I expected Charles Bowden’s book, “Murder City,” to be a primer on the drug wars and unyielding violence in Mexico, specifically in Juárez, a large city which shares a border with El Paso. Narrow-mindedly, the extent of my knowledge of this issue was limited to a general idea that border towns were not a safe place to be involved in the drug trade. I had hoped for a straight non-fiction book—maybe a history of these cities, how the drug cartels expanded, and maybe some commentary on the policies that created this tragedy.
Instead, I got a book that would be better read out loud by Sam Elliott, and accompanied by, well, maybe some of the paraphernalia that causes the violence in the first place. That’s not to say this was a bad book. Indeed, this book was powerful and informative. It’s just that Bowden doesn’t play this as straight non-fiction—he’s a hardass (as evidenced solely by his book jacket picture) and I can easily imagine this book as a quiet story he tells one night in a bar.
On the first page, he quotes Arthur Miller: (“So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.) and Johnny Cash: (“I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die). The next page has a “poem” called “Dead Man in a Canal.” Then the prologue, which is an episode with characters you never really meet taking someone away to be murdered. More poetry or lyrics and then chapters that are stories of individuals either killed or maimed in the violence that haunts Juárez. At times his imagery is frustrating because it is difficult to comprehend. The characters mostly come and go—brief interviews with a hitman, biting commentary from the administrator of a mental institution—you don’t ever really know one character. And then, after what seems like every few paragraphs, comes another horrifically violent murder. The book concludes with a 60+ page accounting of all of the murders in Juárez in 2008—through only May.
Yet there are moments of clarity in the book. A good example is when he succinctly and cynically explains how trade policies in the nineties (rhymes with LAFTA) led to a decline in wages in Mexico and how the overall economic destruction led to a blossoming drug trade for those with no remaining options.
Bowden’s style is deliberately confusing to the reader because he wants us to know that there is no easy way to explain the violence and the future facing Juárez. He encourages readers to “give up all normal ways of thinking” and to imagine the structural society in Juárez as more of an “ocean, a fluid thing without king and court, boss and cartel. He describes a different kind of violence, one that goes deeper than just cartel wars, and is “now woven into the very fabric of the community and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button.”
I’m left with this: true understanding of the problem in Juárez is likely unattainable. In a society where the police can be drug smugglers and killers, where the murderers are as common as jaywalkers and where the journalists live in fear of reporting the truth, there is no way to write an honest history. Bowden’s book, though it left me empty of facts, is probably the best we can do to understand Juárez.