Amexica: War Along the Borderline
Reading this book in the context of news coverage of Mexico’s bloody drug wars could scare a reader into canceling travel plans that involve penetrating what author Ed Vulliamy calls Amexica, the 2,100mile-long, 50-mile-wide no-man’s land shared by the United States and Mexico — a place where every day is the day of the dead.
Fear and loathing are natural reactions to learning that Ciudad Juárez is the “world’s most murderous city,” with a 2009 rate of 192 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to Vulliamy, a one-time correspondent for two English newspapers,
The Observer and The Guardian. But Vulliamy goes way past the numbers to offer a detailed, even loving, street-level portrait of this frontier where 16,000 people have died since Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in December 2006. “Because of the flood tide of narcotics running through and along it, Amexica is a battlefield, but a battlefield wrapped in everyday life,” he writes. “And for all its inquietude, the border is every bit as charismatic, complex, and irresistible as it is fearful and terrifying.”
Vulliamy offers a detailed history of drug cartels in Mexico, beginning in the 1930s. But the more recent uptick in violence — in which mutilated victims aren’t “disappeared” but brazenly displayed in public places — is a war by Mexicans on Mexicans — not a true civil war but close enough. “When things become bloody in the world of narco trafficking, and the peace is blown apart,” he writes, “this means power is shifting, disintegrating, or resisting disintegration.”
The war has added new words to the Spanish language, including feminicidio, the mass slaughter of women. Anthropologist and University of Texas professor Cecilia Ballí has studied this epidemic of violence against women, which resulted in the brutal murders of 340 women and the disappearance of another 180 between 1992 and 2001. “Before, the violence in Juárez was merely functional, but now it’s often meant to publicly display a specific kind of masculinity and to reassert that male power at a time when the traditional forms of masculinity along the border are under threat,” she says.
Esther Chávez Cano, who opened Casa Amiga in Juárez in 1999 to help victims of sexual and domestic abuse, elaborates: men were threatened that women easily found work at the thousands of maquiladoras along the border between Tijuana and Matamoros. “Men found themselves no longer the breadwinners,” she writes. “With middle-aged men unemployable in Juárez, this created frustration, a backlash against women exhibiting independence for the first time.”
But feminicidio is only one facet of the violence. Vulliamy delves into the baffling mass murders of addicts at Juárez’s many drug rehab centers and offers three theories: the cartels are eliminating people who once worked for their rivals; the cartels are eliminating their own former operatives; and the Mexican army is purging society of drug addicts, criminals, and other “undesireables.” Given the complexity of life in Amexica, it might be all of the above.
President Barack Obama has finally acknowledged that America shares responsibility for the violence at our southern border. It is America’s appetite for drugs and cheap labor that fuels drug and human trafficking; it is America that each year sends the cartels billions of dollars in cash and untold quantities of rocket-propelled grenades and other high-caliber military hardware. The narco violence, Vulliamy writes, is not a byproduct of Mexico’s transition to a market economy; rather, it is a logical extension of the principles of multinational capitalism.
Dr. Hiram Muñoz, who conducts autopsies in Tijuana, echoes that economic analysis. “The narcotrafficante is the most global of all global businessmen, and now he must make you loyal or afraid,” Muñoz says. “And he must do these public executions involving mutilation as a demonstration of power.” These brutal displays remind Muñoz of the torture and public executions that characterized the downfall of many great cultures.
To his credit and a reader’s relief, Vulliamy offers some hope amid the horror. We meet people of incredible courage who are pushing back against the pervasive lawlessness that infects all levels of Mexican society: priests who risk their lives to help recovering addicts, mothers who press corrupt police and public officials to solve their daughters’ murders.
The author, however, needed a stronger editorial hand. He has a jarring habit of repeatedly switching narrative voice from second person to first person, and poor organization and repetitiveness make the story hard to follow in places. I wanted to hear the voices of Amexicans, not the author’s reflection on the view from the La Quinta in El Paso.
Despite these shortcomings, time spent reading this book and understanding the complex, rich, and dangerous culture of the borderlands won’t be wasted. The pain is palpable, the misery heart-wrenching.
— Sandy Nelson