Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder & Family by Charles Bowden — A Short Review

Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder & Family by Charles Bowden

“There was a War on Drugs, and you lost . . .”

This is one of the many memorable quotes of Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder & Family by Charles Bowden. I’ve previously posted a blog on his Murder City, and I’ve decided to read everything he’s written. I’m working  backwards with his writings–next will be be Blood Orchid. He is one of those authors whose language is so strong, so piercing, that I’d have to place him on the same level as Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, authors who have influenced and touched me deeply. I have read everything these authors have written–some works more than once. Bowden has been added to this list.

This past year, I have worked one to three weeks every month in South Texas from Laredo to Brownsville, doing Texas History and Red Ribbon Day Programs at schools, various presentations at libraries and museums, and playing music at pubs, restaurants, and other venues. The Rio Grande Valley has deeply touched my soul. This last week, I performed Christmas music at the outlet mall in  Mercedes, Texas, a week when the residents of Northern Mexico who can afford to do so, swarm into the Valley. As I looked into the eyes and smiling faces of the folks passing by and generously tossing money into my tip jar (see picture below), my heart was touched by their kindness and generosity, but I could not get Bowden’s books out of my mind. His books are the kind that change you forever–once you read them, you are never the same. Bowden’s books are the books that our nation’s leaders should read. They are the writings of a prophet–a man much like Jeremiah or Cassandra whom no one wanted to listen to.  His books are an exposé of  American politics, the jargon, ignorance, and silence of the media, and particularly in  Down by the River,  a heartbreaking account of how our government can hypocritically turn on our own citizens and agents who discovered the complicity between the drug lords, the Mexican government, and our our government. He points out that the drug problem is actually a major industry and an essential “part of the fabric of both nations” (65). The heartbreaking story of DEA Agent Phil Jordan and his family is one you will not be able to forget . . . .

I once wondered what Elaine Shannon meant in her title of Desperados, when she described the War on Drugs as one we can’t win, but now I understand. We can’t win it, and our government really doesn’t want to win it. This is hard for me to express out loud.  I know that sounds pessimistic, and I can feel the bitterness in my heart when I say it because I’ve always wanted to believe in our nation’s leaders, but Bowden’s books have jarred me. He asserts “that no drug policy will ever overcome the demands of domestic politics and foreign policy” (90).

I have friends who work in Homeland Security and the Border Patrol who have taught me so much about the difficulties of their job. I have studied the story of Kiki Camarena–even written a song about him (you can hear that song here). However, Bowden’s Down by the River, taught me many things I did not know and reinforced some suspicions.  You’ll have to read Bowden to see why I  list these points.

1. We have a porous border. (Insecure borders were one of the factors that hurried the destruction of the Roman Empire.)

2. Mexico’s economy would totally collapse without the drug business and our own would suffer significantly.

3. The drug world is built on bribery, murder, torture, and silence. It has penetrated U.S. banking, as well as other businesses. And our own government is silent on what it knows about the drug cartels and Mexico’s complicity.  We hypocritically turn on our own citizens but ignore and even support the blatant transgressions of foreign governments for the sake of our politics. Bowden says, “The unwritten history, or the one that is almost instantly erased, is about the corruption of both nations” (7).

Bowden’s book is a disturbing exposé. It is so specific in detail that I’m actually surprised he lived through his research. In this world he portrays, there is no certainty–“Anyone can be more than one person” (42)  I’m going to give it another read, though the first read so hurt my heart and so boggled my mind that I know I’ll never look at the border the same. I know that the violence south of the Rio Grande exceeds the violence of Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve only been to Mexico once, but until and unless things change, I’ll likely never get to return.  Read this book and you too will understand that “some things were not supposed to be found” (134).

Bowden, Charles. Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family.       New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.