Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
By Charles Bowden
Murder City is the story of journalist Charles Bowden’s time in Juárez, the exceedingly violent Mexican border city where he spent much of 2008 and 2009 reporting for publications like GQ, Harper’s, and Mother Jones. In it, Mexico-watchers will find in ample supply many of the themes historically popular in America’s media treatments of its southern neighbor: crime, corruption, rape, murder, failed governance, and the like. In short, the war on drugs, in all its splendor.
While ostensibly a work of nonfiction, the book reads less like a journalistic account than it does a conscious attempt to build a comic-book dreamworld: Juárez, the dystopian land of death and disorder. It has little interest in explaining, at least in the reportorial sense of the word, the recent explosion of mayhem in Juárez. Instead, Murder City encourages readers to view Mexico as a perennially uncontrollable land whose bloody present and future is the irreversible byproduct of drug prohibition and globalization.
Bowden wears three different hats in narrating Murder City: by turns, he is a crime reporter, providing the unhappy details of scores of murders; a memoirist, describing his growing kinship with Juárez’s other tortured souls, from a repentant hit man to a beauty queen whose kidnapping and subsequent gang-rape drives her to insanity; and an editorial-page writer, offering pointed criticisms of various aspects of Mexican and American drug strategy.
Bowden has long been one of the most indelible American voices on all things Mexican, and fans of his work will surely find lots to like in Murder City. His prose is as vivid as ever, and it is immediately evident to the reader that Bowden is drawing from an immense body of reportage on the subject. Bowden also enjoys the benefit of a fascinating setting littered with characters whose stories linger in the mind long after the book is finished. But unfortunately, its assets notwithstanding, Murder City’s faults are far more significant.
One of the more substantial and frustrating flaws with the book is that, despite Bowden's ample knowledge of the city, he flubs a good number of basic facts. For instance, he writes that President Felipe Calderón was the engine behind the formation of Mexico's Agencia Federal de Investigación; in fact, the agency was formed in 2001, under Vicente Fox, and disappeared in 2009 under Calderón, when it was merged into the Policía Federal.
Later, he writes that the foremost drug traffickers in Mexico "have not had a hair on their heads touched" since Calderón came to power. That would come as a surprise to Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who was one of biggest fish among Mexican drug-traffickers before being killed by the Mexican navy in a December shootout. Likewise for Teo García, the notorious Tijuana boss who was arrested a month later, and for Arturo’s brother Alfredo, who was arrested in 2008, as well as for a handful of others.
These are not minor details. For someone writing about Mexican security they are vital episodes. For Bowden to mix up the basic chronology of the AFI, or to ignore the fate of the Beltrán Leyva brothers, is akin to a baseball historian confusing Bob Gibson and Barry Bonds.
Even facts that help his case are misstated. At one point, Bowden tosses off with oddly conspicuous precision the figure of 421 human rights complaints lodged against the army since Calderón first called the military out of its barracks in December of 2006; in reality, the number of accusations registered by Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos is far higher (roughly 3,400 by the time the book hit stores), a fact dutifully reported by the US State Department, the NY Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, not to mention dozens upon dozens of Mexican media outlets.
Space constraints prevent me from continuing, but a complete list of Bowden's suspect or flatly incorrect assertions would be long indeed.
Beyond the factual problems, Bowden's writing is limited by his tendency toward crude generalizations. Among them:
"[W]omen count more in Mexican beer commercials than on Mexican streets."
"Mexicans learn early on, by watching the elders, to retreat or cower before authority..."
"Mexico is not a society that respects human rights."
“Mexico is not a good place to need help.”
Whether you read such sentences as a bit of harmless hyperbole or manifestations of an offensive anti-Mexican bias is largely a matter of taste, but suffice it to say that nuance is not a virtue in great supply in Bowden’s opus.
Special mention must be made of the over-the-top treatment of the Mexican army. At one point, Bowden refers to it as a "criminal organization.” Elsewhere he writes, “To have a general speak to you is not to be desired. They can hand out death like a party favor.”
He also accuses the army of institutionalized racism, saying that "officers have lighter skin that loses pigment steadily as rank gets higher until there is the rarified air of generals who look like Europeans dropped in from some colonial outpost." Here is the photo of the army's foremost commander, General Guillermo Galván, and here are the photos of all the top brass; either image presents about as concise a rebuttal of that claim as is possible.
But Murder City’s rendering of the army is far less convincing than those of the above organizations, because Bowden comes across as less than thorough and utterly credulous when writing abut the armed forces. He regularly repeats hearsay as fact, and appears to have made no attempt whatsoever to seek out anyone from the military for commentary. (In fairness, he also has whopper of a witness to army abuse in exiled Chihuahua reporter Emilio Gutiérrez, whose suffering at the hands of vengeful officers is a major subplot to the book.)
Bowden doesn't, however, ask why polls consistently judge the army as one of the most respected institutions in Mexico, with ratings far above those given to public servants, the police, and political parties. He doesn’t address the fact that wide majorities in Mexico (80 percent, according to the Pew Research Center) support the use of the army to combat organized crime. Unlike the NGOs, he also neglects to discuss the operational reasons for the abuse, as well as possible solutions. That doesn't make the book’s depiction of the army (and, by extension, Felipe Calderón’s decision to rely more heavily on it) incorrect, but it does make it glaringly incomplete.
BOWDEN’S condemnations of the army and his broadsides against Mexican society are the foundation to what one could point to as the basic thesis of his book: Mexico is unalterably violent, the chaos in Juárez represents the nation’s future, and we should all resign ourselves to the suffering. Or, in Bowden’s fatalistic telling, “This is not some breakdown of the social order. This is the new social order. And we will adjust to it and it will be fine.”
A key element of this argument is the rejection of narrow explanations for Juárez’s descent. According to Bowden, the 6,000 deaths since 2007 do not stem from, for instance, the gangsters from Juárez and the Pacific state of Sinaloa that have been fighting for control of the city; it’s because the Mexico of “newspapers, courts, and laws…does not exist,” and Juárez is infested with a “fully mature culture of death.”
Made with more subtlety, the point would be an insightful one; far too often, commentators rely on simplistic formulations of and arrive at wrongheaded prescriptions for Mexico, from the Mérida Initiative’s exaggerated focus on helicopters to analysis arguing that Mexico’s salvation lies in imitating Colombia.
Unfortunately, Bowden doesn’t just caution against easy interpretations, he also rejects virtually any attempt to hash out some verifiable sense of cause and effect in examining Juárez’s recent travails.
Not coincidentally, he expresses a visceral contempt for the professionals who employ devices like logic and facts in their approach to Juárez or the nation at large. He refers to American foreign correspondents as fools, and writes dreamily about burning down a newspaper building because of the misleading narratives emanating from within. For good measure, he adds, “I think if I ran into some local criminologists…I would kill them with my bare hands in order to not hear their explanations.”
Bowden's representation of Juárez, while memorable, ultimately falls flat. The city’s descent into something like anarchy since 2008 isn’t the natural and inevitable byproduct of globalization writ large; it has specific, identifiable causes, from a years-long feud between a pair of drug lords a series of failed government strategies to a decrepit criminal justice system. Similarly, the army's abuse isn't a matter of fate, nor of the evil in the bones of everyone in uniform; it's a byproduct of the military exemption from civilian trials and the timidity of civilian leaders in making an issue of soldiers’ human rights violations.
Moreover, Bowden’s pessimism notwithstanding, Mexico isn’t incapable of self-improvement. For example, a landmark judicial reform was passed in 2008, which, if fully implemented, would make Mexico far more capable of punishing criminals. More security legislation is in the pipeline for the coming congressional session, including a significant police reform that would replace all of the nation’s municipal police departments. Other examples of government attempts to address insecurity abound. Not surprisingly, none of the reforms, neither those already passed nor the mere proposals, merit a mention in Bowden’s Mexico.
Most importantly—and this point can’t be made with sufficient force—Juárez does not loom as Mexico's unavoidable future, and nothing Bowden writes comes close to convincing that it does. Mexico may indeed grow more violent, but the only way that the unique horror of Juárez could be repeated nationwide would be if everyone surrendered to Bowden’s vision as a fait accompli and ceased to struggle against it.
Patrick Corcoran is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He lived in northern Mexico from 2005-2010, and he blogs daily at Gancho.