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May 6, 2010

This is a twisted mess of a book, convoluted and poetic, some wild mix of Jack Kerouac and Raymond Chandler and Truman Capote and something much pulpier. The writing is fantastic, with chilling metaphors that fit perfectly the madness in Juarez.

There are no simple answers for the situation there. A perfect storm of systemic corruption, trade politics, globalization, illegal drugs, poverty and gang violence have created a city where drug smuggling, murder and illegal human trafficking is less about a morality and more about opportunity. The only opportunity. Even the low-wage factories, the maquiladoras, where many in Juarez have traditionally made their un-livable living, are closing down as companies take their business overseas to even cheaper labor markets like China. As a result, there is no hope in Juarez, a city that is more dangerous than Iraq. In this city that is visible from El Paso, Texas, it is not uncommon for a dozen people to be killed in a day. For bodies to be found half-buried in the desert, arms and mouths bound with duct tape, doused in gasoline and burned. For bodies to be found wrapped in plastic, decapitated. For young women and girls to disappear and be found weeks later, raped, murdered. For the corrupt police to show up and block off a street for the corrupt army, who arrives, rounds up a group of people, systematically executes them and then leaves. For reporters who take the wrong photos or ask the wrong questions to be disappeared. For children to be caught in the crossfire as their parents are gunned down. To find bodies with hundreds of rounds in them. To find bodies of people who were tortured for days. To find “death houses,” where under the floorboards lie dozens rotting bodies of anonymous Mexicans. And all the while, in the U.S., all we hear of is the heroic “war against drugs” that the Mexican government is waging, battling the cartels.

What is the truth in Juarez? Who’s at fault? There is no truth. We’re all at fault. Here is a city that is barely third-world, at the border of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country with an insatiable appetite for drugs and an endless supply of weapons. When the drug routes through Miami were squeezed out, the route shifted through Juarez. Those who saw the opportunity in Juarez, those who had the power to seize it, seized it. And they have crushed all hope in the city and made crime and killing the only lucrative opportunity. That, or leave Juarez and hope to make it across the border.

Bowden uses the story of a recurring character, Miss Sinaloa, a singer who came up to Juarez from a town down south, intending to have a good time. She got high at a party, and then was gang-raped and beaten for a week. She lost her mind. She lives in a house now, a “crazy place,” as Bowden calls it. She is a metaphor for the city, a place that once had as much potential as any city and now exemplifies the absolute worst of humanity.

Although Bowden doesn’t get much into the politics of immigration, this is a very timely book, one that makes painfully obvious that illegal immigration is not an issue—it is a symptom. Until there is opportunity in places like Juarez, until there is more opportunity than crime or escape, a fence or tighter border patrols will not solve things the way they need to be solved. People will not stop trying to cross the border. Hell, if I lived in Juarez, I’d cross the border or die trying. Illegal? Screw the law. The “law” in Juarez is just as likely to kill you as the cartels. The law just is another cartel. So if I’m in Juarez, I’m going for the border. And are you going to blame me? Wouldn’t you do the same? If your life depended on it?

After 2666, I wanted to learn more about the situation in Juarez. I’m not sure how I found this book, but what a lucky find. And even luckier that I got to listen to Bowden read it. His voice is deep and gravely and he sounds like someone who has spent a lot of time staring out across the desert, wondering what the hell is going on out there.

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