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Book Review: Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden

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You can infer much about most books from the very first sentence. For it’s the first sentence that sets the tone of the book. The first sentence of Murder City goes like this: “Here’s the deal.” It’s a good first sentence. A sentence that establishes a tone of simplicity. And there’s nothing simpler than death. Death is what Murder City is all about.    

In the past year, 2660 people were killed in Juarez. They died because of the war on drugs. Or, more precisely, because of the war for drugs, “for the enormous money to be made in drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share.”

As Charles Bowden, the author explains, the whole thing started in 2000, which was when Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico. Up until then, the central government had pretty much controlled the drug industry in Mexico. Fox lost control of both the drug industry and the nation.

Then in 2006, Felipe Calderon became president. Ten days after taking office, Calderon ordered the Mexican Army to squash the drug industry, which was being run by the cartels. That’s when the killing began.

Bowden points out “a few basic rules about the Mexican army.” For one, you can’t trust them, because “they famously disappear people.” For two, there are a lot of deserters, because “they pay famously little.” Over 100,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted. They joined the cartels. “The pay is better and so is the sense of power.”

In other words, Mexico is no longer what used to be called a ‘civilized nation.’ Mexico has devolved into a culture of violence. Brutality and death have replaced law and order. Drugs and mountains of cash have replaced commerce and banking.    

Murder is the new way of doing business.    

A large part of the problem, according to Bowden, was NAFTA. NAFTA was supposed to usher in prosperity and reduce illegal immigration. It didn’t. Instead, 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement wiped out peasant agriculture in Mexico. In Juarez, wages dropped from $4.50 per day to $3.70 per day. Trucks that were supposed to carry goods to the U.S. didn’t. The trucks carried drugs. American companies moved their manufacturing plants to Mexico because “they could pay slave wages, ignore environmental regulations” and unions.

The result? Juarez is “full of death, poverty, and violence.”

Make no mistake. Murder City is not a dry, academic dissertation. It’s a story populated by people. News reporters afraid to report the news. Teenagers who join gangs for money and a sense of power. Police officers who take bribes. Shop owners who go out of business. A pastor who runs a rescue mission for drug addicts. A beauty queen gone insane.    

Bowden relates their stories in fluid neon prose. Prose that scrubs and cleans any sheen of glamour from the narrative. Abrasive prose that leaves a rude, harsh-textured surface. Rubbing your fingers over it results in raw, bleeding flesh. Take for example, Miss Sinaloa, who was a teenage beauty queen. The mistress of aesthetic advantage. Men worshipped her. Then she partied with some police officers. They took her into the desert and raped her. Repeatedly. For days. She survived, if you want to call it that. The mindless brutality left her mindless, insane.

Bowden’s description of Miss Sinaloa makes you cry. “She has those lush lips, that long hair and fair skin. She can never be important. She is not the drug industry, she is not free trade, she is not national security. She is the blood and dreams of a people. I will never forget her. Just as she will never be remembered.”

Violence in Juarez is everywhere. A police-issued bulletin informs residents that police are not answering any calls. It’s too dangerous. The chief of police lives across the border in El Paso. So do the mayor of Juarez and other government officials.

As you read Murder City, you find yourself thinking, ‘Someone should do something.’ In fact, without trying to, Bowden makes a strong case for a policy of deliberate interference. What used to be called ‘Imperialism,’ which is the policy and practice of forming and maintaining an Empire. Of course, such thinking is politically incorrect in the contemporary world. But under the circumstances, it might be worth re-visiting. Because Mexico’s present system of government doesn’t seem to be working out too well.

In any event, Murder City is one of those books that have to be read. A simple book review can’t do it justice.

On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (pretty darn bad) to 5 stars (pretty darn good), Murder City bumps off 5 stars.

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About Randall Radic