners of nature in which lesser brains thought there might be quick money gains. A tradition of integrity in the central government for a time hampered the process of irresponsible acquisition, but men soon set about to put in government persons whose identification with noble tradition would be less embarrassing. Eight graders, with hair over their ears, gangsters, perverts, thugs, bullies and scumskulls of every sort, so long as they were either purchasable or preoccupied with some personal crotchet that did not interfere with the plunder of man by man, were recommended solemnly to the halls of state by big business leaders, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and the rest of the blind and grabby retinue of people whom the church had blessed and confirmed as perfect Americans."


And it goes on and on like this!

And now and then a nugget like that scumskulls! My copy has a list of similar neoligisms and impugnations:

yut (53)
nance (61)
prickamice (95) tetanic (95) padisha (161)
Nawab and voivode (164)
sciamachly (165)
bargrove (175)
sciolist (241)

I have no idea what put Wylie into such a scathingly mordant state of mind that he could crank this entire Jeremiad out in just a few weeks in early 1941, but you can imagine that the incipient War and the exigencies of patriotism building up to it ("War...represents an unreasoned and inarticulate attempt of a species to solve its frustrations by exploding") had a lot to do with it, despite the claims of Art that he cites in the introduction written 13 years later: "Criticism, that is to say, and the doubt out of which it arises, are the prior conditions to progress of any sort. The intent of "Vipers" was and is to provide a body of exactly that sort of criticism, that sort of doubt and self-doubt."

The next paragraph suggests he knew exactly the kind of response he'd get: "The critical attitude, however, is mistrusted in America, for all its fundamental place in any pattern of progress. Formal criticism, as such, while allowable, is regarded as an exercise of "longhairs" or "eggheads" ... The result is to keep the American majority not just intellectually uncritical but anti-critical."

Although the book was apparently a best-seller, "To people with that orientation -- people who imagine that the "right" approach to any problem must involve optimism -- "Vipers" was a great shock. For "Vipers" suggests that downright pessimismm, in this day and age, may be a more fruitful source of national improvement (and even a surer road to mere survival) than all the compulsive optimism the public can pump up concerning its wonderful self."

We've come a long way since then. If anything, it seems we are now in the age of resignation, where each new scandal (Enron, Halliburton, Blackwater, Madoff...) is met with little surprise.

Still, I hope with I. B. Singer, who said, "The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence, but a mighty passion for the redemption of man."

Wylie suggested much the same in his 1954 intro, albeit with what now seems like far-fetched histrionics:

"I talked to one young lady for an hour while she sat on the window sill of a high floor of a Manhattan skyscraper with a copy of "Vipers" on her lap! ... It was necessary to persuade such people that a mere vista of difficulties, however huge and horrid, is not an excuse for abandoning human effort -- let alone life itself. Such reactions are extremely childish. Unfortunately, many people are just that infantile. A great many Americans have given up moral and intellectual effort in behalf of their country simply because it is hard to be moral and to reason."

Of course there's much self-justification here, since "the modern American, to express the bulk of the though in a single phrase, has rejected the critical method for himself," someone like Wylie had to come along and puncture his ballooning self-importance.

Thus, he does the rounds, like a scalpel-wielding social surgeon on a rampage.

The colleges "themselves were ponderous stone buildings, usually segregated from the populace...Great learning was attributed to pedants who were still debating points that had been without relevancy for thousands of years...The education of young people had very little to do, it may be seen, with the life for which they were being prepared, and every sort of bigotry was proselytized by one or more colleges. History was written and taught without any regard for fact, but only with the motive of nationalistic 'face-saving." Yes, indeed, "the flat hat on the pate of the American graduate is a hallmark of philosophical treason -- and there are enough of them to shingle hell."

How nice it would have been to cite that on graduation day!

It follows, of course that all of the professions, especially medicine, are overdue for a skewering: "Witch-doctoring and quackery, mummery and nonsense, robbery, withal a Niagara of nonsense, a mountain of mulcting, a swindle and a scandal, and if your grocer did a tenth as much to you you would have him in the clink, even though we will agree that grocers, as a class, are a collection of choice theives and liars too."

Religious hypocrisy and the day's attitudes about sex are easy targets, too, as already suggested: "You are every man on every rack -- every moaning and foaming gobbet of flexh in history -- every good impulse and also every evil one. By denying the existence of the evil in you, you have forced upon it an autonomous existence and it has marched clear around the globa and it is ready to consume you."

Then, of course, there is the hypocrisy of Americans at war. For while we denounce the Japs for dousing the Chinese and burning them alive in Nanking, Wylie notes in a 1954 postscript that "Since I wrote (a reference to that infamous activity), of course, we have cooked a million or so Japs in napalm, which is a form of gasoline, and left some other thousands mere man-shaped carbon stains on radioactive sidewalks. These achievements make it even harder for us Americans to acknowledge, humbly, the terribleness we share with others. Indeed, most of us seem able to declaim brightly that atomic weapons "must never be used in war," without noting the eternally attached shadow: that they have so been used and that we did it."

And in a society where "liberty is the right to compel people to produce and purchase stuff" (he doesn't mention the perversion of Free Speech in the application of First Amendment protections to advertising, but might have, had he traced some of these moral failures to a distortion of the society's ideals in the way its laws were interpeted), there is no easier target than the businessmen.

None are innocent, and "Man's destiny lies half within himself, half without. Toi advance in either half at the expense of the other is literally insane. We are almost all, of course, as mad as hatters. Our statesmen, our scientists, ourselves. You. Indeed, if you go on reading this book, unless it makes you wiser, it will very likely cause you to cork off screaming to the nut factory. You belong there anyway and, deep inside yourself, you know it."

This past year, I also re-read Studies in Classic American Literature by D. H. Lawrence (I think it's the only book by him that I've ever finished. I can't get into the novels and the poetry never got me too excited either.).

I have to admit that I must have missed some of the sarcasm here when I read this in college. I also don't recall catching the the way he makes use of what he said in the previous chapters. The chapter on Melville is superb, as is his chapter on Whitman who, I don't know why, I wrote about for my college thesis. (Have you read the essay Whitman wrote to introduce the first edition of Leaves of Grass? I still think that's a stunning piece of rhetoric.) Anyway, I definitely was not mature enough when I read this Lawrence the first time, becuz I totally missed a lot of his jabs and allusions. But then, I've always been slow on the draw when it comes to subtle humor.

In prepping myself to read Roberto Bolano's masterpiece, 2666, I've decided to read a few of the slimmer volumes being issued by New Directions, starting with Last Evenings on Earth, a delicious collection of short stories.

This guy Bolano is the best Latin American writer to have his works translated into English in a long time. Reading Last Evenings does a lot for me: a) reminds me of that joyous peripathetic (sic) period of my life when I lived in Cambridge, MA (6 months after graduating), working odd jobs and reading voraciously the literature I wanted to read (rather than what I was required to read), including Joyce, Pynchon, Bellow, and various poets, and ambling and rambling with various characters in the bars and streets of Cambridge, going in and out of the Grollier book store (only store in the nation that I know that's exclusively devoted to poetry, outside of the Bowery Poetry Club, which doesn't count since it makes ends meet on entertainment and whatever Shappy can rake in at the bar)...

Anyway, the stories in Last Evenings (and the parts of the Savage Detectives, which I admit to putting down mid-way through) is chock full of "failed" characters -- second-rate writers, a diaspora of desperate exiles and poets off on their own private vision quests, etc.

The narrative feels like the someone's caffeinated divagations about other open mike habitues or the local quarterly editorial clique, without pretensions.

Bolano is Chilean, part of the diaspora of literary desperadoes who were sewing their oats just about the time when Kissinger and Pinochet pushed Salvador Allende into suicide and chopped off Victor Jara's beautiful hands. That is, he wrote like someone with nothing left to lose.