Journalist and essayist Charles Bowden has been working the border beat for four decades now, closely observing the dark side of the little towns where Anglos come to stock up on tequila and brightly woven blankets—towns that increasingly are contested land in long-running wars between the governments of the United States and Mexico against powerful drug cartels. In Murder City, Bowden paints a grim portrait of Ciudad Juárez, the teeming city across the line from El Paso, Texas. We caught up with Bowden at home in the Chihuahuan Desert.

You’re a pioneering chronicler of the dark side of the border, work you’ve been doing for many years. How, given the many subjects the region offers, did you settle on Ciudad Juárez as the topic for so much of your recent writing?

I went to Juárez in 1995 to cover a simple murder. I was stunned by the poverty produced by the booming, post-NAFTA, U.S.-owned border plants, the growing illegal migration, the violence tolerated in the city, and the power and income of the city’s drug industry. I wrote three books about this reality, Juárez: The Laboratory of our Future [1998], Down by River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family [2002] and Exodus/Exodo [2008].

What happened that Juárez should have gone from a fairly quiet border city to a war zone? And is “war zone” hyperbolic? Should we adjust our metaphors, our rhetoric, to understand what’s going on along the border?

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We should murder metaphors. Juárez has a murder rate of over 200 per 100,000, and in some sections of the lower valley the rate hits 1,600 per 100,000. New York City has a rate of six per 100,000. Juárez is the most dangerous city in the world at the moment, surpassing, for example, Baghdad. The killers are found in hundreds of gangs, the drug organizations, the Mexican Army, various police forces and private citizens settling a score. Less than 2 percent of the murders are looked into. There are virtually no arrests. The city is not a metaphor—it is a place where murder is woven into the fabric of normal life, along with theft, kidnapping, extortion, rape and torture.

Let’s assume that you have the ears of both the president of the United States and the president of Mexico. What would you recommend to each with respect to border issues?

The president of the United States should end the War on Drugs, which imprisons U.S. citizens and ships $30 to $50 billion a year to Mexican drug organizations—almost certainly the nation’s largest single source of foreign currency. He should end Plan Merida, which forks over half a billion dollars a year to the Mexican Army, the largest single gang in the country. He should renegotiate NAFTA, which destroys U.S. jobs and creates Mexican jobs in U.S. factories at slave wages.

The president of Mexico should send the Mexican Army back to its barracks, insist on redistributing wealth from the clusters of rich families into programs for the poor, address the total corruption of his government and change his justice system from one where a person is presumed guilty to one where a person is presumed innocent. And he should ask himself why his single largest export is human flesh, since over 10 percent of his citizens have fled to the United States in order to survive.

As the Mexican government intensifies its efforts, the cartels seem to be responding with ever-increasing violence. Do you see an end to this cycle? Is the situation hopeless?

This is no longer a war between drug organizations, if it ever was. The violence is spreading in Mexico, and the dead are hardly capos in drug organizations but are poor people. The government claims 90 percent of the dead have criminal ties but only looks into 5 percent of the killings. There is no effort in Mexico to fight drugs—the economy is dependent on the money. This began as a war for the control of the money and power of the drug industry. Now it has slipped into a violence springing from poverty, growing domestic drug consumption and the erosion of the government. There is no reason for it to end, and it could go on for years. The government’s mask of legitimacy and power has been torn off, and the hidden and ignored wounds of the Mexican people are now on display.

Out in Arizona, as you know, the politicians are making hay of the supposed threat this violence represents to American citizens and interests. What should American authorities do to prevent—if that’s possible—the spread of the cartel wars northward?

The claim of violence spilling north is a lie by U.S. politicians seeking votes through fear and by agencies dreaming of ever-larger budgets in their pointless war against drugs. The drug industry has been rooted in the U.S. economy and in U.S. appetites for years. It cannot be influenced by police action. The current slaughter in Mexico has had no consequence in the United States. Thirty thousand Mexicans are now dead, and yet there is no shortage of drugs in the United States and no increase in price. As for the drug organizations moving north—well, yes, Latin American drug organizations have been peddling their wares in the United States for decades, just as the Japanese sell cars. The real violence spilled south into Mexico and is driven in part by U.S. drug policies, U.S. immigration policies, U.S. free trade policies and U.S. subsidies to killers in the Mexican government.

Do you have more Juárez-related work on your plate? Or are you turning to other subjects or even regions with your next book?

Next spring I am the co-editor with Molly Molloy of the autobiography of a Mexican contract killer, El Sicario (Nation Books, 2011). Also, a documentary I co-produced with Gianfranco Rosi, El Sicario Room 164, won the international critics award at the Venice Film Festival this September and is being shown at festivals and on television across Europe.

For years I have been trying to put Juárez behind me and think of something else. I still might make it.

For a list of best nonfiction books of 2010, click here.

Pub info:

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Charles Bowden

Nation / March / 9781568584492 / $27.50

This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010