Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hell Across the Border

Lately, Fosco (like everyone cool) has been reading Roberto Bolaño. His head has been completely lost in the languid and terrifying city that is the centerpiece of Bolaño's masterpiece, 2666 (the city also appears briefly in several other Bolaño novels). He calls it "Santa Teresa," but it is actually meant to represent Ciudad Juárez. In his work, Bolaño has not only renamed Juárez, but has relocated it from Chihuahua (on the Texas border) to Sonora (on the Arizona border). However, despite this geographical sleight of hand, there is a strong attempt at realism in his depiction of the city.

At its heart, 2666 is something of a murder mystery (although the novel is so sprawling, it is probably wrong to try to pin down its "heart"). The mystery is horrifying: the rape, mutilation, and murder of hundreds of young women over more than a decade. What's more horrifying is that Bolaño is not making this up.

As a 2002 article in Mother Jones notes:

And so Mexico's fourth-largest city retains its nickname as "the capital of murdered women." The city of 1.5 million, where an acrid haze of factory smoke and car exhaust hangs in the air, is known for having one of the highest crime rates in Mexico; in 2001 alone, drug traffickers were blamed for more than 60 execution-style murders. But Juarez is most notorious as a place that draws tens of thousands of young women from small, poor towns to take $55-a-week jobs in assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, operated by some of the wealthiest corporations in the world -- companies like General Electric, Alcoa, and DuPont. More than 60 percent of maquiladora workers are women and girls, many as young as 13 or 14.
In Bolaño's novel, the murders are partly the fault of the globalization-driven culture of the maquiladora. (Sadly, even progressive companies, like the one that employs Fosco's boyfriend Oz, have outsourced to Juárez.) However, there are plenty of other factors that have contributed to this holocaust, including government incompetence, apathy, and malfeasance.

Well, because the truth of the world is that things can always get worse, Ciudad Juárez was in the news again last week. According to an article in the New York Times, Juárez is not just an unsafe place to be a young woman; rather, it is now completely unsafe for anyone. The Times article plays up the irony that Juárez is separated only by the Rio Grande river from El Paso, the third-safest city in America. Juárez, on the other hand, is not safe at all:
El Paso still enjoys its status as one of the safest cities in the United States, while Juárez, a city of 1.5 million that has always been rough, has become a battleground for drug cartels. More than 1,550 people were killed there in drug wars last year.

Worse, other violent crimes — carjacking, extortion, armed robbery — have surged as the beleaguered authorities struggle to respond to daily gun battles.

“It’s strange to be the third-safest city in the United States right next to a war zone,” said Mayor John Cook of El Paso, as he gazed at the ramshackle neighborhoods of Juárez.
Let's do the math. Last year in Juárez, 1,550 people were killed (in drug wars alone!) out of a population of 1.5 million. Last year in El Paso, 16 people were killed out of a population of 600,000. If we convert El Paso's murder rate to make it comparable with city the size of Juárez (a city 2 1/2 times larger), there would have been 40 murders in El Paso last year. What the hell is happening in Juárez?

The problem is drugs, as the Mexican government fights a losing battle with drug cartels. The mayor of El Paso suggests that the Mexican government's intervention is actually to blame for the increase in violence, by upsetting the fragile balance of competing cartels and creating a "turf war." Whatever the cause, things are not going to get better:
The mayor of Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, says his city suffers from a woefully undermanned and ill-equipped police department, despite programs to recruit new officers and purge scores of corrupt ones. Mr. Reyes estimated that Juárez needed at least 4,000 police officers to take back control of the streets. It has only 1,600.

He said the 3,000 soldiers and federal agents Mr. Calderón had dispatched to quell the violence had had limited success. The soldiers, for instance, know nothing about police work and patrol in long columns, which are easily spotted and avoided.

In the past six months, the killings have become more frequent, more brazen and more gruesome. One body was beheaded and hung from a bridge. Others were stuffed in giant stew pots.

Most of the victims have been young men recruited from other towns to fight for the warring drug kingpins. But at least 40 of the victims have been innocent bystanders, among them a few El Paso residents.

“This is a real war and the city, unfortunately, is the theater for this war,” Mr. Reyes said.
In 2666, Bolaño's Santa Teresa is a version of hell. In 2009, the real Ciudad Juárez is even worse.


Jill said...

Check out Beto O'Rourke's idea of pursuing a discussion of the legalization of drugs. You can probably find more at

Everyday in the paper we have a tally of how many more murders were committed in Juarez in the past day. We don't cross the border anymore, and there has been an influx of wealthy Mexicans moving here to El Paso to escape the violence. Kidnappings for ransom is really big.

FOSCO said...

Wow, that sounds really scary.

I just found the coverage of Beto O'Rourke. Very interesting. I'm actually surprised that his ideas didn't get him immediately recalled. It sounds like people are realizing that something is very wrong and something needs to be done about it.

I'm glad that you came onboard as a reader before I wrote about this story!