Thursday, May 05, 2011

Charles Bowden: Murder City

I'm surprised I haven't posted book reviews by Charles Bowden before, as I've read and enjoyed "Down By the River" (wonder where that review went!) But I haven't, so I'll just start here. And it's a good thing I'm starting today, because it's a chance to bring back my reminder about Cinco de Mayo. If you have a chance, watch this, by Democracy Now!, and if you have to, bring a beer with you.

This is a book that I had to slog through, unfortunately, because the subject matter is powerful, and meaningful to me. The book is repetitive and without details. I get why Bowden has done this: first, it's his writing style, which I appreciate, but most importantly, the extensive violence in Juarez is repetitive and meaningless and detail less. In some months, 150 people are murdered, and none of the murders are investigated. None of the murders are caught. The army, the police, and the government, are all caught up in the crime, if not the murderers themselves. None of the answers given for the violence are adequate: the war on drugs (Bowden calls it "the war for drugs") is not the cause of the violence, free trade and the ensuing poverty is not the cause of the violence, the "serial killer" killing the girls on the border isn't the cause, the collapsing state isn't the answer. For Bowden, there is no cause, really, this is the "new way of life, one beyond our imagination and the code words we use to protect ourselves from life and violence. In this new way of life, no one is in charge and wa are all in play. The state still exists- there are police, a president, a congress, agencies with names studded across the buildings... The violence is everywhere... And the violence has no apparent and simple source. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself."

The United States tells a story that they are working with the Mexican government, that things are getting better, because the Mexican government (army) is taking care of business. But Bowden paints a different picture: the Mexican army has terrified the people and institutions in Mexico so much that the police wear masks and refuse to go on patrol for fear of reprisal and being killed. Men who beat their wives don't go to prison, they go to short workshops and back to their wives. Journalists are told what to print, and if they stumble into the wrong story or type something out of script, they are kidnapped or killed. The United States does not grant asylum to journalists, even though they are pursued and unsafe in their own country. "Juarez is a place where a declarative sentence may be an act of suicide." The Mexican government tells a story that only the "bad" people are being killed, that you have nothing to fear if you keep your head down. But none of the killers are caught or brought to justice, and continue to roam the streets with AK-47s and other big guns. What does that add up to?

Charles Bowden is a masterful storyteller. Unfortunately, this is a story that seems more appropriate for a magazine article, rather than a full length book. This is a contradiction, though, because Juarez is a full-length book of mind-numbing violence. Bowden concludes his book with short newspaper article after short newspaper article about murders and government cover ups (presented by the papers as government investigations) from January 1st to the middle of May, 2008. It's mind-numbing, but also an awakening to Bowden's new world order. Juarez makes Oakland feel safe.
But for me, fear is a sometime thing, almost a special event. But what if it is like oxygen, part of the very air one breathes, and so it is not noticed and yet is not ignored? To notice it would require concentration, to ignore it would be an invitation to death. Imagine living a life of constant caution, of fearing police, of avoiding the authorities, and yet this blanket of fear is so steady and pervasive that awareness of the sensation ebbs because fear becomes the fabric of life.


thb said...

I also liked Bowden's first book. He's got one topic, and unfortunately it is a deeply depressing on: how we don't go after root problems, and then give guns to the psuedo solvers...