For years, Ed Vulliamy traveled along the U.S./Mexican border, observing the widespread violence among the warring narcotraficantes and filing heartbreaking stories about the thousands of people caught in the crossfire. In 2006, the former Guardian and Observer international correspondent left his job to pursue the story full time. The result is the author’s revelatory second book, Amexica: War Along the Borderline, which Kirkus called an “impressively rendered, nightmare-inducing account.” Vulliamy spoke to us about the many narratives he pursued during his travels.
How did you become interested in the border debate?
I was a U.S. correspondent for a decade and became captivated by the border, and more specifically, the narco trafficking, as well as the dichotomy of the border being both harsh and porous at the same time.
I had been traveling there since 1981, mostly as a tourist, and almost stumbled into the horror of the feminicidio in Ciudad Juárez, and the story twisted into something darker. I was very moved and appalled by it—one of those narratives where you can’t see the bottom. When the awful phase of the drug war began around 2006, I was back in London but followed closely and just thought that this is important—in fact, more than important, actually demonstrative of so many things that are happening in society at so many levels that it demands a book.
Talk a little more about Ciudad Juárez and the horrific stories of violence you encountered.
There are so many different and contrasting narratives, and Ciudad Juárez became the kernel or the point on which the narrative turned. I wanted to give readers some sense of the phenomenon of this space and place in time. Something needed to be assembled on this with some urgency, and I did what journalists need to do, which is to put it out there quick—to get a slice of what’s going on before it’s finished.
Quite apart from cruelty of the violence and perverse inventiveness of the killing and mutilations, it’s important to say that so much of the riptide cutting beneath this story of this war was tied to other themes I’d worked on, like the maquiladora sweatshop factories. If you treat people as a mobile and disposable labor source, employ them at appalling wages, then abandon them when you find even cheaper wages in Asia—essentially treat them like trash—you can’t expect that something won’t come back at you, and that is where the drug trade comes in. I wanted to emphasize that, and also to portray the realities of drug addiction as a backstage narrative behind the line of cocaine up the supermodel’s nose or the crack being smoked in the ghetto.
I do think that this is the first war of the post-political era, after the end of ideology—in a time when the only ideology practiced is money and greed, as set by banks, corporations, executives, etc. This war belongs to all that, it’s not separate, because of the hypermaterialism of the zeitgeist. Thousands of Mexicans are mutilating and killing each other over basically nothing. Most of the violence is for a street corner or a tiny piece of turf, which has nothing to do with trafficking. It’s about being somebody in a very poor part of the world, with the U.S. on the doorstep.
Speaking of the U.S., what are your thoughts on recent trends in immigration?
The crisis in migration is another of these semi-separate narratives. You can’t ignore it or leave it. It’s a perennial theme, predating the narco war, but has been mutated by the violence of the last couple of years, specifically because the narco cartels are starting to take over the smuggling of people. In some ways, it’s been safer that way—less rape, less robbery, etc.—but you pay more and you are at the mercy of the cartel. The latest horrific news from Tamaulipas—72 bodies of murdered migrants found, if that’s what they were—speaks for itself: what happens when narco-extortionists take over the migrant smuggling.
In many ways, it’s much, much harder to cross now, but those that are crossing are being pushed through the desert, rather than through cities, so you have people who are trying their luck further away from the roads. In that sense, according to some estimates, migrant deaths are increasing.
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Amexica: War Along the Borderline
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / October / 9780374104412 / $27.00
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010