Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ed Vulliamy: Amexica

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I don't know how Ed Vulliamy has done it, but he has done it: written the book on what is really going on on the border; what life is really like under the reign of the narco-cartels, and how it got that way. The question here is purely logistical: Vulliamy writes with "unimpeachable" (one of his words) authority about a subject where to know too much is to end up dead. He acknowledges that he is helped along immensely by his non-American status: being European gives him an extra few minutes of grace period in tricky situations, but the question remains how he as put together such a detailed and nuanced picture that combines historical and current looks at the drug and gun smuggling business. It's clear that he has built relationships over time with community members who become willing to trust him, and he also uses his journalist creds to talk to authorities like mayors, and ATF agents. He also tells some stories that I've heard before- because I read *all of these books- like the story of the pastor with the "recovery center" for the mentally ill and the former sanctuary activists who now help migrants who would otherwise die crossing the border.

But really, this is the only question I have about "Amexica," and it's a question, not a beef. Vulliamy has written a masterpiece, if you are interested in the border or the humans involved with the ridiculous war on drugs.  Without really making policy stances on either, Vulliamy lets the reader know that what is going on isn't working. His argument is that narco violence is a direct result of the much vaunted "opening of Mexico": the transition to free trade and two-party democracy.
The violence occurs not despite but, in large part, because of these changes; it is at best an inevitable side effect of "opening Mexico," and at worst integral to it. La plaza is a marketplace like any other, and narco cartels are not criminal pastiches of contemporary, multinational "late" capitalism-they are part of it and operate according to its values- or rather lack of values- and logic.
The warfare that results- between cartels, between the Mexican army and the cartels, between the civilization and cartels, between the US and the cartels, etc- is thus a new kind of war, that no one has yet wrapped their mind around. The war is, Vulliamy writes, "about nothing." It is "postpolitical," and takes place "in an age of belligerent hypermaterialism as an ideology in itself," which can be seen all over our society.
Mexicans are mutilating, decapitating, torturing, and killing each other ostensibly over money and the drug-smuggling routes that provide it. Some argue that all wars are fought indirectly over money and resources- whether wars of empire fought from the nineteenth century until 1918, or of ideology or religion in the twentieth century. But most of the savage violence in Mexico is for the smaller profits of the domestic market and local street corner, meted out for its own sake... Mexico's war has no ideological pretensions or street dressing... The narco war is fought for the accoutrements- brands, accessories, applications, and other possessions- of postmodern social kudos, social performance, the ability to show off the right labels, brands... For these definitions of status, thousands die... Murders mutilations, and executions are exhibited on the Internet, themselves a blend of cyber-sado-pornography. Unlike the cyberstrutting of Al Qaeda, from whom it is sometimes argued they got the idea, the narcos use digital communication not as a weapon of insane holy war but with something approaching a sense of humor with which to goad and boast across cyberspace- gift-wrapping their real-life bloodlust in the electronic ether of titillation and nonmeaning.
So there you have it: Vuillamy has laid out a cogent and rather new argument, without preaching about how much the US and Mexico have fucked this up, and then backs it up in a new way: starting with the West Coast, Vuillamy follows the border across the country, detailing the issues as he goes. Readers learn how ordinary folks have experienced the last ten years of the narco take over, and how officials have dealt (or not dealt) with them. The writing is not lyrical like a Charles Bowden book or academic like the text above, but more journalistic, or like a New Yorker article that actually works as a full-length book. He visits big cities like Tijuana and Juarez, and smaller, no-name towns, weaving opinions on how and why this happened. The story is depressing, but also fascinating, and hard to look away, like any true crime story that happens also to be a travelogue. Students of the border must read this. Students of the drug war must read this. Students of gun issues must read this.  Everyone else might wonder why, but should probably read it as well. Thank you, Ed Vulliamy.