Charles Bowden has been added to my list of favorite writers. His nonfiction is some of the most powerful and intriguing I’ve ever read. His is the type of writing that changes a person, sometimes so powerful that it rattles and disturbs the sensitive. His books teach you far more than you expected, perhaps wanted, to learn about human nature and Northern Mexico. You can find his press kit and extended biography here. I’ve listed below his books that I’ve read and where you can purchase them. Below is the interview that he graciously gave me.
1. QUESTION: I first learned of you through the HBO series, Witness: Juarez. How did you get involved in that program?
I have never seen the broadcast and had no idea I was in it. I do know Eros, the photographer featured. He and some others came by the house, I recall, filmed Molly Molloy and me and hell then I forgot all about it. He did alert me to the broadcast but I did not seem to understand that meant I was in it. I am charmed if they used Tom Thumb’s Blues, a Dylan song I used as floating quotation in a book I did with a bunch of brilliant Juarez photographers—Juarez: the laboratory of our future.
2. In Murder City, you focus on Juarez, though you make references in your writing to other cities in the Valley. How and in what ways do other cities in Northern Mexico compare to Juarez?
Juarez became the epicenter of the violence during the six years of the administration of Felipe Calderon. Over a hundred thousand people were slaughtered in Mexico in those years, 11,000 of them in one city, Juarez. Also, Juarez lost two to three hundred thousand people to flight from violence and poverty (out of an estimated population of 1.3 million). About a third of the houses were abandoned, forty to fifty percent of the shops closed. But the violence erupted earlier in Nuevo Laredo and other communities facing Texas. I remember being in Nuevo Laredo in 2005 or 06 and you could feel the chill of cold fear in the air. I visited the newspaper that had been attacked ceased to publish stories on drug people. Juarez is in some ways an extreme case of the violence that now is sweeping all of Mexico as order erodes.
3. In Murder City, you said something reassuring about how the violence in Mexico is NOT spilling across the border. What is it that makes our side of the river so much safer? What will keep it safe? As so many have fled or moved their families and businesses here and work in Mexico, will that be a factor? Will those who flee from Mexico be future targets of assassins or kidnappings?
In Mexico, violence is essential to the drug business. In the US, it is bad for business. No contract law can be invoked if some cheats in a drug deal. Violence is the only method of enforcement in the business. To be sure, there are kidnappings and reprisals on the US side against those who fail to fulfill their end of a drug deal. But this is limited in scope in order not to create a reaction from US law enforcement. Violence is bad for the business here. And it is a huge business. By the mid nineties DEA intelligence for example pegged the take of the Juarez drug organization at over $10 billion a year. At that time, drugs earned Mexico about $30 billion a year in hard currency, more than oil, tourism or money sent home by Mexicans working illegally in the US, the three leading licit sources of foreign currency. Clearly, the drug industry has the power to penetrate all the major institutions of Mexican life, both church and state.
The flight of Mexicans in the past six years to the US is unlikely to increase violence here. I will give you one simple example. El Paso is the safest city of its size in the US. For the past five years or so, members of the Juarez drug organization have colonized parts of the city to escape the violence in Juarez. They now commute to work. And yet this has resulted in no increase in violence because, among other reasons, the solution rate for homicide in El Paso is 96 percent. In Juarez it is less than two percent and in the case of drug killings it is zero.
In your research on the violence in northern Mexico, what surprised/shocked you the most? How much time did you spend in Mexico doing the research for Murder City? For Down by the River? Describe your writing schedule/habits.
God, this is hard to answer. I spent eight years on Down by the River, most of them in frustration. Murder City took two years. I do a lot of research, and when I write I seem to explode. I did four drafts of Down by the River in a year, the first one I remember I did in forty-two days. I do a lot of drafts, half dozen or more. I work all the time. I generally finance the writing of the books because I do unfashionable things. Down by the River was the exception—I knew I need financial help for such a venture into the drug and all its delays.
What advice would you give beginning writers? Advice to writers who want to travel to Mexico?
For beginning writers, write and rewrite. If you can work for a newspaper for a spell, it forces you out of your limited world. It did that for me. As for Mexico, be careful, be patient and be grateful you can meet a world unlike your own.
What are your predictions of the future for northern Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley?
There will be more refugees coming north. The criminal economy of Mexico (extortion, kidnapping, drugs) will expand and grow ever less centralized as more players replace the half dozen earlier cartels. The government’s participation in this economy of crime will increase but its influence over it will decrease. Just as now it no longer can deliver security through brute force.
Your research and writing points out that there seems to be so much we don’t know about Mexico, the drug world and even our own government’s policies, hypocrisies, secrets. Is our own media in the dark or just not reporting or are they censored? Is our own public’s ignorance willful or has the public opinion been manipulated?
I cannot explain the willful ignorance of the US press covering Mexico. The Mexican press is terrorized. The US press does not like to challenge power.
You point out how drugs are entering through ports of entry because of corruption. How extensive is this corruption? Is there a solution to this? Who do the cartels target? How do they make their offers? Because of the great quantity of drugs entering the nation, this corruption must be fairly extensive.
With the drug war and the wall, we have created a system that corrupts federal agents because so much money is now out on the table and because the growth the agencies has lacked proper vetting of new hires. This will grow worse because you cannot repeal a market economy. People here will continue to want drugs. People there will continue to seek escape to the north.
What future projects do you have on the burner? The story of Down by the River is heartbreaking. To me it reveals some serious problems with our government as well as how expendable even a good man can be. Comment on our drug policies. Are our existing drug policies cosmetic? Designed to make the public feel things are being done? And with our nation’s drug strategy: What is our drug strategy? Are there changes being made in the DEA and Homeland Security and Border Patrol that look promising?
My next book is about my love of nature. There is no hope for an improvement in the violence and corruption of the drug world or the drug war unless drugs are legalized.
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