Murder City

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

By Charles Bowden
Nation Books, November 30, 2009, $34.95

Early in chapter one of Dark Age Ahead, eminent urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote, unequivocally, “we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age.” In Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, journalist Charles Bowden states in an unnerving prose style that meanders between the voice of a reporter made numb by the telling of uncountable deaths and a poet trying to make sense of violence that is equally random, unbidden, and appalling in its brutality, that the Dark Age is now here.

After the election of Felipe Calderon in 2006, Mexico saw a massive increase in violence, ostensibly due to a renewed commitment by the newly elected El Presedente to the “war on drugs” at the behest of the U.S. government and paid for by that country’s largely snoring population. Since that time, Ciudad Juarez, a city roughly the size of Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs, has become ground zero in North America’s drug war.

Certainly people are being murdered here at a horrific rate, but what the title “war on drugs” necessarily obfuscates, with its irritating and fundamentally meaningless pandering to bourgeois sentimentalities and anxieties, is that the war on drugs is really two things: a competition among different groups to capture a piece of the huge profits to be made from the illicit drug trade, and, more significantly, a war against the poor.

Bowden writes, according to the Mexican government and the DEA, the violence in Juarez results from a battle between various drug cartels. This makes perfect sense, except that the war fails to kill cartel members… The only thing that is certain is that various groups — gangs, the army, the city police, the state police, the federal police — are killing people in Juarez as a part of the war for drug profits.

Bowden’s central thesis to explain all this killing is startling yet unsurprising. According to the rationale of the cheerleaders of NAFTA, free trade was to pull Mexico out of poverty. Instead it seems to have made an already poor nation poorer. “It crushed peasant agriculture in Mexico and sent millions of campesinos (farmers) fleeing north…” either to seek jobs in mostly U.S. owned factories in border cities like Juarez — there to earn slave wages in jobs that see 100 to 200 per cent turnover per year, or to take the chance and cross illegally into the promised land. “The only reason people go north… is to survive.” But the factories ruin “the spirit faster than cocaine or meth” and the border authorities are always returning “illegals,” adding to Juarez’s population of the destroyed and powerless, who then turn to drugs or the drug trade.

Bowden, with journalistic precision writes, “the only reason a U.S. company moves to Juarez is to pay lower wages. The only reason people sell drugs and die is to earn higher wages… This is not simply an economic exchange. Unless you are one of those people who own a factory, this is a deal with death and money.” Then a few lines later he replaces his journalist’s prose with a style verging on the poetic when he addresses the reader:

“Let me ask you one question: Just what is it you don’t understand that every dead girl here understands, that every dead cholo understands, that everyone ending a shift at the plant understands, and that every corpse coming out of the death warehouse understands?”

This switching between reportage and a more creative style occurs throughout Bowden’s book. Some might argue that treating the subject of Murder City with such creative gusto diminishes the plight of those caught in the cross hairs of both the drug war and the ruthless machine of global capitalism. But Bowden’s style, echoing Cormac McCarthy’s sullen ruminations on violence and social collapse, seems like a coping mechanism of someone dealing with ceaseless tragedy more than an attempt to draw attention to his abilities as a writer.

The deaths he describes are so numerous that they literally bleed into one another, in a way becoming an absurdity, a cracked mirror held up to the reader offering a terrifying glimpse into the future. Except that, the future, according to Bowden, is already here: “this is a barrio of people driven off the land, and of people barely surviving in the new world of the city… There is no future here, but a constant struggle in the present.”

Jane Jacobs points to “five pillars” necessary to the proper functioning of any complex society. Among them she cites family and community, and the “effective practice of science and science based technology” — in other words, reason and rationality. In the Juarez of Murder City, all have been abandoned, but as Bowden coldly observes, “this is not a breakdown of the social order. This is the new order. And we will adjust to it and it will be fine.”

Although it never actually says it outright, reading between the lines, Murder City implies that Mexico is very close, if it isn’t there already, to becoming a failed state. And this a country bordering the world’s most powerful nation — a bleak reflection of what is to come if we blindly adhere to the purely ideological war on drugs and an inhuman economic model.

Murder City is a terrifying book that demands to be read.—Patrick Mackenzie

This review first appeared in SubTerrain magazine.

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