Narcocorridos and backyard blues
The War on Terrorism is frequently presented as a new kind of war that feeds our American penchant for novelty.
Reading Charles Bowden’s new book, Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family, one is reminded that neither terrorism nor the notion of a perpetual war is a new construct at all. What Bowden unpacks in his lurid, compelling, and well-documented book is that terrorism and a war without end have been happening for decades along the United States-Mexico border. The “river” in Bowden's book is our very own Rio Grande. That is, the Rio Bravo at the El Paso-Juarez border. This river connection puts the war and terror Bowden writes about right in our backyard.
The war he speaks of is, of course, that endless conflict, begun in another Republican administration, called the War on Drugs. The terrorism he documents is a shocking, mind-numbing recitation of torture, rape, murder, oppression, and crass exploitation of Mexican and American citizens by drug cartels along the two-thousand-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Much of Bowden’s assiduous research was done while George W. Bush was governor of Texas and reveals bloody details and rampant corruption on both sides of the border that the Governor was doubtless aware of, but apparently could do little about.
Bowden shows that illegal drugs are an economic force in Mexico that amounted to trillions of dollars over the seven years (from 1995 to 2002) that he worked on his book.
One of the disturbing aspects of the “economics” of the drug trade is the unwillingness of the U.S. government to recognize the direct ties between the Mexican government and the trade—for fear of collapsing Mexico’s “legal” economy and creating havoc with the new trade arrangements under NAFTA. One can also say that the effects of illegal drug use in Mexico and the U.S. are most certainly “biological weapons” doing incalculable harm to the millions of users in both countries. Furthermore, the “collateral damage” inflicted by the carnage, torture, and oppression of local populations involved in the massive trafficking is in itself horrendous and tragic and cannot be called anything but terrorism. According to Bowden, poverty-stricken Mexican citizens, in particular, become the objects of such terror, as do other citizens of both Mexico and the U.S.
The question that remains is, Why is so little attention given on both sides of the border to the terror and the destructive effects of the War on Drugs? Why is Iraq considered a more immediate danger?
Bowden’s book is the beginning of an answer to this question. He tells it this way: “Two years earlier I’d been drinking with a Mexican newspaper publisher and I mentioned the War on Drugs. He looked at me with pity and said, ‘The war is over. You lost.’”
Bowden’s book is structured around the murder of Lionel Bruno Jordan in El Paso in January 1995. Jordan was the young son of an old El Paso family and the brother of an important agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Dallas. The story revolves around questions about the true motivations for the murder. Was it an accident of violence in a carjacking, or was it a covert “hit” ordered by the Juarez drug cartel boss Amado Carillo to intimidate the victim's DEA agent brother?
Bowden takes us into the bowels of the drug war in Juarez and beyond. With Bowden we continually stumble across bodies stashed in fifty-five-gallon drums filled with acid, mass graves in the desert, an endless list of the “disappeared,” mutilated bodies lying in the street with multiple bullet wounds to the head and hands and feet bound with duct tape.
We also discover the intricacies of widespread corruption and involvement of law enforcement in the drug trade and the murderous control of the market by a parade of picaresque, but all too real, characters woven together into the fabric of the Jordan family, drugs, angst, politics, and hellish life under the terror of the border and drugs.
Reading Down by the River is a little like being run over by a truck. One can’t look at the Rio Grande and not recoil at what violence and horror reside a couple of hundred miles downstream.
Therein lies part of the answer to the question about our awareness of this terror: we don’t want to face it; war thousands of miles away in the Middle East is much easier to stomach. According to Bowden’s account we don’t “look” because NAFTA and so-called free trade are more important than human rights, democracy, alleviating poverty, and maintaining a civil society.
These are chilling insights into the dark underbelly of a world in our backyard, a world that also feeds us, provides an unskilled, “undocumented” labor force, and, yes, gives us rich gifts of music, art, and culture as well.
UNM has recently published a book with another—no less real—viewpoint of Mexico and the border which you might want read as a balance to Bowden. It’s Sam Quinones’s True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, based on Quinones’s many articles about border life, narcocorridos [modern-day folk songs romanticizing smugglers, gangsters, murderers, and thieves, according to an Internet source], and the felicitous, colorful, creative sides of Mexican culture “entering” our world across an illusive border.