Most of what we see and read from the government and its media organs are variations on a tired but persistent theme of irreversible progress toward utopia. (William Pfaff has a new book arguing that secular utopianism, even more than war profiteering or career advancement, is what drives U.S. foreign policy, making it impervious to facts or evidence of failure and futility.) Readers of this magazine know, through long experience, how officials and journalists deal with events or trends that are going the wrong way: They ignore them. Or, when that is not possible, they treat them as temporary setbacks or “problems” safely on their way to a solution. Why? Because “everything is supposed to get better.” “So we are careful in what we see and what we count and what we admit.” Denial and forgetting: It’s how we deal with an intractable and fallen world.
Charles Bowden knows this all too well (those quotations are from him), which is why he keeps going down into Mexico, to the place “where all the proposed solutions to poverty and migration and crime are erased by waves of blood.” He wants to wake us from our slumbers, to tear off the blindfolds, unplug the ears, jerk the heads from the sands. When he crosses the border from El Paso into the dust-blasted and sun-tortured streets of Ciudad Juárez, he is not going back in time or experiencing an ugly bump on the road to the New World Order but glimpsing “the sharp edge slashing into a time called the future.” “This is not some breakdown in the social order. This is the new order.”
What we learn from Bowden’s reports is that our sister republic to the south is a dysfunctional narcostate, its civil institutions a cruel façade, corruption endemic from the office of the president to the municipal police, the “army . . . a government-financed criminal organization.” Random violence (torture, rape, kidnapping, murder) is not some unpleasant emanation from the drug war but a way of life, part of the very culture and fabric of Mexico. Mexico today is a perfect realization of Thomas Hobbes’ vision (in Leviathan) of what happens when there is “no common Power to keep them all in awe.” Then follows “such a warre, as is of every man, against every man,” “no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall fear, and danger of violent death.”
According to Bowden, “the Mexican press considers American reporters to be fools.” Even those journalists who are fluent in Spanish simply refuse to see what is going on in Mexico and continue to explain the carnage as the result of “a cartel war” or a “war on drugs.” The latter conception is pure fantasy. What is going on is that “various groups—gangs, the army, the city police, the state police, the federal police—are killing people in Juárez as part of a war for drug profits.” In other words, they all want their share.
But the reality is worse than that. “The Chihuahua State Police were doing contract murders.” “Two units of the state police specialized in kidnapping.” That is, they were actually doing the kidnapping. They also smuggle drugs into El Paso. They have been observed partying with the Aztecas, a drug gang, but the reporter who saw their all-night bacchanal did not write about it, because “any reporter honest enough to publish the truth dies.” What police won’t do is respond to emergency calls, stop an outdoor execution, investigate a crime—and that is more or less true of the force throughout Mexico. The federal police, on the other hand, furnish bodyguards for the leaders of the drug cartels. The army arrives not to restore order, but to rob, rape, and kill, as it always has done, “in order to repress and terrorize the people of Mexico.” One of their favorite games is ley fuga. The random victim is told to run for his life. If he can dodge the pursuing sheet of automatic-weapons fire, he lives. Another is to kidnap Mexican policewomen and gang-rape them. Such is sport in a country “where the weak are always prey [and] the favorite verb is chingar, to f–k over.” It brings to mind Sam Peckinpah’s dark western The Wild Bunch (1969); nothing has changed in 40 years.
Nonetheless, hope springs eternal. Several months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a new and bold initiative. The U.S. government would provide $1.4 billion in military assistance and training to the Mexican army to help them in their heroic battle against the cartels. Bowden calls Plan Merida “a piece of black humor.” “For over fifty years, Mexico has been reinventing law enforcement to pretend to fight drugs and placate the United States.” In all that time, “Mexico has never created a police unit that did not join the traffickers.” He points to the Zetas, an elite antidrug paramilitary force trained by the United States during the Clinton administration and even paid extra income by the DEA to supplement their meager Mexican pay. In 2000, they joined the Gulf Cartel and have since gone into the drug and murder business for themselves. The Zetas are now the most dangerous gang in the country. Another example is provided by the life story of a sicario (professional killer) whom Bowden interviewed. As a teenager, he was hired by the state police. After smuggling drugs across the border into El Paso for them, he was sent to the United States for FBI training! When he came back, the police assigned him to the kidnapping unit. After that, he joined a cartel.
Sixteen years ago, NAFTA was presented as a new dawn that would shine upon the golden fields of North America. Americans were promised that the trade agreement “would bring prosperity and end illegal immigration”; Mexicans were assured that it would produce jobs and development. And it has brought new jobs. A drug seller can earn $300 per week, and there are 20,000 retail drug outlets in this city of 1.2 million people. (Bowden believes the number to be two million, deliberately undercounted by the government.) One can also steal cars and disassemble them. In February 2009, “1063 cars [were] stolen in the city—around 36 a day—butchered and shipped to China for the metal.” Or one can find work in the maquiladoras where the pay is $75 per week. Bowden calls them “[houses] of death, offering no future, poisoning the body with chemicals, destroying the spirit faster than cocaine or meth.” To fill these “dark satanic mills,” NAFTA had first to drive the peasants off the land, which it did by flooding the country with cheap American agribusiness exports, which in turn has flooded America with cheap goods, cheap drugs, and cheap Mexican labor. This seems to have been the whole object of the operation.
I have spared the reader Bowden’s numbing murder counts and his horrifying tales of cruelty. Often, the violence he describes has no logical explanation whatever.
Bowden observes that “every Mexican learns early on . . . to retreat or cower before authority,” but such fear stops at the border. The Mexicans consider U.S. border security to be a joke, and anything they want to smuggle (migrants, narcotics, drug workers, assassins) they bring across with relative ease. He also finds that the bribery of U.S. Customs agents, as well as of elements in the Border Patrol, is routine. (He is not rash enough to estimate what percentage of the above are taking money from the cartels.)
Bowden wisely refrains from offering solutions—apart from repealing NAFTA and ending the ineffectual War on Drugs. But one thing is clear to this reviewer: The only way the United States government can seal the southern border is by deploying the Army along its entire length. No mere fence will keep the Mexicans out. As Bowden himself observes: As soon as night falls, out come the ladders, the ropes, and the acetylene torches. A wall would be better, but it would have to be garrisoned with guards walking ceaselessly to and fro, all night and every day. A proper model might be Hadrian’s Wall with its milecastles and manned turrets every third of a mile.
As for drugs, the only way to keep them out is to slap a tariff on all goods imported from Mexico and require every single truck to be inspected and have all its goods unloaded, weighed, counted, and measured, before being reloaded and moved along. Army officers would have to be continuously present at every step of the process. Finally, the Navy would need to be deployed, in strength, in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent the inevitable attempt to smuggle drugs and migrants by sea.
Such a policy may indeed be the only way to help Mexico, which can never recover her stability until the human safety valve and the drug market to the north are closed, and closed for good.
[Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, by Charles Bowden (New York: Nation Books) 320 pp., $27.50]