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.