I was working in the Rio Grande Valley this month and late one night I found on HBO a series that caught my attention–“Witness: Juarez.” http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/witness-juarez/synopsis.html During this unsettling film devoted to photojournalism, one scene was of Charles Bowden reading from his book, Murder City. I decided I had to have the book, so I ordered it that very day.
Bowden’s book is disturbing. His analysis needed by anyone who wants to know what’s really going on south of the Rio Grande. The tone and the resulting reader emotion reminded me of the horror encountered when I first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Bowden immersed himself in Juarez, in the suffering of its people, in the lives of certain key characters he uses to frame his story. We follow those who have been traumatized by violence, reporters who have been silenced by fear or death, law enforcement officers who themselves are often victims, assassins, priests, charity workers, and some who have devoted their lives to helping the people of the border.
His book contains a message that America needs to know. Much of our media, and certainly our politicians, are often clueless and their glib “reasons” for such violence are of those who are delusional or in denial.
Here is a summary of his conclusions:
1. That the president of Mexico is fighting a war against drug cartels. He points out that over “40,000 Mexicans are now dead, almost all of them poor” (236) He argues that this is a war for drugs, not against it, as drugs are the largest single source of currency in the Mexican economy.
2. That NAFTA is a success. He exposes the slave labor of the maquiladoras and shows how the greed of the large businesses have helped cause the largest migration on earth out of Mexico as the “treaty crushed peasant agriculture and small industry” (236).
3. That the Mexican army is fighting the drug industry. The billions we’ve given to the Mexican army have only resulted in mass murder, government death squads, rape, torture, extortion, and kidnapping. The flow of drugs to the north continues unabated.
4. That violence is spilling across the border. He argues that the border communities on the U.S. side have had declining crime rates and are actually safer than many other parts of America. He states the violence is spilling south because of our drug and economic policies.
5. That there is a river of iron flowing south from US. gun shops. In reality, most of the guns are not from America.
6. That the wall will stop illegal migrants and drugs and terrorists. He argues (convincingly) that the drugs cross through our ports of entry because of corruption and bribes.
Bowden’s prose is vivid, poignant, and haunting. Kirkus’s review said it is a “darkly poetic story of city’s horrifying descent into madness and anarchy . . . .” It reveals how human beings can used to anything . . . No matter how horrible. Even in a city where over 200 are murdered each month, they can continue scratching out a living, living only in the present moment. Neither the murdered nor their murderers are spoken of. As Bowden says, Juarez is a city that “erases not simply lives, but also memory” ( 93). Murder City is one of those books that I know I can never forget, and I know it changed me in some sad, terrible way. As Bowden says, “There are some things that if learned change a person forever. You cannot know of the slaughter running along the border and remain the same person” (137).
Bowden, Charles. Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. New York: Nation, 2010.