In "Advice to a Prophet," poet Richard Wilbur writes: "When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city/mad eyed from stating the obvious." "Murder City" is a fierce, mad-eyed work.
This passionate, wrenching book's subtitle, "Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields," telegraphically suggests what will follow, for the sake of marketing, but is trivialized by the scope of what award-winning journalist Charles Bowden documents here.
Bowden faced the same dilemma as the post-Holocaust world: How to speak about something for which adequate language does not exist, but which must be spoken about. "Murder City" documents the year 2008 and half of 2009 in the world's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Just as those tired GIs entering Auschwitz walked through the gates and stepped over a line separating the world they had known from the new one that included what they found inside, Juarez in Bowden's stunning depiction could be on a different planet, although it is in essence just the other half of the iconic Texas border town El Paso.
In Juarez, population unofficially almost 2 million, murder is the leading cause of death, and the only democratic institution, treating all equally: young cholos and gangbangers, old women, 10-year-old girls, soldiers, people in a rehab clinic chapel on their knees praying, the homeless, newspaper sellers, drug sellers, politicians, drunks, old men, store owners, parents sitting at stoplights, reporters, police chiefs, men in hospital beds, judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors, high school kids at a party -- and a street clown, a murder reported in the clutch of epigrams that serve as an entry point before "Prologue: Get in the Car":
Here's the deal.
We're gonna take us a ride.
Now be quiet.
Time's up, you gotta ride.
We brought the duct tape -- do you prefer gray or tan? No matter, get your ass in.
We have the plastic bag, the loaded guns.
You have been waiting?
Everyone is waiting, but our list is so long.
Everyone pretends we will never come.
But everyone is on someone's list.
Well, for you the wait is over.
In June 2008, Bowden reports, a fourth death list of police officers was left not in its usual spot, on a statue commemorating police officers killed in the line of duty near the U.S. border crossing, but outside the city's central police station. The list's final words were "Thank you for waiting."
The mayor of Juarez sleeps in El Paso, according to Bowden, along with many citizens able to afford escape. Who's left? The poor -- Juarez's crippled civilian economy is centered on maquiladoras emblematic of globalization's cruelties -- the unwell, the unlucky.
This is Bowden's j'accuse: "There are two Mexicos. There is the one reported by the U.S. press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war against the evil forces of the drug world and using the incorruptible Mexican army as his warriors. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, and laws and is seen by the U.S. government as a sister republic. It does not exist."
Instead, "there is a second Mexico, where the war is for drugs, for the enormous money to be made in drugs [one Juarez cartel alone brought in $250 million a week in the mid-1990s, Bowden estimates, and its head used the same private banker at Citibank in New York as the then-president of Mexico], where the police and the military fight for their share, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between government and the drug world has never existed."
And the linchpin for everything is force: psychopathic violence. Bowden writes, "I want to explain the violence as if it were a flat tire and I am searching the surface for a nail. But what if the violence is not a kind of breakdown, but more like a flower springing from the rot on a forest floor?" He calls the formal, official signs supposed to indicate there is order and law and reason and morals in this society "the chants of a vanished religion." Bowden then explicates, death by death, what life is like in Juarez.
After years of careful cultivation, Bowden coaxed a high-level cartel sicario (assassin), a former state and federal police officer, into talking on the record about la vida, and Bowden presents the story from sources both inside and outside the genocide, along the way accreting a damning indictment of both the Mexican and U.S. governments (with America of course Mexico's biggest drug customer). The author uses time as a frame, but the book's structure is more associative, in a new-journalistic fabric exploring the catastrophe of Juarez: drowning tides of cash in a dry place where power is the only law and not even a baby can be a bystander.
Bowden uses as a recurring image and symbol "Miss Sinaloa," a rape and torture victim who collapsed into mental illness as a result of her brutalization at the hands of both "criminals" and "law enforcement."
Near the book's end, Bowden imagines the play "Our Town" staged by Juarez's murder victims, many of whom were anonymous in an environment where even claiming a body can be dangerous. The book's last chapter shows 2009 statistically promising to top 2008, itself a record year for death, and an appendix follows briefly describing every murder publicly reported in 2008 and the victim's name, if reported.
"And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee," says the Book of Job in the Bible.
Religion threads the culture of Juarez, and there is something apocalyptic going on there according to this lone voice many want silenced, making this book both compelling and important.
Ed Taylor is a college literature and writing teacher and freelance Buffalo critic.
By Charles Bowden
384 pages, $26.95