Apr 26 2010
Once a city heralded by the promoters of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Juarez, Mexico has now become a global epicenter of the failed so-called “war on drugs.” Just across the border from El Paso, Texas, the northern Mexican metropolis home to 1.3 million people has garnered a grittier reputation in recent years as a place where cartels battle for control, murders are rampant and poverty remains high in the backdrop of hundreds of foreign owned factories offering wages that can’t begin to compete with the allure of drug trafficking. As part of his drug war policy, Mexican President Felipe Calderon dispatched 10,000 soldiers to the city in March 2008, but murders multiplied just the same as many residents in Juarez want the military gone. The facts and figures of the city’s social descent into chaos are staggering. Four months into the new year, the rate of violent deaths has accelerated upward as 686 lives have already been claimed in the maelstrom. Ciudad Juarez could be headed to its deadliest year on record if it eclipses the 2,600 murders that occurred in 2009 alone. The femicide of young women and girls, a social issue that once drew international attention to the city before seemingly being overshadowed in recent years, continues unabated. More than fifty women have been killed this year; their bodies often mutilated showing signs of torture and abuse. According to the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, there are at least 20,000 abandoned houses in Ciudad Juarez and could be as many as 30,000. Privileged residents, fearing being caught in the constant crossfire of violence, have fled across the border in droves to El Paso. Painting this portrait in words, award-winning author and critically acclaimed journalist Charles Bowden plunges deep into the soul of Ciudad Juarez in his newest book “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” With gripping prose, he broadens the understanding of the ongoing violence beyond the headlines of the U.S. and Mexican media’s explanations of who is doing the killing and who is doing the dying. “Murder City” interweaves the story of the city through a myriad of personalities from a pastor who runs a desert asylum, a reformed killer for hire, and a woman broken by trauma. Luis Alberto Urrea has said of Bowden’s latest work that “there are moments when the book threatens to burst into flames and burn your hands.”
GUEST: Charles Bowden, Critically acclaimed journalist, Award-winning author of eleven books including “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Before we talk about the main aspect of your book which is what has been happening in Juarez since 2008, let’s talk about what you refer to as the good old days, sarcastically of course, how in the 1990s Juarez saw two to three hundred murders a year, a place where you said, “death made sense”, if you will. What was that time?
Charles Bowden: Well, when I first went there and started writing about it in June of 1995, I thought I’d drifted into hell. The city was dominated by a man whose name was never mentioned, Amado Carillo, who ran the Juarez cartel. DEA intelligence at that time said the Juarez cartel earned 250 million dollars a week. He controlled all the newspapers, all the radio stations, all the television and his name was never said in any of the media nor would people say his name out loud that lived in the city. They’d find bodies on the street wrapped in yellow ribbon or other signatures of his organization. Girls were disappearing mysteriously and being murdered. The city was full of poor people because the maquillas, the border plants, were exploding, they were streaming in, it was growing like a cell, it was full of dirt and dust. I realize now that that was the good old days because people felt relatively safe even though the jobs paid nothing, they had jobs, and the murder rate was nothing compared to today. Starting in 2007 – the most violent year in the history of Juarez and Juarez was almost 350 years old – there were 307 murders. In 2008, it went to 1660 murders. In 2009, it went to 2753 murders and as I sit here this morning in 2010, there have been 700 murders so far this year. And so, everything I knew – and I wrote a book about the drug world and the drug business called Down By the River – is out of date. I might as well have been writing about antiquity. When this killing started in 2008, I was having coffee in the morning with a friend of mine named Julian Cardona who lives in Juarez and has lived there all his life. And, I think it was about January 20th, three or four state police commandantes were attacked and machine-gunned, all in a short period of time, and he and I looked at each other and realized we didn’t understand anything, that everything we knew now meant nothing. And I’ll tell you why – because everybody knew the state police were part of the Juarez cartel, their employees, and why are they getting killed. So, we put down our coffee and drove to Juarez. I had no plan of writing a book. I just thought, I don’t know what’s going on and he didn’t know what’s going on. His photographs illustrate the book, Murder City. And, you know, a year later, I finished the book. I didn’t plan to write a book. I’ll tell you why I wrote the book. I just started writing because this was an explosion of violence without any precedent that I knew. Now, as I sit here, 5,000 people have been slaughtered in that city. And at that time, the mainstream press was religiously ignoring it, the El Paso paper hardly reported it and I thought, my god, you know, I was trained as a reporter and some kind of record has to be created. As time went on, the pages kept piling up, the murders got worse. August 2008, they’re having a prayer meeting in a clinic for drug rehabilitation in a very poor barrio and these people have to go out and sell chicklets on the corner during the day – the people trying to detox – so that their clinic will have enough money to buy food to feed them. There’s a prayer meeting and an army truck rolls up. All the people in the barrio saw it. Four guys get out, walk into that clinic, they’ve got AK47s, they’re in there 15 minutes shooting. They go into the room where the prayer meeting’s going on, just at the altar call, when the preacher says those who will accept Christ in their heart, you know, walk to the front – kill them all. There’s just bodies heaped up. And then they leave. And then the police don’t come for over an hour. The ambulances don’t come. Nothing’s ever done about it and by that time I knew that this thing had reached a dimension that simply saying cartel or corruption couldn’t possibly explain.
SK: What happened to Amado Carillo, the man who headed the drug cartels in the 90s?
CB: Amado Carillo died in July of 1997 in a private hospital in Mexico City, which he owned, undergoing plastic surgery. Exactly how he died is much debated, meaning the debate is who really killed him. Amado Carillo had run the Juarez cartel for four years – he had killed his predecessor in May of ’93, he died in July of ’97. His brother, Vicente, then took over the cartel and still runs it. He’s probably the longest reigning capo in the history of Mexico.
SK: And so, can the explosion of killings be at least partly attributed to the new leadership of the Juarez cartel?
CB: I don’t think so. Look, there’s a bunch of official explanations. The government says that it’s a battle between the Juarez cartel and the Sinaloa cartel headed by a man named Chiappo Guzman. Well, the only problem with that is if you go to the morgue and look at the 5,000 corpses, most of them are nobodies. They’re not cartel members. They’re men, women, kids, poor people in barrios. This is preposterous. The Mexican government insist that 90% of the dead are “dirty”. Well, I think that’s preposterous, unless you’re very generous what “dirty” means. The Mexican government says it’s a war between the Mexican Army and the cartels. Very interesting war – so far, 23,000 Mexicans have been slaughtered and the Army has lost maybe 100 people. Apparently, the cartels refuse to fight back. Well, a lot of these crimes increasingly are economic. I mean, your listeners should know that as a result of this war, which was initiated by the President of Mexico when he assumed power to prove that he was a strongman. 25% of the houses in Juarez have been abandoned. There are 116,000 abandoned houses. 40% of the businesses have closed – retail. Everybody that runs any kind of business there – and I mean if you’re selling tacos from a cart on the street – is paying extortion. Everybody’s being kidnapped. 30,000 to 60,000 of the affluent members of Juarez, you know, the people who are rich, have moved to El Paso across the river. 100,000 factory jobs in the maquilladoras have left town. By any rational description, the city’s dying and every month the murders climb. In January of 2008, the city was electrified because, I believe, there were 44 murders – an unprecedented number. Now the city of Juarez would think peace broke out if they had a month with 100 murders.
SK: Now, most of the reporting in the earlier part of the decade around Juarez has been about the murders of women in Juarez and there have been plays written about it. You say that only about 10 – 12% of those killed are women in Juarez who have violent deaths and that those deaths are easily explained. Who are the rest?
CB: Okay, I’ll make this simple. Historically, the murder rate of women in Mexico, if you take all the states in the country, is about 10%. Historically, the murder rate of women in Juarez is about 10%, meaning if you take all the dead people in a year, about 10% are women. Since this explosion of violence, it’s gone down to 6%. There are, numerically, more women being killed because there’s more of everybody being killed. There’re also more 10-year-olds being killed. But the percentage has declined. The second thing is, this has become a kind of cottage industry. A gender scholar I correspond with who’s doing a dissertation on this told me there have been 17 films made about the murder of women. They generally give a statistic like there have been in a 15- year period, 400 women were killed. That is completely correct. But, if you go into the records, two-thirds to three-quarters of the women killed every year, are killed by husbands and lovers. In other words, whether there is justice, whether the perpetrators are ever put in jail, it is not a mystery. We know who killed them. Usually, the guy is sitting there drunk after murdering his wife, just as in the States. That leaves one-quarter to one-third that are not explained. Now the people that focused on this issue say there’s never been an investigation of these murders. Murders aren’t investigated in Mexico. Going back to these numbers I recited earlier, there were 2,753 people murdered in 2009 in Juarez. There were 30 arrests for homicide, not convictions, arrests. Now I’m not saying women should be killed, men should be killed, children should be killed but you’re looking at a justice system that simply doesn’t exist. You’re looking at a forensic capacity that doesn’t exist. So, you have a peculiar circumstance where the one way women, you know, get treated equally with men in Juarez, is if they get murdered and nobody does a damn thing about it. But what one should look at is this explosion of violence that’s killing everyone. What’s killing these people in the end is the city – a city with corrupt cops, a city with slave wages and I mean slave wages. The turnovers in these American-owned factories is 100% to 200% a year in a city of poverty. That should tell you all you need to know about these jobs.
SK: I’m speaking with Charles Bowden. He is the author of 11 books including Down By the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family as well as Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future and Some of the Dead are Still Breathing. His latest, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. We’re talking about that book. Let’s talk about NAFTA, the role of NAFTA, these maquiladoras, that has had some coverage, at least here in the United States in terms of the role they play in the global economy. How much of what NAFTA did to Mexico’s economy plays into, if you can even understand, into these killings in Juarez?
CB: I think NAFTA, either deliberately or inadvertently, created the premise for the breakdown of Mexican society. NAFTA, by opening the free trade agreement, by opening Mexico to American agribusiness products destroyed peasant agriculture in Mexico. NAFTA kicked in in 1994 and within 18 months of that you see an explosion of apprehension rates by the border patrol and what that means simply is the Mexican poor started moving north because they couldn’t survive. NAFTA destroyed small industry in Mexico because it had been sheltered by a (unintelligible) and it simply couldn’t compete with U.S., Canadian and Asian products. All these things destabilized the country. NAFTA was promised by then President Bill Clinton to solve illegal immigration. Instead it created what I think most scholars agree is the largest human migration going on on this planet today. NAFTA is a disaster. Now, one of the things Americans, in particular, refuse to ever say out loud is that there’s any association between crime and poverty, a premise I find rather absurd. I know of no one who’s ever won the lottery and said I’m going to move to a poor neighborhood now so I’ll be safe. When you thwart human dreams, their ability to feed their families, their ability to have electricity, water, security, it leads to violence. Juarez is a city that for two or three generations now, even before NAFTA with these border plants, has produced almost a feral population of kids and I would like to dwell on this for a moment. In this city of over a million, there’s one high school for every 500,000 inhabitants. These high schools are not free. You have to pay to go to them. It means we’ve raised several generations in Juarez of kids whose parents work for miserable wages in these factories. They’re latchkey kids in our parlance. 50% of the adolescents in Juarez neither have a job nor are in school. There are 500 to 900 street gangs now. This is a recipe for death. Now, I can’t explain precisely why the violence suddenly erupted in 2008 but I can say it was inevitable. Now, the second thing creating this hell in Juarez, and in much of Mexico, is the American war on drugs.
SK: Plan Mexico?
CB: Well, look, it’s all over Mexico. The American war on drugs, the war promulgated by the United States government, has created the largest cash flow now in Mexico. The drug industry, meaning what we call cartels, a fictional term, earns Mexico 30 to 50 billion a year in hard currency, probably as much as oil which is their leading source of foreign currency. This is flowing into, you know, gangster hands. It is because of the United States effort to repeal a market economy. Americans want to consume drugs. Mexicans supply them. It’s that simple. Passing a law against it merely raises the price. Basically, anybody that gets into the production of what we call narcotics finds out they’re very cheap to make. The only way they have real value is to be illegal. Just like beer is not very expensive to make, but Al Capone got rather wealthy when it was outlawed in Prohibition. So, you have to face the fact, besides the damage we’re doing to ourselves, we’re slowly becoming a police state lest anyone roll a joint or do a line of coke. We have the largest per capita prison population on earth. It’s incredibly damaging to the Mexican people because these gangs with guns are everywhere and they’re living off drug money.
SK: So, how do the drugs get into the United States because we reportedly have a border patrol force that is there to at least stop immigrants from coming in but presumably drugs ought to be stopped as well?
CB: Well, we’ve got 10 to 15 million illegal Mexicans here. Let’s say the basic unit is 120 pounds. They get through all these barriers, too. A kilo weighs 2.2 pounds. But I’ll answer your question directly. The drugs come into the United States by being put on trucks and driven across the bridge and going through U.S. Customs. The untold story is the scale of the corruption, that there’s so much money in drugs that you can buy people. I did an interview with a guy in the Juarez cartel who ran two tons of marijuana a week to Miami. And he did it for years. And he drove it right over the bridge through U.S. Customs because he bought a couple of customs agents and he never lost a load.
SK: So, U.S. Customs agents are being bribed.
CB: Of course. We’ve created an impossible situation. We take decent people and basically blue-collar families. We put them in Homeland Security, the border patrol, U.S. Customs. You know, they start out 35 grand a year, in five years they’re making 75, government benefits, and somebody comes up there and says, with a huge wad of money, you know, just wave one truck through, you wave ‘em through all day. And here’s 500,000 or 100,000, it doesn’t matter. Yeah, people become corrupted. The mistake people make when they talk about corruption or think about it is they think the whole agency is corrupt. That’s not cost-effective. If you’re moving a semi-load of dope, you just need the person who waves the semi through. You don’t have to bribe everyone. I can tell you another anecdote: I have a friend on the border patrol. He’s been there many, many years. And he works in a station along the border with 350 other border patrol agents. This is increasingly common – they’re growing like mushrooms out there. And I asked him how many people he worked with he trusted – we’re having a drink and he fell silent – and he said none. And he meant it. Because the agency has grown so fast he doesn’t know who these people are. He can sense things going on. They busted a border patrol guy in Arizona who was charging $500 a load to run drugs in his trunk, his border patrol car, 70 miles from the border to Tucson. Because he works for the checkpoint. Now, I want to make this point: I think the system isn’t being victimized by corrupt people, it’s creating corrupt people. It’s putting people in a situation where they know damn well when they get off work, wherever they live, they’re going to go home and there’s going to be drugs in the neighborhood anyway, this thing isn’t working. I don’t know of anyplace in this country where there’s a “panic”, as they used to say, “in needle park”. The drugs are everywhere and they finally just get burnt out and say why not take the money. And it also happens with people-smuggling, the same thing. I mean, good god, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people get through every year – why not take some money for the fifty that move through tonight, you know, because they’re going to get through eventually. And so people succumb. That’s how it gets here but the real reason it gets here is there’s a market. That’s why drug guys dig tunnels under the border and do everything. It’ll always get here.
SK: Let’s trace the money that U.S. taxpayers foot for Plan Mexico and where, how that money eventually affects people in Juarez.
CB: Well, it’s very simple. President George Bush – W – initiated a plan to help the Mexican Army fight drugs. It’s called Plan Morida and we give them half a billion a year. The Mexican Army takes the money and kills Mexicans. That’s what happens. I don’t think the Mexican Army is fighting the drug war – that’s why none of the soldiers die. They’re fighting a war for drugs. Now, I think the Mexican Army, personally, is the largest criminal organization in Mexico. In Juarez alone, there’s hundreds and hundreds of human rights complaints. And these complaints are not easy to make, meaning, you file a complaint against the army – and there’s 11,000 soldiers and federal agents now in Juarez – they’re going to come looking for you. It takes guts. Now, these complaints are not, I got dissed by a soldier. These complaints are, a soldier murdered my son or a soldier raped me or a soldier robbed my house or a soldier kidnapped my husband and tortured him. These are not petty. Now, the government has an official human rights representative in Juarez named Gustavo de La Rosa Hickerson. He files these complaints. His reward is that he now has to live in El Paso as a fugitive because the Mexican Army’s going to kill him. I don’t know why the U.S. government doesn’t know these things. This is not a secret, like some rumor. This is a fiasco what we’re doing.
SK: So, …
CB: One last point and then I’ll stop nattering. According to U.S. Army Intelligence out of Leavenworth, our big fort in Kansas, they did a study and in a six-year period – there’s 250,000 soldiers in the Mexican Army – 150,000 deserted. The U.S. Army believes that almost all of them deserted not to go home and drink lemonade but to join drug cartels. Because you get to carry a gun there, you get to kill people, rape them and torture them and the pay is a lot better. Which is one of the sources, I believe, of this fabled “river of iron”, the guns. How many people listening to this think, I’m going to desert the Mexican Army, I’m going to join a drug cartel but I won’t take my gun with me?
SK: So, it’s the Mexican Army, it’s drug cartels, many of whom are formerly members of the Mexican Army. What about state and federal police, local police?
CB: Well, they’ve always, at least Juarez in particular, they’ve always been corrupt.
SK: But, they’re also being killed.
CB: Yes, because it’s a war for drugs. Like, the state police and the municipal police in Juarez traditionally work for the Juarez cartel. Now, the federal police and the army are there. The army is technically in control now of the city police and they’re killing them. The city police held a demonstration in 2008, wearing masks, insisting that the army stop kidnapping them and torturing them and raping them.
SK: And there’s a picture of that in your book.
CB: Right, I mean, this is what is happening. Now, the second thing is, our government says we will try and reform the Mexican Police. Look, there are 3500 police forces in Mexico. They’ve all cut their own deals. It’s a famous thing – you have a choice of silver and lead – you either cooperate with criminal organizations, drug organizations, or we kill you. The solution won’t work. That’s why we keep having drug czars and special commandantes in Mexico and then find out they work for the drug cartel. They like to live.
SK: Charles Bowden, in writing your book, you turned this not into an analysis that focuses just on policy and history but you made it into a book about people and characters, in particular, a number, a small handful of characters. Why did you delve into the soul of the city rather than focus on policy, numbers, analysis?
CB: Because people ignore policies. Because if I tell your listeners 5,000 people have died, it’s a number. If I make them feel one death, they’ll remember it. That’s why the most powerful play in modern American history is called Death of a Salesman, not Errors of Capitalism. It was a simple decision. I wanted to make people feel it. A modern city that was supposed to be the poster child for our free trade policies, the sister city of El Paso, is dying before our eyes. And I want people to feel it on every level. There are facts in the book but I’m not a policy guy. Policy is what has murdered Juarez.
SK: Well, I’m wondering if you can read from your book…
CB: Well, there’s no big words.
SK: …for our listeners. Your chapter headings are interesting. You have recurring chapters with the name, Dead Reporter Driving, about focusing on one of the handful of characters in your book, Emilio Gutierrez Soto.
CB: Yes, he’s a Mexican reporter trying to get political asylum in the United States and he only has one problem: the Mexican Army is trying to murder him. Okay (now reads): The reporter may die for committing a simple error: he wrote an accurate news story. He did not know this was dangerous because he thought the story was small and unimportant. He was wrong and that was the beginning of all his trouble. This is because there are two Mexicos. There is the one reported by the U.S. press – a place where the Mexican President is fighting a valiant war against the evil forces of the drug world and using the incorruptible Mexican Army as its warriors. This Mexico has newspapers, courts and laws and is seen by the U.S. government as a sister republic. It does not exist. There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, for the enormous money to be made in drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, where the line between government and the drug world has never existed. The reporter lives in the second Mexico. Until very recently, he liked it just fine. In fact, he loved it because he loves Mexico and has never thought of leaving. Even though he lives near the border, he has not bothered to cross for almost 10 years. But now things have changed. He has researched the humanitarian treaty signed by the United States and he thinks, given these commitments by the American government, he and his 15-year old boy will be given asylum. He has decided to tell the authorities nothing but the truth. His research has failed to uncover one little fact: no Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum by the United States of America. Suddenly, he sees a checkpoint ahead and there’s no way to escape it. Many uniforms pull him over. He is frightened, but he discovers to his relief that this checkpoint is run by the Mexican Migration Service and so maybe they will not give him up to the Army.
“Why are you driving so fast?”
“I’m afraid. These people are trying to kill me.”
“No, the soldiers!”
“Who are you?”
He hands over his press pass.
“Oh, you’re the one. They’ve searched your house.”
“I’ve had some problems.”
“Those sons of bitches do whatever they want. Go ahead. Good luck.”
He roars away. When he stops at the U.S. Port of Entry at Antelope Wells at the boot heel of New Mexico, U.S. Customs asked, as they always do, what is he bringing from Mexico? He says, we bring fear.
And after that, we sent him to prison for seven months as a menace to our country and we sent his boy to prison for two months as a menace to our country. Now he’s out pending a political asylum case. If he wins, he’ll be the first.
SK: Charles Bowden, reading from his book about one of the reporters in Mexico who dared to briefly tell the truth and has been paying the price. Reporters have been murdered at alarming rates.
CB: The book is dedicated to a dead reporter, Armando Rodriguez. He worked for Diario de Juarez, the major daily in Juarez. He was murdered November 13th, 2008 in front of his home at 8:30 in the morning. He was warming up his car with his 8-year old daughter sitting beside him. He was going to take her to school. Guys walk up and just blow him away in his car. The girl survives. The day Armando Rodriguez died, he had filed 907 homicide stories already that year. This case has never been investigated, never been solved and never will be solved. He’s one of the many casualties of what’s going on in Mexico.
SK: Let’s talk about Miss Sinaloa, another of the characters in your book, a woman who figures right from the first part of your book. Who is she? What happened to her and how is she involved or how does her story illuminate the murders in Juarez?
CB: Miss Sinaloa – her real name was not given – was a beauty queen from the state of Sinaloa. Sinaloa is the, let’s say, the Harvard of major drug figures in Mexico. Most of them come from there. She was brought to Juarez for a party, which is common in Mexico. They fly in beautiful women when they’re going to have a big party. Party didn’t turn out the way she wanted. She was in a resort hotel and she was raped for three days and nights by Mexican police. Because of this experience she was a wreck, you know. She lost her mind. I think because she became crazy, they didn’t kill her. There’s a history there of disposing of women like Kleenexes after these parties. A friend of mine is an Evangelical minister, a Mexican from a poor barrio, who has converted to Christ and built with his own hands a kind of insane asylum for the damaged of the city on the edge of the city. It had no running water. At that time it had no electricity. They dumped her out there. He eventually brought her around after months and she recovered her mind and went back to her family in Sinaloa. She’s still a little addled. I put her in the book because I thought this is what the city does to people. It destroys people. It destroys you if you’re a punk cholo kid who’s going to get murdered. It destroys you if you work in a factory. It destroys you if you’re the beautiful woman who comes for a party. It destroys you now if you’re a drug addict. Mexican clinicians estimate there are 200,000 drug addicts in Juarez. Lookit, this city in three years has produced 10,000 orphans. That’s the crop. Because their parents have been murdered.
SK: And, this is a city of how many people?
CB: Well, we don’t know. They used to say a million five to two million. Now, most serious people think it’s down to a million. They don’t know how many have left. Estimates vary from a 100,000 to 400,000. It’s a city collapsing. It used to have 200,000 feral street dogs. Now there’s a lot more because people flee and can’t take their pets with them. This is a new kind of reality, not one that was ever told to us by the proponents of free trade, not one that was ever told to us by “just say no” and the war on drugs. This is the actual product of the policies, not the imaginary one.
SK: Now, the friend of yours that you mentioned who runs this insane asylum…
CB: Yes, (name unintelligible), who prays for me, God have mercy on him.
SK: Tell us about him and what motivates him. He’s another of the people who you explain and who you go into depth in in your book.
CB: He was raised in a very poor rough barrio in Juarez. He was trained to be a thief – they had a school. They would have a mannequin there with little bells on it and you would be taught. You’d start at six or seven to learn how to pick pockets. He then became an illegal. Went to L.A., learned to walk high steel. Made real money. He was then thrown into a U.S. prison because he had a disagreement with a fellow employee on the seventh floor walking a beam and threw him off of it, which is not a good career move. Then he was kicked out of prison and sent back to Juarez. He was a drunk and a drug addict. He lived on the streets for two or three years. Then he had a conversion experience and he decided to dedicate himself to street people. He became a born-again Christian and he collects people off the street that have been destroyed by sniffing glue and paint, go-go dancers who have lost their minds after too many parties, gang guys that have been destroyed by drugs and beatings. He’s got over 100 people out there. Among them is Miss Sinaloa. He raises all the money on his own to feed them. Sometimes he has medicine, sometimes he doesn’t. But I want your listeners to know that he’s not in competition with mental health facilities – he is it. This is the residue of the city, these destroyed people, and he’s the only thing they’ve got. It’s not like, why don’t you go to the state hospital. That’s why the cops bring street people out there and just dump them because there’s no place else to put them. So for me, even though we have our minor theological differences, he’s a living saint. Just like one of the people in the book died Christmas morning at 6 a.m., Esther Chavez-Cano(sp?). She was a woman who noticed the abuse of women, the murders of the girls in the nineties and she started the first women’s shelter in Juarez for raped and battered women, Casa Amiga. And she raised the money for it and last year it treated 30,000 people because the state doesn’t provide these facilities. So, she’s another saint to me. She created succor for 30,000 brutalized women.
SK: And then, there’s an interesting character that you profile in your book – the murder artist.
CB: Yeah, I called in a lot of favors. The sakario (sp?), the contract killer, the continuing figure in the book – lookit, if I explain this briefly it’ll tell the listeners a lot about the city – he was recruited by the Juarez cartel because he was a street punk, to go to the police academy and become a state policeman. They paid him $1000 a month back in the early nineties. Then he becomes a state police commandante – he’s trained by the U.S. F.B.I., he was a bright student. But, what he really is, he works for the Juarez cartel. He becomes the head of the anti-kidnapping unit in Juarez, a major city in Mexico. But, in fact, he is the kidnapper. When he gets calls, my husband has been kidnapped, he’s the guy who has kidnapped him. He also becomes a contract killer. He’s probably killed 500 people and he does torture. And he does this for 20 years for the cartel. He personally knew Vicente Carillo, etc. But, he has been around. And now he has a contract on his head for $250,000.
CB: The Juarez cartel. He stole some money. You know, they don’t like that. He’s a fugitive. I won’t tell you where he is. But to my knowledge, and I could be corrected, he’s the only sakario I know of that’s ever gone on the record. We talked for days and days and days and what he taught me was the intricacies of the system. Not simply the cartel, the relationship between it and the government and the army. He was delivering, at one point, suitcases of cash to the Attorney General of Chihuahua every week, the law enforcement arm, etc. And, of course, he did these horrific killings of torture. He personally knows where there are 600 corpses in secret graves around the city, what they call “death houses”. So that’s why he’s in the book. These people aren’t being killed by meteor showers. This is institutional violence. Functionally, even though this guy was a cartel member, he works for the state, too. He is the face of power in Mexico.
SK: And I suppose that’s one of the main points, if not the main point in your book, is the complete blurring or even overlapping between the major drug cartels of Mexico, of the Mexican Army which gets money from the United States taxpayers. And, essentially, would you say that we are funding the killing of Mexicans?
CB: To a degree, yes. I mean, to the degree that we’re giving money to law enforcement there, we’re funding death. Increasingly, the murders in Juarez are poor people. This is a war on the poor. The Mexican government has two ways to get rid of poor people – starve ‘em out so they migrate to the United States and send money home or just kill them. They’re in plan B at the moment. It’s almost like social cleansing. And, we endorse it and we lie about it. And we don’t even pay any attention to the dust until March 13th, when three people associated with the U.S. Consulate in Juarez are murdered in broad daylight. Then, the Secretary of Defense, then the Secretary of Homeland Security, then the Secretary of State fly to Mexico City and say, you’re doing such a great job that we’re going to give you more money and guns. 5,000 dead Mexicans in the city, men, women and children, never catch our attention because we believe they’re all dirty. And frankly, if our government leaders think these dead people are narco-trafficantes or big drug people then our government is too stupid to continue breathing.
SK: Now, the explanations about how to understand all of this killing are quite complex. I understand that you had an interview with the Mayor of …
CB: No, no, I didn’t. I’m the one guy who’s never talked to the Mayor. Everybody else talks to him. He’s got a lot of time since he’s not running the city.
SK: He lives in El Paso, which is bizarre. He’s the Mayor of Juarez…
CB: That’s correct. The publisher of the Juarez daily newspaper lives in El Paso also. They don’t want to die.
SK: Now, how do elected officials like him and other major figures in Juarez and other Mexican cities figure into all of this? Are they also involved in the cartels, the army?
CB: Well, I can’t speak to individuals but obviously if they were fighting the largest industry in town, they’d be dead. Period. You know, they couldn’t survive. They figure into it partly by lying. The Mayor of Juarez in early June of 2008, when over 500 people had been slaughtered already, said only four or five of them were innocent. I don’t know – what, he’s got a “third eye” or something he can tell? These people are irrelevant in a sense. They’re the mask of power. He’s already turned the city over to the Mexican Army – they are the police force, they’re increasingly the government. He was just in Austin saying that over 90% of the people that have been killed are dirty. Well, he’s either feeble-minded or he’s a pathological liar.
SK: One of the aspects of your book that you touch upon I found very fascinating is the Zetas. Who are the Zetas and why are they a model for today’s killers?
CB: Well, they’re a model for U.S. policy. In the mid-90s, in order to salvage Mexico under President Cedillo, the U.S. trained the incorruptible police force with Mexicans and then frankly they went on the payroll of DEA secretly but they didn’t like the arrangement down there. I actually knew the DEA agent that paid them, you know, was their paymaster. And so they left and joined the gulf cartel. And so they became this huge paramilitary influence, you know, they’re like Green Berets. Now, they’re independent, they’ve taken over a lot of the functions of the gulf cartel and they kill everybody with great skill. They also have recruitment posters. They’ve hung banners in cities to call this number – we have better benefits than the government offers. Lookit, this war has gotten extremely grotesque. It’s very common now for people to have their heads cut off, their arms cut off, I won’t go into it, but I mean, barbarism’s a mild word. El Pastor, my hero, my friend who tends to the poor, prays every night that when they come for him and they’ve come for him several times, that they’ll just murder him and not torture him first. That’s the new form of prayer in Juarez.
SK: How many instances, in your researching of this book, did you come across people, who despite these risks, are at least speaking out, I suppose like journalists or even activists, about what’s happening there?
CB: More and more. It’s getting more dangerous to speak. It’s almost fatal. And yet, it’s happening like Esther Chavez, who died Christmas Day, was a very small woman. I mean, she was suffering from cancer at the time but she was always a small, petite woman and she had that Mayor terrified. He pretended that he wasn’t in his office when she showed up. But I’ll tell you the most moving story to me. January 31st, a bunch of working class parents hosted a fiesta for their kids because the kids had won a soccer championship and they didn’t want them going to a public place because they could be killed, the city’s too dangerous. So, they held it in a house in a working class barrio and gunmen showed up and killed 15 kids, just machine-gunned them all.
CB: Well, who the hell knows? In the photographs, there’s literally puddles of blood in the street in front of the house because it just ran off the floors out to the street. The President of Mexico, all-seeing, all-wise, at that very moment was in Tokyo when he learned of the slaughter of 15 juveniles. He announced in Tokyo that they were all drug-connected gang kids. Now, these parents, in a city with really no education, had killed themselves to put these kids in high school. You have to pay. One of the kids was in college. This caused a huge uproar in the city. It was like, finally, basta, enough, we can’t stand any more of these lies! So, the President of Mexico, a week or so later, flew to Juarez to address the population. Now, what that meant was – it was like Dick Cheney time – he secreted himself in a hotel surrounded with military troops and police and had a selected audience. Somehow, the mother of one of these dead kids got in. She lost two sons. And suddenly, while the President’s giving this pontification like – I won’t criticize Mexican presidents – like all presidents do. She stood up. Her name was Luz Davilo, poor woman. She said, Mr. President, you’re not welcome here. You’re not welcome in this city. What you said about my sons are a lie. She said, if your son were killed, you’d turn over every stone in Mexico to get justice. And then she turned her back and stood there with her back to the President of Mexico and didn’t say another goddamn word. Now lookit, that’s more guts than General Patton or John Wayne. Lookit, Mexican people are like American people. Some of them are good. Some of them are bad. You know, they’re just people. But they’re under a stress Americans can’t even imagine. So, what that woman did is extraordinary. That’s like Rosa Parks kept her bus seat.
SK: Charles Bowden, at the end of your book, Murder City, you give an appendix of translated news clippings regarding murders in Juarez and it was a difficult task for you and the person who helped you compile it. Both of you noted stopping at various times. Why did you end the book with this and will it be as difficult for the reader to read through constant accounts of brutal murders?
CB: I don’t think anyone will ever be able to read that appendices. It was created by Molly Malloy who is a Latin American specialist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. But I think readers will start to read it. And I think if they read two or three days and then realize that this could go on for years, instead of numbers, that 1600 were killed that year, if they read these case by case, it will become real to them. It will become real to them how horrific this is and it will become real to them that these people getting killed are just average people. This isn’t the “five families” in New York. This isn’t the Godfather. This is slaughter. So, that’s why it’s there – to convey to people what it really feels like day to day; to live in a city where sometimes 15 people are executed in a day; where the average now is almost seven per day. That’s the purpose of the list. Now the list only runs for four months because it would be the size of a phone book. It’s 15,000 words now – just these little tombstone stories: name, seven bullets in the head, June 3rd something, you know.
SK: And many murders are not even given that much recognition.
CB: No, and people that disappear are never recorded. And the people that come out of the ground from secret death houses aren’t counted in the total. The first four months of 2008, 46 bodies came out of secret death houses but the state doesn’t tally them as part of the carnage because they don’t know which day they were killed. “Counting rules” you see!
SK: Well, finally, Charles Bowden, what should Americans do with the information, you think, that you’ve put out in the book because the United States’s role here is, you can’t miss it. And it seems like to effect any kind of change, both in the City of Juarez and in Mexico and the border killings, one has to tackle the entire economic policy of the United States.
CB: That’s not a bad idea. I’m game! Lookit, I’ll give practical things that American citizens can do and I’m an American citizen: Demand our government renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement so that it guarantees unions, guarantees environmental protection, I mean, non-polluting plants for workers and guarantees decent wages for workers. Secondly, demand our officials revisit what they call the “War on Drugs”. It’s 40 years old. It’s a total failure. It’s created the largest per capita prison population on earth. It does not stem drugs and it’s murdering the Mexican people. And finally, try and find somebody in this country with enough guts to say we should discuss legalizing drugs. We’re killing ourselves outlawing them. Now, people will say that’s impossible, we’ll never do that. Well, I’m 64 years old and now I have major politicians endorsing gay marriage. Things change. I have no patience with people saying it’s hopeless. I’ve never seen a bird in the Spring that didn’t build a nest. We should at least have the courage of a damn bird.
SK: Charles Bowden, thank you so much for joining us today.
CB: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
SK: I’ve been speaking with Charles Bowden, critically-acclaimed journalist, award-winning author of nearly a dozen books. His latest is Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields which we’ve been discussing this hour.
Special thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview