Amex­ica: War Along the Bor­der­line

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Ed Vul­liamy, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages

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

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