Ciudad Juárez, the murder capital of the world, is within walking distance of El Paso, Texas. It is, by all accounts, a banal Mexican border town full of strip malls, cheesy nightclubs, American fast-food restaurants, and maquiladoras churning out cheap American goods. It is also an urban abattoir where torture, rape, and homicide proliferate in nightmarish ways that defy even the brutal logic of the drug war. Juárez’s proximity to the United States gives its horrors an almost occult resonance: it is the monstrous face of globalization—our Moloch.
Last year, over 2,600 hundred people were murdered in Juárez. Since 1993, more than four hundred women and girls have been killed in sex crimes in the city, many of their bodies horribly mutilated, as if a whole platoon of serial killers were on the loose. People have been slaughtered in drug rehabilitation centers and in hospitals. Headless corpses have been hung from bridges and bodies thrown in churches.
In 2003, when the murder rate seemed astronomical but was much lower than it is today, the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto described how the city’s evil atmosphere induced paranoia: “You inevitably end up with very convoluted and paranoid theories, because no theory is as atrocious and evil as the murders themselves.” Roberto Bolaño made a lightly fictionalized Juárez the entropic center of his final, massive novel 2666, where it is promoted into a synecdoche for the barbarism of the whole modern world. “No one pays attention to these killings,” says one character, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”
That line would be a fitting epigraph to Charles Bowden’s strange book. Bowden sees Juárez as a harbinger of planetary chaos, a vision of a world undone by inequality and ravenous appetites. “Juárez is not behind the times,” he insists. “It is the sharp edge slashing into a time called the future.” Though the title suggests an economic analysis of the city’s breakdown, Bowden does not really try to explain anything. Instead his book is an apocalyptic fugue that is contemptuous of the demand for explanation. Bowden writes with the impressionistic urgency of a half-crazed would-be prophet, and while he has a very important story to tell, his style blunts its impact.
Bowden, like Guillermoprieto and other smart journalists who have covered Juárez, argues that the city’s violence cannot be explained by the wars of the drug cartels alone. It is also perpetrated by the police, and the army, and individuals ruined by the city’s poverty, nihilism, drugs, and corruption. Meanwhile, the maquiladoras, drawing migrants from the countryside but never offering a living wage, create a society that is deracinated and desperate. “What is happening in Juárez and increasingly throughout Mexico is the breakdown of a system,” he writes. “There are no jobs, the young face blank futures, the poor are crushed by sinking fortunes. The state has always violated human rights, and now, in the general mayhem, this fact becomes more and more obvious.”
But Bowden is not really interested in developing this thesis. In fact, he is often scornful of anyone who offers any thesis at all. Frustrated with pat, reductive explanations for the carnage, he directs his fury at those who would try, however imperfectly, to understand the dynamics behind it. One chapter imagines a performance in which Juárez’s ghosts tell the stories of their murders: “We will not allow anyone with answers to be present. Explanations will be killed on sight. Theories strangled by my own hands. No one can speak of cartels if he is not a member of a cartel or, at the very least, has not spoken on the record with a member of a cartel. No one will be allowed to speak of the army’s war with the cartels unless he has taken a combat role in that war. Academic commentators must show video of themselves at the killings or having beers with the killers before they will be allowed to say a single word.”
This passage, with all its extravagant world-weary machismo and misplaced literariness, shows how insufferable Bowden can be. He is a bit of an authorial bully. He wants the reader to feel guilty for wanting answers, for daring to form opinions without having seen all the terrible things that Bowden himself has seen. “Let me ask you one question,” he writes. “Just what is it you don’t understand that every dead girl here understands, that every dead cholo understands, that everyone ending a shift at the plant understands, and that every corpse coming out of the death warehouse understands?” But it is not at all clear what it is he wants us to understand, besides the futility of trying to understand Juárez at all. And it is precisely the magnitude of the Juárez horror that makes it impossible for us to suffice with such tough-guy attitude.
Bowden is dismissive of the feminists who have tried to rally attention to Juárez’s epidemic of femicide, pointing out that women represent only 10 or 12 percent of the total number of deaths. “Focusing on the dead women enables Americans to ignore the dead men,” he writes. But Bowden also knows that there is something particularly hideous about the city’s explosion of sex murder, which is both a human rights crisis and testament to the scope of the city’s darkness. Later in the book, he remarks that “the real history of the city is written on the bodies of women, and this is not a history men are likely to sanction, even as they record it in the day and the night on bleeding flesh.” Murder City is full of such contradictions. The only consistency is Bowden’s conviction that no other outsider can have anything useful to say.
There is a tiresome narcissism here. Again and again, Bowden turns his attention—and his most purple prose—to the effect that Juárez has on him. “Black velvet, yes, that is the feel of the sky, the feeling of the darkness coming down as I spiral into the embrace of death on high heels wobbling through the bullet-shredded night,” he writes, describing, I think, the fatalism that settles over him in the city. “The lipstick bright red, the scent a bouquet snatched from a fresh grave.” He is given to spouting portentous nonsense: “Silence, like protest, is the drug of our time, the way we do something by doing nothing. We march, we wave placards, and we go mum, and all avoid touching the levers of power and all avoid stepping on the third rail of truth.”
But all this said, I must also say that if you wade through this dreadful stuff, you will find some vital and powerful reporting. The most riveting chapters follow Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a journalist who made the life-destroying error of reporting on robberies by Mexican soldiers. The army threatened him, and, thinking that he could protect himself by creating a paper trail, he filed a complaint with Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights. But the harassment escalated, and he learned that he had been marked for assassination. He fled to the United States with his son, where he expected, with heartbreaking naiveté, to be granted asylum. Instead, he and his son were separated and imprisoned.
Eventually Gutierrez was released and found a lawyer, who thought he could make a precedent-setting bid for asylum. The Mexican army then threatened a friend of the lawyer who lived in Juárez, forcing the friend and his family to flee. And the lawyer, despite living in El Paso, now lives knowing that he is a target. Bowden skillfully conveys the disorientation of ordinary men cast out of normal life and into a lawless netherworld in which they discover they have been living all along.
“No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum,” writes Bowden, “because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights.” This is a disgrace, especially since Reporters Without Borders identified Mexico as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The threat to journalists means that there is not nearly enough reporting being done on Juárez. Perhaps that is why one can be somewhat forgiving of Bowden’s somewhat twisted book. A comprehensive and penetrating account of the hell in America’s backyard has yet to be written.
Michelle Goldberg is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Her most recent book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, was published this year by Penguin Press.